Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Ride in the Country, Part 1

The roll of thunder rattled down the slopes of Big Black Mountain informing me that we were almost certainly going to get caught out in the rain for a second day. We were a thousand feet up a mountain road on our way to a temple nestled in a misty forest; ahead pigs were blocking the road.

Between travel to Ireland and poking around this place on the weekends I hadn’t done much bike riding lately. I always feel bad when a weekend rolls up and I don’t get out on both days but living alone in the city makes it almost impossible to get out on a bike in the evenings between cooking and shopping and drinking coffee. So the weekends become even more important. Despite spending the dough and taking the time to ship a nice set of rollers over here, my indoor riding has amounted to nothing – the pieces and parts are still in the box. From both a mental and physical standpoint my exercise suffers if I don’t devote Saturday and Sunday mornings to riding.

I made a plan with my riding buddy Dermot to get out early on Saturday but that turned out to be a bit more challenging than I’d planned as my Friday night extended to around 1:30 AM Saturday and when the alarm went off at 6:00, I knew there was no way I was getting up and going. We exchanged text messages and I rolled over for another hour’s worth of sleep knowing that the early autumn temperatures did not demand a 7 AM departure time.

The weather was not promising but it was hard to tell whether it was fog, mist or smoke. The day before I’d watched a big black plume tailing off from a 30 foot flame that was shooting out of a smokestack somewhere between my office and my house. That evening the plume had wrapped itself around Big Black Mountain giving it an oily opaque halo of sorts and driving home from my late night out on the town the air had smelled like fire. So what I was presented with as I left my apartment was more than likely something that I shouldn’t be breathing deeply. But undeterred I headed down to Dermot’s to collect him and to make a plan.

Before heading out from his place we had a discussion with his wife and driver about where we were headed. Miao the driver suggested a brand new road the led away from the resort area at Jinshitan up the coast on a northeastern slant towards North Korea. Hui, his wife wanted to exercise the dogs so we made a loose plan to follow a similar track with the intention of meeting up just before the beginning of the new road. Our goal was to try to get in a reasonably long ride, either 100 kilometers or 100 miles depending on our legs. They headed off in the van and we pedaled away following them towards a different new road that circled a peninsula which juts out into the bay.

It’s always an amazing thing to find a place that is right under your nose yet completely unfamiliar to you. This loop left the main drag between the hotels and the restaurants along the waterfront and angled away from the mainland roughly towards the southeast. We passed one large seaside villa construction project after another until we cleared the new building zone and dropped down into a cleft in the mountain coming to a stop at a span across a ravine that was comprised of a giant white steel tubular arch with supporting cables hanging down to hold the bridge structure in place. We stopped because the road was breached to allow some workers to lay some sort of big cable under it. Miao was there and told us to go ahead; we stepped over the gap and the rebar and continued on our way past Hui who was running the dogs down on the stony beach.

The road climbed and fell according to the whims of the mountain that it was wrapped around. Decrepit villages hugged the hillsides in each valley that dropped down to the sea. Many house stood roofless, abandoned we were guessing due to some impending coastal development and the relocation of the inhabitants. In California this would be Big Sur and each one of these little glens would be a multi-million dollar proposition. Riding on the villages disappeared and we were left alone with the trees, the sea breeze and steep climbs in the road that didn’t seem to belong here. We passed a reservoir and not much else until rounding a corner we were faced with an enormous chemical plant, replete with a docking system designed to accommodate tankers. There is legend in these parts of a plant being built out here in secret, its plan and its managers having been run out of town in two provinces in the south of China due to the toxic nature of its chief products. This might have been it but perhaps it wasn’t. Around here it’s often hard to know anything.

The land changed now, we were nearing the second largest port of Dalian and now we were hemmed in on one side by an endless stretch of factories and plants. It was quite a contrast to the forest we’d just ridden through and our path out of town from here meant riding shoulder to shoulder with trucks leaving the port. We made a left turn onto the main port boulevard and hunkered down for the least enjoyable part of the trip.

The road out to the Jinshitan resort area is pretty much a cyclist’s dream. It’s new and wide and it sports an excellent shoulder that is all ours aside from the occasional bus that uses it to pass slower traffic on the right. That and the taxis that have a tendency to drive down it in the wrong direction. By and large though it’s safe enough to allow some sightseeing and conversation. There’s a light rail train track on the right side and once past the tech factories there are open fields leading back to the blue mountains that run up the center of the peninsula. It’s a peaceful respite, much welcomed after the tense ride out of the city.

We motored along for a while until we saw Miao on the far side of the road beckoning us to make a left and come over – he and Hui had parked the car on a side street and were waiting for us. Unbeknownst to me, today was going to be a supported ride – Hui and Miao planned to ride ahead of us allowing us to meet them along the way for refueling, sort of a moveable picnic. We stopped for a few minutes and made a plan – they would ride on to town, pick up some supplies and meet us there. Mounting up we headed off and they passed us on their way to the next stop. We rode slowly to have a look at some raptors circling overhead, Kestrels I think, and an unusual sight for this place. Birds are few and far between here and seeing more than one raptor is a mild shock. I had an Osprey sighting earlier in the week and that about made my day. It being September, I wondered if we’d stumbled into a tiny piece of fall migration. In other parts of the world the geography of a place like this would be a natural staging point for birds heading out across the ocean to the next big land mass. I know nothing about how this works in Asia, and these birds might have been only a lucky catch but it was so nice to see them circling overhead.

Coming into Jinshitan we found Hui and Miao at the morning market picking up fruit to feed us, the weary cyclists. Hanging around in spandex among the shoppers in these street affairs often brings on a lot of attention. People want to talk about where we’re from, or look at our bikes – so very different than the black steel monsters most people here ride. Today though it was mostly furtive glances and outright stares including an old man wearing a Nike cap that simply stood there and looked me in the eye without saying anything. We moved off to the side by a bus stop to eat a banana or two before heading on. A woman came by with a basket, covered by a colorful dish towel. She set it on the ground before sitting down on the curb. A big russet rooster stuck its head out from under the towel to check me out.

We left town and headed out on the new road, passing by a cherry orchard which Dermot told me was now off limits to him and everyone he knows. It seems he and a few friends went fruit picking at the height of the season, agreeing to a bulk price before entering. When they came out the price had changed significantly and so they got into a bit of an argument with the proprietor. After a phone call to the owner and many insults exchanged between the drivers and the minder of the store it was agreed that either the original price would be honored or the cherries would be dumped on the ground and left where they were. They got their fruit, but as they drove away they were told never to come back.

We passed a short line of those concrete stanchions that seem to plague the central part of the province. I’ve been told that they are part of an ongoing construction project, building a high speed train line to Haerbin. But I’ve seen them all over the place in short runs, never more than a dozen pillars with a road bed connecting them and it seems an odd, sporadic way to build a train line. This bunch ran into a big building and stopped. It looked too temporary to be a future station, and yet it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the construction. I’m sure its use will become apparent someday.

The road hugged the coast and we passed through village after village dedicated to working the sea. We stopped in one for a snack and to watch a group of women in bright kerchiefs separating some sort of sea creatures. One of them was yelling something at me, I think suggesting that I take pictures of the crane and hoist system that was bringing big wet bales of fish from the boats off shore to trucks waiting on land. Hui told me that the woman liked me, I took a couple of photos and we road off as some sort of supervisor appeared in the doorway of the building no doubt curious what all the yelling was about.

Each of these villages looked the same – rows of peach colored concrete buildings surrounded by piles of fishing floats, crab pots and drying nets. The shore was rocky and covered with empty shells and trash. The little bays were almost covered from side to side with those small, distinctive Chinese fishing boats – blue with square ends that turn up from the center of the boat. The smell was pretty bad, a mixture of rotting seafood and sewage that poured from pipes straight into the water. It was tough to stop even for a moment, the stench being that strong. I took a few pictures and moving on I was glad that the road took a turn inland for a while.

Along this stretch we rode by piles and piles of shells in fields, mussels, scallops and oysters, often congregated around a pint-sized crushing mill run by a small diesel engine. These were small private affairs dedicated to turning out powdered calcium, for fertilizer I imagine. In one lot a group of horses stood grazing, this year’s baby among them. We pulled off here to go have a look at the bay beyond a group of buildings and as I made my turn two teenagers on a scooter tried to cut on the inside of my arc. By taking this route they more or less forced me to run them off the road. It was typical local driving – take the shortest path even if it doesn’t work for you; if he’d gone to my outside there would not have been a problem. The driver got the bike under control and gave me a surly look. I laughed at him and Dermot said that we had managed to turn the tables for once.

Up the road a bit Hui and Miao stopped us to have a look at a temple that was off the road along the side of a hill. They were talking with a woman who was tending to a pack of puppies in front of her house. They appeared to be the standard Chinese mutt, some kind of Pekinese or Pomeranian although one of them was a striking black and white and they couldn’t have been very old as they were very shaky on their feet. I told her the piebald boy was quite beautiful and she beamed with pride. We decided to go up the hill to have a look at the temple and the woman offered to watch our bicycles. I thought it might be better to keep an eye on mine so we took off riding first through along a muddy lane between a row of houses and then up a rutted dirt track through a field of corn stubble, big sheaves randomly piled here and there. It was a tough climb between the rocks and the sand and at top we turned onto a road that was covered with drying fishing nets. I wasn’t sure whether the owners were going to be very happy about us riding across them but we did so anyway, stopping in front of the main gate. A large dog stood there barking at us and woman appeared, tending the nets. She yelled at someone in the house to put the dog up and told Miao that the temple had been there only since 2006. There had been an older site up in the hills but the army came along and took it over so the villagers build a new one on this spot. We didn’t take the time to go in, it was enough to just have a look and ride back down the hill. Out on the highway, we were once again on our way.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The unique rural architecture of north-central Liaoning Province

That title sounds considerably more ponderous than this blog might merit. But I did want to take the time to post some pictures of the houses in the villages along the road into Bin Yu Gou. One of the things I like a lot about traveling out in the countryside is getting to see how the people live. While I’ve been out of the cities many times, my trip last November to the temple in Haicheng was first time I was really off the road – driving down dirt lanes between tall corn sheaves and stacks of dried bamboo. Forage for the animals and fuel for the homes stored up to get everyone through the hard northern winter.

But while the farmyards and the fields are interesting to me, it’s the architecture that I find most fascinating. Stone houses with those canonical Chinese roofs, upturned on the corner and paved with shiny red or blue tiles. Most houses have a gate that encloses an inner yard, home for the small animals and whatever vehicles the dwellers might own. The walls are always brightly decorated with signs and posters bearing characters placed there to bring luck and fortune to the owners. Depending on the season, plants and ears of corn might be drying on the roof. Geese and chickens run loose up at down the tiny farm lanes that are almost always lined with flowers, as the Chinese decorate their fields with bright splashes of color wherever room permits. Once in a while you’ll find a house that has a huge tangle of pumpkin vines covering the eaves, the ripening gourds hanging down over the edge. There are so many little details to see. I stopped a half dozen times, getting wet as it was now raining again but enjoying each little farm for what it had to offer. Often there are four or five individual dwellings attached side by side forming a long block. They share so much of the same rural character that you expect from farmers everywhere, yet they are distinctly Chinese.

Heading down the valley from the park I asked Ben to indulge my wish to take some photographs of the houses we’d passed on the way in. We made many stops and even went off road on some muddy tracks – the beauty of a 4x4 in the countryside. It was raining hard and I got pretty wet but the pictures were worth it to me. And some of the things we saw defied our city-person imagination. Like the long bamboo mat covered huts, drying or providing shelter for something. One suggested silk worms, another mushrooms. We’ll never know as there was no one to ask. Instead we went away pondering long shelves holding what looked like baguettes. I doubt though that that is what they were.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Off I go to Bin Yu Gou

Every single car trip I have taken in China has been done with drivers. Between the cabs and the vans and the guys who worked only for me, I’ve always been a passenger and the continuity of the conversation has always been my responsibility. It’s a challenge to be in charge when you’re not the driver, and sitting there for hours in silence is never an alternative – it’s been up to me to keep things lively because in general these drivers are not used to boring long hauls down a bland highway. They’re used to dodging cars on choked city streets where you have to stay on your toes. So when my friend Ben asked if I wanted to join him and his wife Sasa on a road trip over the weekend I jumped at the chance. Not only would we be heading to the one local place I’d not yet visited, I’d be able to sit in the backseat of a car and just do what I wanted to do. No discussions about the merits of the prostitutes at each of the local bars (Driver #1), no painful garlic-scented silence (Driver #2) or simmering anger at being forced to go a way not of my choosing to a place I didn’t want to go (any one of a dozen hired van drivers over the years.) No, I would be the honored guest for a change.

There is more or less a fixed pattern to how expatriates integrate themselves into the region. Almost everyone starts by covering all the sights in and around Dalian – Tiger Beach, Xinhai Square, the Shell Museum before getting brave enough to take a road trip. The second outing is often a trip to Dandong to stare across the Yalu River at the frigid dissipation that is North Korea. Nearby there is a nice fake section of Great Wall there that lets you check that sight off your list. Invariably when people develop enough comfort to venture off the main highways, they head to Bin Yu Gou, a “geopark” that is a couple of hours north of our fair city.

We’ve all seen the canonical photos of China – eroded granite hoodoos bathed in mist, sticking their rocky heads out of a placid lake or river. I imagine that anyone shown that picture is going to guess China, especially if you throw in an old guy with one of those flying saucer straw hats propelling a wooden boat with a long pole. Those pictures are taken in the south of China near a city by the name of Guilin in Guangxi province. It’s one of those places hugely popular with people seeking the “China Experience” not only by way of the scene but due as well to the local Zhuang minority who provide a distinct opportunity to visit with someone other than the Han majority in the rest of the country. As it turns out, Bin Yu Gou is called the “little Guilin of the North” or the “inferior Guilin” (depending on the translation) because it shares a similar geology – replete with their very own glacier carved rocks crowned with trees sticking themselves out of a placid lake and river. Throw in a little mist and you’ve got yourself a little bit of the China Experience just up the road, at least from a visual perspective. My understanding of this place was that it tended to be hot, crowded and commercial. But off I went figuring I had to check that box on my “places I’ve visited” card.

Heading outside the weather was not promising – it was already sprinkling a bit so I found a place under a tree to wait for Ben to show up. It was not a boring wait as there was a pretty large wedding caravan being staged in my building’s parking lot. Twenty-plus black sedans and one bright red Audi, covered in flowers along with dozens of men standing around smoking cigarettes while yelling at each other. I began to think my pick-up was going to be compromised but the groom arrived, apparently a neighbor of mine, and once the videographer had staged him getting in and out of the little car a couple of times he drove away dragging the long line of black cars down the road behind him. Moments later my ride showed up and we were on our way.

Our route was straight up the Danda Expressway in the direction of the Yalu but probably less than half the distance. It was raining pretty hard now and I began to wonder whether we were about to spend a sodden day seeing the sights. But Sasa brought out a tub of homemade Sichuan beef jerky and so I turned my thoughts to chewing instead of the weather. The ride was not long – perhaps an hour – and we were off the highway and onto the local road leading into the town of Zhangue, the Gateway to Bin Yu Gou.

As is often the case here the signs made little or no sense which forced us to use the more traditional “Chinese Map” process of driving alongside people riding motor bikes and asking them where we should go. Little by little we made our way there, passing through little villages and by the pylons being built to support a regional high-speed train. From the state of them it was hard to discern whether they were new or abandoned. We reached a medium-sized town filled with tour buses which suggested we were on the correct track and after a debate about whether we wanted to go to the “holiday village” or the “remote forest area” that was settled by an ancient peasant sitting under a tree by the side of the road, we headed towards the holiday village.

The rain had stopped but the sky was heavy and overcast. The mountains rimming the valley we were driving through were cloaked in mist. On the shoulder of the road farmers sat under umbrellas selling baskets of apples and those giant round pears that are unique to China. We continued up into the clouds until we reached a gate that led to a giant parking lot.

The view in the distance was pretty spectacular – granite hills ringing a lake increasing in height up and up until disappearing into the mists. The parking lot was almost entirely empty – just a few cars and a couple of tour buses which gave me hope that the place would not be a mob scene. We grabbed our gear and after Sasa stopped to buy a smelly but inexpensive vinyl raincoat we bought our tickets and boarded the boat for a ride into the interior.

Our little ship was a steel-hulled affair stinking of diesel exhaust with rows of bright plastic cafeteria chairs. We grabbed the front row which was empty, left so by the smarter people who knew in advance that the rain would be blowing in the face of anyone sitting there. The ride was brief but the scenery was getting better – more and more amazing rock formations in the dark water, each covered in trees and bushes just beginning to show the early colors of autumn.

The first leg of the trip was short and we soon pulled into a dock. I took a picture of the waiting crowd and a woman standing in line thought that was pretty funny. She smiled and waved. A broad sidewalk led up and away from the boat, lined on one side by stall after stall of people selling cheap souvenirs – alligators carved from some kind of marled wood, imitation jade necklaces, umbrellas and cowboy hats, and even a table full of those chattering windup toys you see out in front of the toy stores in American malls. This is the one thing I hate about Chinese parks – they are designed to separate you from as much money as possible. And here we were in the Little Guilin of the North being shuffled by as much junk for sale as you could imagine.

The path led up and away from the boat dock, passing around the back of a small hill. Around the other side you could choose to be carried across the river in a harness attached to a cable (for a small fee) or on a bamboo raft (also for a small fee.) Or you could sit in a plastic boat with a colorful roof, of course having surrendered a small fee. We walked across a couple of bridges built from plastic logs intending to give the impression of being on a wooden span.

At the base of another small hill we climbed up a long flight of gray granite stairs past a billboard advertising Jet Skis and through one of those traditional Chinese temple gates. Up above us on a tiny peak was a small pagoda overlooking the valley below. At the top there was a broad plaza, one side occupied by a long line of stalls selling pretty much the same stuff as down below, here though joined by a man selling various odd species of dried fungi. Across from him was a small covered stand holding a golden Guanyin. A monk in saffron robes stood out front yelling at passersby to come over and pay for the privilege of praying. Another lake bordered the far end of the plaza and a dam went off to one side. At its base was another concession area with colored tubes, inflatable kayaks and a giant nest of bright orange life vests. A metal flue led from the rental spot down to the river below, waterless today but no doubt the site of much merriment in warmer times.

We boarded a second boat here for a ride further into the park. Sasa brought out containers of spicy Sichuan chicken pieces and a concoction of kelp and tofu. I picked my way through the chicken tossing the bone shards over the side of the boat. Looking down I noticed a school of tiny gray fish picking remnants off the bones. When the boat was filled we were on our way.

It was more of the same on the second lake – rocks and mountains cloaked in the mist. We went forward for perhaps fifteen minutes before cutting a sharp left turn to pick up some men standing on a dock. Once they were on-board we headed back towards the dock we had left from but veered to the right at the last minute and put in at a different place. A young man on the shore fired up a Jet Ski and made a couple of fast passes by our boat, apparently trying to entice someone into a rental. As our fellow passengers disembarked I stopped and motioned for a pair of couples to move ahead of me. We got into the standard “you, no you” thing that happens so often here before I said “Zou ba” which means “let’s go.” They smiled and went ahead, one friend lagged and filed in behind me. He told me that my Chinese was very good.

After almost tripping on a steel tie-off on the dock and nearly falling on my face we followed a path down beside the dam we’d seen from up above. At river level we passed a stand where you could rent a bow and shoot arrows at some targets on a set of straw bales. This is the thing about the commercialism here – often it has nothing to do with the nature or the spirit of the place. This little stand belonged at an American country fair, and perhaps that’s where the idea came from.

Our path doubled back toward the dam and it became clear that we were heading under it. We passed through a door and found ourselves at the beginning of a long corridor, water falling over the edge of the dam on one side, a long granite wall bedecked with carvings on the other. You had the option of staying relatively dry by remaining inside or walking out on a steel catwalk in the water. I chose the former. One of the windows that kept the water more or less where it belonged had been removed and the noise was deafening.

The granite wall proved far more interesting than the falling water – it depicted the various legends about the formation of Bin Yu Gou. Horses, Cranes, warriors, Bats and Dragons, all in various states of warfare or visitation lined the long walk. There were characters telling the story, but they were of the version that predated the “traditional” version that has now given way to the more modern “simplified” set that we know. Ben could only read a few of them.

On the far side of the dam we were shuffled by the tube and kayak rental spot before heading up the stairs to the plaza for one more pass by the vendors up there. The monk sat in his tent, head in hands looking worn out from a long day of yelling at tourists.

We took a stepping stone bridge across the water, not made of real stones but concrete blocks manufactured to look like tree cross-sections. Back down to the boat dock and after a short wait one last ride back to the parking lot where we were force marched through a store that was selling all kinds of dried fish and crustaceans. The floor in the store was covered in flattened cardboard boxes and the route was a seemingly endless series of zigzags designed to give the most possible retail exposure. The products on display caused the place to stink to high heaven and I wondered if I could make it all the way through on the one breath I had grabbed at the entrance.

The drive back was punctuated by alternating periods of torrential downpour and light sprinkles. It was fast though and it was not long before we exited the main road and headed into Kai Fa Qu. Yet another site visited, appreciated and relegated to memory.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Terry goes bar hopping

I did something really out of character the other night; I went out to the local red-light district for a couple of beers with a friend. While I am no stranger to saloons on this assignment, most of my visits involve food and conversation and a group of people. This night I had only three things in mind – beer, conversation and wandering around checking out the place.

The seedy part of my neighborhood is called 5 Colour City, why I do not know. It’s a strange place with oddly sinister fairy tale characters climbing the walls and sitting on the edges of the buildings. It’s dumpy, shabby, dirty and it looks a lot like those early theme parks my dad used to drag me to when I was a kid – Frontier Town, Pirate’s Bay and the like. Compared to the high octane packaging of the modern version, these seem quaint and simple and stuck in an older time. And I’m sure that 5 Colour City seemed that way once too but that would have been before it got filled up with bars catering to tattooed chain smoking skinny guys without shirts and girls that like to wave at you from the front window of the “barber shops.“ At night though the neon comes on and the girls go to work and the respectable places are all brightly lit and colorful. You can’t see the trash and the condition of the buildings and so the illusion is created. The plush furniture, gilt woodwork and uniformed doormen at the KTV Disco make a regular guy feel like he’s in Vegas, with a slightly Asian tinge.

We decided to grab a beer at a newer bar that I had not yet visited. In truth, I’d only ever been to one place that was popular with expats but its luster has faded as it often does with places like this when people get bored and find another joint. We stepped in and sidled up to the bar where I decided to try the home brew. It was more or less done in Northern European neighborhood bistro style – some leather, wood, plants and mirrors. Kind of what you might find in a working class district in Paris. I’d been told that this place had been opened by a Belgian who had the distinction of being the only Belgian in the world incapable of brewing a decent beer. And whoever told me that was dead on – the beer was undrinkable. I nursed it for a while before admitting my lack of a discerning beer palate and switching over to a bland but safe Tsingtao. The gal serving the drinks left my pint sitting there, a continuing reminder of my poor choice.

As it is in these places, the bartenders are all women. And they want to talk. This one turned out to be from Harbin which of course brought on the standard discussion about how damn cold Harbin is and how only Chinese Eskimos can stand living there. She told be her name was Coco and much to my surprise when I asked her why she had chosen it she told me that she admired Coco Channel as if I couldn’t have predicted that. She went back to washing glasses and I got to talking to a truly drunk Austrian who had just become a family man via a bambino provided by his Chinese wife. He said he’d been here for more than 5 years and that he was the happiest man alive which made me wonder why he was sitting in this dumpy little bar smoking like a chimney and drinking beers at a prodigious rate. He eventually literally stumbled off insisting he was perfectly capable of hailing a taxi, leaving us with another Austrian, two guys of indeterminate nationality and one guy over in the corner alternating between puffing on a constant stream of cigarettes and unstoppably coughing. My guess was that this guy was either an American or someone from the British Commonwealth and was marooned here because he had lost his ocean-going ship master’s license. It was quite a scene and it didn’t take long for us to decide whether the second beer was going to be here or somewhere else. Off we went.
We wandered past the couple of other places that westerners frequent all of which were empty before deciding on a third place famous for tales of westerner debauchery. We got a couple of beers inside and grabbed a table out front, sitting back to enjoy the ear splitting Rap. At least I think it was Rap but I’m pretty ignorant about modern music. It might have been Techno or some kind of hybrid. I’ll have to ask a young person.

Off to my left a rather ample Middle Easterner of an age was working over a bottle of rum - the table being littered with Coke cans from countless cocktails. In China you’re a big deal if you buy a bottle and this guy was clearly one. He was loud and he was posturing, no doubt for his 20-something son/bodyguard/friend and a Chinese woman whom I suspect was the owner. Both of the boys lit one cigarette after another and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was clearly important. The young one sat there with his foot shaking slightly faster than the music merited. A couple of what might have been Eastern Europeans skinheads came out of the bar, exchanged fist handshakes with Mr. Big, chugged their beers and went off in search of something more interesting. Inside the corner of the bar was crowded with young women dying to have someone come in and buy them a drink. But there wasn’t anyone and gratefully they decided that we were not fair game. I sat and nursed my beer and considered what it was about a foreign assignment that turns people into people like these. I doubt seriously that anyone acts this way back in their real world. At the same time I was sorry I missed the day when the expat wives were drunk enough take off their shirts and dance on the bar.

The temperature was nice and aside from the pounding in my head from the music it was pleasant enough sitting there. People strolled by and the girls in front of the Joy Club next door, each wearing an identical outfit of black shorts, white shirt and black vest stood around playing with their cell phones and scanning the sparse pickings for tonight’s High Roller.

So this was it, the Kai Fa Qu high life. When my beer reached the midpoint we got up and took one more stroll around the perimeter looking in the windows – nothing much had changed and so we went on down the dark alley, heading back to my real life.

Today I spent $36 on orange juice

I bet you never thought words like that could be uttered but when you live a life in a foreign land, where everything is so foreign, you rely on little things to keep you grounded in your own world. Well, they can at least make you think you’re grounded, even if you’re really not.

On last week’s shopping expedition I was really sorry to discover that the store was completely out of my favorite morning beverage, blood orange juice. I’d discovered it many months ago and being a fan of the actual fruit, I became an instant devotee to the rendered version. Knowing that I would be starting my day with a glass of that glorious blood-colored nectar has given me the energy to haul my carcass out of bed on more than one occasion. I came to rely on its tart “hello” as my ticket to happiness, at least until I went outside and got in the car. And so you can imagine how low I felt when not only was it absent from its place on the shelf, but its place was filled with something else. I moped off to find an alternative but juice buying in China is tough because almost 100% of the products offered are in fact “juice drink beverage product” - loaded with sugar and watered down to the consistency of Kool-Aid. I settled for a gallon of the store brand grape juice that promised to be 100% juice, but upon trying it suggested a call for more truth in advertising.

So today I went off to the store in search of some other goods and discovered to my sheer delight that my beloved juice was back on the shelves. I won’t say that I danced a dance of pure joy, because I didn’t – that would almost certainly get my shopper’s card revoked along with my resident alien housing permit. But I did grab four half-gallons and put them in the cart stopping only for 30 seconds to decide whether that was enough. I added two more, leaving the shelf conspicuously under-stocked in case the inventory manager happened to walk by. 43 kuai per half-gallon or around $6 but you know what, I really don’t care.

This small success set me on an expat product buying spree, so much so that I purposely avoided anything with Chinese characters on the label. Tyrolean Speck Ham, a couple of jars of Pesto, “French Boiled Ham”, a couple of cans of green beans, pepper jack cheese, boneless chicken breasts, some German cookies, Hormel Canadian Bacon and Thai coconut milk. In short a veritable United Nations of foodstuffs, and a pre-1971 UN at that, before the People’s Republic of China re-joined.

And so in the spirit of the 61st anniversary of the founding of the UN, being celebrated this week in New York, I sat down tonight to an international fare – Pellegrino Italian Mineral Water, Green Giant French Style Green Beans and through the agency of my faithful driver, Jiang, four nice Sichuan rabbit’s legs. Topping that off with a couple of Austrian chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, I’m sealing the deal later with an Iced Americano at Starbucks. Decaf, of course.

As I left my apartment tonight I took a look at my camera sitting on my desk. I’d pulled the memory card out and stuck it in my computer, planning to edit photos while I enjoyed my cup of coffee. I decided to leave the camera behind as it was night time and the photo ops are generally few and far between it being dark and all.

When I got down to the street I noticed something odd – every intersection was crawling with policemen. I figured they were setting up a sobriety checkpoint – something new to Dalian – and I went on my way. As I got closer to the main crossroads there were more and more police and this bunch was unwinding thick white rope from a wooden spool and stretching long lengths of it down the street. Crowd control? For what? Well I snapped to it right about there – on the way to the store today the traffic on the far side of the expressway was snarled up behind a series of motorized parade floats. I asked Jiang what they were and he explained that they were from a parade in Dalian that was held yesterday. I asked where they were going and he told me Kai Fa Qu which made complete sense since that’s where they were headed. For what reason though he did not say.

When I got to the coffee shop I asked my favorite barista what was going on and he stumbled a bit trying to come up with the right words. He said something about clothing and models and I figured it out – Dalian International Fashion Festival was coming out here to the suburbs. According to what little I could find on the web, more than 40 designers from Paris, Milan and London converge annually on our gritty little seaport city for a week of shows, drama, fashion and glitzy models.

The parade showed up about an hour later, perhaps 20 vehicles decorated in all kinds of oddball motifs brightly lit and pumping techno music. From what I could tell they seemed to be sponsored by stores and clothing manufacturers given that some of them sported photographs of giant industrial sewing machines. There was a Phoenix, a Poseidon, a Snowman and others too strange and numerous to describe. Each was crafted from brightly covered fabrics stretched over wire armatures. By now I was seriously regretting my lack of a camera. On each truck were the thinnest most waif-like western girls dancing and waving and spraying Silly String on the on-lookers. These girls whom I assume to be the models borrowed for a little publicity, were by far the skinniest humans I have ever seen. They were so frail it was hard to tell how old they were,but I assume they were of a legal age because I can’t imagine any responsible parent allowing their 12 year olds to come to China to dress up like this and ride around on a decorated flatbed truck. There were elves and leprechauns and fish and birds and one Marie Antoinette. There was even an Uncle Sam in a sequined stars and stripe bikini. A truck load of snow queens featuring wings and a host of fairies. One track had a family of giant stuffed mice dressed like woodsmen. Just about every whimsical character you could think of. They were sincerely waving and making all kinds of eye contact and the Chinese men were frantically waving back thinking the girls had eyes only for them. I watched for a bit and walked home quickly thinking I could get a photo from my window but alas, I was too late and got to my apartment just as the trailing SWAT trucks went by. There no doubt to keep the wavers under control. Once past it was like it had been a dream, the only proof being the confetti that blanketed the dark streets. The crowds dispersed and the train of bright trucks disappeared down the road to Dalian.