Thursday, February 25, 2010

Some thoughts about where I am

My embarrassingly shopworn passport now sports 22 exit stamps from China. How it got to the state of smeary red blotches and woefully dog-eared corners is a long tale. The details of this story are not only an accumulation of the miles, the hours, the lounges, hotels, delays, conversations, food, weariness, energy and awe, but more importantly they manifest themselves in the changes to me, the person. Travel apparently does that - it changes you at a cellular level, sparking hosts of tiny mutations that either make you an addict, or a hater. Or probably a little of each.

I find myself looking ahead and realizing that the end to this phase of my professional life looming. Still cloaked in a bit of indecision it will come sometime in the next 6 months when I put the grand in-country Asian experiment behind me and return to how I supported this work during 2006, 2007 and 2008 – namely working from my home office in New Mexico and showing the flag on business trips. The early chapters of the story made the biggest difference, turning me from someone who dreaded infrequent hour-long trips across state lines to a guy that got itchy to be back on the road every time he was home for more than a couple of weeks. That restlessness was never about how I felt sleeping in my own bed, it was more due to the thrill I was getting every time I navigated a new airport, talked to a cabbie and spent that first night in a hotel, somewhere far away. Early on, the thrill of making my way across 15 time zones and wandering around some of the largest cities in the world was simply too hard to resist. While it meant putting all the things I loved regularly on hold, at the time it seemed worth it given what I was seeing and doing. These days the balance is shifting back to the quotidian – my desire to spend my time among the people and the things who really make me who I am.

I had a hard trip back this time. We had to spend an extra couple of hours sitting in the lounge in San Francisco because the weather was rolling in and the planes stopped rolling out. It began with an hour circling the airport and ended with a two hour delay. In between those we suffered through that horrible moment when you read the board and see that you may as well go sit back down. We also had to bear some person telling us that the lounge area where we were sitting “was supposed to be a quiet place” as he stormed out, denying me the chance to snap back. Funny he should say that - I guess in response to us talking -when shortly after he left another guy came in who never stopped talking on his cell phone, telling everyone in his Contact list that he was on his way back to Boston, that he’d interviewed with Oracle and that they wanted to send him to Australia. I couldn’t count the calls – there were so many; more than the total number of people I know. He was loud and it only ceased when he would get up to go to the bar.

Things got worse when another business traveler put his Blackberry on speaker phone and sat there hunched over, yelling at some woman on the other end of the call. They were working on an email memo and fretting over the most mundane details of wording, changing “be ready to cover your plans” to “come prepared to discuss your options.” The more I listened the more I became amazed that business functions whenever there are people involved. If this guy – obviously paid well for whatever he does judging from his clothes and his shoes – couldn’t take 5 minutes to write a memo on his smart-phone without dragging a second person into the activity, well, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how people get things done. Maybe they don’t.

While my week at home was as wonderful as ever, the cost of making the trip was high. I simply couldn’t shake the jet lag this time around and I was feeling so low that I spent most of my time blanketed on the couch watching the Olympics. The physical effects are starting to take a toll on me; I’ve always felt them but these days it’s starting to feel like the rubber band is stretched a bit too far. As the week rolled on, never once did I start to feel like I was ready, or even remotely desirous of heading back to the airport. And this shift – the high physical cost of coming back – is probably the biggest change of all and the foremost reason why I’m ready to start winding it down.

While the weather was springtime New Mexico glorious, I was too unraveled to do the one thing I wanted to do the most – get in a handful of bike rides. Instead we spent our time cheering for Team USA, seeing some movies and just catching up. When Saturday rolled around, I finally managed to force myself out the door on the day before departure, ironically on the one bad weather day of the week. Sandhill Cranes were migrating overhead; it was gray and windy but not terribly cold. Just not cheery. As I made my way out of town, a couple of birds flew across the road and landed on a barbed wire fence up ahead – Western Bluebirds, shockingly cerulean against the dun backdrop of the sand hills along the mesa. I realized that I hadn’t seen them in years because over the course of the last 4, I was not here to see them when they make their way from the frosty winter plains of Chihuahua to the grasslands up north. It was then that I realized that I was trading new experiences for the things I truly enjoyed, and that the value balance was finally shifting back to the latter. I rode on into the wind, dreading that 4AM alarm that I knew was waiting for me come Sunday morning.


Back at the beginning of this adventure I started to take photos of the plane waiting to carry me off. It began with shots of the daily 747 to Shanghai, taken from the concourse. In those days I had no status and the lounge was off limits to shabby travelers like me.

Lately it's the 777 to Beijing taken from the lounge seat where I wait. The unchanging nature of these shots is probably the best testament to how something so bright and shiny can quickly become old and dull. There are a 100 stories behind each of these photographs, each interesting and unique. And yet they all began in the same gray or white aluminum tube, far above the Pacific sailing towards but never quite fast enough to catch the sunset.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A few words about Fireworks

The fireworks associated with Chinese New Year get so bad that any sane person is forced to leave. I had to chuckle the other day when Ctrip, my favorite on-line Chinese travel agency posted a cartoon on their website depicting a woman realizing that she needed to escape the country, but lacked travel reservations.

There was an article in China Daily yesterday talking about the incredible rise this year in fireworks related injuries in Beijing, as the holiday approaches. Not surprising when the size of the products you can buy here rivals anything you would see in a professional show in the US. Most nights this week I sat and ate dinner watching the bursts just below the level of my apartment. When you consider that the average retail product here could more than likely shoot down an airplane, you might find it interesting to know that someone was setting them off at the end of the Dalian Airport runway yesterday afternoon while I was waiting for a flight. I was watching a Hainan Airlines 737 taxiing down the tarmac towards its turn to the takeoff runway and “boom” up go a stream of rockets just behind the plane. Can you imagine that in a civilized part of the world?

The view while landing last night in Beijing was quite incredible. It was remarkably clear for a change and because of this I could see fireworks exploding all across the horizon in a never ending series of yellow, white and red blasts just above the bright city lights. Like so many millions of Fireflies sparkling away on a June evening in New England. My friend Mike remarked that it looked like we were landing in a war zone, I wondered for a moment how they manage to keep the glide path clear which I’m they don’t and I hoped someone wouldn’t find it amusing to send off a rocket in front of my plane. With nothing to do but watch, I sat back and enjoyed the show, silent stars in the inky black.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

You are where you are.

Sometimes I find myself saying, “This is China.” Usually it’s in response to someone describing yet another weird event or circumstance that one would never find anywhere else. Yesterday turned out to be “This is China” day, with one thing after another forcing that phrase to the center of my mind.

Chinese New Year is this weekend and like last year I’m on the road to get away from the holiday. Last year it was a romantic encounter in Barcelona, this year it’s a romantic encounter in the comfort of my own home. Traveling this time of year here can be maddening – it’s called the biggest migration in the human experience and I suppose that’s true with 65 million people on the move. Thankfully only 20% of those are using the airports.

A key part of the holiday is the delivery of the “Hong Bao” or “Red Envelope” to the people who work for you. In my case, that’s limited to my driver Jiang. Deciding on how much to give is a challenge because it’s said if you give too much, they lose respect for you. Too little, and they lose face. Compounding it is the incredible importance the Chinese place on numbers – if you give anything with a “4” in it; you’re essentially hoping that they will die in the coming year. “2” is good because if means companionship. “8” is happiness and “9” is longevity. “6” is okay because it’s an even number. It’s all about symmetry and aside from “9”; the odd numbers are not great. I ended up giving 2988 because it’s not too much and not too little and the numerology is fine.

As I left Jiang at the airport yesterday I handed him a custom Hopi bolo tie, engraved with the Hopi Turtle and told him that cowboys in America wear these instead of neckties. Jiang loves cowboys and often complains of being tired from staying up too late watching westerns. We had a long discussion in the car one morning about American history and the role of the cowboy, but that’s a tale for another time. Today I explained that the turtle grants long life. I also gave him a nice silver bracelet for his wife, Guo Dan. He was very grateful and even more so when I handed him the Hong Bao and told him Xin Nian Kuai Le or, Happy New Year. As I left he insisted that I give the same greeting to My Lovely Wife.

Airports in China test even the most stoic person. And of course no one would say I’m among the most stoic. Every person in line every single time I try to check in turns out to be a special case. It’s not that they are, but they make themselves such. Yesterday it was the guy with the dolly loaded with dozens of cardboard boxes – food and wine that he was bringing to his family home for the holiday. And then the woman in front of me had some sort of child’s backpack that she was bringing as a gift. It was in a plastic bag, unlabeled and unmarked and she plopped in on the conveyor as though it would be fine in that condition. After a lot of arguing with the ticket agent, and some vindictive knot tying, it was allowed to go down the belt.

The next “This is China” moment came at the end of my flight to Beijing. It is not uncommon for the Chinese to get up and start shoving their way down the aisle before the plane has even come to a stop. Normally it’s some little guy stinking of cigarette smoke who begins to weave his way up to the front. Yesterday it was a woman with a screaming baby held tight in one of those front-mounted baby packs. I’m not sure where she came from but she got stopped by my friend Mike who had been sitting across from me. He told her to stop pushing and to wait and some man behind them yelled “But she has baby.” She managed to scoot by Mike and came up against me. Now, there was nowhere to go – the door had not yet opened – so I told her in Chinese “Where are you going to go? There are too many people. You are not able” and she looked at me as though she was about to burst into tears. I was also on the receiving end of a lot of “Ugly American” looks, but it didn’t matter – there was nowhere for her to go. I just turned my back on her and let the child scream into my collar.

One of the nicer things about airline status is that my bags get tagged with an orange “Priority” label. It means that mine come down the belt first and so I get to leave the airport before everyone else. The luggage from our plane came down the belt much slower than normal yesterday, no doubt due to the fact that we’d landed out on the tarmac and bused in, as well as due to an assumed shortage of baggage handlers. You see, at New Year, the average Chinese worker just walks away from their job and heads home to the country. It affects everything that happens here, and anything involving unskilled manual labor suffers the most. We stood and waited, watching all those brown cardboard boxes shooting out of the conveyor and down onto the carousel only to be grabbed by people waiting for them. A lot of mild arguments were breaking out around us as no one had bothered to mark their boxes with anything to tell them apart. Everyone was trying to verify the ownership of their box by checking it against the tiny numbers assigned to the baggage claim check. Eventually it all sorted out and the carousel stopped without delivering our bags.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later it started up again and after a last flurry of boxes (which by now made me wonder if we’d been on a cargo plane), the bags with the priority tags started to appear. Apparently on this day in China, “priority” meant “get them loaded on the plane first” and not what it was supposed to mean.

The last moment came as I returned to the hotel after a nice dinner. Marriott offers a nice deal for people like me who hate sleeping on down pillows – a “feather free” room. Normally this means reasonably comfortable foam pillows. Last night it meant cubes of egg-crate closed cell foam with a consistency just short of Styrofoam. I tried to use one, even falling asleep for a bit before awakening and realizing there was no way. I turned on the lights, scavenged the room and built a composite pillow out of a throw pillow from the couch and a bolster pillow that was stored in the closet. How someone ever thought that anyone could use the foam version was beyond me. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a country that used to use a carved wooden table for that purpose. I don’t know, but one thing that is plain as day – “This is China.”

Sunday, February 07, 2010

To the White Sea

I spend a lot of time on the weekends riding my bicycle. Not only for the exercise, but to get out of the city and to be where real people live. At the very beginning of my assignment I went far out into the countryside with my driver heading to a temple that he wanted to visit. We drove down dirt roads between lines of small mountains, covered in the bare trees of the season. The roads were lined with villages sleepy in early winter’s grip, preparing for the long cold and dark season ahead. I’d not seen places like this in my life and I stared out the window as we drove past in a mix of awe and sadness for the lives of these people. I don’t think I can even imagine what it must be like to be born in such a place, not knowing what lies just beyond the ridgeline. A world of lights and sounds impossible to know. I thought hours of driving had brought me to the real China, far beyond the influence of the cities where I spent my time. I figured it took all those miles to move from one reality to another, so you can imagine my surprise finding the same way of life when I began to venture just over the mountain from the place I live. You don’t have to go far in China to find the past, it’s right there five minutes and a left turn beyond the factory where I work.

Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that my cycling stories were boring. I wasn’t sure how to take that review so I told myself that he was overlooking the subtleties of my narrative. Fancy words I guess for “missing the point”, but that’s what’s going on. I’m sure some of it is my abject lack of skill in conveying the moment, and I suppose the rest of it belongs to him – a guy who sees the big things in life while walking right past the little ones. Well, I think life is a collection of tiny bits of time that adds up to a whole, a fabric if you will. And each thread in that fabric is a moment to savor, no matter how good, bad or inconsequential it might be. For me, spending time on my bike out in the country is about collecting those threads. And if he can’t see that, well I suppose it’s his problem. I share the things I see because they’re important to me. If someone else is moved, then I suppose I’ve gotten what I wanted.

It has been very cold here recently and the extremities of weather make cycling a rather hard undertaking. While my riding partner Dermot and I have not had to endure days like the one we spent in the monsoon last summer, we have had to deal with the cold and the wind, the two things that make Dalian what it is in the wintertime. But with those challenging meteorological moments comes many rewards. Seeing village life in January’s China is fascinating – women doing laundry in square holes chopped in the ice or in whatever open water there is, donkeys sporting little red tassels on their halters tied up in warm little nooks out of the wind and dozing in the sunshine, cows lying by the side of the road doing the same, people up on their roof milling the corn they put up there last fall, old men trying to find one last little bit of firewood by trimming the unimportant branches in their cherry orchards. Life here in the winter is about keeping warm, staying fed and making sure that the animals make it through to spring when their work begins.

We leave Kai Fa Qu on a main road that bisects an industrial park which has appeared only in the last 5 years. When I first came here in 2006, our factory site was a weedy field, home to a single farm house. On that day people came out and stood by the side of the road smiling and waving. In their place today stands an engineering marvel, soon to be cranking out those little slices of silicon that make our lives so much busier. I wonder where those people are today, probably at home in one of the hundreds of high rises that we pass on the way out of town. On this day, two enormous inflatable golden temple dogs stand guard in front of a convenience store, brought there no doubt to announce some sort of promotion. People from the apartment blocks stand there staring at them as if expecting them to spring to life.

Our road has a short gap of rocks and sand that forces us to grapple with trucks and cars for what little passage there is. Why it’s there is beyond me – decent pavement extends on both sides of it. Probably an artifact from some other construction project that was simply ignored when the big work was done. It’s typical of China to find these little gaps in the modern infrastructure. Perhaps someday it will be paved, perhaps not. For now it’s a just another obstacle on the road and the people who use it have simply learned to adapt.

The goal on this day was to ride across the Liaodong Peninsula to the Bo Hai Sea, north of us and the major sea lane to Tianjin and Beijing beyond. When I was riding home from Shanghai last week I happened upon an article in the English language newspaper, China Daily, concerning ice on the Bo Hai supposedly the worst in 33 years. Like most stories in Chinese newspapers this one focused on the human impact – the people who lived on the ice-bound islands who had to resort to bringing fuel and food across the floes on donkey carts. And the potential impact to the aquaculture industry, ponds frozen solid for the first time in anyone but the oldest citizen’s memory. I saw the photos and knew I had to go if only to verify that it was as dramatic as the reporter claimed.

We have a route that cuts straight across to the other side. In some places it’s beautiful – shady stretches lined with Plane Trees, their trunks painted white halfway up creating the illusion that you’re somewhere in the middle of rural France. In others the typical grimy side street so common here. Once past the economic corridor that runs down the center though, it’s all about peach orchards, dusty villages and eventually, fishing. Up and over the first climb, we passed a group of men watching their donkey gets shoed. We rode past but I stopped and decided that this was an opportunity not to be missed. We turned around, went back and made our introductions. I asked politely if I could take some photographs explaining that my wife back in America had many horses and would find pictures very enjoyable. Of course there was no problem – Chinese people are always willing to visit with a couple of guys dressed as though they’d just stepped off of a spaceship. The farrier smiled and posed as he went about his work. The donkey, chained up and hanging in the air from a wooden beam didn’t seem to be as willing to participate in our visit. Every minute or so he’d try to kick with his bound hind leg and this got a reaction from the men who admired his spirit but laughed at the futility. Whenever we stop to talk to people our bicycles are the center of attraction. The men pick them up and comment on their lightness. They squeeze the tires and insist that all of their friends do the same. They smile and look at each other with childish grins, genuinely amazed at what we call a bike, ours being so much different than what they’re used to. One man here was impressed with the water bottle, another with the saddle. They passed my bike around, lifting it up to their shoulders before handing it to the next guy down the line. Conversations are difficult here though as the rural dialect is tough to understand. They get us, but we don’t get them. Jiang, my driver, told me that they speak “Jinzhou farmer Chinese” and even though we’re no more than 10 miles out of Dalian, it’s impossible to understand them. It doesn’t matter though because the gist of what’s going on is good enough for everyone present. Every time I make one of these stops, I go away glad that I did.

Much of our navigation is done by dead reckoning – keeping the sun at our backs as we head north for example. The finer details can be drawn out of our GPS, but the map in those devices is often nothing more than the dream of some cartographer, not content to leave empty spaces on his maps and so filling them with roads that don’t exist. Adding to the confusion is the built-in offset that the Chinese government insists on, lest we try to call in some Special Forces helicopters for an extraction. It shows our position a few hundred yards west of where we actually are. The result of all these confusing inputs is that we often stop at crossroads, take a bearing on the sun, look at the GPS and then ask some unlucky person strolling by if our assessment is correct. This time we stopped on a bridge at a crossroads that we knew, trying to verify if the road ahead would be just as good as the right turn we normally took. A group of 5 young men stood kitty-corner to us watching, talking and smoking. I was pretty rapt with the map when I looked up and saw one of them standing right next to me looking over my shoulder. Dermot said hello and asked him if the road ahead led to the sea. The young man confirmed that it did, adding that it was a shortcut to the next town over. On the chance that he was right we mounted up and headed out of town; he crossed back over to his friends. It turned out to be a shortcut all right, a more direct route at the expense of one of the toughest hills I’d climbed in China. We’ll never know if he failed to mention this because he thought it was unimportant or because he thought it might be fun to stand there with his friends watching us struggle up into the distance.

At the top of that climb and down the road a bit we came to another village where we stopped to talk to a man walking down the road. We asked if the sea was up ahead and he laughed and replied that we were going to wrong way – the sea was behind us. Well yes, we knew that but we were asking about the other sea. His Chinese was even more difficult to understand than most that I’d heard; he was speaking in a strange cadence and quite a bit louder than was called for considering that we were in the middle of a deserted town. A very old woman stood off to our left, watching what was going on. This guy fell into the routine of checking out the bikes, for some reason being fascinated by the air valves on the tires. Now I suppose these are interesting, but certainly not to the level that he was squeezing and poking them. The old woman crossed the street and walked behind us, saying something in a wise but quiet tone. I suspect she was telling us that we were asking directions from the village idiot, a suspicion that might have been confirmed by the string of spittle that was now hanging from his lower lip. We thanked him and left.

Last August was our first time on this route and the temperature that day was a killer. By the time we made it home we were all about to die from the heat. Today the temperature was probably 60 degrees colder and the wind was taking its toll, at least from me. We passed a long line of those greenhouses typical of rural China, quarter circles facing the sun, covered in plastic and topped with straw mats that are rolled down at night to retain the heat. What made these special though were the little concrete-block houses at the end of each line – white-washed squares topped with a red and blue striped dome, like so many tiny mosques out here in the middle of nowhere. Line upon line of them hugged the road as we hunkered down into the wind. At the next village I stopped to put on a wind shell, remarking that it was very unusual to be adding clothing mid-afternoon. Normally it’s the other way around.

Riding across a causeway that passed through the salt marshes, we figured out why the temperature had plummeted so. We were now within a couple of straight line miles of the Bo Hai and the wind here was blowing across an expanse of dry reeds and frozen ponds. This little traverse was pretty bleak and we agreed to stop in the next village to get a Coke and perhaps a candy bar. We crossed to the far side and rode back up onto the land. Rounding a corner we found ourselves in Qiaomaishan, the same little village that we’d fueled up in last time out whose name means “Buckwheat Mountain.” We stopped at our favorite store and parked, out of the wind and in the sun. It was nice to warm up for a moment.

I sent Dermott in to do the shopping and while I waited a young man in army fatigues came by leading a dog and a puppy on a long piece of green plastic rope. Another man had been walking by with one of those typical Chinese rat dogs, bred to look like miniature Temple Dogs. To us, they’re more or less Tibetan Spaniels. This guy’s dogs did not like the others and he had a time restraining them until the Spaniel got the picture that it was facing imminent death and so wandered off. The battle past, he said hello to me and tied the dogs to the lamppost in front of the store. The bigger of the two was what I call a Chinese German Shepherd. Their conformation is similar to the western version, but they’re a bit smaller and while two-toned, the light patches are distinctly red. They must be a common breed in the rural areas because I see them all the time. The man went into the store to smoke a cigarette with the store owner. The puppy was wandering back and forth and in doing so managed to untie the slip knot that the guy had made. As the dogs were about to go free, I rapped on the window and told him that his dogs were about to leave. He was very surprised and hugely grateful. He came out and re-tied them, thanking me in English.

Every time we stop in these places, people come out to idly walk by and check us out. The village elders are usually first, followed by those of parenting age. Girls love to walk by and giggle and the teenage boys slink past sullenly playing with their cell phones. You can tell they’re interested buy they’ll never let on. We stand and drink our Cokes and nod, always taking the opportunity to say “hello” when the children are brave enough to do the same.

From Qiaomaishan to the sea was no more than a mile and rounding the corner we were faced with an endless expanse of frozen sea – glassy smooth in the bays and choppy and white out where the waves have a stronger effect. Down by the shore, Chinese palapas stood abandoned on the rocky shore, side by side with the wooden fishing boats pulled up for the season. We rode up the coast on a brand new and completely abandoned road stopping here and there to take photos. Far off in the distance, a small island stood completely ringed in white. At the end of a dirt track we found the most perfect view – frozen aquaculture impoundments up front, a small patch of green-blue open water in a cove and ice all the way to the horizon. Two big dogs stood in a cage at a corner of a jetty guarding who knows what. The scene was precisely what had been in the newspaper – the sea was no longer the sea.

The ride back was improved by having all that cold wind at our backs. The sun was now heading towards the western horizon and so offering no heat. We rode on talking about food, and how good that pizza was going to taste at the end of the hour it was going to take us to get home. Talking about food at the end of a ride is never a good idea, but today with the sun slowly disappearing, a strong tailwind and a day full of moments behind us, it seemed reasonable to bend that rule just for once.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rolling towards the New Year and a nice respite down south

Tonight is Xiao Nian, the night of the Kitchen God. As the legend goes, the Man that became the God was a wealthy farmer whose eye was caught by a beautiful concubine. He turned his back on his wife and family and let his farms and orchards fall into disarray. His wife finally left him and once his wealth was gone, so did his paramour. He was reduced to wandering the countryside begging for handouts.

One cold night, close to death he stumbled up to a doorway and collapsed on the stoop. A woman inside opened the door and taking pity on him brought him into the kitchen and made a bed for him by the hearth. The warmth of the fire revived him and he slept peacefully through the night for the first time in many years.

He awoke the next morning and found the kitchen empty. Casting off his blankets, he went to the window and looked outside to see if his benefactor might be working in the garden. She was an old woman, bent over the winter vegetables, picking a few to make a hearty meal for her guest. When she rose and turned towards the house, he saw that she was his wife. He’d been saved by the very woman he’d turned his back on so many years ago. Overcome with grief and shame, he threw himself into the fire in the hearth. The old woman found him and tried to extinguish the flames, but he was gone – his ashes had floated up to heaven.

The Jade Emperor was so impressed with the man’s sacrifice and humility that he decided to make the man The Kitchen God. And so now The Kitchen God returns each year to visit the homes of the mortals to check on their harvests and their affairs, making sure that all is in order for the celebration of the New Year which comes seven or so days after his visit. The people put out drinks and sweets so that The Kitchen God will not speak poorly of them to the Jade Emperor. Today, the holiday is celebrated with food and wine and enough fireworks to make you wish that you’d never have to hear or see them again.

Last year, I stumbled into China during the week leading up to Chinese New Year. The noise got so bad that I called up My Lovely Wife and forced her to meet me in Spain. This year, I’m sitting here on the 24th floor watching the sky-bursts out both windows and trying to hear my background music over the continuous explosions. It’s nice for a bit, but not for five straight hours.

In addition to dodging firework displays, the last few weeks for me have been incredibly busy. I spent four days in Shanghai getting a taste of what made me love this country back at the beginning. Despite hours spent sitting in traffic, misty rain and never ending shortage of taxis, Shanghai is a wonderful city that has despite its incredible size, managed to retain its mysterious appeal.

My favorite hotel was clogged with visitors including some who jumped in on an idle comment about Disney in the elevator to inform us that they would indeed be delivering the famous Mouse here in 2014. Business seems to be booming once again in China’s economic center, a huge improvement from my last visit in the period leading up to the Olympics when businessmen couldn’t get visas and the hotel lounge was closed due to lack of paying customers. This trip it was different – the place was mobbed and on most evenings there wasn’t a place to sit if you happened to come in after the official opening hour. The conversation was like every other business lounge in the world – single men trying to best their friends with stories of cities, hotels, restaurants and women.

I had a couple of dinners at Hongmei Lu, my beloved little alley in the Hongqiao district, an old neighborhood street blocked now for cars and lined with every imaginable type of restaurant. Spanish Tapas, Punjabi, Chinese, Japanese, an American diner, a German beer hall, my favorite Thai joint and even a place specializing in Belgian food, whatever that might be. You grab a cab, take a short ride through what seems to be never-ending construction for the next line of the Shanghai Metro and once there, you stroll down the lane deciding what might be appealing on that particular night. My choice was a steaming curry at Simply Thai, enjoyed with a bottle of Pellegrino and the floor show which was put on by dozens of feral cats chasing each other around on the sidewalk just outside the window.

A few years ago, the Shanghai Municipal Government banned the unbridled use of automobile horns and today the effect is remarkable. It’s said that car horns are merely another means of communication here in China, and most people who spend time in cars will tell you that it’s true. Unlike the US where horns are used as a tool of insult and aggression, here they’re far more politely employed. You get a lot of “Hey, I’m over here so don’t hit me” instead of “You’re a moron.” The result though is maddening - a never ending cacophony of every horn sound ever dreamt up by bored automotive engineers the world over. I remember thinking I would lose my mind during one four week period I spent here, commuting daily in a minivan. Now the streets are almost silent, the only noise being the din of millions of cars, buses and trucks. Every commute we had seemed unbearably long, the price all Shanghainese pay for the magic of the night in their city.

I spent my last night at Xintiandi, the beautifully westernized restaurant and shopping district just off Huaihai Lu, one of Shanghai’s most famous and well-heeled shopping districts. Built from restored Shikumen ghettos by Benjamin Wood, the American architect known for the restoration of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, today Xintiandi is all polished gray stone, twinkle lights in trees, upscale boutiques and fancy restaurants, some of which even have no-smoking sections. It’s a nice blend of old and modern China and western commercial design. It’s also very popular with the expatriate population and probably the only place in China where westerners outnumber Chinese on any given night. Even the cab ride there is mesmerizing as you cruise down the tree-lined streets of the old French Concession and gaze at the trees lit in red and white along the main boulevards.

As always you can’t get far in this place without some sort of little oddball moments, China often seems a bottomless reservoir of memorable things. The trip from our hotel to the airport was special in that the taxi driver was so inept in his use of the accelerator that I of the “never been carsick a day in my life” crowd was about to throw up out the window. He insisted on having his window open which only served to freeze the interior while bathing us in diesel exhaust from the trucks on the highway. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of traffic so the trip was as fast as it possibly could be and I managed to get out of the car with my breakfast where it belonged.

I was trying something new on this trip – a boarding pass that I’d printed out at work. Totally common in the rest of the world, you don’t see that many of them here so I fully expected an adventure when I walked up to the security check. The uniformed young woman looked at it both right-side up and wrong-side down. She looked at the back to verify that it was blank. She looked at me and she looked back at the paper, analyzing the way I’d folded it. Just when I expected to be told to go back to the ticketing counters to get a real boarding pass, she called her supervisor over. This young woman was having none of it – she rattled off some Chinese that was so dripping in attitude that it made me blush. I expect it was something along the lines of “You’re a farm bumpkin who would be better off back in a rice paddy pulling a Water Buffalo out of the mud than sitting here pretending to be an Official of the State. Did you sleep through your training or were you too busy chewing on a gourd to pay attention to what was being taught? Go over and watch the x-ray machine because that’s clearly something you can understand because it’s nothing more than watching television.” The supervisor sat down, took a look at me, repeated her tirade to the other girl - now running the x-ray machine - stamped my paper and gave me a sideways head nod to get out of her sight. Behind me my friend who was also sporting a printed pass received nothing but the most cursory glance before being sent on his way, official Stamps of the State duly rendered.

After spending an extra hour sitting on the plane watching the yellow fog burn off, waiting for a “delay due to air traffic congestion” to clear and eating our lunch while enjoying our beverage service, we took off and were on our way back home to that little industrial outpost hard by the side of the Bo Hai that these days we call home. Memories of the truly appealing city on this side of the world already fading away.