Tuesday, August 24, 2010

There's a tear in the space-time continuum and pan-dimensional beings are leaking through

Today marks the 26th time I have left my home at 4:30AM embarking on the Route to the Orient. Over the course of all these trips I have seen many odd and wonderful things and experienced the absolute highs and lows of international travel. I’m not speaking of my experiences with cultures and sights and food, no, I’m only talking about what happens in that 7000 mile hermetically sealed tunnel that extends from my gravelly driveway in the Rio Grande Valley to the marble clad lobby of my apartment building in Dalian, China. The quilt of my memories is sewn with tales of delays, security, immigration, lounges, weather, and lost luggage. It extends from the depths of spending countless hours trapped with uncommunicative co-workers to the apex of seeing a snow clad Mt. Fuji on an obscenely clear day from a business class window. But mostly, it’s about my fellow travelers. And today has been especially rich.

I started my trip as I always do – a fast shower followed by an even faster breakfast of yogurt, sausage, juice and prescription meds. Teddy the Dog wandered in and always looked at us as though we’re confused. On these days he doesn’t venture off his bed in our room until it is completely clear that we’re up and serious about being so. We all know that the animals we live with have their little internal clocks, set tightly to the feeding schedule. I can only guess what’s rattling through his brain when we’re scurrying about a full 2 hours before his breakfast.

The drive to town is always the same this time of day - a few night owls or early birds leaving or heading to some job with absurd working hours. It’s always fast and rarely presents even the tiniest distraction outside perhaps of a bored Bernalillo County Sheriff sitting in a driveway waiting for someone to break the ridiculously low speed limit on that street. Today, no sheriffs and no traffic and no tour buses disgorging hordes of tourists at the airport - the roads were empty and my check-in was fast. I always keep a running tab on my time and as I left the baggage check gates I was standing at a mere 25 minutes since leaving home.

It was all going to plan until I hit security. The boarding pass check was fast and friendly – there was no line and there were four agents sitting there with nothing to do. I picked the guy on the far right and had a nice 30 second conversation with him about how terrible and humanizing it is to have to get up and be somewhere by 5AM. While we were chatting I noticed the first of today’s interesting subjects standing towards the back of the security area rummaging through her bag, no doubt looking for identification. We’re going to call her “Homeless Annie Hall” because she was dressed in a very rumpled version of the look epitomized by Diane Keaton in that movie of so long ago. Probably in my age bracket, she must have had on 5 or 6 dresses of various lengths and patterns creating a disconcerting system of overlapping and cascading layers. I wondered if wearing all your vacation clothes was a faster way to travel – no waiting for bags on the carousel and no chance of losing them on route. Black porkpie hat up top, a gray shawl that had undoubtedly done some time as an afghan on the back of a settee and a man’s maroon necktie out front, she completed this sartorial sundae with a pair of black leather clogs and gray athletic socks pulled up tight. She had a small backpack over one shoulder and a plastic shopping bag from Hudson’s Department store over the opposite arm. Stunned, I said adieu to the agent and headed for the conveyors.
The security gates were also devoid of people so banking on my luck I chose the far right option again, not so much because of position but because the full body scanner was closed; they are just too slow. The first sign of trouble came when the agent on the far side of the metal detector jammed his palm into my chest and told me to stay where I was until my bag went into the x-ray machine. No problem there, it wasn’t going in because the belt wasn’t moving and I wouldn’t have thought much about it had he not been so fierce. I stood and waited until it began to move but just as I stepped forward, it stopped. He repeated himself as if I had forgotten the instructions in the last 30 seconds. I went over and gave it a shove at his suggestion, but now the belt was moving backwards. I pointed that out but he was not interested – he had his script and he was sticking to it. I stepped back in front of the detector only to be verbally attacked by an extremely officious woman who demanded to know what the holdup was. I explained the problem with my bag and she pushed me out of the way and went through. Finally the belt started up and I went though, glad for once that my watch had not set off the alarm. I can only imagine what that nasty guy would have done to me in that case.

The source of my bag’s seesaw trip quickly became apparent – my other bag was not to the liking of the x-ray viewer. I went through the accusatory “Is this YOUR bag?” phase with his assistant and then I was led off to one of the stainless steel tables for further interrogation. This guy removed every single electronic device and placed them in a tray, bringing back a similar experience in Japan where that agent had dug and dug and finally asked me just how many things I had. “Enough to stay entertained” was my answer that day. He swabbed the bag and checked for explosives and gratefully I passed that test too.

My bag and my tray full of iDevices was taking back to the x-ray for a repeat check. Again they didn’t like something, both guys stood there with their noses pressed to the screen, stabbing at something with their fingers and quietly discussing the threat. My guy brought everything over and led me to another table where he handed it all back to me. It turned out to be my backup battery, a little 4”x3” black blob that they didn’t like at all. Funny thing, I normally keep that buried in my roll around suitcase but last night for reasons unclear, I had chosen to put it in my shoulder bag. The smallest things can clearly disrupt the flow of energy in our universe. The agent offered to help me re-pack, something I found amusing when I visualized the two of us trying to put everything back in its place. I thanked him and went off to find the gate.

I settled into a seat and stared at the ceiling. Homeless Annie Hall came over and sat down just behind me and went back to rummaging through her plastic shopping bag. She must have found what she was looking for because she stopped and then fell asleep. Behind me, a family of three was waiting for one of the planes leaving from that end of the terminal. Dad was talking to Junior about how one’s ribs attach to one’s muscles. Junior was making loud fart noises with his mouth and Mom was speaking in some sort of Creole English with a tinge of Star Wars patois. She sat slouched in her chair with a bright yellow cloth shoulder bag flopped over her head. Dad took Junior and went off to find something to eat.

The Officious Woman from the security check showed up a few minutes later and sat down across from me. She was traveling with a friend and the two of them were clearly in foul moods. Friend of Officious Woman didn’t want to sit next to me and she didn’t want to sit next to Officious Woman so she tried a seat one down from mine. The woman next to that seat told he it was taken so she went around behind me and tried to sit with Creole Mom who gave her the same story. She eventually settled five rows to back. Officious Woman got on the phone and spent 15 minutes complaining to her husband (?) Marty, about how she’d been rerouted and wasn’t going to get home to South Bend until 4:30. She was especially aggrieved by the fact that her friend had been given an aisle seat while at check-in while she was told that she had to wait until the departure gate. Given the nature of her travails, I now understood why she had been in such a hurry to push me out of the way back at security.

Turning my attention away from her, I spotted Middle-aged Businessman approaching from the right. Yellow button-down short sleeved shirt, blue knee length Bermuda shorts, sandals and white socks pulled up to his knees. He was a neat and crisp version of a stylist’s nightmare, another person in my age bracket who made me wonder how I turned out like I did when so many of my peers turn out like he did. I guess I’ll thank My Lovely Wife next time I see her.

It was getting close to boarding time and I decided to commit the ultimate Rookie Mistake of going to the Boy’s Room just before boarding. I say Rookie Mistake because this leg of my trip is on the Barbie Jet and if you happen to be lucky enough to get a 1st class upgrade, you have to be at the head of the line because the Barbie Jet lacks adequate overhead storage in the 1st class cabin. It’s known as the Barbie Jet for a reason - it’s about the same size as the toy plane that every 8 year old girl hopes to find under the tree on Christmas morning. It’s that small, and is barely adequate for jetting Barbie, Skipper and Ken off to Jamaica for a week at Hedonism III.

I got back from my diversion and found myself several people back in line. Of course it was hard to tell if there was a line because each person forming said line had about 8 feet in between them. It was more of a “loose social gathering” than an actual line. I scooted between two guys and asked the leading one if he was waiting for early boarding. He confirmed that he was so I stood there with him. The guy behind him didn’t say anything so I stayed where I was. When they opened the velvet rope it was clear that I had cut that second guy off and I considered apologizing but chose instead to just head down the jet way.

I found a place for my bag in the bin above the seat one row up and across the aisle. I love to sit there and watch my fellow passengers board. First of all you can see the envy in their eyes and secondly they’re an interesting bunch. First class filled up with an older guy in front of me and man and woman across the aisle. The guy I had talked to outside had the window one row up and across and my next subject of the day took the remaining seat. We’re going to call him “Bird Boy” not only because of his angular features, but because his motions and behavior strongly evoked one of those glass birds half filled with water that amazed us all as children. That bird would stand on the edge of a glass and pretend to drink, endless bobbing and waiting as the fluid inside its body would redistribute itself. Bird Boy this morning had the most deliberate motions of any person I have ever seen, from the 10 minutes it took him to properly place his small backpack in the overhead bin to the intent examination he performed on both halves of his seatbelt. To say that he was focused would be a generous understatement. He finally got buckled in only to be told that his computer also had to go up top which entailed another 5 minutes of examining the bin for precisely the correct placement opportunity.

One last interesting passenger boarded in classic New Jersey gangster attire – sport coat, blue shirt unbuttoned to the navel, gold chains, a hairy chest and ample pompadour. He was carrying a blue canvas book bag and was truly offended when he discovered that there were no hangers available for his coat. “First Class only” from the flight attendant sent him on his way.

We took off on time and rose up above the clouds, the year’s smallest full moon riding the western horizon. I drank an orange juice and watched Bird Boy as he tried to fathom his snack box. Apparently it provided too many choices because he would reach forward, touch something and then quickly snap his hand back as though he’d put it in a fire. He finally decided on the bag of bagel chips and from then on, the choices came faster and easier. I dozed off.

Not a bad haul from a people watching standpoint given the small amount of time doing so. Probably one of my best days ever; honestly I had my doubts that the total of these cases could be topped. But sitting in the lounge a few hours later the Crowning Event occurred – Santa Claus made a late August appearance.

He was a jolly old elf sporting an ample belly. Shoulder length white ringlets crowned his head and a long white beard framed his ruddy face. He was wearing black Dockers and a bright red Hawaiian shirt festooned with big white camellias. Completing the outfit – a bright red pair of red patent leather Reebok walkers. I sat and stared and wondered who else it could be. I also wondered why the heck Mrs. Claus let him out of the house looking like that. Deciding that there was no answer, I watched him walk by and turned my thoughts elsewhere.

Friday, August 20, 2010

If China is the Mysterious East, why do I fly west to get there?

Probably the best thing about living overseas is knowing that you’re allowed to go home on a fairly regular basis. On this assignment through a long list of contrived and random circumstances, I’ve managed to keep the space between home visits down to a manageable 5-8 weeks. Unlike most of the people I work with over there, I live alone – my family remained stateside and 5-8 weeks is about as long as I’d want to go without seeing them.

Of course there is a price associated with frequent international travel and its name is “Jet Lag.” Now for something that afflicts tens of millions of travelers on a daily basis, you’d think that there would be tons of information available on how to treat it. But there isn’t. Instead you get about the same volume and quality you get with any internet search, anecdotes, lies and damned lies. You might ask how the Secretary of State does it, jetting all over the place all the time. Well, I did have a seat next to the advance man for the Secretary of Commerce not long ago and his answer was pretty simple, “Cabinet level Secretaries fly on Air Force One or Two and everything they need is available – beds, drugs, doctors and food. But mostly it’s about peace and quiet.” Pushing on that answer we came to the second truth, “They just bull their way through it like the rest of us.” I imagine that the truth lies somewhere in between those two points. A person with a staff traveling on a big jet with an actual bedroom might come out ahead of it simply because of the increased comfort of their travel. They can sleep and eat at will and no one is going to bother them unless there is a crisis in Honduras or Andorra. Most of all they are not subjected to the other side of the equation – taxis, immigration, long lines, hours spent sitting around airport lounges trying to stay awake. I’d be willing to bet that they do a lot less “bulling” than we do.

As far as the rest of the lore goes it comes down to things like:
• Force yourself to sleep and wake up on the right time
• Force yourself to stay awake so you can sleep when you get there
• Take drugs to make you sleep
• Drugs are for idiots

In other words, figure out what works for you and do that. Unfortunately what works in July, 2007 might not work in August, 2010. And things don’t work the same depending on the direction you travel. Traveling west from the US is never a problem – you arrive around 7PM and you’re worn out from the length of the trip. You force yourself to stay awake until a reasonable hour and then you fall asleep. The worst thing you face is waking up at 2AM and having to force yourself back to sleep a second time. The other more permanent effect is waking up regularly at 5, but one could argue that might not be a terrible thing. So we can dispense with west to east travel. Traveling east is the killer. This is the one that requires extraordinary measures to repair the physical and psychological damage you’ve done to yourself.

The first change I made to my routine has to do with minimizing the number of flights I have to take and how early I have to leave home to get started. I used to have to be on the road by 6AM to catch a flight from Dalian to Beijing and that meant getting up at 5 to face an hour’s worth of traffic in order to arrive at the airport by 7. What followed was another hour or so of stress from standing in Chinese check in lines, going through Chinese security, buying something in the Chinese gift shop and then waiting and hoping that the Chinese air traffic controllers would allow the plane to leave on time. Assuming it did leave on schedule the next hurdle was waiting for the Chinese baggage handlers to send up your bag and then rushing upstairs in one of the world’s longest airports to get checked in for the international leg. If the tiniest thing went wrong in even the smallest part of that exercise, you found yourself scrambling to find a hotel room which was followed with trying to re-schedule your flights. Enough of that, I changed the routine to include a night in Beijing followed by a leisurely breakfast, a drive to the airport with time to spare and an easy check in process. While this plan takes most of the stress and risk out of the trip, you still find yourself on the edge of your seat at times. Rush hour traffic on the Airport Expressway can still bite you especially when you get to within ½ mile of the terminal and discover that the police have cordoned off the road, just because, and that all the drivers up ahead in the growing traffic jam are out of their cars and standing around shielding their eyes from the sun while trying to figure out what’s going on. And in my case there is also the required conversation with the cabbie in which I try to tell him that while I seem to be able to speak the language, it doesn’t mean that I understand even a tenth of what he is saying. On the occasion of this trip everything was fine until we he didn’t get my inside joke about being a Dongbei Ren (northeasterner) and asked if my parents were Chinese. He got me back when he pulled the “domestic vs. international” question out of his bag of tricks and so exposed me to words that I had not heard before. However, stilted conversations and the vagaries of traffic are small prices to pay to knock a flight off of the agenda while getting to sleep in for an extra hour.

Business class also helps to make the physical stress of traveling slightly less toxic. I don’t care much about the “lie flat” beds or the better food or even the free alcohol. For me it’s about the quiet in the cabin and the fact that you never have some moron playing with the back of your seat. Especially when that moron has the world’s tiniest bladder and insists on using your headrest as a handle every time they get up. Business is about serenity and honestly, serenity in your surroundings goes a long way towards helping you get through the next 24 hours.

On this day I was lucky enough to get an upgrade but jinxed enough that my seat was one of the back- facing rows. I know from experiencing the Viking Boat at the local amusement park that back-facing is not for me so I looked around and realized that one of my colleagues was sitting a couple of rows up. I asked her row mate if he would swap with me and he agreed – problem solved. I settled into my new seat and as we waited the cabin began to fill up with smoke which is never something you want to see on an airplane particularly one that you have to trust for the next 12 hours. In truth it wasn’t smoke, it was condensation from the air conditioners sucking in all that wet, polluted Beijing tarmac air and cooling it off by dropping the moisture on the people in the window seats. The flight attendants were quite helpful, stealing blankets from the people in the Economy cabin and using them to mop up the business class passengers. Another perk from dedicating yourself to a single airline. Eventually we left and as we crossed 25,000 feet the steam turned to snow and we were treated to sort of a mini-Christmas in August. We flew on, away from the setting sun;, the snow melted and a few hours later we landed.

The most painful part of my trip home is waiting for that final flight. It means a couple of hours in the domestic lounge eavesdropping on countless cell phone calls and trying to be satisfied with strawberry yogurt and Diet Coke. On the upside, United has isolated a back portion of their domestic lounge and made it cell phone free - peace and quiet is a good thing, especially when you’re going to be treated to 5 hours of it. The downside is that many people can’t read “No Cell Phones” signs and all the entreaties for courtesy don’t stop someone from using one of the couches to get in a few dozen sit ups and leg lifts accompanied with grunting worthy of a modern-day female professional tennis player. I will admit though that it was quiet most of the time.

When you’re finally at your home destination and it’s the middle of the afternoon and you’ve been awake more or less for 25 hours, you have to stay awake. Dinner out, unpacking, walking the dog – all things that you must do to avoid going to sleep. Because at this stage sleep is your enemy. So you wander around zombie-like until it’s close to a regular bedtime and you fall asleep hard.

The following morning is it’s best to sleep until you wake up. Getting up at your regular time means you will need a nap shortly after breakfast. I figured out this the hard way when I fell asleep with my face in my scrambled eggs one morning. Better to just stay in bed and wake up feeling like a teenager waking up at 1PM following a hard night of “studying.” At least this way you can put off the inevitable nap until 4PM.

From this point on you have to follow a routine – 1 decongestant and 3 aspirin with breakfast, a normal day with perhaps a short nap and then a death march of drooping eyelids until your regular bedtime at which point you chew a 3mg. Melatonin tablet. Then you either face outright insomnia or a pattern of sleeping for 30 minutes followed by staring at the ceiling for 2 hours. A couple of nights of this and a couple of days of unremitting nausea and yawning and by Day Three you’re feeling good. You’re sleeping, you’re eating and when people speak to you it comes across as your native language spoken at the correct speed.

Pat yourself on the back, you’re all better.

At least until Day Five when it starts all over again. This is the tricky thing about Jet Lag – you can beat it with a combination of mild drugs, forced sleeping habits, some time out in the sun creating Vitamin D and plain old willpower. But just because you finally have that one night of blissful sleep followed by that one day of feeling really great, it doesn’t mean that it’s over. No, it’s time for the Second Round and that one is a real pain. Take the first part and multiply it by 2 and that’s what you’ve got. The good news is that it doesn’t last as long the second time around even if the symptoms are worse. In fact usually a setback only lasts a couple of days. But if you’ve been doing the math here you realize you’ve now suffered for almost a week and a week is just about all the time you have home so you begin to analyze whether or not all this pain and suffering is worth a mere 7 days in your own bed, with your own dog and talking face to face with Your Lovely Wife.

I assure you, it is.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I polish off the rest of the Forbidden City, I see the Twentyseven Dragons and I avoid a sizeable tea tab

My days here often start out with a plan. And while my plans are usually pretty well thought out, they rarely go the way I expect them to. Today was no exception and although this list seemed pretty straightforward -

  1. Set aside a weekday to visit the Forbidden City and thus avoid the crowds:
  2. Get up
  3. Eat
  4. Grab the subway to Tiananmen
  5. Scour the remaining niches of the Forbidden City
  6. Visit Behai Park and see the Bai Ta (White Dagoba)
  7. Find the fancy shopping district at Wangfanjian
  8. Back to the hotel
  9. Evening walk
  10. Write a blog

Things came apart almost from the start.

The first three were no problem and were completed according to schedule. Number 4, well I thought about this and decided that I’d prefer to take a cab. The subway is wonderful but at rush hour tends to be a bit less so. So I thought a cab might be an easier way to start a day of walking.

There is a funny thing about Chinese cab drivers – if they don’t want to go where you want to go, they yell at you until you get the message and get out of their car. I learned this fact early in my travels here, starting in Shanghai when time and time again I’d wait for a cab at the hotel, one would show up, the doorman would give him my destination and he’d drive away. I never could reconcile why someone who is paid to keep fares in the car would turn even one down. Too close? Too hard? Who even knows? Yesterday when I handed the hotel business card to the cabbie at the airport he looked and laughed but he took me. But when I got out at the hotel and a person waiting for a ride started getting into his car, he asked where they wanted to go, shook his head, got in and drove away.

While I love this hotel, the cab situation is a bit off kilter. They don’t come down the drive and cycle through, the doorman has to run down to the street and ask them to come in. I went out front and stood around but he did not take the cue until a second guy came out with instructions in his hand. I figured it would all work out – it always does – and so I just waited until one appeared that was delivering someone to the hotel. His party paid and exited and I told him where I wanted to go. He went into a long explanation in Chinese that left me in the dust. A young woman waiting with some westerners asked if I needed help, I told her to take the cab and I’d get another. By now the doorman returned and asked me if I needed one. I told him where I was going and he ran back down the driveway to try for another. One appeared, he ran back, I got in, the doorman explained where I was going and the driver started yelling and told me to get out. The doorman and I gave this cab to the next person in line.

Finally one showed up who was willing only after some negotiation to the effect that he would take me most of the way there. It’s true that it’s difficult to drop someone off around Tiananmen Square – the streets are lined with fences to discourage cars from stopping. But it’s not so bad that I should be refused a ride. I’m more than willing to walk a bit and I told this driver that and so off we went. He took a very strange route, winding through old hutong lanes and new apartment block streets but eventually we got back out on the main drag and went on to Tiananmen. For reasons only known to cab drivers he insisted on taking a special side lane for buses and cabs despite the fact that it was slower and the main street was hardly busy. I don’t tell these guys how to drive - I just sit back and let them do what they want. A half hour or so later and true to his word he dropped me a few blocks past the Forbidden City; I paid and started the walk back.

It was surprisingly hot for 9 o’clock and I knew right then that the heat was going to be the defining factor for the day. I was very surprised to see just how mobbed the street was – far more people than I had ever seen here before, even on weekends. The queue to go in the only entrance was almost like one of those rampaging crowds that results in dozens of people being trampled to death. I fell into the flow and almost lost my eye to umbrella spokes four or five times before I was able to put myself ahead of the sun-scared women. I chuckled to think that I had thought it was hot before I got into the middle of 500 individual heat sources. Just when I thought I’d give up and simply die, we crested the bridge over the outer moat and I was able to get into full stride and put some distance between me and the rest.

It was worth the sprint to get to the ticket office before everyone else so I made full use of the genetic advantage I had over these folks, putting my longer legs to work. The ticket queue didn’t seem bad, but I naturally chose the wrong line. I’ve spoken before of the tendency of the Chinese to have to negotiate with ticket sellers over some small point of order that always results in me having to wait. I have no idea what there is to discuss – the price is posted, you give your money and you take your ticket. It’s never that way and invariably the most loquacious seem to end up at the head of my line. I stood there watching as the other three lines turned over what seemed like 21 times while I was advancing three feet every 15 minutes. Eventually I got to the head, elbowed someone out of the way, got my pass and worked my way back out. Oh yes, it should be noted that the ticket queue here has no exit – once you pay you have to force your way across the other 5 lines to get out.

My plan for today was to avoid the center line of the City and visit the sides. I took the first open gate and found myself in peace and calm – the walk led through the Imperial Garden to the Hall of Ceramics. Where you could literally hear the hum of thousands of people talking in the center plazas, the only sounds here were the buzzing of countless cicadas and Magpies chattering in the pines. I knew at once that I had made the right choice.

Chinese ceramics are an amazing art form and the collection here was superb. Spanning 3000 years, the oldest look uncannily like the pottery of our Pueblo Tribes and the newest like what we have come to expect – delicate blues, vivid peaches and milky whites. I wandered around a bit stopping to admire an orange Tang horse with telltale white spots on its rump and some beautiful vases covered with what must have been tens of thousands of tiny Chinese characters. The place was empty, it was cool and dark and the goods were a feast for the eyes.

My second objective was the Nine Dragon Screen that Gywnn and I had chosen to forego on our visit in May. Today I found it after making a fool of myself by asking the ticket taker at the Hall of Treasure where it stood in plain sight about 30 yards beyond where I was standing. He laughed when he pointed. It turns out that there are three such screens in China and I had just seen the best preserved version on my trip to Datong. Prior to reading the sign in front of this one, I thought that there were two. Lo and behold the third was right across the street in Beihai Park, my afternoon destination. My quest was thus extended. These screens are quite remarkable constructed of glazed ceramic tile and formerly serving as the protection (from evil spirits) barrier at the door of some imperial personage. This one was quite beautiful built in 1756 and well preserved.

I had one funny moment walking down the lanes on the west side. A youngish Chinese woman asked me if I had been to the Great Wall. It should be noted that just about anyone who speaks to you here has some sort of angle – and this one’s was trying to get me to buy an expensive trip out to see the wall. Her plan came to a screeching halt when I responded in Chinese that I had been there three times before. She was completely dumbfounded and I made it even worse when I went on to explain that I was from Dalian and therefore a Dongbei Ren (the Chinese term for people from the Northeast). She replied that she was from Beijing, stammering in Chinese which made me think that I had thrown her such a curveball that she was no longer sure what her native language was. She said “Goodbye” and wandered off towards her next victim.

The rest of the morning was spent fighting the now enlarged crowds and trying to spend as much time as possible in the galleries where the air conditioning was strong. I reviewed my map and realized that I had visited everything that was currently open so about noon I took my leave and headed out the north gate towards Beihai Park.

It was now very hot in the street and I was starting to wonder whether I had the resolve to continue my exploration. But I went on, buying a ticket at the entrance gate and heading in, only to be brought up short by the biggest pond full of Lotus plants that I had ever seen. They seemed to extend into infinity. Clearly past their blooming prime, there were still a few flowers to be seen – bright pink and white against the unbroken sea of green.

My goal of the day, the Bai Ta or White Dagoba towered on a central hill off to the left. It was built as a reliquary for Buddhist scriptures and the remains of revered monks sometime in the 15th century. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, it was completely restored in 1976. I took one look and knew by its position that I was not going to be seeing it up close – there was no way in this heat that I was going to climb that hill. I took a few shots and decided that they would have to do.

I followed a path around the Lotus pond hoping to find a sign leading to the Beihai version of the Nine Dragon Screen but finding none decided to give up my quest and find a place in the shade to rest a bit before heading out to the subway. I figured I would see it in the future on some trip when it was not so hot. Remarkably I found a bench under a towering willow tree which I immediately grabbed. I sat there as a grandfather held his young grandson up in the air so that he could pee on the tree.

And that was when she arrived.

There are two well known scams in China and they both involve lonely single people. In the first, a young woman approaches you and tells you that she’s an artist and invites you to a gallery. You go, you look around and you find you cannot leave until you buy a haul of overpriced factory produced paintings. The second involves tea – you’re approached by a young woman who invites you to go have tea with her and before you can leave you’re presented with a bill for 1000 kuai. This stuff is well known to those of us who make it a point to travel here, but it’s always surprising to hear just how many people fall for both of them.

I was sitting there enjoying the breeze when an attractive young woman came and sat down beside me. There was nothing unusual about this – bench space in the shade is highly valued and this being a socialist country, every inch of it is up for grabs. I said hello in Chinese and left it at that. After a few minutes of silence she asked me to take her photograph with her camera and I agreed. She posed a few times, critiqued my style (she wanted to be in the center of the picture, I explained that the right 1/3 was more aesthetically correct) and we returned to silence. She started a second conversation asking why I was there and where I was from and we had a little conversation about homes and families and travel. I mentioned the Nine Dragon Screen and she asked me if I wanted to go. Sensing an opportunity to complete my quest I said “fine”. She asked a passing park cleaning person where it was and off we went.

It turned out to be a long trip, punctuated by yet another case of Chinese Mapping – walk twenty yards and ask someone where to go. Of course she never asked “how far”, only where it was. It turned out to be far around the other side of the lake and by now I was in for a pound so we walked on stopping here and there to refine our directions. We talked about his and that and every once in a while the mention of a traditional tea service popped into the conversation. I ignored these lead balloons and changed the subject each time it came up. She was from Mao’s hometown, I was from America. She was shocked at how old my children were because I looked so young, she was traveling alone. She wanted to know how often I saw my wife; I wanted to know what she did for a living. Her favorite television show was Prison Break, I loved the Chinese people. She thought Americans were creative.

We stopped in a temple along the way where she gave a pen to an old man who asked about me. I told him my story and he said something about being Russian. I told him I wasn’t but that wasn’t his point – he wanted me to know that he spoke Russian. We parted with “Dasvidania” which made both of us laugh.

Eventually we found our way to the screen. I went about taking my pictures and she made me take a couple of her; we were apparently now on closer terms because she handed me her purse to hold each time. The Beihai screen was quite beautiful, nicer than the one I’d seen earlier but not quite as nice as the one in Datong despite having two sides (or 18 dragons.) Leaving there we walked along the lake, she staying mostly in the shade and under her umbrella. We talked about this and that. As we neared the exit, she asked a young girl to take our picture with the lake and the Dagoba in the background. She was closing in for the kill.

The traditional tea service came up once again and I deflected, telling her that I was heading off to an upscale shopping street to try and find a Starbucks. She said something to the effect that I must prefer coffee and I replied that “yes”, I was not much of a tea drinker. As we left the park she asked the exit guard where the subway station was; I told her that I was in fact heading there but it was far away. She said that she wanted to take the bus; I told her I was heading on and thus her afternoon of trying to set me up came to an end. We bid a fond adieu at the bus stop and I headed on into the rest of my plan - a long walk in the heat, a sweaty ride in the subway and a cold shower to cap the afternoon.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

One more night in one of my favorite cities

So here I am once again on the 24th floor of the Renaissance Capital Hotel drinking a bowl of white wine and cleaning out the hotel’s shortbread cookie supply. (My Lovely Wife will appreciate the “bowl” reference.) I’m on my way back to visit said Lovely Wife and I’m taking an extra day in Beijing to see the Forbidden City one more time. My prior visits have followed the typical tourist trot – enter via the south gate on Jianguomenlu and walk straight through to the far end. It’s the path through all that’s grand and inspiring and if you’re only going there once, it’s the way to go. But there is an entire second universe on the left and right sides, formerly home to officials and eunuchs and workers that I’ve never seen. And that’s my goal. But first things first.

My plane left Dalian about an hour late due to “air traffic congestion.” Every time I hear them say “congestion” I think of that bee in the Nasonex commercial. Except I think that he’s supposed to sound like Fernando Lamas who is about as far from Chinese as one can get. Nonetheless we were delayed in getting off the ground but all my time was made up by the lack of traffic and a taxi driver that actually knew the quick route to the hotel without me telling him how to go. This, my friends is a major step in the right direction.

After a dinner of deep fried chicken legs, spring rolls, cheddar cheese and watermelon I headed out to the Silk Market to see if I could secure some pearls for a friend who was coming very late to the Terry B. Buy Things in China Program. Normally the answer would have been “no”, because pearl buying has been a Shanghai thing. But I was up for the challenge for no reason other than the fact that this was probably the last opportunity I will have to haggle over $7. On the street the temperature was mild but the humidity was high and I could sense the wilt factor in every walking commuter I passed.

Xin Shui as it’s known here is a multi-storied affair that boasts all the counterfeit items available in the known world. The parking lot out front was full of big tourist buses disgorging hordes of Germans dutifully following their Chinese tour guide who, de rigueur, was carrying a flag so that they would not get lost. I have to say that I am quite a snob when it comes to tourists here - I amp up my swagger and I put a wry smile on my face and I walk right through their lines.

When you go to Xin Shui with a purpose in mind it’s easy – the stall vendors pretty much can sense if you’re interested in their hip-hugger jeans or North Face tech vests and if you’re not, they smile when they make their half-hearted attempts to lure you into their tiny shops. Tonight was like that, and they had plenty of other foreigners to lure so I passed by pretty much unscathed.

Pearl buying is a pretty simple affair because the sellers are controlled by the Pearl Cartel. You’re going to get the same price no matter where you go so you decide by chatting with the girls and picking the friendliest and ideally the prettiest. Moderate English skills are also a consideration. Tonight I picked Miss Shelly and we haggled for a bit until she pulled out the “most lustrous top quality” strands from under her work stand as a ploy to close the deal. We went back and forth for a bit longer and finally settled on the very price I had in mind when I left the hotel. It’s nice when that happens even though I’m sure I’m still paying too much. As a haggler, I refuse to be a rude skinflint but I will not settle until I get some consideration. We agreed and she called over some young man to help her with the re-stringing. Watching them do this is ever so much fun – their hands move like a blur, threading and tying a knot between each pearl. The tradition is rich – they offer you a bottle of water, you sit on their stool, they string and you chat in Chinese. For me it’s worth the effort for the post haggling glow.

We settled up and I said goodbye after exchanging business cards. She asked me to bring my friends back and I said I would. I went off in search of one last knock-off watch and ended up bargaining with “Coco”, a cute young girl from the province up north of Dalian. We had a nice go-around in our mutual languages and at one point I had her so confused that she complimented me on my English. She looked mildly stunned when I told her that I should be able to speak English, being an American and all. Our bargaining took a long time with constant rises in my offer and declines in her request until we agreed on a number right in the middle.

The long walk back to the hotel rarely changes much but it’s quite beautiful at night with small neighborhood shops sitting at the feet of brightly lit, towering skyscrapers - both sides of Beijing in only a mile of walking. I love it, and as I walked and stopped to take some photographs I realized that very soon I would no longer be a city rat; my evening walks would change to include my dog, my wife, the Milky Way and the occasional Owl. I will admit that I’ll miss these hot and damp city streets and the pulse of life that is so powerful, but given the choice – I can’t wait for the other option. It’s time to go home and see the stars.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Dog Days

I’m really beginning to hate my neighbor’s dog and judging from its behavior the feeling is mutual. It’s a little peach colored poodle and whenever it sees me it goes crazy – bark, bark, bark – as though that display is going to make me pack up my belongings and return to America. Unfortunately, it sees me about every day because my neighbor’s kids leave for school at the same time I leave for work. And their ritual is unyielding – mom goes out with the dog and secures the elevator while the boys grab their school stuff and run out the door. Prior to my arrival, the dog runs around the lobby yapping like crazy at nothing, at least until I show up and then it turns its attention to me.

The dog’s name seems to be “Guodian” which in my limited grasp of non-contextual Chinese means “Electric Dog.” I’m sure that’s not the correct translation, but in the absence of characters it’s all I have. They call him “Guodee” some sort of affectionate nickname and it’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in my study trying to concentrate on my solitaire game and to hear mom out in the hallway plaintively calling the little monster - “Guodee, Guodee” – as though he’s lost in the fog or a big forest. The elevator lobby on our floor isn’t exactly the Amazon, it’s a tee shape and the two legs are at most thirty feet long. But mom stands at the door imploring Guodee to come home from wherever he is. For all I know he’s looking out the window and barking down at the buses on Jinma Lu.

A couple of days after I returned from America, I left my apartment and turned to lock the door when Guodee heard me from the far reaches of the floor and began to bark. Their door was open and Mom rushed out of her apartment to get in between Guodee and me, intercepting him just as he came around the corner. Mom was wearing a thigh length nightshirt and when she bent over to stop the little devil I was granted a view of China that in all honesty I would have preferred not to have had. So much for the Mysteries of the Orient. She did catch herself in mid-bend and did a daintier curtsey to the floor to grab the mutt, scooping him up and bringing him back to their place. All the while he’s struggling and snarling and using all of the energy generated by his 2+ pounds to try to wriggle free and kill me in defense of his mistress. I was still standing there gape-mouthed at what I’d seen; too stunned to be bothered by the snapping blur she was carrying past my face.

Sometimes in the evening they’ll go out and Guodee will sit by their front door listening, desperately trying to get a handle on what I’m doing in my apartment. Our doors you see are at a tight right angle to each other and my study is just inside my apartment so while he’s in stalking mode, he’s no more than 15 feet from me. I hear him there snuffling and scratching and he’ll bark every time I drop a toothpick or click a pen or think a violent thought. So one evening I decided to have some fun. I began to call “Guodee” in my best Chinese housewife falsetto, starting very softly and slowly turning up the volume until he’d bark. Then I’d stop, give him a few minutes to ponder his situation and then I’d do it again. We went back and forth like this until I got really bored and went to bed. I’m sure he never did figure out why his mom was standing outside their door calling them.

My expat pals and I were given a big list of vaccinations that the CDC recommends for people embarking on an extended stay in China - Hepatitis A and B, Diphtheria, Typhus, Cholera - all the cures for the dangers of disease in a modern nation. Well, perhaps only if you consider the 17th century “modern.” There were a couple of extra shots on the list like Japanese Encephalitis aimed at treating uniquely regional dangers and one more really scary one – Rabies. Since no dog in China is vaccinated and hundreds of peasants die each year from the disease, it was suggested but not with much vigor; more of a “Rabies is a horrible death but it’s not very likely that you’re going to be attacked so you may or may not want to just play it by ear” kind of warning. It seems easy enough, don’t put your hand out to strange dogs in the countryside and you’ll be fine. Of course being a cyclist I might be at an increased risk but when I did the research and discovered it was 3 shots as a preventative and 2 more if you were bitten versus 5 shots if bitten, the math seemed easy to me – I don’t like pumping unnecessary crap into my body if the risk is low. Almost all of my friends though went the other route, friends whose idea of living on the edge in China is walking from their car to their apartment. As it turned out there was no vaccine available when I was getting ready to move here so the point was moot. But those of us without the shots do pay a bit more attention to the dogs we encounter. An interesting side note – where every dog in America will chase you if given the chance, Chinese dogs really don’t seem to care very much about bicyclists. I’ve been chased maybe 3 times and I’ve ridden past hundreds and hundreds of dogs in the city and in the country. For some reason they’re far more interested in doing doggie things here than in wasting energy trying to run down a bike. Maybe it’s because they don’t get fed really well.

My last encounter with Guodee came a few days ago. I heard the normal ruckus outside my door as I was getting ready to leave. I took a deep breath and opened the door and turned to lock it. Mom was at the intersection of the two hallways and Guodee was by the elevators when he heard me. She assumed the stance of a hockey goalie as Guodee, the little puck, came roaring around the bend. He went straight between her legs and got to me in about 2 seconds flat, hockey clearly not being a strong suit sport in China. I knew I was in trouble when he jumped up on my leg barking and snapping and snarling. It’s true you know - the world does go into slow motion when your life hangs in the balance. I stood there thinking a hundred thoughts - “Damn I wish I had taken that Rabies shot”, “I wonder if he can bite me through my jeans”, “Why can’t I get this key in the lock”, “I wonder if I’ll have to go to Hong Kong for my shot?” – my mind racing with fear but surreally lucid and calm at the same time. I looked up and saw mom standing down the hall both hands over her mouth, terror on her face. She might have been calling “Guodee” but I couldn’t hear her, all the sound was just like a 45 record being played on 33RPM. I looked down at the tiny peachy jaws of death and my most base survival instincts kicked in – I slipped my messenger bag off of my shoulder and let all 20 pounds of computer, telephones, iTouch, lunch and cameras fall straight down into the rabid whirlwind. And then all was silent. Guodee stopped barking and staggered backwards, stunned that the ceiling had fallen on his head. If he’d been a cartoon dog there would have been stars, moons, planets and little tweeting birds flying in a circle around his head. Mom came running over and scooped him up, smiling an apology at me as she ran into their apartment. I stood there for a second trying to decide if I felt any wounds on my leg. None detected I locked the door and headed to the elevators – the neighbor kid behind me. We boarded and as the doors closed I said, “Your dog really hates me” to which he replied, “My dog is crazy.”

When I decided to live in China, I also decided that I was going to spend as much time as possible riding my bike. Most of that time has been spent with my Irish buddy Dermot and to date we’ve covered about 2000 miles together. As my time here winds down, I’ve sort of set a personal goal of 3000 miles before leaving and so we’ve been doing some epic rides. One of our favorite routes is straight east up the coast to the city of Pikou which lies about 55 miles away. “Pikou” in Chinese means “skin mouth” and no one I’ve ever asked has been able to explain what the heck that means. Including a couple of Pikouans I’ve met. Jiang told me succinctly, “China has a lot of really weird place names.” The distance makes for an all-day haul and a “century” ride in the parlance of serious cyclists. 100 miles in a day is never something to sneeze at, even for a couple of China hands like us.

On this particular Saturday Dermot had hooked us up with a group of Chinese riders that he has raced with. They live in Dalian so getting actually hooked up with them met standing around for an hour at the light rail station waiting for them to show up. No one in their right mind rides out from the city – the road is fast, bad and very, very dangerous. So we stood and shot the breeze with a Chinese ride from our neighborhood that marveled at my lack of tan lines and interrogated Dermot on the state of relations between Ireland and Britain. Whenever you hang around in China with a western bike and dressed in western cycling clothes you draw a crowd and today was no different. People stand and stare and the brave ones come over and pick up your bike and feel the saddle and ask if you are Russian or French. During this wait two street beggars came over and demanded some money. I pointed to my spandex shorts and told them “No pockets” which they thought pretty funny. It must have been funny enough because they turned their attention to squeezing my tires and fingering my GPS before smiling and heading off in the direction of people wearing regular clothes. No hard feelings apparently.

The city folk eventually showed up – 15 or 20 of them mostly on very fancy road bikes. There were a few mountain bikes thrown in the mix and one guy on a tiny-wheeled Dahon folding bike. I hate it when people show up on these things because the younger Chinese are very strong riders in short bursts and there is nothing more embarrassing than being passed by someone riding a bike with 9 inch wheels when you’re on a $10,000 American superbike. Some of these rides take on a strongly international flavor and it’s not unusual to have an Italian, some additional Americans, a Mexican or two, some Irish and almost always an Australian. We took off and rode for maybe 20 minutes before it was time for a cigarette break. Stopping to visit and smoke is the one aspect of Chinese group riding that I find pretty annoying but the social aspect of riding is just as important as the exercise to the Chinese. I spent a lot of time at the back of the pack talking to a young woman riding one of the mountain bikes. She was covered from head to toe including full finger gloves, odd choices considering that it’s July. I know the reason and told her so when she tried to explain – Chinese girls are pathologically afraid of a suntan – white skin is very highly valued in this culture. So she heads out to exercise wearing what I would wear in January, because it’s impossible to ride a bike and carry an umbrella at the same time. We exchanged names and she told me that mine was very lucky. We did this stop and go thing for a few more times before we reached the end of the planned ride at 25 miles. We bid the pack “adieu” and went on our way.

We had been to Pikou one time before on a one day quest to ride 200 kilometers. It was the halfway point so we stopped for Cokes and candy at the only store we could find on the main drag. The owners were like all store owners in China – incredibly friendly and very interested in who we are and what we’re doing. Today as we turned to corner back towards the store we saw the proprietress sitting out on the front stoop. She saw us and began to wave, beckoning us over. I was quite impressed – we’d not been there for months, and she’d doubtless seen thousands of customers but she clearly had a place in her heart for the two of us. We rode over and parked, she brought a bench outside for us to sit on.

As impersonal and crowded and busy as this country is, the people in these rural shops always take time to be friendly and visit. I suppose we present such an odd attraction that their curiosity simply commands them to do so. But I doubt that in many other countries of this big world that people would take the kind of time that these people take. I’ve stood on street corners under umbrellas visiting with ancient men in tiny farming towns. We’ve talked with a family in store who brought out their older brother, hearing impaired and unable to speak, who wrote messages on little pieces of paper about the people he knows in France, wondering if we knew them too. The stories go on and on and they are certainly one of the things I will never forget about this place.

The woman who owns this store seems to be in her mid-40’s to perhaps early 50’s but it’s difficult to tell – all of the rural Chinese lead hardscrabble lives and I think it ages them prematurely. She is taller than most of the Chinese women I know and has sort of a wistful sadness about her, as though she had dreamed of something else but had ended up here in this shop on this small town street. She’s pretty and she cares about herself, taking the time to pencil in her black eyebrows and to do her hair. She loves to talk and ask us questions and Dermot obliges while I just try. On this visit I saw a little cluster of brown and blue bruises on her arm in the shape of a hand and as though she’d been roughly grabbed. No idea but I suspect it was probably a case of drunken husband, a common problem in these parts where people are poor and being left behind by the progress that others enjoy in the big cities and the resentment just builds, only partially assuaged by beer, cigarettes and arguments.

We visited for the better part of an hour, drinking and eating and entertaining all the children of the town who wandered by to see the laowei. As we started to pack up to go she pointed to an old and rusty bicycle parked against cases of empty beer bottles. I asked if it was hers and she said “Yes” and told me that it was 15 years old. I told her it was beautiful and she smiled, no doubt at my compliment but at the tiny connection we three had – cyclists all of us.

Often when you think you're done, you realize your capacity to be even more done.

Just when my done-ness reaches what I consider an apex, something else always comes along to drive the point even closer to home, like a 20 penny nail in the forehead. Take tonight for example. I’m trying hard to work my way through the last of the food in my refrigerator and I decided that the dozen or so dumplings that I have frozen would be the easy and delicious choice. Now I’ve been scraping by with an IKEA pot that I’ve had from Day One and it’s always been too small, 12 dumplings and the requisite water barely fit and always result in a boiling overflow. So last week I went back to IKEA with two things in mind – a bigger pot and some replacement light bulbs for my desk lamp, the latter being critical from a fiscal standpoint as I’ve heard the stories of tenants being charged $10 for every dead bulb they leave behind. I had Jiang to take me there after work and I wound my way to the lighting department. After some searching I found the appropriate replacement and checking price tag – 9.90 kuai – or about $1.50 I said “What the heck?”, I’ll buy three packs and account for any eventuality. I grabbed them and a 75 kuai pot and went to the cashier.

Now I’m one of those shoppers who does a quick pre-calculation while my stuff is being rung up so I had 110 kuai in my hand when she scanned the last item. The total rang up to 194 which came as a blunt surprise. I asked to see the ticket and the girl showed me – the bulbs were 39.90 apiece. Well, $1.50 is one thing, but $5.85 is wholly another so I told her that the price was not as marked. She politely handed me my goods and with an outstretched arm and an open palm and the reserve of someone scared to offend a customer pointed towards the exit and said what I assumed to be “Take it up with Customer Service”. I thought about it for 30 seconds and decided that this might offer the crowning achievement in the development of my Chinese language skills and so I walked right over there and started to talk to the first person in a uniform that I saw.

They turned out to be custodians, but taking pity on me they led me to the actual customer representative who listened to my entreaty, took my slip and typed the query into her computer. There was a small crowd gathered by now, but at least no one asked to have their picture taken with me. She scanned the data and came back with the answer – 39.90 was the price. She sort of pantomimed a “Do you want some money back?” but I considered my situation and thanked her and headed for the door. One can never have too many IKEA G9 40W halogen bulbs, can one?

But back to dinner. The new pot worked like a charm and the delicate dumplings did not get scarred like too many pigs jammed in a livestock car. I poured the hot water down the left drain, put the steaming dumplings in a bowl and reached for the soy sauce. I gave it a series of shakes which only served to illustrate the fact that the lid was not fully on, judging from the spray of brown spots on the white tile floor, from one wall to another. “Fine”, I said. The bottle was about as covered as the floor so I decided to wash it off. I clicked down the lid lest we have another explosion ran it under the faucet, scrubbing off the current and previous streaks of sauce.

Something sounded strange though and looking down I simultaneously saw and felt the water that was soaking my socks pouring out of the cabinet. Opening the doors the cause was clear – the pipe had decided to disconnect itself from the drain. This was the first sign of the night that I was truly done. But I know what you’re saying “That could have happened anywhere” and to a certain extent you’re correct – it could have happened anywhere that they sell soy sauce in bottles with caps that don’t work and where plumbing is done with vacuum cleaner hoses. I took a long look at the piping and the only thing I could come up with was that it just decided to free itself from the sink trap. There was no broken coupler or missing clamp. For all I could tell it had never really been attached. I fixed it good though using two black plastic zip ties. That sucker is never coming off of there, well at least until the next time. Maybe I’ll apply the same fix to its neighbor, the two piece p-trap that’s been leaking for the last six months.

As I wind down my time, one of my biggest decisions has to do with my phone. I pay a monthly charge and I want to leave here with enough money on the account to guarantee that I will have a working phone when I travel back. This of course means doing some crafty calculations and estimating how much the charges will be during the time that I won’t be here because once I am gone there is no way to add money or to even check how much I have. Having survived the dumpling disaster I decided to go have a cup of coffee and pay up the phone account, the two places where these things can be accomplished being in the same mall down the street. I gathered up my stuff and headed out the door, and noticed that the huge TV screen on the Bank of China tower was in the process of being rebooted. A giant Windows desktop was displayed and an airplane sized cursor was jetting through the process of clicking on the icons. For an instant it occurred to me that I was seeing proof that God is a Windows 7 user I realized I would need proof. There was another guy standing there watching and smoking a cigarette, I took my camera out of my bag and stood next to him. One of the givens about living in a place where the humidity hovers at 98% and the dew point around 80 degrees is that you have to keep your apartment at 50F in order to survive. The one thing bad about keeping your apartment at 50F is that the moment you walk outside every cold surface instantly fogs up. Usually it’s your glasses that go first and you notice that right away. It also means that the 5 pounds of glass in a camera lens does the same thing and that’s precisely what happened the moment I tried to take the picture of God rebooting his computer. I wiped the lens and tried again. I blew hot breath on it and tried one more time but the lens was opaque within 15 nanoseconds of every attempt I made to undo it. I put the camera back in my bag and walked on.

The street between my apartment building and the mall is lined with restaurants and hotels and there is always a lot of traffic; people, cars, buses and taxis. As you get closer to the main intersection, the crowding gets worse because this is where all the mall shoppers congregate to catch buses home. There are regular public buses and there is also a fleet of gypsy buses vying for the same business. These buses are small, about the size of a rental car bus at our airports. The gypsy drivers have touts who stand out on the sidewalk yelling the destination and trying to get customers into their vehicles. The touts wander around yelling their destination and asking everyone who walks by if they want a ride. “Dalian, Dalian, Dalian, Lo” is how the call goes. I regularly get asked as though they have ever had a single western customer that looks like I do, let alone someone walking in the opposite direction and ignoring them. But such is the enterprising nature of these guys, a person not asked is a customer lost and sure enough I was accosted almost the minute I walked into the throng. More interesting though was a small woman rushing along the sidewalk. This heavyset guy actually reached out to grab the sleeve of her shirt and he just missed, she having a tad too much forward momentum. He lost his grip as she did a quick sidestep, heading towards the next bus down the queue. He looked at her and gave that classic Chinese grunt which has always irritated the heck out of me, “Uh, uh?’ as though she had turned down his offer to dance. I walked away wondering what it would have happened had he connected.

The China Mobile store can be found on the third floor of the mall, tucked away in the corner of the big department store that occupies the lion’s share of the building. Or at least it used to be because tonight it wasn’t there. I took this as a serious blow, because ever since the second week I was here this has been the place that I have used to charge my phone. Long ago this was where I sought sanctuary when I failed at buying minutes at the store down the street, and that shameful memory still burns my psyche every time I think about it. I rode the escalator up past the flip-flop department and thought I was in the right place but I couldn’t be sure so I rode up one more floor and walked past the gourmet hair brush kiosk before deciding that my phone store had either been replaced by a pirate DVD shop or the future location of a hair salon that advertised its opening with cameo pictures of Japanese Emo boys. What this meant to me was that now, in the 11th hour of my incarceration and probably on the last time I would need to do this, I was stymied. I would have to find another store. I rode the escalator back down stairs and bought a coffee and apple fritter in consolation. The fritter was stale.