Thursday, September 23, 2010

One more last early autumn afternoon in Beijing.

This was perhaps my twentieth or so day spent sightseeing in Beijing. I’ve been here so many times that I’ve visited all of the major sites at least two or three times and so today’s goal was quite different – far flung districts and third level attractions - three temples and one pagoda from the 11th century. While Beijing is an old city there really isn’t much left of it that predates the extensive building that the Mongols did in the 14th century at their beginning of their Yuan Dynasty and most of that was rebuilt after the British and the French were done burning all of it down at the end of one of the Opium Wars. I have a sweet tooth for really old stuff and so I was excited about these places - off the beaten tourist path and so perhaps quiet and empty. There was an additional last place I hoped to see, a bridge that figured prominently in the travel writings of Marco Polo but its location on the far western fringe of the city and away from a convenient subway station was enough for me to take it off my list.

On my next to last night here, I sat in the Lounge and had a conversation with a colleague about the nature of Beijing. He raised an interesting point, that although this city was big, an international capital and loaded with culture, it had not yet risen to the level of “one of the world’s great cities.” That idea got me thinking about what exactly qualified a place for this exalted list. Culture, history, appeal, night life, shopping, and “presence” – all things that we would attribute to the cities each of us might consider “great.”Beijing is certainly flush with all of those. I took it a bit further, fitting it to my recent experience, namely a place that would be judged by one and all as ideal for an expatriate life. I think if you asked just about anyone knowledgeable of the world, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Zurich, Rome and Tokyo would fit this lone criterion. Beijing I think would be categorized the way My Lovely Wife did so when I told her I had the chance to move to China, “Where on our list of places to live does China fall?” and the answer at the time (and today) was “It’s not on the list.”

So what’s wrong with Beijing? I’ve come to really love it after many visits. But its list of detriments is daunting – traffic, crowding, pollution, a restrictive government, an opaque culture and an incomprehensible language. Now most of the majors suffer from the first two and some of them from the third although the pollution in Beijing is in a class of its own. I mean, you don’t get Gobi desert sandstorms that turn the sky bright orange at midday in any desirable city that I know of. The nature of the governance doesn’t really affect most visitors so I don’t think it’s that. Rather, I think what keeps Beijing off the list of the most desirable cities are the last two items – the language and the culture simply make this an interesting place to visit but a tough place to live. A long term stay here simply grinds you down. And that jives pretty darn well with my experience at the end of these two years on this side of the Pacific.

It turns out that September must be one of the ideal months here in north central China. Mid-60’s temperature, crisp blue sky, and the hint of fall in the air. On this morning the traffic was still pretty messed up from the holiday as most people were off of work but still off visiting. I was committed on this trip to make liberal use of the subways so I left the hotel and headed north to Guomao Station choosing it instead of the closer Shuangjing Station because it meant not having to do a transfer. I walked past the restaurant where Aidan and I had seen the black bunny fattening up in a cage on the stoop on her visit in March. I went down the escalator, bought a ticket and caught the #1 line heading west. I was headed towards Fuxingmen Station on the far side of the city, it offering the shortest walk to the places I was going. While Beijing does have an extensive subway system, the distance between stations remains quite big in some locations and there is always some walking involved. But on a day like this I was not averse to a little exercise. The cars were full of people heading to Tiananmen Square for a holiday visit and as we passed those stops the crowd thinned out and I was able to sit down for a change.

Exiting the station I went south crossing one of the canals that winds through this side of town. A hundred years ago barges containing Qing Dynasty nobles would have been passing beneath these bridges carrying the elite from one spot of splendor to the other. Today nothing plied these waters but the scene was peaceful – a deep blue sky and the brown water of the canal slowing rolling along its way. I found my first stop pretty quickly – Baiyun Guan (Temple of the White Cloud) – Taoism’s major center of worship here in the capital. In Chinese, Taoist holy sites are not officially known as “temples” but rather Guan. There is no deeper meaning in the language; rather the use of unique words merely indicates the differing religious affiliations of the structures. Alternately, Buddhist temples are known as Si or Miao, the latter suggesting the presence of a monastery. The site was first built on in 739, but those structures were destroyed by fire late in the 11th century. Genghis Khan ordered a major renovation in 1224 as part of his overall rebuilding of Beijing, but what stands today dates from 1443. It was a wonderful spot but not very different than any of the dozens of other temples I’ve visited here. The guidebooks say “the incense smells sweeter” and I suppose that might be true, but perhaps at this point I’m simply a victim of temple burnout. The architecture, gardens and worshipers seem to have become pretty much interchangeable for me although I will admit that the lack of tourists made it a hair nicer. This is a functioning site full of regular people and not generally a tour bus stop. Given my goal of getting off the beaten path, this first stop was a success. I roamed the grounds watching Chinese performing their rituals in front of the popular deities that promised wealth and fortune and having had enough wandered back out into the streets.

Tianning Pagoda was next on the agenda and the path there was not particularly clear. There are a lot of major roads in Beijing that get in the way of walkers, often making it very hard to get to the other side. I could tell from the map that this was going to be one of those situations, with a Ring Road in between me and where I wanted to be. The map showed a couple of ways under it, but information like that really doesn’t mean much here – maps are little more than suggestions and the roads are laid out to serve drivers, not walkers. Walking east, I purposely overshot the place where I thought the pagoda might be, walking through some nice simple neighborhoods while looking for a right turn in order to head south. I found one that looked promising and sure enough I could see the top stories of the pagoda rising high about the freeways, looking at once marvelous, dingy and completely out of place. Next to it rose a much taller and far less interesting smoke stack, the perfect companion here in a country that doesn’t seem to be able to get anything right.

I fell in walking alongside an attractive young woman who gave me a smile mixed with friendliness and bemusement as though I was an attractive guy who stupidly far out of place. I stopped to take some photographs of Morning Glories partly because I thought that they were interesting but mostly because I wanted to get behind her thinking I’d feel far less self-conscious if she was ignoring me. She found this even more interesting, almost to the point of laughing at me. I considered making conversation but I’ve learned through many painful encounters that it’s a dangerous step to take given my limited listening comprehension skills. You speak and then they get this misguided notion that you can understand. After a block we hit the road that ran parallel and below the Ring Road and unfortunately she turned in the same direction as I did. I picked up speed, passed her and left her behind as I went looking for a way under the highway.

A couple of blocks up the road I found myself on the original street I had walked to find Baiyun Guan - apparently my sojourn in the neighborhoods had been unnecessary, I could have simply left the temple and walked straight here. I took a left and went under the Ring Road and taking another left headed towards where I thought the pagoda might be. I could no longer see it as these buildings were tall enough to block it but the smokestack still loomed so I knew I was on the right track. At the next intersection I took a right, again heading south and so hemming the pagoda within the city block to my right. As they presented themselves, I took a moment at each right turn trying to decide if these narrow streets were the correct way in. On a whim or a hunch I turned at the third opportunity and once through a busy neighborhood street market I found myself at the entrance.

I could tell immediately that this place was special. The compound was pretty much deserted aside from some construction workers busy on a renovation project and a handful of worshipers doing the same clockwise circumambulation of the shrine that once finds at the Jokhang Temple in Tibet although minus the prayer wheels and the beads. At the center of a courtyard formed by low crimson buildings with gray stone tile roofs stands a 189 ft. tall eight sided stone pagoda carved with the pantheon of Buddhism. These pagodas were built to house the scriptures and relics brought to China more than 10 centuries ago by itinerant monks who traveled the trade routes between here and India and as a result you see motifs that reflect not only the emergence of Buddhism here, but also those associated with the place of its roots. Indian Elephants carry Guanyin and Bodhisattvas across doorways guarded by the same fierce temple guardians you see in Lhasa. Persian fairies float in the air and Chinese saints stand guard above the bricked off windows. Everything stands supported by a base of overturned Lotus leaves, carved in the same gray stone and representing eternity. At the lower levels the carvings lack heads, knocked off by zealots during the Cultural Revolution but above, they’re intact, swirling above the now much changed urban landscape.

Built between 1100 and 1120 AD at the end of the Liao Dynasty, Tianning is truly a thing of beauty. Unlike the wooden pagodas throughout China that it mimics, this structure is completely solid and so was never used to house artifacts as its inspirations were. 3500 bells still hang from the tip of every eave and during a strong wind the place is said to be musical. On this day it was a bit breezy, but not enough to get the bells moving. A Buddhist nunnery stands at the back of the compound and saffron robed nuns were coming and going carrying food to some midday repast in one of the courtyard buildings. Out of respect I did three passes around the structure meditating on how I came to be at this place walking among people doing the same thing, although most of them must have been on their hundredth circuit by the time I joined in. I spent the rest of my time trying for the perfect picture, waiting for a while at one point while some Frenchman tried for the same shot. He stopped to talk and told me that he had been here once before a few years earlier but found it closed. He said he was happy it was open today and I agreed.

I have been to a few places that really pained me to leave, and this was one of them. But there remained things to do so I left and retraced my steps back towards the subway station. It was now midday and things were changing in the streets. I passed a long line of parked taxis, each with a driver stretched out and sleeping on the back seat, waiting for the lunchtime break at some factory. I walked past some sort of government gentlemen’s club (judging from the Mao over the front door). Inside a long line of beautiful young women stood shoulder to shoulder chatting, each dressed in identical yellow and pink cheongsam waiting for some functionary to arrive. It was a long walk back to the subway (isn’t it always longer heading back?) but I made good time, caught the next train and rode it to Wangfujing Station for a bite of lunch.

Wangfujing is a very fancy upscale shopping center a few blocks from the Forbidden City. There were a lot of eating opportunities but I chose Starbucks simply because it seemed the easiest. I grabbed my coffee and sandwich and sat back in a corner to do a bit of people watching. It was an interesting mix of wealthy Chinese out for a day of shopping with their kids, western tourists and what I would guess were expats. A group of ample Russians sat at the table next to me, chasing off a couple of quiet businessmen. They were there for deserts, sharing one of each on the menu. A western dad sat at a table with his son, neither speaking. He was engrossed with his Blackberry and the kid was occupied with a handheld gaming device - just a dad and his boy out for a day together, separately.

I left the mall and started walking roughly in the direction of my next destination, Dongyue Temple. Instead of walking the main streets I took a turn and wandered into Lumincang Hutong, one of the old neighborhoods that ring the former Imperial capital. These charming little ghettos used to house the people that worked in the Forbidden City and today they house regular people. Their condition got me thinking about a piece I had read the day before in the New York Times. Thomas Friedman was writing about his trip to the World Economic Summit and he was musing about the 200 mph bullet train that he was riding from Beijing to Tianjin. He said that they built it in only 9 months and he was wondering why America can’t do the same thing. I thought these hutongs said quite a bit about this. Tiled concrete blockhouse communal latrines every 10 yards and water taps at the intersection of the crooked little lanes, all within a half-mile of the center of the Chinese government made me think perhaps that the Chinese might be a tad more interested in providing impressive engineering projects for the consumption of naïve western journalists than in giving the most basic services in the literal shadow of the center of power. Built by men living in communal prefab dormitories governed by few safety regulations, things can indeed go up very fast over here. I didn’t arrive at an answer as to why westerners can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to China, but I did have a nice time taking in the sights along the shady lanes. One thing I have taken away from my time here is that so much can be gained by just spending you time among regular people doing everyday things. Eventually I literally stumbled on Zhihua Temple, one that had eluded me on a previous visit to this district. It wasn’t a surprise that I had missed it before - it was one of those places that you can only find when you’re not looking for it as it was tucked into a niche at the end of a tiny lane.

Zhihua, which means “Temple of Wisdom Attained”, was also built in 1443 by one of the powerful court eunuchs by the name of Wang Zhen. He went in and out of favor with the court, eventually he was killed along with all of his family only to be restored post mortemto prominence by a succeeding emperor. Eventually his relics were destroyed again and the temple was given over entirely to Buddhist statuary of which there were several remarkable examples. At the back of the complex, a hall held an impressive diorama depicting the meeting between a Buddhist scholar and the Khan. Instead of a fresco, this tale was told via thousands of tiny carvings of mounted Mongol warriors surrounding a large covered wagon which hosted the meeting of the two notables. Zhihua used to also have a complicated set of carved panels that were somehow spirited away by some monks during the convulsions of the 1930’s, ending up in a museum in the US. Little temples like this are often gems – relatively unknown and yet quite beautiful. Zhihua did not disappoint me.

Before leaving Dalian I had taken the time to print out some maps of the location of the Dongyue Guan and as I walked along, I pulled them out for a review. Judging from the amount of traffic and construction, things didn’t look too promising - I found the right combination of streets but most of the area was hemmed in by construction fences and skyscrapers; all new building which led me to think that either the temple was gone or currently hidden or being incorporated into some sort of retail theme park. I tried the same trick I’d used at Tianning, walking the perimeter of entire block where Dongyue was supposed to be but there was no evidence that it was there, just offices, parking garages and shopping malls. Having just had the serendipity of finding Zhihua I took this as a sign and decided it wasn’t worth the effort so I left, heading back along Chaoyang Road towards the subway station home. Two blocks up the way I looked across the street and found myself starting at the red walls of a block-wide compound – Dongyue! I had been victimized once again by the Google Maps Offset that sometimes puts addresses a quarter of a mile off in the wrong place, so worried is the Chinese Government that someone might call in a missile strike. I crossed and went in.

Dongyue Guan was built during the Yuan Dynasty between 1319 and 1322. It was rebuilt in 1447 and twice more in 1698 and 1761 during the Qing Dynasty. For most of the 20th century it was variously offices, a school or an apartment block until 1996 when it was declared a cultural treasure and returned to its intended use.

At first this one seemed to be yet another temple but this one had something I’d not seen before. Forming the outer walls were dozens of little alcoves arrayed along long porticos, each representing the pantheon of Taoist deities. These little groupings are called “departments” and they cover the full spectrum of Taoist life in the spiritual world. Rivers, Forests, Truth, Heaven, Punishment, Records, Wisdom, Lies, Theft, Life and Death – each room had ten or so life-sized painted plaster carvings of the various players on their vast cosmic stage. Fishmen, Frogmen, Demons, Sages, Buddhas and Farmers – all present and accounted for in a half circle to each side of the celestial department manager. Taoist has 76 of these departments and there was a room for each, holding nearly 1000 statues. Out of respect I usually don't take pictures in these places but I snuck a few on this occasion when no one was around. In the most remote courtyard I found artists selling their rendition of the Jade Rabbit, that floppy eared fellow who lives in the moon making medicines for the gods. He is popular here as he is known to put an end to plagues. I fell into a conversation with one of the vendors, admiring his work and talking about the spotted animal that the Jade Rabbit was riding. I thought Appaloosa and so I picked out two to purchase. Upon closer review they turned out to have antler and so were not horses but deer but it didn’t matter, they were a nice trinket in spite of being the wrong mount. Dongyue also had a fine collection of stone stele, perhaps 1000 in total. The columns, recording the most mundane of life’s details – births, deaths, tax collections, visits by dignitaries and holy men – are a common feature at cultural sites across China. In this case they were arrayed in little squares beneath towering pines and offered a nice opportunity for a reflective walk.

I spent my last night in this fair city the same way I’d spent it a hundred times before – sitting in the lounge, eating snacks and working on a glass of wine. A planned dinner with a friend fell through when his plane was late so instead of heading back out I spent my time perfecting a photograph of a clear full moon rising against an indigo sky, above construction cranes across the street. The moment was one of those golden ones where just about everything seems to come into harmony. Never mind that the next day was another day of challenging travel, or that the upcoming weeks meant fitting back into my regular life and transitioning my career to its next phase. For this night, the view was beautiful, the light soft, the Lounge hostesses happy to admire photos and things just felt right - perhaps the best possible way to end my full time life on this side of the world.

For once I'm at a loss for a decent title

It’s hard for me to believe that I am now at the very cusp of returning to a normal life. A life with a wife and cheap long distance and no more Skype for no more than 30 minutes a day. Before all this began it seemed impossible. While it was happening it seemed interminable. And now that it’s over, it’s almost as though it never happened.
My exit from Dalian was an extended feast. It began with a touching tribute delivered by my department members, a wonderful scroll with a picture of everyone and Chinese calligraphy hoping for a visit in the near future. There were speeches and handshakes and hugs and it honestly made me quite sad. Not “I want to stay” sad, but certainly “I’m going to miss these people” sad. We’ve done so much together in what now seems like such a short time. My local staff in a coup that will go down as the finest going away present ever, presented me with a 100 pound Chinese Postman’s bicycle. Of all the possibilities, I can’t imagine a more perfect tribute.
Next stop on the memory parade was the official Intel party. Now normally I hate these things and make it my purpose to escape in the least possible amount of time. But this one was so good – food, friends and conversation – that I actually stayed for the whole time. I surprised myself with that little bit of out of character behavior.
Ben had me over the next night for a more intimate gathering with his wife and a couple of friends. Lots of wine and conversation and a truly outrageous Sichuan repast that will go down in my personal history as a meal not to be forgotten. Rabbit, fish, beef, Chengdu sausage – mouth scorching wonders prepared in my honor. Our reverie was mildly disturbed by the sounding of air raid sirens because on this night some 79 years earlier, the Japanese Army marched into Liaoning and made it home. The sound of the sirens prompted those of us old enough to remember to talk about air raid drills when we were in elementary school. The sirens would sound and we would hide under our desks, safe there from the Soviet hydrogen bombs exploding in an air burst above our cities. Looking back on that now, how did anyone think there was any point to hiding at all?
Now three days into my binge of alcohol, melancholy and goodbyes I had a fantastic dinner – Sichuan again with Jiang, his wife, her friend my standing “Chinese date” and a surprise guest, his brother. Jiang’s wife pulled a fast one on me for a while, calling for a toast each time I praised a dish. It only took me about 8 glasses of Chilean Chardonnay to figure that one out so I turned the table by watching her glass and timing mine to that when I had about one mouthful left and she was holding a full one I would call for “gang bei” – drain the glass. She ended up calling me a bad American. Jiang took me home as things wound down and reported the next day that the women were sitting in our private room drinking beer and crying when he went back to get them.
All those events added up to one long weekend. When Monday rolled around it was time to get serious about the packing and the cleaning. The movers showed up promptly at 9:30 and were done by 1:00. I spent Monday evening taking one last walk around Kai Fa Qu and the night sleeping under an IKEA quilt, staring out at the neon on the Victoria Hotel. Having worked my way past all the personal feelings, this was when it struck home that things were truly coming to an end in Dalian.
Jiang and I had a plan for Tuesday, a trip down the road to Lushun, the city at the end of the peninsula that just recently opened up to foreigners. I thought there was some appropriate closure in this choice as it was the first place I went on my first weekend in Dalian back in 2008. At that time I was only able to part way, stopping at the Guanyin statue by the sea. Beyond that I risked arrest. And so waking up on Tuesday morning and seeing the torrential downpour, I realized that the day was going to be less than I expected.
We left my apartment for the last time at 9:30 and headed out of town. There was a lot to talk about, although none of it was substantive. I thought about how many truly meaningless conversations that Jiang and I had had over the years, just trying to keep the silence at bay. This was one aspect of having a driver that I never really liked – having to make conversation constantly. So many of my colleagues simply sat in the backseat and put their earphones in, but I was blessed (cursed?) with a driver that wanted to talk. Some days it made me crazy, most of the time it was tolerable. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the finer points of aspirin. Jiang was suffering from a toothache and I gave him some to ease the pain. I told him the tale of my fever in Shanghai and the 100mg pills I bought at the government pharmacy. I took 10 in one dose just to approximate my normal dose. The box had 20 pills. He was shocked at how cheap it is in the US, so I gave him the remainder of the card of Mexican Bayer that I had in my bag.
I have a personal history with Lushun that made my presence in this part of the world just a little bit ironic. I’ve always been a history buff and the early 20th century was a time of particular fascination for me and for some reason the history of this region has always been particularly interesting to me. So many world changing events came to pass in such a short period - the fall of empires, the rise of terrorism, Communism and the emergence of the East. Lushun was originally known as Port Arthur, named for a British captain who towed his damaged gunboat into the harbor for repairs during the Boxer Rebellion. The Russian Empire eventually took over the place by running a spur of the Southern Manchurian Railroad to the city, hoping to use it as their only warm water port in the East. Russia was told to vacate by the western powers but ignored their demands and those of the Qing Dynasty Chinese who had no means to enforce their sovereignty. They held onto it simply by pretending to not hear the complaining. Japan though had the same designs and as they became more and more militaristic at the close of the 19th century, they simply sailed across the Yellow Sea and sent the Russian Eastern Fleet to the bottom of the harbor thus ending the Russian influence in the area and the start of Japanese hegemony over northern China and Korea. They marched into town and killed some 35,000 people, an event that still causes significant distrust for them in this city. They finally left only to return in 1931 and to stay until they received their due in 1945. Russia once again moved in, having entered WWII in the 11th hour and remained until their allies, the Chinese Communists dispensed with the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.
Jiang was worried that we would not be able to find anything to eat in Lushun – their restaurants are notoriously dangerous (at least in the assessment of Dalian people) so he insisted that we stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken for a take-out lunch. I told him that this was the first and only time that I had eaten KFC in China, and he was genuinely taken aback. He couldn’t understand why I would go so long without partaking of such an American option. Rather than protest, I simply considered that this was going to make this a special day and along with the Lady GaGa CD he had on repeat forever, a day to remember.
We stopped for a look at Heng Shan temple, home to the 50 foot Guanyin but the rain was coming down the valley in sheets and I decided that I didn’t want to spend my time driving around in soaked clothing. We left the temple and went on to the port, stopping at one place to have a look. The weather here was clearly the outer edges of Typhoon Fenapi which happened to be plowing into the southern coast at that very moment – big wind, sideways rain and cold temperatures. A couple of pictures and then up the hill to the “Loyalty Tower” built by the Japanese after their embarrassment of the Russians in 1904. It had a giant stone artillery shell at its apex, and the weather here on this hill was worse than that down by the port. The next several hours were spent driving around out in the middle of nowhere trying to find the overlook from which one can see the mixing of the Bohai Bay and the Yellow Sea. When we finally found it, the gal in the ticket office told us that it was not worth the walk due to the weather. An honest ticket seller at an attraction – wonder of the day! My view of the merging of the two seas would have to wait until another time.
A couple of hours of Lady GaGa and a long drive back and I was at my hotel for the night. I spent my evening dining on tapas and making conversation with my former Chinese teacher Angela before walking one last time through the windswept and unseasonably chilly streets of Dalian proper. A reminded me of the short time during which these streets were the center of my Chinese universe.
Jiang collected me promptly the next morning, a couple of hours before my scheduled departure. He was worried about the traffic, but I had a suspicion that it would not be bad. This was the morning of Mid-Autumn Festival and a national holiday. Everyone would be sleeping in anticipation of a big day of family visiting and Moon Cake eating. We made the trip to the airport quickly. As we said our goodbyes I handed Jiang an early “Hong Bao”, a bonus traditionally given at Chinese New Year’s in February. I had a speech prepared in the event that he argued with me, but he didn’t. Not even for a second. He gladly took it, shook my hand, gave me a hug and said “goodbye.” Our time together was over.
The plane left on time and I had an empty row so I moved over to the window seat. It was an uncharacteristically sunny and clear day, and as we arced up and over the mountains I could see Kai Fa Qu far off in the distance, the two smoke stacks of the local power plant were framing the area of my old neighborhood. We rose up about the coastal mountains and crossed out over the Bo Hai. As we left the land behind us, I could clearly see the brown of the Bo Hai merging with the deep blue of the Yellow Sea. Coastal cargo ships were plying their way through the white caps, casting long white wakes. I sat back, looked out the window and thought about the next phase of my life, realizing that I was a damn lucky guy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One last autumn afternoon in Beijing

I decided before leaving Dalian for the last time that I would spend a couple of days in Beijing since I knew it was unlikely I would return. Over the course of my many visits, I’ve grown to really like the city, the kind of affection you get when you come to know a place – how to get around, what to do and where to go. They say there is comfort in routines and it’s true; if you can get yourself in a pattern in a place, it allows you to embrace it in a better way.

I chose the 22nd of September to leave for a couple of reasons. First of all it was the beginning of the Mid-Autumn national holiday and those days are great for traveling in China. We’ve all seen the media coverage of the throngs of Chinese trying to get somewhere, but those are always in the days leading up or following the actual holidays. The concept of “holiday” is a bit different here – often workers disappear for a month or more at a time and everything from the local store to the staff in your factory is affected. I suppose it’s no different in the US (aside from the flexible number of days) – Thanksgiving Day is great to be at the airport. The lines are short, the seats are empty and you’re pretty much guaranteed of no delays, barring some unfortunate weather. My second reason for leaving on that day was that it would get me out of my now stripped apartment and away from the not so great hotel across the street. If I had to cool my heels for a couple of days waiting for the big bird home, it may as well be in a place I enjoyed. And I did have time to kill because the downside of traveling over these holidays is that lots of Chinese take up the seats on the once-per-day flight to San Francisco. Because of this I was unable to find anything before the 24th.

As I rode over on the plane an article about a recent spate of Beijing traffic jams caught my eye and I was surprised to see that the 22nd had been declared a voluntary “No Car” day. “Great” I thought, it will be an interesting experiment to see just how fast the normal 45 minute drive in from the airport will be. Sure enough, once in the cab and on the way, the major arterials were empty – we made such great time from the Airport Expressway to the 3rd Ring Road that I thought a record was in the making. Now I don’t like going this way, I much prefer a route that uses the 4th Ring Road and a quick little expressway by the name of Jintong which leads to a fast surface street that dumps out right by the hotel. Because it’s a better route, I trained myself to tell the cabbies the precise directions – “Cóng zhèlǐ dào dōng sì huán lù dào jīngtōng kuàisù dào tōnghuìhé bēilù zài dōng sān huán lù zuǒ guǎi ránhòu yī gōnglǐ” which translates as “From here go to the 4th Ring Road, then the Jingtong Expressway, then the Tonghui River North Road and when you get to the 3rd Ring Road turn left and go one kilometer. It sounds easy I’m sure, but trust me it’s a mouthful to remember. The advantage of going my way is that you don’t get bogged down in traffic on the 3rd Ring Road which is pretty busy, all the time. My way is sort of a cross-country route that avoids the traffic centers until the last minute; that last kilometer in other words. However, I wasn’t driving and this guy had a plan and just as I knew it would, his plan came crashing down the minute we left the Airport Expressway. “No Car Day”- I guess the Beijingese drivers hadn’t read the English version of China Daily. We went from rabbit fast to turtle slow almost immediately, and for the next hour (on a piece of the route that normally takes 15 minutes) we inched and crawled and made bad choices in trying to advance ourselves in the jam. I sat in the back smiling at the young women in the buses that would come up next to us; some of them smiled back, some glared and looked away. One or two ratted me out to their boyfriends who took over the glaring. We crawled along, first passing the still burned out CCTV skyscraper and then sat and stared at the hotel that was getting ever so much bigger as we slowly neared it. When he didn’t take the appropriate exit I got even more worried but he explained that the surface road below was even worse and I verified it with a quick look. We drove past the hotel and he opted for the exit in front of the mall next door which is never a good option. It means one of those oddities of traffic where your lane merges to the right across four lanes that are merging to the left. Today though there were only two because the two closest to the sidewalk were choked with cars parked at every imaginable angle to the curb. I should have mentioned that the biggest thing about Mid-Autumn Festival is the sharing of the Moon Cake, those tasteless blobs of paste filled with a disgusting salty fermented duck egg. And like holiday shoppers everywhere, some people just wait until the last moment. They’re on their way to their Auntie’s house and they realize that they forgot to buy their Moon Cakes yesterday. So they pull up their BMW at the Viva Mall in Chaoyang, and with no regard to their effect on the universe, they abandon it with its butt end into the traffic while they run in to pick up a case of those delectable delights. Now this would be bad enough in any American city, but it takes on a whole new dimension in a place with 5 million cars on the road. Needless to say it took a solid hour to drive the remaining ½ mile around the block to the hotel. As I left the cab, another fare started to climb in but the driver told him to “get lost”, I think he had had enough for the day.

After checking in I took a long walk to the Xiushui Market to get a couple more strands of pearls from my favorite pearl-seller Miss Shelly, a couple of pairs of fake Raybans and two counterfeit watches, one for me and one for the kid. If this was to be my final visit, I figured I had to make my farewells with my favorite vendors. I stopped for a sliced beef sandwich at Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q and had an interesting conversation with the waitress who was on her break and sitting behind me with her husband and baby boy. The boy was bundled up in the manner that all Chinese children are bundled with what looks like thick cotton batting and in spite of the fact that it was 80 degrees outside and not far below that in the restaurant. The boy was a sweat ball. She explained that because of the holiday the boy’s daycare was closed and so he was hanging out with dad while she tended to the few people that were coming in to eat. I told her that the boy was quite handsome. She pondered my comment for moment and replied “Unfortunately he takes after his father.”

After a coffee at Starbucks I took a leisurely late afternoon walk back to the hotel. The holiday had largely cleared the streets and the setting sun created nice, golden patterns on the side of the skyscrapers I was passing. I saw the world’s loneliest McDonalds deliveryman riding his moped down the wrong side of the street, having dropped his goods at one of the tall buildings where someone must have been unfortunate enough to be working. It was a glorious afternoon – blue sky, warm temperatures and no crowds – about all you can ask for in this city.

I spent a few hours in the lounge planning my next steps; when you’re alone and not a party animal the evenings sometimes require some thinking. I like the lounge because I can have snacks for dinner and I don’t need to go hunting and gathering for a restaurant alone. Many nights this year have been spent at this one particular table, eating chicken wings and tempura yams, staring out the window, drinking white wine, listening to their Brazil-techno music and chit-chatting with the girls who work the desk. From this vantage in the evening, there is a building on the eastern horizon that is a veritable psychedelic lightshow once 8 PM rolls around - crazy colors and patterns that go on and on until perhaps 10 PM. I’ve sat there alone, with both of my kids and multiple co-workers discussing the place and wondering what it was. Entertainment district? Shopping mall? Tonight I decided it was time to find out. I asked one of the girls if she knew and told her I was going to walk there. I got the answer I expected – when it comes to walking in this country, the reply is always “Oh that’s too far.” Walking is something for countryside peasants, not gentile city dwellers. I grabbed my bag and my camera took a good look at the route and headed out the door.

It was dark now but the traffic on the main roads was still horrible. An almost full moon was about 1/3 up in the clear sky above the horizon, actually able to be seen for a change. There were a lot of people coming and going in the neighborhoods, many with the traditional red Moon Cake shopping bags. I passed (of all things) the Beijing Super 8 Motel and pondered how many nights I had spent in those downscale domiciles while off on my birding trips of yore. To think I used to be a Premium Member. Sometimes walking the streets in the big Chinese cities is a challenge because there are few streetlights, the sidewalks tend to disappear and there are always a lot of obstacles like missing sewer grates and extension cords. I came out of the neighborhoods near the hotel without ending up on the ground and so considered myself lucky.

I crossed a big boulevard lined with fancy apartment buildings – tall stone structures with a big Italian Renaissance gazebo on their roofs, illuminated in yellow and blue. It was not yet 8 and the lightshow building had not turned on so I was flying a bit by wire, not completely sure where I was going. I took a long walk down a very dark street that curved off to the left before meeting a slightly less dark but just as abandoned residential street. In the US or just about any other city in the world you’d be out of your mind to walk in places like this alone. But here, I’ve never had a moment of fear.

Turning right I continued on and just as the clock struck 8, the crazy light appeared before me. Of course the building was on the far side of one of the Ring Roads and it took a lot of maneuvers before I was able to get under and over it to the correct side of the frontage road.

There were three buildings, two tall ones on the ends and one lower one in the middle, not a “district” at all. Each was ringed with what must have been thousands of LED light ropes capable of giving off a full spectrum of colors. From afar it had looked like a random set of flashing lights, but up close I could see a pattern. There were two female figures and they were doing “Choosies”, that childhood game we used to use to pick sides in sports or decide who had to pay for Cokes at the corner store. You and your opponent would pick odds or evens, you’d put your fist behind your back and then you’d say, “Once, twice, thrice, SHOOT” and depending on how many fingers were “thrown”, someone would win. I didn’t know it as a kid but that little activity is an ancient game, common in Rome where it was known as micare digitis - to flash the fingers. There is even a Roman proverb which goes along the lines of “he is honest enough to play micare in the dark.” Over the course of the intervening millennia the name has morphed into Morra and today it is a common gambling game in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia under a variety of names. Naturally, the Chinese have their version known as huáquán or “fist quarrel.” So here was a building using a rainbow of lights to show two simple outline-people doing huáquán and with each win, the building changed colors.

I took a lot of photos much to the amusement of passersby who must see the building every night and consider it common. When the street cleared and the security guard disappeared inside, I crept through the trees out front and got a better vantage. It turned out to be nothing more than an office building by the name of Beijing Golden Tower - an average edifice with a quotidian name but with a wonderful means of drawing attention to itself. I mean, it had lured me into walking a couple of miles in the dark.

Mission accomplished I headed back to the hotel, taking about the same route but this time avoiding the completely unlit street, if only to have some better things to look at. Not much was going on, just people walking their dogs and visiting in front of the apartment blocks. I stopped to check out a couple of bicycle stores that I happened to pass. Back at the Ring Road the traffic was still bad. I crossed over on the elevated pedestrian bridge and rounded the corner to the hotel and there I met Li Mei who wanted to know if I was interested in a “massagee”. I told her “no” and started to continue on but she expounded on the offer and told me what she really had in mind was “massagee-sex”. I laughed and said “No thanks” but she handed me her business card at waist level below the potted plant so that the hotel doormen would not see the transaction. It wasn’t clear if she was the actual purveyor or the Director of Sales but I decided not to ask for clarification. I thanked her again and smiling, I went inside.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trip to Taiwan Take Six - some final thoughts

There wasn’t much time left or stuff to do by the time we got back to Taipei from our Hualien trip. It was still daylight so we decided to go have a look at the Tuned Mass Damper that keeps Taipei 101 from falling over in a big wind. And big winds here are problem as the city lies on the Typhoon Track from the East Pacific to coastal China.

The Damper was designed by a guy in Ben’s graduating class so it had a small personal connection. I was just beginning to feel the effects of the bad dumplings and that feeling had been worsened by the back and forth nature of the high speed train. But I am nothing if not a trooper so I got on the World’s Fastest Elevator and took the 40 second ride to the 91st floor.

The view in the late afternoon was nothing compared to what we had seen during dinner earlier on our trip. It was a bit cloudy off to the west and so even the sunset was muted. I wandered around the observation deck, checking out the four cardinal points before going in and having a look at what we had come to see. I passed a sign advertising a “Beer Float” - a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a 1 liter Taiwan Beer - and kept right on walking.

The Tuned Mass Damper is a 730 ton alloy sphere suspended in the upper reaches of the building. It hangs there silently, imposingly so, waiting to go to work in a high wind or a big earthquake. There is a bad video on Youtube showing the ball doing its work during the aftershocks from 2008 Sichuan quake. It’s an amazing thing to watch something that big swing around and around.

Of course there are mascots – Damper Babies – who welcome you to the room. You walk down two flights of stairs and you can look straight at it which affords you a better idea of how the thing works. It’s attached to the floor below the 89th by a series of shock absorbers. When the build tilts left, the ball naturally goes right and when it does it presses down on the shock absorbers and pushes the building back to its normal position. Pretty clever, and despite the ear popping elevator ride and the gantlet of retail you had to pass to leave, it was a nice topper to a great weekend. I can say that if I ever choose to cross the International Dateline heading west again, it will be on the way here. It’s a place worth seeing again.

Click on this picture to see the animation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Trip to Taiwan Take Five - Bikes and Trains

I’m not ashamed to admit that while traveling in Asia, I tend to be a bit of a hotel snob. 5-Star accommodations are so cheap here compared to the west that it’s very easy to reconcile spending the same amount to stay on the Club Level in Beijing as you would pay for a plain room on Ray Road in Chandler, Arizona. While I shop hard when traveling in the US, I get wed to some chain over here and when picking a destination I hunt first to see if that brand is represented. If not, I go down the list until I find something close enough. Of course many of the cities that I have visited simply don’t have first tier hotels, but I can always find something that is no worse than the average hotel in the US. While I eschewed my normal Marriott/Shangri La choice in Taipei, instead deciding to slum it at the Grand Hyatt, it worked out well enough. The room was cold and well appointed.

Hualien though was another story. And compounding that was the fact that we didn’t plan to stay in Hualien but rather out in the countryside at a “farm house” that was recommended by Ben’s college friend. We had a lot of laughs, most of it gallows humor, trying to decide if it was indeed a house, or if it was a hotel. Did it have bathrooms and would we each have our own space? As the time for us to find the place approached and it became dark, the laughter took on a decidedly nervous tone. It turned out though to be a very nice place – 8 tiny cabins tucked in the banana trees about an hour outside of town across the street from Liyu Hu – Carp Lake - one of the local tourist destinations. We arrived, checked in and sat out on the porch drinking wine and listening to the Geckos bark while making plans for the next day. It was darker than dark and dead silent and for the first time in ages I could see the stars in a manner that was similar to what I would expect back home. The rooms were clean, tidy and very simple – knotty pine paneling, bed, dresser, make-up table and a clean bathroom that naturally had that most odd of Chinese inventions – the shower that is the room. Basically a showerhead on the wall with no stall or curtain which of course means that the whole place gets flooded when the water is turned on. The towels were special, harkening back to the story of My Lovely Wife and Cousin Barbara’s Dubious 1-Star Tour of Europe in which the bath linens were famous for their diminutive size. Mine was about the dimension of a dish towel, but at least I had two.
But best of all was the wall air conditioner. The proprietor came to my room and asked me what temperature I wanted, starting at 77F and then gasping as I kept saying “lower” until we hit 68. I told him that Americans like it cold. Nice, as it was a jungle outside.

Just after sunrise we went out for a walk around the little town. It was like lakeside tourist traps the world over, a long drag with dozens of little food stalls and souvenir shops across the street from a public park that fronted the lake. Everything sat in a green valley hemmed in by the same mountains that we had driven through the previous day. We found a woman with an espresso machine and had a cup of coffee as we wandered down the waterfront which was crowded with concessions renting paddle boats in the oddest configurations. My favorite was a swan boat with a Spoonbill head, the bird looking forward as though over its non-existent reading glasses. We sat and drank coffee and watched Night Herons fighting over a little mud island off shore. Far off in the middle of the lake, a person wearing the traditional rural Chinese conical straw hat sat in a low slung ancient motor boat chugging along on their way to somewhere, the boat’s wake being the only disturbance on an otherwise glass surface.

Our place turned out to be a bed and breakfast of sorts and our morning repast was delivered to our porches. Some strange piece of pulpy green fruit, sweet Nescafe coffee and a ham and egg sandwich served on two slices of Taiwanese Wonder Bread; or Bimbo if you prefer. After eating we went down to the office to look for bicycles because this was our opportunity to cycle on a bike path that would make my western peers cry with envy.

I am a pretty serious cyclist, so it was quite interesting for me to thumb through the available bikes, all urban cruisers with baskets and rusty seat posts, no doubt from living in this climate. I chose one and raised the seat as high as it could go, knowing that it would still look like I was riding a clown bike. But off we went, riding up the main highway and turning left onto a beautifully paved two lane road that wrapped around the backside of the lake. We rode along through the jungle, stopping to look at the view across the lake and to take in the flowery sites – red flowers, yellow flowers, purple Clematis. And more butterflies than I have ever seen - blues, turquoise, yellow, orange, black, white, red, spotted, striped and plain – every flower seemed to be covered with them. Taiwan has an incredible selection. Overhead, flocks of bright green birds that were new to me. It was so beautiful that you could almost overlook the fact that you were bathed in sweat. We stopped at one pull off to take in the sights and the sounds and friendly little lizard decided to climb on my shoe for a visit.

As we headed back to the ranch we passed a very nice Giant (brand) bicycle shop, put there solely for rentals. Great bikes and supplies and I imagine busy as heck in the high season. Behind it was a fish hatchery that seemed for some strange reason to specialize in Koi and other aquarium species.

The rest of the day was devoted to getting back to Hualien and our train. We spent quite a bit of time upstairs at Starbucks sharing the internet and watching the time tick by. Lunch was dumplings at the place next door to the one we had eaten in previously, our favorite being sadly closed on this day. No air conditioning here, and I wasn’t having the best of feelings as I sat there watching them hand stuff blanks of dough without gloves in the 90 degree heat. As it would turn out my uneasiness was well founded judging how I began to feel as our train pulled out of the station. By the time we reached Taipei it was clear that some food borne bug was about to have its way with me. Not the first time and almost certainly not the last.