Thursday, March 31, 2011

Travel Day - off to Shanghai

Lily and the airport ticket agent had a nice time laughing at my Chinese. I asked her why - confused since she is always complimenting my on my ability – and she told me that while I am capable, I have a habit of using too many words. First time I’ve heard that. We said goodbye to her for probably the last time before entering security. I handed her an envelope with a nice gift for her impending wedding. I’ve never tipped her on previous visits and I thought this was a nice opportunity to make up for that with a nicer gift.

Our flight to Shanghai was uneventful aside from half a plane full of American students and their handlers. Some sort of band or orchestra judging from their carry-on luggage which was a wide variety of instrument cases. I had an intimate encounter with one of them when I was bent over in front of my seat on the plane and one of the youngsters decided that he wanted my space in the overhead bin. He was trying to jam his case into the spot that I had momentarily vacated when I stood up, cracking my head on the bottom of his French Horn. I wasn’t happy about that and he sensed it, apologizing profusely. I wonder how people think in situations like this – I remove my bag, bend over rifling it and he decides the space is now open so it’s his? I told him my bag was going back to where I had it. He removed his and sat down behind me.

We landed at the most remote gate at Pudong Airport. It was a long, long walk even taking into account the liberal installation of people movers. We decided to take the Maglev Train into town, having had a nice taste of speed on the Luoyang bullet train. This one topped out at 250 MPH making our previous trip pale in comparison; even if this ride only lasted 10 minutes. The 1st class car on this outing held only the two of us.

Our introductory evening in Shanghai was spent in a fast taxi ride across Pudong and under the river followed by a stroll down Nanjing Lu to take in the famous neon lights. I’m sad to say that much of the famous light show is now gone, replaced by more modern and glitzier electronic ads. Another little part of old Shanghai giving way to the Chinese perspective that “newer is better.” It’s not better for me. As we walked along a seemingly never ending crowd of people hawking watches, bags and t-shirts plied their trade. I’d forgotten about this aspect of the country’s leading financial center – the retail assault in any place that tourists visit is endless. I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see the silly rolling skates with spinning lights still being offered up, the same as my visit more than 3 years ago. Apparently this bunch of sellers had not yet met their quota and somewhere in some warehouse, there remains a shipping container of these cheap trinkets.

The improvements on the Bund though were in the right direction and much more to my liking. Cleaned up and re-lit for last year’s Expo, the old buildings looked wonderful and far better than I remembered them. We stood at the railing overlooking the Huangpu River and marveled at the lights of the Pudong waterfront. The Pearl, Jinma and Shanghai Financial towers brightly illuminated with colors and crazy chasing lights. On the river, even more gaudy dinner cruise boats jockeyed for position with unlit river barges delivering cargo to the industrial areas upriver. It was a magical spot.

After another taxi back to the hotel we decided to explore the neighborhood. They’d given us a map when we checked in and I asked the doorman where the local Starbucks was. I was using a bit of Chinese and he asked me if I could speak. I said “yes” and he proceeded to rattle off an explanation. I pointed to the map and he said “two crossroads down the street.” We started walking and ended up walking and walking and walking. As it turned out, our communications wires were completely crossed. I had asked about details on the map, he’d had no idea what I was talking about and so answered the best he could. There was a Starbucks and we did find it but it wasn’t the one we thought it was. It didn’t matter – we had a coffee and spent the rest of the evening people watching and planning our Friday.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The (really) fast train to Luoyang

There are three major Buddhist grottoes in China. The first, Mogao, is far out in the west and difficult to reach. While supposedly the best due to its extensive collection of unspoiled frescoes, it was often a topic of travel conversation for me but never one that I felt was worth the challenge. Too far, too hard and not much else to justify a day of airport hopping and bus rides. I visited the second site at Yungang near the coal mining city of Datong back in 2010. While not easy to reach its difficulty is due more to the lack of flights than remoteness. It’s only an hour by air from Beijing on a plane that lands, turns around and leaves again until the same time on the next day. Datong turned out to be a nice city with some other attractions that were worth the trip and I was glad to have gone. Besides, my visit there allowed me to complete the Chinese 9 Dragon Screen Hat Trick, a goal I had no idea that I had until I was within walking distance of the other two on one hot afternoon in Beijing. The third site, Longmen lies a few hundred kilometers to the east of Xi’an and since we just happened to be there and within 2 hours by bullet train, going seemed like an obvious choice.

With tickets in hand, we left our hotel early to catch a 10 o’clock train. I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, worried not about getting to the city of Luoyang but more about getting from the train station to the grottoes. You never know with these small city attractions in China. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a simple taxi negotiation. Other times it requires wading through “black taxis” that would drag you around to places you’re not interested in, holding you hostage until you buy some trinkets from their uncle’s souvenir factory. Unfortunately, you never know until you get there so I had plenty of food for thought at we wound our way through the morning traffic.

The new train station lies north of the city and while open for business it remains in a state of construction. Our driver had to perform a couple of u-turns in order to figure out how to get up to the entrance. Once inside I was struck by two things – it was a huge cavern of gray marble and it was freezing. Far colder inside than out, as though all that polished stone was sucking what little heat the morning air held. We shopped for chocolate and Oreos and wandered around giving the place the once over. Very trim and efficient, with McDonalds, KFC and a handful of noodle shops under construction on the second floor. There were three little grocery shops on the first level selling local treats along with cheap bai jiu (Chinese tequila) and beer. It made me think that the second and third class cars might offer some interesting companionship. We heard the announcement and went to our gate and queued up only to discover that because we’d purchased our tickets at the old station, we’d be unable to use the automated readers. An attendant opened up a separate gate and punched ours. We took an escalator down to the platform.

It was kind of a joke when we’d made our purchase as we had seats 3 and 4, indicating that there might be no more than us and one other couple in 1st class. As it turned out, there were probably 15 additional people in a car that held 50. The train left on time and we sat back to watch the countryside roll by, cruising most of the time between 120 and 150 MPH. Being elevated and with no sense of proportion it was hard to judge how fast we were actually going. The train was quiet and very smooth.

The route hugged the banks of the Yellow River, one of the big three drainage basins in China, the other two being the Yangtze and Pearl further south. It was hard to see much of anything in the distance – the air pollution was abysmal no doubt due to the coal fired power plants we passed with regularity. I guess all those city wall lights in Xi’an come at a price. A half hour into the trip we passed Huashan, one of the 5 holy mountains of China. Sacred to both the Buddhists and Taoists, its summit is reached by a popular and very difficult trail of chains and boards attached to raw rock faces. The view of sunrise is said to be spectacular. Today it was little more than a craggy and slightly darker outline in the thick gray haze.

Shaanxi province sits atop the loess plateau region of China. Built by eons of windblown silt from the Yellow River, the land is very fertile if irrigated and highly eroded due to the soft nature of the rock formed by the dirt. Local people have used this property of the land to build terraces and cave houses for a millennia. Less popular today than in the past, you can still see ornate brick facades forming the entrances to homes that are completely underground in the tiny villages along the train’s path. Hundreds of older abandoned caves also dot the hills along the route, interspersed with the bright yellow flowers of some spring crop. I’d seen those plants last April in Yunnan but never did figure out what they were. Here they grew in bright green patches on irrigated paddies on the side of just about every eroded gully we passed.

We arrived on time and I was happy to find a genuine taxi stand where a uniformed official called up a car after I gave him our destination. The air here was no better than that in the countryside and the lack of sun provided a moderate temperature. Little chance of sunburn and overheating today. When I’d researched the route from the train station to the grottoes, I did not understand that the bullet train required a new station. Luoyang now has two and this one was on the south side of town and as it turned out at the end of our 6 minute cab ride, no more than 2 or 3 miles. The driver did not use the meter – not an uncommon rip off in tourist traps – and our ride cost 30 kuai, probably 3 times more than it should have. This was the first time I was genuinely ripped off by a cabbie in China, but hardly worth an argument as I imagine this price fixing was simply the way it was here. And who wants to make an enemy for 2 dollars. I told him it was expensive and paid up. He gave us a cheerful goodbye and pointed us on our way. The grottoes entrance turned out to be down at the end of a long retail street built in authentic Tang Dynasty style and featuring all those special artifacts available only in places like this. Today there were two specialties – poorly rendered Tang Dynasty ceramic horses and something called “peony stone”, a black rock with little green florets of what I think was supposed to be some sort of fossilized plant. We ignored the pleas to visit the stores and noodle shops and continued on.

In 493AD Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty moved his capital from Datong to Luoyang and began the carving of the grottoes. The work continued during the Tang (618 – 907AD) and Song (960 - 1127AD) Dynasties. Today there are more than 2000 niches, 2800 steles, 1300 caves and 100,000 individual carvings. Unlike Yungang, this place has been extensively damaged starting with Western artifact collectors in the early 20th century and culminating with rampaging Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Almost all of the carvings at ground level are faceless.

After walking past the entrance and retracing our steps across a field of newly laid sod, we bought our tickets and began the tour. Places like this can impart a wonderful sense of peace and spirituality. That feeling here was a bit disturbed by the loud acoustic guitar music playing from speakers along the path. It was a 30 second tape loop which I recognized as the same music that Air China plays during the mandatory safety briefing before each flight. I was worried that it would be stuck in my head forever, but the challenge of climbing all the steps up to see the art put it out of my mind. The grottoes extend about ½ mile south along the west bank of the Yi River. You walk along this set, cross a bridge and then continue back north along the east side. We climbed and photographed and visited with a nice Aussie couple who were spending 3 weeks backpacking across the country. Despite the vandalism, the statues were wonderful, including a very special lotus flower carving on the roof of one cave and another that featured more than 10,000 four-inch square Buddhas. I’m always amazed at the fact that carvings like these were done in relief, starting at a rock face, continuing into a niche and resulting in a Buddha that stands out from the wall. Up above we could see the original edge of the rock wall.

The centerpiece of Longmen lies at the end of the walk, on a platform at the top of what seems like a thousand steep stairs. Carved during the Tang Dynasty and called Fengxian Temple, it features a 53’ carving of the Vairocana Buddha sitting on a lotus flower and bracketed by four equally spectacular statues of disciples.

All those stairs required a rest so we found and empty bench and plopped down for some water and Oreos. A middle-aged man walked slowly by staring and I knew the look so I asked him if he wanted our photograph. It’s gotten so that I know the drill. He nodded shyly and brought out his camera. His mother appeared off to our side. She was perhaps ninety and certainly no more than 5 feet tall. Dressed in traditional Chinese peasant garb she smiled slightly and nodded and tried to sit down to the right of my lovely wife. I told her “no” and we moved to make room in between us. I told her “Zhongjian” and patted the seat. She sat down and we each put an arm on her shoulder. Her son took our photo and smiled broadly. Grandma thanked us and got up and walked away.

We crossed the river and from there on it was an easy stroll back to the entrance punctuated with photo ops. The next was a middle-aged woman and her husband. Where the previous grandma was reticent, this woman was excited, happy and bubby. Her husband took our photo with Fengxian Temple as the backdrop across the river. She thanked us effusively and went on her way, grinning from ear to ear.

The last picture session was probably the most memorable in my experience of having my picture taken. Done with the park, we found a bench in the shade and settled in to kill some time before heading back to the train station. Three young women were hovering behind us so I asked the question once again. They giggled and agreed and handed their cameras to a young man who appeared out of nowhere. The group swelled to perhaps 8 people and we spent the next 15 minutes cycling young women between the bench seat and standing behind us. The man continued to take pictures, counting “yi er san” with each one. The original young woman came back for a second shot and I figured we were done. No, the man had to have his shot at fame as well. Before leaving one of the women used her best English to say “Welcome to China” and “Welcome to Shaanxi”, the latter comment being amusing as we were now in Henan province. It didn’t matter, everyone’s day was made and we sent them off happy.

We skipped the retail street on the way our, walking instead through the parking lot. At the end of the walk we found a few cabs, some sort of family taxi cartel and they had a brief discussion about who would take us. I asked how much and the answer of “30” confirmed my earlier notion that taxi rides to Longmen are a fixed rate commodity. We agreed and took the 6 minute ride back to the station.

There was an hour to wait and I spent my time using my iPhone to translate the nuances of the schedule sign at the station. I now understand the characters for “platform” and “ticket checking place” and “on time” even though my phone struggled mightily with the character for “minute.” The train arrived on time and much to our surprise the 1st class car was full of people. Unfortunately most of them were men snorting up phlegm and a woman across from us who talked for an hour straight when she wasn’t loudly choking on something. I spent my time watching the train speedometer which topped out at 215 MPH. Out the window, the cave houses and green terraces raced by. I was lucky to sit on the north side for the return trip, and so I was able to see the sun slowly set over wide expanses of the Yellow River, blood red due to the pollution. We arrived a bit early and found Lily waiting for us. The driver was waiting for us in what will no doubt someday be a parking lot. Today it was some sort of heavily rutted dirt construction zone. The drive to town was faster in the afternoon traffic than it had been earlier in the day. It was a rewarding day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Xi'an Part Two - Warriors and Dumplings

The first time you visit the Terracotta Warriors you are so in awe of the place that you spend most of your time just soaking in the grandeur. If you have a guide, you try to absorb as much of the historical perspective as you can. Because it is an interesting story. If you are lucky enough to go a second and third time, you’re free to do things like take pictures of faces and details. Go a fourth time and you’re allowed to do whatever you want, like spending time at your favorite spots. You now have a genuine relationship with the place, unlike anything you get in a one-time tour bus visit. I spent my fourth time there wandering around looking at those second and third level details that most people will never see. My Lovely Wife, having had the benefit of my prior stories and hundreds of photographs was essentially an honorary second time visitor – still capable of being awed, but knowledgeable enough to ask deeper questions.

Following a spate of complaints by the local vendors, the government changed the route for walk-in visitors to an upstream swim through the retail area. It meant a slightly longer walk and a few hundred more pleas to buy something. But overall it was a fine spring stroll. My Lovely Wife loved the horse sculpture in the center plaza. The three of us liked the white pigeon sitting on the lead horse’s nose, forcing what looked like cross-eyed concern on the horse’s part. We wandered through all the museums and stopped at the end to visit one of the Mr. Yangs in the gift shop. There were not so many visitors buying books from him today so he sat there looking sour. We left after three hours, stopping on the way out to buy a bag of the peanut treat I love so much. It’s prepared by repeatedly pounding shelled peanuts with a big wooden mallet until they form thin little sheets that look like mica. It’s sweet and it tastes like peanut brittle without the tooth damaging hard candy.

We took a stop at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda for a lesson in Buddhist history ala a display of Buddha’s life done in hundreds of pieces of jade, all in different colors. From there it was on to the Grand Mosque for a stroll through the gardens. I’d been there once before and was not terribly impressed but today it took on a new life for me, again no doubt due to traveling with someone fresh to the place. The turquoise blue tiles of the buildings, still holding their bright colors after 500 years, glowed slightly in the late afternoon light. The main prayer hall was a sea of identical blue prayer rugs that stretched far into the darkness at the back of the room. Authorized by an emperor more than 1300 years ago, this place started as the center of the religious community for Arab traders who worked the Silk Road and chose to stay here with their Chinese brides. Today it is still the center of the descendents of that community. A stroll down the “butcher’s street” on the way out, rimmed by tables covered with all manner of beef and sheep parts allowed you for a moment to feel like you were there in the past. I always expect a brace of camels to appear, leaving town for points west on the shores of the Roman Empire.

After an hour wasted in Starbucks waiting for my favorite restaurant to open, we went off to De Fa Chang for their famous 18 specialty dumpling banquet. This would be my second time there and I vowed not to make the same mistake I’d made on my first visit with my daughter Gwynn. In that instance we stuff ourselves on what turned out to be the introductory courses – two pairs of fried dumplings and two dozen boiled, only to discover that the fancy course came last. This time there was no problem, the specialty dumplings came first – tomato, walnut, mushroom, seafood, spicy chicken, pork, duck, rabbit and lamb. We were able to enjoy those and leave most of the subsequent courses behind. I never did figure out how they come up with 18 as the number. There were 15 of the specials, 2 of the fried, two dozen of the boiled and a couple of cold dishes that had nothing to do with dumplings. All that and a Coke apiece. Who knows and it really didn’t matter. It was enough food for four.

Dinner over, we headed down the road south of the Bell Tower and paid a visit to a very upscale and completely empty mall. I learned something new there – if you want a good bathroom in China, just find the shopping center that features Vuitton and Prada and you will be rewarded. Our last stop was a walk on the city wall just after sundown. No visit to Xi’an can be complete without it. In the daylight the wall is home to Chinese and foreigners on rented bicycles, plying the 14 kilometer circle of the old city. The Xi’an wall is the only one in China that is in good repair and completely intact. At night the clientele changes to couples strolling arm in arm. Between the soft spring breeze and the beautiful lights of the guard towers, you’re transported to another time and place. The noise and the bustle of the city are left behind and you’re free to think about the place and what brought you there. Below people dance to traditional music in the park along the city moat and roller skaters turn circles on a small and unlit rink next to the south gate. You can even overlook the fact that you have to cross a deadly traffic circle twice to visit the place.

There was a bit of a wait for a taxi but we ended up with a driver that was very excited to discover our nationality. He said he loved America and proceeded to recite the name of every state that he knew. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been keeping track of the homes of his previous fares or if he simply wanted us to know that he was a master of our place names. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t think of anything better at that moment than a geography lesson delivered by a cabbie in a place so far from home.
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Monday, March 28, 2011

And on to Xi'an.

I finally took the time to understand where the VIP check-in desk is in Beijing. After standing in dozens of lines and being denied by the kiosks, I figured I may as well ask. So I did and we found it and it was fast. No time like today to learn something you’ll probably never use again. After a short stay in the lounge and a quick flight during which I completely confounded the flight attendant when she tried to tell me that I was not allowed to have my bag at my feet (“Exit row regulation”, “You cannot have it there”, “It must go overhead”, “Excuse me, I will leave now and come back later) we arrived in my favorite of favorite Chinese cities – Xi’an. Lily, my favorite guide and honorary daughter, was there to meet us. I was happy to finally introduce her to My Lovely Wife.

I’ve made it a point on my last two visits here to stop at the Hanyangjing Museum on the way into town from the airport. A wonderfully produced introduction to a Han Dynasty royal tomb, Hanyangjing is a great way to prepare for your subsequent visit to the Terracotta Warriors. Here, the soldiers are tiny and not unique but fascinating in their own way. Row upon row of little naked armless men standing buried in two millennia of dust, their silk robes and articulated wooden arms long since gone. In the imperial barns, an endless supply of pottery dogs, goats, chickens cows sheep and horses stand waiting forever to be used in battle or served up in a banquet. I just love the place and each visit presents something new.

We came with a plan to spend Wednesday on the high speed bullet train to Luoyang. The famous Longmen Grotto was the last holy Buddhist site in China on my list of things to do. For whatever reason I’d not managed to make it there and Luoyang never did rate a visit unto itself. Being this close – 1.5 hours by high speed rail – I figured this was as an opportunity presenting itself. So after Hanyangjing, it was off to the old railway station. While the fast train leaves from the new Xi’an Bei (north) complex, there was no easy route to there from the airport so we had to go into town. Mid-spring in Shaanxi Province is splendid. Although the pollution heavily filters the sun, we had a hint of a blue sky and comfortable temperatures in the mid 60’s. The drive in was busy but not terribly so for mid-afternoon. The train station was another story – after an interesting trip into the underground parking garage (dark, damp, confusing – all the things I love about parking in China) we made our way into a crowd that can only be described as thousands of scared people trying to escape some invading army. I’ve been in some tight crowds in China, many of them aggressive with the pushing and shoving, but this one might have been the record. Even worse than the entrance tunnel to the Forbidden City, the time during which a young woman didn’t like being separated from her friend so she grabbed her arm and jerked her between My Lovely Wife and me. Even though we were walking arm in arm. Everyone jammed into a space perhaps 20 feet deep by 100 feet. A long line of ticket windows. It was noisy and very oppressive and nothing more than a typical day at the station and a wonderful introduction to average urban life for My Lovely Wife. Lily went to the information counter to understand which queue we should be in. We stood towards the back of the mob and endured our most recent round of staring. She came back and told us that we’d be better off waiting until Wednesday to buy the tickets at the new station. She felt that the queues were too long but I didn't want to take a chance on the trains being sold out. I sensed an opening and started asking people around us what line they were in. While it appeared to be chaos, there were some patterns and I had a sense that the queue we needed - #27 – was one of the shorter ones. Sure enough, ours was being swamped by neighboring lines so I pushed the three of us through and positioned us about 5 people out. Chinese behind us, sensing some leadership talent fell in as well. In no time we were at the window and after a couple of discussions about the actual date of our travel, we fought our way back out through the crowd, tickets in hand.

I like using Lily as a guide here because she is so knowledgeable about the culture and the history. She works as a contractor for Mr. Lee who owns a small tour company. After being introduced to Mr. Lee in 2009 by my friend Matt, I’ve steered a lot of my fellow workers his way and from there a word of mouth business has mushroomed. Lily told me that I had probably single-handed made his company a success and because of that she was going to buy us a local cuisine dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. After checking in and sending our driver on his way, we walked a couple of blocks down Kejiyi Lu to the place she had in mind. Shaanxi cuisine relies heavily on mutton, breads and chiles. While not as spicy as Sichuan food, it holds its own. The most famous dish is Pao Mo, a soup made of chunks of lamp, onions, broth and greens served over little bits of dense, unleavened bread. Because Xi’an was the start of the Silk Road, there is a strong Muslim influence on the food. This restaurant for example, was hallal, or Muslim “kosher.” To begin the meal you start with an empty bowl and two disks of the special bread, one enough though as it is remarkably hard and heavy. You spend a half hour tearing the bread into tiny pieces, about the size of your little fingernail. Legend says that if you make the pieces too large, the cook will know that you are not a local person and so will ruin your meal. Once done with the tearing, the waitress hands you a slip of paper with a number on it that corresponds to the finer details of your soup (beef vs. lamp, amount of broth varying from lots to none) and she takes the bowl back to the kitchen where the final preparations are made. What emerges is a hearty, fragrant stew of vegetables, meat and mushy bread. Truly workingman’s food for a cold day. In addition to the Pao Mo we shared some skewers of dry braised lamb, a plate of cold sesame noodles, jellied lotus root and another Xi’an specialty, Rou Jia Mo, tiny “hamburgers”, two little round rolls stuffed with spicy lamb and chiles.

It was grand meal and I felt that I had finally had a worthy introduction to the local fare, something I had somehow managed to miss on all my previous visits. After setting up a meeting time with Lily, My Lovely Wife and I bid her adieu and we went on to Starbucks for coffee and an “American” brownie. I had another one of those great China moments with the baristas, this time over one coffee being on ice and one being hot. The Chinese word for heat is “re” and it’s pronounced in a way that westerners cannot repeatedly master. It makes use of throat musculature that we simply don’t have. I had all the girls behind the counter staring at me with the most concerned looks (when they weren’t outright laughing) and trying to catch my drift. Eventually I just said “cold and not cold” and brought the impasse to an end. We finished our night listening to the canned jazz music, enjoying our coffee and making plans for the next day.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A weekend in Beijing

We decided to spend our days in the capital city riding the subway to a few of the canonical spots. I’d hoped that the trains would not be mobbed (it being after the morning rush on a Saturday) but of course I was wrong – My Lovely Wife’s first exposure to public transportation in China was a cheek to jowl mob on the train from Guomao to Tiananmen East. While not how I wanted it to be, at least it was authentic.
Our initial day here broke down into a handful of experiences. While it’s always fun to think and talk in detail about the sites we visit, sometimes there are general themes that are more interesting. “Meta Stories” if you will. Here are a few:

• The Myth of Subway Travel. I’m a big fan of subway travel, it’s easy, it’s fast and you never have to sit in traffic. I even have an application on my iPhone that lets me plot a station by station and line by line route. It doesn’t tell you if there is room on the cars, but at least you have an idea of how long it will take. Part of the myth is that it doesn’t wear you down but this trip proved that this really is untrue – subway travel is great as long as you don’t have to transfer. The Beijing system is incredible, it’s easy to get to just about anywhere in a reasonably short period of time But if you want to leave from Wangfujing and head to the Lama Temple, that route requires three transfers and each one requires a mile of walking and a thousand stairs. At the end of a day of leisurely travel, you’re bone tired and wishing for a seat. Naturally seats are rarely available and when they are, you’re one stop away from home.

• Being a Westerner. I’ve had my picture taken a thousand times in China and I’m used to being stared at. I never fully understood why this is the case, particularly in big cities like Beijing where there are hundreds of thousands of expats and even more tourists. My favorite Xi’an guide Lily explained the pictures – people like to brag to their friends that they met and spent time with foreigners, often embellishing the story to make it sound as though it was a joint day out in the country. Well, despite all the attention I’ve received none of it prepared me for the constant attention My Lovely Wife received. Between men outright staring, women discussing her finer points amongst themselves and people walking into lamp poles, we found ourselves in a maelstrom of gawking. I suddenly knew exactly how Lindsey Lohan feels. The subway was the worst, with people all around us (and below us too) sneaking looks and furtively turning the other way when caught. The best was a group of three – two women and one man who got on the car and stood in front of us. The women were goggle-eyed. The man bemused. The older and shorter of the two women looked up at My Lovely Wife and made a hand motion indicating altitude. I looked at her and said, “Ta hen gao” – she’s very tall. The women were instantly mortified, a state that the man found quite humorous. While they continued with their comments, my comment forced them to whisper behind cupped hands lest I get in on the conversation. When we got off ahead of them and My Lovely Wife said, “Zaijian”, I thought they would die.

• The Hall of Clocks. I’ve been to the Forbidden City five times now, covering just about all of the nooks and crannies. Before my visit last year with my daughter Aidan, I’d done some research about the place and decided to visit a couple of the more obscure spots. The Hall of Clocks was one of these. I’d formed a mind’s eye opinion of the place – a large hall with thousands of clocks ticking and chiming, sort of an Alice in Wonderland spot. When we arrived we were first greeted by a throng of Chinese women squatting in the entry corridor eating oranges and apples and throwing and spitting the peels on the floor. Atypical museum behavior. When we discovered what the Hall really was – a somewhat shabby display of the gaudiest relics of late 18th and 19th century Europe purchased en masse by an emperor who wanted everything western, we were kind of let down. We spent most of our short time there shaking our heads and laughing at ourselves for being so romantic in our expectations. On this trip, My Lovely Wife actually made me spend time exploring the objects and sure enough, it turned out to be pretty interesting. Not cool in the way I wanted it to be and not up to what I’d expected, but very nice in a completely different manner. When I took the time to actually read the notes and peer at the tiny robots and decorations, an engaging history of clock making emerged. I’ll admit I took her there to have a second laugh, and now I have to say I was the one who was really surprised. When at the end of the day I asked her what her favorite site was and she said, “The Hall”, I was happy to hear it. Not quite ready to say it was mine though.

• Olympics Venue. I guess it’s true that you see things through different eyes when you visit places with different people. It was certainly the case with the Hall of Clocks. My first visit to the Olympics Venue was freezing, bleak and depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back on the subway after a couple of required photographs. The Water Cube was in the process of being converted to a mall and the Bird’s Nest was filthy. The promenade was lined with artificial Christmas trees and Barbie’s Christmas Village didn’t belong there in any way shape or form. This time, it was better and we actually got to go into the Water Cube where we were regaled with the sight of hundreds of pasty white Chinese in bathing suits enjoying themselves in the newly opened water park. There were dancing girls on stage and a giant screen TV and people waving long skinny balloons while bobbing in the giant wave pool. How one could stand on the observation platform and not love every minute of that was beyond me. Across the hall though, the diving pool remained and we sat in the stands and just let the spirit of the games wash over us. The overall visit was redemption – you could still feel the positive energy of the sport. And not even the scalper trying to sell me the 30 kuai ticket for 200 or the half hour walk it took to escape the Cube could take that away.

• Yonghegong Lama Temple. The only thing I can say about this place is that if you ever travel to Beijing, you must come here. A visit here takes all the noise and bustle and crowding and staring and washes it all away. A leisurely stroll through here and you can almost bear the thought of getting crammed into a subway car again.

• Face Bar. If it’s possible for a restaurant to be emblematic of your experience in a foreign country, this is it. I have so many wonderful memories of their restaurant in Shanghai. It’s the place I interviewed my replacement and good friend Ben. I remember wondering how so skinny a guy could put away so much food. It’s where I lost my Green Curry Duck to my friend Matt who grabbed it off the tray and dug in before I could rightfully lay claim. My mate Keith told me that it was so romantic that you’d have to be a complete lout to bring a date there and not “get lucky.” And over all it was the one restaurant that was worth bearing a long taxi ride in Shanghai traffic for. From the ground of the Ruijin Hotel to the colonial mansion that housed it, the Face Bar was the one place we always looked forward to. And it was no surprise that Beijing’s version was just as special. In spite of all those great recollections, I never felt it was complete until I finally escorted My Lovely Wife to a wonderful dinner. It was empty, quiet and the staff was as capable as ever. I had my classic Gimlet and again ordered Green Curry Duck. This time I got it as she is not interested in spicy food. We ate and drank and stared into each other’s eyes and if this is to be the end of my relationship with China’s capital, I’m glad I was able to have it end on that note.

Friday, March 25, 2011

We get there and then some.

Some long haul international flights are as peaceful as a library. Others are like the night market in Taipei. Our flight to Beijing was firmly in the latter camp. Perhaps this group had had too much coffee. Or maybe they were excited about their impending collision with the Mysteries of the Orient. Whatever the case, they never settled down. Hundreds of visits to the overhead bins and lights that were never turned off. Loud crunching sounds and unmuffled sneezes. Window shades that were never drawn "Out of courtesy for your fellow passengers who want to watch the video entertainment." So many open blinds that I never felt like "that guy" when I snuck a couple of dozen peeks at the sea ice choking the Bering Strait and the snowy volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Being on this flight was like being on the local bus from Hermosillo to Yecora on a hot summer's day - noisy, busy and irritating. It pretty much drove me to conclude that I would never ride in coach again, even if it means heading out once a year instead of four times. I could hear the people up ahead in Business quietly snoring and gently rustling their covers as the rolled over in their sleep. I hated all of those people up there for their obscene luck and purported specialness. Including those I didn't know and would never meet. Even the ones who worked with orphans in Myanmar. Never again I vowed.

Flying to Europe seems like such a breeze in comparison. You look at your watch and see that 5 hours have gone by and know that it's probably time for your in-flight light breakfast service. Look at your watch at 5 hours on the flight to China and you're not even half way. It's still 5 and a half hours until your light breakfast appears and maybe an hour until your Ramen snack. It goes on forever and it feels like longer than that. The time passes as you dedicate yourself to catching up on reading or work or season's worth of television that you downloaded from one of the remaining piracy sites. Or you devote yourself to trying to understand why anyone would want to spend 30 minutes in an aircraft bathroom. Some of your trip will undoubtedly be devoted to that because there is nothing else to do while you're waiting for them to come out. Eventually it comes to an end, ideally with a safe landing and a short line at Immigration. Then a taxi ride into town and you're at your hotel, sitting in the lounge, looking out the window and planning your evening. We chose to dine on the free meal - chicken satay and Kentucky Fried hot wings - before heading out for a brisk walk to my favorite Starbucks for an iced americano. And being truly adventurous we tacked on a trip to the counterfeit market for a little abuse by the vendors. I think the persistent sleeve tugging and pleas to "Look, look!" were a bit of an eye opener for My Lovely Wife. But she survived and we left for a cool evening stroll back home.

Somehow we'd managed to offend the minor deity that controls social harmony, because the perceptual abuse we'd suffered on the plane continued back at the hotel. When you take a long flight that gives you a 15 hour offset in time zones, you're pretty much dead tired by 9 in the evening. The kind of tired that I don't like, where one minute you're watching BBC and the next you're in a coma. With no dozing in between. It was like that for me, at least until some people started screaming out in the hall. Somehow we'd received a room next to a suite that was full of drunks. Drunks who had other friends down the hall that they needed to yell to as well as send secret messages via a code beaten out with slamming doors. Our room also shared one of those doors with locks on both sides that allow for expansion. The drunks also needed to make sure it was locked judging from the number of times they tried it before becoming completely convinced of their security. The din was sporadic and not quite enough to force me out of bed. And this being China, I knew that if we could even get our point across to the front desk, the mediation would take the form of an offer of a new room for us. The prospect of packing and leaving was not appealing. I selected some Brazilian jazz on my phone, put it on softly as background noise and rolled over, figuring we'd solve it in the morning.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Back on the road with after a not so brief hiatus

As I was pulling into the parking garage it dawned on me that I had not been to the airport for nearly 4 months. Well, discounting the trip I’d made over the weekend to deposit and collect My Lovely Wife. As a passenger though, this felt new, something I’d not experienced regularly since 2005. The airport had been such a regular part of my life during these intervening years that today felt like a homecoming. Of course I’d not yet had the regular set of experiences that made me wonder time after time why I regularly subjected myself to travel. True, it’s always fun to see new things and there is an inherent pleasure in being away that is undeniable. If only you could seal yourself in a comfortable environmental chamber and be delivered to your destination after a long peaceful nap. With filtered sunshine and a light, vanilla scented breeze.

It began as usual with the guy in front of me at security taking his laptop out of his bag and in doing so spilling a hundred loose pieces of paper on the carpet. A woman between us kindly helped him pick them up while I would have preferred to step on them and leave the telltale print of my Ecco shoes. Of course this flustered him enough to slow him down even further but eventually he recovered and moved down the line. It didn’t matter much because the belt was completely clogged up due to the delay they were having in reading the nude scans of the people ahead of us. We got through and he returned the favor of my patience by dropping the same batch on the floor a second time. This time no one helped him with the clean up.

A lot had changed in the airport since my last visit. New restaurants, re-arranged section, a whole new look. However, the one thing that remained constant was that the plane out of Albuquerque was of course the Barbie Jet. We had hoped to avoid that indignity by not taking that godforsaken 6AM flight on United, instead opting for a more civilized noon departure on US Air and a night in San Francisco. As this was vacation we thought it might be nice for a change to leave at a reasonable time and divide the trip in two. I must have known that the Ruler of the Universe does not allow such affronts to his plan and it should have been no surprise when we reached the gate and saw that tiny demonic aircraft smiling through the window. But it was nice to hope for a while

Being a tiny jet there was no room for our carryon bags and so we left them at the end of the ramp. Normally there is a person there to collect them but today – none. I didn’t like that one bit but after verifying this foolish arrangement with the flight attendant I left ours there and took my seat. I spent the rest of the time on the ground looking out the window hoping to see my bag loaded on the luggage cart. Eventually a couple of guys showed up and started throwing the bags down a ramp attached to the jet way stairs. Mine was the last one down.

Being an hour flight it went fast, faster even due to the great stories that some hillbilly in the seat behind me was relating to his row mate. I love traveling with My Lovely Wife, sometimes more than others because it countermands the Laws of Luck that normally rule my life. When I’m with her, I always find a good parking spot and I don’t end up sitting next to guys like this. His stories began with the service record of his father, an Army Ranger who did 5bparachute jumps in WWII, 3 in Korea and 5 more in Viet Nam. He ended with a recounting of the plot of the Stephen King thriller “Pet Sematery” and an observation that there was a cat in his neighborhood that was the spitting image of the evil feline in the book. I was glad when they told us to turn off our electronic devices and wished that we were also forced to sit quietly with our hands folded in our laps.

Our layover in Phoenix was uneventful aside from the fantastic people watching. It’s always amazing to think that people actually chose those clothes at the store and then chose them a second time when they put them on that morning. The plane was very full and lots of people from the front came back into steerage to steal the overhead space around us. One particularly special woman made it a point of blocking everyone by carrying on a phone conversation and sending email on her laptop while standing halfway in a row that she didn’t even belong in. When she excused herself the young man she’d been delaying said, “No problem, we’ll all just wait for you.” Good for him, if I could have reached over I would have given him a pat on the back. We left an hour late spending our time sitting on the runway waiting for the fog to clear in San Francisco. An easy flight a short shuttle ride to the hotel and our day was over. Dinner in the lounge and a stroll along the bay punctuated by rain showers put a nice cap on it.

It was raining like a son of a gun when we woke up with a prediction of flooding and high winds. I had no idea what this meant for our noon departure but it really didn’t matter. We had no connection on the other end to worry about. One additional nice thing about this being vacation and not that painful haul back to my (former) job in Dalian. The shuttle ride to the airport was entertaining due to a mother with four children who had just been evacuated from Japan due to the potential of radiation exposure. She told the story of her trials to a willing flight attendant who had apparently been on the plane with her the day before. Her children – all small – spent their time jumping up and down and yelling. Occasionally she would tell them to sit down in Spanish, perhaps some sort of life preparation home schooling. We wondered why she wasn’t using Japanese.

I’ve never arrived at the SFO International Terminal in any way other than via a plane. Today was a minor adventure when we got dropped off at a strange end of the place and I wasn’t sure where the United Airlines check in gates were. I pleaded with My Lovely Wife not to ask at the information desk, preferring to find them ourselves. But she did and the old guy there couldn’t simply tell us “Down there.” The young guy standing behind him pointed to the left, but he wasn’t wearing the regulation blue blazer so the old guy asked, “Are you checking in Coach, Business or 1st Class?” I snapped and said, “What does it matter, we just need to know where United is.” And he replied, “It does matter because if you’re flying coach you go to Row 1 but if you’re flying Business or 1st Class, you go to Row 2.” I asked again and he gave me a disapproving look and pointed to the left. Of course they were right next to each other and so the finer points of our ticket class didn’t really matter. Perhaps we were his only customers of the day and he was just trying to be helpful. But this is exactly why I hate asking questions.

After being shuffled between two or three different boarding pass checks (even though the lines were empty, they wanted to make sure I went the Business line) I wound my way through to the conveyor belt and got behind a guy who was putting his stuff in a bin for the check. Of course he could not use the 25 feet of empty counter space ahead of him, no, he had to use the very end which allowed me to put a single bin on the counter behind him. He must have had 800 things in 29 little pockets because the stuff just kept coming. Eventually he told me to go ahead and I told him that wasn’t the point. But I did anyway. And now once again I’m in the Lounge staring out the window.