Sunday, April 03, 2011

Heading home.

We had a most unusual driver on our last trip to the airport. The weather had changed to rain – the first bad day we’d had over the entire trip. Sometimes travel planning just works out that way and it’s especially nice in a country like China where, unlike the great cities of Europe, there isn’t a lot to do indoors. Fewer museums than you might imagine. We packed up, checked out and asked the doorman to get us a cab. A red one pulled up, fourth tier in the Shanghai Taxi Quality Spectrum but it was what it was. The driver got out – on the short side with shoulder length hair, dressed all in black and sporting gold metallic painted inch-long fingernails on both hands. We spent the ride to Pudong alternately gagging on the overwhelming stench of cigarette smoke and theorizing about this guy’s night job.

Check in was a breeze as it always is, far better than the olden days when you’d have to stand around waiting until the gate agents would march out in single file, identical in their prim little blue uniforms. Security was another story when once again I got pulled aside for additional checking by the duty supervisor. I replaced my old passport last fall when the visa company told me that mine was in such bad shape that sooner or later I would be denied entry. I was sorry to see the old one go, what with dozens of stamps and two clumps of supplementary pages. My badge of honor, being retired. But the crisp new one was nice at least until I tried to enter Beijing last November and it took two levels of supervision to allow me in. I assumed it must have been a shock to their immigration system between many, many entries and exits, a cancelled residence visa, a new business version and an altogether new identification number. I had no problem leaving the country at the end of that trip or entering on this one so I was a bit taken aback when the guard invited me over to wait with him by the duty desk. I asked him if there was a problem and he smiled and said, “No” which of course was not true. I started to explain the story of my old one, at first messing up the Chinese word for the document, but he continued to smile and suggested that perhaps someone had the same number as I did. The international incident didn’t last long and I was on my way.

Having survived the punishing trip over in coach, I treated us to upstairs business class on the 747, in my mind the ultimate flying experience. Never mind the lack of overhead storage (which requires you to hand over your bag to the flight attendant at the top of the stairs) riding up there is so peaceful and pleasant that it almost makes 11 hours in an aluminum tube tolerable. We settled in across from a what was clearly a newbie business traveler, a short guy with a bad case of overcompensation who started the trip by begging the person next to him to switch with his manager from down the aisle and ended with stealing the menus no doubt to impress his wife with the wine choices. As we got going he downed 4 Rum and Cokes and passed out, depriving me of my mid-flight amusement. It also meant he stopped given a “High Five” to his colleague who for some reason visited the bathrooms 6 times on this trip. After food and wine I watched a heart-wrenching movie called “The Way Back” coming to actual tears when the female lead died. I can’t recall a more poignant movie in any film, even “Old Yeller” and I was slightly sorry that I had subjected myself to that grief. I was also glad it was dark in the cabin.

After bouts of sleeping and eating Chinese Oreo Wafer Sticks we made a right turn along our Pacific coast at Cape Mendocino just as the sun was coming up. It was a glorious display of sunrise colors, with Lassen Peak silhouetted against a broad brush streak of red, orange and blue. We were heading for an early arrival, nice for those departing in San Francisco, not so great for us as it meant an additional hour to kill while we waiting for our 3:40 PM departure to Albuquerque. In the end it didn’t matter because US Customs wasn’t open so we ended up sitting on the plane for an extra half hour. I guess they like to sleep in on the weekends.

After doing some rearranging we checked our bags in order to be free of them. We had a plan to kill the layover in some creative manner other than sitting around the Red Carpet Lounge. Today we planned to ride the BART into the city to have a look around. Of course we had no idea where to go being foreigners and all so we bought tickets to the Embarcadero station figuring it was as good a choice as any. And besides I had a faint recollection of it being a cool destination in spite of the fact that the station agent behind the bullet-proof glass told us it was a 30 minute walk from “everywhere.” Unperturbed, the train came and we left, still wondering if the $32 it was going to cost us was worth the gain. The price alone was quite a shock given that we’d spent no more than 80 cents on the most expensive subway ride in China the week before.

The train turned out to be even more of a surprise. It was slow, dirty and unappealing in every way. We’d been riding glistening spaceships at 250 MPH through the countryside, now we were on a dingy barge chugging through stinky tunnels and waiting just north of Daly City while a crew cleared the tracks of what (judging by the smell) turned out to be a flattened skunk. I know the system is old, and the ones I’d been riding were new, but I couldn’t help feeling second class in comparison and wondered if this was just an example of how far our wonderful country had slid.

We emerged at Embarcadero in front of a closed Starbucks. There was another one across the street that was open so we went and bought coffee and a maple scone for an energy boost. It got me thinking about the Starbucks strategy of building competing stores within eyesight of each other rather than losing a sale to a competitor. Sitting in a window nook next to a German couple with a map spread out on their table, we watched a steady stream of hiking tourists, jogging zealots and hipsters on single-speed bikes. The best in class might have been the relatively normal looking woman picking up half-smoked cigarettes and putting them in her pocket. It was only 9 AM and we were freezing, no doubt due to transoceanic exhaustion, but the relative lack of dress for most of the people was surprising.

Coffee finished we strolled down to the ferry docks admiring the homeless passing their morning wrapped up in cardboard and sleeping in the doorway to the Peet’s coffee shop. Another thing we’d not seen in a long time, and certainly not in any of the cities we’d just left. A hippie street fair was setting up, entertained by a very capable trio playing be-bop. The public toilets were all out of service and judging from the smell unusable even if they were working. We strolled around, caught a little sunshine and headed back to the station. On the way downstairs the urine smell was almost unbearable and judging from the stains on the walls, a regular feature. In all the stations and underpasses I’ve walked through in every major city in China, I’ve never been subjected to such a stench. There is something to be said for a decent system of public toilets I guess.

I decided to try and figure out how to recharge our BART cards rather than buying new. Of course I could have simply opted for two $10 tickets and made an $8 donation to the system. While they might have dedicated it to cleaning the walls, I wanted to make use of the $1.90 that remained on both tickets as a matter of principle. I finally did after a couple of false starts and was amazed that the default simply put another $20 on your card which you could then reduce in $1 or 5¢ increments. Trust me when I tell you that it takes almost forever to reduce $21.90 to $8.10 using only those two denominations. Once done we were back on the train and home at the airport in less time than it took to solve the ticket challenge.

The rest of the afternoon was spent dozing and eating Pepperidge Farm cookies in the lounge. I have to say that I wish I’d explored the BART option on any of my long layovers in the past. When I began traveling to China, there was a 12:40 flight that left which meant only a few hours of wasted time and in some cases a mad dash to catch it. Then it was rescheduled to 1:40 and finally to 3:40, both of which meant countless hours trying to stay awake. While it’s relatively easy to get in and out of Albuquerque, sometimes you do pay the price due to a lack of flights. On many occasions I considered catching a ride on a different airline or going home through another city. But both of those options meant changing planes and multiple flights and any time you add complexity to your itinerary it means the odds of a problem increase. So rather than an unplanned night in Phoenix or Denver, I simply wasted time sitting around eating and watching the clock. Today was no different.

Eventually though our time rolled up and we were on the Barbie Jet for the last leg. Our fair city was being treated to 50 MPH winds and blowing dust so our landing was a bit rocky. We gathered our bags and got in the car and paid our parking tab. The gal collecting the fee asked where we were coming from and told us that we held the record for the day.

When I was a kid I used to go to Florida every year with my dad. The thing that struck me then and has continued across the years and the miles is how different everything seems when you return from being away. On those trips, it would seem like I’d left in the winter and returned to a leafy spring. It was like that today, driving down the road to our village the Cottonwoods were beginning to green up and the Elms were covered in their insidious crop of tiny lime colored seed pods. Turning onto our road, you could see the results of the wind – tiny branches and leaves littered the road surface. We pulled into our drive and let out our old dog Teddy who about turned himself inside out with convulsive doggy joy. There are few things better in life than a dog that’s happy to see you. Out back the horses were staring at the house, wondering if we would be dumb enough to throw them a second dinner. As good as it is to see the world; it’s always great to get back home.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

A birthday abroad

Through no plan of my own, My Lovely Wife’s birthday happened to fall on our final day in China. This was a nice turn as I had managed to miss her previous two. Little milestones like these are important to a romantic like me, and so I was happy that the string of misses was broken. And in such a nice way.

We started the day with another leisurely departure. A big breakfast meant to forestall the need for lunch and a taxi ride into town, my concession that our vacation was finally wearing me down. Sometimes the thought of a long walk to the subway station is reason enough to pay for a much easier ride in a car. Today’s taxi driver thought he was clever, zigzagging through the city streets in order to jack up the fare. It was obvious to me what was going on, and confirmed when he dropped us off on the south side of Yu Gardens, the touristy shopping district in the only remaining old district in Shanghai. The cost was almost double what it should have been, but still only an extra four dollars in our currency. Getting an unexpected tour in a cab is one of those things that are hard to address in a tough second language. I suppose I could have called him a thief, but honestly – if those extra 30 RMB made his day, perhaps it was one of those karma contributions that will pay off for me somewhere down the road.

I paid up and got out into a maelstrom of people on the street trying to interest us in their wares – bags, watches, DVDs. I got into my standard response of “Bu yao” until one of them started mocking me by repeating it over and over. I looked at him and smiled and laughed. Who is the joke really on when he’s not getting a cent of my money?

Our first stop was Pearl City, home to my old friend necklace stringing friend Anna. My friend Matt had discovered her via a recommendation of some anonymous lounge dweller at the Hongqiao Renaissance back in 2006. Over the course of our 3 years of work here, our core project team had built her business beyond anything she would have ever expected. Every trip to town meant a visit with Anna, and in the end the recommendations started echoing back to us from people who had heard third and fourth hand and somehow got the idea that they had discovered her. Today we had a few gifts in mind and I wanted something special for My Lovely Wife. We took the stairs and found her busy at work stringing away. After exchanging pleasantries we got down to shopping and she went to work on our choices. I needed some additional cash and she directed me to an ATM that she said was near “the number one gate” which I assumed meant one of the doors. I went downstairs not fully understanding where the particular “gate” was so I asked one of the ladies working behind the gold counters. She wasn’t much help, more or less gesturing that I should go across the street. We went outside and down to where I knew a machine used to be – it was gone, another victim of the constant urban renewal that rules this place. I went back into Pearl City and using my iPhone as a translator, asked another girl. She laughed and pointed over my right shoulder – it was right there by the door. Flush again we went back upstairs and settled up, taking time to take some photos and say goodbye.

I love the old city; it’s probably one of the last relatively authentic pieces left. While it is overloaded with tacky tourist shops, there are sections which are fun to visit. We stopped at a store that specializes in carved Mammoth tusks and admired a beautiful carving of running horses, displayed in the window. On some trip in the past I’d been invited into this shop to discuss that very piece. Tea was offered along with an assurance that the government regulations denying export of these treasures could be overcome. I was tempted, but left empty handed on that occasion. We wandered through an area that I call “the mineral street” where all the stalls offer products of the Earth – geodes, jade, fossils and amber.

I had a single destination in mind today, the Bird, Fish and Insect Market. Leaving the last neighborhoods of the old city behind, we made our way to Tibet Road and found the entrance. I’d stumbled upon this place on one of my wanderings many years ago and while it represents the worst of man’s inhumanity towards our animal friends, I just can’t resist visiting. It is such an anachronism in this modern city, probably the only place where a smidgen of traditional China remains among the gleaming skyscrapers and fancy villas. A fancy new façade had been added to the old structure, suggesting to me that my worries of its demise were unfounded. We walked in a spent a good hour looking at all the caged animals – wild birds from the tropics and the steppes, grimy little kittens that will never find a home, giant goldfish, pans of crawling mealworms whose purpose was a topic of discussion, and finally the crickets. The Chinese love to have songbirds in their homes, and so mist netting is a popular if illegal sport. Chinese men love cricket fighting and today the stalls were crowded with men carefully prodding prospective combatants into action with the spilt and mashed end of a blade of grass. I’m sure there are good and bad bugs, but those nuances escaped my untrained eye. Judging from the intensity of the buyers though, there must be subtleties that will mean success or failure in the ring. We walked along watching, the sound of insects singing overpowering our senses.

The Shanghai Antiquities Market lies across the street and we made our way over. It’s not much different that the Beijing version, being stocked with thousands of identical artifacts. I stopped at one stall to negotiate some trinket with a young lady. She looked at My Lovely Wife and produced a hair brush. With a somewhat sheepish smile, she asked My Lovely Wife if she could brush her hair. It seemed we’d encountered a new, more intimate version of the now famous “have your picture taken with a westerner” activity. My Lovely Wife turned her head and allowed the girl to brush out the ends. But that wasn’t what she really wanted – she wanted to brush her bangs. My Lovely Wife graciously allowed this too. The girl thanked her with a big smile. It was getting cold and the weather seemed to be changing.

We caught a cab to Xintiandi for another bout of coffee and tapas – fried baby artichokes, pork pate and skillet sautéed chicken this time around. The perfect birthday lunch. Another cab ride back across town and our vacation was pretty much behind us. All that remained was to pack and prepare for the long ride home. Outside the weather had gone downhill as predicted – a long line of misty fog rolled in across the delta of the Yangtze.

Friday, April 01, 2011

A morning at Expo and an afternoon on the Subway

It’s been a solid 3 years since I spent any real time wandering around Shanghai and I’d forgotten how much I really like the place. Xi’an is my favorite city in China because it wraps you up in warm blanket of history, culture and a comfortable pace. It’s an easy city to visit and there is a lot to do. My time living over here was spent in the north, where life really doesn’t offer much. It’s cold, it’s hard and it’s often bleak. I came to really like Beijing though as I spent a lot of transit time there on my way to and from the US. And when you get to know your way around a city, it finds a place in your heart. The capital city though was tough to love as it comes across as crowded and stark, a tribute I think to the generations of hard men who built and ruled the place. But being here in Shanghai after a long absence, I was instantly reminded of what a special place it is. Sophistication, excitement and a comfortable pace, not unlike what you might find in Paris or Madrid. Here you don’t visualize the power of the military parades or a line of imperial courtiers walking slowly past lines of subordinate serfs. Here you think of drinking Gin and Tonic on the veranda of 1930’s club set in a garden, men in white jackets and ties, women in shimmering silk. Erhu music playing softly in the background while a fan spins slowly overhead. Shanghai is a city built for pleasure.

The city received a nice tune-up courtesy of the government and their desire to put a fresh face on the place for the 2010 Expo. Between the beautiful lights on the freshly scrubbed buildings of the Bund, and the addition of dozens of new subway lines, the city is even more appealing now than when I was spending so much time there. I have to admit I was a bit covetous of the new Line 10 which would have taken me from my old place of work to the heart of the French Concession in a matter of minutes vs. the hours I used to spend in a taxi. Well-lit, sparkling clean and fast, there are few things better to be said about a subway system. While I like Beijing’s system, it’s always crowded and the transfers are a murderous slog of stairs and broken escalators. The Shanghai designers used their noggins and built a host of parallel horizontal and vertical lines which puts you never more than a couple blocks from a station. It also means that there are many more choices when traveling east to west and north to south so the main center line is never as bad as it is up north. It’s an easy system to like.

Our first few days had been heavily loaded with travel and attractions. To counteract the sense of exhaustion, we decided to keep our first day here leisurely and simple. The China pavilion was the last attraction still open at Expo so after a slow breakfast we left the hotel around 11 and caught a taxi across town. The streets were not busy and we made it there in no time. Now I had a plan to wander around the grounds, I had no desire to wait in what had been reported on-line to be a 1.5 hour queue. All I wanted to do was take some photos of the other pavilions and have a stroll. It wasn’t clear how to do that upon arrival so we simply fell in behind a small group who happened to be walking past the lines to buy entry tickets. They were waved through the security checkpoint, we were not. The guard asked for a ticket, I told him that we just wanted to walk around and had no intention of visiting the pavilion. He told me to turn around, go back a block, take a right and walk some more. I didn’t like the sound of any of that and in any event was in no mood for that amount of walking so we thanked him and turned back to where we had been dropped off. There didn’t seem to be a clear solution to do what I wanted to do so after a brief conversation we decided to bite the bullet and brave the China pavilion on the off chance that it might offer a way in. As we threaded our way through the mostly empty serpentine crowd control barriers, scalpers offered to sell us entry passes. I waved them off, knowing full well that their wares were almost certainly frauds. I made the purchase and we headed towards the entrance having no idea whether we were in for a quick tour or an endless wait. Judging from the hundreds of identically dressed school students on class tours the latter seemed likely but we kept moving and in only the time it took to walk from the ticket booths to the building entrance, we were inside. Along the way we provided entertainment for the school children answering what seemed like an endless series of “Hello” and “Where are you from?”

Our forward progress was finally stopped once inside as people were funneled into a queue for an elevator ride. Apparently you start at the top and work your way down. Even this inconvenience was slight – no more than 10 minutes – and following being crammed into the car and a quick ascent we were let out in front of a theatre. I wasn’t really interested in seeing whatever it was they were offering so we skirted the crowd and entered a hall called The River of Wisdom. It was the best decision we’d made in a long time. This floor was dedicated to the history of China and featured a 300 by 30 foot animated rendition of a famous 12th century Song Dynasty scroll called ”A Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival” by the famous artist, Chang Tse-duan. This modern version was done by the same artist who played a significant role in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and it was wondrous.

Lining the outer wall in a darkened gallery, a laser rendition of river water lapped at your feet. All the characters in the scroll went about their daily business as we watched from the far side of the river. Boats docked along the far shore, people sat in tea shops, a man rode a horse through the square, a child danced in a courtyard. Even a row of camels entered the town through the main gate, bringing wares from some bazaar far down the Silk Road. The scenes cycled from day to night every few minutes, with lamps appearing in the windows of houses and red lanterns being lit in alleys. Tiny ancient people stood on the far shore, looking across at us. It was superb and I think it would be easy to spend an entire day there just picking out the details. This alone made the trip here worthwhile.

At the back of the gallery, a people-mover carried visitors through a hall called “China’s National Treasures” which turned out to be a 15 second ride past the bronze chariot that normally resides at the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an. We’d seen the stand-in version three days prior, so that loop was now closed. We exited the ride and headed downstairs through a hallway of lofty green lit trees that opened up to another gallery lined with tall glass rods that changed from crystal clear to blue to green. An artistic representation of rice fields. The floor below was dedicated to green energy and not all that interesting. At least not following the River of Wisdom. It occurred to me that nothing else in the place could possibly compare. You could see the Expo grounds out the windows and from this vantage it was clear that the place was no longer open. My plan to wander around was dashed, but it didn’t matter because the visit to this pavilion had turned out so well. We caught the exit escalator down through a huge circular hole in the bottom of the building, lined with pink water lilies. Water cannons shot intermittent streams into the air, forming a wall of ever changing designs. At the bottom we bought a Coke and sat down for a brief rest. Within 2 minutes of being there a middle-aged woman came over and gave me that famous look. I invited her to sit between us and her husband took our picture. While the staring a gawking was certainly less here, the desire for a photo of the westerners never seems to wane.

We took the subway from the grounds to Xintiandi, the upscale Shikumen (stone ghetto) conversion done in the late 1990’s by the architect famous for Boston’s Faneuil Hall. It’s a wonderful place to shop and to grab a cup of coffee. The people watching is fantastic, being a mix of fancy Chinese and expats. It was mid-afternoon and we thought lunch might be a nice way to end our day out so we picked a “fusion tapas” restaurant and asked for a table. I told the greeter that we didn’t want to be seated near smokers so she invited us inside where there were no other diners. We grabbed a table by a window and ordered a big bottle of San Pellegrino and three dishes – chicken kabobs, baked stuffed rigatoni and slices of barbecued pork with mustard glaze. It was the perfect meal on a perfect day.

The day ended with a subway ride and an exploratory walk through the hotel neighborhood trying to find the best route between the two. Before emerging above ground though I took My Lovely Wife for a stroll through Shanghai’s version of a knock-off market. Xinyang Market used to be located in a nice park along the tony Huaihai Lu on the other side of town. The government cleaned them out in 2006 and they relocated here. I’ve spent a lot of time in this market, buying this and that, and haggling with the vendors. Today it was pretty much abandoned and the sellers seemed to barely have the energy to pester us. I don’t know what happened or why it came to be this way, but I have to admit I was a bit saddened by it. Another one of those fun memories gone.

After a walk that was longer than expected, we found ourselves back at the hotel and in the lounge, listening to the same tape loop that Federico, my Marriott floor manager friend from Costa Rica and I discussed so long ago in Beijing. He told me then that I would have to hack into some server deep in a bunker somewhere to get a copy. On that occasion I chose instead to have a glass of wine and enjoy the memories of the day. I made the same choice this time too.