Monday, November 30, 2009

Scenes from my walk today...

(you have to click on this one to see the whole sign and why I shot it)

(this is a goof on a wide-spread Chinese internet meme from earlier this year -- pretty funny!)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The view from my window...

And these don't really do it justice...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Strangers on a 2

Sometimes a long trip on a Chinese train is a better concept in theory than in actuality...

I do like the train. I really do. I like the rattle of the rails, the mournful horns, the sense of distance and the time it takes to travel. I like having my little bunk surrounded by my stuff and a book and the feeling that I'm wrapped up in the quilt in this weird mobile cocoon. It reminds me when I was a really little kid, how I used to love to fall asleep in the car, in the dark. There's just something wonderfully comforting and soothing about the movement and the sounds of it.

Except for the fact that, you know, I rarely sleep when I'm actually on the train. There's the cheesy guangbo -- in the olden days, patriotic anthems and Chinese renditions of "Do Ray Mi" and "Home on the Range." Nowadays, it's more likely to be a video screen (which you can't turn off) showing whatever lame history soap is on tap, preceded by endless safety recitations. Lately, I seem to suffer some respiratory ailment every time I'm on a train for a long haul, which I'm guessing has to do with the cigarettes smoked in the vestibules and occasionally sneaked in compartments and hallways.

Then there's the food. I've never really gotten a handle on the dining car routine, and sometimes the quality of the food makes stocking up on snacks and fruit a better proposition. Kind of like flying United across the Pacific. Eating is just problematic.

There are the bathrooms, which can get pretty scummy pretty fast, and the competition for the washing up room -- well, this really only happened on the Beijing to Shanghai overnight train (insert your Shanghai jokes here), when as we were due to arrive in Shanghai, I waited behind several passengers who performed entire elaborate hygiene and beauty rituals at these shared facilities, and I mean tweezing and exfoliation level here, in spite of the fact that there were about a half dozen of us waiting to just do a simple teeth-brushing.

Plus there's the reality that most train stations are, well, pretty grungy, that getting on the train feels like you're an extra in a mob scene out of an escape from Nazi Germany movie, that finding a taxi when you get off the train can be problematic (today in Guilin, all of the legal taxis refused to use their meters, wanted to barter for the rate and when I finally settled on one, she spent the entire ride trying to talk me out of the place I'd reserved and into the "best hotel in Guilin, the most luxurious, the most peaceful, not too expensive!").

But the real weirdness of long train trips inevitably comes down to your compartment mates. I offer as an example my two day marathon from Chengdu to Xinjiang. After that epic misadventure, 22 hours from Shanghai to Guilin seemed like it should be a breeze.

And it really was, except for the aforementioned sudden onset of sneezing and nose-blowing and trying to do all this quietly in an upper bunk. And the inevitable eccentric compartment-mate.

The first guy in after me was a young man on a business trip, hauling a dolly stacked with some kind of, I'm guessing, electrical components housed in hard plastic cases. Naturally this couldn't fit in the overhead compartments or under the seats so it just squatted there on the floor. He was a nice guy though, friendly, and we bonded over our mutual loathing of the video that couldn't be turned off.

Next was a middle-aged woman, trim, energetic and loud. She came in hauling a large suitcase, a laptop and several shopping bags (she'd been on a shopping trip for clothes in Suzhou), and after she sat down, the first thing she did was get out a kleenex and blot her forehead, saying that she was "Re si le!" "Hot to death!" from her exertions. The second thing she did was pull out her cellphone and start up a loud and complicated conversation. Third, she grabbed a cigarette, lit it in the compartment and stood outside in the corridor smoking and chatting, until one of the train workers shooed her toward the smoking area -- "Ah, wo re si le!" she exclaimed again, by way of explanation for her scofflaw behavior.

Not more than twenty minutes into the trip, she was replaced by another man, who had asked the train workers if he could switch compartments. I didn't hear the explanation for his request, but whatever it was, the woman agreed, and with the help of one of the attendants carried her stuff into her new compartment.

Our new roommate had a small backpack and two small plastic grocery bags that looked much used. Thin, with sunken cheeks and a thick wedge of hair. He spoke in a quiet, near-mumble, at least he did the only time I heard him speak, which was to ask the young businessman that the compartment door be kept open part way, because it was more comfortable. He did not make eye contact when he asked this. At some point in the evening, one of the attendants shut our compartment door for the night, and that was the end of that.

He spent a lot of time outside the compartment sitting on one of the jump seats in the corridor. When he was in the compartment, for a long while he sat hunched in the corner, head bowed, forehead resting on hand, as though he'd been crushed by some terrible news. Actually, I think he was just dozing. He sat like this even when the lights were turned off and it was time to sleep. Finally, he did lie down, face down, arms and legs splayed out like a corpse. He never used his pillows or his quilt. Though the next day, he spent a good five minutes rubbing at a spot on one of the pillows with a wetted cloth.

The next day, I wanted to offer him one of my bananas, but as mentioned, he wouldn't meet my eyes. I thought maybe he was uncomfortable having a foreigner in the compartment, though he hadn't spoken to the young businessman either, other than that initial request to leave the door open. He spent an hour or so making notes on a folded square of paper, crossing out characters and writing in new ones. I decided he was composing poetry, though I have absolutely no evidence of this.

About three hours before we arrived in Guilin, his hand darted toward me with a square sweet neatly wrapped in cellophane -- "Hao chi," he near-whispered, ducking his head and looking quickly away.

I thanked him, offered him a banana, which he did not want, and ate the sweet -- mochi and bean paste.

Both of us dozed the final two hours of the ride. When we pulled into Guilin, he was still asleep, head the wrong way on the bunk, feet tucked under the pillows.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sinister Kitsch

I've been traveling to China for a long time, but there are some things I will never claim to understand. The above is one of them.

Okay, China has changed tremendously over the last few decades; citizens are pretty much free to lead their lives the way they want, as long as they don't cross that invisible red line and get involved with politics or organizing.

But we're still dealing with an authoritarian state here. And portraying your police officers as refugees from the Cartoon Network does not really make them cuddly.

Then there are things like this:

Behold, "Haibao," which means, "Treasure of the Seas." Or as I like to call him/her/it, "Blue Gumby." Haibao is the official mascot of the World Expo 2010 Shanghai China. You cannot escape Haibao. Haibao is everywhere. Haibao does "hip-hop dances." Haibao is just a little creepy.

My all-time favorite, however, is this:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Heading to Shanghai

I'm leaving for Shanghai tonight, and I kind of wish I weren't. No offense, Shanghai. But having settled in so nicely in Beijing, I'm more in a mood just to stay here and get some writing done. Take Chinese lessons (my Chinese really sucks, and that bothers me). But this isn't the way the schedule worked out, so my pal Richard (AKA the Peking Duck) and I are taking the sleeper train to Shanghai, followed by a week or so of travel. Sigh. My Februrary/March trip here was a near solid month of travel, and as much fun as I had on that trip, I think I might still be tired out from it.

But at least I'll be staying with my good pal, Shanghai Slim, for a couple of days, and once we head south, maybe we'll run into some warmer weather, which would be nice. I plan on seeing some places I either haven't seen in years or never visited at all, and that's something to look forward to.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A random, ceaseless churning...

I'm staying near the Drum Tower, probably my favorite area in Beijing -- in a city that's become a massive monument to China's massive global aspirations, it's one of the few neighborhoods that's still built to human scale. Even so, Gulou is still characterized by the same seemingly endless construction and remodeling that goes on throughout the capital.

For example, the entire Drum Tower/Bell Tower plaza and surrounding hutongs (lanes) are totally torn up. The pavement has been jackhammered or pick-axed away, fresh asphalt laid in places though most of the lanes and plaza are still exposed, rutted dirt (making the efforts of huge tour busses trying to squeeze down tiny allies even more absurd and amusing than usual). There are stacks of gray paving stones everywhere. I have no idea what any of this is for, if it was needed or what the end result will be, though I expect I'll see it before I leave in mid-December. Walking down Guloudong Dajie (Drum Tower East Road), I navigate similar obstacles of torn-up road and sidewalk and stacks of gray brick. Workers at all hours carry beams and wallboard in and out of little stores in the process of remodeling.

There's simply so much activity here, always, all the time, in a city with thousands of years of history that never stands still.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mysteries of the Narita Aiport...

I hadn't flown through Narita (Tokyo) in years, not since United got direct routes to China. But because I was using miles and because I had a lot of stuff to carry and didn't feel like trying to get me and all of that to LAX at 4:30 AM to catch UAL 889, I decided to go via Narita.

Interesting facts about Narita:

1. They still care about having sundries in a Baggie.

2. But you get to keep your shoes on.

3. My tri-band phone could not get any service there. (I was afraid it had finally died but it perked right up again once we landed in Beijing)

4. You can get all day internet access for six bucks by signing up with a service called Boingo.

5. Most of the toilets come equipped with bidets, and the bidets include a pre-recorded "flushing sound."

Now, I actually would love to have one of those toilet-lid bidets. I think bidets are a fine idea. What I can't figure out, though, is the purpose of the "flushing sound." It's the button on the far right with the green eighth notes. I of course had to try it. It's a very loud, somewhat distorted recording of a toilet flushing. Is this to cover up the noise of bodily functions, maybe? But why would the sound of actual peeing be any more embarrassing than an over-amped recording of a flushing toilet?

Enquiring minds, etc.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greetings from Beijing!

And look! I'm on Blogspot! Oh for the heady days when I could just, you know, go to Blogspot and Twitter and so on while in China, without having to do anything special. But I have to say, Witopia rocks! So far it's fast and easy. Thank you, freedom and privacy advocates!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FTGFW... far my attempted proxy solutions are bringing me no joy...I hope to have this worked out while in China but if not, posting, Tweeting, Facebooking, all those lovely little social networking activities will be severely limited.


UPDATE Commenter Nicki tells me that Hotspotshield is working -- I'd heard it was blocked. I've used that in the past so fingers crossed on that one. Plus the lovely folks at Witopia are working on my issue as well...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bad blogger...

No donut. Thankfully, I don't like donuts.

I'm getting ready for another China expedition, and in all honesty, I'm not sure why I'm going this time. Well, there were some good reasons, but those changed. And yet, I'm still going.

I'm hoping to have the whole proxy server issue worked out so I can post while I'm gone, at least part of the time. In all honesty, this lack of access to information is one of the main reasons I decided against settling in China for the long term. I know that there are ways around the Great Firewall, but it bothers me that I have to find ways around it, and I have to wonder about the long-term prospects of a system so fearful of the free exchange of information. Not that people in the US necessarily take advantage of that freedom. And I'm concerned that the dysfunction in our political system has reached a point where we may not be able to make the changes we need to make in time to get ourselves back on the right track.

But I'd rather be able to make that choice, as feeble as it might be.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Is it possible?

I might actually be done with my galley proofs. Which means...

I might actually be done with this book.

I mean, I know, if all goes well, that I'll be promoting it and doing my best to sell it and that it's going to be a big part of my life for the next year or so. But once I hand this bundle of pages and Post-it notes in, that's it. It's locked. No more agonizing about the status of iPhones in China or Xiali taxis in Beijing or how many minutes it would plausibly take to buy a train ticket at the Beijing train station and make the departing train. Or whether words should be italicized. Or whether I left someone out in the acknowledgments.

It kills me that a person as messy and disorganized as I am in most regards can be this absurdly anal in this one particular area.

I'm sure even after all this fretting that I will have made some mistakes. China has changed and continues to change; my knowledge is incomplete and if I were writing this book now...well, in some ways I'm sure it would be a different book. But you can only do what you can do.

Mostly, I hope I did a good job.