Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Technical Difficulties

The foreign tourist screaming obscenities at the tranquil lake would almost have been comical if she were not me. But she was. I was giving the locals an impromptu vocabulary lesson because I’d just made one of the dumbest mistakes of my traveling career.

The day started out well. Pipi and I found the lake, and were starting to see what it was the guidebooks saw in Hangzhou. It’s a lovely lake. It’s very big, and on the day we visited, the atmosphere was very heavy and hazy, so much that you could barely see modern buildings on the far side. The view mostly consisted of the willow trees lining the shore, and the little wooden boats cruising the water. Even though the boats are all for tourists, it still looked like a Chinese landscape painting. It was very picturesque, but unfortunately, there will be no pictures because I dropped my camera right into the depths of this lovely body of water.

Pipi says it seemed to happen in an instant, but from my perspective, it seemed like slow-motion. I sat down in one of the tourist boats with my camera in a soft case slung over my shoulder. The case closes with Velcro, but I hadn’t really fastened it. As I sat down, the case bumped up against my leg, the top popped open like a Pez dispenser, and my camera slid out, right over a low railing. It seemed to teeter on an exterior ledge a few inches above the water for about half an hour, but I still couldn’t move fast enough to grab it. It tottered in and disappeared immediately without a single bubble. I always wondered if it floated; now I know.

So there will be no further photos until I calm down and figure out what to do about this situation.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The “Real” China

Hangzhou is famous in China for having hosted Marco Polo, who pronounced the city the most beautiful place in the world. So Pipi and I arranged to spend several days here, somehow overlooking the fact that we were going on 800-year-old information.

Hangzhou is only about two hours from Shanghai by train, but it’s a very different place. We left from Shanghai’s brand-new South Station, a sparkling modernistic glass-and-chrome dome of a building that looks like something out of the Jetsons. You expect to leave it by hovercraft, not by train. We arrived in a grimy, crumbling Hangzhou station full of dark corridors clogged with touts trying to hustle people into taking their over-priced minivans into the city center. Hangzhou is a city of about five million people, but it still doesn’t have the cosmopolitan feeling that Shanghai does. English is not widely spoken, and hotels and restaurants don’t have the polish that you’ll find in bigger cities. Wai guo ren--foreigners—are still a little bit of a novelty. It’s not like we’re the first white people anyone has seen, but teenagers still bark, “Hello” when they see us, something that hasn’t happened to me since 1992. It’s kind of cute, but it reminds me of the way I’m often moved to moo when I drive past a dairy farm, and I don’t really like the attention.

It’s a hard place to get around, too. I’m reminded of how much infrastructure and order we take for granted in the United States. I went for a 45-minute walk in town two days ago while Pipi was at a meeting (her company has an office here), and never did find what I was looking for: the large urban lake that is Hangzhou’s claim to fame. This is sort of like being dropped off in mid-town Manhattan and failing to find Central Park, but in my defense, it was very hot, the blocks were very long and torn up by construction, and the street I started on wasn’t on the map I consulted before heading out. I know I was quite close when I gave up, but I was too tired and dehydrated to be enthusiastic about walking more, so I took a cab back to the hotel. As it turns out, I fared better than Pipi, who was not able to flag down a cab at all, and had to hike several miles home in business attire.

(Actually, she says several cabs stopped for her, nicely explained something she didn’t understand a word of, and then drove off empty without her. This also seemed to be happening to a lot of businessmen around her, so we really don’t know what the story was there.)

A lot of people dislike Shanghai. They find it too maniacally entrepreneurial and Western-influenced, and don’t consider it the “real” China. I think these things make it an incredibly exciting place, and even detractors concede that it’s what my friend John calls gaijin-friendly—easy to navigate. I miss it!

Awful Waffles

The English-language menu at C-Straits, a restaurant just down the street from our Hangzhou hotel, started out promisingly enough:

Honey Waffles.

That’s a little unconventional, but honey’s not so different from maple syrup. I’m okay with that.

It goes downhill from there:

Pork-Floss Waffles.

I’m still trying to stay with them. Pork floss—dried, shredded meat--is kind of gross. But is it really so different in spirit from sausage or bacon? I guess not. Okay. I’ll read on.

Tuna Waffles.

Okay, they’ve officially lost me. I like tuna and all, but with a waffle? No way. That has to be the strangest waffle accompaniment ever.

Or is it? No, it gets worse. Much worse. It goes to a place no waffle-lover should ever find herself:

Roasted Eel Waffles.

The truly disturbing thing is that all this was on the restaurant’s beverage menu. We will not be returning to the C-Straits cafe.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Plague of Fishes

Have you ever literally not been able to believe your eyes? This happened to Pipi yesterday in Shanghai. We were waiting for a cab at our hotel when Pipi saw what she wanted to believe was a falling leaf. But something about the color, the speed at which it fell, and most of all the way it seemed to be flopping around in the driveway all suggested something else. So Pipi went over and took a look and discovered that, sure enough, a fish had just fallen from the sky.

It was a small fish, about five inches long. It was flailing helplessly as people walked dangerously close, most of them not even noticing. We stood there watching it for a moment, a little warily, in case the one drop was followed by a full fish squall. Finally we realized that it had come from an outdoor tank on the second-story patio of an apartment building next to the hotel. (The photo above, advertizing the upcoming Shanghai Special Olympics, happens to show the row of tanks.) That solved the mystery, but how to solve the problem?

We pointed out the flopping fish to the head doorman. I didn’t expect him to be too sympathetic to two foreign ladies babbling about suicidal carp, but to my surprise, he was quite concerned. He picked up the slimy fish with his bare hand, gave a few practice pumps, and heaved it up over the balcony. Frankly, his form was not great—a little elbowy. I pictured the fish either slapping back down to the ground, or else flopping around unseen for hours on the patio, but miraculously, we all heard a splash as the little fish landed back in the tank. Pipi and I and all the other doormen cheered. “Hao qiu,” I told him, using a phrase I’ve heard Chinese sportscasters use to describe an especially skillful play. “Well,” he said bashfully in English, “I am really good at basketball.”

We’ve just arrived in Hangzhou, and so far it’s okay, but nothing that Felliniesque has happened to us yet. Something tells me we’re not going to top that random moment on this trip.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Technical Difficulties

I am having a few technical issues. I can access the tool to post this blog, for instance, but I can’t view it, or post photos to it. I also can’t delete comments. Some guy has been posting spam , but I can’t get rid of it until I’m home. So I’m sorry about the time-share junk messages that have been appearing in the comments section. Finally, I can’t view my photos on Flickr, either, so I’m labeling them blind. I know I’ve made a few mistakes. Not too many, I hope.

Technical issues aside, today was a good sightseeing day, and an even greater eating day. First, we went to my favorite street corner for breakfast. Chinese street food is some of the best food you’re going to find here, especially at breakfast time. There is a corner two blocks from our hotel that has about a dozen vendors out in the morning. Most of them sell variations on two things: Egg pancakes, and what the Chinese call youtiao, or “oil twists.” They’re essentially doughnuts, or crullers, really, but not that sweet. (I confess to swiping a sugar packet from Starbucks and sprinkling a little on mine this morning.)

The egg pancakes are either a crepe or a piece of bread like nan that is cooked on a large griddle. The batter usually has a lot of green onion in it. As the bread cooks, an egg is cracked on top and the whole thing is brushed with lots of oil, flipped over, and fried. Then it’s rolled up with a little salty sauce and some optional hot pepper. It’s a salty, oily, eggy, starchy treat and hot off the grill it’s one of the best things ever.

After breakfast, we went to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. This is one of the only big tourist sights we hadn’t seen yet. It’s an enormous space needle-like tower, but more garish than those you see in places like Toronto or Seattle. It looks a little like a neon hypodermic needle sticking up into the sky. Subtle is isn’t, but it’s on the east side of the Huangpu River in an area known as Pudong, where it somehow fits. Pudong is a region that has been declared Shanghai’s new financial and business district. This was farmland when I visited in 1992, but since then skyscrapers have popped up like mushrooms with almost no restraint or aesthetic consideration. It’s sort of like an urban planning theme park. A lot of the buildings are actually very creative and attractive. It’s not an ugly area. It’s just that like a lot of new-money situations, no one ever stopped to ask, “Is this too much?”

We took the elevator 263 meters up to get a look at Shanghai from above. It was a good day for this. It finally stopped raining, and got about as clear as a polluted city ever gets. The view was stupendous. I knew Shanghai was big and built-up, but the sight of a skyscraper forest poking up to the horizon was shocking.

For lunch we went to a restaurant specializing dumplings in a posh new mall called Xin Tian Di (New Heaven and Earth). We had soup dumplings, which are a Shanghai specialty and are almost my favorite thing in the world to eat. We decided to quit while we were ahead and came back to the hotel to nap. (I actually tried to see one other sight, a mansion-turned-hotel we can see from our room, but I got rudely shoed away from it. Whatever it is, it clearly isn’t a hotel anymore.)

Tonight, we’re seeing a dance performance. I don’t know what we’re doing for dinner; it can’t top the first two meals of the day. Tomorrow morning we catch a train to Hangzhou. I will try to blog from there.

Food photos and more here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adventurous Eating

I hope I didn’t make anyone nervous talking about dogs and China in the same breath yesterday. I know everyone makes uneasy associations about the two. And there’s some truth to it—I think dogs really are eaten here. But in three trips to the mainland, I’ve never been offered dog or seen it on a menu. And as an obvious foreigner, I doubt I ever will. Eating someone’s pet is just not something an American has to worry about.

On this trip, however, I’ve realized that many other alarming things are eaten here. The fanciest restaurant in our hotel, for example, has several dishes containing bullfrog. And last night, we ate at a dumpling restaurant that served conventional pork-and-cabbage jiaozi, but which also offered donkey as a dumpling filling. One other weird menu item was a picture of what looked like stewed grubs—Pipi asked for an English version of the menu and was able to determine that they were silkworms. So I’m not saying that you don’t have to watch what you eat here. The pitfalls are just different from what you might expect.

Today, I went to a place called the Duolun Lu Culture Street. It's a pedestrian street in what used to be the International Concession in North Shanghai. It was famous for being the home of a lot of revolutionary intellectuals in the 1930s, including Lu Xun, a pretty famous social commentator whom I remember reading in college. These and other photos here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hey Big Spender

Not everyone will admit this about traveling in China, but everyone secretly likes being a little bit more of a big shot than they are at home. Take me. In the United States, I’m a 5’-3” person who is basically unemployed. Here, though, I’m a solidly average (emphasis on solid) size, and have almost unimaginable buying power.

That’s because once you get here, everything is remarkably inexpensive by American standards. There’s a massage parlor in our neighborhood, for example, where you can get an hour-long massage for about $15. So far I’ve had two, which is about what I have in a good decade at home.

Just like anywhere, you have to be careful about choosing massage places, but this one is beyond legitimate. It’s decorated in a Japanese tatami-mat and shoji-screen style, just like an upscale American spa. It’s patronized mostly by ex-pats, but I have seen some Chinese yuppies there, too.

The first time I went, I had a neck and shoulder massage which was great. The second time, I picked a full-body treatment called simply “Chinese massage.” The English menu said that I would appreciate the “gentle Eastern touch.” I envisioned a tiny waif of a woman administering this massage with little butterfly fingers.

Clearly something got lost in translation. The masseur assigned to me was the sturdiest, most muscular guy in China. He looked exactly like the buzz-cut, ruddy-cheeked youths you see in Chinese propaganda posters. (I always wondered where they found these people; now I know.) He squeezed, pushed, pulled, kneaded, bent, folded, spindled, and stretched me to within an inch of yelping. I’d never had a massage that firm before, but it was great. I was so relaxed. How relaxed? Relaxed enough that I had a minor wardrobe malfunction with the pajamas I was given to wear and I didn’t even care. I was that Zen.

In other news, Pipi and I, feeling a little homesick, I guess, went to a pet show today. The conclusion we drew is that the Chinese have raised small pet dogs to an art form. Tonight we’re going to another sports bar so we can watch two soccer games happening in different cities. I hope we can stay awake. We’re having some jet-lag issues. We bounce out of bed at 7am but we can’t stay awake after dinner to save our lives.

Here are some photos. I've added a few.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Typhoon soccer

I was joking when I said we would be the only people in the stands, but it was practically true. The stadium seats something like 30,000, and the announced attendance was 6000—and that seemed inflated. I could see almost as many security personnel as spectators. There were at least as many Nigeria fans as US boosters, which was a little strange. I snapped a picture of the U.S. team trudging towards the locker room at the end of the game, and they don’t look like a team that has just won a big game and advanced to the next round of the World Cup. They look angry and wet. I think we’re all ready for the rain to stop. I know I’m tired of being wet and I don’t need to see my bright red poncho ever again. When Pipi and I got back to our hotel after the game, the doorman observed that the two of us were “hen lihai”—very hard-core. We definitely felt like two of the most dedicated fans right then.

We didn’t do a whole lot today, partly because it is so wet. We did walk around quite a bit this morning during a break in the weather. I’m really starting to like the neighborhood we’re in. It’s called Lu Wan, and in English is usually referred to as the French Concession. It’s the neighborhood that in the heyday of Western colonialism in Shanghai was home to a huge French expatriate population. I remember visiting this neighborhood in 1992 and being disappointed. I think I expected people in berets eating croissants on every corner. I wanted to eat buttery pastry and speak a language that I’m comfortable with. The French influence is a lot more subtle than that, but it’s there. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the buildings are made of brick, not the ubiquitous Chinese white tile, and the streets are laid out in an orderly manner, and lined with more trees than you usually see in a Chinese city. I will try to post a few photos, but it’s been so wet I haven’t taken many yet.

The biggest excitement of the day was at dinner. We went to a pseudo Irish pub because we thought they might be showing the China/New Zealand game on TV. As it turns out, that game got rained out, so no televised soccer for us. But that was okay because THEUSWOMENSTEAMWASRIGHTTHEREINTHEBARWITHUS!!!

Sorry; I get excited just thinking about it. What I meant was, the U.S. women’s team was there at the bar, too! Not all of the women, but about half of them, including the big stars, Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly. It was so exciting we literally didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We wanted to be gushing fans, of course, but they also seemed to be trying to have a normal dinner with friends and family—it looked like both Lilly and Wambach had their parents in tow—and we didn’t want to be rude. So we didn’t get autographs, but we did gain the story of how we watched a soccer game in a typhoon and then the next day got to eat hamburgers in Shanghai with the stars of the game.
Here are some photos.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Shanghai Surprise(s)

We got here fine. Well, we’re fine now. We weren’t doing too great after a 12-hour flight, but we slept very well and managed to wake up at a normal time, and now we feel fine. Our hotel is much nicer than I expected. Shanghai is an exciting and constantly surprising city.

A pleasant surprise: I only made one real packing mistake, but it was a doozy: I forgot the power cord for my computer. Remarkably, there is an authorized Apple reseller one subway stop away from our hotel at a huge electronics emporium called Cybermart. It was very easy to buy a new cord. So now I’m up and running, and obviously even able to access my blogging site. It’s amazing how much things have changed in China in 15 years. In 1992, it was an afternoon project to call home. This morning I spoke to my parents using Skype and my computer. It was easy and cost about 20 cents.

After breakfast, Pipi and I went to a Carrefour store, which was an interesting experience. Carrefour is a French chain, sort of like Wal-Mart, but more upscale. A grocery store is a major component, and it’s full of Western treats. There are lots of Asian things there, too—in fact, almost all of the patrons there were Asian. But it occurs to me that it might be like the Shanghai equivalent of Ranch99. I imagine the locals wander the aisles and think to themselves, “Ugh, fried potato slices? Pureed tomato gunk for pasta? People really eat these things?”

One quintessentially Chinese treat they have at Carrefour is White Rabbit candy. I think I’ve already documented my love of these candies. Pipi likes them too, and the last time we were here, we made a pilgrimage to the factory. To my surprise, we discovered a new flavor this morning: corn. No, really. How well you like corn White Rabbit candy depends not just on your feelings about creamed corn, but also on how far outside of the candy box you’re willing to think. I kind of like creamed corn, but I haven’t yet decided if I can accept it as a candy flavor. I understand that a lot of conventional western candy flavorings like cocoa, mint, and vanilla are really vegetable and plant products, but this may be too big of a leap for me.

Shanghai did welcome us with one other surprise: a typhoon. It’s been alternating between pouring and torrential rain all day. They’re forcasting 200 milimeters, which is, uh, a lot of rain. (China is a nice place, but it’s no Liberia; they use the metric system here.) We’re supposed to go to a soccer game tonight. We’ve come so far that we can’t possibly skip it, so we’ll go and get soaked supporting the US women. The game is on ESPN. Look for us—we’ll be the slightly dazed, very wet, poncho clad Americans. Also, we’ll be the only people in the stands. We shouldn’t be hard to spot.
Here are some photos.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Pipi and I leave for China this weekend. I’m bringing my computer and I will try to blog, but I won’t promise. I’ve been told that it’s not possible to read my blog in China, which would almost be a point of pride but it’s just that the Blogger site is blocked to Chinese readers. Nothing to do with my hard-hitting exposes. I think I remember being able to post, though, when I was there before. I will try my best.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Things Better Left Unsaid

Granted, Germany was beating Argentina badly. The final score was 11-0, which is a soccer World Cup record. And the German women did seem to be bigger and faster and more fit than the waif-like South Americans.

But still, there are certain sentences that just should never be said aloud, even if everyone is thinking them. One of these came out of the mouth of an announcer on ESPN, who found himself observing that, “The Germans are superior physically.”

Well, at least they weren’t playing Poland.

In just four days of soccer, we’ve also heard the Chinese team described as “sneaky,” and endured one talking head earnestly explaining that the Norwegians play an attacking style because they’re all Vikings. People, can we please think before we talk? Thank you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Formerly Burma; Still Using the English System

I know, of course, that the metric system is better than the English system. I understand that it’s decimal-based, making math easy. And I know it’s a pain to learn how many tablespoons in a cup, how many ounces in a pound, and how many feet in a mile.

But I did. I learned all those things. I know how long it takes me to walk a mile, and what to wear when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And so it’s fairly grudgingly that I’ve been educating myself about the metric system.

I used to tell myself that I needed to do this because the rest of the world does. But I just discovered that’s not quite true. Liberia and Myanmar (what you call Burma) also persist in using pounds and inches. And the E.U. recently granted England special permission to use their own system in certain circumstances. (Which seems a little condescending; no wonder they don’t like to think of themselves as part of Europe.) So for now, if you’re going to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, do it in Burma, Liberia, or an English pub.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Praise of Armchair Travel

Next week at this time Pipi and I will be in Shanghai. In contrast to last year’s trip to Asia, where the week before departure saw me in a frenzy of emailing, gift buying, and dog-earing four separate guidebooks, this week I’m going to mostly be sitting on the couch watching soccer. Lots of soccer.

Our trip revolves around the women’s World Cup soccer tournament, so our homework is to watch as many games as possible. Remarkably, the entire tournament is going to be on ESPN.

Last night Pipi did something I’ve never known her to do before: She set an alarm to watch television. I got up, too, and I'm glad I did. The games are on in the evening in China, which is early morning here. We do have a DVR, but it has a somewhat limited capacity and more importantly, we have a deadline. There are several games on each day, so we have to get creative about watching them or we won’t see all the important first-round matches before we leave. Also, I’m hopeless about avoiding spoilers. Last night we watched a recording of Germany steamrollering Argentina. In the middle I tried to look up some information online about the German team, and managed to spoil the final score for myself. (I know it sounds dumb to take risks like that, but if you’d been watching you’d want to know how tall Kerstin Garefrekes is, too. [Answer: 6”1’.]) So I need to watch games in as close to real time as possible.

This morning there was a real nail-biter between the United States and North Korea, which we watched almost live. I’m endlessly fascinated by the DPRK. It’s such a weird country and I wonder what the women’s lives are like. I wonder what they think when they travel. In the case of this year’s world cup in China, they’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Great, the one place they might let us go on our own. Why couldn’t Canada have hosted?” But still, Shanghai must be pretty mind-blowing after Pyongyang.

Oh, the game was good, too. It ended in a 2-2 tie. North Korea played ferociously. There’s no other word for it. They played like it was their last game ever; like they didn’t need to worry about having energy for more matches. They played like there was nothing else in their lives, which may be the case. Or maybe I’m being ignorant. For all I know, the North Korean women spend their weekends shopping for Gucci knockoffs and planning vacations in Thailand with their boyfriends. But I don’t think so. I got the impression I was getting a rare, if very controlled glimpse at a culture with a really different outlook on life.

It’s the next best thing to travel.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Isn’t it Ironic?

I just realized that Pipi and I are going to miss the premier of Survivor: China because we’re leaving on Sunday…for China.

Yes, we are huge Survivor fans, but I swear we didn’t plan this. Anyway, filming is long since over. So I promise you, we’re not really stalking the cast. (Or angling for a spot on the show. I’ve said it before; I wouldn’t last three days out there.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

More Fun Facts

Most lakes, even big ones, turn over their water fairly quickly. A drop of water landing in Lake Erie, for example, usually spends about two years there before finding its way out. (Don’t ask me how they know this.)

Lake Tahoe is different, though. For one thing, it’s extremely deep. Also, about 60 rivers feed into it, but only one leads out. For these reasons, water takes about 700 years to escape the lake.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Fun Fact

The water at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The lake never freezes, though, because convection keeps this cold but still not-quite-freezing water moving toward the surface all winter.

This fun fact comes courtesy of my procrastination instinct. I have an article due to Philippine Airlines in a few days, and I’m still at the fact-finding stage. Wish me luck.