Thursday, August 31, 2006


I'm at the Astor in Shanghai. My room is twice the size of last time. The web works wonderfully. So, finally, from China, a few pics of India:

Rant! Rant!

Only read this is you feel like hearing me rant.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Finally a pic

I booked into the Taj Palace hotel. very swank. Great pool. I was just riding up on the elevator and one of the staff, who I'd never met before, said "Good evening Mr. Kirby." Of course, in keeping with all Indian hotels, the Internet service is expensive and crap. I can't maintain a connection long enough to upload to Blogger. So only one pic, of me in front of the Gateway to India in Mumbai at night.

Most of the day was spent in and around Connaught Place, a series of ring roads that's at the heart of Old Delhi. It was the first place I went to when I got to India last year, and where my hotel was, and I now realize it's not representative of India. A foreigner can't walk 10 feet in CP without being accosted by beggers, rickshaw drivers, touts hawking chess sets/napkins/maps and guys trying to play friendly to lure you back to their stores. While other parts of India do have all of those, no where is it as concentrated as here. It really wears you down.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

My penultimate day in India

I haven't posted a great deal since I got to India (partly because of the lack of quality internet connections.) I've also been in go-go-go mode, which hasn't left much time for sight seeing. Tomorrow, my last day here, I have vowed to try and do a little bit of playing tourist. I haven't been taking many photos either, since sitting in the back of cars only affords so many photo-ops.

As most of you know this is my second visit to India. I was here in April 2005. For that reason, many of the images that made my jaw drop last time seem almost second nature to me now. I have spent a total of 6 weeks in India, which isn't a lot compared to some of the one-year journeys some travelers undertake here, but it's enough to get used to the cows and the beggars on the roads.

Ok, scratch that. You never really get used to the beggars.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Delhi Belly

(It doesn't look like there will be any more pics until I'm back in China. It doesn't seem to matter what kind of Internet connection I get, Blogger just won't accept any photo uploads to the site.)

I arrived in India's capital a couple of hours ago with a receding case of stomach troubles. Unfortunately I got walloped again at Anupam's house. I think it was the sweet lassi.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Home sweet home away from home

I’m sitting at the dining room table at Anupam’s house. He and his wife Kanika are taking a quick post-breakfast nap. We didn’t get in until around 2:30 am last night. Anupam has high speed internet, but Blogger is being a real pain in the ass about posting pics so I'll only get to put one or two up for now.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Crisis narrowly averted

I can't describe how horrible it feels to open your wallet in a Mumbai shop and reach for your credit card, only to realize it's not there. This morning I discovered I was missing my Master Card. Terrible thoughts rushed through my mind. I've never lost a credit card before. I rarely use the thing, since I came well stocked with traveller's cheques. I did a little backtracking in my mind and figured the last place I used it was Leopold's restaurant in Colaba, where they offer tourists a 10% discount if they used their credit cards. That was on Monday. I dashed out of the store, hopped in a taxi and we gunned it over to the restaurant. I had pretty low expectations, but when I asked the cashier if they had my card, he pulled up a stack of credit cards two-inches thick left behind by all the other dumb tourists. Mine was on the bottom of the pile. Phew. That called for a Kingfisher then and there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Another Long, Long, Really Long Post

Sorry for being an absantee blogger. This will be one of those meandering entries that come in no chronological order whatsoever, leap from topic to topic, and probably put most of you to sleep. It comes with staying in budget hotels in India, whose managers stare at you blankly when you ask if their $40 rooms come with Internet. India has plenty of Internet cafes that are pretty cheap, but they’re awful to Blog from – you go into a sweaty, hot room, the keyboards are buried under years of grime, the computers run Windows ’75, and groups of Indians tend to gather around to watch what you’re doing. I've finally found a place where the computers have USB ports, so I am going to paste in stuff I wrote on my laptop. I just spent 45 minutes uploading four pics, only to have IE crash, so there won't be any images yet.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Quiet period

I won't be posting much over the next couple of days I don't think. I moved out of the pricey Hilton into another hotel, but in doing so I lost my internet access. I've got two days of back to back meetings, so I'll do an update when I've got web access again.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Mumbai day one

I forgot how much I like India. In a lot of my posts I've been worried about functioning here and whether I could hack it after running around China for 2 1/2 weeks. Yes, India does throw up a lot of barriers to make life difficult, as my post about the airport shows. But once you're on the streets interacting with the people, it's great. The thing I most appreciate about India is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. China is all about putting on a good face. In Shanghai the buildings are decked out like Christmas trees. In Beijing the poor and beggars are shunted out of sight. You're left with a sanitized version of reality. India doesn't hide anything. It's all right there for you to see, so you know what you're really getting. For better or for worse. I appreciate that.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Welcome to India, now line up over there

My head is spinning. Partly from the shock of India, partly from exhaustion.
My flight left Beijing at 9 am Saturday and I got into Bangkok around noon. I had some time to kill in the Bangkok airport, so I changed my Yuan to Thai Bhatt and ordered some Pad Thai — one of my favourite dishes — and a Tiger beer from a restaurant. My flight was delayed, and it didn't end up leaving Bangkok until 7 pm. There was an Australian woman sitting next to me who was coming to India for her first time to take a 10-week yoga course or something. She didn't sound convinced that she could handle the place. I tried to reassure her, but I don't think she believed me.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Zaijian China, Namaste India

It's Friday evening, my last night in China for a while. Tomorrow morning I have to get up very early and make sure I catch the 6 am shuttle bus to the airport which leaves from just around the corner.

I'm going to miss China. This was an excellent first visit. Sure, there were a couple of down days when I was either ill or got ripped off by some crooked taxi driver or something. And I won't miss the Big Brother feel of the place. But I met a lot of great people and saw some incredible things. I would have liked to have headed into the rural parts of the nation, since that's where the bulk of the population lives. I'll save that for the next trip.

I met up one last time for lunch with some people I worked with here. We had Peking Duck -- crispy on the outside, fatty and juicy on the inside. Yum!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Should I be offended?

Not to descend into the gutter, but since I've spent so much time talking about the great food I've been eating, I should give some space to the repercussions of all that exotic cuisine. I was laid low by e-coli or some other nasty stomach bug last night and today. I think it was the orange juice at my hotel breakfast, which was basically Tang, probably mixed with Beijing sewer water.

What's worse, I was running low on Imodium, the traveler's best friend. You don't want to go to India without the stuff. So I dragged myself down to the pharmacy next door to the hotel. Imagine walking into Shopper's drug mart, but every character on every bottle is in Chinese. Bewildering to say the least.

I wandered the aisles until a saleslady asked me something in Chinese. I patted and rubbed my stomach. She looked at my belly, and then grabbed a box from the shelf that had a pink stomach on it. Aha, Chinese Pepto-Bismol, I thought. But then she motioned for me to wait and got someone who spoke English. I told this second woman I wanted Imodium and she took the box from my hand and returned it to the shelf. As we walked over to the proper aisle, I asked: "What was that other saleslady going to give me?"

-"Diet pills"

I paid for my Imodium and left the store, my self esteem a few notches lower.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why I'm a chicken when I cross the road

Some thoughts on not dying when getting from one side of the street to the other. I bring this up, because I think I've finally mastered a technique.

Many major roads are wide, with three lanes running each way and a small divider running down the middle. Yes, there are traffic lights. And most big intersections have guards with loud whistles trying to herd pedestrians around. But the little green man doesn't mean you have the right of way. No. Might is right. City buses, for example, don't appear to have to obey red signals; they regularly plow right through while honking their horns, sending pedestrians diving out of the way. I'm not even going to bother addressing the psychopathic bicyclists.

Many roundabouts don't seem to have any traffic lights at all. So the hapless pedestrian must weave through several lanes of traffic. My expertise at the Frogger game on my old Atari 2600 has come in handy.

When standing at the edge of a fast-moving river of cars I have taken to waiting until someone else joins me. Then I follow them across. Not just anyone will do, though. Teens and younger adults are no good. They dart much to fast. By the time I realize they've gone a motorcycle or minivan is barreling down on me. Instead I wait for children and seniors, because drivers seem to have slightly more compassion for those age groups. Most seniors are ok, because they move slowly and carefully. But others seem to have a fatalist approach to road-crossing, as if they're thinking: "I've had a good life, if it's my time to go under a speeding VW Santana taxi, so be it."

That's why kids make the best guides. They have more to live for. I do to. Lead on, little ones.

Quick question

Is anyone having trouble seeing the pics I'm posting? Meaning does it generate a page of text gibberish when you click to enlarge?

Hutong hits of the 80s and 90s

I'm feeling much better now. The sun came out today. Blue skies all around. The mood in the streets reflected it. People were out in droves.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Up a wall

I'm back online. It took a couple of days, but they found a techie who spoke some English and he set me up.

My head cold has returned with a vengeance. One of the people I met here bought me some Chinese medicines and I'm trying that stuff. It seemed to be working but now I'm feeling crappy again. It probably also has something to do with waking up before 5 am two days in a row.

Last night I found a great kite store and bought a small dragon kite and another hawk kite. Next door was a hotpot restaurant. There's no such thing as boneless, skinless here. You get it all in your pot. As I picked out the chicken feet and neck parts, I knew it was only time before a head would roll over in my broth and look up at me. I wasn't in the mood for beak, so I took it out too. Other than that, another great meal with a big beer for 25 Yuan ($3.)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Here and there

I'm sitting in an internet cafe typing this out. All the links are in Chinese. I'm just guessing and going from habbit.

I was up at 4:45 this morning to see the flag raising ceremony in Tienanment Square. At the crack of dawn a group of soldiers march out of the Forbidden City to raise the Chinese flag. I thought I was getting there early to grab a good vantage point. By 5 am there were probably a thousand people waiting at the barriers. This is where being a tall foreigner in China comes in handy. I just peered over all the heads. THe soldiers march out in perfect unison at 108 paces per minutes, with 75 cm per pace. The flag went up, they blasted the national anthem out of speakers located all across the square and then it was over.

I'd decided to change hotels to save some cash. After all the "service charges" the old hotel was getting too pricey for me at around $140. Then I got my bill for a small load of laundry they did for me. 50 bucks!!! anyway, through expedia i found a place half the price in a more sterile location west of Tienanment. The upside is it's actually a one bedroom apartment, with a kitchen and washing machine!! And a pool to boot. I walked over and checked in, then went back to my old hotel and grabbed my stuff. That's when I found out the Internet in the new hotel doesn't work with my computer for some reason. (Hense the Internet cafe.) With a cheaper hotel comes an equivilently lower level of English among the staff. How do you say "I need a proxy address" in Chinese? I'm able to Skype out, but not surf the web. Hopefully it'll get fixed tomorrow when the "engineer" comes to work.

Rather than waste time at the hotel I hit the road and decided to check out a weekend market I'd read about. Of course, I forgot my travel guide and map in the hotel, so I had to go by memory. I actually remembered a short series of Chinese characters from the book and when I saw them at the right subway station I knew I was on track. I grabbed a bus that looked like it was going the way I wanted to go. (A single bus ride here is 1 yuan, or 14 cents.) After a longer ride than I'd expected we passed the market so I hopped off to go and hone my pathetic bargaining skills. There were all kinds of knick knacks, a lot of it passed of as antiques. There are company's in China that create counterfeit antiquities, like Chinese coins, vases and figurines, complete with cracks and scuff marks, like when jean companies started pre-fading jeans. That seems wierd to me. I bought a few souvenirs. probably paid too much but it's all relative.

I needed to get some stuff from my e-mail account like numbers and such, so I set out in search of an Internet cafe. My travel guide had warned me that most Internet places have been shut down in Beijing. No kidding. I grabbed taxis and went from place to place, only to find empty spaces where buildings had once been. Then a Beijing monsoon started, or it feels like it. The Chinese are so entrepreneurial. On hot days they hawk ice cream bars (don't ask me how they keep them from melting when all they have them in is an open box) and water. Then the second the rain falls, they switch merchandise and it's umbrellas and rain coats.

While jumping puddles I saw a barber shop. I've been getting kind of shaggy because my sheers won't work over here. I got a cut, which if I think about it was probably my first professional trim since high school. I forgot how great it feels to have a stranger wash my, my scalp. I got them to use the zero setting on the clippers. That really got 'em excited. Eight employees gathered around my chair to watch. Hair cut: 40 yuan or about $6.

I asked them about an internet cafe by miming someone typing on a keyboard and they pointed me here. Nice place. Serves beer. Some cool Chinese songs playing. But there won't be any pics until I get my laptop hooked up.

Tomorrow I'm going to visit the Great Wall. Very stoked about that.
All for now, ciao.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


I woke up this morning with a head cold. Nothing like venturing into a muggy Beijing morning stuffed up and sneezing. I think it's the extremes of going from my air-conditioned room to the heat outdoors.

This morning I went to the Summer Palace, essentially a big-ass summer cottage resort built for China's emperors in the 1700s, complete with a massive man-made lake, islands and causeways. A lot of the buildings were closed for renovation as part of the great fix-up for the Olympic games. It was also another smoggy, cloudy day so you couldn't see far.

The highlight was lunch. My host took me to a little restaurant that does Mongolian hot pots. Awesome. They put a big pot and burner on your table. The pot is divided into a spicy chili mixture and a more savoury liquid. Once it's boiling you plop in the food to cook -- things like strips of raw beef and mutton, vegetables, and shrimp. Oh, we also ordered cubes of gelatinized pig blood. It's much better than it sounds, especially when you dip it in the accompanying sesame sauce. It was one of the tastiest meals I've had since I got here.

Today I'm doing some planning for the next leg of my journey -- India. Interviews are finally falling into place for Mumbai. But it's a pain in the ass to get from China to India, let me tell you. I might end up flying Air Ethiopia! There are no direct flights from Beijing to Mumbai, so I'll have to fly to Delhi, then catch a connector.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Peking popcorn

I haven't seen the sun in three days since I got to Beijing. I don't know if it's just cloudy, or whether it's the pollution. Everything is hazy, so I assume it's more than just storm clouds. The air is thick with humidity. Even at its most muggy Toronto can't touch humidity like this.
I worked at the hotel till about 4 on Friday, then headed out to Tienanmen Square. I can't believe I've been here this long and haven't seen the sights. I made the 1 km hike to the Forbidden City first for a stroll around the grounds. I didn't bother going into any of the buildings yet, I've got time for that later. Besides, I've been told much of the place is closed for renovations leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But I did get to see the painting of the big guy himself, the Great Helmsman. There were soldiers everywhere in their green uniforms with red patches. But they were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese tourists. That portrait of Mao has to be the one of the most photographed site in China. I bet it rivals the Great Wall in terms of number of pics.
At the gates there are big doors with brass knobs. Men have fondled the paint right off of them. Funny to watch.
Tienanmen Square itself is right across from the Forbidden City. The two are divided by a huge road that is in a perpetual state of congestion. You have to go through a tunnel to get over there. I can't decided whether in real life the square looks bigger or smaller than it does on TV. I often find when I go places that I've repeatedly seen in the movies or on the news that they don't live up to my expectations. But the square is pretty damn big. It's quite a long walk from end to end. You have to dodge some obstacles along the way. First there are the hawkers, selling kites, maps and paper Chinese flags (I caved and bought a few). The bigger hassle was all the "English students" who want to practice on you. In fact, what they do is act very friendly, try to get you to go with them for a drink or food, and then stiff you with the bill. It hasn't happened to me, but I was warned about it. They're usually young couples. And if you talk to them long enough, their conversations all follow the exact same pattern. "Hello, where you from? Canada, nice country, very clean. How long you been in Beijing. Do you like China? Would you like to go with us to tea ceremony?" It's like someone gave them a script to read from. I've found that by telling them I've been to China, say, 20 times, they immediately lose interest and walk away. It's kind of fun to string them along when you're bored.
After a couple of hours I had to leave. I had tickets to see a Beijing acrobatic show. I hopped on the subway (it's a bit grungier than Shanghai's but far less busy, or at least, it was this evening) and got as close to the theatre as possible. The traffic is excruciating here, so it's best to cut down the taxi time by as much as possible.
The show was at the Chaoyang Theatre. It was a neat old place, though the seats were in a severe state of disrepair. But they had popcorn. And good Orville Redenbacher-like popcorn at that. I grabbed a bag and a pop and took my seat.
The show was amazing. I was snapping shots and clapping the whole time. Great music and costumes. You can see where Cirque du Soleil gets many of its performers, and a lot of its ideas. The show lasted about 1 1/2 hours. I'd watch it again in a second.
I was just watching CNN International and the coverage of the terrorist bust in UK, and wondering whether Canada will change the rules on carry on before I return. The airline execs must be rubbing their hands at this. No more carry on food, or drinks, or entertainment. It'll all come from Air Whatever, and it'll cost us.

P.S. I love some of the Chinese signs. I'm posting one I saw near the Forbidden City. I'm assuming it means "No car bombs allowed" which should put all those would-be terrorists in their place. But it could also mean "No burning cars allowed" or "No cars with giant cheese puffs strapped to the roof allowed."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

No scorpion virgins here

Today was a very blah day. Rained on and off all through, and when it rains in Beijing, it pours. I thought it was hail the drops were so big and loud against my window. Rivers ran down the streets. I stayed around the hotel all day working, perfect day for it.
This evening though I was invited out for dinner to have my first Peking Duck. (This is quickly turning into a food blog, isn't it?) The restaurant was called Quanjude, and though it was five stories tall it was already packed by 5 pm. The place is known for its great duck, but not its service. The dishes were brought out backwards, with the duck coming first. Apparently it's supposed to be the last dish. I wasn't complaining.
The duck was brought out to our table on a cart. A masked chef sliced and diced it to pieces in seconds. We ate it by dipping the pieces in a sauce and putting them into what I assume were rice paper shells. Add some onions, roll and viola.
After a while I gave up on the ceremony and just ate it straight off the plate. Melt in your mouth greasy goodness. Each Peking duck comes with a card that says how many ducks have been served since the restaurant opened in 1864. Mine was number 115,148,518. No typos.
There were a few other dishes but the one I was most proud of were the scorpions. They were of the small variety, about two inches long, with their little stingers intact. The Arachnida came on a bed of sesame seed duck and rice cakes. It took me a few false starts. I'd lift the chopsticks to my open mouth, but they'd hit some invisible wall. Finally I just closed my eyes and popped it in my mouth. Crunchy. Not much taste, surprisingly. They're supposed to be good for relieving stress. So they say.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Killing me cheesily

Ack, I'm in hotel hell. I booked into a place in Beijing called the Tianlun Dynasty. It's in a great location, has a pool, free internet... and a filipino cover band butchering tunes like killing me softly right outside my window. I booked the place online and went for the special summer deal. Hah. Some deal. the place has a big indoor courtyard with fake palms and lots of Westerners sitting on deck chairs sipping drinks. My room faces in to that. They said all the other rooms are full tonight, but I've told them if I don't get an outside view I'm changing hotels. Of course, I've already paid in full for full days, but the good folks at expedia seemed willing to go to bat for me if it comes to it.
Ack, ack. It's a Kenny G. sax solo!
Anyway, on to more fun stuff that looks like it could kill me, too. The food I mean. There's a great strip of food vendors nearby. A veritable smorgosboard of wierdness. I started off light with some lamb and beef kebabs. Then a yummy beef, noodle and salad roll. I saw some kids walk by with cups of bubbling, smoking tea. I found the vendor and watched him drop a white cube of carbonate or something into the cup. Immediately it began to fizz and filled with what looked like dry ice. It was really refreshing. Still feeling peckish after the mushy meal Air China served on the flight up here, I ordered grilled squid. It flopped around on the stick, and was a bit chewy, but the sauce they put on it was tasty. There are lots of other things for me to try. Starfish for one. The vendors kept pointing to bright red crayfish and called them scorpions. Next booth down there's the real thing on skewers, in big and small sizes, right next to the crickets and beetles. I'll have to build up to those I think.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Food 'n stuff

I've had some great meals over the last couple of days. Monday and Tuesday were long work days, up at 6 and on the road by 7, home late. But the great thing about spending a full day with companies in China is they stuff you with all kinds of great food. It's seen as embarassing here if a host runs out of food for his guest, so to avoid that they prepare 10 times as much food as could possibly be eaten.

At one office on Monday I was told we were going to have a "light meal." There were seven of us around a big revolving table. They started to bring the dishes in, and they just kept coming. 16 in all. There was a huge fish head, several whole fish with white eyes staring at me, congee soups and jelly fish among others. I found one dish in particular very tasty. I asked what it was, and I was told the loose translation was shell fish. I kept munching away, and then looked down at the chunk of meat between my chopsticks and it had toes. Little nails to be exact. Turtle feet. They didn't want to upset me by telling me what it was. Not that I cared. I've seen enough turtles for sale in the markets to realize they weren't being kept as pets.

I had another great lunch with another group today, with chicken feet (they politely listed them as "chicken fingers" on the menu), beef and bok choy in satay sauce, chili chicken, a spicy bean curd and about 5 other dishes.

This hotel has scales in the bathroom. I honestly thought I'd come to Asia and lose some weight. Ha!

On the way back to the hotel just now, I was taken to Zhujiajiao historic town, an old canal-lined town that was protected from modern development. It was nice to wander through. I did a little shopping. and we took a small boat down some of the waterways.
I've got to pack my stuff now and get ready for my flight to Beijing tomorrow morning. My hotel is supposed to have high-speed internet. It's also supposed to be a short walk to Tiennanmen Square.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A long one

This is going to be a longish post. I started it on the plane to Xi’an on Saturday and I’m finishing it on the way back to Shanghai.

Saturday, Aug. 5: I’m on an Air China flight bound for Xi’an. This plane was built for little people. I thought Air Canada was cramped. The laptop is squished between my chest and the seat in front of me like a ‘V’. It’s only a 2 hour flight so I’ll survive.

I didn’t have any meetings Friday, so after a nice sleep in, I went out to try a bit of shopping. I didn’t get much though. I was on the hunt for a knock-off LV bag for Donna. The Chinese gov’t has taken a lot of steps to stamp out the counterfeit trade – advertisements and billboards say don’t buy fakes, and officials have shut down many of the famous knock-off markets – but it’s just gone further underground. Touts come up to you with catalogs of bags, watches and DVD and invite you to their “store.” I’ve gone with a few and they lead you through winding back alleys and upstairs to rooms packed with goods. Other times shops with regular storefronts will keep the counterfeits in back rooms. One shopkeeper yesterday pulled a table away from the wall, slid a bookshelf to the side, and entered through a secret passage. The problem is the stuff is crap. I found one that I thought Donna would like, but it was scuffed. They went and got me another one, but they couldn’t get the clasp to open. Three guys wrenched on it for 5 minutes until it popped open, then they said with straight faces, “you buy?”

With empty hands I headed over to the Shanghai museum, a very nice exhibition of calligraphy, jade, pottery and paintings. I also went to a city-planning exhibition where they had a scale model of how the city is to look in the next few years.

Last night I hooked up with one of my sources and we went to Face Bar, a Thai restaurant and bar in an old mansion. There were three of us and we ordered a lot of food to share – pad tai, green curry, shrimp, pork, and drank some beers. Then we went to a neighbourhood of bars and had a couple more on the patio. Another expat and his Chinese wife joined us and gave me tips on shopping. The guys who live here have it down to a science. I left around midnight to pack and catch a couple of hours of sleep before waking at 5 am for my flight.

A contact in Beijing had arranged for my ticket, and sent me a confirmation number. They told me to pick up the ticket at the Air China office in the airport. That’s when, for the first time, I was reminded that I was in a Communist country with its uncaring bureaucracy. I showed up at the counter at 6:20 but the guy told me his job was to only sell tickets. The people who handed out tickets that have already been purchased wouldn’t be in until 7, he said. My flight was for 7:50, and a big sign said the check-in would close 45 minutes beforehand. He didn’t have anything else to do, but just sat there yawning. I waited with a huge crowd of Chinese for these people to arrive. There are no such things as lines here, people just clump around their target, so I had to elbow a few people to keep my place at the front of the crowd. Anyway, despite my worries, I made it to the gate just as they were boarding.

As I said, the plane is pretty small. They’re blasting Just for Laughs hidden camera segments over the TV, no headphones. So I decided not to bother trying to sleep.

(I get a kick out of the evaluation card Air China handed out. One of the questions was: "You feel inconvenient in: Flight Unpunctuality? Arrival and Departure? No Complimentary Service?" You know they've got problems when they start with the assumption the flights suck.)

Sunday, Aug. 6: It’s mid-afternoon and I’m just waiting for my China Eastern flight to Shanghai. What a great couple of days. My contact in Beijing who arranged my ticket also had a driver waiting to meet me at the airport. He was a nice guy who spoke quite good English, so as we drove he gave me some info about the region. Did you know this province accounts for 30% of all apple exports in the world? And there are several large mounds of earth you can see in fields, which are royal burial sights. Xi’an is regarded as the cultural heart of China. They’ve also got an awesome highway from the airport to the city, though as I'd later learn it has its flaws.

Before taking me to my hotel, we decided to hit the sights first. We started with the Terracotta soldiers. I've wanted to see them for years, and they didn't disappoint. I spent about four hours wandering through the excellent museum that encompasses the open excavation pits. There are about 6,000 well-preserved bronze soldiers built some 2000 years ago. I’ll post a bunch of photos below.

On the way back to Xi'an we stopped off at the elaborate Concubine's garden. Pretty neat, though it would all mean a lot more if I was Chinese. Apparently at an early age school kids learn the story of how this rather plump lady inspired a great war. It was just a nice place to wander around and imagine what it was like in the days before the swarms of camera-happy Chinese tourists.

On our way back to the city that I learned just what happens when you introduce millions of cars to a country that only 10 years ago got around mostly by bicycle. It started with heavy, slow moving traffic and ended up in full-stop gridlock. After about 30-minutes people got out of their cars to hire local kids to go and buy them water. The problem was exacerbated by a few things. First, with the high price of gas, Chinese believe a car is more fuel efficient if the tank is mostly empty — you know, less weight, better mileage. That’s fine until you’re stuck in traffic and you run out of gas. Many people did. Then older cars started overheating. Everyone had to weave around them. Anyway, we made it, but it took a few hours. The problem turned out to be a crash between a rig and a car. When we drove past six guys, including two cops, were trying to push the rig up a hill.

I stayed at the Hyatt. Ok hotel. They said it was 5-stars. Hardly. I found some great night markets and the food in Xi’an is influenced by the large Muslim population, so there was a lot of mutton on the menu. Very tasty.

Today after a nice sleep I checked out and went for another long walk. It was extremely hot, but I found periodic refuge in the many McDonald’s. I had bought a few souvenirs last night, so I haggled for a bag at the market. I paid $5, which was still waaaaaaay too high. As I sit here, the bag stinks like creosote. Like it's disintegrating right before my eyes.

A huge ancient wall surrounds downtown Xi’an, with a number of impressive gates into the city. I went to the south gate and after mounting the stairs I found a place to rent bicycles for a couple bucks. I got one and rode around the city. I’m not sure of the distance, but it took me a bit over an hour, with a few stops to get out of the sun. It was a one speed bike, a knock off of a Western brand, and I think I displaced a few ribs on the rough patches. There was hardly anyone up there though, which made it even better.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Street life

thought i'd post a few more pics. I went for a nice walk after work. I love walking down the back streets. It's a real maze, there is no grid to the streets, alley ways lead to more alley ways lead to dead ends, so you turn around, walk back, and look for commotion and head in that direction instead. The streets come alive at around 7 pm, probably because the blistering sun is down. people put out tables of food and chairs and their homes become sidewalk restaurants. I'd love to try some of the food, but my intestines know better. people kept inviting me to sit down and have a drink with them or chat. I hung out with a few people but none of them could speak english. I think they just got a kick out of sitting down with a foreigner. The second you sit down kids come up to you saying "hello" "hello" "hello."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Still sleep deprived

I have spent a lot of time in the back of taxis heading into the Shanghai suburbs for meetings. They're pretty cheap. A 30-40 minute ride will set you back about 120 RMB, or $17. When you get in the taxi a recorded voice welcomes you and tells you to fasten your seat belt. I've been in a dozen cabs now, and not one of them had seatbelts that worked. It's the thought that counts.

After getting back to my hotel I went out for a bite to eat (a bit bowl of wonton soup and spicy chicken & noodles for 15 RMB or $2) and a stroll around. There's supposed to be a huge market nearby that I've been looking for. I feel the urge to get fleeced by professional hagglers.

It’s Thursday at 6 am and though I've been here for almost a week, my sleeping pattern is still messed up. I've been up since 4 am.

I'll post a few more pics. I saw my first traffic accident last evening. Despite the zaniness of the drivers here, collisions must be rare, because this one involving scooters (I think) attracted dozens of people who crammed in to hear the guy in the red shirt scream at this poor cop. I love the look on his face as he's talking on his phone.

The other pics are just street shots from around the area. One street can be teeming with bicyclists, the next a sea of cars.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Live from Suzhou

I'm writing this from the back of a taxi, I'll post it later today. It's Wednesday morning and I'm en route to another interview at one of Shanghai's universities.

I had a chance to see some of the areas around Shanghai yesterday. My contact for one of the stories picked me up yesterday in the morning in a Buick minivan and we hit the road, visiting some of his company's operations. You can get around pretty fast here, compared to India where you're always dodging cows. The posted speed limit on the superhighways is 120 km.

In the afternoon we ended up in a city called Suzhou in Jiangsu province, which borders on Shanghai municipality. The place had a heavy Singaporean influence (there's a chunk of land cordoned off that is actually considered Singapore territory, so products can be moved through and qualify as exports and imports for tax purposes).

The Chinese have built a sprawling grid network of four and six lane roadways, perfectly manicured with lush grasses and trees down either side. They still look brand new because they're hardly used. You could stand at one of the intersections, look each way and not see any cars. The idea seems to be: if we build it, they will come.

In fact there are dozens upon dozens of tall apartment buildings erected or under construction in that area. Yet from what I could tell hardly any of them were lived in. Developers put them up either in anticipation of the swelling middle-class, which could show great foresight, or to feed the frenzied real estate speculators. It's probably a bit of both.

We went for dinner at a Mexican restaurant and stuffed ourselves with Fajitas. Nice change of pace. The owner is apparently a former Boeing executive who didn't want to leave China when he was ordered to transfer back to the US.

I also got a chance to visit a Pagoda in downtown Suzhou. I was snapping shots of what I thought was a roaring lion statue honouring a fat Buddha figure nearby, until our driver told me it was actually a garbage can.

We ended up back at the Mexican place for flan and margaritas and to continue our chat. A three-piece band was on stage. We were the only ones there so they invited us up to sing. I belted out Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd, with Chilean back up singers and a Filipino guitarist.