One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pocari Sweat

It was the right decision, getting my hair cut in Shanghai. I passed some salon places here in Hiroshima this afternoon, with prices posted in the window, and it looks like I couldn't have got it done here for less than 3500 yen (about $35 Canadian).

A special note for my friends Graham and Steph: The "claw game" is everywhere in Japan! I was walking through this pedestrian shopping arcade today and saw a couple of places that were entirely devoted to the claw game, in various shapes and sizes, with various prizes including plush Hello Kitty dolls. The claw game machines in the concourse of the baseball stadium in Fukuoka were called "UFO Catcher."

I also saw a hobby shop filled with action figures, HotWheels, model kits for planes and ships from World War 2, and fierce-looking plastic robots.

I had a lot of difficulty finding this English-language bookstore called the Book Nook, but it's okay, because I was in no rush and was happy to proceed by lazy trial and error. At the Book Nook, I browsed the shelves of used books while behind a curtain, in the back, two young people were taking an English lesson with a native English speaker. I ended up buying All The President's Men and The Emperor of Ocean Park, which I hope will keep me busy during my quiet hours until the day I fly back to Toronto.

I guess I should say something about the shinkansen -- the "bullet train." As I believe I've already mentioned, the shinkansen doesn' t go nearly as fast as the MagLev train in Shanghai. It should be noted, however, that the MagLev is little more than a public relations stunt right now, with one short line of limited usefulness, and I think I read somewhere that it's losing money badly. The shinkansen system, on the other hand, links almost every major city in Japan and is an extremely impressive service used by people in all walks of life. The trains are fast, very fast, and they look very cool with their big jet-like noses, but there's a lot more to it.

I got up early this morning so I could soak in the bath. Kind of weird, to have a hot bath at 7:30 a.m., but I liked it. I decided to carry my bags to Hakata Station rather than take a taxi, reasoning that I could endure anything for a few short blocks as long as I took regular breaks. It was a hot day here, and I was sweating profusely by the time I dragged myself into McDonald's for breakfast on the second floor of the bus station next to the train station. I made it up to the platform with several minutes to spare before the 10:28 train to Hiroshima, and because I didn't care about having a reserved seat, I just had to flash my railpass at a couple of officials on the way up and that was all. The train wasn't crowded when I first got on, and didn't become increasingly crowded as we made our stops along the way, which was a big relief to me because my duffel bag was too big to go in the overhead compartment and I had plunked it down in the seat beside me.

Shamefully, I don't know how to say "water" in Japanese. Before I got on the train, I bought a bottle of this clear stuff called "Pocari Sweat" at a convenience store downstairs -- I just pointed at it because it looked like water. It's not water, though -- it's flavoured, and it claims to replace your electrolytes and nutrients after exercise, similar to the claims made by Gatorade. After I got settled in my comfortable seat by the window on the train, and we were pulling out of the station, I opened it up. It was sweet, and tasted faintly of turkey, or maybe like water that a roast turkey had been floating in. I was thirsty and drank the whole thing despite some misgivings.

Across the aisle from me, a businessman in his forties used a delicate paper fan to cool himself down. You wouldn't see that in Canada, with North American notions of masculinity being what they are. On a related note, I've seen many women in both China and Japan using parasols to protect themselves from the sun -- another thing you aren't likely to see in Canada in 2005. Maybe 1805 or 1905, but not 2005.

The landscape of Kyushu, the southern island where Fukuoka is located, is incredibly lush and at the same time mountainous. We passed through a number of tunnels, some of them quite long. The whole trip took only an hour and fifteen minutes.

The Japanese government is conducting a census soon, and they've got posters all over the place, in English, encouraging everyone who lives here to participate, regardless of immigration status -- whether you're a citizen or not, a short-term resident or a long-term resident, a student or a worker. The poster makes the point even clearer by including an image of a smiling Caucasian male. I'm only including this observation because the poster campaign seems like a really big one, suggesting that the government is troubled by a lack of clear and detailed information about the foreigners living in Japan.

I saw two teenage girls a few minutes ago dressed like Strawberry Shortcake dolls. They had big white bows on the tops of their heads, and flower print dresses with puffy sleeves and a lot of lace trim, and lacy stockings. They were waiting for a bus. It's some kind of Japanese fashion subculture, I guess.

Tomorrow I'm going to visit all the sights associated with the atomic bomb that exploded over the city in 1945. There's the Peace Park, and the A-Bomb Museum, and the A-Bomb Dome.

I spent several minutes on a bridge this afternoon trying to take pictures of a beautiful white crane that was poking around in the rocks on the river bank below me. He was just a bit too far away for my lens, though. Maybe tomorrow I'll have better luck.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Corrections

In the last entry, where I said "yakatori restaurant," I should have said "shokudo restaurant," or simply, "shokudo." Also, where I said "removeable showerhead," it might have been more accurate if I had said, "detachable showerhead." What I was trying to convey is that I could lift the showerhead out of its bracket; it was mounted far too low for a regular standing type of shower.

I went to the baseball game tonight at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome. Isn't that a mouthful? I hope that it sounds better in Japanese than in English. At the box office, the only tickets left for tonight's game between the local SoftBank Hawks and the rival Eagles were 2500 yen and up, so I bought one from a scalper for 1500 -- the face price. My seat was up in the nosebleeds in right field, and I was directly in front of this band or orchestra of young fans with big drums and trumpets and banners on long poles that they would swing majestically at important points during the game. I'm not sure if these musicians and banner-people were just die-hard fans privileged to set up their equipment in that location or if they were actually on the Hawks payroll. Anyway, it was a good place to be. Almost everyone in the stadium had yellow and white Hawks gear on, as well as paraphernalia like noise-makers and big hands made out of foam. There was a lot of music and cheering. Cheerleaders danced to "Lose My Breath" by Beyonce. Macots fired tee-shirt cannons into the stands. There were lots of small children. People were still pouring into the stadium at the fourth inning, and I'm pretty sure the place was at capacity when I left about midway through, but I have no idea what the capacity actually is.

I took the subway there and back -- it was no problem. I think of Fukuoka not only as an experience in its own right, but as a training run for Tokyo. Here, I can learn the basics of a Japanese subway system, without the massive crowds and complex cluster of subway lines that I'll have to cope with in Tokyo. From Gion station to the station closest to the Dome, a subway ticket cost 250 yen.

I took a bunch of pictures with the digital camera while at the game. I had hoped to upload them to Flickr.com and then put them on the blog tonight, but when I hooked my camera up to the laptop here with the USB cable, all the dialogue boxes that appeared were in Japanese, and I couldn't figure out how to do it. I still have the pictures to show people later, obviously. I'm hoping that between my conventional pictures, my digital pictures, my journal, and this blog, I'll have a rich record of my trip that I can use later for a variety of purposes.

Snickers bar

I forgot to mention last night that I saw a middle-aged man in traditional Buddhist pilgrim's dress, with a big straw farmer's hat, walking down the street near my ryokan. He looked tired and bedraggled. I wonder where he's going, and where he's been.

The customs search yesterday must have taken more out of me than I realized, because it was hard to get up this morning, and not just because my futon was on the floor. I woke up too late to use the bath, but I had a shower of sorts in the communal men's bathroom. I sat on this little plastic stool at the end of a row of low showerheads and shaved, washed my hair, etc., while holding the removeable showerhead in one hand. This morning was my first time wearing the Japanese robe and belt, to and from the bathroom, and I think I pulled it off okay -- I tied the belt just like the karate belts I used to wear as a kid. I was very happy that I remembered how to do it.

I went out at midday to take care of some business at Hakata Station. I exchanged my rail pass voucher for the real thing, and a girl at the information desk taught me how to use it. If you don't care about having an assigned seat, you can just show the pass as you get on the train. She also gave me a timetable. I think there must be 20 trains going from Fukuoka to Hiroshima tomorrow, starting at 6:30 a.m. I'll wait until rush hour is over and take one at 10:00 a.m. or so. The trip is only an hour and fifteen minutes.

It was enjoyable just to wander around Hakata Station, looking at the people and all the shops, restaurants, and kiosks serving various purposes. There were many business-type people of all ages, rushing around in severe black suits and white shirts, but also a number of young people with clothes, haircuts, and accessories that didn't conform to this profile -- colourful, fun, and stylish to the point of being outlandish. There are at least a couple of fish markets right inside the station, and many places to buy cold boxed lunches. I walked over to the Hotel Centraza, because I knew they had an ATM there that would accept international cards, and I needed some more cash.

After taking care of all that business, and finding my way out from the depths of the station, I found a yakatori restaurant where I could get an affordable meal. A kindly employee showed me how to feed bills into a machine at the front of the restaurant and then press a button with a picture of the meal that I wanted, from about 40 options. I chose pork strips with salad, for 680 yen. The machine dispensed my change from a 1000 yen bill, and the kindly woman showed me to a table, where there was a pitcher of cold, unsweetened iced tea waiting. The food arrived quickly, and I think I'll go back and have the same thing again, because it was simple and good. I managed pretty well with the chopsticks.

As I ate, I leafed through Fukuoka Now, an English-language monthly magazine. The articles were not as interesting as the advertisements and the personals. An ad for a capsule hotel in the area stated, apologetically, that no one with a tattoo could be accepted as a guest. Another ad, from Kyushi Electric Power Company, showed a grinning mother and daughter in a spotless kitchen and asked, "Shouldn't you too be considering an all-electric home?" In the personals, a New Zealander expat asked if anyone wanted to share his enthusiasm for unicycling: "I got some extreme unicycling tricks I can share with you if ya interested. Also dead keen on BMX!" A Japanese girl was looking for people to skateboard with, and another girl was looking for someone to tango with. A number of people, both Japanese and foreign, were looking for language partners. Unsurprisingly, a number of Western men were looking for Japanese girlfriends. A dear, sweet Japanese girl was looking for a high-quality Western man for her lonely and single mother. A 31-year-old Japanese woman was looking for a man who shares her love for the music of Avril Lavigne.

It seems to me, based on 24 hours of experience, that the Japanese have elevated the labelling of objects -- items for sale, maps, kiosks, fire hydrants, etc. -- into an art. Everything has a label on it, clear and perfect, often tilted slightly for optimal viewing. Everything is explained. Of course, this doesn't apply to the streets, which are as mysterious and difficult as everything else is simple and easy.

I went into 7-11 to buy a Snickers bar and a bottle of water earlier, and was intrigued by all the thick comic books for sale. These were explicit manga comics, with images and storylines that we would definitely call "mature." Some of them even had a label in English on the front proclaiming, "Men's comic." Anyway, I wanted to say that no chocolate bar purchase in my life has involved so much bowing as this one did. I like the bowing a lot. It's fun, it's more hygienic than shaking hands, and it makes me feel connected -- even if it's in a rather superficial way -- to traditional Japanese culture.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Extremely Thorough

I made it to Shanghai/Pudong International Airport this morning with plenty of time to spare, which meant I could relax and enjoy a free lunch in the JAL lounge. I thought that maybe the check-in people would give me a hard time about the weight of my duffel bag, and make me pay extra for it, but that didnt happen. [Please forgive me... I cant find the apostrophe on this computer, so youre going to see some donts, cants, wonts, etc.] The airport architecture was impressive -- such high ceilings; so much light; such clean lines and curves. There were several steps in the bureaucratic procedure for leaving China, but none were onerous.

The flight to Fukuoka was short -- only an hour and fifteen minutes. Coming in over the city, I thought that it looked like it was made of Lego. Thick, lush vegetation on the small mountains on the outskirts looked like it was ready to advance and cover the city completely. My Lego impression only got stronger when we landed, because the men in hardhats and jumpsuits working on the tarmac looked like Lego men.

[Oh, I found the apostrophe, up at the top with the numbers! Don't, won't, can't. Hurray.]

I had the "Foreigners" line all to myself as I passed through Customs, and thought to myself, "Wow, that was quick." I was wrong. Customs officers escorted me into a small white room with a big table and conducted an incredibly thorough search of my backpack and duffel bag. Three officers searched while two others interviewed me. First, they had me look over some laminated sheets with photos of different kinds of illegal drugs. I shook my head at each one and made a hand gesture signalling, "Don't have any of that!" They were all very polite and soft-spoken. The bag-searchers often looked over from the table and gestured at me apologetically with some object from my luggage, raising their eyebrows as if to say, "May I open this?", or "May I take this apart?" They x-rayed my Russian dolls. They opened up a tin of tea I bought in Beijing as a gift for someone, poured all the tea leaves out into a sterile metal container, and sifted through it with rubber-gloved hands. They were puzzled by the Mongolian branding iron, so I had to act it out for them. Surprisingly, they didn't ask about the Siberian pine gum, which at first glance could be mistaken for a lump of something illegal. Meanwhile, the interviewers were getting me to explain every stage of my trip, what I had done in each city, and what I intended to do at each stop in Japan.

Although I had never been through such a serious search before, I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing because I had nothing to hide and nowhere that I needed to be at a specific time. Also, because this is Japan, I wasn't worried about the officers being corrupt or hitting me with truncheons. Finally, I reflected that all of the other border procedures during my trip had been a breeze, so it was only fair that one of them be a bit more complicated. Karmic balance.

I took a taxi to my ryokan in the Gion district and breathed a sigh of relief when they found my reservation right away. It's an attractive, tranquil, and traditional type of place, with tatami mats on the floors and a little rock garden out back, and all the shoe etiquette is in full effect, but they didn't force me to have a bath right away as I thought they might. A robe and cloth belt are waiting in my closet, and I'll throw those on and go for a bath tomorrow morning.

I had a big nap and then went for a walk down the street to Hakata Station, the big train station where I'll catch my shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima on Thursday. I'll need to find the right kiosk or office at the station to activate the rail pass that I purchased back in Canada. I saw convenience stores called "Heart-In" and "Colon Booth." I passed a large, garishly lit gambling hall with a sign in English on the outside saying, "The secret of success is to never quit!" I'm not sure that is an appropriate sentiment in a gambling context, but whatever. If people here in Fukuoka are staring at me because I'm a foreigner, they're a lot more discreet about it than the people in Shanghai were. I felt almost invisible as I was exploring, which was a refreshing change.

Kashima Honkan, the inn where I'm staying, has an internet connection and two laptops set up in the lobby that guests can use for free. The search for a place to do my blogging was therefore an easy one.

My only plans for Fukuoka are to explore the city centre tomorrow and go to a Hawks baseball game in the evening at the Fukuoka Dome. I think I can get a ticket for about $10 Canadian. As always, I'll be toting both my cameras around. I've already noticed that Fukuoka has some distinctive-looking manhole covers, so those will certainly be documented.
 

Monday, September 26, 2005

French Concession, for real

I had hoped to get my hair cut this morning at the hotel's barber shop, but I found out that it wouldn't be open until 1:00 a.m., so I decided to visit the French Concession earlier rather than later, and stop off at the Foreign Languages Bookstore on my way back to the hotel.

I went out to get some breakfast, and had only been walking for a minute or two when I felt a slight tugging on my camera bag. Here in Shanghai, the world capital of product piracy and intellectual property theft, the occasional small act of traditional theft still takes place. When I looked behind and to my right, I saw a scruffy little guy, maybe 19 or 20 years old, trying to unzip the front pocket of my camera bag and steal whatever was inside. I grabbed him roughly by the arm and started yelling in his face. He muttered something. He had a dirty, sullen, and insolent face. Very quickly, people from the nearby shops poured out onto the sidewalk to see what was going on.

I made a performance of being angry and excited, but inside I didn't feel either of those things. I wasn't even irritated, really. If pressed, I'd say that the only emotion I had was a faint sadness, emannating from this idea: "I come here as a visitor, in the spirit of friendship, with an open heart, and then I get my feelings hurt by this jerk. It feels like a betrayal."

Instead of strong emotions, I had a bunch of thoughts silently and simultaneously flashing in my brain as I held the guy's arm:

-There are no police officers in sight.
-Nothing has been stolen from me and I'm not injured in any way.
-All the bystanders seem to be on my side for now, scolding the guy loudly, but who knows how they'd react if this situation were to become any more complex.
-This guy is a terrible pickpocket. First of all, I felt his awkward fumblings right away. Second, the pocket he chose to pick is the kind of place that most people use for empty film canisters and dirty kleenexes.
-Of course, it happens to be the pocket where I keep my tiny digital camera, so it would have been this guy's lucky day, if only he weren't so inadequate on the technical side of things.
-Should I knock him down or punch him or something?
-I'm not sure if force is morally justified here. Certainly, it isn't necessary.
-This may be a schoolyard notion, but I have six inches and 50 pounds on this guy. We can't have a fight. It wouldn't be fair.
-Also, he's got a friend with him, standing just a few feet away.
-Maybe one of them has a weapon. It's unlikely, but you never know.
-If we fight, I might get some of his blood on me, and I really don't want that. Shanghai has a high incidence of Hepatitis B.
-If this goes on for much longer, the police will come. At best, I'll have to spend hours filling out reports, and at worst, I'll be arrested myself for disturbing the peace or something, and that might mean missing my flight to Japan tomorrow.
-What would Optimus Prime do?

So in the end, I just shook the guy for a few seconds and then let him go. Without a word, he and his friend headed up the street -- ambling instead of rushing, in the interest of saving face. They looked back every once in a while, to make sure I wasn't following them. I turned to the group of shop ladies standing on the sidewalk, shrugged, and pointed to my camera bag. They nodded vigorously, to show that they understood and had sympathy, and one of the ladies made an angry face and smacked a fist into the palm of her other hand as if to say, "Bastard."

A tiny, elderly lady approached me with a friendly look on her face. She spoke at some length, and I didn't understand her, but I think she probably said something like, "Those are bad boys. I'm sorry that happened to you. Please don't get a negative impression of Shanghai. Most people here are honest and hard-working." I said, "Thank you, Aunt," and continued on my way.

I've noticed that Chinese people seem to get really embarrassed whenever they see someone interacting with a foreign visitor in a way that they believe to be undignified or offensive. For instance, I've seen residents of Beijing and Shanghai yell at panhandlers who approach Western tourists, sending them death-glares even as the Western tourist (in some cases, me) finds a few yuan to give to a person whose need appears to be quite genuine. I've seen young middle-class people shake their fist and speak angrily to very frail, elderly people on these occasions. It was kind of shocking. Of course, I might be upset if I was walking down Bloor Street one day and saw an aggressive panhandler going after someone who was clearly a visitor from far away. I'd feel that the honour of Toronto and Canada was being besmirched. I'm not sure that I understand all the cultural nuances of the Chinese situation, though. "There may be a lot more to it than I realize," he said for the millionth time since leaving Canada.

I got the bad taste out of my mouth by exploring the delightful French Concession, far away in a different part of the city. The French Concession looks like Paris with an Asian twist. I took a lot of pictures of old doors, old window frames, and other beautiful architectural details. Some of the buildings in the French Concession have been fully restored and turned into extremely high-end shopping venues, but of course I preferred the buildings that showed the passage of time and told a more interesting story. I passed through an enormous flower market and observed many vendors taking midday naps in their chairs.

The Foreign Languages Bookstore, not far from the Bund, was a big disappointment. It may be a great place to buy teaching materials and dictionaries and such, but for English-language fiction it sucks. I hope I can find something to read in Fukuoka, because I've used up my entire supply of books with the exception of the rather austere and scholarly Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. This bookstore was all about The Da Vinci Code, "novelizations" of big Hollywood movies, and bodice-rippers. To be fair, they also had the complete works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, as well as volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, but none of these seemed like good travel reading to me. I turned a corner around a shelf and saw the smiling face of Dashan, the young Canadian whose comedy routines and mastery of Mandarin have made him a big star in this country. He was smiling at me from a poster and display for some kind of Chinese-English dictionary. You know, something along these lines: "Dashan says this dictionary is great, and he should know!" I've seen him in ads for other products as well.

I decided to skip the Shanghai Museum. Last night, I went searching in my Lonely Planet city guide for more information on the exhibits, and this sentence jumped out at me: "The pride and joy of the museum is its collection of ancient Chinese bronze." "Oh no," I thought, my face a mask of horror. "No, no, no, no, no." If ancient bronze was one of the highlights, I couldn't bear to imagine the lowlights, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference how cool the washrooms and gift shop were.

My flight to Fukuoka, Japan from Pudong International Airport departs tomorrow at 11:50 a.m. I hope to check into my accommodations and then seek out an internet place, but I may be delayed if I am required to observe the protocol of a traditional Japanese inn. These inns, or ryokan, are supposed to be very restful and tranquil places to stay, but you have to play by their rules. In a traditional type of place, the protocol goes something like this: arrive and remove shoes in favour of slippers; drink tea in one's room, served by the maid; change into a robe-thing; soak in the communal bath; return to one's room where dinner has been set out. You can't just check in, throw your bags in the room, brush your teeth, and say, "See ya later!" I'm not sure if Kashima Honkan in Fukuoka is quite so traditional, and I don't believe that my place in Hiroshima is, either, but the ryokan in Kyoto, where I'll be staying for six nights, will almost certainly be like that. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm a little nervous as well.

I want to relate a thing from yesterday. I met this guy named "Leo" near the Monument to the People's Heroes next to the Huangpu River. He spoke excellent English. We talked for a while about Canada, and Dashan, and China's 56 official minority groups, and about events in China during World War 2. He told me that he didn't dislike or resent Japanese people, but he did resent some actions of the Japanese government, including the approval of school history textbooks that gloss over war crimes by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing and elsewhere. At one point, we seemed to run out of things to say, lapsing into silence. Leo seemed uncomfortable with the silence, leading to this exchange when he noticed the pop can in my hand:

Leo: I see that you enjoy Coca-Cola.
Aaron: Yes, I do.
Leo: It is an excellent beverage, I think.
Aaron: I agree. But I only drink Diet Coke.
Leo: I'm sorry?
Aaron: Coke with no sugar. To protect my teeth from cavities.
Leo: Oh, of course, yes.

Before signing off, I'll tell you about the haircut. I finally managed to get it done at 7:00 p.m. tonight, and it was unlike any haircut I've had before. I brought my phrasebook down to the 3rd floor where the barber shop was, knowing that communication was going to be a big challenge. I also brought down two pictures of myself in which I'm sporting recent haircuts -- one from my graduation day in June, and the other a family portrait from a couple of years ago.

I realized that things were going to take longer than I had expected when I handed over the pictures and a small crowd of Chinese women -- maybe five or six -- gathered in front of me to look at them. I identified every person in the pictures for them, and they commented at length (I think) on how kind my family looks, on how strong our family resemblance is, and on how lucky I am to have a beautiful woman like Jess. Then they started pointing to the background of the graduation day shot, showing ivy-covered buildings and a large quadrangle. "University of Toronto," I said. "Hart House," I said. They began to look exasperated. "Oh, I know what you're asking," I said finally. "Canada! Jya-na-da!" They smiled, relieved to have gotten through to me.

Before anyone cut my hair, a young assistant shampooed my head for what seemed like hours. Then she massaged it, once or twice pressing on my temples like she was trying to lobotomize me the hard way. She massaged my face as well, pressing down hard on my sinuses. And then my ears! I had to keep my eyes closed for much of this massage time to keep from laughing -- it was just so foreign to me. She rinsed off my head in a nearby sink, sat me back down in the chair, and made a bunch of quick chopping motions on my neck and shoulders.

The actual hairdresser, a lady in her 40s, approached at this point and took over. I tried to signal that I wanted my sideburns trimmed, but not erased, and I was glad to see that this was understood. She consulted the pictures I had brought and then went to work. Most of the time, she used the electric clippers. She used a big straight razor for part of the haircut, which I don't think I've ever had before. When she was finished and I was rinsed off and free to move about, I got my phrasebook and pointed out the Chinese characters for "perfect." She seemed pleased with that. The whole thing cost 30 yuan, or about $4 Canadian.

French Concession

Ohhh... Aaagh... I just typed out a long post and then lost it somehow. Oh, that feels awful. What a waste.

A ton of stuff happened today, and I want to tell you about all of it, but I can't bear the thought of typing out that post again right now. I'm hungry and I need to get my hair cut. I'll return here to type it out tonight.

The new post, like the one that vanished, will have sections on the following topics:

-The Bad Thing That Happened
-The French Concession
-The Foreign Languages Bookstore
-Drug Dealers
-Tomorrow, Off To Japan

I apologize for the delay. I suppose it is all part of some divine plan that Blogger should have treated me this way.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Crickets

I've added a word verification requirement for comments on the blog, in an effort to prevent further comment spam. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause readers. I'll take some time to delete comment spam from the blog a couple of days from now.

">Today was my day for visiting Pudong, the section of Shanghai east of the Huangpu River that has been aggressively developed over the past ten years or so. Locals don't seem to think of it as a legitimate tourist attraction, instead encouraging people to explore the traditional side of Shanghai, but glimpses of the future are very attractive in themselves, I think. Pudong is home to the Oriental Pearl TV & Radio Tower, probably the most distinctive building in the city with its crazy pink spheres, and to the Jinmao Tower, the tallest building in the People's Republic of China and the fourth tallest in the world at 420.5 metres (88 floors). I went inside both buildings this morning and up, way up to where the views of the river, the Bund, and Greater Shanghai are spectacular.

I paid 70 yuan, had to pass through security, and lined up for half an hour to take the express elevator to the observation deck of the Oriental Pearl Tower. The whole place was full of extremely excited Chinese families and groups of friends -- from out of town, I imagine. By contrast, getting up to the heights at the Jinmao Tower was quick and easy. The Jinmao Tower mostly contains the offices of big foreign banks, but it's also home to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which begins at the 54th floor. I walked right in and took three different elevators to get to this Hyatt bar called "Cloud 9," on the 87th floor. I won't tell you what two Diet Cokes cost me in there, but it was scandalous. For the view from my table by the window, however, it was worth it.

I was successful yesterday in buying stamps at a China Post outlet, and when I got back to the hotel in the evening I wrote 14 postcards. What a marathon -- it probably took me 90 minutes. I didn't write one to my sister and brother-in-law, but I did write one to their dogs. Anyway, I left the postcards with the concierge at the Hyatt to mail for me.

I should mention that getting to the Jinmao Tower from the Oriental Pearl Tower looked a lot easier than it actually was. The buildings are only a couple of blocks apart, but they're separated by an 8-lane street called Liujiazui Lu -- Pudong's answer to the Champs Elysees. I could see no crosswalk or tunnel nearby, so I assumed that it would be okay if I sprinted across. I took the wide street in stages, stopping to think and calculate at the medians and other points of safety, and I was about to start the fourth and final stage when I became aware of a small man in a beige cap and uniform, a "traffic assistant" as they're known in English, screaming angrily at me from the other side of the street. He made violent gestures with his arms. I made exaggerated shoulder-shrugging motions to signal my confusion and my simple, earnest desire to be over on his side. Finally, he came charging over and began scolding me in Chinese. Given the language barrier, I'm not sure what he thought he could accomplish so close to me that he couldn't accomplish from 100 feet away. I said to him, "I sense your anger, but I feel it could be channeled in a more positive manner." In the end, I had to turn back or face more wrath from the little man. I didn't know how much power he had to get me in trouble -- probably zero, but I just didn't know for sure, and I didn't want to be put in some jaywalkers' detention centre for several days of rigorous "criticism" and "re-education." I walked a long way down the street and crossed at a crosswalk, but I wasn't happy. There is a defect in the urban planning, and I became a victim of that defect.

After the two big buildings, I took the subway to Longyang Lu, which is the terminus of the celebrated MagLev train line that goes out to Pudong International Airport. The subway was wonderful -- easy to understand, cheap at 4 yuan, clean, and air-conditioned. The train was crowded, as is to be expected, but not horribly so. Waiting on the platform, I noticed a sign with an English translation that read, "After first under on, do riding with civility." I grasped the second part, but the first part must be idiomatic -- or maybe it's me who is idiotmatic. I rode 5 stops from Liujiazui Lu to Longyang Lu.

Originally, I thought I would ride the MagLev on Tuesday, when I actually had to go to the airport for my flight to Japan. I decided recently, however, that it would be a lot more fun and relaxing to ride the MagLev without all my baggage and without worrying about missing my flight or anything. It cost 80 yuan for a round-trip ticket. Again, there were a lot of excited Chinese people hoping to get good seats by the window, and I was amazed by the pushing and shoving that occurred on the platform when the train pulled in and the doors opened. And by elderly people, too! I thought I could count on them for a little decorum. The 30 km ride to the airport takes only 8 minutes, with the train attaining a top speed of 430 km per hour. It's the fastest I've ever moved in a land vehicle, I think, and I don't believe that any of Japan's "bullet trains" can match it. The train only stays at 430 km/h for about a minute before it has to start slowing down again. I hopped out at the airport, walked around to the other platform, and headed right back into the city on the next train, 5 minutes later. During the brief trip, I saw lots of barges going up and down narrow, muddy canals in the Shanghai suburbs, carrying loads of gravel. When we pulled into the Longyang Lu station again, the security officers on the platform all saluted the train.

Now for a lawyerly observation... Tort actions must be rare, expensive, difficult, pointless, or unknown here in China, or else everyone would be suing everyone else for the rampant negligence that occurs here every day on every street. No one's behaviour is being conditioned by a fear of liability, which I think is a major cultural difference between here and North America. Pedestrians are allowed to stroll through active construction sites, with cranes swinging overhead, welding torches going, and piles of jagged debris lying around. Drivers seem to believe that if a pedestrian gets hit and injured, it's their fault and their fault alone, because cars own the city -- for the crazy driver, no consequences will attach. There's a kind of terrifying absence or innocence of private law here.

I read something funny in my Lonely Planet city guide today. Apparently, there's a customs regulation stating that foreigners are prohibited from entering the People's Republic of China with more than 20 pairs of underwear. My question is, "Okay, but do the Chinese, like the Mongolians, draw a distinction between underwear and underpants?"

As I get ready to go to Japan, I am reminded of something that my law school friend Steve told me earlier in the summer during our bar exam prep course. "Never, ever kill a dragonfly," he said. "In Japan, it would be like killing a dove. Big trouble." I thought about this for a minute, and replied that the chances of me killing a dragonfly in Japan were about the same as the chances of me killing a dove in Canada or elsewhere. "Okay, but just don't do it," he urged, and I promised him that I wouldn't, unless it was absolutely necessary. Steve lived in Japan for years and worked for the CBC during the Nagano Olympics.

Speaking of insects, I visited the Fish, Bird, and Insect Market in the Old Town yesterday, after shopping for gifts for people in nearby Dongtai Lu. As the only Westerner, I attracted a lot of attention as I carried my big camera up and down the rows of stalls selling maggots, beetles, crickets, tiny crabs with bright orange pincers, turtles ranging in size from my thumbnail to the palm of my hand, salamanders, songbirds, and of course various kinds of fish in basins on the ground and in proper tanks. Everything was alive -- freshness guaranteed. The crickets were contained in little tin cans and also in short sections of bamboo sealed at the ends. A potential customer would open up a little can and poke the cricket with a pencil to see if it was still lively. I wondered, "What do people do with the crickets? Are they for eating? All of them? If so, how many cricket recipes are there?" The sound of the crickets in the market was deafening.

I left the market and walked at random in the Old Town. I was delighted to come across a stall on the sidewalk selling barbecued pig snouts as snacks. Sometimes, food is not recognizeable for what it is, and other times, as in this case, food has not been transformed in shape at all and looks exactly like what it is. They were pig snouts alright, basted with some kind of red sauce, piled up in a plastic bin.

I'm pretty sick of Nanjing Road, but I went back there briefly yesterday to buy one tie each for my father and myself at Silk King, a well-known silk retailer close to the Peace Hotel. Mine is striped blue and silver, and his is burgundy with flecks of gold and blue. I've got a good feeling about these ties. I think that they're lucky ties -- auspicious ties. I'm done all my gift-buying now, pretty much, and that's good, because my blue duffel bag is so heavy now that it's comical. Every time I carry it, I take a year off my life.

Tomorrow is my last real day in Shanghai, and I plan to walk around the French Concession and then go to the Shanghai Museum. Everybody raves about this museum, but I have no idea what it actually contains.

Oh, one more thing... I got lost yesterday, trying to find a new walking route from my hotel to the Bund. I was trying to orient myself (no pun intended) by the distant Pudong skyline, but that only got me more deeply confused. I was looking at my map when a man walked up to me -- 60-something, smiling, with long grey hair. "Excuse me, but are you Jewish?" he asked. "Excuse me?" I said. "Are you a Jewish person?" he tried, not quite getting that although I had understood the literal meaning of his words, I had also been surprised and puzzled by them. Eventually, it came out that Jewish visitors to Shanghai often come to explore this particular neighbourhood, because during WW2 it was home to many Jewish refugees from Europe. We moved on to different topics, the man discouraging me from seeing sights he considered to be "not the real Shanghai," and encouraging me to go to Yuyuan Gardens. "I will accompany you," he said. On my most trusting and open day, I might alter my plans and go to Yuyuan Gardens with a stranger, but yesterday was not my most trusting and open day, so I declined. He was disappointed, but I'm sure that someone will come along eventually and accept his offer.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Full of turtles

I was pressed for time earlier and left out a lot of stuff. Then afterward, more stuff happened. Here it is, all of it.

I was looking at the wares of a DVD vendor yesterday afternoon, and flipping through his newer stock I came upon that 40-Year-Old Virgin movie -- the one with the guy from Anchorman. The vendor looked up at me and said, "I am a 45-year-old virgin... Are you also a virgin?" I said, "That is an indelicate question, sir. Indelicate and lewd."

I saw a bar with a sign in the window that read, "Happle Hour."

I haven't been offering many travel tips on the blog, but here's one: Even if you're not staying at a fancy hotel, you can use the resources and facilities of fancy hotels to solve problems. Big fancy hotels, like the Garden or the Jinjiang here in Shanghai, always have English-speaking staff who can give you directions. They always have taxis waiting out front. They often have city maps available. They often sell stamps. They often have business centres where you can use the internet, although sometimes at an outrageous price. (The Garden charges 4 yuan per minute -- I wasn't that desperate.) They often have public phones that accept credit cards. They often have a currency exchange desk. In short, they can provide solutions to some common problems for the independent or semi-independent traveller.

I'm really under the spell of my book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. It's a wonderful book, and I was hoping it would last me until Japan so I could show off to Japanese people that I was reading something by a famous Japanese author. I'm reading it too quickly, though, and it will be gone by the time I leave Shanghai. I have to find out what happens. So many terrible things have been happening to the hero that it's been affecting my mood. I've been kind of introspective, quiet, and melancholy for the past couple of days. The hero's fortunes seem to be improving now, so I'm hoping that I'll follow along. I'm very susceptible to that kind of influence.

I've seen lots of construction scaffolding here made of stout pieces of bamboo. I think you must have to grow up around bamboo to feel okay about trusting your life to it. A person like me might have a hard time relaxing up there on the fifth storey, working away.

I'm writing to you now from a China Telecom customer service centre on Nanjing Road near the Bund. It's open 24 hours, and the internet costs 10 yuan per hour. Aside from the internet, this is also a good place to buy and use phone cards for international calls.

Nanjing Road itself is a bit overwhelming. So many crazed shoppers and enormous neon signs. A big chunk of it is off-limits to cars, which is great, because everywhere else in Shanghai, you have to be seriously on your guard or risk being run over by a bus or a taxi or a scooter. I think it's true of Asia in general, but here in particular pedestrians need to exercise extreme care -- drivers are counting on you to watch out for your own safety a lot more than they do in North America or Europe. There's no margin for error here.

A middle-aged man with high pants approached me this afternoon on Nanjing. He asked me the standard questions, and then said, "We go have coffee? Talk? Make friends?" I said no -- I told him I was looking for presents for my family, which was essentially true. "Ah, family," he said, and walked off without another word. Hours later, I ran into him again, he extended the same invitation, and I refused a second time -- he just gave me a weird, bad feeling. He said, "Ah, but earlier you said, 'Next time, I will join you.'" I replied, "I never said that." He said, "Ah," and walked off into the crowd.

Alex was another person I met on Nanjing Road. He was a young calligraphy student from Xian Fine Arts University -- I seem to run into a lot of calligraphers. Anyway, like the ones in Beijing he encouraged me to come look at his work. I declined, but in a friendly way, because there was no call for rudeness or hostility. When he said he was from Xian, I said, "Ah! The terracotta warriors!" He said, "Everyone says that!" I explained that this was because the warriors were famous all over the world, and he seemed astounded by this fact. Then we talked about martial arts movies. I asked him if Chinese people prefer Jet Li or Jackie Chan, and he said, "Both." I speculated that one's preference might depend on one's mood -- Jackie Chan if you're in a light-hearted mood, and Jet Li if you're in a serious mood. He agreed that this made sense. He told me that the Chinese don't call Jet Li by that name -- he has a different Chinese name.

I popped into the Peace Hotel, a landmark of pre-Communist Shanghai, and took photos of some beautiful light fixtures.

For the first time since leaving Canada, I have a functioning television in my room. I flipped around the channels last night, and oddly, on five channels in a row there was a Chinese woman crying. Some were bawling, some were sobbing, and some were totally silent but with tears rolling down their cheeks. I don't know what this means. So much crying. Then, I found an English-language news station, but the news was so dry and boring and pointless that I couldn't stand it. I preferred the Chinese-language news, which I couldn't understand at all, but which at least had video images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I really wish that I could have understood the voice-over, because I'm curious about whether the television news is used to score political points against the United States -- and if it is, how overt is this behaviour?

I forgot to tell you earlier that the Huangpu River appears to be full of turtles. I looked down from the riverside walk into this big hole leading down into the water, and in that small area of water I could see at least six turtles, all with shells about the size of a standard greeting card. One of them had climbed up onto a little platform and was slowly, slowly exploring it. The rest were swimming around lazily in the murky green water.

The Chinese government has stated publicly that it means to step up the protection of intellectual property. You'd think that one obvious move would be to shut down or closely monitor the vendors at the Xiangyang market and similar markets, given the rampant trademark violations in these places. I'm not saying that this is the best solution, or the one I advise -- I'm just saying that it would be a powerful symbolic gesture, and I'm a little surprised that it hasn't happened.

I found a big movie theatre near the end of Nanjing Road and went to the 4:15 showing of War of the Worlds. It was the only movie playing in English, with Chinese subtitles. The ticket cost 70 yuan, which I thought was pretty expensive -- probably much too expensive for most Chinese people, even the movers and shakers here in Shanghai who earn much more than the average national wage. Maybe it's because I hadn't seen a movie for over six weeks, but I was totally entranced by it. I was glued to the screen. I love going to the movies.

Lindsay Beck warned me that I would see men walking around the city in their pyjamas. Not Shanghai particularly, but any Chinese city. Anyway, she was right. I've also seen men, on hot days, flip up the bottom of their t-shirts to create a bare midriff sort of thing. It's not an attractive look. Any man in Canada who did that would be the target of derisive clucking sounds.

I think they must have a problem with counterfeit 100-yuan bills here. Every time I pay for something with a 100, it gets held up and scrutinized very carefully under bright light, and sometimes they run it through a little machine.

Tomorrow I plan to visit the Dongtai Lu antiques market and another market in the same neighbourhood that sells live fish, birds, and insects. The next time I write, I may be the proud owner of 100 fighting crickets, or an owl, or a carp.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Shanghai

It's been tough finding an affordable place to use the internet here in Shanghai, which is a little ironic, given that it's supposed to be this science fiction type of city.

My overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai, the Z13, was the fanciest train I've taken so far on this trip, and the service was definitely a cut above, too. I pre-ordered a green tea for breakfast from the train attendant, Henry, and it was delivered scalding hot and on the dot at 6:30 am. I shared my compartment with three Chinese businessmen, and we had no exchanges apart from friendly nods and that kind of thing.

Yesterday morning I just rested in my room at the Baisha Hotel. I'm not sure what you'd call the neighbourhood where the hotel is located, but it's within easy walking distance of the Bund and Nanjing Road, two of Shanghai's big attractions.

Yesterday afternoon I started walking aimlessly, and ate lunch at this buffet restaurant. About fifteen minutes into my meal, the hostess came up and very haltingly read from a note someone had written for her: "Restaurant... closing... soon... please... get... any... more... food... now." She seemed very relieved when I indicated that I understood her perfectly.

I took a taxi to the Xiangyang fakes market in the French Concession, where all your Rolex and Prada dreams come true. I was only interested in DVDs, really, and I didn't have to look too hard, because people come out of the woodwork and ask you, "DVD? DVD?" If you make eye contact and agree to deal with one of these vendors, they'll take you to the back of their stall, sit you down, and drag out suitcases full of DVDs with improvised covers. You just flip through them all and pull out the ones you want. They have a lot of the most recent Hollywood releases, and essentially all the big movies from the past 3-5 years. It seems like the average final price is about 10 yuan.

After the fakes market, I went to a kungfu demonstration by Shaolin monks at the nearby Lyceum Theatre, an examples of 1930s Art Deco that has been beautifully restored. The demonstration was set to music, and had supertitles -- a large electronic display above the stage translated the voice-over explanations into (slightly weird) English. The monks went through various parts of their training regimen, acted out ancient legends like "13 Monks Rescue the King of Qin," showed their skill with weapons like the falchion sword and the 9-segment-whip, and smashed sticks on each other's unyielding stomachs and heads to show the advantages of breathing exercises and meditation. I was happy because I paid 150 yuan for my ticket but got to move up to a 280 yuan seat because of the poor audience turn-out.

One thing I've noticed in Shanghai that I didn't notice in Beijing are the large numbers of people who exercise in groups outside, particularly early in the morning. I've seen people doing exercises on the sidewalk that look like low-impact aerobics, and I've also seen people ballroom dancing in a small pagoda in a park. It looks like the elderly are most likely to do this kind of group exercise.

So far today I've strolled down the Bund, which is the famous riverside park looking across the Huangpu River to futuristic-looking Pudong. There's a lot of traffic on the river -- barges and tugboats. I'm about to make my way down the equally famous Nanjing Road, one of the big shopping venues here. I feel almost like I'm the wrong person to be visiting Shanghai. The right person would be someone like my sister, Megan, who gets a lot of pleasure out of shopping and trying on clothes, and can summon considerable energy for doing those things. It's that kind of city. It hums with commerce.

I want to tell you about one conversation I had on the Bund. I was approached by a skinny and rough-looking young man selling postcards -- that was nothing new or interesting in itself, since this has happened to me hundreds of times, it feels like. As I walked away, saying "no, than you" repeatedly in Chinese, he walked along with me -- this was also nothing new. He was outwardly very friendly, asking me where I was from and what kind of work I did. He said he was from a city far away from Shanghai, had moved here for a job, and then the job had disappeared. As he spoke to me about his life, we never stopped moving down the Bund. When it finally dawned on him that I was not going to crumble and buy his postcards for 10 yuan, he turned a bit cruel, even though the friendly smile never left his face. "You are a lawyer and I think you are selfish," he said. "You take money from people who have difficulties. You should not be so selfish. You should buy the postcards." I laughed, startled and unsure of what to do or say. He went on. "Perhaps in the next life, I will be a general and you will be a slave. Then you will wish you had not been so selfish." I replied, "You are a bad businessman. You waste time with me when there are other Westerners who might buy. Every minute you spend with me is a waste." He made a face, said "Okay," and walked off. Two minutes later I saw him tormenting another poor tourist, and he ended up closing the deal -- the tourist, with a sour look, fished out his wallet and took out a 10-yuan note.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Acrobats

I went to this place called Poly Plaza last night to see an acrobatic performance. It took place in a theatre that was similar in shape and size to a theatre at the Stratford Festival. For no real reason, I decided to spend 300 yuan on a ticket in the best section, and ended up with the best seat in the house. It was a bit funny, though, because the Monday night audience was kind of sparse, and I was the only person seated in the premium section with "VIP" emblazoned on the backs of all the seats. There was a sea of empty seats around me. I felt like Howard Hughes.

The audience spent most of the hour-and-a-half performance gasping with shock and amazement. The performers, who appeared to range in age from maybe 8 to 20, were unbelievably lithe, flexible, and strong. I can only imagine the training they undergo -- it must be crazy. In front of backdrops depicting the Great Wall and other famous Chinese landscapes, they did things with bicycles and chairs that God never intended. There were many times when I found myself murmuring, "Oh, no... Oh God, no... Don't... Please, don't... Your ovaries!"

There were several different acts or scenes, each with different music, each suggesting a different mood. There was a whimsical one, a romantic one, a very grand and serious one, and others. My favourite featured a troupe of girls in elaborate costumes and enormous hats with feathers in them, dancing energetically while doing amazing tricks with giant yo-yos. Another particularly impressive act was built around two 30-foot poles -- a troupe of male acrobats scampered up the poles with the speed of lemurs and then spun, jumped, or flipped their way down to the floor. The acts were all very polished, but they weren't perfect and mechanical -- you could occasionally see a performer screw up a little or lose his balance for a second. Somehow, these instances only made the overall effect more powerful -- these reminders that the art is very difficult even for a seasoned professional, requiring immense effort and focus.

After the acrobats, I found a restaurant and ordered a bunch of dishes that I wanted to try. There were pictures of everything in the menu, so ordering was fun and easy. This one spicy pork dish arrived, and I shoved a big chunk of it in my mouth, getting more and more confident with the chopsticks. Suddenly, I felt like there was a family of angry scorpions in my mouth, stinging me to death. "Water," I croaked. I hurriedly consulted my phrasebook. "Shway, please! Shway!" My nose started to run in sympathy with my burning mouth. They brought me a bottle of water and all was well.

Today I got up early to go to the Great Wall. I paid 150 yuan for a trip organized by CITS, the big tourist agency. I made sure to be down in the lobby by 6:45 for a 7:00 pick-up, and I was surprised to see that Beijing at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning has as much car traffic, foot traffic, and other activity as does Toronto on a Saturday afternoon. It seems like most people here start their day very early.

I thought that my trip would be on a big bus with a big group, but instead it was just me and a young married couple in a van, with a driver and tour guide. The tour guide, oddly I thought, kept making remarks about how the company loses money when it's just three tourists in a van. "But that's not your problem," he added. Yeah, it's not, so why do you keep mentioning it? And why do you offer a service when it results in a loss? It's not like you're trying to build a relationship with us for the future.

The married couple was very interesting. Carlos was Spanish, my age, and a former assistant professor of economics at a university in Vienna. His main research interest was social policy with regard to long-term care. His wife, Anastasia, was Russian, and doing graduate study in translation and interpreting. They met in Austria, and German was the language they habitually spoke to each other. (They both also spoke excellent English.) They now live in Grenada, Spain. We had really interesting conversations throughout the day about Spanish politics, Spain and the EU, Spain's various ethnic groups and their languages, and the differences between the European and North American university systems. The most priceless thing Carlos said to me all day was, "If you don't mind, I'd like to get your opinion as an Anglo-Saxon on..."

Our tour guide answered a lot of questions for us as we sped up the Badaling Expressway to the Great Wall. He talked about the "paradox" of capitalism in a Communist country. He told us about the mixed feelings of the people, some of whom are unhappy to lose the job security and free health care they enjoyed under the previous system -- known colloquially as the "iron rice bowl." He told us that unlike in Mao's day, people were now able to criticize the actions of the government, although "it is better to criticize privately." I left that one alone. He also told us that the government employs over 50,000 "internet police" to control the information available to Chinese citizens.

On the way to the Wall, we visited a jade factory that was set up to receive tourists. We learned about the different grades of quality in jade, and how to tell real jade from fake. I didn't realize this, but apparently, a high quality jade bracelet or bangle will change colour over the years as a result of the wearer's "energy." It becomes a darker, richer green over time. There was a large shop at the end of the factory tour -- a pattern that would be all-too-familiar by the end of the day. I thought about throwing the sales staff into confusion by insisting on purchasing a set of jade pyjamas, but didn't go through with it. It was still too early in the day at that point for jokes.

The Wall was the Wall. A pleasant surprise, though, was the fact that there were only a handful of people there on this gloomy, overcast morning. I climbed rapidly up to the highest accessible point on the hill, and sat down to relax with a bottle of cold water and a book. I've finished Ragtime and have moved on to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I'm 150 pages into it, and loving it. I've been lucky with my books on this trip -- although I was disappointed in the two William Gibson books I read at the very beginning, back in Russia, I still enjoyed them, and I've been really enthusiastic about everything since. Anyway, I sat on the steps at the top of the hill, overlooking a big dramatic valley with the Wall snaking up and down, and the only sounds I could hear were crickets and, faintly, the traffic from the highway far below. For a long time, there was no one in sight on my section of the Wall -- I had it to myself. I had brought all my Canada flag pins, etc., to give as gifts to children, but there was nobody around.

I need a haircut. I think I'll get one in Shanghai. I have my graduation day picture to show them, so it should be okay. In Japan, haircuts probably cost $400, so it's time to take action.

I was thinking today that some Chinese people may hold the same attitude toward Western visitors speaking Chinese that a snarky Doctor Johnson held toward women preaching the gospel. "It is not unlike watching a dog walk on its hind legs," he said, famously. "It is not done well, but one is amazed to see it done at all." This would explain the reaction of some Chinese people to my efforts.

There is a bar near my hotel called "Waiting for Godot."

I've been watching the people here very carefully, and I've come to the conclusion that if there was ever a military conflict between China and the usual suspects in the West, we might not be able to take them. They get up very early in the morning; they are very agile; and they seem to enjoy massive and difficult undertakings.

I was thinking some more about the whole idea of authenticity when you're travelling. It seems to me that a Western backpacker's struggle for authenticity is not unlike the flopping and thrashing of a bass on the floor of a boat with a hook through its mouth: futile; pitiful; and best finished with a merciful clubbing. Anywhere you go, if powerful forces are transforming that society, every molecule of air will be authentic because all around you the local people will be fighting for their futures without any complacency or reservation. Parts of Beijing may feel like theme parks, and you know you're not seeing Beijing as it was 500 years ago, or 20, or even 5, but in that case the question is, "What energies in this society have created this artificial thing?"

Something funny happened the other day that I forgot to mention in the blog entry. While I was sitting with A-yi and the American girl near the public ping pong tables by the river, a Chinese teenager rode by on his bike and saw us eating these little grape-sized apples out of a plastic bag. "You are eating our Chinese apples!" he yelled in Chinese, grinning, as he zoomed past us up the street without stopping. "You are eating our apples! Do you like our apples? Ha ha ha!" The American girl translated all of this for me.

Tomorrow should be a quiet day. My train for Shanghai leaves at 7-something p.m., and I may go to the Temple of Heaven during the day, or I may not. Maybe I'll start doing some language homework in preparation for my upcoming visit to the land of Pokemon and Ninjas.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Forbidden City

My visit last night with Steph's friend Lindsay was great. Lindsay is originally from Toronto, but she lives here in Beijing now and works as a reporter for Reuters. She ordered all the dishes at the restaurant, kindly keeping in mind the three items on my do-not-eat list: shellfish; animals' brains; and animals' reproductive organs. We had six dishes including greens, "three-cup duck," some kind of fish which was the specialty of the house, and a cold dish of mushrooms. There were many times when I had to pick small bones out of my mouth or reach up and stuff in dangling bits of food, but there were large groups of friends and family members seated all around us screaming with laughter, shouting, singing, breaking their chairs, performing little dances, dropping plates and glasses, and in general contributing to a total lack of decorum, so I didn't feel too badly about my problems using the chopsticks and the mess I was making. It was a fun atmosphere.

Later, we walked to a bar called (I believe) the Drum & Bell -- so named because from its rooftop patio you can see both the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, two beautiful old buildings in the traditional style. Yesterday was the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when everyone eats moon cakes and contemplates the moon, and the waiter brought us a free moon cake. Lindsay speaks excellent Chinese and it was a pleasure to listen to her. She told me all kinds of stories about her experiences in China -- the good, the bad, and the stressful or slightly scary. I laughed really hard when she told me about some of the articles produced by the North Korean state media, which she has on occasion been assigned to monitor at work. "Rainbows appear in sky on Dear Leader's birthday," and other similar kooky fantasy stuff. She also taught me a better way to say "no" in Chinese, as in "no-I-don't-want," and a general-purpose "yes." I had been making a fool of myself for two whole days, thinking that I was telling people, "don't-want," when in fact I was saying, "am-not." Wrong context entirely. No wonder everyone was laughing at me.

I slept in a bit today, cashed some traveller's cheques at the Bank of China, and then took a taxi to the Forbidden City. I don't have a lot to write about it. It was the Forbidden City, and it was everything a Westerner is led to expect -- big, ornate, magnificent. It's a source of great pride for the Chinese people, and many of the visitors are Chinese -- it's not just Westerners who are excited to be there. I took a bunch of pictures of little carved wooden animals perched on the eaves of buildings, and of the big statues of lions. I paid extra for an audio guide narrated by Roger Moore. Interesting choice -- I wonder what priorities it reflects.

Tonight I am going to see the acrobats come hell or high water. Tomorrow, I'll get up early and hop on a tour bus to Badaling, the most popular site for visitors of the Great Wall. I've decided not to struggle in vain for some kind of "pure" or "authentic" Great Wall experience -- instead, I'll go to Badaling and accept it for what it is, dividing my attention equally between the restored section of the wall and the behaviour of the Chinese and foreign tourists.

That leaves Wednesday until 7:00 pm to do I-don't-know-what.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dirt Market

I spent this morning at the Dirt Market, a large outdoor market selling antiques, art objects, used books, and other similar items. I was particularly interested in the stone stamps, and paid 130 yuan for a small stamp of my new Chinese name, carved right in front of me. The stone is a greenish colour, except for the end with the Chinese characters, where it's stained bright red from the ink. A little rabbit is carved in a sitting position on the top of the stamp -- I was born in the year of the rabbit. I also bought some beautiful handmade bookmarks. You'll be proud to know that I bargained down the price at both stalls, although not by too much.

When I told the stamp-making man and his wife that I had a Chinese name to carve into the stamp, a bystander -- a friendly old man -- said, "Ohhh! I think you must work in Beijing!" I explained that I had only had the name for one day and was very happy about it.

I would have liked a stamp made out of this beautiful red Chinese stone with the weird name of "chick-blood stone," but it was too expensive.

There were lots of Westerners at the market. I passed one kid, maybe 13 years old, and overheard him complain to his friend, "Man, where are the cheap DVDs?" It wasn't really that kind of place, although I've heard that pirated DVDs are cheap and plentiful elsewhere in Beijing. The kid wasn't interested in jade chess sets and silver tea pots, and maybe he was right to be uninterested, because a lot of the supposed "antiques" at the market have in fact been artificially aged and are not real antiques at all. So says Lonely Planet, anyway.

An unintentionally funny thing at the market was an English-language sign leading visitors to a section for "Ancient Books and Magazines." I imagined In Style magazine, featuring Ming emperors instead of Nicole Kidman.

I went from the Dirt Market to Tiananmen Square. There's a lot of scaffolding and construction material lying around the square right now, because preparations for the 2008 Olympics (or at least for the pre-Olympics hype) are well underway. A lot of workers in hard hats were attending to various Olympics-related tasks. There are also lots of soldiers, everywhere. Most of the ones standing guard or marching from place to place around Tiananmen Square are unarmed and look about 18 years old. Some of them wear white gloves. They occasionally break discipline to punch each other in the shoulder and knock each other's hats off.

I was swarmed by rickshaw drivers when I got out of my cab. I kept saying, "No, thank you," in Chinese, but they seemed to interpret this merely as my first bargaining position. and I was starting to feel very hemmed in until a van full of cops cruised by slowly and the cop in the front passenger seat barked something loudly at the drivers out the open window. They all dispersed in about one second, and the cop and I nodded politely to each other. As soon as the van was gone, though, the drivers returned -- I stopped trying to reason with them and just walked away.

I had only been at Tiananmen Square for two minutes when I was adopted by two Chinese students in their early 20s -- Theo and Xiao Yu. They were both calligraphers, and both spoke English quite well. They wanted me to go with them to see a calligraphy exhibit from their school in a government building right on the square, and so I went, even though I was a bit worried that I was going to be sold something and there might be awkwardness. I did end up buying a bit of calligraphy by Xiao Yu to support the school that she and Theo attend, but it wasn't too awkward. I watched as she took her brush and drew a large, complex character for me in black ink on a red scroll, concentrating hard. She added her personal stamp and the stamp of her school. Afterward, I drank tea with the two of them and took their picture in front of some hurray-for-the-Olympics type material outside on the square.

During my taxi rides today, I saw another Little Sheep location. Little Sheep is a chain! I also saw a huge construction site for a condo tower, with billboards outside full describing enthusiastically what the building will be like -- the best adjective there was "skyscraping."

Another interesting thing about the taxi rides were the tiny receipt printers that announce the total fare in English, in a chirpy and robotic female voice. It's a bit hard to hear the number over the sound of the printer and the sound of traffic, but still -- a thoughtful touch.

I've met many English-speaking Beijing residents so far. Some of them say, "thank you," and it's crystal clear -- almost without accent. Others say, "thank you," and it sounds like they have a hamster lodged in their mouth. "Thurrnk yurr." I feel at liberty to make these observations because every time I try to speak Chinese, one or more people start laughing at me. I think some of the laughter is caused by surprise, and some of it is caused by my weird and pitiful pronunciation.

I got all my laundry back this afternoon. It cost 93 yuan, which is maybe $13 Canadian.

I'm still hoping to see the Forbidden City, the acrobats, and the Great Wall at Badaling. I have three full days left here, and that should be enough.

One final note... If anyone out there thinks that America will have an advantage in the wars of the future because its youth today spend all their time playing first-person shooter games like Counterstrike, it's time to think again. As I sit here in this internet place, I am surrounded by Chinese teenagers playing online games of that sort, learning all about infantry tactics and weapons. Friends call out to each other across the room, and talk to each other using headset microphones, eliminating their virtual enemies with great skill and coordination.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Lu Yao!

When I woke up this morning, I didn't expect that today would be the best day of my trip so far, but that's the way it is.

I started off simply -- changing some money at the Bank of China branch down the street from my hotel. They wouldn't take my Mongolian currency, and they only do traveller's cheques on weekdays, but I changed $50 of US cash and that was more than enough for my needs.

I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring a neighbourhood near my hotel riddled with old, narrow alleys. These alleys are known as hutongs, and they exist in at least a couple of areas in central Beijing. Most hutongs are in a perpetual twilight because of the shade provided by tall, mature trees. The buildings lining the alley are usually only one storey, and they are usually quite old and in the traditional Chinese style. Walking up and down, getting thoroughly lost, I came across residences, small businesses, restaurants, bars, and of course a large number of people going about their lives. Entrepreneurs of various types rode their tricycles slowly along the hutongs, calling out in a rhythmic, ritualistic way the name of whatever product or service they were offering.

The hutongs were a photographer's dream: so colourful, so organic in their way, so full of life. I think I took 60 pictures today, which for me is a lot. I feel the same way about finding a good subject for a picture that I imagine a hunter feels about spotting and shooting big game. Today, I shot a lot of trophy bucks -- I just pray that this Konica film doesn't disappoint me.

In the quieter hutongs, I was left alone with my thoughts, but in the busier ones, close to landmarks like the Bell Tower, I was approached many times by people wanting me to pay for a hutong tour -- you sit on a bench under a canopy on the back of a big tricycle, and a man at the front pedals and steers. I was passed by a large convoy of these touring tricycles early in the day, full of Westerners, and I thought they looked like a bunch of jackasses. I must have said, "No, thank you," in Chinese, at least fifty times today to those tricycle guys.

I passed through a very busy meat market and then an equally busy fruit and vegetable market. Everyone was yelling and running around -- it was bewildering, all the activity. Crouching down to change my film, I was approached by two absolutely angelic and adorable little Chinese girls -- maybe three years old. I was right down at their eye level. "Nihao [hello]," I said to them. They said nothing. Their eyes were big. I suppose it's possible that they had never been that close to a red-haired Caucasian person before. I didn't have any candy or other gifts with me, so I just held out the plastic film canister. Lame, I know. They both reached for it, and in order to defuse the tense situation, I motioned that I wanted to take their picture. A small group of vendors and shoppers had gathered around us, laughing and encouraging the kids. The little girls didn't smile; they just stood closer together and opened their eyes even wider. I think that picture is going to be a gem.

I happened upon this green river with a wonderful stone walkway running along the bank. I walked down the river and around a lake, looking at groups of men playing mah jong and at people pedalling boats shaped like big swans. It was a perfect day for that sort of pursuit. An old man with a long scraggly beard and a farmer's conical hat came up to me, smiling, and I noticed that attached to his ragged clothing were laminated newspaper articles featuring pictures of him. He spoke excellent English and introduced himself very elegantly as the "Beggar Scholar." I stopped to talk to him. I asked him what the articles were about, and he said, "About me." "Yes, but what ABOUT you?" I asked. "About the circumstances of my miserable life," he explained. This was no ordinary panhandler. I gave him 10 yuan, took his picture, and was on my way. "Best wishes to you and yours," he called out as I continued down the river walk.

I discovered, quite by accident, the Ho-Hai area where I'll be meeting Steph and Graham's friend for dinner tomorrow night. She chose that meeting spot at least partly because it will be easy for me to pronounce it to a taxi driver. There's a Starbucks at the entrance to Ho-Hai, disguised as a traditional Chinese building. Starbucks has a special Chinese name, but I can't remember at this moment what it is. "Lotus Lane," the street with the Starbucks, is a high-end shopping and dining district where all the buildings are new but designed to look like a Chinese village like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At least half of the people strolling around were Westerners. There was a riverside cafe called "Lotus Blue." I gathered from the name and from the font that this was a reference to the Tintin comic book, "The Blue Lotus." There was a storefront nearby filled with large and expensive-looking reproductions of Tintin cover art.

I continued walking along the water's edge, and took a breather on a stone bench close to some men fishing with rods and nets. There was a young girl, a Westerner, sitting next to me with her bicycle beside her, and I was very surprised when she started speaking in Chinese to an older woman standing by the fishermen. The older woman looked at me with curiosity, and I said hello -- that initiated a really fun and friendly conversation between the three of us, with the girl translating.

It turned out that the girl is an American from Boston -- a high school student here in Beijing for a year as part of a special language program. She is staying with the woman and her husband in their apartment, and the two of them had been out for a bike ride. I asked them if they wanted to go get some tea or a cold drink, but instead we ended up going back to the woman's apartment, which was of course way more enjoyable and interesting. The two of them walked with their bikes most of the way; at one point I was riding a bike and the girl was riding the other one with the woman perched on the back in the Chinese manner, but they wobbled badly right from the start and then fell over in the street. Thankfully, no one was hurt. We took a break by some public ping pong tables and the kids' ping pong balls kept bouncing around our feet. The girl impressed the heck out of me with her Chinese language ability. "And you say you've only been here three weeks?" I cried. "Yes, but I've been studying Chinese for eight years," she said. Thank God for that, I thought. I showed her and the woman my Trans-Siberian guidebook with the map of my route, and a few strangers crowded around to look as well. It seems like if you're in public, and you're showing something to somebody, or telling something to somebody, everybody else wants to see it too or know it too. It's kind of endearing.

On the way back to the apartment, the girl explained to me that in China a younger person typically addresses an older person as "Aunt" (a-yi) or "Uncle" (shu-shu), and this was how I should address the woman and her husband. I asked her how I could get a Chinese name, and she said that the woman would think of one for me. We talked about the Peter Hessler book River Town, and she said that Hessler was going to come and speak at her school in the near future. He lives in Beijing.

When we arrived at the apartment, they lent me a pair of slippers, and then we drank cola and tea (cha) in the dining room. They were happy to give me my first real taste of cha. The woman's husband spent part of the time working away on his laptop, and part of the time chatting with us. He works in a finance capacity at a large electronics company. I explained to him about my big train journey, bringing out the book again and tracing the route with my finger. The girl translated everything for us. I asked her if it bugged her to be the translator, and she said that she actually really liked it. I was thankful.

A-yi decided that my Chinese name would be "Lu Yao." She wrote it for me in beautiful cursive Chinese characters, and then in roman letters as well, with the accents above the letters indicating the correct tones. She also wrote down a kind of proverb or story that gave her the inspiration. I'm not sure of the literal meaning of my new name, but the connotation, the meaning behind the name, is this: "a person who has come very far but still has very far to go." I was so pleased with the name and the explanation that I almost blew a gasket right there. The name describes me very well, I think, on a number of levels. It's true of my trip, and also true in other ways. A-yi called me Lu Yao for the rest of my visit.

They asked me to stay for dinner, and after refusing a couple of times out of a desire to be polite, I accepted. We had delicious pork dumplings in a sour sauce, and I think I acquitted myself well with the chopsticks. I made A-yi laugh hard by inventing incredibly stupid and awkward ways to use the chopsticks -- twisting my wrist around backward, etc. They taught me how to say, "delicious (food)" "delicious (drink)," and "I'm full." I ate about 15 dumplings, but A-yi kept putting more in my bowl. I started to slow down. She told me that I wasn't eating enough.

I took a picture of the three of them sitting on the living room couch, and Shu-shu took a picture of me with his digital camera. He immediately downloaded it to his laptop, and I saw on the monitor that I looked sunburnt and kind of insane. My sideburns are getting a bit bushy and out of control, which perhaps explains why the girl said she thought I was Irish when I first sat down beside her by the river.

I told them about my Chinese students at UBC, and about other Chinese friends of mine back in Canada. They asked me if I had any opinions about Chinese people, and I replied that I thought it would be better to form my opinions after spending some time in the country, learning about the people. I told them that I wished very deeply that I had a gift to give them, and they said that nothing was necessary. Still, I wish I had been carrying some of my gift inventory with me. This family was so great, however, and so generous, that I only would have been satisfied with a specially chosen gift -- none of my stuff would have been good enough.

We exchanged addresses. I said that I would send them a card from Canada, and A-yi protested that I would be too busy with my career as a lawyer to do that -- I should just email them. I repeated that I would send a card, explaining that in Canada a card is considered much more personal and meaningful. Again, she said I shouldn't. I pounded my fist on the table in mock anger, insisting that I would send a card, making her laugh even more. "She thinks you're very funny," the girl said.

I told A-yi and Shu-shu that I would take a taxi back to the hotel, and this caused them a lot of worry. "They're afraid that the taxi driver will cheat you," the girl explained. "They're afraid that you'll get in an unlicensed taxi, the driver will go in circles, and you'll pay too much." Shu-shu looked closely at the Chinese text on the business card from my hotel and drew me a map of the route that would be taken by any responsible taxi driver. I was really moved by their concern, but insisted that I'd be okay. I said that I would start to yell if I thought the taxi driver was cheating me. They seemed to approve of that idea. I said, "Thank you, Uncle, and thank you, Aunt," thanked the girl very sincerely too, and left.

It was one of the best and most delightful travel experiences of my life, and it all happened spontaneously. I feel very lucky.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Little Sheep

I'm a little upset because this is my second time typing out this post. I bought two hours of time here in this smoky internet cafe upstairs from a supermarket, and I was blogging away furiously when my time ran out and the whole entry was lost. I would have saved my work if I had realized that my time was almost up, but the pop-up warning was in Chinese, and I didn't recognize it for what it was. Sigh. I may cut out a bit of detail this time.

When last we spoke, I was in Ulaanbaatar getting ready for my train ride to Beijing.

The train departed Ulaanbaatar at 8:00 am yesterday, and took about 12 hours to reach the Chinese border. Border procedures took about 4 hours. I was pleased that the Mongolian customs search of our compartment was brief to the point of being non-existent, because it meant that I didn't have to answer any questions about my weird Mongolian souvenirs like the branding iron. The big deal about crossing into China is that the wheels on the train have to be changed to the Chinese standard, which is not the international standard. I had hoped to get off the train during this operation to forage for hot food in the station, but we weren't allowed. Some of us tried to get dinner in the dining car, but it was a crowded nightmare, with an irritable and overworked waitress handling the whole room alone, and smug tour groups getting preferential treatment. I had Pringles, an apple, and a Snickers bar for dinner.

Sharing my compartment were Hilde, a young lawyer from Utrecht, Holland, on a 3-week trip from Moscow to Beijing; her friend Stevina, a landscape architect from the Hague; and Christian, a Frenchman from Lyons who has been travelling to Mongolia regularly since 1981 to do volunteer work on literacy and educational projects for the children of nomadic families. There were virtually no Mongolians or Chinese people on the train. It was all tourists -- mainly Dutch and French, and mainly travelling in large packs. Hilde and Stevina, as well as Christian, were exceptions to this rule, travelling independently.

I stayed up late last night with Hilde, Stevina, and another Dutch person -- a guy in his late 20s who is on a year-long trip around the world, sponsored by a Dutch telephone company and calling into a Dutch radio program every Monday night to tell stories about his adventures for the listeners. He collected a good story in Irkutsk: one night out on the street, a burly, drunken Russian started calling him "Yankee" and attempted to whip him with a horsewhip. The whipping was only prevented through the intervention of the burly man's friends.

The four of us spent a long time comparing notes on Russia and Mongolia, drinking Hilde's Mongolian vodka mixed with my orange juice, as well as some Chinese beer in big bottles purchased from the train attendant. We learned some phrases in Chinese from the train attendant, who kept poking his head into our compartment either out of curiosity or just to make sure we weren't vandalizing anything. I would point to a phrase in my Lonely Planet phrasebook, and he would teach me the pronunciation, repeating it several times over. Hilde offered him one of her black olives by holding it out on a plastic spoon; to our surprise, he bent down and took the olive off the spoon with his mouth, just like a baby. His face immediately twisted in disgust. No more olives for him.

The Dutch people told me that MTV's popular show, "Pimp My Ride," was now being shown on Dutch television, and homegrown Dutch versions of it existed as well. I suggested that "Pimp My Windmill" and "Pimp My Tulip" could take the country by storm. I wouldn't have made jokes like that, based on stereotypes, if my new friends hadn't opened the door themselves by joking about windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes all day long.

Christian spent much of the trip up on his top bunk reading a book about Karl Marx, as well as writing in his small black journal. I wrote in my journal a lot, too. We discussed the value of keeping journals while travelling -- he recounted opening up a trip journal from when he was 18, and having the sights, sounds, and smells of the experience came back to him powerfully after many years. Hilde and Stevina read novels in Dutch, studied up the Lonely Planet description of Beijing, and visited with people on the train they had met at earlier stages of their trip.

I harassed Christian with a lot of questions about French words and French grammar. I asked him about the word "flaneur," interested to see how a French person would define it to an English speaker. "He is a man who walks the city without a purpose," Christian said. He offered, as an example, a man who strolls along the Seine in Paris with no destination in mind. Stevina pointed out that there is a cognate of "flaneur" in Dutch, and added another aspect of the meaning: "He dresses up in fine clothes and wants to be seen." He is conspicuous and a bit eccentric. I said that I expected to be a flaneur in Beijing, and Christian said that the old section of the city, with the narrow winding alleys, would be a good venue for flanerie. The only problem is my lack of dressy clothes. I also don't have a turtle to walk on a leash.

I wrote a great deal in my journal about the Chinese landscape, and will not repeat it here. Let me say only that there were many corn fields, many donkeys, many piles of rubble, a profusion of telephone poles and power lines, and eventually mountains, mountains, mountains.

Today at about midday, everyone on the train started to get very excited about the prospect of glimpsing the Great Wall. Our first glimpses from the train windows were unimpressive -- just some fragments high on a hill. I suggested that in the interest of accuracy the name be changed to the "Okay Wall." Later on, after the stop at Badaling, we saw some long restored sections winding up and down the steep mountainsides, and these did look truly "Great." Everyone was gathered out in the corridor, and I said loudly, "There's some kind of a wall up there!" Some of the Europeans got the joke and others, I'm sure, thought I was just a stupid person. I heard one accented voice say sarcastically, "Some kind?" In my experience, that kind of joke doesn't always work with non-native speakers of English.

I learned that many people on the train were only spending a couple of days in Beijing before flying home. I'm glad that I have five days, because I want to see acrobats, and opera, and the Forbidden City, and silk markets, and do a day trip to the Great Wall, and all kinds of stuff. I also need to do some laundry -- badly.

We arrived at Beijing Station at about 4:00 pm, and I had no trouble finding the transfer person who would take me to the hotel. Gary was a young Beijing native who spoke excellent English, but with a surprising Australian accent. It was a long, hot walk to his vehicle, and we ended up each taking a strap of my big blue duffel bag. The bag is heavier now than it has ever been because of all the treasures I picked up in Mongolia. We walked the length of the station, weaving in and out of crowds, out to the front, up a large set of stairs to a skyway, across the skyway to the other side of the street, and then up to the next block, where I collapsed while Gary went to get the car.

I thought of a good joke while Gary got the car. After climbing in, I said, "Hey... I've only been in China for one day, and I've already done a Long March!" If you don't get that one, you need to read up on Mao Zedong and 20th-century Chinese history. If you did get it, but just think it's dumb, I can't argue with you there. Gary listened quietly and said, "Ha." He was a man of few words and sparse emotion.

On the way to the hotel, I realized that there were a lot more trees and small green spaces than I had been expecting. Also, it seemed like all the cars were brand new or almost new. I was hard-pressed to spot a car that was more than 10 years old, and most were no more than two or three years old. I saw a Volkswagen Passat police cruiser. I saw an army vehicle filled with serious-looking helmeted soldiers.

The Huafeng Hotel is in a great location: close to banks; close to McDonald's; close to banks; close to this internet cafe; close to a convenience store; close to a busy street lined with red lanterns and restaurant upon restaurant; and close to the old section of the city.

I checked in, making use of all the phrases I had learned from Gary and the train attendant, and then went out in search of Chinese currency and hot food. I successfully withdrew money from an ATM across the street -- 250 yuan, which is about $35 Canadian. I headed down the street with the red lanterns, and more or less at random, I chose a restaurant called "Little Sheep." This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because it was one of those places where you cook the food yourself at the table, and that added a layer of complexity that I didn't need on my first day in Beijing. The staff were incredibly patient and encouraging, and the menu had English printed next to the Chinese characters, but despite all of this it was a mighty struggle to order, with much bugging out of eyes and shrugging of shoulders to indicate helplessness. "Little Sheep" had a very cute logo with a smiling, winking sheep, and all the female servers wore green aprons and little green caps shaped like the one that my mother wore in her nursing school graduation picture.

Finally, with the help of my server, the hostess, and a security guard, I managed to order beef, white mushrooms, and lettuce, to be cooked in a tonic dual-flavour soup. Once the soup arrived, my server started up the flame under the pot, and communicated to me by way of hand gestures that I should wait until it was boiling before doing anything. When the soup began to boil, I walked over to the counter where my server was and pointed to Chinese characters in my phrase book meaning, "Help!" All I meant was that I didn't know what to do next, but the characters must have had a connotation of emergency, because she sprinted over to my table as though it was about to blow up. Relieved that this was not the case, she showed me how to dip items in the soup and then eat them with chopsticks. Things went pretty smoothly from that point, and the meat cooked in the boiling soup was delicious and very spicy. I gulped Coke to regulate my body temperature. I think this is the kind of cuisine called Mongolian hot pot -- certainly, there was a large metal pot embedded in the table in front of me and it was extremely hot.

Instead of boring old beef and vegetables, I could have ordered any of the following: Inner Mongolian Plain Sheep Penis; Fucheng Fat Beef Upper Brain; Beef Throat; Fresh Pig Brain; Chicken Toe with Pepper; Duck Gizzard; or Old Man Head Fungus. I thought that modern medical science had eliminated that last one, but apparently not.

At the end of the meal, the server and I had a kind of conversation where we took turns circling phrases in my phrase book and then looking at the other person expectantly. I circled, "I'm sorry," meaning for the whole terrible ordeal, and she smiled and circled, "Goodbye." My meal cost 80 yuan. I haven't been here long enough to know if that's a good deal.

So here I am in this big smoky room. I'm aware that the Chinese authorities block a lot of internet content, particularly Western news, but I did a couple of little experiments and got onto CNN.com and the Globe & Mail website with no difficulty. Maybe only items about China attract that kind of government attention -- I don't know, and I think it might be a bad idea to spend a lot of time on the blog speculating about it.

My dear friends Steph and Graham in Toronto have a friend named Lindsay who lives and works here in Beijing. Lindsay has agreed to meet up with me one day, which I'm excited about because it's always such a pleasure when you're far from home to talk with someone who shares some of your reference points, and also because I'm sure she'll have great advice about what to see and do here. It might be getting too late to call her tonight, so I'll call her tomorrow morning.

The bottom line is that I'm sticky and dirty. Tomorrow I need to change some money, see about laundry, and eat some healthy food for a change. I think I'll go to Tiananmen Square and watch people flying kites -- I only found out recently that kite-flying is a big pastime here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Things that made me smile, or shake my head, or both

My Boojum guide, Ajgaa, told me that Mongolians consider it impolite to point at people with the index finger. As a result, I've been gesturing in this direction and that direction with my entire hand, fingers held tightly together. Combined with my sense of being a freak and an outsider here, this new way of pointing makes me feel very much like C3Po of Star Wars fame. One major difference is that C3Po was a protocol droid -- he would be able to speak Mongolian perfectly, and would never, ever make etiquette mistakes like I have.

At one of my ger camps in the Gobi Desert, there was a sheet pinned up in the bathroom advertising on-site laundry services and listing the prices for different items of clothing. The price for laundering "underwear" was 50 cents U.S., and the price for laundering "underpants" was $1.00 U.S. I've been living my life under the assumption that these terms were interchangeable, referring to the same thing. Imagine my dismay when I find out, after 30 years of compounding error upon error, that this is not the case, and that "underpants" are somehow in a whole different class. In addition, there was a $1.00 charge for laundering neckties. My question here was, "Who in their right mind brings a necktie to the Gobi Desert? Furthermore, what are they doing while wearing their necktie that requires it to be cleaned afterward? Are people dressing up in business suits and running out into the desert to castrate sheep and tame the Asiatic Wild Ass?"

I spent part of today in the outdoor market here in Ulaanbaatar known as "Khar Zakh." The market is huge, sprawling, and chaotic. It sells silk, sneakers, axes, shoe heels, baby clothes, remote controls, silver dishes, Coca-Cola, Tupperware, brightly painted ger doors, brooms, antiques, spark plugs, religious items, blenders, candy, and sheets of leather waiting to be cut down and made into something useful. It sells everything. The market was divided into sections, with vendors of similar products located together. Admission to the market was less than 10 cents Canadian. I had heard from a number of people that pickpockets preyed on tourists at Khar Zakh, so I was especially careful with my money and documents, but nothing bad happened. I was particularly interested in the silks and in the equipment for horse riding, spending most of my time in those two areas and making a nuisance of myself asking vendors to write down the prices of things. I bought a bridle, a riding crop, a pair of stirrups, a number of tough but beautiful ropes made out of camel hair and sheep hair, and a heavy steel brand for branding my livestock. Until such time as I own horses and livestock, I will keep the brand under the bed back in Toronto and use it to beat burglars and home invaders into quivering pink gristle.

I also bought an old wooden abacus, and two metres of blue silk. I'm hoping to bring the silk to a tailor in Toronto and have it made into a tie. I will parade around smugly with my unique Mongolian tie. Before leaving the market, I ran into Bob from North Carolina, who I had met a few days earlier during my Boojum trip. He was shopping with his guide/translator. I urged him to buy a brand as I had done, and use it to brand whatever livestock or other possessions he saw fit. He declined. "I'm definitely getting one of these camel hair ropes, though," he said. "Do you have horses?" I asked. "No. I'll just keep it in my truck."

Out in the Gobi Desert, one of the Mongolians I met remarked, "Canadians are very strong. All the Canadians I've met have had very powerful bodies." I said confidently, "Well, of course we do," but inwardly I was doubtful. I suspect that he may have met one burly Canadian in the past and then drawn some unscientific, statistically indefensible conclusions.

Mongolian nomads say that if you throw onions in the cooking fire, your livestock will go blind. They also say that a saxsaul branch placed by the door of a ger will protect the family that lives there from death by lightning.

Billboards advertising Fuji Film appear beside the streets and highways of this city, and yet there is no Fuji film for sale, anywhere. It's my preferred brand of film, because I think their blues are superior to other companies' blues, but I'm all out of it now and have been forced to buy Konica film -- for me, an undiscovered country full of risk and uncertainty.

Moving around the city today, I saw two taxi drivers wrestling in a parking lot, two construction workers wrestling on their lunch break, and two small boys wrestling on the sidewalk in their school uniforms. Mongolians sure like their wrestling.

After finally locating the travel agency office this afternoon, I was told that I had been upgraded to first class on the train to Beijing. Naturally, I was pleased. Only an hour later I was told this was not going to happen after all.

I sent several important emails from the internet cafe last night: some containing endearments and acknowledgments of romantically significant dates on the calendar, and some containing information of a practical nature. I have reason to worry that some or all of these emails did not actually get transmitted. If you were expecting an email from me, and didn't get one, I probably did write one and send it -- I'm just having technical difficulties. You have my apologies and my promise that I will try again.

My first stay at the Gan Zam Hotel was marked by a lack of hot water at a time when I really, really wanted to shave and clean off the gunk of a long train ride. They were very apologetic but there was nothing to be done. This time, the hotel has overcompensated -- there is an abundance of scalding water, incompatible with human life.

I had a chocolate milkshake today at a restaurant called Millie's. It was heaven. It's a fact that many Mongolians do not like chocolate.

Last night's blog post was a bit scatterbrained. The basic facts are that I was on a 10-day trip around the Mongolian countryside with a guide and driver, sometimes staying at tourist ger camps and sometimes staying with nomad families. We went west from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkorin, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, then into Arhangay Province, full of ravenous wolves, and then way down south into the Gobi. Our first vehicle was a 4WD Mitsubishi van, and when mechanical problems arose, we switched to a less comfortable but more rugged Russian jeep. This also marked a change from me sitting in the back to me sitting in the front, which was more to my liking. Most of the roads in Mongolia are atrocious -- rutted, bumpy, sometimes hard to see, even -- although the landscapes they pass through are stunning. I shot a dozen rolls of film and used my little digital camera a fair amount as well. At meal times, there was a lot of meat. A lot of rice, and a lot of meat, and I drank a lot of very sugary tea. I learned a lot about Tibetan Buddhism as it is practiced here in Mongolia, and a lot about the nomadic way of life. I struggled to learn a few Mongolian phrases, mastering some of them during a night of card-playing: "You are a cheater! I am extremely angry!" I picked up some useful Mongolian body language, to0. I was very careful to avoid sunburn, constantly applying sunscreen and wearing both of the hats I brought with me, although rarely at the same time, and my sunglasses were practically welded to my face for the entire 10-day period, because on most days we had ferociously bright sunny weather. One of our drivers, Choiji, did not own a pair of sunglasses and refused to borrow any, even as he drove west into the blinding Gobi sunset with his eyeballs slowly frying in his head.

This is likely my last entry until I get settled in Beijing. I hope that all my readers are happy and well.