Archive for August, 2008

Urban Renewal

August 26th, 2008 10:36 am by ray from here

Athens is pretty much the limiting case in downtown urban decay.  The whole center of town is basically in ruins — the buildings aren’t even in good enough shape to be used as squats, although some of them are perpetually under reconstruction, perhaps because of a residual application of slumlord laws.  The hill Areopagos is all weeds!  used to be nice houses there, churches, now it’s just a bunch of economic refugees with cameras wandering around looking at fallen down rocks.

After a day of concerted hiking around, I can now strike the Parthenon off my to do list.  I loved that Kodak ad campaign: “Turn your dreams into memories.”  Forget about the shrieking children, the comfort-index corresponding to the inside of a hot melt glue gun, the possibility that you might be appreciating what you are seeing or enjoying what you are doing, just keep that old dream-to-memory assembly line racing at NAFTA speed.  Now that the Parthenon is a memory, next up, I suppose, would be “moments on the Hudson River Line”.  Do they even still have a Hudson River Line?  Wouldn’t it all be Amtrak by now, or the tracks torn up to be Stoas and Temples?

I wish that the Archaeological Mavens would decide what they want to do with the Acropolis.  There are many approaches — the mounds of original dirt approach, such as Elba and Hattusas; the complete rebuilding approach as with the sections most touristed of the Great Wall; the partly rebuilt with story poles such as you see in the Colosseum or Machu Picchu — the Acropolis is at the moment aesthetically and intellectually unintelligible.  And it’s not the hordes of tourists, in this case.  It’s just there are cranes and scaffolds everywhere, and heaps of marble blocks (it seems to be a custom in many places to have random pieces that wouldn’t fit in a roped off area.  Maybe they are awaiting suggestions from the passers-by?).  The Temple of Athena Nike is either back in the shop for repairs or so draped in plastic I didn’t notice it.  Athena Nike doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you’d overlook.

And the Museum is closed.

So what are they aiming for here?  The Parthenon in its original form, like the copy in Nashville, Tennessee?  The perpetual work in progress look?  They don’t even have that.  There’s nothing to look at but confusion.  The guests take pictures of each other with their cell phones and leave.  It would be nice to come back here when it’s ready for its close-up.

The Acropolis ticket gets you into a lot of sites.  The Agora is much better.  It has an air conditioned museum.  Some poor little girl was being tended by her parents for the heat.  Eventually an ambulance showed up.  I hope everything is all right.  You really have to remember to drink at the Burning Mans of the world.

The Kerameikos is not to be missed.  It has an air conditioned museum AND a cemetery.  The Themistoclean walls require considerable imagination.  It will be so cool in museums of the future when you have goggles that will reconstruct them for you.  Nobody will have to think at all.  The thing that I thought about in that museum was Sumptuary Laws.  How many of you remember on a daily basis, that there were limits in most civilizations through most of history on how much you could consume?  It’s terribly un-American: not since World War II has there been any effort other than flatly declaring some things illegal.  But the gravestones in Athens got bigger and more elaborate until Demetrios of Phaleron banned elaborate stelai outright.  I wonder how much of his thought process is recorded, how he modeled the situation?  After that there were simple gravestones, which are assembled in serried ranks behind police tape for the all important graveyard desktops.

Furthermore, nobody in Greece calls me Santa, let alone ZZ Top.  It’s different without Dave.  Two of us constitute a tonsorial movement that must be reckoned serious.  I alone am just some weird guy, who is mocking Orthodox priests potentially by appearing partly out of costume.  My black Roland Hedley vest does not help, perceptually.

The Grandeur That Was Greece

August 26th, 2008 10:09 am by ray from here

I was not impressed by Emirate’s omelet served at 3 AM before we touched down in Dubai. Airlines should just abandon omelets. But the chicken makhani served soon after takeoff on the flight to Athens was really good. I found myself thinking of set and setting; how good would I think that dish really was if I had paid 200 dollars for it (well I did but included was transporting myself back to the Euro Zone from Darkest Southia.)

My first thought on arriving to the continent of chocolate and cognates is, gee, a hundred dollars sure gets you a lot more hotel in Dubai than in Greece. I <em>definitely</em> felt like I was making an extra £15,000 per year in the Arabian Courtyard Resort than in I do at the Hotel Adonis. I think there may be cuter parts of it than my room, which is pretty Spartan, if they will let me say that here. I will venture out in a bit. It is a tiny culture shock being in Europe, even after easing into it via Macau, Hong Kong, and Dubai. I must rest. I wonder if I can drink the water from the tap? Better not. I wonder if there is WiFi?

Not so you would notice. Pan is dead. Angry children glare across borders in defiant virginity. People quit smoking to the extent that dry cleaners would be hurting if dry cleaning were still permitted. Anyone under 40 will not know what I mean when I say that the airport parking lot viewed from the taxiing 777 at Eleftherios Venizeios Airport in the sunny summer afternoon garishly glittered like puddles of mercury as the sun played off the windshields and the chrome. And WiFi networks are a lot more protected than they were last summer. Very few LINKSYS opportunities. KING in Macau was of a dying race.

Eating For Two

August 23rd, 2008 12:04 am by ray from here

I would never have gone to Al Mahara if I had not met Dave.  And so, even though he is at home in California, I spontaneously booked myself alone for lunch since there is no other way to get into the Burj Al Arab to admire at the most luxurious hotel in the world.  And now I will tell him about it.

I took the bus there.  It’s the high art-low art thing.  The world being essentially uniform by now, most tourism of human-inhabited areas is no longer culture tourism but class tourism.  Dave and I tend toward downward class tourism, unlike the British Tourist straw men of the previous entry who go to Málaga to experience what life would be like if they made £15,000 per year more than they actually do, and are frustrated to discover that it’s still frustrating.  For me, however, the highlight of my eclipse day (after the hoopoe) was zigzagging home through a 100% untouristed mud village with the swaggering confidence that a GPS and the waypoint for the waiting tent can inspire.  You can tell class-downward tourists by their always asking how to find the “real” wherever it is we are.  The real Xinjiang: certainly not Grape Valley.  The real Dubai: Deira.  The real Woodside: well I don’t know that there is one.  Our house, I expect.

Upward tourists read the Emirates Duty Free magazine at the very minimum.  That’s where I am blogging from, 34,000 feet over the Arabia-Iraq border which is quite featureless, as it ought to be since the countries, as forward looking democracies allied to the United States, are indistinguishable, like British Columbia and Washington.  But the coordinates posted will be those of the Burj Al Arab.  The lady next to me reading the Duty Free Guide has a Beijing Olympics badge around her neck and is reading a Romanian book. I TOLD you that Dubai is Memphis, and we are all little FedEx packages.  Since she has a badge she might not even be a tourist, she might be some trainer returning home, annoyed that the Chinese gymnasts are even smaller than Nadia Comaneci.

You can take the 8 or 8A bus from the Real Dubai to Burj al Arab for 2 dirham, which is the real 60 cents US.  There is no reason to go by any other means.  A taxi would get there no faster, would cost at least a hundred each way since it’s about 18 km down the beach from the creek; you would have to bother with getting the taxi, you wouldn’t wait in an air conditioned bus shelter which all the bus stands on Jumeira beach are, and when you got there, well, you would still be pulling up in a mere taxi next to the Rolls Royces and Ferraris at the front gate, with the second string sheikhs posing by the cars they’ll never own and taking pictures of their wives with their cell phones.  On the bus, at least you get to see the resort employees before they start smiling.

Tourists can’t just walk into the hotel.  It’s on an island for a start, and before the bridge there’s a “Welcome Center” with a gate.  Beware Welcome Centers.  I’m sure that’s what the CIA labels its secret prison induction areas.  If you approach the gate, a gurkha springs out at you moving FAST and demands your papers.  You cannot go to the hotel without a reservation.

There is nobody in the world who gets in your face like an Indian defending somebody else’s colonial authority, from the humblest postal clerk to the fiercest rent-a-kshatriya.  His most personable act was to give me a brochure describing my options for obtaining a visa to the island.

I hadn’t at that point decided whether to actually go to the restaurant.  I wanted to read the menu first.  But faced with not actually being able to Get The Photo, I retreated to the air con bus shelter on the boulevard, exchanged the Chinese SIM card with the European SIM card, logged in, called the number in the brochure, and obtained an audience for 12:30 when Al Mahara opens for lunch.  This is why the descriptions say “Reservations essential”, not that it’s impossibly popular (though it’s that, too).

Reservation number in hand, I returned to Checkpoint Chakra.  The subaltern’s new demeanor acknowledged that I had purchased three hours of revocable obsequy.

6 men bowed at me as I walked in the door at the Burj Al Arab.  They don’t do anything but just that.  There are other people to handle baggage and limousines and saying welcome.  These are just the bowers.

Why would one go to this restaurant?  It is famous most unconditionally for its in-house aquarium.  A view restaurant, in other words.  Al Mahara was mentioned a while back on the 50 Best Restaurants In the World list sponsored by Pellegrino restaurant-grade bottled water.  They aren’t on the list any more, which may be connected with my receiving Evian when I asked for still water.

If you look up Al Mahara on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of people who are equivocal about it.  I’m another one.  I have a standing question of Rich People, which is, how do you tell if something is worth it, if you have unbounded money?  If Al Mahara is the best restaurant in Dubai, then its costing three times as much as the nearest runner up becomes insignificant as your credit limit tends toward infinity.  But there is a chance that it’s not the best restaurant in Dubai.

It isn’t perfect.  The bread was tough, compared to Flea Street in Menlo Park (where dinner costs a tenth as much.  Well, an eighth.)  Or Urumqi, where a dinner roll from a street vendor costs 14 and a half US pennies and it’s the best thing you ever ate, period.  Al Mahara’s bread was not crusty, it was tough, like it was made more than two hours before lunch opened.  I could really care about this, but, you know, although Olympic judges hopefully don’t take their work home with them to judge their kid’s soccer performance, when they are on they are on, and this is serious so I have to do serious judgmentalism:

Is this a place I would take Dave to?


The reason Dave might not absolutely have to come here is that he can imagine it.  I would insist on returning with him to an unimaginable place, like Pagan, though I hear they’ve wrecked it.  This is the other thing that you must say about any place, after you’re done saying “The weather is never like this,” which is more true now than traditionally and the first one is true also.

You can’t imagine El Bulli.  You can’t imagine the squid at the Basque stand up bar just south of the Arboretum in Seattle.  You can’t imagine my mother’s recipe for breakfast cereal, which is too bad, because she never wrote it down before she died and my father nor I could never get it right.

But you can imagine Al Mahara and by doing so you can save $300 a head.

Imagine the 4th best restaurant on the Peninsula, somewhere between Viognier and 231 Ellsworth, that you enter through the 4th most garish casino in Macau, no witty suggestions, sorry, as we only bothered to peek into one.  Scaled to 400%.  And when you get inside (the submarine seems to have been dispensed with — google various older blogs mentioning the submarine) you are seated directly next to one of the Big Tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  (also gone are the dress code, the no photos rule, and the no kids rule.  Maybe it is just that I was there at lunch instead of spending 2000 dirham on dinner.)

That’s Al Mahara.

The food is very, very, good.  The ambiance is friggin weird.  I love the aquarium.  Every species has the right to observe its kind being eaten.  They are proud of their aquarium.  They give you a souvenir book, to keep, defining the major fishes.  Unlike in China, you aren’t eating what’s on display; although one of the large fishes is a kind of grouper much consumed in the Persian Gulf.  Most are psychedelic reef fish.

Then there is the muzak, well, the heck with that.

Then there are the mirrored ceilings.  They are about 15 feet up I guess and they do let you see what other people are eating which is a big clue in restaurants.  Unfortunately I was the first seating so that did me no good but I was able to spy and see how the sheikh’s wives eat while wearing a chador.

The woman with the newspapers: In Asturias, Dave and I ate at a rural destination restaurant.  If it hadn’t been a destination nobody would have ever found it.  All the food was done up to way beyond the nines, and we had to take photos of all of it, but there was a gent at another table who sat there reading a newspaper and eating one 20 Euro amuse bouche after another with no more attention than if he were eating Kellogg’s corn flakes out of the box at breakfast.

So imagine my surprise when a, I guess in the old days she would have been called a cigarette girl, came through the house offering me a newspaper to read, in case the delicately fashioned culinary creations and the floor to double height ceiling aquarium with full color reef fish and the Russian mobsters, Saudi princes, Japanese tour group (why didn’t Eclipse City go to such restaurants?), and aging money-is-the-consolation-prize Eurotrash were not enough eye candy to go with the flavor delights.

What ever happened to Cigarette girls?  Not only China is largely non smoking, so is Dubai.  It’s nice but what about the hegemony of it all, to say nothing of the population implications?

I should mention the menu.

5 breads including one with salmon enclosed and one which was lavash coated with nori shreds.

Smoked eel and foie gras terrine under a maroon gel, the plate garnished with radishes that had currants heaped upon them; and a streak of jam defining them visually.  At this point I was still adhering to the no photos rule I had read about, so imagine this.  But other people were flashing with their cell phones.  Maybe the rule was made for taking pictures of desert celebrities and their escorts.  Basically even looking at an unrelated woman in the hard core Bedouin culture is the moral equivalent of Gary Glitter’s up-skirt Flickr page in the Enlightened West.

Fresh green pea gazpacho (blanched to bring out the color) with pomelo cells, red pepper bits, and pink rose petals, croutons glued to the side with creme fraiche or cream cheese.  It was exceptionally mild.  Maybe it is some local milk preparation.

Dover sole, a hefty portion broiled under a cheese crust, with sides of mushroom sauce and a kind of duxelles cannolo rolled in a soft crepe.  The fish was perfectly done by restaurant standards but overdone by the standards of sashimi eaters.  At La Ciccia in San Francisco which is a place you MUST GO despite its having no aquarium, we had a discussion about this.  The chef there said he wouldn’t roast the fish so much the next time we came in.

Al Mahara’s cannoli need to be made prettier. Mine looked like the Turkish cigarette-pastry but bigger and softer and when you cut it the filling comes out the end, looking like nothing so much as the output of the gesture a butcher makes when beginning the preparation for use of the intestines of a freshly slaughtered pig, which, even if it weren’t a pig, and this weren’t Islam, still isn’t what you want to think about at dinner.

7 petit fours including one raspberry ball made with champagne which the waiter announced like a wakeup call so that it could be left aside by the most observant, but the champagne left no impression on the taste.  The rest were delicate to indistinct, an opera cake, some caramel flavored things, a truffle glued to a disk of chocolate, another chocolate square under a vacuum formed fruit dust.

Orange juice and two waters.  Billed as three waters.  It’s the desert, water is the luxury item, though, they were less than at the French Laundry, take that, Pellegrino.  I could have ordered wine but didn’t.

I ate everything because one ought to and it was all good and the waiter brought me an additional set of petit fours in case I was hungry but I sent it back.  We were just being polite.  Al Mahara is known for large portions.  The waiter actually suggested I get three courses instead of four.  How many places are classy enough to suggest you purchase less of anything?

Joe Bob says, check it out.

First Impressions of Dubai

August 20th, 2008 9:15 am by ray from here

I didn’t know anything about Dubai when I came here, other than it was the last place my Uncle Russell was planning to go, before he suddenly declined and died at the age of 99.  Uncle Russ has been a great influence on me.  He went to Spitzbergen before it was big (i.e. before Justin went there and when there was still snow).  He once showed up at our house carrying a tiny suitcase and said he’d just been to Iceland.  Small suitcases as a result are my ideal.  I suspect he cheated, though; considering the souvenirs filling his house, Aunt Hansa must have had some crates stashed away in the hold.

Although, OMG, not as many as the Nigerians at Chep Lap Kok.  There is a special desk in the new Hong Kong International Airport for shipping vast amounts of stuff.  It must be a regular occurrence, the elite from the failed states showing up to purchase the 21st century in Hong Kong and accompany it home since part of being a failed state is that the distribution systems are corrupted.  These guys must have had thirty large size luggage carts all stacked way overhead with appliance cartons wrapped in reddish plastic and addressed to Lagos.

After Dave checked his bags at Kowloon Station and departed on the Airport Express (you don’t need to check your bags at the airport, you can do it downtown) I went back to the hotel and tried to take a nap but that wasn’t any fun so I got up and went to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.  I also checked my one remaining suitcase at Kowloon, took the airport express to the airport, and then the S1 bus to Tung Chung, $3.50 HKD.  From there, I took bus 23 up to the Po Lin Monastery.  There are signs everywhere telling you exactly how to go.  The fare is $17.20 if you have exact change but I didn’t on the way back and they don’t give change for a twenty.  There is a cable car as well but it was a bit of a walk from the bus stop and the bus was leaving right then.  On the way back, the cable car stops running at 6 PM so I missed it.

The Big Buddha is big.  I am glad they made it.  One of my standing recommendations to modern society is, you know, earthquakes and Taliban are happening all the time, and Buddhas get used up.  You can’t predicate your culture entirely on preserving cool old stuff, at some point you have to make cool new stuff, and shopping malls and casinos don’t cut it because they don’t make Ozymandian ruins, they just look like eroded plastic if they live long enough to collapse in the desert wind.

Do you know the story of Hitler and the ruins?  One of the things he told Albert Speer is, that even though the Reich was going to last a thousand years, eventually it would fall, and when it fell, he wanted the ruins to look good.  So the imperial Nazi buildings should be designed so that they made good ruins.  Foresight.  I don’t think he was particularly successful.  Nurnberg Stadium has all the appeal of a parking lot.  Maybe it needs to be ruined a little more.  But Hitler’s aesthetic was adopted wholeheartedly by the Modern Movement creeps who made the current Mount Rushmore visitor’s center.  Have you been there recently, baby boomers?  it’s not a cute little cabin any more, it has everything but the fasces in granite hero worship.

So, Dubai.  I really had no notion of the place.  My first clue came at gate 60 where there were people from all over the world waiting for the midnight flight I was booked on and none of them seemed like they were going to Dubai.

Emirates Airways and the Dubai airport have got quite a niche picked out for themselves: they are going to be the Heathrow of the South.  Just as your flight from Kansas City to Sofia is likely to connect through Heathrow, so your flight from Hanoi to Accra is likely to connect through Dubai.  That was what the guy sitting across from me was doing.  I’m going from Hong Kong to Athens.  Just wanted to take a day off to browse.  I hate long flights, bad connections, and long flights.  Not taking long connecting flights is a luxury I choose.  Justin took 30 hours to get to Nairobi.  How fun does that sound?

The flight was uneventful, dodging storms over Thailand and dodging Pakistan.  We flew over the Arabian Sea a couple of hundred kilometers from the shore.  Not a straight line, but given the history of US behavior toward civilian aircraft in the Gulf, I imagine that Emirates stands well clear of anything that George Bush in a fit of mania might decide to blow up.  Bush is more difficult to plan around than Putin because he has no global viewpoint, and hence may not be predicted.  Anything can be destroyed at any time in slasher foreign policy world.

The Dubai airport is suffering terrific growing pains.  A bus took us from the airplane park to Terminal 1, transfers, and Terminal 2, Arrivals.  Three quarters of the people got off at Terminal 1.

About 5 AM I was in the hotel.  They didn’t have a room ready, just like every time you arrive in London from San Francisco.  So I read the newspapers and the hotel TV for 4 hours reported every 90 seconds that Gary Glitter had been released from jail and every five minutes Musharraf resigned and the rest Olympics.  The inability of the race to concentrate on the massive problems looming directly in front of us will be regarded as the fatal psychosis of the Enlightenment/Free Market/Technology perfect storm.

At 9 o’clock a room opened up.  For 300 Dirham a night, I am in a space the size of a floor of my house.  Room 405 overlooks the pool.  An arguably cute enough to notice guy was in the pool and later sunbathing.  I did finally take a nap: it’s now 3:21 PM.  I’ve done my laundry and I’m starting to think it’s cool enough outside to declare my siesta over and HE IS STILL THERE.  Lying on a chair with a white cord in his ear.  What a dreadful life iPod external devices must have.

I think Dubai might secretly be a Spanish beach.  I don’t understand British resorts.  Nobody seems to have any fun at them.  It is a mark of Puritan societies that they compartmentalize their fun into tight little boxes.  In the case of the British, fun is confined to two weeks of being blind drunk on some Greek island when you are 19 years old, and the rest of your life including especially the pleasure is a grim, grim, chore.  None of the Brits here seem to be on the verge of cracking a smile.  Of course it was 35 C at 4:15 AM when we touched down.  But it’s a dry heat.  Travelers don’t smell so bad in a dry heat.

What is the deal with the 120 HKD departure tax?  Nobody ever asked me for it.  I had it folded into my passport just like the book suggested and the passport exit interview made a face at me like I was trying to bribe him and handed it back.

A Zipless Airport

August 18th, 2008 12:39 pm by Dave from here

Twice on our trip, Hong Kong Airport provided unexpected convenience.  (I wish we’d expected the conveniences, but they worked out well anyway.)

When we arrived from Seoul a week ago, we found that since we wanted to go to Macau, we could head straight to the Ferry Transfer Desk before immigration.  We gave them our baggage claim checks, and they hunted down our bags and transferred them directly to the ferry.  We were able to get on a bus to the ferry without officially entering Hong Kong.  Of course, when we arrived in Macau, we officially entered Macau.

Earlier today (Hong Kong time), we went to the Kowloon Airport Express station where the plan was that I would go to the airport for my flight back, and Ray would accompany me to deal with all the luggage.  It turned out this wasn’t necessary:  at the Airport Express stations, there are actual airline check-in counters.  I checked my bags and got my boarding pass.  Ray didn’t have to go to the airport early.  (If we’d expected this, we could have checked his bag at the same time.)

One of the tourist spots we could have gone to is on Lantau Island near the airport.  It’s a gigantic sitting Buddha, which is now easy to get to via a subway line next to but separate from the Airport Express, and a cable car.  I was able to see it as we took off.

I’m home now.  I’ll do as much as I can before I collapse from exhaustion, which hopefully will happen about the time it gets dark.  Voice mail, mail, e-mail, making sure the fragile objects didn’t break, etc.  And perhaps even upgrading my iPhone software.


Dim Summing it all Up

August 17th, 2008 9:30 am by Dave from here

I appreciate your having put up with my post headlines all these weeks.  This is the last one so you won’t have to put up with any more.

We’ve been in Hong Kong, staying at the Stanford Hillview Hotel, which is located on Knutsford Terrace.  Knutsford Terrace is a little like Belden Place in San Francisco, only much more so — it’s one restaurant after another, none of them anything particularly special.  Not a one of them serves Cantonese food, so they were all off the list:  it’s easy enough for us to eat at Belden Place when we get home.  There was one little bar, though, called Big Tree Pub, so we had a beer one night after dinner, and took some pictures.

We’ve done very well with Cantonese food here:  the Internet pointed out a few places, we stumbled on one nice place, and a brochure we found today in the tourist office listing culinary awards pointed out another.

  • Thursday night we went to Loong Yuen in the Holiday Inn basement.
  • We had dim sum Friday morning at Serenade, a restaurant with a second-floor view of the harbor near the Kowloon Star Ferry Terminal.
  • Friday night we got a table at Hutong, a view restaurant on the 28th floor, which had incredibly cute interior design:  it was very dark (one spotlight exactly in the center of each table, shining on each new course as it was served) and there were birdcages everywhere, and lots of bamboo.  Their main fault was not pointing out that the two things we ordered looked too similar:  both white seafood in yellow sauce (though the tangerine sauce on the prawns tasted quite different from the urchin sauce on the squid).  It was certainly the most expensive meal of the trip, $150 for the two of us, without even having any wine.
  • We had dim sum Saturday morning at The Square, located in the same building as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.  It was deserted at 11 am, but gradually filled up.  The lobster dumpling and the marinated whelk were quite nice.  The basic steamed pork bun was delightfully fluffy.
  • Saturday night, after wandering around a Food Expo which happened to be at the convention center, we had a nice rice casserole at Yat Tung Heen, a restaurant in a nearby shopping center.
  • Tonight, the brochure referred us to Tai Woo in Causeway Bay, where we had their award-winning crab meat soup, their award-winning spicy shrimp, their award-winning crispy juicy braised beef, and their award-winning dessert balls in two styles.

Between eating, we’ve tried to engage in the official Hong Kong activity — shopping — but I guess we’re bad shoppers:  we don’t really need anything.  So there were other diversions like taking the Peak Tram to the top of the mountain, walking through the walk-through aviary in Hong Kong Park (highly recommended), and going to the food expo mentioned above, which was packed:  it was difficult to walk through the aisles.  Lots of free samples, like Costco, of soy milk or herbal drinks, or pork skins, but nothing to make dinner out of.  Mostly they were selling prepackaged food (much of it imported:  there was Canadian maple syrup, Norwegian salmon oil, and various American food).

Today we didn’t do much:  we reorganized the suitcases for my departure tomorrow, and Ray’s ongoing travel; found the place mentioned in the top hit for the search “mangosteen gelato” but were disappointed to find out that they were out of it (their gelato was unique in that it was all Splenda-dly sugar-free); found a weekly show in Kowloon Park of martial arts and dragon dancing, and watched it for awhile.

Ray has been jerked around by JetBlue:  his direct flight from Boston to SF was originally scheduled for 9:30 am or so, and he was notified that it had been changed to a flight connecting through New York leaving at 6 am.  So now he’s trying to cancel it and fly on Southwest instead.  I should think that when you buy a plane ticket, the price you agree to buy it at takes into account when it is and whether or not it is direct; if the airline changes it, especially like they did in this case, they should offer you the chance to cancel it without penalty.  Maybe they will, but it’s difficult to communicate with them from Hong Kong.  Are we going to wait on hold on our cell phone?  Maybe we should use Skype or something.  They promised to respond to our emails within a week or so — maybe longer since they’re extra-busy right now.  I’ll be home so maybe I can help communicate.

It’s time to post this and go to sleep, so the various alarms can get us up at 7 in time to get to the 8:00 shuttle to the 8:50 airport express, getting to the airport by 9:30 in time for my 11:45 flight, which arrives in SF two and a half hours earlier, through the magic of the international date line.  Somehow it still lasts twelve and a half hours.  After seventeen hours of traveling, assuming customs is reasonably quick, I’ll be home.

And hopefully, you’ll be hearing from Ray about how the rest of his trip goes.  I’m looking forward to it.

A Bite of Portugal

August 14th, 2008 9:33 am by Dave from here

Sorry we haven’t posted in a few days.  We refused to pay the usurious $25/day for in-room Internet at the Holiday Inn in Macau.  Instead, we aimed our computers at the window and picked up someone’s network named “KING” and got spotty connections for free.  We also refused to pay the usurious $25/person for breakfast, and walked around town and found lots of fresh-squeezed oranges, and good coffee and cute cakes (though the latter were largely unavailable until after 11 am, for some reason).

The first impression one gets when arriving in Macau is “we’re in Las Vegas”, except without the dry air.  Sands, Wynn, MGM Grand.  But the dominator is the new Grand Lisboa, which looks like a giant lotus flower if a giant lotus flower had a giant scrotum at the base of it, and whose lobby is decorated with gigantic carved jade statues.  Not carved particularly well, but definitely gigantic.

The Holiday Inn is close to the north end of the Stupid Zone and it is a short walk in the morning to the UNESCO Zone.  The center of Macau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 25 buildings have been identified as World Heritage Buildings for the tourists’ edification.  Collect them all.  Except the moorish Barracks, which is now the Harbormaster’s Office and not open to the public.  And the theater and the Rich Mandarin’s House, which were under renovation, which is how you can tell that a site is important.  Our house is also important.

The main square of Macao, on which the building of the Leal Senado (i.e. Loyal Senate, a point on which colonial governments have sought to reassure the imperial power since the days of Egypt and Rome and the Han Dynasty) faces, is a multiple purpose arena.  At the moment, the Leal Senado faces the back of a huge television screen, which is broadcasting live from Beijing.  Townies and variable numbers of tourists are watching two story high tumblers and swimmers all day long.  So, no dramatic pictures of the whitewashed Leal Senado this trip unless we get them from google images.

The World Heritage components stretch northeast and southwest from it like a string of mostly pink and yellow pearls.  The top end is the Protestant Cemetery: a well maintained little yard whose stones tell the stories of the brief lives and discomforting deaths of sailors who served their king in the Opium Wars and other commercial conflicts.  The bottom end is the temple of A Ma, the goddess who gave her name to the first syllable of Macao via one of the typical misunderstandings that occur when an explorer or invader asks “what is this place” or “who are you” and doesn’t correctly interpret the scope of the answer.  In this case, the temple to A Ma, which sounded like A Ma Gao, was taken to mean the whole island.  It’s a warren of paths up a rocky hillside, filled with chapels large and small, offerings of incense ranging from the size of the sticks you buy in head shops to the size of the exhaust pipes on large trucks, and especially coils up to a meter in diameter that the worshipers can buy for several hundred Macao Pesetas and leave burning for days.

In the place of honor is the iconic facade of St. Paul’s cathedral.  The cathedral is gone, burned.  Cue the “Bare Ruined Choirs” sonnet.  I must start carrying that one around with me, along with “Ozymandias” which I already have in my wallet.  Or maybe even Tintern Abbey, the prototypical allusive tourist’s blog.  There is considerably less left of St. Paul’s than there is of Tintern abbey, although more is left now than there has been for a long time.  The archaeologists have been digging around and created signs and labels and a small museum with a new reliquary like Donald Judd might have created for holding the relics of saints.  Wikipedia informs that the bones actually have been saints’ bones since their canonization in 1851, by which time they were already lost; but they were rediscovered in the 1990s during excavations of the cathedral site.  They belonged to the Christians martyred in Japan at the time of a free trade war in the early 17th century.  It used to be the most famous mass murder to take place in Nagasaki.

The relics of saints have a certain reality where butchering is not so complete as it is in the west.  It links the universe around, that this morning we were looking at the humerus of St. Francis Xavier in the Seminario of St. Joseph in Macau, and (after a hydrofoil ride across the Pearl River) tonight we ate the meat off the same bone of a suckling pig (together with abalone, conpoy stuffed squash, bamboo pith, mushrooms, and a deep brown Cantonese sauce).  When you spit out the bone, there is the saint in your mind’s eye.

We left the Casino Zone and the UNESCO zone for an afternoon on an adjoining island called Coloane, which featured a walk in the hills, and a return to a beach Ray visited in 1986.  It’s named Hac Sa which means black sand, but at this point it was all mud.  A charming path through some rocks in 1986 had become a gross housing development called Hellene Gardens, a name which seemed to me to be the opposite of the Garden of Eden.

Eating in Macau was a break from Chinese restaurants, except for one little place that was paved in oranges in its front window where we had FSOJ and congee with frog or duck for breakfast.  We found a couple of nice Macanese restaurants, which are basically Portuguese, but with some characteristic dishes, like African chicken, a chicken in a spicy peanut coconut sauce.  Forks instead of chopsticks, and wine instead of beer or tea.  And a nice cup of gelato, with durian and guava.  Try getting durian gelato in Florence.  (I suppose you can, really.  durian gelato florence gets 1,120 google hits.  It’s also nice having fresh mangosteens from the markets.  “mangosteen gelato” gets only 3 hits, and the first of them is in Hong Kong.)

Now we’re in Kowloon, at the Stanford Hillview hotel with free in-room WiFi (but posting the location of the hotel room in Macau).  It’s our last few days together on this trip — we’ll be strategically repacking so I can take the souvenirs back to California.  We’ll post again soon after exploring the intensely skyscrapered rocks which are Hong Kong.

kkul tarea club

August 10th, 2008 8:13 am by Dave from here

We’ve spent the last three days in Seoul after an eight-hour travel day bracketing a two-hour flight, and before what will probably be a ten-hour travel day bracketing a four-hour flight tomorrow to Hong Kong.

We’ve been staying in a honak, a traditional Korean house in a neighborhood which is restoring as many of them as possible.  It’s set up as a guesthouse.  It seems Chinese in its exterior (the same roof style) and Japanese in its interior (sliding doors).  When we arrived, and asked the owner for a good nearby Korean restaurant, he put a leash on his dog, and walked us to one (which had no English or picture menu), ordered something, and left.  We were served several plates of banchan and some nice soup.

It’s been hot and muggy (someone said the hottest two days this year, but they always say that) and there was one brief rain shower.  We’ve toured two palaces where the king lived (one was built as a backup to the other) which were largely destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and 1911, but which are undergoing renovation.  We visited the Leeum Samsung Art Museum, a very modern building presenting some historical Korean art, and some modern art.  We went on a walk on a hillside with Buddhist and Shamanic shrines, and some nice sandstone formations.  But in between, we’ve been eating.

This neighborhood is packed with art galleries and coffee places.  We also ran into some fancy restaurants, one of which was on someone’s top-50-in-the-world list.  We went back to it, and they served us many things we’d never seen before.  The next night, we went back to a fancy Buddhist vegetarian restaurant we’d seen, and they served us many other things we’d never seen before.  Unlike the one in Kamakura a couple years ago, which fashioned bean curd into every conceivable form, this place used mostly vegetables and rice gluten for their creations.  Today for lunch we had another assortment of small plates, featuring some kind of pickled flower, some white soup, some root, etc., all pretty much unknown to us.

Two other memorable food experiences were in markets.  At the fish market, we browsed around several stalls, and picked out a few things at a stall that seemed particularly lively:  a squid, a couple lampreys, and another creature I couldn’t name.  It looked like an oak gall on Jabba the Hutt.  The vendor put them in a plastic bag, and led us to a restaurant at the edge, which chopped them up, and served the lampreys and the creature raw.  We tasted them, and decided that the creature slices were a little bitter — they were much improved after several seconds of cooking.  The squid took awhile for some reason, but was perfectly tasty when it finally arrived.

Today on the street, we had a kkul tarea, a snack made from spinning hardened fermented honey coated with cornstarch into strands, and then wrapping them around some nut paste.  Mmm…  dessert.  As the guy made it, he counted the strands as powers of 2, up to 16384.  A little later we passed a noodle shop where a blob of dough became a plate of hand-pulled linguini-thickness noodles without any extrusion devices, only with tossing, twisting, and applying water and starch.  We’d just had lunch, and were too full to sample those.

We probably would have eaten a little more authentically if we knew someone here, but I’ve had a good time — a pleasant break from Chinese food, which we will resume for the next week, in its most sweet delicate Cantonese fancy form, in Macau and Hong Kong.  Or maybe Macau has its own style — we’ll see.


August 6th, 2008 9:27 am by Dave from here

On Sunday most people on the eclipse tour were awakened at 4:30 to get ready for their trip to the airport. So were we, by mistake.  Flying to Beijing six days before the Olympics from a territory with “unrest” is probably not a quick trip through airport security. We, on the other hand, had the entire day to go back to the places we’d found interesting things and buy heavy fragile souvenirs. Our train left about 6:30, and merely forty-four hours later, after stopping only twenty times, we had moved 2500 miles across the country from Urumqi to Shanghai.

The train had its disappointments. This is not a popular route, and especially not with soft-sleepers despite its long duration. The car was presumably old, which meant that there wasn’t as much room under the seat/lower bunk for luggage; the electricity didn’t work in either of our compartments, and the air conditioning didn’t work diligently in Ray’s. We weren’t able to get into the same compartment: each of us was sharing one with a family which included a small kid who slept with his mother. The kids were incredibly cute, so it wasn’t so bad. And much of the scenery was pretty awesome.

We arrived in Shanghai yesterday, and have gotten just a taste. Actually, two tastes, of pretty nice restaurants — we’re treating ourselves since it’s our last nights in China (except Hong Kong) and we’ve been in the Wild West for awhile. Last night, we went to the Whampoa Club, which is a view restaurant on the Bund. It had nice Art Deco styling, probably vintage 2003, and as we ate some competent fancy Shanghainese food, I was able to watch out over the Huangpu River at the buildings which had been turned into giant video screens, and at the brightly lit river cruise boats going back and forth, and even at a huge orange crane directly in front of the window working on a road construction project of some sort. Ray was facing the other direction, so he missed out.

Some of the dishes included a martini glass filled with chopped tofu and preserved egg, little baskets with minced pigeon and pear, hot and sour soup with lobster, smoked fish, and red-cooked eel and pork. Dessert was a delightful mango and grapefruit “soup”.

But tonight’s dinner, at Fu 1088, was the best meal we’ve had this entire trip. Every room in this three-story Victorian house has only one table; the private dining is quite nice. It started with a tea smoked egg, and drunken chicken, which were served at the same time; then there were two strange but delicious soups, one involving bamboo pith, and the other squid roe. We had king prawns in chili sauce, poached spinach sprouts, and a very unusual but tasty preparation of “monkey head mushrooms with crispy milk and oat flakes”. Dessert was black sesame tiramisu, and a glutinous rice ball in pear syrup.

On the way back from dinner, a block from our hotel, we encountered a fish market on the sidewalk, in front of a restaurant.  Presumably we could have picked anything from the tubs and had it cooked up inside.  There were several weird-looking things, including some white “sea vegetable”, lamprey eels, various clams and snails, squids and squid accessories (ie roe sacs), and many fish.  There were also frogs and a couple of guinea fowl.  If we’d stayed here longer it would have been nice to eat this way one night.  A couple of young Chinese helped us figure out what some of the items were, and explained that tomorrow they were going to the US consulate to apply for visas for a trade show in Chicago in November where they would sell their medical packaging equipment (used to fill capsules, put pills between plastic and aluminum foil, etc.)  We told them to bring warm clothes.

Today we found that the contemporary art had been moved from the main art museum into its own new separate museum. There was one piece there which featured an eclipse, which we thought was pretty special. We happened to meet the manager of the museum in the cafe, who pointed out the solo exhibition the artist of the piece is currently having, in a cute little art ghetto in which many old warehouses have been turned into galleries like, say, in the Mission, or in Bethnal Green.  We went there and met the manager, and saw many other examples of this guy’s work.

The place we’re staying merits description as well.  It’s called the “New Harbor Apartments” and it came from Expedia.  The rooms really are apartments, with kitchen and living room and bedroom, and you get to take your own wash to the laundry room and put it in the machine and get it back in two hours rather than a day and a half as in full service hotels.  Even allowing the exorbitant Internet rate, it’s about $90 a night which is cheap for a big city, especially a location which is right in the center of town.

In Beijing and a few other places, we’ve handed a taxi driver the place we wanted to go, written in Chinese, and he said “No.”  We don’t have the language skills to find out why he said no — was it because we were Western?  because he wasn’t familiar with how to get there?  because he didn’t want to be in that kind of traffic?  because he was illiterate and couldn’t read the Chinese writing?  We’ll never know.  Anyway, at one point I thought of a tactic to deal with this and we had an opportunity to use it today.  When we handed the “Take me to New Harbor Apartments” card to a taxi driver and he said no, I asked Ray to take a picture of the placard with his photo and number on it.  He immediately said yes.  Try that if it happens to you.

Tomorrow we leave for Seoul, and we’ll experience the glory of the longest maglev train in the world, which attains speeds of 430 km/h on a seven-minute, twenty-second ride to the Shanghai airport. We’ll let you know how exciting it was, as well as the trip on China Southern Airlines.

Post-Eclipse Depression

August 2nd, 2008 8:28 pm by Dave from here

We arrived at the eclipse viewing site (identified as the post location above) Thursday night.  We went through some of the most beautiful Chinese countryside we’ve seen so far, and it’s in a pretty nice place.  It seems like it was a small village which has been built up somewhat for the eclipse, and there are tents set up like in a military camp.  Our tents have a partition with two beds on each side.  There are a several hundred people camping, and a kitchen churns out generic Chinese buffet food for three meals a day.  A line of kiosks sells the usual merchandise, and a further line of stands grill mutton kebabs and serve beer.  Thursday night a bunch of us had a lot of beer, including me.

On eclipse day, we woke up to clear blue skies.  They didn’t stay that way — it got quite hot and a bunch of puffy cumulus clouds developed.  Since the eclipse wasn’t until 6 pm Beijing time (more like 4 pm local sun time) we had a lot of time to kill, which included buying white eclipse t-shirts (the ones issued were a hot dark blue, and Chinese people are small — a Chinese XXL is like a US L) and a honeydew-variety Hami melon, which was delicious.  Around 4:30 we took a bus out to the site, and then walked north, in the direction of the clear part of the sky, to a mound where several of the group had set up.  It was near a nice shady spot where I sat for awhile, and a woman with binoculars announced “there’s a hoopoe!”  Wow.  I could imagine telling people “we got clouded out for the eclipse, but we saw a hoopoe!!”  It’s an exceptionally beautiful white and brown bird with a large crest.

Meanwhile, Ray decided to go further north to the next mound, which was somewhat higher and which had a beautiful view.  The clouds were still around, and we looked at them and tried to guess which ones might interfere with totality.  As totality approached, it turned out that the big ones we’d been tracking weren’t going to be a problem, but a little one had showed up that was right next to the sun.  Minutes before totality, I saw it shade the main mass of people watching; a minute later, it shaded the group on the first mound.  Ray decided to run down the hill to try to evade it, but I stayed on the higher mound.  Ultimately, it blocked half of the corona for me for the first 30 seconds of the eclipse, but otherwise it had gotten out of the way for everybody else, leaving everyone with a beautiful eclipse with lots of high drama and lots of feelings of relief.  Mercury and Venus were easily visible, and there was a prominence on the right side.

Of course, if we’d been able to drive into the next valley up an hour earlier, we probably would have seen no clouds whatsoever, and all of the drama could have been avoided.  The scientific group also had completely clear skies all day long, to the southeast.  But the valley north of us was just a little closer to the Mongolian border than the government wanted large groups of people to be located.  Stupid paranoid governments.  It was probably not such a bad decision to make everyone camp where they did, but it was pretty stupid not to allow free movement in viewing.

The next event was a “gala dinner”.  We drove half an hour to some Ethnic Restaurant with Dancers and Yurts which seemed never to have done anything after dark — there were no lights on the tables other than candles which blew out immediately in the wind, and there was a light at the back of the stage pointing at us, and none pointing at the dancers and musicians.  For awhile they at least turned lights off so we had a nice view of the Milky Way and saw the International Space Station drift across the sky.  As we drove back from this debacle, a physician in the group termed our mood a “post-eclipse depression”.

Saturday was a 700 km drive back to Urumqi, 12 hours including lunch.  As we drove, I finished a book that three of the bus travelers had independently bought copies of called “China Road” by Rob Gifford, an NPR correspondent in China for six years.  It had lots of good explanations of the history and current state of things in China, interspersed with a travelogue on pretty much the same route we’ve been traveling, in his case Shanghai to Xi’an to Dunhuang to Urumqi to the Kazakh border.  He talks (in Chinese) to many people, including Tibetans and Uighurs, about how they really feel, and the way he presented everything resonated very well with me as I read it.  We’re relating our experiences and providing our opinions, but I recommend this book to any of you who might want a deeper analysis of what the future might hold for China and its place in the world.

Last night there was another generic Han Chinese dinner.  The food has been getting a little different and better, or else I’m losing my discrimination.  Afterwards, a few of us went back to Fubar, had a bunch of European beers and hookah, and then almost everyone got a 4:30 wakeup call for an 8:30 flight to Beijing.  We have our train tickets for our 6 pm train to Shanghai, and we’ll spend the rest of the day doing some last-minute shopping.  I could shop for a new camera — mine jammed AGAIN with the dreaded E18.  I think I’ll try other company besides Canon; you should too.  Hopefully Google searches for Canon E18 Canon E18 Canon E18 will find this page.

No Internet on the train, but I’m sure Shanghai, Seoul, and Hong Kong will be well connected.