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.

Shanghai’ed

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.

Tour Is Always Be Stupid

July 30th, 2008 8:54 am by Dave from here

Ray has been writing to a nice young man we met in Beijing in Beilin Park, commenting on the eclipse tour we’re now on. He wrote back with an e-mail with the above title.

Tour, in fact, is always be stupid. When you have 48 people in two tour buses, you can only eat at places which will accommodate that many people in a hurry, and in most cases, that means lots of pre-prepared food which is not piping hot. Since we haven’t been served tripe or donkey, one has to assume that someone purposefully ensured that the menus would be somewhat consistent and “palatable to Westerners”, robbing us of much of the variety we could have experienced were we not on a tour.

Also, we are in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. A large percentage of the population is Uighur, and several other Islamic minorities. Yet almost all of the food we’ve gotten on the tour is your basic Han Chinese tour food. We see all this wonderful bread and delicious kebabs cooked on the street, and served in Islamic restaurants, but the only time we get to eat it is when we bail on a tour meal and go get it ourselves. And the way the Uighurs are presented is a little “cleaned up” from reality. Ray writes:

Is it acceptable again for the majority race to engage in blatant racial stereotyping nonstop? I know that Richard Pryor and everybody reclaimed some images but jeezis. I know that a tour guide must encapsulate the experience of a territory the size of Western Europe into 6 words for variety of people who speak a variety of English but jeezis. Wherever we weren’t being sold jade, we’re being told that Uighurs are a happy hospitable people and born dancers. About 6 times a day. No exaggeration. We went to a Uighur “home” today. Our guide said we were invited. We were not invited. The contempt on the faces of our nominal hosts will show up on every photo these Eurotrash put up on flickr. The Uighur were militarily defeated by the Han Chinese and they dance for money. Some of them plant bombs when they get tired of grinning back at the stern billboards which dot the landscape showing Han Chinese members of the People’s Liberation Army and their dedication to protecting the peace and social order of the former East Turkestan.

In addition to the stupid food, the weather has been somewhat stupid — the clouds have continued to make our tour through the desert quite a bit more pleasant than it would be if they weren’t there (30 degrees C instead of 40) but clouds are a bit of a bummer for an eclipse. There is a weather forecaster on the trip, who is quite convinced that the clouds will disappear tomorrow and be gone by Friday. So we all have to be optimistic.

The stupid weather feeds into the stupid Chinese or Xinjiang governmental restrictions: there is one viewing site in this area of the eclipse zone, and we can’t watch it anywhere else. If the weather is bad, we can’t try to go somewhere else. (Of course, this could be true anyway, because there aren’t many roads, and the clouds are usually nowhere or everywhere, but there are more than zero roads, and discrete puffy clouds are possible). We’ll get to the site tomorrow (which won’t have any Internet). Apparently there are many tents for many groups, but our tents will have restricted access to us. There are a few large viewing sites, but we have a small viewing site to the west of all of them. We can bring as much water as we want into the tent area, but not into the viewing area. (We should be able to see the eclipse from the tent area, so it’s not obvious we even have to bother with the viewing area). Our viewing area is restricted to us, but we should be able to view from the general area as well. I appreciate how people with cameras will like not having them overrun by thousands of locals, but I kind of like hanging out with locals during an eclipse, to show them what’s going on, and to see their reactions. So we’ll see how things look once we get to the site.

The people on the tour are generally pretty nice, and there seem to be only two eclipse virgins among them (plus the Chinese tour guides). One of the tour members was on the tour with us in Niger. I wonder how many from that tour are on the tour in Russia put on by the same company; if we’d known about the Chinese restrictions, and if it had been advertised sooner, maybe we would have gone on it instead. Probably half of them are from the Netherlands, nine from the US, a lady from Sydney, and the rest from elsewhere in Europe.

The tour has been to many tourist attractions which have the usual jade and silk shops attached, or, if out in the desert, lots of little stands with people selling various kitsch. We saw the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi which featured dessicated corpses from the desert that were many hundreds of years old; we went to the Heavenly Lake outside of Urumqi which was a beautiful green lake at the foot of a snowcapped mountain range; we moved to Turpan, a desert oasis town 100 meters below sea level which is a huge grape-growing area, currently for raisins, but like all grape-growing areas I expect them to learn a thing or two more about wine. At Turpan, we saw the ruins of two nearby ancient cities. The thing that struck us about Jiaohe was that it was located on a high plateau that was almost exactly the same shape as Manhattan — we walked from Battery Park up to Lower Harlem. Several of the tour members have rebelled at some of the more touristy sites, and requested stopping the bus in some somewhat more “real” places in order to take pictures of people or cemeteries or beds on roofs or whatever looks interesting from the windows of the bus.

Now we’re in a little town called Shanshan, and tomorrow we head to the Official Viewing Site. As long as the weather is good, and we’re reasonably comfortable, we’ll try hard not to complain. But it comes so naturally…

Unexpected Attractions

July 25th, 2008 9:03 am by Dave from here

I didn’t have very high expectations about our last day in Dunhuang.  After we checked out of the hotel, we took a taxi to Yungguan, which like the Yumen Pass, is a ruin of a tower.  But when we got there, there was a four-year-old museum, with an English-speaking guide.  The museum had lots of interesting things, including little sticks which had been used as passports in the Han dynasty, a scale model showing all of the alternate routes the Silk Road took over the years, and many other artifacts.  When we went up to see the actual ruin, there was a place to stand and see a stretch of the actual Silk Road — it’s a real road, not just a concept.  After returning to the museum, we were of course taken to the rooms selling handicrafts.

The Mogao Caves we’d visited a few days earlier had several hundred rooms which had been very well protected.  I’d heard the Western Thousand Buddha Caves were in much worse shape, and that there was much less to see, and this was in fact true:  they were next to a river, and the direct face of the caves had been weathered much worse than Mogao.  But seeing them was a fascinating experience anyway.  The guide spoke only Chinese, but there was a guy who was also visiting who was an amazing polyglot.  He’d talk to the guide in Chinese, and then tell us what the guide said in English, and then tell his friend what the guide had said in Japanese.  Any questions either of us asked were translated into the other two languages, as well as the answers.  There were some very different styles of paintings there, and some instances of incomplete sketches of figures which were only shown in their complete state in Mogao.  The multilingual fellow was in China to be a field producer for the Olympics, the first visitor we’d met intending to see the Olympics.  His friend was in China to see the eclipse, the first visitor we’d met intending to see the eclipse.

We returned to town, went to the Luminous Cup Factory Outlet Store, and bought some jade cups which were nicer and half the price than those offered at the museum, had some simple food, and went to the train station.  The station just opened in June, and is quite a large building with not much traffic.  Despite the fact our destination was several hours to the west, the train went east for about two hours before joining the main line.

We saw several interesting things from the train, including an oilfield which looked like West Texas, a windmill farm which looked like Tehachapi, only flat, and Ray noticed that the station signs were no longer in Chinese and English, they were now in Chinese and Arabic.

We arrived in Urumqi, and took a taxi to the Super 8 Hotel, which is quite nice.  Free internet that Just Works, breakfast included, less than $40 per night.  And Urumqi has quite a bit of coffee — I’ve had no problem feeding my addiction here.

What it doesn’t have is much English — lots of Arabic, quite a bit of Cyrillic (we’re quite close to Russia and Kazakhstan).  We prowled around on the Internet to find especially good restaurants, and noticed one site called “fubar”.  Fu means “lucky” or “wise” in Chinese, so it’s the “Lucky Bar”.  Anyway, it’s run by a guy from New Zealand, and we passed it walking to our hotel, so we stopped in for a couple beers, and let the owner give us advice and tell us about his life.  He sent us to a Uighur restaurant which was very authentic, very tasty, but which had someone who spoke pretty good English.  The restaurant guy was so thrilled to meet Americans (the previous time was two years ago) that he took a couple hours off today and showed us around the market.  Between the lunch we had before that, and the melon and ice cream and fresh baked roll we had at the market, we’re probably too full for dinner.

Tomorrow we join the eclipse tour, and move to the Xinjiang Grand Hotel, which was allegedly abandoned by Holiday Inn a few years ago because it was used as a bordello.  We’ll see.  The eclipse is being viewed as a serious income opportunity by the Xinjiang government — in the last few days they’ve issued a bunch of rules including requiring a $45 ticket per person to enter the eclipse zone, and in the interest of “security” (their financial security, of course) one is not allowed to bring water into the zone, you have to buy it from them.  This seems to me as if it decreases my personal security (what if they don’t have enough, etc.), but whatever.  Again, we’ll see how things proceed from here.

Should we flood the Sistine Chapel…

July 22nd, 2008 8:05 am by Dave from here

In the 1960’s some publicist working for the Bureau of Reclamation decided to tout the benefits of flooding yet another part of the Colorado River, by announcing with a flourish that boaters would be able to get closer, to appreciate what remained of the landscape.  The Sierra Club responded with advertisements under the headline, “Should we flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get a better look at the ceiling?”

This phrase might return to mind on viewing the Yadan landforms west of Dunhuang.  The yadan are siltstones eroded by wind and water into fantastical shapes, but unlike the spires of Bryce, they only rise a few meters above a sea of sand, giving the impression that Cedar Breaks or Pinnacles has been flooded by some mad dam project and you’re seeing only the top of what remains.

A couple days ago the hotel told us it would cost 800 yuan to take a car out to the Yadan Landforms Geologic Park, the local Monument Valley. A travel agency said 700. Yesterday we hailed a taxi outside the hotel and the driver said 400. Cool. She drove to some obscure side street, and switched drivers (I’m guessing her husband), who topped off his diesel tank and his natural gas tank, and drove us 180 km out into the desert.

On the way out, we stopped at the Yumen Pass, a ruin of a small fortification, and a section of the Han Great Wall, a ruin of a six-foot thick structure made of mud and straw, nothing like the wall near Beijing pictured above.

At Yadan Park, we were herded onto a small tour bus, which drove too fast over too bumpy roads to take any pictures of the beautiful scenery; it stopped and within five minutes they wanted us back on the bus. So it went for an additional stop.

At the third stop, a few people who knew a few English words told us the guide had said “thirty minutes”. So we started hiking out into the pretty rocks, got some nice pictures and some exercise in the hot sun, and returned pretty much on time.

There was a quick fourth stop, and then the bus drove back to the visitor center. But we wanted more. So we hung around and looked confused, and finally someone told us we could go out in a Jeep for 300 yuan (about $45, pretty expensive fun) for an hour. And it was fun, and we got some more nice pictures, and the thrill of almost getting stuck in the sand, but alas, it was over way too soon.

We could have gotten the Jeeps at the third rest stop, but didn’t have the language skills to figure that out in the first place.  We wouldn’t have gotten the long walk in the rocks, but we might have gotten to see more in the Jeep.

It was a bit of Utah or Arizona in a trip which has been largely Nevada for the last several days. The park isn’t open at sunrise or sunset, the best times to take pictures of eroded geography, but the discrete puffy clouds were making some nice shadows anyway.

On the way back, the driver asked if we wanted to see Hecang City, a ruin of a Han storehouse 13 km off the road, and we said OK.  We took some pictures while the driver talked to an old lady who lived in a house next to the ruin.  When we were done, he invited us up to the house, split a melon with us, bought a huge bag of salt from the lady, and refilled all our water from her well.  She had a pretty good-sized garden.  The house was an adobe just like anywhere in New Mexico.  She also had a bunch of potted cactus plants which she’d better not let out into the wild or else they’ll take over.

So after having made the taxi driver wait for our extra jeep ride, and after having the delightful visit at the lady’s house, we gave him 600, and he seemed happy.

Today was spent mostly in the hotel writing postcards and sleeping — tomorrow we won’t have one and I wanted to take advantage of it.  In the late afternoon we went to Dunhuang’s major tourist trap, the Crescent Moon Lake and Singing Sands Mountain.  $20 per person to get in.  Once you get in, you can pay even more for camel rides on the dunes, to walk up steps on the dunes instead of on sand, to toboggan down the dunes.  It was pretty cute, but we did get some major exercise eschewing all of the above and just walking to the top of a ridge.  They must not have many sand dunes and camels in China, since it seems like such a big deal here.  The tourist map lists stuffed camels as one of the major things to shop for here (along with “luminous cups” made of jade).  It also lists dried apricots as one of the major local delicacies, and we bought a bag.

We’ve eaten in the hotel restaurant the last couple nights, which specializes in Sichuan cooking, a destination that was sadly dropped from our plans during the visa confusion.  Ray is very smart and insists that we only order two things because that is all that is possible to eat due to the huge portions.  But I like variety so I often order three or four, hoping against hope that one or two of them will be small.  Tonight, after all the sand dune exercise, we got tofu soup, greens, a mushroom clay pot, and twice cooked pork with wheat buns.  Everything was enormous, and we weren’t able to finish.  Sigh — I hate to throw away food.

After we check out of the hotel tomorrow morning, we’ll explore some other random attractions, and then get on the overnight train to Urumqi, a city in the province of Xinjiang where we’ll join the eclipse tour.

Air Quality

July 20th, 2008 7:49 am by Dave from here

There was a news article today that Beijing just started trying to improve its air quality before the Olympics by instituting odd-even driving restrictions: if your license plate is odd, you can only drive on odd days, etc. When we were there, the air quality was quite nice on Sunday, but really smoggy the other days. In Xi’an, it was really smoggy. In Xining, it wasn’t so bad, but it was cloudy about half the time.

Cloudy is a bad thing when you’re going to see an eclipse. We hoped that once we hit the desert, the skies would be clear all the time. And indeed, most of the time in Qinghai, they were, though there were occasional cloudy days. And not discrete puffy clouds — whatever one part of the sky decides to do, the rest of the sky decides to do the same thing. It is the Chinese cultural influence.

Now we’re getting pretty close to where the eclipse will be, and today it was cloudy all day. This made it a comfortable 85 degrees instead of 100, but still — if today had been eclipse day we’d have been out of luck. The eclipse tour people have reported that the Chinese want our tour to observe the eclipse in an “official viewing site”, but if the weather is bad, I hope they let us drive off away from the clouds, if that’s even possible.

Other than the clouds, Dunhuang has been a pretty nice place so far. Today we got up early and went to see the Mogao Caves, which is one of the most incredible things we’ve seen this trip. A few hundred rooms were dug into the side of a cliff about 1500 years ago, and the walls were decorated with elaborate murals depicting Buddha, his Bodhisattvas, and many flying Apsaras. Many of the rooms have statues, and there are two enormous Buddhas, one of which was claimed to be the third largest in the world (it was fourth, but the Taliban moved it up to third a few years ago). It has been very well preserved due to the dry climate, and many of the paintings have been restored over the years by various dynasties. Tomorrow we’re going to the Gansu version of Monument Valley.

With so many local tourist attractions, this is an easier place to find an English menu in a restaurant, or at least one with pictures. The last two nights we’ve eaten in the “night market”. You sit down at a table with six lounge chairs, and order from a menu which consolidates offerings from many small kitchens. There’s one attendant per table who fetches your drinks, and delivers your order to the appropriate kitchens. Most of the items on the menu have pictures, and English names which are pretty funny — “the unofficial receipt grasps”, “cram food into one’s mouth pit meat”, to name a couple. Last night we had some great noodles (“Dunhuang ties the knot” or something) kind of like spaetzle, and a very scrawny leg of lamb with a few skewers stuck into it. Tonight was less successful — a plate of corn and pine nuts that was sweet like Jolly Green Giant, and pork and fennel dumplings in which we didn’t taste any fennel. But they were good anyway.

The second day of our recent drive across the desert was complicated for me by the fact that the hotel at Qinghai Lake didn’t have coffee. So I think I was suffering a little from a combination of caffeine withdrawal, dehydration, and high altitude — I felt feverish and headachy. The hotel in Golmud didn’t have coffee, either, but by then I’d bought some packets of Nescafe, preblended with milk and sugar so it doesn’t taste so bad. It seems to have done the trick. This place is certainly different than the center of Xi’an, where there are four Starbucks within a half a mile of each other. But there’s hope — our tour guide in Xining showed us the business card of a Starbucks executive he’d showed around.