Archive for July, 2009


July 25th, 2009 12:38 am by Dave

The cruise ship people probably find this cruise somewhat unusual. I don’t think the casino is getting much business from the scientists on board, and few people go to the magic / acrobat / variety shows put on each night by the cruise director. In addition to all these typical cruise ship activities, the folks who chartered this particular itinerary have assembled a bunch of people to give lectures which are actually interesting to the people who signed up. One of the stranger ones was called “Geology and WWII”, and intermingled slides showing island formation in the Pacific as the plate slides over a lava vent, and the various expansions made by the Japanese in the years before World War II, and the various progress that the Allies made curbing these expansions. One of the linchpins of this progress was at Iwo Jima, an island south of the Japanese mainland where radar would detect Allied sorties made from New Guinea. Taking out this radar became a prime imperative, and it was quite difficult, among other reasons, because fighting is very difficult in lava flows. Another slide listed all the major battles in history fought in lava flows.

Anyway, it gave us an idea of what to expect when we reached Iwo Jima shortly before the eclipse — it was at the edge of the zone of totality, but we had enough time to make it back to the centerline before totality began.

The clouds and rain finally went away in the middle of the night before the eclipse — Ray was able to get up and see a bunch of stars from the deck. We cruised around Iwo Jima, and found many birds flying around the ship; some Dutch bird experts identified the primary species we were seeing as brown boobies, but they had seen at least six other species. One guy got a phenomenal picture of a brown booby about to swallow up a flying fish, by far the best picture I’ve seen anyone take of anything on the trip.

We headed up to the centerline, always concerned about the cumulus clouds which hung out here or there. But finally, as totality approached, the only clouds to be seen were a series of cute inclined puffy things on the horizon, which made the approaching shadow much more visible. As you have no doubt heard, it was a long eclipse, six minutes and forty-some seconds. The sun is particularly inactive right now, and there weren’t any prominences I noticed, though some photos we saw afterwards pointed out a few. I saw most of it through binoculars, and the corona was quite symmetrical and horizontal, with some cute tufts at the top and bottom. We easily saw Mercury and Venus, and it was easy to find Mars in the binoculars. A plane flew by the star Capella which was close to Venus.

Then it was over, and the boat turned and headed for Kobe. The weather held the rest of the day, and provided more stargazing opportunities after it got dark. I so seldom get to see the entirety of Scorpio, which is hidden from our house.

We’ve been parked at Kobe for a little over a day. There were several shore excursions available for purchase — some one-day tours of Kyoto, some overnight tours of Kyoto, and even an overnight tour that takes you up to Tokyo on the bullet train and back. That’s like flying to LA and taking an overnight tour to San Francisco, except that they haven’t bit the bullet train yet. We spent the days with our friend Ken, who translated Opcode stuff into Japanese and now translates Avid stuff. He showed us around various high spots, including a music-box museum, and several informal yet delicious opportunities to ditch the cruise boat fare and to have some authentic Japanese food. Alas, it’s all aboard an hour from now, and we’ll be at sea two days as we make our way back to China.

About 100 of the 1000 people aboard ended their voyage at Kobe. We considered that, but it was quite expensive to fly back to China. One of the people getting off warned us about the survey form we will be asked to fill out, pointing out that anytime we rate something as less than “excellent”, someone will lose their job or fail to be promoted. We’ll see if we can target the people who shop for the ingredients used in the food served on board, or perhaps the ones who decide that all soft drinks cost extra money, and that none of the dinners are served with included wine.

(Sorry the last few posts don’t have locations — I don’t have the GPS with me. We’ll update them when we get back to Beijing.)

The Floating Denny’s

July 25th, 2009 12:09 am by Ray


You can’t begin to imagine how mysterious and exotic the East is, especially as represented to fat Europeans aboard an Italian-owned cruise ship.  Today, for example, we had real Filipino food served up by real Filipinos.  By coincidence we are sailing in the Philippine Sea and it’s raining outside the awning we are eating under on the stern of the tenth floor.  it’s crowded inside.  I just can’t wait to get home and try out recipes for day-old pancit and Filipino stewed best-value zucchini with Oscar Mayer Porkette Slices.
Maybe we should have gone to the sit-down place on the 8th floor.  These are the primary choices for food on the boat, outside of the pizza place.
The pizza was OK I guess.  A thin crust which some people like but I like less.  It wasn’t microwaved.  They have a real oven.  The pizza may or may not have been assembled in China last year; the mushrooms and ham were not of the best quality to begin with and a stint in the freezer may have made them as bad as they were when served.  Also, the pizza wasn’t cut.  This is an Italian ship, but they shop in a Chinese port.
There is a certain art to eating at Denny’s.  Not everything is uniformly bad.  You need to choose the substances which suffer the least from being frozen and canned.  Soups, stews, curries.  Red meat and chicken instead of fish: except perhaps salt cod and fish balls, fish can’t take getting old.  I would say fruits with substantial peels; but just this lunch I had a papaya which I saw the guy peeling and it still tasted like dorm refrigerator.  It must have had a big hidden moldy spot.
As long as we are talking about fruit, pick fruits that have a long shelf life, flavor-wise.  I find bananas quite palatable both green and brown, and pineapples can even start to ferment a little and still be interesting.
You have to stay away from any complicated preparations.  Even a thing that might seem simple, like a breaded fish; remember that the fish itself was sliced and breaded on a giant factory ship in the South Atlantic last year and since then it has been batted about on forklifts and left standing on docks in the sun.

Last night there was a chilled kiwi soup.  The chilled soups have actually been among the better of the food items available on the ship.  This one was mixed with what seemed to be milk which had gone bad, and if you don’t like that particular variety of sour and bitter, you’re out of luck.

Eclipse Protection

July 25th, 2009 12:06 am by Ray


This is so wrong.  On our beds last night were our souvenir raincoats.  Other eclipse voyages give you souvenir sun visors and the like.  Ours gives souvenir raincoats.
There has been one sunny day since we arrived in Beijing.  That was Tuesday, the day after the violent thunderstorms washed out the atmosphere and diverted our plane to Hohhot.  Since then, the air has grown smoggy, and then overcast, and by Friday raining, and since then an unbroken gloom.
We couldn’t see the top of Kagoshima’s signature volcano.
Monday morning we stopped in Kagoshima after crossing the Korea Straits during the night.  Once again, the cruise people were not interested in telling us where we were.  They had $100 buses they wanted to load you onto.  But, there is a tourist place at the dock, and although it took standing in a lot of really long lines to get off the boat, the guy there said it was a half hour to walk to the tram station, where a day ticket to public transit in Kagoshima costs 600 yen.
The long lines include taking your temperature.  A lot of the delays we are experiencing seem to be the result of attempting to monitor the progress of the H1N1 virus.  It’s hard to object to the goal, but it’s not clear that the virus is being impeded by all this.  The big trick that viruses learn is to have a dormant phase with no symptoms.  Maybe they need to take a page from the AIDS circumcisers in Africa, and cut off everybody’s hands.
I read in the shipboard paper that parishioners are being encouraged to hug each other rather than shake hands in English churches, to stop the spread of H1N1.  It’s completely impossible to make satire on human customs.  You have about a 4 minute window before the next ridiculous thing happens …. ALTHOUGH … I have to say, that I have thought of this, and it hasn’t happened yet, that “I’m On A Boat” is the next “YMCA” to jump the irony shark and become a cruise ship dance floor it.  So laugh while you still can.
It is the case that epidemics spread by hands.  Most of the sicknesses you get in your life come from touching doorknobs and picking your nose.  To avoid this would lead to eternal life.
Kagoshima is great.  We went to the post office and two wonderfully helpful clerks got us sorted with our post card stash and some stamps to write future post cards; and then we had time to go to one perfect restaurant, which perfect strangers guided us to when they saw us looking puzzled.  It’s called Kumasotei and it lies in a big mall at 31.59195 N 130.55345 E.  the mall is also interesting because it has Hubble images as tiles decorating the walking street.  Kagoshima is a big space center for Japan.
I have no idea what any of the things were that we had.  It was traditional Satsuma cuisine, served to our private room in traditional kaiseki style.  Certainly the most dramatic item was a little chromium fish, served as sashimi.  It shimmered like mercury.  umm……
And so, back to the boat.  We took the tram back to the Wakido stop, walked the half hour to the port.  Noted that the loudspeakers in the non-touristed part of the port were playing an all-accordion version of “Humoreske”.
This is how I know that the world is not a simulation, which certain un-grown-up philosophers pretend to reporters weaned on “The Matrix” is a serious statistical possibility.  You know what the world would be like if it were a project designed by alien Second life addicts.  Everybody would look super buff and there would be asteroids falling out of the sky every day.  No loudspeaker would ever play an all-accordion version of “Humoreske”, in Japan or anywhere else.


July 25th, 2009 12:01 am by Ray


I’m not sure what we did Saturday.  Dave worked; I wrote post cards; but I don’t appear to have taken any pictures or written anything in my diary.  I suppose that a certain amount of time was spent trying to find if there was any interesting food on the ship (when was the last time you had a salad made of iceberg lettuce and chunks of hard tomato?) and being reminded by people that they had seen you in the Philippines/Zambia/Pitcairn/Xinjiang and they could remember you but you couldn’t remember them.
The whole point of these cruises is to keep you dependent by withholding information, so that you have to give them money at every turn.  For example, when we got to our first port of call on Sunday morning, nobody could tell us where the boat was docked, on a map.
There probably wasn’t time to walk to town and take buses to see the sights, and I was not interested in taking a $100 per person bus tour.  Cheju is a big tourist spot for South Koreans and also cruise ships, and has the usual quotient of folkloric museums and natural wonders and scenery.  The attraction on which UNESCO has placed its imprimatur is the World’s Longest Lava Tube, which really sounds like the sort of thing you would find in a Missouri town that has the Largest Ball of String and Dinosaur fossils, and why aren’t balls of string UNESCO sites?  They represent human endeavor, and they are more permanent than rubber band balls, which if you don’t keep adding rubber bands to them, eventually oxidize and fall apart.
We ditched all the activities and got in one of a large number of taxis that were parked outside the ship terminal in Cheju for a private 80,000 won tour of the highlights.  It was much more efficient than anything that happened in Tanggu under the rigorous control of the Costa group.  Maybe the Cloud is more intelligent.  We were off the boat and through customs relatively quickly.  The cruise line keeps your passport, which is creepy, and gives you a little piece of paper that is a pass to the port that you are in.  If you look up the origin of the institution of passports, you will see that this is a return to roots, in the same way that the Internet is a return to the roots of the postal system, packets being handed off from sea captain to sea captain in the expectation that eventually they will find their way to the right place.
After that, a young English speaking guy asks if you’d like to have a taxi to tour the island and you say yes and then he hands you to someone who doesn’t speak English but does drive a cab.  See above.
Paying extra money enables you to do less.  Rather than go to five places for 45 minutes we went to two places (the cave, the crater on the east coast) at a reasonable pace and then had time for a quick half hour lunch at a decidedly authentic lunch spot in downtown near the port.
The restaurant we went to was fairly Young Lonely Planet.  It’s called “Taphyang Samgyetang” and if you want to find it, it’s at 33.51651 N 126.53110 E.  It hasn’t got any chairs.  You sit on the floor and the people bring small dishes and eventually a big bowl of chicken ginseng soup.
The side dishes included pickled daikon, chives, some green weed, and raw onion which you dipped in miso, and some spiced salt, probably MSG-based, for dipping the chicken bits in.  It was SO NICE after a day of portion controlled iceberg lettuce clusters and limp fishcuits.  Leaving the restaurant was the first time I didn’t notice how much our taxi driver smelled like garlic.  When in Jeju, do as the Jejune do.
The driver was expecting 80 dollars US and was mad, but his handler had made it quite clear to us that 80,000 won was the price. The exchange rate has gone from about 900 to about 1300 since we were here last year.  The ship was offering Won at .0007 yesterday and .0008 today.  It may be there are other digits not posted.  Dave was spending his 900 per dollar won from last year anyway, unloading a bad investment.  He’s about out of them now.

Transportation Desperation

July 24th, 2009 11:59 pm by Ray


There is an image abroad about the difficulty of finding taxis in the rain.  This image applies to Beijing.  We’ve had our troubles finding taxis in Beijing before but there has always ultimately been one.
Not today.  It was pouring rain from the moment we stepped outside our hotel, “Michael’s Place in Beijing”.  The taxis were just plain absent.  We walked, carrying our suitcases, in the direction of the metro station which is about a kilometer from the hotel and seems close when you’re not carrying luggage in the rain.  When nothing materialized, we got on the Metro thinking that another stop might be better.
The trains that go to Tanggu leave from Beijing South Station.  It’s necessary to take a taxi to a train leaving from Beijing South Station because the Metro hasn’t been extended to the station yet.  And, you’re carrying suitcases on a subway.
But the Metro was our only choice at this point.
We got off at Beijing Main Station cause we thought there would be taxis there, and there were at least three of them we saw, and a queue of supplicants about 800 meters long standing still.
There were also a few touts offering unofficial taxis at completely exorbitant rates.  200 Yuan to Beijing South Station (probably no more than 8 km distant)  For you, 150.
After assessing the possibilities, and considering we had not yet even bought train tickets for a train departing in less than two hours from a station we might well have to walk to, and couldn’t find the entrance to the metro that we’d just come out of the exit of, I asked a tout how much it was for a ride to the Tianjin Passenger terminal, 170 km distant in the prefecture of Tanggu, Tianjin.
That got his attention immediately, and he wrote a GREAT BIG number on his cell phone.  I offered 600, he said 9, I said 7, he said 800 so off we went to Tanggu.  But consider: the yuan is still undervalued.  Perform the thought experiment of asking a cab driver at Penn Station to drive you to Hartford.  Could you do it for $130?  Could you get to JFK?
It’s the custom in these extremely informal situations, that the guy who gets your business is not the driver.  Somewhere in the southeast of Beijing we pulled up to another house and he tried to raise the price to 900 but we said 800 based on pure bluster, since we were really in no negotiating position, and we got in the back of a really nice car and handed over a bunch of bills and only two hours later pulled up at the main terminal in Tianjin.  It was about noon.  Then it was only a matter of waiting four hours to get on the boat and four more hours for the boat to launch.
We are always told that the absolute worst thing that we can do for the planet, is to fly.  Why is flying so cheap, then?  The boats and buses burn the same oil as airplanes.  If they burn less of it, why is this savings not apparent?  Southwest Airlines is cheaper than Greyhound on most routes.
I’m waiting for ocean liners to make a comeback, as transportation rather than entertainment, but they’re going to have to get a lot more efficient at handling passengers than they are now.  The amount of incompetent milling about that attended the departure of the “Costa Classica” would make you think they had never left a port before.  Maybe the turnover is so high among the staff that they effectively haven’t.

A Modern Ruin

July 16th, 2009 7:45 am by Dave

Especially when traveling around the Roman empire, it’s common to encounter the ruins of a stadium, and one can easily imagine gladiators or lions and Christians putting on a show to the excited masses watching from the seats above.

As we went to the Olympic games complex in Beijing yesterday, I was wondering why people would be paying an admissions fee just to enter an empty stadium with no event happening, and then I remembered visiting the Roman sites. The Bird’s Nest and the Aquatic Center are both quite popular tourist destinations — many people were there in middle of a summer Wednesday. At least the Aquatic Center gave an impression of still being in use — there were sets for “Swan Lake”, the water ballet, around the main competition pools, and the warm-up pool is open to the public, after screening for swine flu.

The plaza between them is also quite massive — I would not be surprised if it’s larger than Tienanmen Square. And there still seems to be construction going on — I guess the Chinese economy hasn’t turned down so far that they’re not creating more business space around Beijing.

The neighborhood near our hotel has some fruit vendors on the street selling mangosteens — we’ve been picking up a few every chance we get since we won’t find them once we get back to the West. Or even back to the USSR. There’s a panel truck parked on the street near the hotel which is filled with mixed recycling, and a family seems to spend their days sorting it all out — it’s interesting that that job is so distributed.

Also near our hotel is a wonderful authentic Sichuan restaurant which the staff recommended. Everything on the menu has pictures, but they basically don’t know any English. We had some slightly spicy pork and vegetables inside a lotus leaf, some spinach with a black bean sauce with salted fish, and a beautiful plate which turned out to be mushrooms — a dozen of them about the size and shape of tongues atop a mixture of many other varieties. If we don’t hook up with a friend of ours who’s here on a pre-eclipse tour, maybe we’ll go back tonight.

Today we went up to the Summer Palace, which seemed even more packed with tourists than our visit last year to the Forbidden City. It’s a large park next to a lake, with a large Buddhist Incense Tower and several museums showing relics collected by the Empress Dowager Cixi and others who built and stayed there. The Summer Palace is all new construction, since Lord Elgin burned down the original in 1860. One of the more recent restorations was completed in 1996 and houses a furniture museum

Later: back to Little Sichuan is where we went. Tonight we had a wood ear salad with some white noodle shaped thing that might have been a marinated root, in sesame oil and vinegar. Also, eels ginger and celery with Sichuan Pepper and red pepper that was more like what you think of as an American when you encounter Sichuan food. And a cabbage and meatball soup. We didn’t go all out tonight like last night. The bill was under 100 yuan ($14.33, says Oanda of our 98 RMB bill)
I had been hoping all afternoon for a call from a friend who is on an eclipse tour passing through Beijing, but a combination of a 24 hour plane delay and a ruthless tour company whose checklist of must-see things is more important that the comfort of its customers, prevented us from meeting this trip.

Temple of Heaven

July 14th, 2009 7:05 pm by Ray

We hadn’t been in the Temple of Heaven very long before the first groups of tourists approached for photos. One slides seamlessly from tourist to attraction. We were photographed by people from Guangxi province, Afghanistan, and Spain, among others, each bringing their own interpretation.

The Temple of Heaven is the center of the world in the Chinese system. There is a particular round platform with a small marble disk on it that is rather like Four Corners in the number of tourists who take their picture standing on it. Most visitors seem to proceed from the park entrance, to the center of the universe, to the two buildings north of it that you aren’t allowed into but can peer in the door and try to make out the wood ceilings. The largest temple is actually quite new, having been most recently burned down in the late 19th century and been rebuilt to the original plans, which did not include nails.

The accessory buildings have mostly been turned into museums, where you can see the various palanquins and portable altars for carrying sacred tablets and the remains of emperors and little gold censers and doodads all sorts. Make sure to notice the Qing dynasty urn handles. They have an insouciant wave to them that Alessi would patent if they had thought of them first, very modern.

Far to the West, where not so many crowds venture, is the Divine Music Administration. The Divine Music Administration buildings fell into complete disrepair after the fall of the Qing. They were used for storage, barracks, hutong housing, and the Imperial Japanese even set up a germ warfare research lab, for which the Chinese have erected a memorial stele. The Japanese were serious about that, to the detriment of the Chinese people. They were to the American biological warfare program what the Germans were to rocketry.

But I am not worried about having toured the site of a germ warfare lab because when we go to Chernobyl it will kill all the bacteria.

In the last ten years, the remaining tenants of the DMA have been evicted and the building reconstructed to the original specifications, and it is now a musical instrument museum and performance hall. There are explanations on the wall, some in English, of how the Chinese tonal scale came to be. Every note has been precisely laid out to astronomical specifications or other opinions of various scholars. There never was a Pythagoras in China, just a long accumulation of traditions and scholars who occasionally tweaked the frequency of a note. One of the signs on a neolithic bone pipe mentioned that you could play an acceptably good rendition of <here was the name of some Chinese folk song> on it, by way of indicating how one particular tuning system had transmitted down 8000 years of history.

We came back on the subway at rush hour, which was not more crowded than any other time of day. The Beijing metro is pretty sleek.  The only glitch is that their tickets seem to fade. We bought 4 tickets in the morning and by the afternoon our two return tickets were dead. Maybe they have a time limit, but the English translations didn’t go so deeply into the subject.

Last night we went to a carefully chosen Tripadvisor restaurant, the Dali Courtyard. Tripadvisor’s contributors are mostly impressed by mammoth Peking Duck restaurants but if you read between the lines you can sometimes determine who is best listened to, for your own tastes. (The Dadong chain makes good Peking Duck but they aren’t 4 of the top 20 restaurants in town.) Dali Courtyard might not be 8th best but it certainly is interesting, except their muzak playlist is only about 5 torch songs long. They just bring you food. Deep fried fungus, unknown mushrooms (we have so few mushrooms in America), fermented tofu skin, lemon leaves and shrimp tempura…really wonderful tapas. It takes a lot of work to find it. There is one red lantern in a hutong near the Drum Tower that tells you to walk down an alley. The taxi driver couldn’t find it even after calling them. But it’s worth it.  Dali Courtyard is at 39.94009 N, 116.39875 E.

A Brief Diversion

July 13th, 2009 5:16 pm by Ray

It isn’t a good sign when the flight to an eclipse gets diverted for bad weather.  We were about 300 kilometers northwest of Beijing and had actually descended a little bit, when the captain turned northwest avoiding a bunch of thunderclouds and then came on the radio announcing that we weren’t going to Beijing, we were going to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, because the Beijing airport was closed due to bad weather.  We proceeded another thirty minutes and landed.  I’m writing this as we are parked on the tarmac.  A few guards are standing around and some locals are taking photos.  It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get off the plane; I somehow doubt that Hohhot has immigration facilities to handle a 747 full of diverted eclipse chasers (we aren’t the only ones on this flight).  In fact, I’m surprised that a 747 can even land here.  Although, you must keep in mind that there are probably 40 cities in China larger than San Jose that you’ve never heard of, and any city you have heard of probably has 2 million inhabitants and a big airport.  And everybody knows Hohhot.

I can actually see the sun through the haze, if that’s any consolation.


After about two hours of waiting, we took off again and got to a very empty Beijing airport.  We rejected a van who would have taken us to our lodgings for about 400 yuan, and instead took a metered taxi and got there for 100 yuan, including a generous tip.  (A yuan was $6.83 yesterday.)

The place we’re staying is known to us as “Michael’s House in Beijing”, though no Roman script is visible on the outside of the building.  It’s delightful so far — a little courtyard in the style of the hutong houses that were all torn down to modernize Beijing, and all the guest rooms immediately adjoining. The bathrooms have a kind of Formule1 feel, with IKEA shampoo in a bottle, so you won’t feel like a Ming emperor while bathing but you will feel refreshed

Time to check out their hotel breakfast.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

July 11th, 2009 10:32 pm by Dave

We just saw the 2003 DVD “The Story of the Weeping Camel” about a family in rural Mongolia and their challenges raising camels. The camels were two-humped with huge manes and beards, looking unlike any camel we’d ever seen. Highly recommended, especially the night before leaving for a trip to Mongolia.

Risky Adventure?

July 11th, 2009 7:39 pm by Dave