Organ Recital

August 20th, 2009 10:28 am by Ray

After we took our luggage to the railroad station in Irkutsk, we walked across the bridge to the downtown area and explored cute churches and ugly soviet squares and determined that since the fall of communism, the Russian National Psyche has decided to replace Peasant-Worker-Soldier control of the means of production, with Shoes.  Shoes rule.  There are two whole malls right next to each other right east of the main square in Irkutsk, which consist of nothing but shoe stores.  It is an unusual sensation, almost dreamlike, to go into a large building with dozens of shops and discover they all sell nothing but shoes.  Not even socks.  And the next level up, the same.  And next door, another whole mall with two floors of shoe stores.

But it isn’t so strange.  Think of souks, thirty traders in a row crouched on the ground in Fes selling screwdrivers, or cardamom.  We are in Central Asia.  Maybe commercial practice moved directly from souks to malls without passing through market research.

Serendipity led us across the street from shoes to an organ recital in a repurposed Catholic Church.  It started out with Bach, and went gradually more modern and experimental.  I was very impressed by the variety of the audience.  Usually in the West if you go to any show more ancient than hip hop, there are the old people and the kids they have dragged along and nobody in between who has any choice in the matter, and you know that rap performances in 2025 will be attended exclusively by old white guys with leather patches on their elbows who imagine they are listening to current music.

Not in Irkutsk.  The audience was a pretty fair representation of the age demographic of society at large.  There were kids there with their parents, but there were lots of teenagers there on their own, even boys, some of them actually straight.  And twenty and thirty year olds and on up.  Afterwards, everybody went up on stage and took pictures of each other with their telephones, posing with the keyboard.

I realized during this recital that the ancestor of all of us in the music business is the page turner.  On stage with the organist was a kind of Missing Link.  He humbly turned the pages for the resident master; but he also maneuvered the stops, and even three levers down by the foot pedals that coupled the keyboards and pedalboard.  So every time the music required, Smithers would run around to the right or left side of the organ and pull out some stops with hands or feet, and he also manipulated a lucite baffle over the higher pipe registers.

Doesn’t it seem that everyone who serves the ones who play the notes is descended from that page turner?  Evolution had just brought a timbre and volume selector into existence.  Next, the video editor.

We took the tram back to the station and had piroshki burgers and got on the train and woke up in Krasnoyarsk.

Clouded Out

August 8th, 2009 6:55 pm by Ray

Lake Baikal is an idyllic palette of wildflowers and butterflies in the sunshine in August. In the rain, it’s gray and muddy and the trails have treacherous footing in some places you very much want trails to be built to American National Park ADA standards.

The afternoon that we we posted last, we got onto train 005 from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow, bound for Irkutsk. There were, as always, a batch of interesting travelers in adjacent compartments: a writer for the Economist who is starting work on a book about the Amur River, a Swedish couple who were returning home after three years in Hong Kong and were having endless visa trouble, most of which seemed to come down to having the Russian Visa in a different passport than the one they were using. This is not specifically a problem Americans would have. In America when you run out of space in your passport, the Passport Office gives you extra pages. The Swedes seem to issue you a new passport and all the other ones stay valid, as far as Sweden is concerned. There was an issue of the expiration date. The moral is to make sure you have a passport that’s valid for 6 months after the last date you’ll be using your passport for anything.

Let’s see, what else, Nikita is the cutest Russian baby living in Ulaan Baatar and possibly the universe and his grandparents in Irkutsk will be thrilled to see him walking around and being curious about everything in the world. His mom is nice, too.

There is not a dining car on the Mongolian train when it leaves Ulaan Baatar! We ate only raisins and Mongolian dried cheese. The raisins were in a forged Sunmaid bag but they were OK. I hope I remembered to save the bag.

Siberia starts about 50 km north of Ulaan Baatar. Suddenly instead of grasslands, you are traveling through spindly birch forests (all forests are spindly out here, they haven’t done “old growth” since the Iron Age.) along the the Selenga River, which takes Mongolian pollution north to Lake Baikal. Then there are a couple of hundred of kilometers of Mongolia again but you know you are entering another country when at sundown the train parks for 6 hours without even the excuse of changing railroad gauges and Russians and Mongolians poke their heads in every hour and a half or so because they are looking for something more interesting than two oldish men and their Lonely Planet guidebooks to Russia and Mongolia.

The Swedes got into Russia, we noted the next morning.

One of the things that happens at midnight on the border is that a Russian dining car is hooked up. The relative liberty of the Trans-Siberian family of trains is new. A French man we met had been on it in 1987, and said that he was confined for the entire trip in a car holding only Europeans, and was not even permitted to get out at station stops. There were other cars holding only Mongolians and only Russians and only Chinese, and nobody could move about, not even to eat. You brought five days of food with you. Now it’s an ordinary train with a dining car that wants too much for too little, but what you really want to do, Anna (mother of the baby) informed us, is step onto the platform at Sludyanka and buy smoked fish, still warm, from the women selling them on the platform. The fish cost about $1 apiece and one and a half of them feed even travelers who have only eaten raisins and cheese for half a day.

In the afternoon, about 3:30, the train pulls into Irkutsk and you say your farewells to all the people whose email addresses you may or may not have put into your iPhone and the taxi gauntlet is ready to charge you triple to go to your hotel. Anna said a taxi should be 200 rubles and we paid 300 rubles which is only 50% more, it’s all you can hope for the first time you step off an international transport in a new country with a new language and a new alphabet.

The Victory Hotel seemed nice enough. The Internet connections are a little silly: with an Ethernet cable you connect via PPPoE; they somehow use the same architecture for Wi-Fi, which isn’t supported on the PowerBook and iPhone. They charge by the megabyte for the Internet which makes browsing inadvisable. You have no idea how much you’re downloading. We walked around town and bought fruit at the market and ate it all before we got back to the hotel.

I don’t know what has changed, but I never even think any more about the admonitions every traveler used to get about how poisonous everyone’s food and water is to Americans. We still use our water filter, but defeat entirely the purpose by eating food on cruise ships. Rural Mongolian mayonnaise and raw vegetable salads have had no effect on me so far, but I got pretty classically sick for a day from something I ate on the Costa Classica. It was the night of the chemically contaminated or perhaps just sour kiwi soup, but I don’t know that it was that.

We went to an “upscale” restaurant the night we arrived in Irkutsk, in a walking street about two blocks from the Hotel Victory.

I should correlate and list all the occasions I have been the only customer in a restaurant. It’s a funny feeling. You have to leave off the times when you are a tourist eating at 9 PM in Madrid and the crowd doesn’t gather until you leave. In Bombay in 1980 when the musician entertained only me; in the restaurant with actual stars as I recall in Santiago de Compostela in 2007, and in Perpignan on an election night a very nice lonely place, and here at Arbatski Dvorik in Irkutsk, why isn’t anybody here? We had a very nice mushroom assortment, including some that had been something like brined to a very unusual effect; we had Baikal whitefish and “juicy meat bits”.

In the morning, our guide and his driver arrived at the hotel. We supposed that we’d be issued backpacks to hold our share of everything, but the guide had an enormous backpack and asked us to carry only sleeping bags in addition to our personal items, which we did with our day packs. He carried all the food and tents and cooking equipment (and given our lameness, it was a good thing). We dropped off the luggage at the Hotel Zvezda, where we would be staying when we got back. They charged us 600 rubles for the service of putting our suitcases behind the desk for two days. Then the four of us drove three hours to Bolshoi Goloustnoye, a little village on Lake Baikal. The driver returned to Irkutsk and we began our walk.

Lake Baikal is beautiful — it’s deep like Lake Tahoe, but much, much larger: it holds about a fifth of the world’s freshwater, and is 670 km from one end to the other (we saw about 22 km of that, though we walked probably about 32 km). We walked, sometimes on the gravel beach along the shore, sometimes on a trail in the forest above. After ninety minutes or so, we discovered that this trip included breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each of which required building a fire, making soup and tea, and having lots of Russian snacks. (The best snacks were Pryanik, had the flavor of molasses, the consistency and sugar of pfeffernusse, and the shape of donuts.) Given our late start, we arrived at the first night’s camp around 9 pm, shortly before sunset.

Our guide Alex has an interesting life.  (Actually, he’s our substitute — Valery, who does this all the time had a larger trip to host.)  He spends most of his time these days as a newspaper photographer, and has taught English and French and chess in the years before.  Now he helps out guiding trips when needed.

We had supposed it might rain the first night, but it didn’t, and stayed merely cloudy during the entire walk of the second day. At one point we missed a spot on the trail where we were supposed to go straight up the hill, and instead continued to follow along the cliffs above the shore: this walking got harder and harder and eventually reached a sheer dropoff, and we had to go back. I’d noticed the little rocks indicating that the path we took wasn’t the trail, but it’s always a question when being led by a guide whether to follow him wherever, or to participate in the navigation. We eventually reached our second camp spot, which seemed to have been abandoned by someone else or just wasn’t used that night — there was a blue tarp over a little table next to a cooking pit. After all the tents got set up, it began to rain, a drizzle which didn’t stop all night long. We ran into some folks we’d met on the train to Ulaan Baatar who were spending a couple weeks at Lake Baikal improving the trails.

In the morning we had only a few km to walk to get to Bolshoi Koti, and got off to another questionable start. The trail-builders had gone to the village starting off on the beach. Our guide was sure we had to walk above, on the cliff. This walk had some extremely difficult spots, including walking across a landslide which had gotten even more washed out by the previous night’s rain. In this case, the guide didn’t know that the trail builders had just built a new staircase from the beach only days before. Oh well — next time. The village is quite cute, and there we caught a hovercraft which took us back to Irkutsk. (The guide also didn’t know where the dock was at Bolshoi Koty, but a guy in a Fish Colorado t-shirt did. He was studying Chinese in China and pretty cosmopolitan just generally for living in a village accessible only by boat in the summer. In the wintertime, the lake freezes and between February and April, you drive on the lake. But here we drift into Global Warming Speak: Baikal didn’t freeze last winter.)

On our arrival in Irkutsk we bought a map that is too large to carry and Alexander dropped his pack off at his mother-in-law’s apartment and guided us on microbus and macrobus back to the Hotel Zvezda.

Hotel Zvezda is a really nice hunter-themed hotel. It has somewhat more straightforward Internet service.

The restaurant is really good, but because there was a wedding in the main room, and a big birthday party in the bar, we had to sit out on the terrace, which was a little bit windy and cold. So we wore jackets. The food was awesome: fresh raw Baikal fish (“sig”) served freezing on a bed of ice cubes (with saran wrap on top of them to keep the fish dry); an incredibly tasty borscht which wasn’t as beety as it was meaty, with a nice layer of tasty fat on top; and a Manchurian deer steak so rich it tasted like the liver of any other animal, served with a mysterious red conserve which turned out to be tomatoes that had been processed somehow with tons of sugar. And tiramisu, Irkutsky style. The birthday and a wedding party provided in the usual number of people wandering over for photos and to find out why we had beards. My favorite is Alex, in his Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt.

And so to the train. After we post this we pack up all of our bags to put in Left Luggage at the train station, and wander around town until our train leaves this evening. Train schedules are all on Moscow Time and Lonely Planet doesn’t agree with local custom as to how far off from Irkutsk that is. We’ll get there early.

Infrastructurally Challenged: The Journey Is The Destination

August 3rd, 2009 8:17 pm by Dave

Mongolia is an enormous nation of only 3 million people, almost half of whom live in Ulaan Baatar. There have been many warnings of pickpockets but we haven’t seen any. The taxi ride from the train station was pretty classic third world — a few guys meeting you at the bottom of the train car steps following you around asking you where you’re going and naming many different prices. We offered 10 yuan, the Beijing flagfall rate, because we weren’t going very far (this would get you 5 km in Beijing), and this price appeared to be accepted. So when they wanted about 10 times that, the amount shown on the meter, we just dropped the 10-yuan bill and left.

The Khongor Guest House and Tours is a popular spot — $14 per night, $2 additional for a load of laundry (spun dry only), free internet (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t) and basic breakfast. They have several tours, half day, three day, eight day, or longer. Our four-day/three-night tour seemed to be among the shortest of other travelers we talked to. We booked a trip to the Kharkhorin monastery, a waterfall, a night with a nomadic family, and a national park featuring wild horses.

After about the first hour of travel outside the city, the pavement ended. We pulled off alongside where the continuation of the road was being constructed, and entered miles of randomly created dirt paths. I have no idea how the driver knew which one to take — presumably they mostly went to the same place, except the ones which didn’t; the main difference was what shape they were in. And they were all in pretty bad shape, though not too bad. It was fairly slow going. After awhile, we stopped for lunch, and the road started right back up after that. But by the time we got to the monastery, it was almost closing time, so we looked at the phallic rock monument and the turtle rock monument, and went to our guest house, where we had our own ger, a Mongolian yurt. This one had electricity and showers, and we could recharge everything.

Breakfast was a little disappointing: lunchmeat sandwiches, and additional bread and jam. The sandwiches were served with individually wrapped slices of American cheese, which caused Ray to ask the tour guide/assistant/interpreter if it were possible to have real food. This being her first year in the job, she took his complaint a little too personally or something and when he went back to apologize she was crying. But every breakfast and dinner after that was delicious Mongolian food which she clearly spent quite awhile making herself. (Lunches were Mongolian food at road houses.) So we gave a good tip at the end. One doesn’t want to be an unmitigated awful tourist.

Mongolians apparently ate only sheep and dirt until nearby cultures performed interventions. As nomads, they did not do agriculture. They don’t even do chickens. The Chinese are credited with introducing wheat and noodles and later rice, and now sell them fruit and vegetables to some extent. The Americans, naturally, have offered up plastic wrapped cheese-like substances, and sugar.

Our Mongolian meals were therefore structured around these ingredients. There were big disks of flat bread wrapping ground lamb, somewhere between a piroshki and a paratha; there were soups with lamb and carrots and potatoes (the Mongolians indicate their respect for the occasion by adding fat); there were lamb wontons in soup; there is milk tea, which is not nearly as salty as the Tibetan variety; there are sheep wontons served in the milk tea as soup; or lamb in rice, or lamb wontons in rice; there is yak milk; there is wonderful yogurt and the milk of every animal at hand, there are pancakes served with a butter-like substance which floats to the top of wide pans of milk in every yurt over a slow fire or else just sitting there; there is airag, a fermented mare’s milk which is quite variable depending on the mare and the culture but always tangy and good. You can also run through the whole menu starting with dried and reconstituted sheep and sheep fat, or beef, or goat.

There is another American contribution called “Mongolian Barbecue” but we didn’t try that. The most recent meal before this writing was sold at a restaurant which might have had Mongolian Barbecue in its repertoire but what they served was sheep potatoes and carrots in a kind of soup, with a traditional rock (and you thought that stone soup was a joke), along with shaved carrots and cabbage salad which was cole slaw in concept and came from the Russians. The Russians have also contributed vodka but Mongolian drunks have a reputation and the situation is best avoided by staying in your yurt after dark.

In the morning, we toured the monastery. Shortly after arriving, we heard conch shells being blown, calling the monks to prayer. There were little seats along the walls for tourists to watch the monks chant, a chant which went continuously for about ninety minutes. Monks would come and go, but the chant went on, like the wedding band in Romania. The monk by the door was about 15 and looked at the legs of all the women tourists who weren’t dressed properly for a temple; but Mongolia’s Buddhist tradition was broken abruptly in 1937 when the Communists burned all but a couple of the temples and executed the top ranked 18,000 lamas. They are only just now getting back into the swing of religious practice.

(The Communists don’t seem to have made as much effort to uproot the shamanist traditions, maybe because the shamans didn’t own all the land like the lamas did. There are piles of rocks called Ovoos all over Mongolia, decorated with blue ribbons and random objects. Like Antonio Gil shrines but with Blue instead of Red. Anyway, there’s a little red. There’s whatever you want there to be, because if you are at an ovoo you walk around it three times clockwise and add something to the pile. This reminds me of geocaching, of which Skot Croshere once said. “It’s not littering if you post the results on” But it also is rather like what penguins do, contributing rocks to a nest as a means of courtship. There are so many creatures doing so many things on this planet that it’s hard to be unique even if you’re indigenous.)

There were several temple buildings with Buddha statues and drawings like we’d seen in Darjeeling and China and Japan, though it seemed to me like there was a much greater emphasis on drawings of the “not-gentle gods”, always the most interesting anyway. Many of the images were quilted fabric with exquisite detail.

The next leg was the trip to the waterfall, which though only 100 km away, was entirely unpaved, again on a network of unmarked dirt paths that amazed the passenger that the driver knew which one to take. The waterfall itself, once we got there, was not particularly dramatic or high or wide, but the scenery we drove through along the way was often stunning. It was a popular destination — there were probably a hundred or so gers in several guest-house groups in the waterfall area. An older Mongolian gentleman approached us and announced he’d be giving a concert of several Mongolian instruments, some singing and throat-singing, and a couple young contortionists. It was quite enjoyable (except an out-of-tune Santa Lucia) and we bought a CD from him. (But how would we know if the others were out of tune? Mongolian music does seem to be structured around a more accessible scale than Chinese music.)

The following day was a long drive: three hours back from the waterfall to Kharkorin, and then another three hours on the road to the nomadic family, the wife of which naturally was the cousin of the driver. She lived there with her brother, and her husband and two kids. Whenever tourists came by, they’d squeeze into one ger, the one with the solar-powered television which works until about 10 pm. The TV was bought for one sheep — they have a herd of about 500 sheep and goats. The next morning we watched them slaughter a goat, in a distinctly different way than Ray’s friend in Fort Collins (pistol to the brain) or the Touregs in Niger (slitting the throat). These guys slit the abdomen, and reached in and squeezed the heart until it stopped beating. Then they separated the skin, and only then started scooping stuff out. The entire process didn’t require hanging up the goat, and it used almost no water, but I’m sure Jews and Muslims and USDA would find things not to approve of.

The goat was split in a couple of parts and hung up inside the yurt to dry. We had miles to go, and so took off before noon to do a drive-by of the horse rescue project underway in Hustai National Park. Przewalski’s horse, or Takhi as it is called by people who can’t pronounce Polish names (the Mongolians have zero grounds to complain about strings of consonants in any language or sneeze) is an indigenous wild horse of the steppes which went extinct in the 1960’s except for a few thousand bred in zoos around the world. Shortly afterwards, a group in the Netherlands began efforts to reintroduce them, which came to fruition in the 1990’s and there are now 200 or more individuals living in Mongolia. They are distinct animal from domestic horses, having two extra chromosomes, in the Mongoloid fashion.

We returned to Ulaan Bataar, found that our onward train tickets had indeed been delivered, but found that the guest house where we’d reserved the final night was full due to delayed flights. It took awhile, owing to various translation difficulties, to figure out that they offered us a super-deluxe apartment nearby to stay in instead, and that’s where we are now, typing this for some time soon when we can connect to the Internet and let you all know what we’ve been up to.

Back to Beijing, Onto the Train

August 3rd, 2009 8:14 pm by Dave

The most interesting 100 or so people on the ship got off in Kobe to spend a few more days or a week or a month touring Japan. During the planning phase of this trip, we learned costs a thousand bucks at least to fly to China from Kobe, so we stayed with the other 900 folks back to the port. We took another 800-yuan taxi ride to Beijing, this time with a third passenger, a former resident of Key West who moved to Phuket and set up a horse rescue organization.

Harmony Hotel in Beijing was delightfully close to the train station, but was otherwise fairly stupid. It’s the first hotel we’ve seen in China without Internet in the rooms, despite what their web presence promises, and their business center charged $10/hour or so. (I found an Internet emporium around the corner which charged $1.50 for their “VIP rooms”.) And while friendly to train travelers, it’s not so friendly that you can have the included breakfast there if your train happens to leave at 7:45 — breakfast doesn’t start until 7. Maybe we can knock it down a notch or two on Trip Advisor.

First Class on the Trans-Siberian Railway is quite something. That was what China Train Tickets had been able to get for us. You get a cabin which sleeps two people, with wood-grained plastic walls. There’s a shower/sink room between each pair of cabins, and a chair opposite the berths. It is possible we’re booked thus all the way, except for the Tuva connections. Lunch and dinner were included in China, but were like prison food and for the same economic reason, a budget too low to afford even frozen Denny’s portion-controlled portions, (as were used on the Costa Classica), but labor which is virtually free and available to stir fry the cheapest ingredients available — a plate of cabbage, a couple meatballs in bouillon and cornstarch, and potatoes. It’s mostly an opportunity to sell drinks. Once the train arrives at the Chinese border, it goes into this shed where all the cars are separated, each car is lifted up about two feet so gradually you can’t even tell it’s happening, and the Chinese-gauge wheels are whisked away and the Mongolian/Russian-gauge wheels are whisked into place, and the cars are lowered back onto them. This process takes about three hours (including the leaving-China customs formalities).

Then there’s another ninety minutes spent entering Mongolia. These days, all border crossings include filling out a form where you say which symptoms of swine flu you have, and they take your temperature in some quick noninvasive way. I appear to have picked up a minor cold near the end of the cruise (I really should have used the hand sanitizers every time) and get very nervous each time. Of course, I don’t say I have a runny nose, sore throat and cough, because I fear being whisked away from our tight schedule into some quarantine motel for a week or so, where I might actually be exposed to the real thing. And my temperature, while slightly high, apparently hasn’t been so high to upset the algorithm behind the instant read thermometer. I’m feeling much better now, in the coughing-up-stuff phase. Hopefully entering Russia tomorrow night will be just as easy.

At some point in China, all the mountains disappeared, and the countryside got pretty flat and treeless. It continued all the way through Mongolia to Ulaan Bataar (the new way they spell Ulan Bator). First it was Gobi-desert dry, and then there was short grass everywhere. Short because the entire country is covered with herds of goats and sheep and cows and yaks which graze every acre. I have no idea where the trees went. Maybe it was some historic deforestation like Easter Island. The Chinese dining car had disappeared and been replaced by a festively-decorated Mongolian car that sold me an $8 American breakfast.


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.