Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Heading Out

October 1 marks the founding of the People's Republic of China, and is one of two remaining "Golden Week" holidays that the government recognizes, along with Chinese New Year. Thus we have three days off from work, and are heading the heck out of town. It has been seven long months since we have been outside the Celestial KIngdom, and it's not a moment too soon! Not that there's anything wrong with it here, it's just that we kind of get itchy feet and could use a recharge in a place where service is a bit friendlier and not everything is "interesting".

We'll be spending this break in Bangkok, one of my preferred Asian megalopolises, staying at a Marriott resort, courtesy of the friends whom we'll be meeting there (one of whom works for Marriott, so we get a nice discount). We'll be looking for gingerbread-worthy edifices during the trip, but otherwise we have no plans or must-dos. Just want to relax a bit!!

See you in October!

Oh, and Happy Rosh Hashana!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Birthday #44

Sept 25 was my 44th birthday, and despite this advanced age I still enjoy celebrating it, and making sure that everyone knows it is my 'special day'. The day began quietly enough, since J2 and I don't exchange gifts unless it's a momentous birthday (one that ends in a 0), but once I got to the office things picked up quickly. First off, and completely unexpected, I received a gift from a doctor whom we have hired from the US but who has not yet started work with us. He lives in Maine, so I have consistently joked with him that I am looking forward to his bringing me a lobster when he finally moves here. Well, last week we sent a nurse to work with him, and she returned on Tuesday, bringing along a lobster. Well, it's a chocolate lobster, but it's close enough!

Then not long after that showed up I got a phone call from one of the women in the office asking me to give her moral support as she meets with someone from the HR department (which I am now heading on an interim basis) since she did something "terribly wrong". As I headed to the HR office I was wondering, what could she have done so wrong that she a) has to meet with HR; b) I had not heard about it already; and c) was something she needed my support for? Sure enough, when I got to HR I found no one at their desks, and heard giggling from inside the conference room, and when I walked in the whole dept was there with a beautiful cake and a card for me.

Later in the morning, I ran into someone from the dental department bringing me a box from a familiar cake company in Beijing (21 Cakes). I had assumed J2 had bought it, but in fact it was from my mother, and I brought it along with us to my birthday lunch at a restaurant near work that I like called SALT. We had a table for seven with most of my friends there (some friends were out of town and so had valid excuses not to attend), and the cake was great, sort of a German chocolate idea.

After lunch, it was a bit hard to get into the swing of working, but I managed to struggle through a few more hours though it was broken up by the arrival of a lovely bouquet of roses from some other friends at work. They really know how to make nice arrangements in China, when they don't add in all sorts of unnecessary cutesy touches.

After work, and after going to the gym to make up for all the excess cake consumption, we had dinner at a tiny little Japanese restaurant (Yotsuba) with our friends Hui, Alpha and Diana (Alpha is our personal trainer, and soon to be business partner). Though figuring out what to order was a challenge, we ended up with a wonderful assortment of sashimi, some sushi, a grilled crab leg dish, octopus with wasabi, and my favorite--sea urchin roe. They also give diners a little amuse bouche of whelk and roasted ginkgo nuts that was very tasty. We had a huge bottle of sake with our meal, as Alpha tsk-tsked our alcohol consumption (come on, it's my birthday!) and had our chocolate lobster for dessert.

But the night was not yet over! Thursday nights are when the gay professional network meets up at a local bar, so we decided to attend since this week's location is a place not far from our house at 1949-The Hidden City (a new complex of restaurants and bars). There we met some friends and had a quick drink or two before finally sloshing our way home and collapsing asleep. All in all, a pretty great birthday! Thanks to all of you who sent greetings!!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back to Normal (Ugh)

In the lead up to the Olympics, the city of Beijing implemented several measures designed to help alleviate the pollution problem. Among these was the banning of certain types of trucks from the city center, limiting the number of cars on the roads based on their license plates (even-numbered plates on even days, odd-numbered plates on odd days), etc. Those regulations went into effect on July 20, and while they did not lead to an immediate (or even a lingering) reduction in pollution, they did result in much better traffic, making getting around the city much easier.

These rules ended on Saturday, so yesterday was the first day back to normal and sure enough, as though to mark the occasion, we had pretty bad pollution in the morning. But on top of that, it was as though everyone with a car went and drove it just because they could, since I have rarely seen such traffic on a Sunday in a long time. While it's a shame to see these restrictions go, there are some silver linings--several people who we do business with (our tailor, the kennel, the veterinarian, etc) are no longer hampered by the odd/even restrictions and can therefore come to us any day of the week.

The day yesterday ended with a big rainstorm, so it's possible that it will have washed out some of the pollution. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mid-Autumn Festival Outing

This is the first year since LIberation in 1949 (aka the year China went 'red') that Mid-Autumn Festival was a national day off, one of the "new" holidays that they reinstated to make up for taking a few days away from the May Day holiday. In case you're not familiar with the holiday, it is held on the full moon of the 8th month of the lunar year, and marks the harvest and several other things. It's one of the most important Chinese holidays, and even before the government made it a national holiday again it was always very well observed, particularly by people handing out mooncakes to one another (dense, savory/sweet cakes shaped in molds that make them sort of resemble a full moon).

Anyway, J2 and I decided to take our first holiday since March over this three-day weekend, along with half of the Chinese populace. Our friend Hui also wanted to go somewhere, and we somehow agreed to go to Huangshan, the "Yellow Mountain" in southern Anhui province that we visited once before, around this time in 2005. That time we encountered unrelentingly bad weather, so we were hopeful that this time around we'd be more lucky. Also, last time we went on our own, but this time we hired a guide whom friends of ours recommended highly, so we'd be able to get around more easily and perhaps see some more things while down there.

After flying in to the town of Tunxi on Friday evening, our guide took us into town for an overnight at a lovely little hotel (The Harbour") on the town's "Old Street", which we decided to scope out a bit before turning in for the night. The street is lined, like all good tourist towns in China, with shops selling local specialties (largely tea and a few food items, as well as stones used for making calligraphy ink), and we found several interesting stores to pop into for a quick look around while also noting things that we wanted to revisit in the morning for some photos.

The next morning, as usual, I woke up early and took a quick walk around to find breakfast before Hui and J2 woke up. The town really was lovely, as long as you stayed within the three or four streets that make up "Old Street". Beyond that it is a typical Chinese town, with bathroom-tiled buildings lining the streets, etc.

From Tunxi we had a private van take us to the bus terminal for the Huangshan cable car. Normally, we could have driven all the way to the cable car, but "because of the Olympics"--which ended three weeks ago--there is tighter security and we had to take one of the special buses to the cable car. Fine. J2 was dreading the cable car ride, since last time we took a pretty aged once, for which there was a lengthy wait, and then you had to stand for the duration of the ride. Well, that's a thing of the past--a new cable car opened last year, with more cars, seating 4-6 people each, and since it's a lot faster, there was no wait at all.

In contrast with ground level, where it was sunny and warm, up on the mountain (1500 meters up, in fact) it was pleasantly cool and a bit misty, like it's supposed to be. But this made for ideal photographic conditions, and we took our time while walking from the cable car to the hotel to stop at some of the vistas for some photos. Unfortunately, this meant schlepping our suitcase up and down countless steps, and though we had the option of hiring a porter, we balked at the thought of paying RMB 100 (USD 14) for such a thing when J2 could use the exercise...

We stayed at the Beihai Hotel, the same place we stayed at when we visited in 2005. This time, however, with it being a holiday, the place was literally booked to overflowing, and to accommodate the additional crowds they put up pup-tents in the forecourt (!). Though the tents were made for individuals, some had as many as three people in them, and of course instead of being on a nice grassy meadow these were on concrete, so I cannot imagine they were very comfortable at all.

After settling in and eating some lunch we headed out to see the scenery, visiting a number of places that we'd seen before, but also venturing as far as the "Grand Canyon", which we never got to in 2005. In fact we made very good progress, and J2 and I noticed it was much easier to go up and down the countless steps this time than it was three years ago (thanks, Alpha!), though even so we had a bit of soreness in our legs the next day.

That night it rained pretty much all night long, as Typhoon Sinlaku made its way past China, resulting in thick mist the next day that obscured the view, so we opted to take a ride back down to a different side of the mountain for a wander around the "Emerald Lake" and Bamboo forest. At the lower elevation there was no mist, and it was much warmer, and best of all there were NO OTHER PEOPLE! That was the one thing that really made the mountain a bit less enjoyable--throngs of Chinese tour groups everywhere!!

The rest of our time on the mountain we spent taking it easy, since there was not much sense in wandering around in thick mist. We made thorough use of the hotel's massage facilities, drank our fair share of Tsingtao beer, and watched more lousy Cinemax movies than we had done in many months.

We left the mountain early on Monday morning, heading to the town of Hongcun, which was filmed for some of the scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" a few years ago. It's a very well-preserved town, built in the Ming dynasty in the shape of a bull (upon the advice of a fengshui master). It was one of the nicer old towns I've seen in China, and one I'd recommend to visitors. Before heading back to the airport, we had time to spend in Tunxi again, visiting the shops and sampling some honey and baijiu spirits at a little store and then having yet another massage before eating dinner and flying back to the real world. Nice trip!

You can see the rest of the pictures here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


After a bit of a break from the Olympics, I was ready to venture back to the Olympic Green. Long before we had any tickets to the Olympics, I hit on the brilliant idea (I thought) of buying Paralympic tickets for some events in the Bird's Nest and Water Cube so I could be sure to get inside those two big-ticket venues. Back then, tickets for the Paras were easy to come by, and available online at reasonable prices. Of course, in the meantime I managed to see not one, but two events at the Water Cube, so those tickets were disposable (I gave them to a colleague), so I decided just to keep the tickets in the Bird's Nest, which were for tonight.

J2 could not attend, since the event started at 5pm, so I went with my friend Hui, who had not been to any of the Olympics at all. We got dropped off by her driver at the closest spot he could drive to from the stadium, which of course meant a 15-minute walk to the gate. Unlike the Olympics, the tickets at the Paralympics were for open seating, and we were lucky to get to the stadium early enough before the start to get really good seats. To our surprise, the stadium, despite seating 91,000 people, seems rather intimate when you're inside, and despite the appearance of being open to the elements, the seats are actually covered pretty well.

Neither of us was too familiar with the Paralympic movement, but we knew a few things: all the athletes have some sort of physical limitation, and in no case is their limitation deafness or a mental handicap (the latter participate in the Special Olympics). As a result, in several cases we had no clue what the limitations were that affected the athletes we were watching. I suspect some of them may be mute, or bald, or have no dress sense, because there was nothing obvious that limited their physical abilities. In fact, an inordinate number of world records were broken during the 90 minutes or so that we were at the event, though we cannot tell if they are records for Paralympians or for any athlete.

The events were interesting, and the audience was enthusiastic, which surprised us both. The stadium was also pretty much full, which was great to see. We stayed for one medal ceremony, during which they mistakenly announced the bronze medalist as a Canadian, even though he was Thai, but decided that we would prefer to leave before the end (which was not due until 11pm!) in order to be able to get dinner with J2.

Before we left the area, though, we took advantage of the amazing weather and clear air to take a walk around and shoot some photos of the stadiums. Of course, they are available on line, here!