Sunday, May 31, 2009

South African Wine Purchases

Some of you have inquired about what wines we bought in South Africa, so here is the list:

Allée Bleue (Franschhoek) 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
Buitenverwachting (Constantia) 2006 Natural Sweet
Chamonix (Franschhoek) 2001 Chardonnay
Dieu Donné (Franschhoek) 2008 Viognier
Eikendal (Stellenbosch) 2007 Chenin Blanc
Eikendal (Stellenbosch) 2004 Shiraz
Ken Forrester (Stellenbosch) 2007 The FMC (Forrester Meinert Chenin)
Kleine Zalze (Stellenbosch) 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
Kleine Zalze (Stellenbosch) 2007 Shiraz
Porcupine Ridge (Franschhoek) 2008 Syrah
Rickety Bridge (Franschhoek) 2007 Natural Sweet Chenin Blanc
Rickety Bridge (Franschhoek) 2005 Semillon
Solms (Franschhoek) 2007 Amalie (Grenache Blanc/Viognier)
Solms Astor (Franschhoek) NV Cape Jazz Shiraz
Stony Brook (Franschhoek) 2006 Viognier (Sweet)
Stony Brook (Franschhoek) 2008 The “J” Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon

Saturday, May 30, 2009

South Africa Photos

I know you have been waiting for the photos from us for sometime now... Well, the wait is over! You can either just go to our Smugmug page ( or you can click on the links below:

Cape Town Photos (and some Johannesburg)
Klein Karoo Photos
Winelands Photos
Kruger National Park Photos

Welcome Back to Beijing

No sooner had we returned to Beijing than the little realities of life here started to make themselves felt. We got into our apartment to find that our maid had apparently not been by as regularly as we had asked her to be, since many of our plants had died (we had asked her to water them). That was not that serious, though, since they can be replaced (as can the maid...). But then I found that none of the work that was supposed to have been done in the apartment while we were out had been done, like fixing cracks here and there, repairing the new shower so that the water actually goes down the drain, and things like that. That, too can be fixed. But then I found that we had no power in the office upstairs, explaining why my home computer was not online while we were traveling. So I checked the circuit breaker and found that one had flipped, so I turned it back on and resumed unpacking. A short while later I smelled an odd smell that I tracked back to the upstairs, where I found that our television was on fire. I knew from my old days in Russia that many people would unplug their televisions when not in use since Russian sets had a habit of bursting into flames, but I never thought of doing that with our fancy-schmancy Haier brand flat-screen television. I managed to unplug the damn thing (it was probably not actually on fire yet, just issuing forth copious amounts of smoke) and sent a note to the landlord informing him that he'd have to replace the set and went to bed.

In the morning, J2 had to go to work so I was able to sleep in. Around 10am as I was showering I thought I heard someone downstairs. So I threw on a robe and cursed my rotten luck for having a prowler on the one day when the dogs were not here (they were still at the kennel) and went downstairs to check it out. Our prowler was our landlord's driver, who came by to check out the TV. When asked why he didn't call before coming, he answered that he did not want to disturb me! I gave him what for about scaring me half to death, and showed him the set, which I let him plug back in since I was not about to touch it. He wanted to have a technician come and fix it, but I assured him it was hopeless and sent him on his way.

Then later in the morning I left to go do some errands and as my first stop I went to my police station to pick up Ivan's license. They could not find it initially, but then remembered that our application was rejected because he is too big. I went into a tirade about how he's not too big, etc etc, and was told that his neutering certificate had him listed as a "Sheepdog" so they could not license him since "Sheepdogs" are too big. So I phoned the vet and asked why they had listed my Sheltie (aka Shetland Sheepdog) and was told that they were informed that's what they should write down, but they would add "Shetland (Small)" to the breed name if I brought back the form. So I went to the vet, had them fix the form, and returned to the police station. There they told me that this was still unacceptable, since Shetland Sheepdogs will turn into Collies. I asked if the cop was at all knowledgeable about dogs, and learned that he is not, so I had him phone the vet himself. They managed to straighten him out, but when he put down the phone he informed me that I should have just written "Shetland" on the form, and not "Shetland Sheepdog". I pointed out that that would be like calling a "Pekingese" a "Peking", since "Shetland" is just a place name, but that just made no sense to him. Lesson learned--don't try to reason with a Chinese cop.

Now the dogs are home and looking very good--Ivan has even grown a bit (though still not Collie size...). They seem to have had a good vacation, too!

South Africa Day Fifteen: Homeward Bound

On our last morning in South Africa we dropped the Jeep off with our friends and said our fond farewells before being picked up by the car for the ride to the airport. We had quite a bit of luggage--the two suitcases and 12-bottle wine box that we arrived with, plus three new 6-bottle wine boxes. When we got to the airport we had them wrap the wine boxes in plastic (a security thing that you often see in airports in Africa and Asia), and to reduce the number of checked items we had them wrap two of the 6-bottle boxes together (clever!!).

Since we were flying business class, Singapore Airlines did not bat an eye at the five checked-in items we had, and without any further ado we were sailing on through passport control and security to await our departure. I had hoped to change my remaining Rand into US Dollars, but I did not have enough to make it a sound business proposition, owing to the hefty fee they charge, so I had no choice but to spend it.

During the 10 hour flight to Singapore we were not the least bit sleepy, owing to our 1pm departure, so we spent the flight watching movies (I highly recommend Gran Torino!) and going through our photos. Of the 2,958 photos we took during the trip I managed to identify 300 or so that are worth sharing on our photo site, and started to go through them to make them fully presentable.

We landed in Singapore at 5:35am, but our connection to Beijing would not leave until 4:55pm, so we had more than enough time to go into town and do some shopping. Singapore's 24-hour Mustafa Shopping Center was our first stop of the morning, where we hoped to buy some underwear, socks and dental floss (no luck on the last item), but it was only around 7am when we got out of there, way too early for anything else to be open yet. By this point we were both getting rather groggy, and the heat and humidity of Singapore was starting to get to us. We figured we'd head over to the mall where our other shopping destination was located, hoping that it would both be air conditioned and would have somewhere to get something to eat. As it turns out, the a/c is not switched on until the shops open, but there was a food hawker center nearby where I was able to get my beloved Singaporean breakfast of nasi lemak (coconut scented rice with chili sauce, fried peanuts, cucumber, and fried chicken wing), along with a glass of fresh fruit juice. Although J2 initially demurred on having anything, as soon as he saw my dish he decided to have one, too.

At 10am our store opened up. The store we were waiting for was the same clothing store that we discovered on our Spain trip in January, called Desigual. We really like their clothing, but there is no branch in China (even though their clothes are made here), so we have to stock up when we find a branch. (Another idea for South Africa--opening up their franchise there!) We made our purchases and headed back to the airport to wait for our flight in the air conditioned comfort of the business class lounge.

As we boarded our flight to Beijing we once again caught sight of something we had not seen since leaving Asia--passengers wearing paper masks over their faces to protect themselves from the swine flu. We managed to sleep some on the 6-hour flight to Beijing, though fitfully, since these seats did not recline flat (yes, we're spoiled). Upon arrival we were told that we could not deplane until after quarantine officials had boarded and checked each and every passenger's temperature. Finally we were released, only to have to pass by not one but two infrared temperature sensors, and hand in a quarantine form to an official. The bright side to this paranoia is that by the time we got to the luggage carousels our bags had all arrived. As we passed through the customs control they asked us to have our boxes x-rayed, which I thought would mean a duty on the wine, but in fact no one even looked at what the screen revealed to be inside and we just picked up our boxes and left.

Our driver was dutifully waiting for us at the arrival hall and turned pale when he saw the volume of our bags, convinced they'd never fit in his car. But we managed it with no difficulty and by a little past midnight we were home.

Friday, May 29, 2009

South Africa Day Fourteen: Kruger Park to Johannesburg

After having fallen asleep to the sound of lions roaring in the distance, we woke to a quiet camp and had a quick breakfast before setting off on our long drive south through 2/3 of the park to the exit at Crocodile Bridge and then back to Joburg. We had chosen this route because it promised to have a lot of interesting game that we had not yet seen, chiefly wild dogs, hyenas and leopards, though in hindsight, traveling at maximum speed within the park (a stately 50kph) makes sighting game rather difficult. As a result, we only caught sight of large animals like giraffes, rhinos, elephants, and zebras, though we also saw the very rare Kori Bustard (the largest bird that is able to fly, according to our books).

We missed a turn at the Tshokwane picnic site and ended up adding an extra 24 km to our drive, making the journey from Letaba Camp to Crocodile Bridge add up to 220 km, which we managed to cover in just over 4 hours. At Crocodile Bridge we drove a further 6 km within the camp to the Hippo Pool, hoping to see some close-up hippos, though those that were there were wallowing up to their eyes in the water so we could barely see them. We did see a baby crocodile, though, and the ranger who escorted us pointed out a bushman painting, but otherwise we were out of luck.

From Crocodile Bridge we exited the park and headed West back to Johannesburg, going at top speed whenever possible since there was nothing much for us to see here. Thus we covered the nearly 500 km in just over 5 hours, including a stop for lunch in Nelspruit and a gasoline stop somewhere else, and arrived back in our guesthouse by 5pm.

After a brief respite in our room we were met by our friends Jonathan and Margaret and taken to dinner at an Italian restaurant not too far away. Also joining us were two of their friends who happen to have considered buying a vineyard in the town of Elgin, where we are looking at property. They ended up not doing so for a number of reasons, but were very encouraging of our interest in the area and offered their assistance if any is needed in finding agents, lawyers, surveyors etc. They also reinforced our impression that the area is very friendly toward outsiders, including foreigners, coming in to work in the area, so we left very enthusiastic about this prospect.

We returned to the room to pack up our stuff and get ready for tomorrow’s departure in the morning to Singapore, rather saddened that our wonderful holiday in South Africa was coming to an end, but confident that we’ll be back.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

South Africa Day Thirteen: Kruger Park

This morning we had no particular appointments compelling us to wake up early, but having gone to sleep around 8:30 the previous night we were up and ready to go by 5:30 anyway. So, after making a quick breakfast in our hut we headed out for a day of seeing what we could see. According to the sightings board at our camp, there were lions sighted off one particular road in the direction of the Olifants camp, so we headed that way. Before long we came across a large group of elephants, among which were several babies that were busy cavorting, so we stopped and watched them for a while. They were about 15 feet or less from our car at times, so when the mother elephant started to show signs of concern about our presence (we were soon joined by several other cars) we headed off to avoid upsetting her (and having her upset our car...). Later on we saw a pack of baboons grooming each other by a watering hole, including some juveniles playing in the water and chasing each other around, and eventually we saw some more elephants, giraffes and impalas, but no lions at all, despite popping back into lodges periodically to check their sighting boards for tips. At one point we found a pack of vultures that started to take off and fly off somewhere, so we thought we might have found a sign of a kill and headed off to see if we could follow them, but there was no way to get there, so we had to give up.

In the mid-afternoon we had a walk scheduled at our lodge so we returned to our camp and got the car washed while we waited for our walk to start. The amount of dust that collected on that car after a few days’ driving around on the gravel roads here was amazing!

Our walk was led by two guides, who drove us out of the camp down a side road that is closed to visitors. As we headed out they mentioned that during the morning walk they came across some lionesses with a giraffe kill, so we’d head out that way toward the walking area. Sure enough, three of the lionesses were still there, gorged with giraffe meat and looking exhausted. We were told to keep still and make no noise, so at first we didn’t know if it was OK to take photos, but the lioness closest to us seemed not to be concerned with us so we started shooting away. Based on her still having faint spots in her hide our guide told us she was less than five years old, and she was beautiful, showing us her big incisors every so often as she sat there looking like someone who had just eaten a way-too-big meal.

When we had gotten our fill of photos we headed further along to get out of the vehicle and start our walk. First the guides gave us our safety instructions--walk in a single file, make no noise, don’t touch anything, and follow closely. They each had a big rifle, so we were not about to disobey. We walked among the mopane trees and two watering pans, stopping here and there for them to point something out to us, like a dead leadwood tree that was covered with mud from where animals, particularly rhinos, would rub against it to clean themselves off, and tracks and dung of various animals. We did not see any big animals close up, though we did see some impala and zebra in the distance that ran off as soon as they caught sight or scent of us.

After about an hour of walking around we headed back to the car and drove back to watch the lionesses for a while longer. They were attracting jackals, waiting for the lionesses to wander away so that they could dig in to the remnants of the giraffe, but as yet there were no hyenas or vultures lurking nearby. As the sun set, we returned to our camp.

Back at our hut we got the fire started and prepared our last camp dinner while finishing up our wine and downloading our photos. After we had eaten we were joined for a chat by one of our neighbors, an Afrikaner who used to work in the gold mines and who has been coming to Kruger for 30 years or so, here with his wife and family. As we chatted with him we could hear lions roaring in the distance outside the camp, a very haunting and thrilling sound that echoed through the wilderness.

South Africa Day Twelve: Kruger Park

There being no urgency to our getting up particularly early today, we got up at the more civilized hour of 5:30 and cooked a nice breakfast in the lodge’s kitchen. It was a bit of a surprise to find that the lodges--even this “Bush Camp”--have such advanced facilities, with all the bungalows having their own kitchens and bathrooms (ours had two!) and warm water and a barbecue facility. We left camp around 6:30 for a day of driving around the park’s drives. The park has roads all over the place, many with asphalted surfaces but even more with gravel, and we chose to drive mostly along the gravel roads, expecting to see more animals there. After having been largely skunked yesterday, we had great hopes for today, but they went largely unmet. We did see some good animals, though, including giraffes, loads of zebras, and even a rare bird that unfortunately flew off before we could photograph it.

Our camp for the next two nights is larger than the previous one, with a restaurant, and shop, and gas station (which is very important!). After checking in we headed back out for some drives around the park, but again did not see much of great interest, so we wound up back in the lodge by 4:30, in time to watch the sunset over the Letaba River below the bar, nursing a beer (or two) while observing elephants and waterbucks meandering back and forth to the river for a last drink before retiring for the night.

South Africa Day Eleven: Kruger Park

Sure enough, we were up by just after 4am, and our guide came to collect us at the ungodly hour of 4:30 for our morning game drive. The time might not have been so bad had our sleep not been disturbed by a car alarm going off at the middle of the night (though, honestly, having gone to bed at 8:30 it might have gone at 10pm). The vehicle was one of those open safari vehicles with absolutely no protection from the wind from any of the sides, and as a result we were freezing while driving around the park in search of game. For the first 90 minutes or so we were in complete darkness but for the light of the stars (which are amazingly numerous here; coming from China we had completely forgotten what a night sky could look at, since in Beijing we count ourselves lucky if it’s clear enough to see the moon) and the powerful flashlights we were supposed to use to scan the passing scenery. We managed to spy a few animals this way, including some genet cats, impalas, and other animals, but for the most part we were skunked on this journey. At least the scenery as the sun came up was pretty.

We were back in our lodge by 7:30 and immediately set out on our own to see what else we might see today. For the first hour or more it appeared that the South African fauna are very religious and spend their Sunday mornings in church or something, since none of them was out for us. But eventually we caught sight of a real find--a white rhinoceros calmly eating breakfast and giving us loads of opportunities to shoot photos from all angles as he (or she) moved around. Later on we found a few cars stopped by the side of the road and learned that they had found a pair of cheetahs, though they were very far away and hard to make out and impossible to photograph. We also started to see more zebras, giraffes, impalas and other “common” animals, and then a few hippos wallowing in a pool and some elephants eating. But for the most part this day was much less fertile than yesterday.

We got back to our lodge in time to go on a sunset game drive, using the same vehicle as in the morning but this time with one other couple joining us. Since we started in daylight, the start of the drive was warm enough, but by 6:00pm, when the sun had started to set in earnest, the temperature dipped noticeably and we all started to put on our jackets, though it never became cold enough to use the blankets that they provide. Again we did not see a whole lot of animals on this drive, and certainly none of the ones we were hoping to see, though we did see a ground hornbill, which is a seriously endangered bird, an owl, and several zebras, giraffes and elephants, including a few elephants right outside our camp’s gate.

Back at the lodge we got a fire started for our dinner of grilled boerewors and sweet corn on the cob. The dinner was delicious, as was the wine we chose to go with it (one of our wines from our visit to Franschhoek), and we spent the rest of the evening going over our photos of the day and planning for tomorrow, when we move to a new camp.

South Africa Day Ten: Hazyview to Kruger Park

I woke up as usual before J2, and used the time before he woke to start a fire in our room’s little fireplace, which he appreciated very much when he awoke. We left our lodge well before light in order to get to the Kruger park as soon after the gates opened at 6am as possible. On the strength of the recommendation of the South African couple at dinner last night we decided to enter the park through the Numbi Gate rather than the Kruger Gate, since it would likely be less crowded and we’d have more time to drive inside the park itself. This was a good move, since even this relatively out of the way gate was pretty crowded, and the process for getting your entry pass is a bit less than efficient.

From our entrance gate we proceeded along the main road toward the Skukuza Camp, which is also the park’s headquarters, and from there we headed south toward the Lower Sabie camp before heading back north toward Tshokwane Picnic Area where we had lunch before finally heading toward the Satara Camp and our lodge for the night, Talamati.

Along this road we caught sight of loads of animals, chiefly giraffes, elephants, warthogs, loads of impalas, zebras, jackals, hippos, a rhino or two, and even a solitary lioness. As you drive along, the first sign you have of a notable find is the presence of other cars stopped along the road. Often we saw cars stopped and tried to figure out what they were looking at, only to realize that they were birders and watching something that really did not grab us all that much. In the case of the lioness, though, it was we who first spotted her, but since at that point we were on a small road, not that many other cars ended up joining us.

We got to our lodge around an hour before the lodges close their gates, at 30 minutes before dusk (5:30 at this time of year). There we paid for our day passes for our four days in the park, and then booked ourselves onto two game drives tomorrow (thus giving me a reprieve from the driving), and got squared away into our lodge for the next two nights. The lodges here are pretty comfortable units, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a barbecue unit outside. We got right down to business starting a fire in the barbecue, only to find that the wood we had bought was wet so I replaced it at the lodge’s reception area. We had a great light dinner of steaks that I bought at the Spar yesterday and some of the wine we bought in Franschhoek and spent the rest of the evening going through the day’s photos. Since we have a 4:30am departure call tomorrow, this was an even earlier night than last night, and we were in bed by 8:30.

South Africa Day Nine: Johannesburg to Hazyview

We had hoped to get an early start on our long drive to Hazyview today, but our laundry that we had given to the guesthouse to wash for us was not yet dry when we went to bed, so we had to wait for the guesthouse staff to be awake to give it to us before we could go, so we got a slightly later than planned start. Driving out of Joburg was a bit complicated, especially in rush hour, and it took a bit of doing to find the road we wanted, but eventually we did and we were well on our way by 8am.

The road out of Joburg is pretty dull for a good hour or so as you head northwest, but eventually, after we had crossed into the state of Mpumalanga, the scenery becomes prettier and more “African”. The road is excellent, too, and, except for those areas where they’re fixing it or widening it in preparation for 2010, we were able to go 130 km/h or so, so we made very good time.

Our route had us go along highway for much of the way, from Joburg through Witbank to the town of Belfast, from where we got off the highway and onto smaller, more scenic roads. Since we had time to meander through the area, we decided to head toward the Mac-Mac Falls before lunch, so we drove through some lovely countryside along mountain roads for a good 90 minutes to get there. The falls were a bit smaller than we had anticipated, and the viewing platforms not all that well situated, but it was a nice diversion and it afforded us an opportunity (finally!) to find some gifts to bring back for people at a small curio market located at the falls’ parking area.

Having done our tourist thing, we decided it was time for lunch, so we headed to the town of Sabie to eat at the Wild Fig Tree, where I was able to sample the highly regarded local trout (J2 had a beef dish; the trout was in fact very good, though the beef was a bit boring). We then continued toward Hazyview, not too far further along, and found our inn for the night, the 4-star Tana Mera lodge. The lodge is located off the road about 2km up a rutted packed-earth road that really jostled our car quite a bit and made us very glad it’s a 4x4. But the inn itself is lovely, and our room is a thached cottage with a fireplace and a lovely bathroom area with a stone tub (for two) in the middle overlooking the Sabie River in the valley below.

Now that we had found our lodge we headed out to the town of Hazyview to buy provisions to use while inside the Kruger Park. We found a Super Spar supermarket in a very crowded shopping center and headed in. (I should note here that just about everywhere we have been in South Africa when you park your car there is a person in a safety vest who will offer to “watch” your car for you while it’s parked. I have had the feeling that it’s prudent to accept their offer, other than in Franschhoek, where the stores all display a sign pleading with visitors not to do so. In exchange for their services they expect a tip of around R4 (50 cents), and then they will help you maneuver your car out of your parking spot.) The store was huge, and packed with people, all of whom were African. We stuck out like a sore thumb, but absolutely no one seemed to notice or care. We picked up some sausages (“boerewors”) and some steaks to barbecue, and some chips and stuff to snack on, and wood for a fire, and got into a huge line to check out (the check out clerks were extraordinarily slow). I was tempted to abandon our stuff and try another store, but feared that other stores would be the same way, so we waited it out and eventually got through.

Before returning to the lodge we visited one other grocery, and this time almost all the patrons were white. The selection was a bit more limited than at the Spar, but of a higher quality, and included quite a good wine section, and the check out was much quicker and more organized.

Back at Tana Mera we decided to take advantage of the last hour or so of sunlight to take a hike down to the Sabie River. The path started out OK, but before too long it was covered with fallen logs that we had to climb over and under, and then it became a steep descent, often with no supports or footholds, down to the river bank. The river was nice to see, though, especially since at this point it goes through a bunch of rocks and forms a little rapids. The climb back up the path was a bit slower going than the way down, and by the time we were back at the top we were drenched in sweat. After around 10 days of no Alphacise, perhaps we had already got out of shape...

After a quick shower we headed to the lodge’s lounge area to have some wine (Simonsig Syrah) before dinner, flipping through some of their books on wildlife and African scenery to while away the time. At 7 they served dinner, seating all six guests at a communal table. The other guests were a Belgian couple from Antwerp and a South African couple from nearby Nelspruit, and we had a lovely time chatting with them about all sorts of things. The Belgians had just come from spending several days at one of the private game parks nearby, and told us about the wonderful animal sightings they had had, while the South Africans talked about life in rural South Africa. We discussed our plans to move to Elgin and open a guesthouse and apple farm, and they were extremely supportive of it, though they also gave us some tips about dealing with the local work ethic and some of the less attractive aspects of South African culture, all of which sounded similar to what we experience in China.

The dinner menu gave everyone two choices for each of three courses, so naturally J2 and I each tried one of the choices and shared. The starters were a delicious potato and leek soup or a grilled mushroom salad (both excellent) and the mains were either grilled trout with almonds or oxtail (ditto, though my trout was extremely similar to the one I had had for lunch) and the dessert was the iconic Malva pudding (a sponge cake with apricot and a butterscotch topping) or a chocolate mousse.

After dinner we returned to our room and headed straight to bed, despite the early hour, to be able to get on the road bright and early in the morning.

Friday, May 22, 2009

South Africa Day Eight: Johannesburg

Over breakfast we discussed with the guesthouse owner, a German lady named Gisela, what our options were to spend the morning in Joburg while we waited for our friend, Maggie, to become free around lunchtime. She recommended that we take a Soweto tour run by a friend of hers who also has a guesthouse nearby. So at 9:30 he showed up and took us out for a ride.

Our first stop on the tour was to see downtown Johannesburg. The city reminds me of nothing so much as Detroit, since the area in the central city is largely derelict and, other than a few stalwart companies, most have moved out of the city to a new suburb called Sandton. We ascended to the top of the tallest building in Africa, the 50-story tall Carlton Tower, to see a panorama of the city, which really made it clear that the city has seen better days. Many of the buildings are unoccupied, and some that were officially unoccupied are now squatter villages. Clearly this is not a place to be after dark.

We did see some signs of revitalization, though. The former DeBeers building looks like it’s being well kept as an office block for some other company, and several banks are building new HQs in the area. Still, there are no hotels beyond a 1- or 2-star in the city, which is really amazing for the commercial center of Africa’s biggest economy.

Our guide took us to a very interesting little shop in the downtown area. It was a Zulu “muti” or witch doctor’s shop, decked out in all sorts of barks, bones, and hides that have medicinal properties, and a small traditional thatched hut in the back where the doctor would read your ailments and prescribe a solution.

From downtown we drove out to Soweto, which I never before realized was an acronym (for South West Townships). Soweto is not far from downtown Joburg, and even driving at the glacially slow pace that our guide preferred, we were there in no time. Soweto was not quite what I was expecting; whereas I anticipated just a relentless slum of dilapidated housing, in fact the area is more like a mini city, with neighborhoods of varying character, some wealthy, some middle class, and some poor (in some cases, poorer than poor). The government is required to provide housing to all citizens, so it builds lots of small houses with a few small rooms and a kitchen, and many of those can be seen in Soweto. They are often not badly maintained, with fresh paint jobs and manicured lawns, though in some cases, particularly those occupied by the unemployed, there just is no money for that and the houses look a bit worse off. The occupants are meant to pay rent and for utilities, but in some cases they cannot afford it, so they basically live rent-free.

In some areas, where the people are quite poor, the houses have no power or water, but to maintain some sanitary salubriousness the government has installed port-a-potties that serve the community. Even in the areas that are home to the illegal immigrants from elsewhere in Africa (who are not entitled to the free housing), areas that are filled with roughly made shacks of scraps of wood and tin with corrugated roofs, there are port-a-potties in a nod by the government to the fact that there is no getting rid of those people.

We visited the area called Orlando West, and one street there that is home to two Nobel laureates, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (we also saw Winnie Mandela’s rather grand pile). The Mandela house has become a museum with memorabilia from his life. This was the only house we could go into, and it was comfortable though quite small, and you can still see bullet holes where the police shot into the place while Winnie was living there.

Also in Orlando West was the Hector Pieterson memorial, commemorating the spot where, on June 16, 1976, school children from Soweto who were peacefully protesting a decision by the government to change from English to Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, were shot at by the police, killing a young boy named Hector Pieterson, who is now recognized as the first victim of the struggle that ultimately led to the collapse of the apartheid government.

On the way back to Johannesburg we saw the new stadium going up for the 2010 World Cup and several new malls that have sprung up in the Soweto area as part of the initiatives to revitalize the economies of the townships (where previously it was government policy to have no organized stores or businesses or other economic activity at all, but rather relegating the townships to nothing more than housing estates for black workers who would have to commute into the cities for work).

Our guide brought us back to our guesthouse in time to meet Maggie to go out for lunch. By this time the clouds that had covered the city had started to part, and we ate outside in lovely sunshine for a change. Lunch was excellent, and was followed by a visit to a crafts market to see about picking up some gifts for people back home, though we only managed to find a painting for ourselves. We also stopped in a safari outfitter’s shop to pick up some jackets to wear in Kruger, where it can apparently get quite cold at night (we managed to forget to bring our jackets when we left Beijing). We returned to Maggie’s and Jonathan’s house to pick up their Jeep that they are letting us use for the trip, along with several books on the animals of the parks, a cool box with ice packs, and a pile of maps.

Maggie helped us to book a massage at a nearby Thai spa to help me get a crick out of my back that was getting more and more bothersome. This gave us our first taste of driving in Joburg, which was a bit tricky but in the end we emerged at the spa unscathed. From the spa we returned to our guesthouse to get organized for our trip, and then met up with Maggie again for dinner at Soulsa, a hip new place in the hip area of Melville. Excellent food once again (ostrich bobotie spring rolls for me to start, followed by delicious lamb shank, and a warm vegetable salad for J2 followed by oxtail and gnocchi, all washed down by a phenomenal Cabernet Sauvignon called Whole Berry by Springfield Estate. After dinner we went to a bar nearby to meet a friend of Maggie’s for a drink, an Indian fellow who moved here 11 years ago from Calcutta, before returning to our guesthouse for the night.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

South Africa Day Six:Barrydale to Stanford

Although our room was comfortable enough at the Tradouw Guest House, the temperatures had gone down a lot overnight, and it was freezing when we woke up, though the skies were once again crystal blue and clear. We therefore rushed through our showers to prevent the formation of icicles and then headed to the lounge for breakfast, which was pretty good. Though this was far from being our most luxurious inn of this trip so far, it was easily one of the most convivial, with Denis and Leon, our hosts, proving to be a lot of fun and very hospitable. When we finished eating, Leon took us across the street to a “Medicine Wheel” garden he had planted, and introduced us to “Priscilla, Queen of the Karoo”, their Vietnamese pot belly pig.

We set off from Barrydale heading to our next destination, the town of Stanford, traveling back through the scenic Tradouw Pass and through some lovely mountain roads. We arrived at the Blue Gum Inn in Stanford, our home for the night, by noon. At check in we met their six-month old German Shepherd puppy, Rocky, and learned that we were the only guests for the night, and that they had booked us a table for dinner at the hotel at 7pm.

With no idea what to do we headed out to the coastal town of Gans Bay, stopping briefly at the Klein River Cheese Factory to sample some cheese and buy some provisions for our upcoming trip to the Kruger National Park. Once in Gans Bay we learned that there are not many lunch options there, but we found a place overlooking the harbor for a meal of fish and chips while perusing our maps to figure out what to do for the rest of the day. We hit on the idea of checking out the town of Elgin, which the owner of Stony Brook vineyards said was an up-and-coming wine area where land prices were still reasonable. On the approach to Elgin we stopped at two vineyards, Paul Cluver and Oak Valley, where the white wines, especially the Sauvignon Blanc, were surprisingly good, and where the people were particularly friendly. At Oak Valley they even gave us the name of a realtor who specializes in agricultural properties, so we spent the rest of the afternoon talking with her about the ins and outs of investing there.

We got back to the hotel just in time for our 7pm dinner reservation. Since we’re the only guests, they set up our table in the lounge in front of the fireplace, which was rather cozy. The meal was very nice, too, with some tasty wines accompanying. They had also placed a bottle of local sherry with figs and other snacks in our room, which by the time we got back from dinner had become a bottle of local port, which we sampled while watching some TV.

South Africa Day Five: Franschhoek to Barrydale

Though it seemed last night that there would finally be a break in the awful weather, when we woke we were disappointed to find that it was once again pouring with rain at a pretty good clip, with no sign of it clearing up any time soon. We had our breakfast at the hotel, during which the owner came to chat with us. The idea of retiring to South Africa has started to sound possibly appealing to us, since we could buy some vineyards and olive groves and run an inn like we thought we might do in Umbria or France, but of course here we would not have to do it in a foreign language. The owner had some encouraging words, though tinged with warning about the amount of work it would take. Something to think about. She also gave us some ideas of how to spend our remaining time in the Western Cape, advising against wasting our time driving the R62 road that our book recommended so highly and instead head straight to Barrydale, and even helped us make a booking for a hotel in the town where we’d be tomorrow.

On our way out of Franschhoek we stopped at two more wineries. First was Boekenhoutskloof, which was highly recommended by the people at Boschendal yesterday, especially for their shiraz and “Chocolate Block” wine. Indeed, their shiraz was great, though the Chocolate Block was a bit softer than we liked, which perhaps explained why the guy at Boschendal called it a “woman’s wine”. One interesting thing at the Boekenhoutskloof winery was that as we sampled the wines in the tasting room overlooking the vineyards we saw a group of large baboons wander through the vines, sampling some of the grapes that remained out there. Not something you’d often see in France or Napa.

Our second winery was Stony Brook, just down the road from our hotel. The tasting room was in the living room of the family who own the vineyard, which gave the whole thing a very homey feel. Also, we were given the wines to sample by the female half of the couple who own the vineyard, a very lovely woman who was also very encouraging of the idea to set up a vineyard as a retirement venture, though adding that it was a lot of work.

Once we had finished at our two wineries (where, incidentally, we bought a total of six more bottles of wine, bringing our grand total to two cases) we started to heat out of Franschhoek toward Barrydale. We chose this as our destination for the day for no other reason than that the guidebook highly recommended a gay-owned inn in the town, and because the Klein Karoo, the district it’s in, was supposed to have a semi-arid landscape full of dramatic scenery that promised to be devoid of rain.

Sure enough, when we emerged from the lengthy mountain tunnel that separated the winelands from the Klein Karoo the rain clouds dissipated and we were soon bathed in bright sunshine, causing us to doff our rain slickers and sweaters and luxuriate in the warmth of the sun radiating through our car windows. The scenery was indeed starkly beautiful, with mountains on all sides for much of the way, and nicely undulating fields dotting the landscape. In about two hours or so we were in Barrydale, where we quickly found our inn and headed straight to lunch at the Blue Cow Coffee Shop, advertised as being on the “Barrydale Waterfront”. Being an inland town, this was a bit of a joke, as we found is rather common in this place, where a lot of the businesses have a playful attitude toward marketing (for example, a pub a bit of our town is called “Rick’s Sex Shop”, so named in order to cause people driving by to stop and check it out, which apparently works like a charm, and yet when they find out that no sex is on offer they still often stay for a drink).

After our lunch we decided to drive along the R62 highway toward Montagu despite our hotelier’s recommendation against it, since there was little to do in Barrydale. Sure enough, though the ride was pretty enough, it was not that great, and the highlight was seeing some more baboons crossing the highway and a herd of quanga (a type of gazelle).

When we returned to Barrydale we put our stuff in the room at the inn and hung out for a drink with the owners, some other guests, and some friends of theirs. It was a lovely little group, and by the time we had finished our drinks the hotel owners and the other guests and we decided to go out for dinner together at a little restaurant nearby (The Jam Tarts) for a simple but tasty dinner (J2 had a lamb burger, I had a South African dish called “babotie” which consisted of spicy ground lamb stew over rice). We all shared several bottles of wine, chatted endlessly, and closed the place down, whereupon we retired to the bar in the inn for some more wine and conversation before finally going to sleep.

South Africa Day Four: Stellenbosch to Franschhoek

Not surprisingly, after all the wine we consumed, we slept very well, facilitated no doubt by the very luxurious surroundings of our hotel. The bed was comfortable, the room cozy, and the whole surroundings were very well suited to relaxation. Surprisingly, we were hungry for breakfast, which was a nice spread of cheeses, cold meats and fish, and breads, though we opted not to have any of the hot offerings, out of respect for maintaining some sort of diet on this trip.

We headed out of the hotel towards the other big wine producing town in the area, the French-settled town of Franschhoek. Though it looked relatively far on the map, we arrived at our first winery in no time at all. This being a Sunday, we were limited in how many wineries we could visit, since many were not open. But the first one we came to, Boschendal, was, so we stopped in. We did not realize it, but this is one of the oldest and biggest wineries in South Africa, and while the guy who led our tasting was charming (and had worked in Napa Valley at one time), his claim that, other than Boschendal, the other area wineries produced nothing worth tasting, was pure hogwash, since of all the wineries we visited, this was the only one where we had no interest in buying anything.

From Boschendal we visited Allée Bleue (buying two bottles of wine), Soms (also bought two, though we were tempted to buy just about every wine they had; one of the wines we bought was a Lambrusco-style fizzy Shiraz that was very interesting), GlenWood (closed), and La Motte (ditto) before stopping in the town for lunch. Again, not wanting to stuff ourselves (especially since we were looking forward to dinner at one of Franschhoek’s gourmet restaurants), we decided to have a smallish lunch at a pub in town where we just had a small pot pie each before resuming our wine tasting.

After lunch we visited Cap Chamonix, Dieu Donné, Rickety Bridge and Moreson, buying wines at each of the first three, but by the time we got to Moreson we just could not face the prospect of tasting anything else, so we left without sampling a thing and decided to head to our hotel to take it easy for the rest of the evening.

Like the place where we stayed last night, Klein Genot (“Small Indulgence” in Afrikaans) was recommended by a Chowhound friend. Also like Majeka, this place was charming, with very accommodating services. The inn has only six rooms, located around a koi pond, in a thatched building that is nestled among 35 hectares of vineyards that also has pair of black swans (the eponym for one of the wines they produce) and some monkeys, so J2 was in heaven. Also like Majeka they have a DVD player in the room, but this time we opted to make use of it (since the masseur was off duty), watching a rather odd Nicolas Cage movie before dinner.

For dinner we went to Reuben’s, a restaurant that (again) was recommended by a Chowhounder, though it was also recommended by a number of other sources. Again, we were not really all that hungry, but Reuben’s came so highly recommended that we forced ourselves (forced!) to order both a starter and a main course, to be able really to give the restaurant a solid trial. Unfortunately, J2’s starter, a salad of mushrooms and greens, was a dud, but mine, chili fried calamari with a spicy-creamy sauce, was very good. But the main courses were both excellent, a huge grilled beef with creamed vegetables for J2, and a stunning crispy pork belly with ginger-chili sauce for me. All these went down well with two glasses of Haut Espoir Viognier, and the espresso that capped my meal was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory. One of the nicer things about meals like this here is that whereas we could easily have imagined paying over $150 for such a meal in the US, here it only cost $60. Amazing value.

South Africa Day Three: Cape Town to Stellenbosch

We woke up relatively early to torrential rain storms. Since there was no sign of breakfast at the hotel we just packed up the car and headed to the V&A Waterfront to see if we could find a place for breakfast. As it turns out, this was just a big mall, and at the hour we were there (8:30) nothing appealing was open so we just headed out of town to the wine country of Stellenbosch. As we drove the rain let up a bit, and by the time we got to the town (less than an hour away) the rain had stopped temporarily. Before long we found a promising place to eat and plan our visit to this town.

Stellenbosch is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, having been founded in the 1600s, and is one of the centers of the wine industry here. As a result there are dozens of wineries (if not hundreds) in the area, though it turns out that quite a few are closed on the weekend. We had a few wineries that we knew we wanted to visit, but for the rest we decided to go more or less at random. Many wineries give their tastings for free, but quite a few charge R15 or 20 (less than $3) for samples of any five of their wines, though this charge is often waived if you buy their wine.

As luck would have it, the first winery we wanted to try was not opened on Saturdays (despite what the guidebook said) so we went to one nearby that also turned out to be closed. With this unpromising start we were getting a bit discouraged, but the next one we stopped at, Ken Forrester, was not only open but had some very good wines, including one that we liked well enough to buy. The next one was a bit of a dud, as was the one after that, but then we stumbled across Eikendal, which had a bunch of great wines, including a really nice dessert wine that reminded us a lot of Tokaji. We then hit another dud (a big surprise, since it was touted as one of the leading wineries in the area) but by this time we were getting a bit wined out so we decided to stop for lunch.

There are loads of restaurants in the Stellenbosch area, and it’s hard to decide where to go, but we were introduced to the wines of Kleine Zalze at one of the wine tastings we attended in Beijing this winter, and we had heard that their restaurant, Terroir, was one of the best in the area, so that seemed to us like a good combination so that’s where we headed. What a great choice! The meal was outstanding, and complemented the wine they serve very well. J2 had a starter of oxtail risotto followed by frilled lamb, while I had shredded duck confit on a potato galette with lentil in some sort of great sauce followed by grilled springbok in a rich wine sauce. Unbelievably, we managed to drink more wine with lunch, despite having sampled no fewer than five wines at each of the wineries we had visited during the morning, and then after lunch we went to the winery’s tasting room and tried five more!

After so much wine in the morning, we were really wined out by this point so we decided to call it a day and find a hotel for the night. I had been told of a place in the Stellenbosch by someone from Chowhound that sounded right up our alley so I gave them a call and they had a free room for the night. Better yet, they were right near where we were so within 10 minutes we were in our room. The hotel, called Majeka, has only been opened 7 months but has received rave reviews for its service, its spa and its restaurant--what could be better??

Once we settled in we made a bee-line for the jacuzzi and steam room, and made appointments for massages to while away the rest of our day before dinner. The massages were not bad, but they were a bit wimpy in comparison with what we’re used to in China, especially the foot massage part. But it was a nice way to unwind after a day of driving and drinking.

Before dinner we had a quick aperitif at the bar in front of the roaring fire. We could easily have spent the rest of the evening there, but the waitress had us order our meals relatively early, and then they started to serve it before we were really ready. In fact, we probably would never have been ready, given how full we were from our lunch and all the wines we sampled during the day, and after our starters (carrot soup for J2, a very tasty salad for me) we were unable to eat any more, and our main courses (veal for J2, a trio of linefish for me) went virtually untouched.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

South Africa Day Two: Cape Town area

We woke up in the morning to steady rain and to find that the house had no electricity. We understood that Cape Town is prone to blackouts, but we did not expect one on our first day in town. There seemed nothing we could do about it, so we took a quick shower and got our stuff together and decided to move to a hotel in town for our second night, rather than stay in the peninsula.

We returned to the area where the Food Barn is located for breakfast at a small cafe that they also run for a great British-style breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes, etc. By the time we had finished it seemed hopeful that the weather would clear up a bit, so we opted to head to the Table Mountain National Park area and see what we could see there. There are some beautiful scenic spots in this park, and many of them came about in lulls in the rain, allowing us to get some great photos. We got to the Cape of Good Hope--southwestern-most point on the African continent--during one such break, and were able to climb up to see where the Atlantic ocean starts to encounter the Indian ocean. It’s a very turbulent spot, so no wonder there are so many shipwrecks in the area. In fact the coast reminds me a lot of Maine, with a lot of rocky beaches and stormy seas. When we came back down to the car, sure enough the rain resumed.

As we continued to drive around, we encountered a few ostriches wandering around, but other than them we did not see any wildlife in the area, but when we got out of the park and started to look for lunch, we came across a pack of baboons wandering down the street. The pack entered a school ground where the kids were out playing, but once they saw the baboons they all ran quickly back inside. Perhaps the many signs around warning about the dangerousness of baboons is not exaggerated. Still, J2 was happy to see “monkeys”.

We had lunch at a nice place in Miller’s Point called Black Marlin, good seafood dishes with a lovely Chenin Blanc to go with it. A bit pricy (especially compared with last night’s dinner, which was better), but good nonetheless.

After lunch the rain seemed a bit more persistent, so we decided to spend the rest of the day doing something that was more suited a rainy day--visiting wineries. The oldest wineries in South Africa are in the Constantia area just south of central Cape Town, so on our way to our hotel for the night. We made three wine stops--the Constantia Uitsig winery, the Buitenverwachting winery and the Groot Constantia winery (the last being the oldest in the country). Of all these, we much preferred Buitenverwachting, and even bought two bottles of their dessert wine. In contrast with the wineries we visited in California, the wines here are much more reasonably priced--some wines could be had for just $5 or so, and our dessert wine was only $10. The wines at Groot Constantia were a huge disappointment, none of them really did anything for us, other than their “port’ which made us want to run outside and fill our mouths with dirt to get the taste out. God, that was awful!

From Constantia we made our way to the city proper, to find our hotel for the night. We moved our reservation at De Waterkant house up a night, since we did not know how long the black out would last at our friends’ place and it was kind of lonely being in the middle of nowhere. Though we made a few wrong turns and wound up having to drive through the streets of Cape Town at dusk, something I was loath to do, we made it to the hotel in one piece. It’s located very near the V&A Waterfront, and is supposed to be a center of gay life in Cape Town, and we had hoped to go out and see what’s going on, but after a mediocre dinner at a sushi place (“Tank”) nearby, we were both really tired and just fell asleep watching TV.

South Africa Day One: Beijing-HK-Joburg-Cape Town

We flew using United Airlines frequent flier miles on this trip, so we had to stick with airlines that are members of the Star Alliance. Luckily for us, South African Airways is now in that alliance, so it was pretty straightforward to get there, we just had to fly first to Hong Kong and then change. And since we were flying business class, we got to use the airport lounges while waiting for our flights, which was pretty convenient.

A very large portion of the Chinese passengers on the Beijing-Hong Kong leg had face masks on to guard against the swine flu, as did all the employees at the Beijing airport. In contrast, no one at HK airport hod masks on (other than the health check people) and on the flight from HK to Joburg no one wore them either.

The HK-Joburg flight lasts 13 1/2 hours, but it literally flew by, since we were able to lie flat in our seat-beds. The only drawback was that the bed was just about exactly as long as we are tall, so we were a little bit tightly fitted, but even so we managed to sleep most of the flight away. It also helped that the flight took off around midnight, so we were naturally tired anyway.

The flight would have been perfect were it not for the flight attendant’s over zealousness at preparing my tray table for the pre-arrival breakfast service. He had not noticed that I had removed my glasses and put them on the seat divider, so when we tried to force the tray into position he caused one of the lenses to chip and fall out of the frame. Nothing we could do would fix it, so I wound up having to go around without glasses until we could find an optician.

Once in Joburg we had a lengthy queue for immigration, but once through our bags were already there and we were able to proceed quickly to our connecting flight to Cape Town, which was a relatively short 2 hour hop. Unfortunately, our wine carrier box, which had already caused so much concern among the security and customs people we had encountered so far (all wanted to know what was in it, and were surprised when we said “nothing” since we brought it along to be able to carry wine back home with us) did not make it to Cape Town somehow, and would have to be delivered to us.

We had arranged a car to meet us and take us to our friends’ house in Noordhoek, a suburb of Cape Town in the southern peninsula that leads to the Cape of Good Hope. Along the way we passed some remarkably horrible looking shanty towns, some right adjacent to new and fancy-looking developments. After around 30 minutes we were in Noordhoek, at our friends’ beautiful beach house, with their maid, Veronica showing us in and demonstrating how to use everything. Turning on the alarm was a key point that she made sure to explain to us adequately.

It was only around 1:30 when we got to Noordhoek, so there was still time to look around, so after a quick shower we headed in our friends’ car to grab lunch and see what we could see. For lunch we stopped in Simon’s Town, one of the oldest settlements in South Africa and once a naval base. It’s a very quaint town, with a single strip of shops and restaurants. We chose a place randomly to eat at, and had a pretty good lunch of fish and chips and a grilled chicken burger, washed down with Namibian beer. Nothing to write home about. There were no opticians in Simon’s Town, though, so I continued to wander around without my glasses.

Near Simon’s Town is the Boulder Beach, home to one of only three mainland colonies of African penquins (aka Jackass Penguins). This colony apparently arose within the last 20 years or so when two pairs of penguins made it their home, and now there are thousands of penguins who live here. You can’t go two feet without seeing a couple of the cute little birds, many of whom were in the process of creating more cute little penguins. We took a great deal of photos of the little guys, taking advantage of a period of dry in what was otherwise a fairly drizzly day. Based on how snap-happy we were over the penguins, I can only imagine what it will be like when we see real wild animals later in the trip.

We found a shopping center nearby to get my glasses fixed (yay!) and picked up some provisions to keep us from starving during breaks between meals and returned to the house to scout out plans for dinner and the next day. For dinner we wound up going to a place right in Noordhoek called the Food Barn that was a surprisingly delicious meal. The chef came from a well-regarded restaurant and set up a non-pretentious gourmet restaurant in the suburbs with unfussy service and reasonable prices. My salad of grilled crotin cheese on a raspberry-pumpkin seed gelée was outstanding, and J2’s terrine of tomato, mozzarella and eggplant was very flavorful and delicious. Then our main courses of grilled line fish for me, and lamb chops for J2 were equally as good. For dessert, I had a wonderful assortment of cheeses while J2 had a chocolate cake that he said was a bit over sweet. All this washed down with a house red wine that was very drinkable. Really good.

While we were eating the airline brought our missing wine box to us at the restaurant, so we were now once again whole. Unfortunately, as we ate a big rainstorm came in and we returned to the house in a minor downpour that continued well into the night.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

License to Bark

It's not news that Beijing's rules about dog ownership are pretty restrictive. I have written before about the trials we face as the owners of two dogs in a city that restricts each household to no more than one, and where one of our dogs is larger than the maximum size that the city allows in the central districts. When we bought Ivan we intentionally sought out a breed that would be within the legal size limits, so that we could at least register him officially.

The registration of dogs, oddly enough, is only done in the month of May, and since we'll be gone for most of the month we had to get it done this weekend. Luckily I was able to get Ivan's certificate of neutering from the vet this past week, since with this he is entitled to a 50% discount on the initial registration fee, which is normally a punitive RMB 1000 ($145). With my certificate, my passport, and Ivan's immunization record in hand, along with two photos and my apartment lease, I walked Ivan up to the police station to get him registered. The police station has a special office just for the registration of dogs, in a sort of courtyard a few steps away from the main part of the office. You'd think that they'd staff this office with people who are somewhat knowledgeable about man's best friend, or at least not terrified of them, but you'd be wrong. First of all, the two ladies who worked there were absolutely terrified of Ivan (about whom there is absolutely nothing fearsome), shuddering every time he approached either one of them.

Secondly, they had absolutely no idea about dog breeds, and when I told them that he was a 喜乐蒂牧羊犬(Chinese for Shetland Sheepdog), they had to call over a cop to find out if they were legal to register. The cop, who was as ignorant about dogs as the ladies, asked me how old he was. When I told him eight months, he said I could not register Ivan, since while he might be a Sheltie now, when he was older he'd be a Sheepdog, which is too big to register. I explained to him that Shetland Sheepdogs and Sheepdogs are different, and that the one cannot turn into the other. I also explained than an eight-month old dog is pretty close to full size. In response, the cop showed me a photographic chart that listed several different breeds, including Shelties (which was included among the "small size breeds"). But since the image of the Sheltie was the standard Collie-colored type, the cop did not believe that Ivan was really a Sheltie. Here I tried to convince him that the Bi-Blue Merle coloring was a sign that Ivan was a miniature Sheltie, even smaller than normal, but he was not persuaded. Finally, I tried to bargain with him--I suggested that he let me register Ivan for 2009, but that if by next May he was too big to register, he could refuse to register him then. This seemed to appease him and we reached an agreement.

Of course, that was only the first obstacle. Next the ladies tried to get me to pay a full RMB 1000 for the papers, despite my giving them Ivan's neutering certificate. So once again they called the cop over, who agreed that I was indeed entitled to a discount, so I forked over the RMB 500 and thought they'd give me the license right away. But of course, since this is China, that is not the case; instead, I have to wait a month (!) for the license, and of course I have to return to the police station to collect it. How convenient...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Welcome to China

I've been coming to China for over twenty years now, but today was the first time that I experienced one of the quintessential China experiences. Granted, I experienced it second-hand, but nonetheless this was the closest that this most stereotypical China thing has ever happened to me, so I am going to count it as thought it had happened to me. What was this thing that happened? J2's bike was stolen. You may remember that we bought our Dahon folding bikes last spring in anticipation of using them during the Olympics to get around what we imagined would be far worse than normal traffic. That traffic never materialized, but nevertheless these bikes proved to be a great boon for us, causing us to bike around a lot more than we had done before.

Today, while I was out taking care of errands before our trip J2 took his bike out to The Place, a fancy shopping center not far from us, to pick up a book for the flight. While there, since he had time to kill before his appointment with Alpha, he meandered around the other shops, including a Zara clothing store, and when he came back to the bike rack to collect his ride he found a bunch of Chinese workers from the shopping center talking about something, one of them holding the cable lock that used to attach his bike to a post, with a big cut through a part of the cable. But apparently I have had an influence on J2, since he wasted no time calling me to tell me that we would be going to the Dahon shop after his training session to buy a new bike.

This time, in an effort to make the bike a bit less conspicuous, he bought not a white bike but a black one, in fact it's the same model as mine, though slightly updated (grrrr). I wonder if we can go another 20 years before our next bike is stolen.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Catching Up

It's been a little while since my last post, so I figured I'd drop a note to catch you all up on a few things. In no particular order, here's what's been keeping us occupied recently.

1. The past few weeks have seen the resumption of regular visits by people who are friends of friends back home and who get in touch with us for a get together while in Beijing. We had one friend of our friends Cindy and Paul in Massachusetts who very kindly brought all sorts of goodies for us from the US (including a replacement bowl for my beloved Hario Nouveau vacuum coffee maker) and my new Amazon Kindle (about which more later), and friends of my old college friend Ray who were on a China-wide trip and made time to see us for an evening of dinner, dessert and a visit to Beijing's lone gay bar, which happens to be one block from where we live.

2. Speaking of the Kindle, what a great thing that is! The impetus for buying it was the promise of being able to carry, in one small package, a wide range of reading material for our Africa trip (about which more later). Also, since new books are rather hard to come by here, and tend to come to Beijing's few English-language bookstores only if they have China-related content and at very inflated prices, this was a good way of being able to get current non-China books at a discount. But another benefit of it that I had not considered was that it makes it possible to read in situations where previously it was not. It's amazing how much idle time one has, and with the Kindle in tow it's possible to use that time to make a few pages' progress in whatever you're currently reading. As an example, I had bought Ken Follett's World Without End just before our trip to Spain in January. It's a 1000+ page book, and by the time the Kindle arrived I had barely got to page 300. However, in the ensuing fortnight I managed to finish the book easily (it helped that it's a great read). I've now added several other books to my Kindle, including several current books (such as Ian Pears' Stone's Fall, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (recommended by my friend and fellow blogger Ed Z), and Yu Hua's Brothers, which I had started reading in Chinese several years ago but did not make tremendous progress with. I also got several (free) classics for good measure, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment and The Master and Margarita. I should have plenty to keep me occupied on the flight.

3. Apropos of the flight, it's just one more week to go before we leave for South Africa. We have been planning this trip for nearly six months, and it's hard to believe it's nearly upon us. We are going to split our time more or less equally between Cape Town and the Kruger Park, with visits to the Cape Wine Country and Johannesburg squeezed in in between. We have our cameras all cleaned and ready, and got a new 100-400mm zoom lens to be able to capture the animals at Kruger as closely as possible while maintaining a safe distance. It promises to be a phenomenal trip.

4. Our kitchen and bathroom renovations are nearly complete. I already wrote about the kitchen renovation, but the story did not end until the other day. After a few weeks working with the new sink I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be happy with a faucet that wobbled whenever you used it and a soap dispenser that did not dispense soap. So I took myself to the Home Depot (yes, there is one here) and bought a new Moen faucet and a replacement soap dispenser (also by Moen). The cost of the faucet was easily five times that of the faucet that the landlord bought us, but it's SO much better I really don't care (and besides, I have put the cheap one away to be returned in place should we ever move out of here to another apartment). The bathroom renovation was a bit of a disappointment; while it's great finally to have a shower and to be rid of the useless jacuzzi tub, and it's stupendous to have good water pressure for a change, I was surprised that instead of putting in a new shower base and building the shower around that, they instead just glassed in a corner of the room and used the existing bathroom floor as the shower base. This would be acceptable if it were not for the fact that the drain is not the lowest part of the floor, so the water just sort of accumulates at the far end and only disappears through evaporation. I'm also not quite convinced that the bathroom floor is waterproof, so fully anticipate that one day we'll have a leak through the downstairs ceiling.

5. Ivan had his little boy surgery at the international veterinary clinic that my old college classmate runs. He came out of it completely unscathed (well, other than the way he was supposed to) and he was running up and down the stairs by the evening of the day the surgery took place. He and Leo continue to play beautifully together, and while Ivan was out of the house Leo was visibly depressed. Ivan now is entitled to be registered for half-price, and not a moment too soon, since May is the month when dogs must be registered in Beijing. That'll be our main undertaking this coming weekend.

6. Our little gym is doing pretty well. Several new clients have signed up, and the gym has forged corporate partnerships with a range of companies and will be attending the annual "Expat Show" that takes place in late May. With all these things there is hope that a lot more people will at least know about the gym and then perhaps we'll get more sign ups too.

7. That about covers things here. I'll be writing again soon, most likely from Africa!