Friday, 31 December 2010

Get me out of here! (Dec 23, 2010)

It’s snowing at Heathrow. Let’s get this right: it snowed at Heathrow, all 5 inches of it, and now all the planes are stuck to the tarmac. By the looks of it , so is my airline’s website: can’t rebook our flight, can’t change our flight, can’t speak to a human being (connected to the airline) in London (or anywhere else in the UK, we’re not precious) or in the whole of China. Result: we’re not leaving Beijing on the 20th as planned. We’re staying indefinitely...

Or so it seemed until someone (ie me) had the bright idea to make use of our one consular contact. It appears the words British Embassy are the modern equivalent of Open Sesame. Within a few minutes of our call for assistance, the airline’s entire Asian operation it seems were ready to meet our every need (as I mentioned before, we’re not precious, we only had one need, to get home, preferably before Christmas day, or else, as he puts it: we’d have Peking Duck for Christmas Dinner).

I’m not complaining, compared to those who had to camp out at Heathrow over the weekend we had a lovely time. We got to stay in our nice hotel, we had a chance to revisit the Forbidden City (how many people can say that?) and we even went back to the Great Wall (a different bit of it this time: Mutianyu, it’s further away from Beijing than Badaling but well worth it). As I said, I’m not complaining about that, but there was something strangely unsettling about being stranded in limbo in a foreign city so far away from home with only a credit card between us and homelessness and starvation. Thank goodness for credit.

They got us back three days late but in the nick of time. With a day to spare. We’re very grateful. Especially for the upgrade which was devoutedly wished for but unexpected.

Note: This happy ending is the final blog entry for 2010 - wishing you all a very happy New Year and plenty of serenity and good fortune for 2011! See you then.

Just press the Magic Button (Dec 19, 2010)

We're having an amazing time in Beijing, it's an amazing place: tough, futuristic, steeped in history, dynamic and moving inexorably forward on a wave of hard work and industry, determination, and a sense of destiny. This is were the future is at. This is the future. Wake up! Over 1.3 billion people here are wide awake (usually all at the same time because the whole of the country is on Beijing time, or GMT + 8), and we're still dreaming.

Speaking of dreaming. let me tell you about the Magic Button: you press it and all your wishes come true. At least that's what the Hilton's in-room literature claims and guess what? It's absolutely true. These people are amazing. Now, there are 3 Hiltons in Beijing, and I can only vouch for the one we're staying in, the one in Wangfujing. The Magic Button is a key on the phone pad, and if you need anything: fresh towels, a tidy-up of your room, a massage, book a car, or a new pet cat, or whatever else you might fancy, whoever answers the phone will make it happen.

So far so good, the advertising strategist in me figures this is just a good bit of marketing, well implemented by local management. But there is more...

The Hilton Wangfujing has a unique asset called Elvis. Elvis is Chinese, speaks perfect English, has travelled extensively around Europe and is as far as I can tell the closest living thing to Jeeves. His manners, his carriage, his tone are perfect. From the moment Elvis raises an enquiring eyebrow as you amble through reception you know everything will turn out for the best. We're on first name basis ever since Elvis escorted me to the Bank of China for a spot of translating. We wanted to go to the Great Wall unaccompanied by a guide? Elvis made it happen. We wanted to go to The Summer Palace by public transport? Most hotel staff are horrified by the thought of non-Mandarin speaking tourists taking anything other than a comfortable chauffeur driven car or at the very minimum a taxi ordered by the concierge. But not Elvis, he told us which stop to get off at, told us it would be a 5 minute taxi ride from there, and wished us a lovely outing.

Elvis makes you feel that whatever it is you want to do, no matter how strange it may seem, it's all going to be fine.

So Elvis is the ultimate Magic Button. We'd like to bring him home but given that the Hilton charge $2.50 if you want to take home the Hilton purple rubber duck that greets you enticingly in your tub every day, we figured there was no way we'd be able to afford Elvis.

Well done Elvis. Well done Hilton Wangfujing. Just press the Magic Button...

It’s Peking Duck Season... (Dec 13, 2010)

I fell in love with Shanghai but a few hours ago we stood in the middle of Tianamen Square and something in me stirred. We felt a bit overwhelmed by the symbolism and history, marvelled at the scale and admired the imposing double vista of Mao’s Mausoleum at one end and the Forbidden City at the other. It was bitterly cold - minus 2 degrees Celsius - but the sun was out lighting up a beautiful crisp winter’s day. Our first full day in Beijing.

The first thing about Beijing is that it is vast. We switched hotels this morning to avoid the 30 minute taxi commute into the town centre. Even though we can see the Forbidden City from our hotel window (yes, it’s that kind of a hotel) it’s still a 2km walk to its entrance.

We felt contrary and had Japanese for lunch (and Brazilian Barbecue the night before last – let me ask you: do you eat Western food at every meal?)

On the fanbase front, they seem to appreciate me just as much here as they did in Shanghai. And this appreciation is by no means limited to the local population. As it happens, Croatia's Miroslav Blazevic, the newly appointed coach of China’s National Football Team was on our plane from Shanghai (and before you get the wrong idea, he was travelling economy – or ordinary class as they call it here – just like us.) A very dashing and well preserved 72 year old (he looked 50) he seemed rather taken by me as we waited for our luggage around the carrousel. It must have been my faux-fur coat and Paul Smith glasses that did it because I’m sporting the brightest red nose this side of Rudolf, courtesy of my first Chinese cold. But there you have it.

Tomorrow, we are having a private tour of the Forbidden City and The Great Wall. We couldn’t be more excited if we were being flown to the moon.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Up the Creek without a Paddle (Dec 10, 2010)

9:30 am. The map in the guide book made it look like a short walk from Suzhou train station to the Bei Ta (Ta means Pagoda), the first of the many sights we had planned to take in on our first day trip outside of Shanghai. Lulled into a false sense of confidence, we had hopped off the bullet train after a 25 minute ride and stepped into the gigantic, ultra modern, state of the art train station of Suzhou – an industrial centre some 60 miles South West of Shanghai also home to some lovely temples, traditional Chinese gardens and tastefully renovated neighbourhoods dotted with canals. We walked to one end of the station and then to the other, no sight of the Pagoda, not even in the distance to give us a sense of direction. All the signs were in Chinese pictograms (no pin’yin, the roman alphabet transliteration that gives Westerners the illusion of familiarity even if you don’t understand it) and no one spoke any English other than the dozens of hawkers and beggars: “lady” “map” “taxi” “guide tour” “money”. It appeared that in spite of its already impressive scale, the station was being extended so we had trouble finding the taxi rank (we never did) let alone the bus station.

With a combination of determination fuelled by the thought that we might have to spend the day holed up at the station until our 5pm train back to Shanghai, and sheer luck, we found out the bus number we needed to take into town, the exact fare, and how to pay it (in coins when you got on the bus), and most importantly, we found the bus station itself. And after wandering all the way back into the train station looking for something to purchase to make some change and after a while realising that he already had plenty of change in his pocket we headed back out to the bus depot and boarded the number 103. Unless you have been to China you cannot comprehend the notion of vast which dwarfs even American standards of scale. This place was larger than most airports.

After much staring and giggling by the locals (he’s a 6 foot tall red head who’d elected to wear a Cookie Monster t-shirt – but I was getting most of the attention) – we alighted at the Pagoda. We had another Bill Bryson moment involving him realising his sunglasses were missing, running after the bus, getting back on the bus, ferreting behind our seats miming sunglasses at the bemused and amused locals, not finding the glasses, hopping back off the bus and finally discovering the glasses in the flower bed in which they had fallen in the first place. The day progressed fairly normally after that.

We had lunch (we pack a turkey and cheese whole meal bread sandwich every day - it’s not Chinese but it’s Dukan) in the Chinese rock garden behind the Pagoda and surprised more than one local with our near perfect pronunciation of the greeting “Ni Hao” (hello) but absence of any other vocabulary with which to engage in conversation. We proved to be a great source of mirth of which we were rather proud.

We walked for 5 or 6 hours. We managed to buy some “bottled” water and small cakes (not Dukan but needs must have – we were falling off our proverbial perches) as well as ask for our change in coins in anticipation of the bus trip back to the train station. We even went to the Zoo. We saw many Chinese tourists but not a single other Westerner.

The trip back was rather uneventful, we felt like old hands by then, even braving the Metro back to the hotel on the cusp of rush hour.

Next week: Beijing. Zaijian! (Goodbye.)

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

China Moll you’re my Doll (Dec 7, 2010)

I am typing this rather gingerly fresh as I am from the nail salon and sporting some rather well groomed upper extremities (dark blood/square nails). I passed the little salon of which there are hundreds in Shanghai as I walked from Sun Yat Sen’s former residence in the French Quarter. For 5 pounds sterling, this lovely young woman shaped my nails, trimmed my cuticles, massaged my hands and expertly painted my nails at speed and with great precision. Our verbal conversation was limited to (me) “ni hao” and “xiexie” (hello and thank you) and (her) “manicure?” and “be careful” (nothing sinister: my nail polish wasn’t completely dry by the time I left). I think I’ll go back tomorrow for a spot of waxing – their extensive menu includes “full face” and “The Hollywood” (me too, I had to look that last one up on Wikipedia – they have some rather graphic photos - and apparently it’s the same as a Brazilian.) Not sure what or who the full face is for (they have both male and female clientele) but I think I’ll settle for a nice tidy-up. And they even played me a film with Brooke Shields and that fellow who played Tarzan who ends up rather sadistically tormented by a bunch of local wildlife intent on foiling his plans for a housing development. It was subtitled in Mandarin and rather hysterically funny relative to watching paint (or in my case nail polish) dry.

I am still loving Shanghai. It’s the most amazing place. I love the old bits, I love the new bits, the glitzy bits, the tatty bits, even the tourist trap bits. Food, taxis, metro and manicures are dirt cheap – everything else is eye-wateringly pricey. I don’t care – I’m in my element.

This morning I paid a visit to the Shanghai Museum. I’m going to sound like a broken record but you have to get yourself over here and experience the place for yourself. They have a superb collection of Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture, calligraphy, jade, porcelain, painting etc... These people were carving exquisite shapes out of jade when we were still knocking flintstones together. And in spite of our colonial ancestors’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, I don’t think we’re ever caught up – or ever will. It’s no big deal but as I prefer jade to flint, I’m planning to learn the lingo and move here – eventually. In the meantime, here’s a little factual interlude to dazzle with at the office Christmas party: Ming era furniture is made of simple pure lines, very modern looking. Qing is ornate over the top with jade and ivory inlays and carvings.

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s a fantastic place and having walked about a fair bit over the last four days I’ve finally found my bearings and can navigate without a map in the centre of town. It’s a big place though: a good 15 minute walk between Metro stops. I’ve even got used to the traffic turning on a red light business. It’s not chaos, there is a rule and this is what I think it is: traffic can turn on a red light even if it means cutting across 3 lines of traffic. Simples! Some motorcycles and bicycles appear to ignore red lights when riding in specially marked lanes. Some cycle on the pavement. (I still haven’t figured that one out.) Pedestrian crossings remain a dicey business for me (and I’ve noticed for some locals too) but it no longer appears like a random dance with death – more like playing those old video games with the frog trying to cross the road. Crossing: tick! Manicure: tick! Yoga classes at the hotel: tick!

And finally - and I’m fully aware that this is going to sound both shallow and pretentious but... bite me! - I seem to attract a lot of admiring looks here. I don’t know what it is: my eyes, my skin tone, my Tintin hair style, my oversized Paul Smith glasses... I really don’t what it is but they like me here!

One more reason to move.

Shanghai Surprise (Dec 4 2010)

Good morning Shanghai! Or rather good afternoon. We landed at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport after a rather deconstructed trip through Heathrow Terminal 5. Have you been to the new Terminal 5? I don’t mean travelling business class (as I did flying to New York last Summer – hard work but someone has to do it) which is rather grand whisked away as you are through Fast Track Service and the bountiful luxuries of the British Airways lounge. Apparently it’s even better if you’re travelling first class though he tells me that Virgin Airlines Upper Class will actually check you in from the chauffeured limo that they send to pick you up... but these are all useless in terms of experiencing the full, authentic T5 experience as designed by Satan’s evil little helpers. For it, you need to travel cattle class, also known as Economy.

Firstly the layout at the newly built T5 is dastardly convoluted and designed to be impenetrable... I think to distract passengers from various flight delays (it’s the snow, it’s Gatwick’s closure, it’s the de-icing on the wings that can’t be done for another 20 minutes, it’s the taxiing now that we’ve lost our departure slot...)

Then there’s the obstacle course of the security checks: take your shoes off, take your coat off, take your belt off, take your jewellery off, take out your lap top, and if there’s anything left on you to set off the alarm when you go through the security gate, you get frisked within an inch of your life. I didn’t set it off for once as I was naked (just kidding) but the man next to me did set it off and let’s just say that he had a close brush with the law. They pat you down all over, and I mean all over... down there, front and back. I guess it’s the legacy from Mr. Almost- blew-up-my –pants-on –Christmas-Day: they’re just making sure you’re not some joker trying to smuggle a fire cracker down your briefs.

So the plane was late taking off, late landing, and they’d forgotten to load the landing cards at Heathrow so we had controlled pandemonium as we all got off the plane and tried to fill out the cards whilst jostling for position in the queue for border control.

This is my first visit to China and the first blog entry of many chronicling my visit. So let me just set the record straight: this is an amazing place, with amazing people. It hits you from the moment you step off the plane: it’s going places. Everything is spotlessly clean, modern, on a huge scale, and super efficient (whilst your passport is being processed, there’s a little machine with 4 buttons (very good/big smiley face, good/small smiley face, not so good/frowny face, very bad/angry face) and a note inviting you to rate the service you are getting. We pressed “very good”. Twice.).

After the 11 hour scheduled flight plus the hour and a half delay we decided to be bold, daring and adventurous. Why take a taxi? (Other than because all our money was in Chinese Yuan travellers cheques which only the Bank of China can exchange for cash. I’m exaggerating; we had just about enough for a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel). We wanted to experience the Maglev which sounds like some Russian import until you realise it stands for Magnetic Levitation and is the name of the super fast train shuttle that zips between Pudong Airport and Pudong (the newly built ultra-modern quarters across the Huang Pu river from The Bund – more on that later.) When I say super fast, how fast do you think we’re talking? First of all, it goes so fast it’s in kilometres per hour, no one uses miles here so if you’re a Yank or a Brit and still use the Imperial system, get with the programme and learn metric because you are being left behind faster that you can say China is where it’s at. 100km/hour? Faster. 200km/hour? Faster! Try 300km/hour and there’s even a small digital display that shows you the speed at which you are travelling.

After a brief Bill Bryson moment attempting to convince ourselves that we could find our way on a map covered exclusively in Mandarin pictograms, we managed to purchase 2 tickets (at a 20% discount because eagle-eyed me spotted the sign that mentioned the discount for those holding an airline ticket... as well as a whole set of very clearly laid out instructions in English with which we could have avoided the Bill Bryson moment), put our luggage through the x-ray machine and board the Maglev.

Having successfully navigated our way through the first level (was watching Inception on the plane, my mate Tom is in it – it’s full of levels...) we cranked it up a notch and purchased some Metro tickets to take us to the station nearest to the hotel. All 8 stops of it. We even made a little friend along the way. She was in her third year of a Bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Her English was quite good if limited. I’d been playing with her hand (I thought it was his hand but he moved it when I wasn’t looking and the poor girl didn’t say a word. Luckily he noticed after while and pointed out I should probably stop stroking a complete stranger’s hand before I got arrested for soliciting.) We talked for a few stops... “Where are you from?” she’d asked, and as most of you know, there’s no straightforward answer to that question where we’re concerned. Then she got off at People’s Square and cheerfully waved good bye.

Talking of lovely, the hotel is beautiful. In full faux Christmas regalia replete with grilled chestnut vendors, a choir of Carol singing little schoolgirls and hotel staff in Santa Hats handing out Christmas fare around a ginormous tree. Like our Christmas, only bigger, better and with more spirit. And Christmas isn’t even one of their national holidays.

After our second Bill Bryson moment of the day when we discovered that the Bank of China, the only place to exchange our travellers’ cheques was now closed until Monday morning (today is Saturday) -thank goodness for credit cards even if they charge usurious fees abroad... we took ourselves to Din Tai Fung where we had the best ever Dim Sum (Shanghai style not Hong Kong style for the aficionados amongst you). We’ll be back. One word for you: xiaolongbao. Google it. Could come handy in a game of Scrabble too. And if you can, get over here and try one for yourself: they’re soup filled dumplings.

Then we walked to The Bund, the main historical tourist drag across the river from the futuristic Pudong skyline. Nice walk. Lots of lights (it was dark... all of China is on Beijing time, some 8 hours ahead of London). Big crowds. The only downside? Pedestrian crossings that will make foreigners twitchy. Consider this: in spite of traffic assistants who’s job it is to blow their whistle and prevent anyone intrepid enough from even thinking about J-walking (on the spot fine of ¥50)... every time you cross a road, you imagine that you could be taking your life into your own hands. Why? Because although the majority of drivers respect traffic lights, some taxis have a tendency to go around corners without slowing down regardless of whether you have a friendly green walking light or not so then you start to think that at any moment, a car could run you over from left, right, back or front, or possibly some other dimension you have failed to notice and that there’s no safety in numbers either.

Still we made it safely to and from. (We cheated and took a taxi home.) Now typing this entry immersed in my oversized hotel bathrobe. We’re checking out the nightlife courtesy of Shanghai City Weekend magazine and just came across the following listing: ERSHOUMEIGUI “Second Hand Rose”, a transvestite comic folk band from Beijing that blends Beijing rock with sing along folk tracks. They’re playing tomorrow night. What a relief! That’s our Sunday entertainment sorted.

Be Careful! That's my best china...

Ni Hao! Just got back from 3 weeks in China (it was only supposed to be around 2 but then it snowed a bit at Heathrow). Although I wrote several blog entries over the course of the trip, I was unable to access Blogger, so now that I'm back in London, here there are in installments.

And by the way, Merry Christmas!