Sunday, October 1, 2006

2006 dispatches

September 6, 2006
South Tyrol, Italy

First of all, here’s one more tidbit following up on the Qinghai-TibetRailway – it’s from a Tibet-related website. I also heard mention of an accident on the line, but I need to read up – I was away on vacation.



Vacation was to Germany for a wedding and then to the Dolomites of far-northern Italy for some hiking, heffevisen, pizza and an excellent local drink called a “birdie.” (I’m not sure about the spelling but the ingredients are: Prosecco, Aperol, ice, a splash of mineral water and a slice of orange. A bitter cousin is the Tirola: white wine, Campari and Aperol – I think.) Towns like Selva, La Villa, Bruneck and Bressanone were marvelous, and I would go back for a winter holiday in a heartbeat.




I’m feeling energized about work again, which is good because things returned to full speed in no time. My story about nanotechnology for Portland Monthly is due out soon, as is a short piece about hot springs in Japan for Delta Sky. Meanwhile, I have a few interesting projects in the pipeline, and have heard some positive, although early, signs about the second book. Stay tuned.



August 10, 2006
Summertime Update

With the exception of a few requests for pointers on travel to western China, most of the correspondence following my Wired piece about the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has, predictably, been from inhabitants of the fundamentalist extremes of the opinion curve. Interestingly, the Chinese government/media recently published this piece, in response to the flood of coverage about the railway in the western press.

The Japanese edition of my book came out two weeks ago, which is very exciting. The paperback edition should be available here in the U.S. sometime in November. Meanwhile, plans are inching along for a second book project. Stay tuned.

April 6, 2006
Further and further west...




Not too much time to write tonight here in Golmud before we ship out for the Tibetan Plateau before sunrise tomorrow. The town is a desolate desert outpost of about 100,000 people, set against a backdrop of stunning mountains. We’re somewhere over 10,000 feet high already, and I can certainly feel that the air is thinner when climbing the stairs at the Golmud Hotel. Tomorrow we’ll be up around 13,000 – 14,000 feet much of the day, but the highest pass crosses higher than 16,000 feet. It should be remarkable scenery.

We had a terrific Tibetan-born guide during yesterday's tour to Qinghai Lake and surroundings, who added some colorful storytelling about a princess once sent West to marry the king of Tibet as a peacemaking maneuver by her father.



The lake is mostly frozen and the wind was brutal. In summer the area is apparently flooded with tourists, Chinese and foreign alike, but at this time of year the place looked like a ghost town. Yet somehow this little restaurant we popped into for lunch served a few impressive dishes (lamb with potatoes, noodles, tomato-ish soup, cabbage) considering the sparse living conditions, horrendous toilet, and obviously rabid dog that was despertate to break free from its chain and sink its fangs into my calf. I took the requisite photo of the dog that tried to kill me, but it didn’t come out very well. I must have been too nervous.



The all-night train from Xining to Golmud wasn’t nearly as tough as I thought it would be. The soft sleeper car was booked solid because an upstart foreign owned gold-mining operation has bought out the car for the entire season to move its workers back and forth. The hard sleeper was quiet and comfortable, though, with the four of us sharing a compartment set up with bunks for six people, and we got to meet some very sweet families. The night was chilly, but the blankets were nice. More lamb dinner on the docket tonight. From tomorrow, we’ll probably dine on bad pastries, chocolate, and whatever else we can scrounge up for two days of driving, before finally arriving into Lhasa the evening of the 8th.



April 4, 2006
Go East Then West - Again

Jin and I arrived into Qingdao on Saturday afternoon. The city is coastal; breezy; host to some of the 2008 Olympic events; headquarters for Tsingtao beer; home to more than 7.3 million people; and, like elsewhere in China, blanketed with construction projects of dazzling-frightening proportions. It’s also far more pleasant and interesting than Lanzhou, where we’d departed from that morning, yet which now feels like a decade away. After checking into the Shangri La Hotel here in Qingdao, we took a cab to a very colorful pedestrian area, but had little energy for window shopping. Instead we chose a second-floor Sichuan restaurant that had foggy, slightly dirty windows, but boasted a 100-year history.

It turned out to be a bustling and superb restaurant choice, only adding to Jin’s exceptional track record with meal location selection. Tofu in a supremely spicy and rather oily soy-garlic-peppery paste: delicious, but needs rice to soften the blow. Better still was the mountain of fried chicken bits cooked with three gazillion red peppers: looks spicy but isn’t. And lastly, because Nicola’s good sense is always part of my dish-ordering calculus, something green, in this case boiled spinach with bits of ham and shrimp mixed in. To top it off: two large Tsingtao beers, warm in that typical Chinese way but somehow not as disappointing as warm beer usually is.

The next day, Sunday, was a day off. I ran on the hotel treadmill, dehydrated myself in the sauna, and did some e-housekeeping in my room at the Shangri La, before heading out around 10:00 a.m. The weather was terrific, like early May in Portland, and all the buildings along this one pedestrian area are painted with bright images of flowers, ribbons, clouds, and trees. Most of the shops sell total crap, of course, but I did find a shirt or two to buy. McDonald’s – again worthy of an “of course” – is a prominent feature of the plaza, but centerpiece No.1 was the Walmart Superstore where, I hate to admit it, I bought some tea. (For the anti-globalization zealots out there keeping tabs on my whereabouts, Jin says the tea store we went to was technically just leasing space in the WalMart building, that it's actually a very high-quality tea shop, and that I did not in fact buy directly from Walmart. Phew.)



In the middle of the plaza there was also a stage and all this pink crap – pink umbrellas, pink posters, pink tents, pink banners – all for a local talent show. On the stage, a woman in a ponytail, bland blue sweater and orange sneakers sang a song that didn’t sound good. On a nearby side street, we found a store selling DVDs and bought two to watch on the long train ride west later in the week.

Lunch was cuisine from northern China this time. Not that I would have known the difference; it’s all just good Chinese food to my untrained palate. But I have to say that the giant pork shank, which you grasp with a plastic-gloved hand, snarl at, then try to bite tiny bits of meat from, wasn’t a winner. But green beans, steamed dumplings, and a sprouts and cabbage-ish noodle-y dish made for yet another excellent meal.

Soon afterwards it was time for another foot massage. The justification for these repeated indulgences, aside from a price tag comparable to a Starbucks coffee and block of buttery coffee cake back home, is that I need to really take care of myself before the big trip involving a crowded, overnight train; and two days in a jeep to Lhasa. Besides, the massages are genius.

I should mention that I’m not only eating and getting massages on this trip. The food just stands out the most. We did have nice walk along part of the 40-kilometer path by the beach, where there are some very wealthy homes by China standards – or any standards, really –people watching the beachgoers and families out for a stroll. There were also a few dozen brides and grooms, climbing around on the rocks of the beach in slightly dirtied rented dresses and tuxes, looking for places to pose for photographers. At Hua Shi Lou, a granite European-style building where Chaing Kai Shek supposedly once held secret meetings to discuss strategies for fighting the communists, visitors poked around with digital cameras and climbed up to the roof for a nice overlook of the city. I found myself more interested in the newlyweds.

For dinner, I’ll lay off the wordy summary, but at this seafood-plus place they had an ample amount of wacky stuff, including what I think were locusts. And if they weren’t locusts, perhaps someone out there – Mace? – could provide some clarification.

To visit a factory yesterday on the northern outskirts of Qingdao, the four of us – Jin, photographers Laurent and Valerie, and me – waited outside the hotel for the car that had been arranged for a 9:00 a.m. pickup. At 9:05 an SUV pulled quickly into the driveway and a man hopped out and met my eyes expectantly. He nodded and muttered what I thought was an accented version of “David?” We shook hands. (Valerie can verify that what the man said sounded like my name, or sounded enough like my name as to confirm our connection.) We loaded our stuff into the back and piled in with Jin in the front seat for ease of translation. At the bottom of the hotel driveway, the driver answered a cell phone call. Jin turned to me looking confused, then asked the driver, now finishing his call, if he was indeed taking us to such and such place. The driver said no, there was some quick back and forth, and then they both started laughing as he turned the car back up into the Shangri La drop-off area. Jin: “He started speaking Korean. I don’t speak any Korean and figured something might not be right.”

The work day yesterday was tiring but successful. Today we woke early to get to the airport by 7:00 a.m. to fly to Beijing and then connect on to the western city of Xining. As I type this, we’re almost there now, after soaring over so much desert-scape that it’s hard not to wonder how China can possibly produce enough food for its people, let alone the likes of foreign visitors who, in their enthusiasm to eat and sample delicious and varied food, inevitably order far more than they could ever eat.

In Xining we’ll buy tickets for the train but should have this afternoon to explore a little. Dinner? Lamb at a Muslim-style restaurant, perhaps with some noodles. Jin is now reading her guidebook about the far western provinces, scouring for information about where we should eat. After that, we’ll buy a bunch of water, snacks, and good-enough chocolate to get us through the long train ride to Golmud. I’m not sure about Internet access between Xining and when we arrive in Lhasa a few days later, but if it’s possible, I’ll post something then.

View from my room at the Shangri La Hotel:

April 1, 2006
From Lanzhou, China

En Route from Lanzhou in western China to Qingdao on the east coast. What’s in Lanzhou?




About 3 million people, chemical factories, the Yellow River, oil refineries, new construction galore (of course) and air so full of dust it makes the air in Beijing seems Polynesia fresh by comparison. After work yesterday, Jin, my talented translator, found us an excellent noodle shop for lunch, and then we walked to a national historic site on the Yellow River. It’s a giant working waterwheel, built 400 years ago, or so someone told Jin. In fact, it was built in 1993 and ranked somewhere between unimpressive and sorrowful. Once upon a time, there were 250 of these wheels lining the Yellow River (a.k.a. the mother river of the Chinese people), and it must have been quite scenic; emphasis on the past tense, though, because now it’s pretty dingy. Still, a little walk and sightseeing beat the cow face meat we tried eating the previous day. Not good.

A similar verdict befell the tofu we had on the street. Just as I was about to comment that this corner of the plaza smelled like industrial waste mixed with human waste, Jin was about to chime in about the smell of one of her favorite foods. “Stinky tofu” is its Latin name, common name “jayzus that stinks.” It didn’t taste nearly as bad as it smelled, but the smell was so nightmare-ish that this smell v. taste discrepancy really had no impact on the overall consumption experience.

What was great, however, was a 110-minute foot-massage for about $12. Soaking my feet in the scalding water to start wasn’t exactly soothing, but the massage was genius. I’d been looking forward to doing this since Nicola and I treated ourselves to massages in Beijing three years ago. Back then, it was $5, which is perhaps a massage hound’s take on China’s gangbusters economic growth. After the massage, Jin and I went for a great dinner of lamb kabobs, something green called baicai, and no-pork dumplings at a Muslim restaurant near the JJ Sun Hotel, which sounds more like the name of a Korean rapper than a business-traveler-friendly hotel.

During the dusk taxi ride to the shiny new airport this morning, I think I saw one star in the dusty sky. The arid landscape here is characterized by mound-like rolls, all of them reshaped by the hand of man. A few years ago, the government launched a reforestation campaign, resulting in endless terracing along these hopelessly dry steep slopes. The supposedly drought-tolerant species of trees planted on each terrace don’t look like they’re doing well, but perhaps I’m wrong. Considering how much of China is mired in a deforestation and erosion catastrophe, I would love to be wrong.

Arrived into seaside Qingdao in the late-afternoon and will be here at the Shangri La Hotel for the next three nights. More soon.


March 28, 2006
Introduction & Arrival in China

3:00 a.m. at Beijing's Peninsula Palace Hotel. Looking out the window of the plane on approach yesterday, the gentleman next to me said: "Just 25 years ago, privately owned business was nonexistant in China. Not even taxi." He works for a microprocessor company in San Jose that's trying to break into China's cellular phone sim-card market. "Worldwide, the market is 500 million units, but China alone is 300 million." The drive into town is depressing, really, just because it's long enough, and dirty enough, and crowded enough to let you think too much about the future.

At a so-so restaurant last night here in Wangfujin, I couldn't help but laugh at the bumbling wait staff. It's not like we're in the hinterlands, with so many posh foreigner-friendly hotels right here in this corner of the capitol. Yet the desired simple dinner of a couple of duplings, a beer, and a sweet turned into a Comedy of Errors mixed with a little Three Stooges. My order was changed; one girl tried to push in my seat while I was still seated in it; another young man kept stopping by to rotate my plate of dumplings, or just touch, but not actually move, the little saucer with soy sauce and vinegar. All in all, probably nine different people dealt with my order/came over to my table, with the overall effect of making me a little more nervous than I wanted to be after God knows how many hours of travel.


March 27, 2006

I don’t foresee this so-called blog having much in common with those offering infinite rants, rambles, and laser-like, hypert-opinionated commentaries on just about everything, and updated with astonishing, borderline annoying, frequency. That being said, with an upcoming assignment to China, I decided to set this up as a way to share some pictures, quick observations, and occasional anecdotes with friends and family. – DW