Me and Chairman Mao
2.28.2005
  Of people and purses.
Holly and I have been traveling again. Guess where we are now? I'll give you one hint. Here it is:

Think Really Hard


Yes, we're back in Shanghai. (I really hope you figured that out for yourself …) Holly had to come here to work, and I had to come with her … well, I didn't, really. But it beats hanging around in Beijing by on my own. Plus, I have a series of adventures planned for myself, starting today, which I'm sure you will all find fascinating. Once I tell you about them, anyway. Hopefully they go well--I'm a bit worried about today's (about finding the place), but we shall see.

Anyway, one thing I noticed this time around that I didn't notice last time was how many freaking people there are here. It's the biggest city in China--14 million registered residents and 3 million registered migrants (whatever that means, but I'm sure there's more) in a city that, area-wise, is smaller than Beijing--but when we were here in December it just didn't seem that crowded. As you may have guessed, this time, it does. We took the subway all over yesterday, and it was, well, very full. Actually, it was like I expected the Tokyo subway to be. That is, it was so crowded that you didn't really "enter" the subway car, as such: you just wormed your way into the mass of people in front of the subway door and let yourself get pushed inside by the crowd. Or, if you didn't get pushed in quite far enough, by the many helpful subway agents who will help jam you in so the doors don't close on you. At one stop, an old lady wouldn't quite fit, but rather than make her wait for the next train, four--yes, one, two, three, four--subway police worked in unison to shove her into the car. Makes perfect sense to me.

Luckily, the people riding the subway in Shanghai seem to be a bit, um, more "Western" than their Beijing brethren, so the subway doesn't have that unique Beijing odor. (Did you think I could ever be so diplomatic?) Although on the very last subway trip last night--on the way home from dinner--I was uncomfortably close to some day laborers, and it was not so pleasant from an olfactory standpoint. I know, I know: my poor patrician proboscis. What do to! But still, that was the exception rather than the rule, thank God or whatever other old dead guy--or girl, I guess--you prefer to thank.

Anyway, it wasn't just the subway that was crowded: everywhere was. Maybe it was just because it was a Sunday afternoon, but it seemed like no matter we went, we were battling our way through a mass of people, whether it was Renmin Park, the Shanghai equivalent of Tiananmen Square; the Xiangyang clothing market, where there is much, much better fake stuff than in Beijing, although--sadly--still not the Dolce & Gabbana jacket I want (more on Xiangyang later); or Nanjing Road, the so-called "Golden Mile," that used to be the most famous shopping street in China. Now, it's mostly just crowded, although there's a Hagen Daaz on it that serves chocolate fondue, which I might have to try at some point.

The Crowd at Nanjing Lu


Surprisingly enough, there was one familiar face among the masses at Nanjing Lu--none other than the Fan Man, who was still just skating aimlessly up and down the pedestrian section of the street posing for pictures. Like this one …

Fan Man 2


Amazingly enough, this is actually the third time I've taken his picture. Besides the two on Nanjing Lu, I saw him on the Bund early one morning riding around on a unicycle between empty pop cans and doing push-ups for a group of Japanese tourists. Very strange, but whatever floats his boat, fills his fans, or whatever.

But back to Xiangyang (she-ong-yong) clothing market. While I could find nothing for myself--tragedy, I know--Holly didn't have the same problem. In addition to a sharp Gucci laptop bag, she also picked up a Gucci purse that I pointed out to her, since I knew she was in the market for (yet another) small, fake purse. She bought it, but later on she said that, while of course she loved it, it was great, etc, that it was "not something I would have picked out for myself."

You know what that means, ladies. (For you men, that's code for "I don't like it.") Yes, I have no doubt that the purse will be up for grabs next time we're stateside. So if you want it, I suggest you start pestering Holly immediately. I'm sure she'll appreciate hearing from you. For those of you who are interested--and for those of you who say I never put up any pictures of Holly--here you go:

Holly and Purse on Nanjing Lu


(There's thin red stripes above and below the thick white stripes, which is why it looks funny around the edges.)(Well, that and the picture qualities crap so it will load fast …)

Start the bidding now!

Breaking News
Since the time that I wrote but didn't actually get around to posting this latest entry (Blogger's not working for me), I have successfully completed Adventure Number 1. I'm still not telling you what I did, but I will give you a very good clue, in picture form. A really good clue ...

Guess Where I Went!

 
2.25.2005
  Cross-town traffic.
The other day, as I was standing on the corner watching cars coming from three different directions try to merge in a less than orderly manner--with no success at all, of course--it occurred to me that, in all my pointless blog-based blathering, I have never gotten around to discussing traffic in Beijing. Like traffic in most obscenely large, third-world countries, the traffic in Beijing is bad. Really bad. Terrible, even. On a "good" rush hour day, you're lucky to be going 10 miles per hour; on a bad day, walking would be faster, although filled with its own unique, pedestrian-based perils, which I will come to later. Plus, when it's a lovely, smoke-filled fifteen degree evening, walking across town is even less appealing than sitting in a rattletrap, not-exactly-hermetically-sealed Chinese taxi and discussing, in all seriousness, if you might all pass out and die from carbon monoxide poisoning if traffic doesn't start moving soon so you can get some fresh air.

(Is China a third-world country? Probably not. Maybe second-world, although I'm not exactly sure what that means. What I do know, however, is that until you can drink the water, you can't be first world. Also, not growing your fruit and vegetables in your own feces is another key. Much better to grow it in cow feces, for example. Actually, it's much better to just leave out feces all together, which is just sort of a general truth of life, I think. Hence the popularity of the phrase "no shit," I suppose.)

Anyway, traffic here sucks. Mostly for the usual reason, which is too many cars on the road. I don't think the Beijing road system was really designed for lots of people owning there own cars--not so big with communists, apparently--but of course now more and more people have their own cars every day. The result is, naturally, complete and total gridlock. Our apartment is maybe four miles away, but probably less, from the Microsoft building (well, one of them, anyway), and on a good day it takes about forty-five minutes to get home. On a normal day, probably an hour. And on a bad day, who knows? More than one hour, less than two. (I think our record is a mile and a half trip that took an hour.) Luckily, there aren't too many really bad days, although they do always lead to the aforementioned death by carbon monoxide discussions--fun!--since sitting in the middle of a bunch of idling cars and buses, most of which have little to nothing in the way of emissions control, for large chunks of time is not good for the respiratory system.

(I guess the only good thing about the neverending commute is that taxis are insanely cheap. A typical, forty-five minute cab ride home is less than five bucks.)

The picture below is a good example of what I mean in terms of traffic flow. This was taken at an intersection near our apartment, and this picture represents probably the best traffic day I have ever seen there. (Of course the one day I take my camera, nothing insane happens …) Anyway, it's a place where a side street meets a main avenue (it has the buses), with absolutely no signs or signals of any kind. As an added bonus, the "bike" lane is also filled with cars--in this case, the Jeep Cherokee--which only contributes to the fun. As you can see, the cars from the side street form a blockade across the "bike" lane, leaving the cars--and even the bikes--in the bike lane trapped behind them. And it goes without saying that none of the cars or buses on the main street will let anyone in, so traffic just sits there and builds up into a tangle mess of honking metal. It's not unusual to see ten or fifteen cars piled up in both the bike lane and the side street, all trying to move at the same time. Really, it's pretty entertaining in an "I'm glad I'm not in that mess!" sort of way.

No Rules, Just Right


But wait, there's more. That's just about how bad the traffic is. I haven't even gotten to the driving yet, which is, well, "creative," I guess, in the sense that whatever you can think of, you can do. Particularly since traffic enforcement by the police is basically nonexistent, and--from what I've been told--in the rare instances when the police actually do decide to enforce some real or possibly imaginary law, any difficulties can be avoided by a mutually agreed upon one-way exchange of currency. (Otherwise known as a bribe.) I think the only standing rule of the road, as far as I can tell, is "Might makes right." That is, the biggest car has the right of way in every situation. If the cars happen to be of equal size, the most expensive car wins, since money is power and all that.

So other than getting out of the way for buses and BMWs, drivers can pretty much do whatever they want. Weave drunkenly in and out of lanes? Sure. Use the bike lane to avoid traffic, regardless of the actual number of bikers with the temerity (ten-cent word!) to actual use their designated lane? Great. Simply drive between lanes because you can't be bothered to pick one or the other? Of course. Cut into a lane without signaling or even looking behind you to see if you're about to hit something? Standard operating procedure. Go the wrong way down a one way street, just because it's faster? Perfectly good plan. Honk continuously and swear at anyone who dares to impede your forward progress? Totally useful and understandable. Cruise up on to the sidewalk to park, honking at any pedestrians who have the gall to impede your forward progress? Goes without saying. Why just the other day I watched a car that was trying to leave a restaurant parking lot--AKA the sidewalk in front of the restaurant--have trouble turning across the two lanes of oncoming traffic (the bike lane and the southbound lane) to get to the northbound lane. Rather than waiting for a break, the intrepid driver simply turned into the bike lane and proceeded to go the wrong way down the aforementioned lane--bikes be damned!--until he could swerve across oncoming traffic and into the correct lane. You get the idea, I'm sure.

And that's just the cars. Don't forget the bikes. People on bikes, in my eyes, are the bravest of all commuters. While as a pedestrian you can stay on the sidewalk and be reasonably sure you won't be run over--by a car, anyway--bikers mix it up on the road with cars, vans, buses, and anything else that comes along. And, if possible, I think they obey traffic laws less than cars. They literally do anything. I have seen bikes go diagonally across intersections--through multiple lanes of traffic--on more than one occasion. Without helmets, no less!

The really crazy thing is that I swear they don't even seem to be paying attention. They just look forward and peddle slowly but surely and--apparently--hope that nothing hits them. Really, how there aren't hundreds of bikers killed every single day, I have no idea. Although I guess in a city of 13 million or so, there could be hundreds killed a day and it would take a while to notice. But really, I think I would have seen some of them be killed, and I've only seen a few minor incidents. Well, as minor as a bicycle versus car accident can be. The bikes don't seem to fare well, at any rate.

As for the pedestrians, well, that is another story for another post. But needless to say, being a pedestrian here is … complicated. And incredibly dangerous, of course, but you probably got that already. Now, however, it is almost time to go get Holly, find a cab, and fight our way through Friday night traffic. I'm hoping it will only take an hour. If nothing else, we don't have to worry too much about accidents. Since no one's going more than five miles an hour, it's hard to do too much damage. Unless, of course, you get run over by a bus. But I'm hoping that won't happen. I mean, it probably won't. Not as long as our taxi driver has the good sense to get out of the way, anyway ...
 
2.15.2005
  Tokyo-a-go-go.
Yes, it's a lame title, but better than, say, "Toky-no? Toky-yes!" which was, I am sad to say, briefly considered for use. Seriously. Anyway, Tokyo, I am--conversely--happy to say, was a very cool place, despite the fact that it was not quite as futuristic as I had hoped. I mean, sure, there were lots of fancy vending machines, but I was expecting robots and hover cars. Sadly, neither were anywhere to be found. I was also disappointed by the toilets, because if there was one thing I knew--or thought I knew--about Tokyo, the toilets are fancy. Okay, the toilet in our hotel room did have four different buttons on it (in addition to the handle) that did all sorts of stuff, but I was hoping for a robot arm or something to give me toilet paper. Oh well--maybe I just wasn't in the right places.

Robot toilet paper arms aside, Tokyo is big. Really big. Really, really big. I cannot, as you may now be suspecting, emphasize enough how big it was. But it's a strange sort of big, not like US cities. From what I could gather, for a long time they didn't want to build up too high because of earthquake danger. So while there are sections of the city with big 50- or 60-story buildings, most of the buildings are only 10 or 15 stories tall and are built so close together that you literally could not squeeze between them. (No, that's not--for once--an exaggeration.) So when we looked out our hotel room window--we were lucky enough to be on the 39th floor--we saw tens of thousands of relatively squat looking buildings, built right on top of each other, as far as we could see in every direction. The city doesn't seem to end, it just sort of disappears into the distance. Probably because the city doesn't end and does, in fact, just sort of disappear into the distance as your line of sight fails, but that sounds less poetic.

Anyway, we had a lot of fun doing all sorts of Tokyo stuff: We went to Shibuya, which is the place the "stock" pictures you see of Tokyo with the massive TV screens on the sides of buildings come from; we browsed around in Ginza, Tokyo's high-end shopping district; we ate conveyer belt sushi and enjoyed it quite a bit; we figured out, for the most part, how to use the incomprehensibly massive Tokyo subway system; we went to the Park Hyatt bar (the hotel from Lost in Translation), had drinks, and made lots of "For relaxing times, make it ... Suntory times" jokes; went to Harajuku and looked at all the freaky kids dressed up as their favorite anime characters (more on that later); had soba noodles made by a little granny at the Meiji Shrine to the Meiji Emporer and Empress (they were the ones who "opened" Japan to the outside world); bought--and ate--funny little Japanese animal crackers made out of some sort of sesame-type stuff on Nakimese Dori, the pedestrian road filled with shops that leads to the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's biggest tourist attraction; and generally wandered around the city commenting that it was, in general, much cleaner and more organized than Beijing.

Yet still, the little store in our hotel didn't have deodorant. What's the deal with that?


Harajuku Kids!
As I mentioned up above, we spent one morning in Harajuku, which is the area where kids come from all over Tokyo to dress up in strange costumes and, well, just sort of sit there and take pictures of each other while tourists take pictures of them. Very pomo, but whatever. Either way, Holly had to tear me away. It was just so unspeakable strange that I just stood there, transfixed, taking more and more pictures, because I didn't know what else to do. Although I did keep saying things like, Why are they dressed like that? What is that? Are they having fun? Sadly, I never got answers to any of these questions. Oh well. (Although Gwen Stefani seems to be just as entranced by it. Her latest album has a song called Harajuku Girls.)

I think we got there a little early so there weren't that many people out yet, but there were still quite a few interesting folks around. We also didn't see any of the more "interesting" costumes, unfortunately: for example, apparently "naughty French maid" was a popular costume recently. Of course, we are talking about 14-year old naughty French maids, so maybe it's just as well that they were nowhere to be seen. Whatever.

In any case, here are some of the more interesting pictures ...

I guess she's a cat?


I have no idea whatsoever.


Okay, the one one the left has to be a princess. As for the one on the right--in the costume that looks like some mad scientist crossbred a unicorn with a monchichi--I, again, have no clue. I suppose if I was a Japanese teeneager I probably would, but from my experieince--no one was dressed in anything to do with Robotech or Starblazers--I was a bit out of my depth:


The monchichi-unicorn with the king! Or something.


"Hey, look at this picture of you! You look so horny!" (High-pitched giggles.)

Charlie's Angels, Tokyo-style.


Besides the animal people, there are "cool" punk rock kids there, too. You know, like these people. Because nothing is more punk-rock than A Nightmare Before Christmas. (That's what the skull t-shirt the girl on the right has on is from.) I mean, really, most animated musicals are punk rock, in my experience.


Um, wizards?


Is it strange that after a while I thought of these two girls as the "normal ones"?


Say it with me: no idea.


One of the rejects from Sergeant Pepper's band. She's pissed about it, as you can see.


This guy so wants to be an anime character it was almost sad. Well, it is sad in lots of other ways, but you know what I mean.

NOTE: This post has been edited after the fact to be nicer. Because I am all about peace, love, and understanding. I've heard there may or may not be something funny about peace, love, and understanding, but I can't remember where right now. Must be the old age. blank

 
2.03.2005
  Minding my manners.
Tomorrow, we are leaving China for a few weeks. Yes, rather than hang out here and see how Beijing celebrates the dawning of the Year of the Cock … um, Rooster … we have decided to go back to Seattle for a while instead. Well, not directly back. On our way across the Pacific, we are going to stop and spend three nights in Tokyo. (Since we leave tomorrow morning, we are--naturally--watching Lost in Translation tonight.)

I am very excited about this, having wanted to see Tokyo for some time. I've been told by several people who have lived there that it's like going to visit the Jetson's, and what wouldn't be fun about that? Assuming, of course, that mean old Mr. Spacely doesn't try to make us work the whole time at the sprocket factory or something, but I'm guessing we won't run into him. Tokyo's a big city, after all. The biggest in the world, according to some UN agency: the greater Tokyo area is home to about 26 million people, give or take a couple hundred thousand. It should make riding the subway interesting, at any rate. Well, trying to get on the subway to ride it.

But enough about Tokyo, since I will write too much about it later. Knowing that we are going to be back stateside in a matter of days, I have been compiling a list of "bad" behaviors that I may have picked up here in China that I will have to remember to avoid while in Seattle. Some more so than others, as you will see.

These questionable behaviors are, in no particular order:

No spitting in public. This is one thing that I definitely take advantage of here. Need to clear your throat? (And really, in a place where--as I have mentioned multiple times--SMOKE is a common forecast--who doesn't?) Here it's not a problem: just cough up some phlegm, and deposit it wherever you'd like. What could be easier?

Use deodorant. I've been out for like two weeks, but it's hard to find here--you have to go to one of the Western-style pharmacies (none of which are near our place) to get it. As you might guess, this lack of deodorant use makes riding on the subway "interesting," to say the least. But don't worry--I haven't given up on it entirely: I will definitely get some in Tokyo. Probably. But in the meantime, I've been using Holly's Secret. Strong enough for a man and all that …

Less nose picking. Yes, it's true. Laugh if you must, but it's a dry climate--really dry. To quote the always quotable George Costanza: "I guarantee you that Moses was a picker. You wander through the desert for forty years with that dry air, you're telling me you're not going to have occasion to clean house a little bit?" For the record, the Gobi desert is not that far away from Beijing. Seriously, it's not.

No pushing beggars. What can I say? They're clingy. Outside of anywhere foreigners congregate in Beijing--be it a knock-off market, a restaurant, or even a grocery store with lots of Western food--there are sure to be beggars. Pushy beggars who grab and follow you for blocks, literally, even if they have to run to keep up with you. And some of the beggar mom's sick their beggar kids on you too, which is even worse. No, not because they're kids--you do know me, right?--but because they will, on occasion, decide to wrap themselves around your leg like you're a long-lost relative. In that case, there's nothing to do other than scrape them off of you, like gum from the sole of a tennis shoe. Well, I guess I could give them one yuan or something to make them go away, but that would only teach them to cling to more foreigners than they already do. And besides, I might need that twelve cents. You never know.

No pushing people in general. As I've mentioned before, manners will get you nowhere here in Beijing: there's just too many people. If you want to get to the front of a line, you just walk--that is, push--your way to the front of it. Well, most of the time. In places with more orderly lines--like a ticket counter--you may actually have to wait. But you have to be prepared to defend your place in line while waiting, because some will still try the push-to-the-front approach. Elbows out, everyone. Anyway, pushing everyone out of the way will not win me many friends in Seattle, I wouldn't think.

Like the other day at the Forbidden City, there were a bunch of people milling aimlessly around the front of the Starbucks counter. So instead of trying to figure out what was going on, I just pushed my way to the front of the register, in true Chinese fashion. It was only after I got to the counter and looked around that I noticed that everyone else in the place was a foreigner, and--being foreigners--they might not understand how lines work in China. So naturally, I turned right around and said, "Sorry, were you in line?" Well, at least that's what I turned right around and said after I paid for my order ...

 
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