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Monday, November 28
The flight from Bangkok arrives at 2:55 PM, on time. The customs slip said to go through the red line if you had any radio devices, and I had a portable short wave receiver in my day pack, so I went through the red line. I showed the nice lady the radio and she said as long as it was for personal use, I should go through the green line, which I did. Passport control was also a 10-second operation, as soon as they found the page with my visa.
This trip was for business, and much of what I did there and the comments I have about it are not appropriate for public distribution, so this will be comparably short as travelogues go.
My company's local sales engineer, Samson, and the department head of the project we were visiting were there to meet me. We were joined by the division head and his driver, and a quick walk to the limo waiting area got us to a lovely new Nissan complete with GPS mapping system. It is chilly, and I have put on my Ferrari jacket and Giants cap. Chengdu is hazy, but it's fog - there is no smell of wood smoke as I'd been led to expect, and it's a clear haze, not the brown you get from smog. I am struck by how commercial the place is (photo 1). We have reservations at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel, but the building we pull up to is an older hotel, with the name Yinhe Dynasty on it. It doesn't occur to me that this is not the Crowne Plaza, because a sign on the door says this is the first foreign-owned hotel in Chengdu. I figure they use the Holiday Inn letterhead on their confirmation faxes for PR purposes.
It's a luxury hotel, but it's a Chinese luxury hotel. Chengdu's trademark panda is in mosaic at the back wall of the driveway (photo 8), and they are putting up a Christmas tree in the lobby. And a Santa shack. And Xmas wreaths (photos 4-7). This I didn't need. The one thing I expected to not have to be assaulted with in the godless heathen People's Republic was Jesus crapola.
The staff speaks English well enough to check in, and Samson arranges for us to have rooms next to each other (they originally had us on different floors). Our room numbers are in the 1400's but it's the 9th floor. Go figure. The view from up there is even more hazy than from street level (photos 2-3).
In the elevator is a sign advertising Internet PCs at the 25th floor business center. There is also Internet access in the rooms, but I have not brought my laptop, so need to use their computers. Samson has his, but he needs it for work stuff. So I go upstairs and set the computer for English mode, and check email and my online money accounts. And am painfully surprised to see that twice in Thailand I accidentally used my credit card instead of my ATM card to get cash, and each one comes with a $10 service fee, plus two fees (from the banks at both ends of the transaction) for using an external ATM service, that's another $3. Plus I have to pay the whole card off at the next due date to avoid them tacking on a finance charge. The card has a 0% charge for everything except cash advances. And of course they credit your payment against the fee-bearing items last. Oops.
And to add to the nastiness, B of A messed up, and delivered my automatic billpay check a day late for my other credit card, that's another $15. But at least they paid my rent in time.
Back at the room, I was able to check my home voicemail, something I didn't do much from Thailand because I had to pay the international long distance charges myself. The company will pay for reasonable phone calls here.
In about an hour, we are collected by the department head and one of his employees, and are taken to dinner. We are joined by some of the rest of the department. In the car on the way there, Samson tries to do me a favor by assuming I can't use chopsticks, and asks them to not take us to the place which is famous for its stewed pork, since that stuff is very hard to pick up with chopsticks. I tell him I've been using chopsticks since before his father was born (which happens to be true - makes me feel old!) so take me to the good food place.So they do.
The first surprise is that although it is now about 50 degrees out, the restaurant's doors are wide open, protected a little from the wind by wide transparent plastic strips hanging from the top. It is COLD in there. The staff are all female, the uniform is a black hostess jacket and black jeans. Most are wearing leather calf-high boots with 3-inch heels.
We eat with jackets on. It is not my idea of a good way to have dinner. But the food is amazing. Spicy "elephant ear" mushrooms, beef tongue ("do you have this in America?" "Yes, my grandmother taught me how to make it"), baked fish, something which looks, smells and tastes like grass, excellent oxtail soup, and the promised stewed pork. Samson decides to show me how to pick up this slippery stuff with chopsticks, and drops a big piece onto the table, splattering me pretty good. I reach out to the center of the table, fish out a piece with my chopsticks and get it into my mouth with no trouble at all. Laughter all around.
They had warned me that the food would be very spicy, but it wasn't. It didn't even come close to Thai curry, or the Sichuan food I have in the Bay Area. Chengdu is the capitol of Sichuan.
Back at the hotel, Samson remembers he has left his laptop at the customer site, and we need to use it to go over the training slides for tomorrow. I'll be teaching a class, and he'll be translating and helping. We get a cab to the offices, but it's after hours, the gate is closed, and the guard won't let us in without a pass. Samson calls the department head, who drives over there. Instead of messing with passes, he drives us in. We go upstairs and get the laptop, and the department head calls Samson to tell us to go back to the hotel without him, he has some work he needs to do. We go downstairs, but the guard won't let us out, because not only don't we have passes, but he didn't see us go in. Perfectly reasonable, I think, but Samson makes all kinds of apologies. I tell him the poor kid is only doing his job, and doing it well. Samson calls the department head and eventually someone comes out and vouches for us. The guard tries to make a big deal about my being non-Chinese, but the executive tells him to stop being such a baby, and he lets us through. We get a taxi back to the hotel. When the driver starts his meter the digitized voice of a lovely woman says something in Chinese, followed by "Thank you to take my taxi".
Back at the hotel we go to my room and go over the slides, until Samson's laptop battery runs down. He has accidentally locked his AC adapter in his luggage. We call it quits for the night, having gone through enough for tomorrow's class.
Tuesday, November 29
Up at 7, shower, meet Samson at 7:30 for breakfast at the 3rd floor buffet room. This is included in the price of the room. The far side of the buffet towards the windows has all kinds of steamed bread-like substances, and assorted Chinese dishes which look like some chef was challenged to try to pickle every inedible plant known to mankind. And he met the challenge. There is also rice porridge. affectionately called "congee", plain and with ground pork. In the center of the room is a raised section where they have sausages, bacon, sauted onions, and two cooks who will make eggs to order. There are also buckets of soft-boiled eggs and buffet dishes filled with poached eggs.
Down toward the door is the Western food section, cereals, sliced fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, oranges) and yet closer to the door on a round table which surrounds a pillar, are biscuits and Danish and miniature croissant-like items.
It's a pretty good spread, enough for anyone, or anythree for that matter.
About 3/4 of the way through our meal, four middle-aged white couples come in with Chinese infants in tow. It looks like Adoption Central. The babies start screaming almost immediately, but by this time there are no other tables to move to so we have to put up with it.
We take a taxi to the office, wait for about 20 minutes for someone to come out with our passes. Up to the 4th floor, and I'll just say that we had to take off our shoes and put on slippers which they provided in oder to go into the classroom, which had a red cloth floor covering. It's 50 degrees outside, the heater is off, the windows are open, and all work is done with everyone wearing jackets. At lunchtime (photos 15-17) they bring in two Styrofoam boxes per person. The female member of the team pulls pages out of an old electronics marketing magazine to use as place mats. Someone else hands around a roll of toilet paper which we all pull about a foot off to use as napkins. Someone brings me tea (large loose leaves at the bottom of a large paper cup filled with hot water), everyone who works here has an 8-ounce glass tumbler-shaped jar with a metal lid, filled with hot water with an inch of loose tea leaves in the bottom. And a stainless steel tablespoon is kept inside.
One of the boxes is about 4"x8", and is filled with steamed rice, with a couple of ounces of something like Kim Chee on top, in a corner so it only flavors a little bit of the rice. The other box is 8" square, decided into four evenly sized sections. One section contains a cooked spinach-like vegetable, one has a pork dish, then other two are probably beef and chicken, but it's hard to tell. One is very spicy, the others are not spicy at all.
For the reasons I mentioned, I won't go into details here. Suffice to say conditions and lunch were the same all three days I was working. Work ended at 5:30, but we never got out of the building before 6.
It takes us half an hour to find a cab during rush hour. We decide to have dinner in the hotel buffet, so I put my camera and jacket in the room, and we go to the "Japanese night". Five pieces of sushi is the extent of the Japanese food. Unless you count the miso-colored soup, and some slices of lox masquerading as salmon sashimi. So I try the duck. It tastes like Sichuan fried duck shingles. This time the food is not so good. But they had ice cream and pastries of a sort, so I did get fed. Upstairs I spent an hour online, at a cost of 70 Yuen ($ 8.75). The nice lady at the business center told me it's too expensive, I should use my laptop in my room. I tell her I don't have a laptop, which surprises her tremendously.
I'm having an attack of the munchies, so I go to the lobby lounge in hopes they have something to eat. They don't. So I ask for tea. The ask "what kind?" I say "Chinese tea", and they bring me a menu. There are about 25 varieties. I order jasmine. A few minutes later the waitress returns with a large ceramic cup filled with hot water, with green tea leaves at the bottom, and a few jasmine petals floating on the surface. And a teapot filled with hot water. Whenever my cup is getting half-empty, she refills it from the teapot. Very good service. I read a book and sip tea for about an hour, then go out for a walk.
A few blocks away I find a huge statue of Mao, at the top of a set of steps. The steps are lined with pots of flowers, mostly mums. A block away there's a big department store, someone is polishing the sidewalk in front with a rotary floor polisher - something you would never see in Bangkok. I find three McDonalds on that block. Across the street from Mao is a huge construction site, about four blocks long, one block deep.
Back at the hotel, I take a bath and read some more, then to sleep.
Wednesday, November 30
Up at 7, breakfast at 7:30, Samson doesn't show. Same breakfast as yesterday, same screaming babies. As I get back to my room, Samson is phoning from the buffet. 8:30 taxi to work.
At 6:30 most of the people in the department walk to dinner together, to a "family" restaurant. We are 7 people, the department head orders enough food for 20. It's a wide variety of good food, but I nearly die when I accidentally bite into a hot chili pepper. It takes the rest of the mealtime to recover. We walk back to the office, the department head drives me and one of his staff around town, where we pick up a female friend of theirs to join us, and after driving around town a bit with the department head pointing out some of the sights, we park in a pay lot, and go into a beautiful rosewood building, which was once obviously an imperial summer palace, but is now a shopping center. What used to be rooms of the palace which face the courtyard are now little shops selling everything from stamps and chops to silk to jade to kid's toys. Another side of the palace has a row of food stands. We peek inside a building which used to be an opera house, but was converted into a bare assembly hall. They have put up a stage platform, and a Chinese opera is being performed. Very ironic.
The place is gorgeous, and I am very disappointed that the department head didn't give me any hints we might be going out tonight, I really needed my camera.
Back to the hotel, I hit the lobby lounge and have some more of that delicious jasmine tea, and this time they have some snacks left over from the dinner buffet, so I nibble a bit too.
Out into the lobby, the gift shop is open, and the saleswoman waves me over. I need postcards, and maybe I can get something for Noi. They don't have postcards, don't even know what they are. But they do have some very nice women's silk shirts, and many pieces of jade. I buy a shirt for Noi, and a little jade pendant for my collection. I see a jade bracelet which would also be a nice collection piece, but she wants 2600 Yuen for it ($325) which is probably twice what I would pay in the US for it. I don't know jade prices, but I know that's outrageous. I tell her that's way more than I can afford, and walk out. She follows me and says they have been getting no buyers lately, I should make her an offer. I tell her 800Y ($100) which I figure is probably still a bit high, but below what she would be expected to come down to. She tells me she has to ask her manager. I say okay, I'll come back in the morning. I get halfway across the lobby when she tells me okay, $100. I can even put it on my credit card for no extra fee. So I buy it. But I'm pretty sure it's really only worth half that.
Heading towards the elevators, I notice they have finished decorating the Christmas tree, and the Santa Shack is also decorated. Blech. (photo 20)
By now it's after 10, and I want to check out the Karaoke bar on the 3rd floor. The beautiful hostess asks if I want a private room, or the bar. I choose the bar. Which turns out to be the waiting area for the "working girls". They are playing cards and Mah Jong, and nobody is singing. I order a drink, and start watching the TV, which has some Chinese karaoke video playing. But as soon as they see me watching, they switch it to some truly bad American movie which I really don't need to see in China.
Every 5 minutes or so, the hostess comes in and asks a girl or three to come with her. Customers in private rooms need attention too. One of them explains that it is 200 Yuen ($25) to talk to a pretty girl in the bar. More in a private room. It's a pretty sleazy place, so I decline.
Thursday, December Fools Day
Up at 7, breakfast at 7:30, it's still dark. Sunrise is late here. There are lots of Thai people in the buffet room. Out in the lobby waiting for Samson to get his stuff from his room, I chat with a couple of Thai women who tell me it's the annual travel agent association managers' tour of China. They would like to talk more, but their bus is loading, and they are off to their next stop, Hunan, I think.
To the office at 9. At 5:30 the department head asks us to stay late, but I'm done with my work, so after 45 minutes of putting my foot down, Samson finds us a cab back to the hotel, where he leaves me to my own devices and goes back to the office. I decide it would be the height of irony to have dinner at McDonald's in the heart of Mao's China, so I walk to the nearest one, which turns out to be on the second floor above a Starbuck's. Nobody speaks English, and the signs are completely in Chinese. All the clientèle is Chinese. I point to a Big Mac dinner on the menu, which comes out in a couple of minutes. I guess it tastes like the real thing, I really don't remember - the last time I ate at McDonald's was in the late 70's. Downstairs Starbucks is a whole 'nother story. All the staff speaks English, all the signs are in English with Chinese subtitles. And they have better pastries than the ones in the Bay Area. I have a Grande iced mocha and an eclaire. When I find a seat I notice most of the customers are westerners. The two men sitting next to me are gay Chinese-Americans from San Francisco. They tell me it's Hell for them, they speak no Chinese, but everyone assumes they are just retarded.
I'm about to walk back to the hotel, but change my mind. There's a panda sculpture I saw on my last walk that I wanted to get a better look at. As I walk around the park it is in, I see the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the next block. I'm pretty mad, because it's obvious now that they changed my reservations without telling me, and even madder because this is a gorgeous modern hotel, much nicer than the elderly Yinhe Dynasty. I go inside to find out what I'm missing, and immediately see the gift shop's extensive display of postcards. They sell them in sets of 10, so I buy a set from the panda breeding farm, one of Chinese opera players in costume and makeup, and one of scenic Sichuan waterfalls and rivers and fall colors. They are 20Y ($2.50) per set, and they send me upstairs to the business office for stamps, which are 4.8Y ($0.60) each.
Back to the hotel, I parked myself in the lobby lounge with a pot of jasmine tea, and wrote and stamped postcards for an hour or so. I asked at the reception desk where I could mail them, and they pointed to the concierge desk. I handed them to the concierge to mail, and he looked at them like he had never seen a postcard before. The reception lady yelled something to him in Chinese and he nodded and put them away.
Back to the room, read some more, packed, tried to get some sleep. At 2 am I'm up and writing in my journal, wondering if the promised tour of the city is still on for tomorrow morning. I doubt it, since I know the project they had Samson staying late for would take all day tomorrow. I'll just go with the flow. My plane leaves at 3:40 pm, I don't need to be at the airport till 2, but I need to check out by noon.
Friday, December 2
Up at 8, breakfast at the hotel alone. The good news is the screaming baby circus has left town, and I have most of the no-smoking section to myself. There's no answer when I phone Samson's room. I leave a note in the keycard slot of his door saying I'm going for a walk and will be back around 10:15. I take my camera out for the first time since Tuesday. It's still very hazy, someone had explained it is because Chengdu is in a bowl surrounded by mountains.
Photos 21-103 are from my walkabout. A few items I want to point out is the reason I have photos of women from the back is I was trying to show their boots. Fall fashion in Chengdu requires tight designer jeans, a stylish little jacket and very expensive-looking boots with stiletto heels. (photo 56, for example). The billboard across from the hotel is one which epitomizes the commercialization of China - photos 26-27. And a word about traffic. Lots of words, actually. The main streets are enormous. Each street is six lanes in each direction, plus a bike/motorscooter lane as wide as a truck lane. The intersections are controlled by tiny hard-to-see traffic lights (photo 100), so each intersection has a four people in an orange outfit with a flag (photos 98-99) who make sure traffic at their part of the intersection stops where it is suppose to. They pretty much ignore the pedestrians. But that's not too bad because the streets are so wide that cars and bikes have no problem swerving to avoid hitting them.
Back to the hotel, it's 10:30, but my note is still in Samson's keycard slot. I don't think he has been back to the hotel since last night. There's no answer on his room phone. I try his cell phone, but he has a Hong Kong number, and all circuits are busy. Last night on his way back to the office he said his goodbyes like we may not see each other again, so I figure we're done here, and I get a cab to the airport.
I'm way early, but the airport is nice and modern, I find a good place to eat lunch (another buffet), and wander around taking photos. (photos 121-133). Who ever heard of an airport with fruit stands? If I wasn't going to a foreign country where they would not let me take fresh fruit, I'd have bought some.
The plane leaves on time, the flight is unremarkable, and I am back in Bangkok around 6:30 p.m. And we'll wrap up this travel adventure in the next and final chapter.