Saturday, June 29, 2013

Line 10 Journal

Riding the recently completed Line 10 seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I’ve seen many colorful things on the subway – vendors selling steaming hot ears of corn just outside the station, migrant workers carrying plastic bags full of their worldly possessions, visitors to Beijing from rural areas who stare at westerners the way we might stare at the Great Wall. And the outfits: Many Chinese women dress with the philosophy that more is better. More sequins, more lace, more fur, more platform shoes, more animal prints, more colors – and bonus points if you can achieve that in one brilliant ensemble.

But I chose a 95-degree day in Beijing. People walk even more slowly inside the subway stations, which connect to each other in a vast spider web of a grid, channeling people who seem to be in no rush to get anywhere. There’s also a rank smell, making it clear not a lot of people showered this morning. Or yesterday morning or the day before that. Meanwhile, the PM 2.5 reading, the measure of air pollution, soars above 226, making my eyes sting.

Despite these impediments, I set out to explore the world’s longest subway loop, all 57.1 kilometers and 45 stops. It’s a line that was started before Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, but just completed a few weeks ago, running in a rectangular loop around the city to parallel Beijing’s Third Ring Road. City planners hope that more subway lines will take the pressure off the city’s notoriously bad traffic, but on this hot summer day, the cars sit in a long, polluted jam. It can take hours by car to get across this city of more than 20 million people.

1:25 p.m. I decide to ride the loop counterclockwise, which might not be good feng shui, but which gets me on the train the fastest. I get on at Shaoyaoji station, which intersects with Line 13. A woman in mustard-yellow pants and shoes designed to resemble pandas opens a McDonald’s box. She starts to eat something in a green wrap.

1:40 p.m. A big crowd gets on at Anzhenmen station. I remember what my daughter told me about riding the subway. She and her friends decided that there should be a code. If you’re standing in front of a sitting person, that person should signal with her fingers – one, two, six – how many stops before she gets off. Otherwise, you might be hovering over the wrong potential seat. Plus, if you're seated, you get to check out the footwear.

1:45 p.m. The relentless cheery station voice announces each stop in both Chinese and English. “The next station is Jiandemen. Please get ready for your arrival.” In Beijing, that means hovering near the door. Inexperienced riders have sometimes been forced to miss a stop because the car is so crowded you can’t make it to the door. That’s why the conventional wisdom is that it’s better to create a bottleneck by the door to ensure an easier exit.
1:50 p.m. The McDonald’s eating lady makes her way slowly and carefully through her wrap, making it last for the next 8 stops.
1:55 p.m. I see my first other foreigner on Line 10, a red-headed girl wearing a Cornell sweatshirt.
2 p.m. Everyone on the train seems to be under the age of 40. The teenagers fiddle with their smartphones, while older people doze. No one reads a book, magazine, or newspaper. Those who aren’t on their phones or sleeping chat loudly with their friends or stare dully at the scuffed floor.
2:05 p.m. A female worker in a solid blue suit walks through the car carrying a bag for trash.
2:10 p.m. At Huoqiying station, an enormous poster advertising pizza shows black olives the side of my head. The McDonald’s lady has dozed off.
2:15 p.m. A young couple sits across from me, the man wearing a tee shirt that says “Brave and Justice – Black Power.” They’re Chinese, of course.

2:20 p.m. The roar of the subway car underground does not stop passengers from shouting into their cell phones.
2:25 p.m. Almost everyone exits the car at Gongzhufen station, one of the connecting stations to Line 1, which goes through the center of Beijing past Tiananmen.
2:30 p.m. A beggar woman comes through the car, announcing her presence with blaring music, and pushing a cart that holds some sort of deformed child or person, who seems to be asleep or drugged. It’s impossible to ignore her, so I hand her a one-yuan note, and she nods as she passes.

2:35 p.m. Three friends are talking, and one woman decides she wants to see what’s on her friend’s phone. She shoves herself between a stranger standing by the door and her friend, and the stranger just moves toward the opposite door with a neutral look on her face. Being body-checked on the subway is not a big deal.
2:40 p.m. Almost all of the newer stations, constructed in the last year, look the same: white tiles, bland signs. A bright green sign advertises the Beijing Garden Expo.
2:45 p.m. I had prided myself on snagging one of the seats, but after an hour, the hard gray seat starts to get uncomfortable. But I hold steady. I know that the minute I stand, my spot will be taken.
2:50 p.m. More beggars arrive, also playing music. This time it’s a woman leading a man who is walking with a stick. At first the man seems to be blind, but then I realized he was staring at each passenger in turn. His eye contact is either a good fake or he can really see me. I decide not to part with my one yuan.
2:55 p.m. At Guomao station, in the heart of the central business district, the car gets crowded again. A man stands directly in front of me and rubs his stomach. I decide it’s not disturbing enough to give up my seat. Two young women stand with their arms wrapped around each other.

3:05 p.m. The circle is complete. My legs are stiff from sitting so long. I follow signs for Line 13, which connects me back to Dongzhimen station, where I treat myself to a 3-RMB ice cream cone at McDonald’s. As I prepare to pay, I shove my elbow into the man who is breathing down my neck, waiting for his turn.

Friday, June 21, 2013

What's in a Great Leap?

There's a difference of opinion among my friends about a new brew pub that has just opened up in our neighborhood. It's called Great Leap Brewing, and its name is an ironic nod to a terrible time in Chinese history, a time when millions died of starvation and disease and others suffered unimaginably.

The Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961, was Mao's attempt to move China from a rural, agrarian society to a communist one that used collectivism and industrialization. It was a massive failure, with some estimates saying as many as 45 million people died when peasants tried to make steel out of scrap metal and the harvest was neglected or inefficiently planted. There are many people alive in China today who remember being hungry.

Today we have an ironic, postmodern, hip take on the language of the near past. Great Leap is "Beijing's finest craft brewery," with one location in a hutong, and then this new spot, all exposed concrete and gleaming metal and wooden booths, a few steps outside my apartment complex.

On the menu are the city's best hamburgers, thin fries, greasy onion rings, salads, chili, and other bar food, plus ales, pale ales, porters, and other beers. The pub's insignia shows a Cultural Revolution style fist clutching a mug of beer.

I understand the reluctance to trivialize a time of terrible suffering by making it into a place where expats slug down beer while watching ESPN recordings of the Celtics or the Yankees. At least one of my friends simply refuses to go there. 

I’m not crazy about some of the too-clever names of some of the other places around Beijing, either: Mao Livehouse, Bu Zhi Dao (which means I don’t understand), Propaganda, and another brew pub, Slow Boat Brewery. Slow Boat, however, is a more innocent reference to the Frank Loesser song that first used the term, “slow boat to China,” which Miss Piggy sang on the Muppet Show and Paul McCartney sang to honor Loesser. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Several of my friends have asked if the founders of Great Leap Brewing were aware of the significance of the term when they named their pub. I find it impossible to think that they weren’t fully cogniscant of its meaning.

So why do I still go there? I think I allow myself a certain rationalization about some activities I do in a place like China. I cut myself some slack. Great Leap is an oasis of Americana in a country where few people speak English, where the tap water could poison me, where the grilled meat I buy on the street could easily be rat, and where the sidewalk could open up in gaping holes that could kill me. Finding a place where I can get an enormously satisfying hamburger is a small triumph. And the ultimate irony – that I get fat on Great Leap beers, burgers, and fries – is maybe the price I’ll have to pay.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Scenes from the Neighborhood

Yes, this cart is held together by duct tape.
We could have used some duct tape here. Our manicure today almost turned deadly as an air conditioning box nearly fell on Joanna's head. Luckily, her quick reflexes preserved both her skull and her manicure. Win-win.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Ongoing Saga of the Hairdresser

For those of you who have been patiently waiting for the latest installation of Debbie's Hair Adventures in China, the wait is over. For the rest of you, move along. There's nothing to see here.

Today I ventured out to the salon, the place where formerly Justin and Serena would lead me through the process of coloring and cutting and all kinds of other beauty procedures that I don't care to detail here. One might think that with the departure of the two last English speakers, I might try another place. But there were two reasons for me to go back. First, the salon had close to 500 of my RMB, money I had prepaid to get a discount on future services. Granted, the services were cheap enough, with a haircut at 20 RMB and a wash and styling another 20 RMB -- BUT 20 total if you got both done at the same time.

Hard to beat. And I knew I had to be quite diligent about my visits to spend down that 500 in 20-RMB increments, or I might never get my money spent.

Plus, I honestly don't like Julie's, the place where most of the expats I know go. Julie may speak English but she almost never smiles and I feel as if it's not a happy place. And she charges about six times what the other salons charge. I wouldn't mind paying extra if I felt I got extra value and a little friendliness -- I mean, this is China, after all, the place where most shopkeepers and restaurant owners act like they've won the lottery if you walk in their door.

Another small obstacle is that the Salon Formerly Known as Justin's was undergoing some kind of renovation. A couple of weeks ago, I ventured by and saw nothing but chaos. I thought, there goes my 500. But one of the friendly guys there said "three days" in Chinese.

Three weeks later and it was still a work in progress.

But today it was open and much fancier looking.

I walked in. There were a couple of faces I recognized, so I pointed to my gray roots. That usually does the trick in terms of communication.

But here's where it got interesting. About three of the shop guys held a ten-minute consultation about the right color brown to dye my roots. (I hedged my bets in insisting on having them dye only the roots and not the entire head, figuring that brown hair with a black stripe at the roots is better than Party Member Black all over.)

They pointed to several prices, and I bravely pointed to the very highest amount, figuring that this would give them the message that I wanted a high-quality dye job. And remember, I had money to burn.

Salon guy number one mixes up some dye and starts to apply it to my roots. As I sit there, about four other salon guys come over to check his progress and I look up my from iPad to see that a small crowd of salon workers is standing about three inches from my head, staring at my hair. There is discussion. There is poking at my head with glove-clad fingers, with combs, with brushes used to apply dye.

After he supposedly finishes, there's more conversation, more poking, and salon guy number one starts re-applying the dye to my roots. This does not inspire confidence. Have they never colored hair before? I think. There are more moments where young men are peering at my scalp as if the answer to life might be found there.

Every three minutes someone else comes by and pokes at my head. I'm trying to read my New Yorker, trying to make sense of the role of Hezbollah in Libya in an iPad that is rapidly running out of battery life, but the blaring pop music, the head-poking, the rain outside increasingly making puddles that are getting deeper and deeper all serve as a big distraction. Joanna calls my phone, and I hold the phone about two inches from my ear. "I'M AT THE HAIRDRESSERS, AND I CAN'T HEAR YOU," I say. She answers something. "I'LL CALL YOU LATER," I say. She hangs up. Even though I'm not wearing glasses, I send emails to people, fervently hoping that auto-correct hasn't caused me to say something obscene or looney.

Finally, I'm ushered to the sink. My hair is washed. It looks the right color. So I decide to roll the dice one more time and ask them to cut my hair. This time I get another guy, a guy I'll call Bad Skin Guy. He's very sweet and smiles a lot, and takes an impressive amount of time to cut every strand of my hair individually and possibly a tad shorter than I wanted, and then to blow dry it so straight I look like a boy with a kind of bowl cut. But it's fine, really.

I pay up. I've gone through almost 200 RMB, or around $32, but for that amount I've had my hair colored, cut and styled. Not to mention the entertainment factor.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Photos from Yunnan

Despite a few mishaps, we had a lovely trip to western Yunnan. Here are a few photos gathered over the week.
One of my favorite towns was the ancient trading village of Shaxi.
More views of Shaxi.
Early on in the big hike, I was still able to take photos and marvel at the beauty around us.
Still marveling...
And suddenly, the next pictures show us at the hospital on the next day, sitting on the laowai bench. What are we waiting for?
We're waiting for X-rays. Here, Bob's ribs get an expert examination from a very relaxed doctor, Frank, and our driver Mr. Ji, all of them eager to weigh in on whether and how many of Bob's ribs were broken. 
After a day at the Tengchong People's Hospital and some other sightseeing, we relax with a delicious Yunnanese meal. Frank skips the fish head but does go for bamboo shoots, deep-fried flowers, and wild mountain mushrooms. Everyone can weigh in at the hospital, but at the restaurant, it's Frank's show.
We visit more ancient trading towns.
We shop for tie-dyed fabric.
All in all, it was enlightening, exhausting, exhilarating, exciting, and very very Chinese.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Yunnan Numbers Game

Yunnan adventures

Our trip to the western reaches of Yunnan, near the border with Burma, has been quite the adventure. I have a lot to say, but it might be best summed up with a list.
Number of soft beds slept in: zero.
Number of wolves seen: one.
Number of meals made with bark: one.
Bottles of Yunnan red wine consumed: one.
Number of conversations with a 93-year-old Tibetan woman: one.
Number of ribs broken by Bob: two.
Mountains climbed: two.
Meals with rubin, Yunnan's fried goat cheese: three.
Number of times Frank described a dish as healthy, if not tasty: four.
Times I was sure our car was going head-on into another car: four.
Times we stepped across beautiful mountain streams: five.
Number of blood-sucking leeches pulled from our bodies: five.
Approximate number of times I won at mahjong: six.
Hours Bob had to hike downhill with broken ribs: six.
Cups of tea consumed in a single day: seven.
Number of quasi-wild monkeys spotted on one mountain hike: eight.
Buddhist temples visited: nine.
Ethnic minorities we met: ten.
Meals with wild mountain vegetables consumed: eleven.
Hours of hiking in a single day: twelve.
Number of times I only partially understood a conversation in Chinese: thirteen.
Number of times I swore when playing mahjong: fourteen.
Number of bottles of Dali beer I consumed: fifteen.
Number of delicious memorable meals consumed: sixteen.
Total number of mangoes eaten: seventeen.
Final top score for my win at Fruit Ninja: 469.
Meter height of the Gaoligong mountain range we climbed: 3,000.