A Travellerspoint blog

The Blogging Hiatus Ends

Al Sandiego Returns to Duty

semi-overcast 77 °F

My good friend Monica told me last year that successful bloggers post at least once every couple of days, otherwise their readers start to lose interest and eventually forget that the blog even exists. Although I considered posting about some domestic trips I've taken earlier this year (including first visits to Louisiana, Las Vegas, and even Pittsburgh), I've decided to stay true to the original intent of this blog and restrict it to my international trips. In the two or so weeks prior to my departure from Seattle, more than a few people asked if I would start blogging again. So fear not, dear readers...Al Sandiego is back a long hibernation.

It's about 6am right now in Melaka (formerly known as "Malacca"), Malaysia, a historic city on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula about two hours southwest from Kuala Lumpur, the capital. I could write several posts about this place and all of its past glory, but first I need to explain how I got here and why. About six months ago I started corresponding with a leader of a Fair Trade Certified cooperative of coffee producers in the Gayo Highlands of northern Sumatra. He was very persistent in wanting to sell coffee to Atlas, however they didn't have organic certification yet and therefore were offering only conventional Fair Trade. In February I was connected to the exporter for another Fair Trade cooperative that already had been certified organic, which led to series of purchases on behalf of one of our roaster clients. Even before that happened, my boss approved a trip to Indonesia so I could meet these and other cooperatives that are based in the same area.

I didn't have to look at a map to know that Sumatra is just across the Straits of Malacca from, well, Melaka. When my two sisters and I came to Malaysia in December 2004 (we were flying from Shanghai when the tsunami struck, which is a whole other story), we visited Kuala Lumpur, the island of Langkawi near the Thai border, and the historic city of George Town on the island of Penang. We didn't make it to Melaka, however, because it requires a bit of effort to get here. There are no scheduled flights - not even domestic - to the city's airport and the nearest train station is about 40 minutes away. So one has to arrive by land, which is easy enough with all of the luxury coach buses (much nicer than Greyhound, I must say) and well-maintained roads. Even so, one needs at least two days to do this city some level of justice. Aside from the fascinating history, the food in Melaka is world-renowned due largely to the fusion between Chinese and Malay cuisines that evolved over several hundred years. Throw in some European influences (mainly Portuguese) with a dash of South Indian (primarily Tamil Nadu) spices and you've got yourself an amazing food scene that begs to be explored. And I, of course, am just the man to do it.

So my long journey from Seattle started on Wednesday mid-afternoon with a Northwest flight from Sea-Tac to Tokyo Narita. Quite pleasant, actually, aside from the bland chicken breast that I got as part of my non-lactose meal...the only advantage is that special meals get served before the regular ones. The window seat next to my aisle one was empty, so I could spread out and not worry about getting into anyone's "bidness" (as my former boss Ward used to say). I watched four movies, a few of which I had been wanting to see. I found it ironic that the flight attendants passed out ice cream sandwiches halfway through the flight, given my attempt to be lactose-free on board. As I was not about to pass up the forbidden fruit, I popped two Lactaid pills and downed the whole thing...more like crunched through it.

A two-hour layover in Narita, through which I had not traveled since my last trip to Taiwan as a sullen 14-year-old (that was in 1988) bitter at his mom's experiment in total linguistic immersion. Narita is not as sparkly and shiny as Incheon (Seoul) or the mammoth airports in Beijing and Shanghai: low ceilings, earth-toned carpet instead of well-scrubbed floors, and not much in the way of shops or restaurants. Maybe I just was in the wrong terminal or something. What I did notice was the proliferation of surgical masks that people were wearing - I had heard that the Japanese put these on when they're sick, but I suspected that many of these mask-wearers were protecting themselves from the H1N1 flu virus. The guy sitting behind me on the SEA-NRT flight was wearing one as well, and he was far from being Japanese (red hair and pasty white skin). Anyway, some of you may be surprised that I didn't have my own mask NOR was I interested in wearing one. Joe Biden had it all wrong - the air circulation on airplanes these days is pretty efficient. One side note from my layover in Narita: I started writing a blog post and thought I had saved it, but it didn't show up when I logged in just now. Oh well...sayonara.

Another empty seat next to mine on the Tokyo-Singapore flight, and this time a better-seasoned chicken breast in the non-lactose meal (thanks to the on-the-ground caterers at Narita!). We landed at Changi Airport just before 1am local time, about 23 hours after the shuttle van picked me up at my apartment in Seattle. Changi consistently gets ranked as the best airport in the world, so I was very eager to see it. Even in my semi-dazed state, I was very impressed and will do more exploring the next two times I pass through it on this trip. I got my bag, exchanged some greenbacks for Singapore dollars and some Malaysian ringgit, and found my way to the Crowne Plaza attached to another terminal. Wow, crazy modern hotel. The bathroom had glass walls on both sides, which were covered by a painted orchid motif but otherwise very visible to anyone standing in the room.

I slept for about six hours, checked out, and took the MRT train from the airport to the Lavender station. Singapore has a similar ethnic mix as Malaysia but with different proportions. Most of the residents are ethnic Chinese, with large Malay and Indian communities - plus a ton of Westerners who live/work there like my friends whom I'll visit at the tail end of this trip. English is the lingua franca, but all of the signs are also in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Just listening to the other passengers on the crowded East-West green line of the MRT was fascinating. Sometimes I couldn't tell they were speaking in English (or "Singlish," as the local version is called) unless I listened very closely. What's even more interesting is that all of the Chinese people use Mandarin even if their mother tongue is one of the many other dialects: Cantonese, Teochew (Chaozhou in Mandarin), Hokkien (Fujianese), or Hakka. I ended up using my 2nd-grade Mandarin with the taxi driver as well as the guy at the bus company ticket office. It seems to be something that Chinese Singaporeans just do - if the person with whom you're speaking looks Chinese, just default to Mandarin unless you know he or she speaks your dialect.

My bus to Melaka departed from the Golden Mile Complex, this dilapidated shopping mall that probably was built in the 60s or 70s and already missed its chance for an extreme makeover (Singapore edition!). What I was surprised to discover is that it's the hangout for the immigrant Thai community. On the outside all of the signs are in English and Chinese. On the inside, the signs are mostly in Thai with some English. Everyone in the mall is Thai, All of the restaurants are Thai. I paused to look at the meat counter of a small grocery, trying to identify the more mysterious-looking organs, and was greeted with a "Sawat di kha!" I was too embarrassed to answer with "Sawat di khrap" because my tones would have been way off. Thai has even more tones than Chinese!

As they say, when in Rome...so my very first meal of this trip was not Chinese, Malay, or even Indian. It was Thai, and let me tell you it was damn good. My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a specific place that I quickly found: the Nong Khai Food & Beer Garden. Not an actual beer garden, at least in the Bavarian sense of the word (how I miss the Seehaus and Chinesischer Turm in Munich!) but rather a two-room restaurant brightly painted in orange and yellow. The woman behind the counter was surrounded by all these fresh ingredients, and after I told her in a mix of English and Mandarin what I wanted, she proceeded to gather a bunch of things and start pounding them in in a mortar.l Thwack thwack thwack. I sat at a table musing how random this whole scene was, eating Thai food in a run-down shopping mall in Singapore. Thwack thwack thwack. Then the tom sum (green papaya salad) arrived, followed shortly by the grilled half-chicken with chili sauce. Mmm. The salad was ridiculously good, so much so that I contemplated lifting the plate to my mouth to suck down the sauce.

This post is getting pretty long, so I'll end here and start another one. Thanks for reading!

Posted by alsandiego 15:05 Archived in Singapore Tagged transportation Comments (0)


Beijing through the years


Having completed my tour of Olympic venues and events, I spent my last full day in Beijing chilling out. I got up relatively late, watched more NBC coverage on the Armed Forces Network (in spite of my growing aversion to the militaristic PSAs), and bummed around my cousin's house. We had made plans to go into town for dinner, and my cousin and his wife selected a restaurant that was reputed to have the best Sichuan food in all of Beijing. It's called Chuan Dan and is located in the Sichuan provincial building on Jianguomennei Dajie. "Dajie" means "avenue" (literally "big street"), "nei" means "inner," "men" means "gate," and "guo" means "country." But I had to turn to the trusty Wikipedia to figure out what the words in Jianguomen mean together: Gate of Founding of the Nation. So the street translates as "Gate of the Founding of the Nation Inner Avenue." A veritable mouthful.

When we arrived at the the restaurant, we all noticed that it seemed very "Chinese," meaning that there were a) no Westerners in sight, b) the decor was not gussied up, and c) the food looked very authentic. For those who haven't tried Sichuanese cuisine before, it's dominated by chili peppers that originally were introduced to China by the Spaniards (who discovered them in the New World). I find that bit of historical trivia very interesting because Spanish food itself is not spicy or anything close to it. Anyway, we ordered way too much food and sweated through it as best we could. One of the dishes, la ji ("spicy chicken"), came out in this enormous shallow dish that was over a foot in diameter. The small pieces of skinless (but not boneless) chicken had been deep-fried with a huge amount of chili peppers, so we couldn't even really see the chicken. Rather, we had to fish through the peppers to find the meat. It actually wasn't all that hot, but just the sight of the whole presentation was pretty searing.

This restaurant had the best mapo tofu that I've ever eaten - since this dish is a hallmark of Sichuanese cooking, it's used to judge the authenticity of the restaurant. Mapo tofu has ground pork, cubes of soft tofu, Sichuan peppercorns (which slightly numb the mouth)...usually there's a noticeable layer of oil at the bottom. It shouldn't be too spicy because that would overwhelm the other flavors.

Afterwards the three boys wanted to get dessert, so we went to a part of town nearby where the China World Trade Center is located. I had made plans to get together with Herbert again, mainly to pick up the sample of green coffee from Yunnan that he had found for me after our first meeting. We decided on the Starbucks on the ground floor of the shopping center attached to the China World Trade Center. Afterwards I wandered around looking for a bathroom and was absolutely blown away by the shops I saw- we're talking extremely high-end stuff, mostly European houses of fashion, that you would find only on Fifth Avenue, Michigan Avenue, or Rodeo Drive. Right next to each other in a shopping mall in Beijing. The mall itself seemed to be constructed entirely of white marble. As I was riding an escalator, I couldn't help but think how many times Mao has turned over in his grave ever since Deng declared "To get rich is glorious." There are certainly loads of rich people in China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. You really have to see these malls to believe them...you wouldn't think for a nanosecond that you're in a communist country.

I wanted to do some last-minute Olympics shopping, and my cousin told me that there was an Olympics superstore on Wangfujing Dajie. This is the original Western shopping street in Beijing, and it was already fairly upscale when I first visited in 2000. The store was a mob scene, even more so than the one on the Olympic Green. To confuse the situation even more, you couldn't just select an item, pay for it on the spot, and walk out. A shopkeeper had to find the right size and write up a ticket, after which I had to walk over to a cash register, pay for the item, and return to the original place where I found it to retrive my purchase. It's basically a shoplifting prevention method, but having to jostle with the overeager crowd of people was jarring. The funny thing was that I saw a young American guy with a Georgetown Rowing t-shirt on, and he indeed was a Georgetown student. I think I caught him off-guard by coming up to him.

Upon escaping the store I realized that I was pretty close to Tian'anmen Square, so I made a last-minute decision to walk over. There were tons of people on the street and the weather was beautiful once again. I recall having done that same walk back in 2000, and it blew my mind to see how much had changed. The main street that divides Tian'anmen from the Forbidden City is Chang'an Jie - the section to the east, close to Wangfujing, is lined with monstrous hotels and office buildings that are all lit up. Tian'anmen Square itself is nothing like I remembered it. There were multiple Olympics-related decorations, signs, monument-type things, flower beds, etc., most of which was pretty tacky. You could barely see Mao's mausoleum that sits in the middle of the square. Also, there were a zillion cars going up and down Chang'an Jie...in 2000, my aunt and I walked back to our hotel at night in near-silence.

I don't need to say anything here about what happened at Tian'anmen in 1989 - you all know the story. After taking a few pictures of the front gate of the Forbidden City where Mao's portrait hangs, I stood there and thought about all of the things that had happened over the past 100+ years at that very spot. In the movie "The Last Emperor," the boy emperor, Puyi, watches the Qing Dynasty come to an end without being able to do anything about it. Then the Japanese invade prior to World War II. Then the Communists defeat the Nationalists (the side on which both of my grandfathers served, one in intelligence and the other in the navy) and Mao declares the birth of the People's Republic of China. Then the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Then the student protests in 1989. And now throngs of people, mostly Chinese but some Westerners as well, celebrating the Olympics. It was enough to make my head spin.

My final part of the pedestrian pilgrimage was to head a couple more blocks west to the National Performing Arts Center (or something like that), which is an enormous structure that looks like half of an egg lying on its side, with a large moat-like lake surrounding it. Metal panels cover the building, and on that night there were a ton of spotlights shining on it. The color of the building changed from white to blue and back to white - I couldn't tell if that was happening externally or internally, but either way it was both cool and over-the-top. What was especially weird was the juxtaposition of that building and the large, stately granite one across the street.

It was in front of that granite building where I caught a taxi to go back to my cousin's house. The driver seemed to think I was unaware of how much the fare would be, and he returned to the topic a couple of times before we even got to the Second Ring Road. It ended up being 90RMB, which is close to $13...a huge sum in China, especially for transportation. For me, though, I gladly paid the price - I couldn't have left Beijing without at least going to Tian'anmen, as gaudy as it was on that night.

Posted by alsandiego 14:14 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (2)

Day 8: My Last Olympic Event

Checking water polo off of the list

rain 89 °F

I don't like to be two days behind on my blog, but a lot has happened over the past 48 hours so I've been hard-pressed to find enough time to sit down and hash this out. Right now I'm sitting in my mom's office in Shanghai, having flown down from Beijing this afternoon. She and my dad don't have wi-fi (or Internet access period) at their house, so I have to come here to get on-line. Fortunately they live five minutes away by foot from the school where my mom works...but still.

Saturday was yet another beautiful day in Beijing: blue skies, low humidity, and a gentle, refreshing breeze. Having returned from tennis very late the previous night, I slept in and then caught some Olympics coverage on TV. My cousin and his family not only get the local TV coverage (CCTV, which is the state-run communications company) but also various American channels. NBC's coverage comes through on AFN, the Armed Forces Network. Since it's a military operation, they can't show commercials - so when you're seeing commercials for VISA, McDonald's, Coke, or whatever, we're watching public service announcements geared towards members of the military. Some of them are overly militaristic, some are interesting, and more than a few are downright bizarre.

In the mid-afternoon Peggy, her mom, the two younger boys, and I drove down to the Olympic Green for men's water polo. These were among the tickets that I purchased on-line from CoSport last November, and I remember being interested in water polo even though I knew very little about the sport. The matches were taking place right next door to the handball venue and unfortunately not at the Water Cube, but the smaller space made for a cozier environment. Spain and Montenegro were in the first match - Montenegro had a fairly large cheering section on the other side of the pool, but there were some Spaniards scattered around as well.

It was obvious from the beginning that water polo is a pretty violent sport, with a lot of thrashing, holding, and kicking. You can only imagine what happens underneath the water. Something interesting that I noted was that the referees aren't actually in the water themselves - rather, there's one on each side of the pool running up and down. I suppose it works OK, but it's kind of weird to watch. Another cool bit of trivia is that each quarter starts with the two teams lining up at their respective ends of the pool and then sprinting to get the ball, which is sitting in a life preserver that floats in the middle. The BOCOG organizers decided to be cute and play the theme to "Jaws" during each sprint, and I read that the water polo players initially were taken aback by this musical serenade.

The most exciting match was the second one, featuring Hungary versus Australia. Even though I had very little familiarity with water polo, I knew that it's a big sport in Hungary. I think it was at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne when Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in a match that took place just days after the USSR had invaded Hungary. It was vicious - you may have seen a famous picture of a Hungarian guy with blood streaming down the side of his head. Anyway, there were two large sections of Hungarians who shouted cheers in their exotic-sounding language. I spent a few days in Budapest in October 1993 and remember being flummoxed by the words that seemed to be 15 or 16 letters long. Hungarian is completely unrelated to the languages of neighboring Slavic countries - rather, it's part of the Ural-Altic family that includes Finnish and Estonian. To demonstrate, the main cheer that I heard was "Hajra Magyarorszag," which I think means "Go, Hungary!" The reason I know how to spell it is because it was printed on the back of the shirts worn by many of the Hungarians. When pronounced, it sounds likes "HOY-rah mah-dyar-OHR-sahg." Very interesting, indeed.

The Hungarians jumped out during the first two quarters and looked like they were going to sail to an easy win, but Australia came back in the second half and ALMOST tied. It actually went down to the final 20 or 30 seconds, which made for an exciting match. For some reason water polo is very popular in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary is landlocked, with the Danube River and Lake Balaton being their main waterways, but people there are into it. Gotta give it to those Aussies, though - they are definitely a sporting nation, especially in the water. The final match pitted China against Serbia, and even with an extremely vocal hometown crowd I knew the Chinese would be outmatched. They were smaller than the Serbians and obviously less experienced. Still entertaining, though.

After we left the water polo venue, I decided to head off on my own and explore the Olympic Green (Peggy took her mom and the boys back to their house). Just getting there required a significant effort, first with figuring out where to exit, then walking on a pedestrian overpass that crossed the Fourth Ring Road, weaving through throngs of people to get to the entrance on the southwestern end of the Green, and finally getting past security. The Olympic Green is closed off to the public - to gain access, you need to show a ticket for an event held that same day, even if the venue isn't on the Green itself. Security, security, security. Kind of sad but necessary, I suppose, especially these days. While waiting in line I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a middle-aged Chilean woman who was wearing a Brazil tank top. She had been in China for over two months and was flying back to Santiago the following day. Can you imagine how long that would take?! The poor woman had to go through Sydney and said that the only other option would be Frankfurt. Crazy.

Even after having been to about ten Olympic sessions, none of them had been at venues on the Green. So I definitely wanted to check it out, especially after having seen shots of the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. They certainly didn't disappoint. It was about 7pm by the time I got through security, and the Bird's Nest was lit up in red - there were already tens of thousands of spectators inside for the finals of the men's 100m (which I didn't realize at the time). Right across the wide plaza is the Water Cube, which lit up in blue just as I was walking past. Truly amazing. The fencing hall was just north of the Water Cube and seemed pretty spectacular as well.

I spent about an hour and a half wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere, and enjoying the temperate weather. A bunch of corporate sponsors have custom-built pavilions to the northwest of the Bird's Nest, and I checked some of them out: Omega (the watch company and the official timekeeper of these Games), Bank of China, China Mobile, Volkwagen, etc. Mind-blowing to think about how much money they fronted, all with the hopes of capturing the attention and spending power of the Chinese middle and upper classes.

At the northwest corner I found the Olympic Superstore, where I jostled with overzealous shoppers looking for pins, t-shirts, hats, and all sorts of Olympic kitsch and tschotckes. Most of the stuff was tacky, though a few items were actually appealing. I resisted the urge to go crazy and limited my purchase to pins and a couple of shirts. Afterwards I did the unthinkable and went to the enormous McDonald's across the way for a burger, fries, and Sprite. You already know, Gentle Reader, that I am very much opposed to the fast food industry - if you haven't already read it, you must pick up a copy of "Fast Food Nation." Well, in defense of myself, I was hungry and there was absolutely nowhere else to go on the Green aside from the generic refreshment stands that sell the same stuff. As I believe I mentioned earlier, the food at the venues is dreadful and definitely a missed opportunity for BOCOG. If you order what's listed on the menus as a "hot dog," you get a vacuum-packed, thick, short sausage that has a nasty smell to it and is pockmarked with globules of fat. It must be tasty to the Chinese, however, because they eat it.

A linguistic sidenote: the term for hot dog in Chinese is literally "hot dog" ("ri gou"). It's like "perro caliente" in certain Latin American countries. I can't remember what it's called in Paraguay, but I recall having a great laugh about that with my friend Venisha when we hit the Shell station in Asuncion back in late December 1998. Only days before we almost got thrown in jail on New Year's Eve for crossing into Brazil without a visa. But I digress...

As I left the Olympic Green in search of a taxi that would take me all the way back to my cousin's house, I couldn't help but feel a little sad to see my second Olympic experience come to an end. There was still more than a week of competition left, but I would only get to watch events on TV or read about them on-line. Being the Olympics geek that I am, I already am thinking about Vancouver 2010 for the Winter Games...only a couple hours north of Seattle, after all!

Posted by alsandiego 14:56 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

Day 7: Blue Skies and a Marathon (of Tennis)

More spectacular matches...

semi-overcast 72 °F

My apologies, faithful readers, for failing to post in two days. It's Sunday early afternoon here...my last day in Beijing before I head down to Shanghai tomorrow mid-morning. I meant to post yesterday but got caught up watching live coverage on NBC of Michael Phelps et al.

So I need to backtrack to Friday and will write a separate entry instead of combining it with Saturday's. After Thursday's downpour the skies cleared and the humidity went away - it was still hot out but in a different way than last week. A very pleasant and welcome change! My cousin Bing and her kids were to fly back to California that evening, so we made plans to have lunch at a Peking duck restaurant in the city. First, though, we all hovered around the flat-screen to watch the finals of the women's all-around gymnastics. What a nail-biter. We agreed that Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson had been dinged a bit on their scores on a couple of the apparatuses (apparati?), which made the floor exercise all the more dramatic.

After seeing them clinch the gold and silver, we piled into the van and headed to the restaurant. For those of you who have never eaten Peking duck, it's quite the experience. The preparation takes quite a bit of time (at least 24 hours, as I understand) and is painstaking, but the results are well-worth the price. If it's cooked the right way, the fat is essentially cooked off, leaving crispy skin and moist, succulent meat underneath. The custom is to wrap some pieces of skin and meat in a thin pancake (think of a small crepe) with some hoisin sauce and slivered green onions. Delicious. We ordered a bunch of other dishes, and I ate so much that I didn't think about food for the rest of the day...you should know that such a thing doesn't happen often to me.

We made a quick stop at a supermarket so that Bonnie could buy some more Chinese candy to take back to the States, and then Peggy and I took off for the tennis venue at the far northwest end of the main Olympic area. With zero smog you could see the mountains that surround Beijing - who knew?! Peggy told me that such an occurrence happens only four or five days out of an entire year. Since we had been there earlier in the week, we knew exactly which route to take and where to park. Many of the roads surrounding the Olympic park are closed, which makes navigating a huge pain in the A. Even the roads that are open often have barricades down the middle so that you can't turn. We made it as close as we could get to the venue in short time, but since we had left at 4pm (the time that the session started) we missed the first set of the semifinal between James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez of Spain. Blake had won the first but Gonzalez took the second 7-5, which pushed the match into three sets. It seemed that both were playing somewhat conservatively, trading groundstrokes and not moving to the net.

The third was a back-and-forth marathon with each player holding serve, all the way until the 19th game when Gonzalez broke Blake. By that point I knew it was just about over, unless Blake could break back. Unfortunately that didn't happen, and Gonzalez won the match at 11-9. Very disappointing since Blake wouldn't be able to compete for the gold medal and had been the last American player left in the singles competition. Gonzalez indeed played well, but I already knew he would lose in the finals after I found out who was in the other semi: Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

First, however, we watched a women's semi between Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Dinara Safina of Russia. Jankovic recently took over the world's #1 ranking, but I had never seen her play on TV before. Safina is the sister of Marat Safin, who was one of the top three men's players a while back before Federer and Nadal became household names. Jankovic's and Safina's forehands were huge - they pounded the ball and had these amazing rallies that seemed to never end. Safina took the first set and Jankovic the second, but in the third Safina proved to be better on that night. Jankovic displayed a sassy attitude that I had heard about before, and I don't think she won over the crowd at all. She's a great player, but I wasn't displeased to see her lose.

After two three-setters, it was already close to 10pm. We had sat in the sun for the first hour or two, so I was feeling pretty drained already. But with Nadal and Djokovic about the play the other men's singles semi, it wasn't like we were about to leave. Djokovic may not have the same name recognition as Nadal or Federer, but he's the world #3 and won the Australian Open in January. He's the one who does the on-court imitations of other players - if you've ever seen him in action, it's priceless. Otherwise he's awesome and proved that he could hang with Nadal. Compared to the Blake-Gonzalez match, this was at a whole new level. The ball flew back and forth with so much power and speed it made me dizzy to watch.

Yet another three-setter, as Nadal took the first set and Djokovic the second. Just as was the case with the previous two, the players held serve for a while until Nadal was able to break Djokovic and then win the match in a thrilling last game, featuring three overheads by Djokovic and two saves from Nadal (the third overhead having gone out). Right after that point Nadal collapsed on the court and spread his arms and legs out, like he had spent every last ounce of energy. Amazing stuff.

By this point it was about 12:15am, and yet a FOURTH match was about to start: women's doubles between Russia and China. Dinara Safina was part of the Russian team and had to come back on to the court, which was unbelievable given her three-setter with Jankovic. Peggy and I decided to bail and go home. I have to say, Olympic tennis is a much better value than any of the Grand Slams if the big stars decide to compete. I sat in my seat for EIGHT hours straight and saw the men's #1 and #3, the women's #1, and several other big-name players on the circuit. Even though the matches are best-of-three for both men and women, you know that the athletes are playing for their respective countries and really want to win.

Some final observations from the tennis venue:

1) Friday night was the fourth time I saw a University of Wisconsin t-shirt since arriving in Beijing. There was a guy sitting behind LeBron James at the tennis prelims who was wearing a Duke shirt, and I saw an American in a Georgetown shirt at the Beijing South Train Station (I couldn't help but approach him - it turns out he had lived in DC but now owns and lives on an olive farm in Tuscany...tough life!). Four UW shirts, though??

2) No famous sightings this time, which was weird considering the matches were semis and not just prelims. The Prince of Spain, Felipe, must have gone back to Madrid already. Oh well.

3) There was a group of middle-aged, overweight Chileans sitting at courtside cheering for Gonzalez. For some reason they annoyed me - they acted like college frat boys. I hope they get their own when Nadal absolutely destroys Gonzalez in the men's final.

4) The Chinese spectators at these Games don't seem to cheer for Americans when there's a choice. Why do so many people dislike us? Oh, sorry, I forgot...because we have a warped unilateral foreign policy. Question answered.

5) The Chinese man sitting behind me for the first few hours smelled like Tiger Balm, that menthol rub in the octagon-shaped jar that's the Chinese equivalent of Vic's. At one point during the Jankovic-Safina match he let out a small fart.

6) There's been a bit of talk about the etiquette that Chinese people exhibit at tennis matches. For one, they don't keep quiet during points - rather, they ooh and ahh. Also, they talk amongst themselves instead of being silent. They answer their cell phones. They make verbal commentary on well-hit balls by saying "hao qiu" which translates as "good ball." It takes a bit of getting used to, but I could tell that they were starting to pick up on the appropriate behavior. That didn't stop me from shushing people in our seating area a couple of times.

7) I'm still not a huge Nadal fan, but he is a spectacular player...no one can doubt that.

Posted by alsandiego 23:55 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

Day 6: A Different View of Beijing

A glimpse into the contemporary art scene

sunny 81 °F

It was like a vacation from a vacation. After several days of running around town, I had yesterday (Thursday) off and seized the opportunity to get out and see some of the city. I first visited Beijing in early October 2000, right after I spent five weeks in Australia for the Sydney Olympics. Back then there were fewer cars, skyscrapers, and urban congestion, plus the weather was spectacular. Note, Dear Reader, to never come to China in the summer...unless you enjoy sweating yourself to near-death. So on that first trip I saw all of the main sights: Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and the Ming Tombs. Having seen those places - especially under much better climactic conditions - I don't feel a huge need to go back.

A couple of months ago we received an e-mail at work from a guy who was asking about buying green coffee from us and having it shipped to Beijing. I replied to him (being the resident Chinese-American at Atlas) and we started going back and forth. Herbert is partner in an Internet company here that seems to be doing well, but his heart is in coffee and he's looking to start a roasting business. He originally is from Hong Kong and went to Carnegie Mellon to study engineering, so he has the mechanical background that will serve him well.

Herbert originally planned to escape Beijing during the Olympics but ended up staying to get minor surgery on a toe. So we made plans to meet up at the Starbucks (!) at the Holiday Inn Lido Plaza, one of the first Western hotels in Beijing that's still somewhat of a local landmark. At the time (11:30am) it was pretty humid outside so I got a sweetened iced tea. We walked around the immediate area surrounding the hotel where there are all these higher-end shops, and on the way to a dumpling restaurant we passed one of the original branches of a local chain of cafes called Sculpting in Time. An odd name, yes, but apparently it's the title of a French movie. The cafe was fairly large and looked pretty cool - they used Illy espresso which was a good sign. We didn't get anything, in spite of a female employee eagerly trailing us with menus in hand as we walked around.

After a great dumpling lunch, we took a taxi to 798, the much-ballyhooed complex of art galleries that's occupies a former factory. Contemporary Chinese art is the rage these days - I had read about it on the New York Times Web site a couple of times over the past few years, and 798 is the center of that movement. The complex is enormous, with multiple buildings and alleyways. The art itself (at least what I saw) ranges from black-and-white photography to sculpture to paintings to these large installations that I cannot even begin to describe (one was like the set for a model train but without the train, though very artsy-fartsy). There was even a gallery representing Japanese artists...who would have thought that Japanese would want to exhibit their works in China!

One of the interesting things I noticed was that there were no prices listed on any of the works. I suppose it's one of those situations in which only people who who can afford these kinds of things will dare to inquire about the cost. At the first gallery we entered, Herbert explained to me how photographs are sold. The gallery sets a limit on the number of prints (30 was the common number that we saw) and will destroy the negative once that cap is reached. The price starts on the lower end for the first few copies, but it climbs as more copies are sold. Each sale is marked on the placard with a red sticker so the potential buyer can see how many copies are left. Pretty ingenious.

It started raining in the mid-afternoon so we ducked into a cafe/restaurant, the second floor of which was a no-smoking section (smoking is rife, though you rarely see women doing it in public). I had a decent americano that was slightly watered down but still decent, and Herbert got a latte that even had latte art on top. Impressive! We continued to talk all things coffee, and in the process I found out that Herbert knows quite a bit - especially for being completely self-taught. He gave me a clearer idea of what the cafe scene is like in Beijing. Starbucks is everywhere, of course...recently the company publicly said that China will be their second-largest market after the U.S. Many copycats have popped up, including UBC Coffee and SPR Coffee (whose lettering and colors mimic Starbucks') that have outlets all over town.

The rain continued to pour down, and when we left the cafe at 4:30pm it was a mess outside. Since Herbert was wearing flip-flops and couldn't get his toe wet, I volunteered to look for a taxi. I sloshed through the streets from almost an hour - the guards at the entrances weren't letting taxis into 798 for some reason, and eventually I lied and told one of them that I was buying art and needed a taxi to protect it from the rain.

Since my cousin Bing and her three kids are flying back to California today (Friday), we were planning on all going out to dinner for Beijing duck last night. Calvin and Bonnie decided to hang out with friends of theirs from Santa Cruz who are also here for the Olympics, so a smaller group of us went to a new branch of a very successful, upscale Sichuan restaurant called South Beauty (don't ask...the Chinese names often don't make sense when they're translated into English). The restaurant was on the top floor of a brand-new, glitzy shopping mall called Euro Plaza that's only 1/5 occupied. Peggy told me that the rent is so high that tenants won't sign leases, so for now it's kind of a ghost town. Not to fear, though...there's a McDonald's on the ground floor! Ugh.

Good thing it rained so hard yesterday, because it's absolutely beautiful outside right now. Blue skies - a rare sight during these Games - and a perfect day to watch the tennis semis. James Blake beat Federer in a rain-delayed quarterfinals match last night, which now gives us an American for whom to cheer. I was a bit bummed that Federer wouldn't be able to redeem his two previous Olympics losses in Sydney and Athens, but I love that Blake beat him for the first time in his entire career. So stay tuned for my next post!

Posted by alsandiego 03:55 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (2)

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