Saturday, October 30

And On Saturday We Go to Hong Kong

It feels a little strange to be doing day by day coverage of a trip I completed almost a week ago, but I refuse to leave this travelogue unfinished. Besides, if the stories didn't outlive the adventures it would be a sad set of adventures in the first place. So, the story of my last full day in the far east....

Saturday was an early morning since I had to get checked out of the hotel and through immigration to Hong Kong with enough time to explore a little. I collected my luggage, had some breakfast and was ready to meet Dave and Freya by 8:45. Interestingly, anything before 9 am is very early for Chinese business. Freya was going into Hong Kong with us since she regularly visits the island but there were some kind of traffic issues and they were running late. To pass the time I shot some video of the Baolilai Hotel lobby. The lobby is quite nice and always smelled like you were walking through a floral shop. The aroma of fresh lillies was almost an affront by the end of the week

After Freya made it over to pick us up we hauled me and all my luggage to the tran station to board the MTR, Hong Kong's efficient train/subway system. You can board the MTR in Shenzhen City after clearing immigration/customs from China into Hong Kong in the station. I didn't realize that HK and China were still so separate after the island's return from Britain. Still separate immigration, customs and even currency. So we stand in line for a while, get stamped out of China, fill out some forms, stand in another line, get stamped into Hong Kong, declare that we have nothing to declare, and we're on our way. Here's a video of the immigration line leaving China. Note the "no photos" sign, heh.

The MTR was quite nice and is a very popular way to get around. Public transport should be so nice stateside. The ride across the island to Kowloon and Hong Kong was actually very pretty. The mountains reminded me of North Georgia, but the peaks were steeper although not quite as tall. Throw in the subtropical plant life and housing that crawled in and out of the valleys and you have an absolutely stunning area. I would love to go back and explore some of the more natural areas in the area. I bet there's a small group of epats somewhere there with some really killer mountain biking in those hills.

We disembarked at the end of the blue line, one of the main stations. We found a storage service for my luggage and set off to explore Hong Kong. Our plan was to check out some of the older city and do some shopping in the street markets, then head over to the high end, newer districts to check out a couple of our supplier's screens and window shop. The first stop was a small temple near the train station that was quite beautiful. I don't know how old it was, but it was kind of dropped right in the middle of large apartment buildings. We were allowed inside where people were praying and leaving small gifts and incense. The altars were absolutely amazing and I was really touched by the same sense of the divine that I somestimes feel at the rail of our own altar during communion. You can believe in God as a superbeing or just as a higher concept that humans are trying to reach, but it was very obvious in that place that we are all reaching out to the same thing.

After leaving the temple we hit the bank to exchange our Yuan (or RMB) for some HKD and do a little shopping. The old streets are narrow and the signs sprout from the buildings on either side like some kind of forest growth, nearly meeting over the streets. The effect is a little vertigo inducing at times, but also kind of like a country lane with trees stretching over it. Then there are the market stalls....structures made out of poles and tenting, stretched tarps, folding tables, glass counters...and anything else. They spill off the sidewalks to almost meet in the middle of the streets inbetween the main roads, leaving a walking path 3-4 feet wide between their open fronts. Anything is available and thee streets are kind of organized by type of merchandise - wearables and accessories, electronics, household goods, etc. They were a little sensitive about photos - as I've mentioned before. Even the streetside food vendors gave my camera the stink-eye. This is one thing you'll just have to go see yourself.

As we got out onto the more mainstreets, the pedestrian traffic eased some and i was able to shoot a little.

Shortly after that we wedged ourself through the crowd for a tea break. This was probably one of the most crowded areas we experienced with people jostling and bumping on the narrow sidewalks.

Just afterward we found a street of shops all geared toward guys. They were all selling model cars, RC cars and airplanes, motorcycle accessories, ...and model guns. They were the strangest thing - full scale, super detailed fake guns of all varieties from pistols to grenade launchers. Plus you could buy accessories for all of them - different magazine clips, stocks, grips...on and on. I guess in a country where owning guns is illegal, this is the next best thing. I couldn't help but think of a US kid carrying one of these in public and the law enforcement response. Frightening.

Having wrapped up our shopping we took a cab to the other side of town - the new super-lux districts filled with Louis Vuitton, Armani, Tiffany, and many other things I can barely pronounce and never afford. Did I mention the wealth in HK is staggering at times? The cabs here deserve a discussion of their own. everyone of them is a Toyota Royal Crown Comfort of fairly recent vintage with an automatic rear door. easily half the cars in the street are these red and silver cabs. the back seats are rediculously roomy, although the interior rminded me of my '82 Corolla a LOT. The cabs seem very well regulated and are a good option for almost anyone. English is very common in the streets including the market sellers and the cab drivers. It may not be conversational, but if you know where you want to go, they can figure it out. Again, if public transport were this well organized and controlled here it would be a beautiful thing. The taxi actually took us to the ferry dock where we took the open ferry across to the new part of town. The ferry ride cost $2.40HK, about 50 cents US. The bay was clean and the sea smelled wonderful, just like the coast back home. It's such a difference from the waterways around a major US city that it was staggering.

The new side of the city looks like New York or Chicago - glass skyscrapers and luxury cars, super malls and Starbucks. It was something to see, but I'd rather be in the street markets.

After much walking about we grabbed a cab to pick up my bags from the train station and take us to my Hotel out by the airport. The 45 min trip cost us $190HK, about $25USD and gave us a great view of the deep water freight harbor and a 5km bridge that was reminiscient of the Golden Gate. The hotel was a Novatel and nice enough, although the service was lackluster after staying at the Baolilai for a week. I did ramble the attached outlet mall for a while, picking up a set of headphones in a chain electronics store and a travel pillow from a department store. Shopping in a foriegn depoartment store is a little surreal - some of it is so familiar and at the same time so alien.

The next morning I collected my luggage and caught the free airport shuttle, clearing customs and check in easily. I definitely want to come back to Hong Kong and spend more time. after the gritty, work-a-day landscape of Shenzhen, HK is a different world. One I want to know more about.

Wednesday, October 27

TGIFIC- Thank Goodness it's Friday (in China)

So now that I've covered my amazing adventures with Big Mike, all that remains is a Friday in Shenzhen, a Saturday in Hong Kong and a long boring flight home. All this jumping around in the time stream is taking a toll on my quantum state, so I'll try to wrap it up sequentially.

Friday I finally got to cover all the new info on the signs we were there to inspect, do the inspection testing, and generally make some progress on the issues that brought me to the east. It all went well and was something of a relief given the evaporative nature of our schedule the previous few days. Planning a schedule or itenerary in China seems a lot like chalk-drawing on the sidewalk in a thunderstorm. At the end of the day we were very honored to receive parting gifts from the supplier, a very beautiful, traditional Chinese tea set and a selection of fine tea each for Dave and I. It was a lovely gesture and I plan on using mine a great deal. I've become quite fond of having tea and the unimagineably delicate tea set is the perfect service for it. After presentation of the gifts we all gathered in the lobby for a group photo, something that's very important for them as well as us. If you look closely, the small pink sign says something about welcoming their "Honorable guests from Aero Eagle." They obviously didn't know us well when making the sign....

Sean, Kelly, Freya, Dave B, me, Mr. Kuang, Tony, and Ivy

After the photo shoot we headed into Shenzhen City for one last dinner, this time at a well known Sichuan restaurant. More spicy food ensued, this time with local Snow beer instead of Tsingtao. The into was three small dishes of variously spicy appetizers, a firm tofu with a distictly cheese-like texture, thin sliced pig ears served cold (!) and sprouts of some variety. This was quickly followed by the requisite dumplings, this time with a layer of toasted sesame seeds on the bottom for an unexpected, smokey crunch. The first big dish was a fish soup, almost hot-pot style, that featured heavily on Sichuan flower peppers. These little things were known to me by reputation but never by experience. The flavor was wonderful and the burn was unlike aything else I've had. It started as a tingle on the very center of my tongue and grew quickly to real heat, possibly as a result of the other peppers in the dish. The feeling was kind of like the aftermath of burning your tongue on hot coffee, or maybe the way a cold carbonated drink kind of sizzles your tongue if you drink it really fast on a hot day, all while maintining a slightly floral bouquet. We also tried several types of tofu (all good), some special medicinal greens that I think they grow as decorative hanging baskets stateside (weird, weird flavor), a lovely sweet-spicy shimp and peanut dish, more cold spicy chicken, and sliced cold pork that was then dipped in powdered dried peppers. Of course there were a couple types of noodles but instead of hot tea we had hot soymilk, something I found that I really enjoy. Of course their soymilk is fresh pressed, barely sweetened and not thickend, unlike all the "health food" soymilk here that is thickly, sweetly vanilla'd. Heaven forbid it actually tasted like soymilk instead of trying to pull off a lack-luster milk impression.

One of the final items was a large meatloaf-esque concoction that was made with beef shortribs molded in with rice flour, layered on top of a kind of cooked gourd similar in taste to acorn squash. Although the flavor wasn't like anything I'd had, it immediately nailed my comfort-food button. I could easily see it being a favorite in cold months. Here's a short video showing the beginning of dinner. If you look quickly, you can spot our "box of beer" on the floor by the table. This is a plastic industrial tote filled with ice and beer, the much-better equivalent to the American "Bucket of Beer."

Driving through Shenzen City at night, I was again reminded of the movie Blade Runner. With the haze of pollution, the LED screens 5 stories tall, massive cranes, construction and neon-lit alleys, actual Shenzhen was not unlike the toxic waste world in the movie. I hope it will never proceed to the levels of toxicity and disrepair seen in Ridley Scott's film, but it certainly looks closer than anywhere else I've been. It has a certain sci-fi charm that you can see in Whedon's "Serenity" and "firefly" as well, never letting you forget that all is not well while still charming you.

Monday, October 25

So where was I......?

Where was I with the story? Oh yeah, getting in the car with the big, half-lit American expat Mike. Right,

So, Mike convince our waitress Morgan to wrap my food to go (which is "take-away" in Mandarin) , ordered some beer for the ride, and away we went. I was very sure to inquire about local open container laws since I was getting into a car with a plastic bag full of ice and beer, but open container laws are nonexistent there. There are extremely harsh drunk driving laws, but nothing regulating passengers. Since we had a guy from the hotel that was paid to be the sober driver, I chalked it up to "when in Rome" and opened a beer after climbing in the back seat of the Camry. Mike got settled in the front seat and we headed out. At the bottom of the drive to the hotel, Mike says "Hey we gotta stop and get my translator." The car pulls over and two 20-something Chinese girls pile into the back seat with me. Um....yeah. Translators. Okay.....

Now, I was thinking the same thing you are right now, I guarantee. But, they were nicely dressed and did seem to have a good grasp of English and might be of use in communication. I figure if things get too...friendly, I can always excuse myself and hire a taxi back to the hotel. I've got enough money to take a taxi all the way across China, and I have the Hotel address in Chinese on my room card. What the hell...

So we shoot the breeze and have a few drinks as we work our way through traffic to downtown Shenzhen City. Mike starts teaching me a few words in Mandarin with Emily and Alicia's help, and We're having a good ole time. The traffic is thick and the as trip stretches out Emily begins to feel car sick, apparently something she goes through often. Instead of going directly to the shopping center, we went to the Shangri-La Hotel for a cold drink and a rest. Okay, hold on, Shangri-La is a SE Asian hotel chain of 5 star hotels, it's not at all what it sounds like. I swear. We all sit in the bar, have a few drinks and the girls ordered some food. Mike stays at these hotels all over in his travels and is one of their gold level frequent flyer types, so we get the red carpet treatment. Through conversation I learn the Emily is actually an assistant manager in the night club at our hotel and does frequently help guest with shopping and translation. I won't speculate as to what other services she may or may not offer, or may or may not arrange by request. Alicia also works at the hotel, and they have been together for 5 years. I'm not really clear if Alicia means friends for 5 years or ..."together" for 5 years, but it doesn't really matter. Once Emily is feeling better, we walk the three or four blocks to the shopping mall, LouHu Commercial City. The walk over is less crowded than some of the other places I've been, and just before we leave the hotel Mike tells me to keep a hand on my wallet because once in a great while thieves have been known to razor-slice your pockets and take the contents. Hmmm.....

I had actual read about this market in some of my initial research about Shenzhen, so I was somewhat prepared. As we approach the place people start walking up to us and saying "Hallo, what do you need, purse, watch, what you want....etc etc." These are "touters," people that make a few bucks by directing gullible travelers to certain shops to buy....whatever they want. The correct response is to ignore them, tell them "booyow" or something similar that means "Don't want." All through the day these guys and girls are matching your step and trying to grab at your arm to go show you something. It turns the afternoon into a tiring but interesting carnival. The shops inside are mostly glass front, full counter spaces reminiscent of an old mall, but the spaces are so tightly packed and the aisles are so narrow that is almost feels like a flea market. The touters and booth hawkers don't help any. Mike has a couple people he buys from regularly, so we see the first one - a watch and handbag specialist. When Mike walks up she immediately sends a runner for a couple cold beers and pulls out the watch catalog and the purse catalog. See, they all have a catalog, 3/4" thick, of every watch around. You simply flip through to find the brand you want, then point out a few. The shop owner sends a runner to whatever other stall or backroom has that model, and they bring it back in about 15 minutes. Mike selects several Rolex models and I point out a nice Coach handbag for my wife.

Now, at this point I want to make sure everyone knows that there are no fake or counterfeit goods in China. I know it's true because their government says so. But the deals you can get in these little backwater markets on top luxury brand items are just staggering.

We assure the proprietor we will be back and then head up stairs with our cold beers to see what else we can find. Mike was also searching for an old contact that sells Polo shirts, and we found her on the second floor. Did I mention that this place was 5 stories? We started haggling on some shirts with Mike, Emily and the shop owner going toe to toe over golf shirts. If you pay more than 2/3 of the original quoted price, or if you don't start to walk out at least twice, you aren't getting the best deal. Really. we finally worked the price down to 40RMB per shirt (6.15USD) and I bought 5 in solid colors. Although I normally wear an XL these days, I took her advice and got XXLs. I should have gone with one more X, but they'll be allright if I keep exercising and don't put them in the dryer.

After another hour and a half of cruising the shops and being harangued by all the sellers, we migrated back to the first shop and haggled out a final price for the watches and purse. Mike was worn out by that point, not being young or in good physical shape, so we walked back to the Shangri-La to find our driver. The girls couldn't believe he was tired, so they stayed and shopped, planning to return by train later. On the ride back to the hotel, Mike managed to spill the remainder of his white wine over the shifter and center console of the car, which angered the driver. Just. a. little. I thought for a few minutes we were about to be hiring a cab from wherever he kicked us out, but luckily we made it back to the hotel without the driver blowing a gasket. Mike tipped him enough to have the car cleaned twice and take his entire family out for dinner for a week. At least when he acts like an idiot American, he does his best to apologize and make up for it. Tipping is generally not done in China at all, so it was a nice gesture.

From there we met Dave B in the hotel bar and Bitt and I ended up at the street vendor for dinner. Sadly, I din't shoot any video of the market. I just didn't want that much attention.

Back to the grind

Sorry to leave you hanging, but the last couple days overseas got kind of hectic. Since my flight left early Sunday morning from Hong Long, I had to check out in Shenzhen Saturday morning and stay Saturday night in Hong Kong. Add a late-running farewell dinner Friday night and any free time to post quickly evaporated. after a long flight I'm back at work in old Maconga today, so I will fill inthe rest of the story and post some videos as soon as I can. Stay tuned....

Friday, October 22

Friday night wrap up

Sorry faithful readers, I just got in and I have to check out early tomorrow for the switch to the Hong Kong hotel so I can catch an early flight Sunday. You will just have to wait for the story of my adventure with Big Mike, but I did post some pics from today on the smugmug site, so check those out for now. I should have some time to kill tomorrow night, so hopefully I can update then. good night from Shenzhen for the last time this trip!

Thursday, October 21

Go wit da flow

Today I was supposed to go and train on the new control system on our signs. Both my contacts showed up on time at the hotel only to tell me that the signs weren't ready so there was no way to train. Dave B had already headed out to see another supplier so I was kind of stuck. I tried to get in touch with Dave but that kind of fell through. I was starting to feel like a caged bear and was pretty unhappy about the cancellation, so I changed into a tshirt and headed out to walk the streets around our hotel and see if I could find something on which to spend my cashy money. Now, I may have alluded to the fact that I stand out a little over here. There are taller people here, but average seems to be about 5'6" or so. I'm a little taller. What few taller people are around are thin like a bamboo stick. I am not. And I have yet to meet a Chinese citizen with a goatee. The usual reaction in a crowd so far is staring and a little blank surprise, or a chorus of "hallo" from a couple people. They're not really trying to be friendly and say hi. Believe me.

So off I go and circle a couple blocks in kind of a figure 8 around the hotel, walking maybe a mile or so. I stopped and looked at some stuff but didn't find anything worth buying. I attracted a fair amount of attention, but no aggression or ill comments. It was a little nervy at first but got easier. Striking off into the streets when you know exactly 2 words of the language (Hello and thank you) by yourself is not exactly a guaranteed win. After a couple of blocks I kind of settled in to it and could relax a little. It was pretty cool although I did draw stares. No surprise there.

After walking around I visited the hotel garden and hung out for a while enjoying the stiff breeze and nice weather that you apparently only get when there's a SuperTyphoon just off shore. I almost even saw a little patch of sky that kind of looked like it once thought about being blue in a forgotten dream. Just for Mom and cathy, here are some videos of the garden:

Why yes, Virginia, there ARE Chinese fringe plants in China but they cut them in funny shapes

The main garden

just for Cathy:

I sat in the garden until I got hungry and hit the Hotel bar for a cold Tsingtao, some spring rolls and dumplings. I was sipping my beer and waiting on my snax when this great big pot-bellied American wobbles back into the bar to retrieve the last half of his white wine bottle just as the waitress is picking it from the table. From his accent he's a yankee, but he is discussing taking the wine with him, half in English and half in Mandarin, and generally having a good time. I watched with a smile and chuckled to myself. The guy heard me and said hello. We started talking, as usual the first topic was why we were in China. The guy (Mike) oversees purchasing from several factories around SE Asia and runs some production where hi lives in taiwan, a 3 year transplanted Wisconsonite. After hearing it was my first time, he says "Hey, I was just headed down to Shenzen City to do some shopping. I've got a driver from the hotel and a translator. You wanna go?"

So here I am looking at a 6'8", half lit American expat I just met who is suggesting I hop in a car and drive 45 minutes into a strange city where I don't speak the language to go to "the WalMart of knock-off goods." And he's planning on taking the wine because there are no open container laws here. And Dave is off to who knows where with no way for me to get in touch.

Ummmm.....yeah. What would you do?

So of course I have them wrap the snax and beer to go and hop in the car. I know, not the brightest thing, but you gotta trust your gut, and good adventures don't happen without a little risk, right? Tally ho!

It was quite the adventure, and I'm still worn out. I survived easily, had a good time, and got back to the hotel safely before 6:00 pm. I will give you the full run down in a separate post. I'm too tired to get everything in the way it should be.

When I got back we ran into dave B in the hotel bar, so we all sat down and had a few drinks and discussed trading and working around the South China Sea. Now I have at least one contact in the area, sort of. Taiwan, anyway.

Dave discovered a local street vendor food court last night, so off we went into the night in search of pan fried noodles while Big Mike headed upstairs for a nap.

We found the same vendor and pointed to a bunch of stuff that he threw in a hot wok while we sat in the folding tables and plastic chair area around all the carts. In the back of the square, a DJ was playing music and a bunch of people were line dancing. Really. It was fantastic, maybe the best food I've had yet. Dave at 3 plates of noodlea and I ate 2, and we each had a big tsingtao beer, and it all came to $30RMB or less than $5. Excellent.

Dave and I were able to blend in a little since we were sitting down and it was dark, but every time some walked up to one of the tables near us, there'd be a pause in the conversation as they saw us. Pretty funny.

Wednesday, October 20

If it's Tuesday, It must be Hunan

Yesterday was a very long day of problem resolution and development work with our supplier. We were able to get problems squared away and make some real progress on a software project, but it was an intense day at times. I had an opportunity to work with their head of R&D and their main software engineer who is developing a US-market specific control program. It was a typical engineering give-and-take then heated discussion leading to a solution. I was working through a translator and couldn't understand any of their internal discussion, but I knew for certain the entire time what was going on. I have had enough of the same type of strategy sessions that I didn't need to know the words to know the score. It was pretty cool.

Lunch was a quick bite of beef with wide rice noodles in broth, and a BLT sandwich. It was absolutely the worst sandwich ever. I think they don't really understand the concept of mayonnaise. The beef was good, however, and the noodles were the slipperiest thing I've ever put to chopsticks.

After a long day of intense meetings, our CSR/translators and I decided we needed spicy food and a beer. I introduced them to the concept of "hot food and cold beer" at a local upstairs joint known for extra spicy Hunan cuisine. Dishes included: more chicken hearts with peppers that varied from hot to homaGODi'mgonnaDIE!, a mild beef and pepper dish with great flavor, cumin roast pork ribs that were fire on a stick, dried extra spicy duck (with head) that looked like month old road kill in august but tasted better, a really good eggplant dish in a hearty sauce, spicy crystal noodles that were very good, a local whitefish in spicy broth that was the best fish I've had here yet, and some whole wheat steamed buns. And lots of cold Tsingtao beer. We had a great time, probably the most fun of any dinner yet as all four of us loosened up and kind of cut loose. Again, we had a private room, but this was in a slightly threadbare, somewhat scruffy restaurant that was probably know for the temperature of their beer as much as the temperature of the food. Judging by the reaction from the other customers when we came up the stairs, we might very well be the first westerners to eat there. Ever. A whole room of tattooed, working class guys goes completely quiet....just keep going and be cool.....

Today we wqere driven into Shenzhen City (from the industrial district where we're staying, Bao'an) to look at several of our supplier's local LED screens, see the nicer part of the city, and do a little shopping. The city was much greener and cleaner than this area with beautifully planted and landscaped arears along all the roads. It reminded me some of Atlanta having skyscrapers interspersed with natural areas, but the flora was significantly more abundant than in A-town.

Today we started with a late brunch of traditional breakfast dim sum in the Chinese restaurant in our hotel. An assortment of dumplings, the best spring rolls ever, beef stomach in brown sauce, fried flour sticks, steamed greens with soy sauce, pork ribs with taro root, and the traditoinal eggwhite or rice roll with meat filling. This went with a jasmine tea that was like drinking fresh flowers, and a bowl of freshly pressed soy milk that was slightly sweetened.

Shopping at the markets in Shenzhen City was part tradeshow and part fleamarket, but all entertaining. We visited a local electronics market but I haven't found the bike light I wanted yet. We went to a cell phone market so my colleague could get a sim card phone for use here and he bought a - cough - iPhone 4 for about $60. I picked up a cool LED watch at the watch market for 50RMB after much negotiation, which is about $9. Since our hosts had to call an early day for another customer meeting, Dave and I had a couple martinis and a not-too-bad cheeseburger in the hotel bar. Both of us are feelign pretty beat by this point, but I have to be up for massive training tomorrow. I think I may try out the pool or take a walk around the garden. If I crash now, I'll be up at 4 am...