China/Hong Kong/Macau: Autumn, 2017

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102317 Ready or Not Here We Go!

I think this might be my record for most miles travelled versus least time prepping.  Getting randomly yanked off the street and thrown into an airplane would have been the only way I could have been any less prepared as I was when we left Ottawa for China this morning.  When I woke up at 7am I hadn’t even started packing yet and our curfew for leaving the house to take the cat to the sitters was 9:30.  M’lady’s mom took him again.  She seems to be getting slightly less annoyed by the chore every time.

Frankly I hadn’t given the trip hardly a thought.  Leading up to today I had been busy getting a proposal together for a new book idea which completely distracted me from any thoughts of vacation.  After plugging away for the last week or so I had finished my rough draft at midnight last night and gone straight to bed.  

(This all completely falls in with the fact that I booked the trip to China with hardly a thought as well.  A while back I saw a post on facebook advertising an Air China seat sale to Hong Kong priced at just $501 per person, return from Montreal.  I told m’lady about it, we shrugged and booked it.  How could we not?  Imagine how I felt when a few weeks later I saw another post advertising the same flights at just $400, these ones departing from Ottawa!  Can’t win ‘em all.)

Ultimately I got it together and got packed up with time to spare.  We dropped the cat off and made sure he was happy before circling the car around to the bus station where I left m’lady and all of our luggage in line for the bus to Montreal.  I drove home, pounded a quick tall-boy and power-walked back to the Greyhound station, joining m’lady in the Montreal line after just thirty minutes flat.

And here we are sitting on the Greyhound.  I’ve gone over the book proposal for a quick proof-read and will send it in from the airport.  Then maybe I can start to relax and think about Hong Kong.

Though in reality I suspect I’ll just head straight to the nearest airport lounge and think about ordering a few drinks.

102417 Pivoting Through Beijing

With a thirteen-hour flight ahead of me I felt justified in spending our waiting time in Montreal at one of the airport bars delving into whiskey and french fries.  It’s not that I have much of a problem with a thirteen-hour flight – I don’t – but I don’t really have much of a problem with airport bars either so there ya go.

The flight to Beijing went fairly well (for a thirteen-hour flight).  M’lady and I had booked the aisle and window seats, hoping the middle seat would remain empty.  No such luck this time, and we didn’t end up asking the lady to switch with one of us because she was watching movies and m’lady’s headset movie machine was not working.  

I had a beer and a pretty lousy chicken meal (not as bad as m’lady’s Chinese fatty-pork), watched Wonder Woman and the new Spiderman movie (both not too bad), and curled up for some fitful sleep.  I was finally fully asleep when the lights in the cabin illuminated and the loudspeaker came on*.  After a loud, aggressive bout of Chinese came the English translation, which went something like this:  

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are three hours from Beijing.  We hope you have been getting a good rest, and we wish you the best of luck getting back to sleep after this announcement.  Please enjoy the rest of your painfully long flight.”

I just don’t get it.

I did, however, manage to get back to sleep just in time for the forty-minute pre-landing wakeup warning.  

We landed in Beijing around 5pm local time.  Looking out the window as we approached the airport I noticed how very foggy it was outside.  When we actually landed I couldn’t see any fog outside at all.  Turns out it was not fog, it was pollution.  A crazy, crazy amount of pollution.

We got off our tardy plane with less than forty-five minutes to catch our connection to Hong Kong.  We jogged through the airport until we came to a sign that pointed one way for domestic flights and another way for international flights.

Which stopped these two airport-runners dead in our tracks.

Now, if you’re in Beijing and you are heading to Hong Kong, would you consider it a domestic flight or an international flight?

Of course Hong Kong was a British territory for a long, long time but we all know it went back to China about twenty years ago.  So, domestic right?  But wait a minute, I’m carrying Chinese currency and Hong Kong currency; if it has it’s own money it must be international, right?

(God only knows what country Macau is in!)

The lack of any additional signage whatsoever really added to the mystery.

So we lined up for a domestic transfer and were waiting to go through customs when a helpful stranger suggested we were in the wrong line.  We raced over to the international line which was moving very slowly and kept getting cut by airline employees pushing older folks in wheelchairs to the front.  We eventually tried to stop one of the wheelchair-pushing line-butters.  With an air of urgency he showed us a boarding pass that said 8pm.  We showed him ours that said we boarded at 6pm, which at this point was less than ten minutes away.

He was impressed, but he still butted in front of us.  

When we finally got through that line we ran downstairs and found a long queue to get through security (which was pretty redundant as we had just gotten off an international flight and had not left any secure section of the airport).  We showed the guard our boarding passes and without even a flicker of change in his expression – the dude acted like a human robot – he indicated we were to follow him and he delivered us to the front of the line.  Security still took a while; I had to stand on a stool and hold my arms straight out for a full two-minute pat down.  When we got out of there we ran as fast as we could towards our gate though we were pretty confident we were going to miss our connection (which would force us to eat tonight’s hotel reservation and would they cancel the remainder of our reservation if we don’t check in tonight and do we even have a phone number to call and will they speak English even if we do and…?  Basically we had to make that flight).  

I got ahead of m’lady, yelling over my shoulder that I’d hold the plane for her.  When I finally glimpsed gate E17 from a distance I could see that it was empty save one, single check-in girl.  She spotted me and started waving her arms.  I couldn’t believe it, but it looked like were going to make it!  I got to the gate and I breathlessly pushed my boarding pass into to her extended hand.  Pointing back down the hallway I tried my best to speak.  “M…’lady…(pant, pant, pant)…still…come…(pant, pant)…ing.”

We made it onto the plane at the last minute and – dripping with sweat – we took our seats in the last row, this time with nobody between us.  Mercy.  The aircraft lifted off and plunged through the smog bubble and up into the sky, and now here I sit with just about three hours between me and Hong Kong.

This second plane only has one of those pop-down screens where we all watch the same movie**, which in this case is a Chinese film conveniently supplemented with Chinese subtitles.  Ah well, here comes the drink cart.

It’s 5am somewhere…

*I always fly wearing earplugs and an eye mask (I call it ‘flying Tommy-style’) but I had accidentally left everything in my carry on and I just could not find the gumption to get up and dig them out of the overhead bin, though I kept telling myself that I should.  And of course that sort of internal argument can do nothing but keep you mostly awake.  Just like debating whether or not to get up and go to the bathroom when you’re sleeping in a tent.  

**Though I’m an unabashed lover of the vast entertainment selection generally available on airplanes nowadays I gotta say I miss the old days when a screen would drop down at the front of the cabin and everyone on the plane was forced to watch (or try to ignore) the same movie together.  Whether we liked it or not, the cabin would inevitably laugh and gasp together at the funny and surprising parts.  Sure we all imagined having our own customized entertainment systems built right in to the seatback in front of us, but we knew that was only a crazy dream of future times and until then, hey at least we had Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy.

And while the fulfillment of these collective dreams may have gained us a modicum of freewill it also dealt a tragic and irreversible loss to our collective sense of community.

102517 Welcome To Hong Kong

Kind of lost a day there due to time change.  Hong Kong is twelve hours ahead of Ottawa.  Makes me wonder: if I brought my cat with me on the plane would he still be nocturnal?

We arrived in Hong Kong at 10:30 last night.  By 11pm we were standing in line at the lost luggage service, by midnight we were on the express train into the city.  The train was super-modern and extremely efficient/easy to use.  So was the subway system we transferred to – easy-peasy.

Walked to our hotel (an easy task given that we were both without luggage), again fairly easy to find and checked in.  I walked to the nearest 7-11 for some beers and snacks.  Okay, I actually went to buy a bottle of water but when I saw all that beer in the fridge I forgot to buy the water so I ended up having to go back.  When I went back I bought more beer (for m’lady this time) and darn-near forgot to buy the water again.  We didn’t get to sleep until about 3:30am, which is a little strange after a twenty-six-hour travel day.  I was shocked when we woke up and checked the clock; it was 1:30pm.  I know to me that’s 1:30am, but I haven’t slept that late in a long time.

We got up, retrieved our found luggage that had been dropped off at the front desk, and got out of there for a walkabout and to look for a place to eat.  M’lady was starved; I wasn’t hungry at all.  After looking at about a thousand menus (restaurants are absolutely everywhere in our area) we settled on a semi-fancy place.  M’lady got dumplings and noodles with pork while i got the vermicelli with shredded spicy beef.  For some reason what little appetite I had left me shortly after I ordered but I still ate half of my meal.  The highlight of lunch was when m’lady bit into her first dumpling and hot liquid squirted out of it and shot straight up her nose.

After lunch we went for coffees around the corner and killed time until it was time to go to the waterfront.  We aimed for the Avenue Of Stars – the Asian version of Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame – but were shut out as the area was closed for renovations.  No biggie, though I was quite looking forward to seeing the Bruce Lee statue.  Regardless, we found ourselves in the right place for the nightly laser show.

This is not the Bruce Lee statue.

Every night at 8pm the Honk Kong (sic) harbour hosts Asia’s largest (or is it the world’s largest?) permanent sound and light show.  We found a good spot and stared in quiet awe at the astounding skyline while we waited for the show to start.  

Aside from the stunning architecture of the countless buildings lining both sides of the harbour, at night many of the structures become canvases for giant light shows.  I had seen this once before – at a hotel we stayed at in Miami – but this was redonkulous.  A couple dozen buildings were constantly flashing and pulsating and it looked just awesome.  So awesome in fact that the laser/light show itself was decidedly underwhelming in comparison.  Aside from the sheer logistics of co-ordinating the lasers and the individual building lights to sync up (perfectly) with the music it was really not so impressive.  They need to get Phish’s light guy out here for a week or two to design some serious visuals but hey, it was better than nothing.

The show ended at 8:30 and afterwards we idled up Nathan Road past Jordon Road to the night market after stopping at 7-11 for a couple of traveller beers.  Drinking in the street is so civilized; I’m surprised I never see anyone but me doing it here.  The night market was about as interesting as the light show; that is, better than not going but really, it was just a bunch of Made In China crap.

(I got a kick out of the Star Wars Lego knock-offs though: one was called Star Wart and another, Star Plan.)

By then my appetite was back to jumping up and down so we searched for a restaurant and ultimately settled on a Thai place where I devoured an order of garlic bread and got halfway through a plate of chicken Pad Thai before mysteriously losing my appetite once again.  

After dinner we decided to call it a day and went back to the hotel and went to bed, though neither of us could sleep.  I haven’t laid awake trying to fall asleep in years but I was awake until at least 5:30am.  

It’s hard to fight jet lag.

102617 Ferries and Funiculars

I was half awake when I heard m’lady puttering around.  I cracked open an eye and saw that she was dressed and ready to head out the door.

“Where you going?” I moaned sleepily.

“To get us coffees,” she said, like an angel.  

“Do you remember the Starbucks we saw last night near the 7-11?” I asked.  

“Yep,” she replied, and off she went.

It was 11am and I could have easily laid in bed for several more hours but I felt it prudent to get up and about so I could try to get in step with time on this side of the planet.  I was showered, dressed and smiling by the time she got back with two cups of brown goodness.

We left the hotel around noon-thirty and walked to the Star Ferry terminal.  For just fifty cents each we rode the ferry across the picturesque harbour, once again marvelling at the astounding array of skyscrapers on both sides of the water.

On the other side we traversed the labyrinth of raised walkways until we finally found the HSBC Building, one of the stars of last night’s light show.  When the HSBC Building was built it was the most expensive ever, construction costs for the architectural wonder soared to a billion dollars.  We went inside and rode the angled escalators up to the first level.  Underneath us was all glass, above us air.  For such an expensive project they sure sacrificed a lot of floor space to make room for their extremely open concept.  Much of the building is essentially hollow nothingness.

We searched for an antique poster shop that m’lady had read about, discovered it had moved online-only and decided to make for Victoria Peak, the pinnacle of the mountain that lines the west side of Hong Kong.  We rode the funicular up (the oldest funicular in Asia, it started in 1888), which was a gravity-defying G-force blast and spent the afternoon enjoying the astounding (yet unbelievably smoggy) view from the top.  

We explored the complex up there (we had paid extra for the Sky Terrace 428, which gave us access to the open-air top floor of the angular concrete complex, the highest elevation 360 degree views of the city, which wasn’t really worth it) and after some humming and hawing decided on eating dinner at BubbaGumps, just one floor below the rooftop terrace.  It was my first time experiencing the franchise, which I’ll rate just a millistep above the Hard Rock Cafe for food, which isn’t a great compliment, but man, the view from our window-side table was delicious.

The windows of BubbaGumps just below the rooftop Sky Terrace 428

We lingered over an extra beer until it got dark specifically so we could enjoy the night view of the massive city.  After an appropriate number of oohs and aahs we paid the bill and got in the prodigious line to board the funicular for the ride back down.  I’m sure it would have been quicker to shun the line and walk down the mountain like many people do but I’m glad we didn’t – my legs and feet were already feeling the pressures of the day.

The night view from our table

We arrived back at the bottom just as the nightly laser/light show was going off.  It’s so not a thing that we almost didn’t notice that it was even happening, although to be fair that’s mainly because the skyscrapers are lit well before and long after the light show and they are plenty impressive on their own.  The lasers add but a smidgen to the already sense-exploding skyline.  

Notice Victoria Peak rising up in the distance

Mostly ignoring the lasers we meandered in the direction of the ferry and stopped by a wine-tasting expo on the waterfront.  We discovered that there was an admission charge so we didn’t go in which is too bad: when we got back to the room later I noticed that the flyers we had been given when we purchased our tickets for the funicular were in fact free passes to the wine fest with free drink tickets included.  Oops.  Instead I merely posed with a giant great white shark statue and we moved on, boarding the ferry to take us back across the harbour.

Finally we completed the slow plod back to our hotel and gave our gams a much-needed rest.  Along the way I toyed with the idea of a foot massage/reflexology session but was too tired to even stop for one.  It’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity; there are probably more foot massage places than restaurants in our area, and there are a lot of restaurants.  Regardless, it wasn’t yet 10pm when we made it back to the room and flopped into our rock-hard beds for the night.

All in the name of beating the jet lag.

102717 Stanley and the Opium War

Well, going to bed early certainly didn’t work.  Once again I laid there not sleeping a wink for several hours, my mind leaping and heaving and doing everything except sleeping off the jet lag.  The time-change is kryptonite to my superpower; I generally fall asleep in thirty seconds flat.  In the end I got more sleep than m’lady did.  She doesn’t snore; I do.  When I got up around 10am m’lady was already up.

Vehicles drive on the left in Hong Kong, a change that can be quite dangerous to the right-driving tourist.  I would normally have to constantly be telling myself to Look right! Look right! but with so many one way streets running through Hong Kong I don’t have to.  The city has gone to the effort of printing <—Look Left or Look Right—> messages directly on the pavement at each and every intersection.  It’s unspeakably helpful, and I’m sure the idea has saved countless lives and injuries.  Maybe it’s financed by the insurance companies.

Our first stop was the Museum of History.  It was just across the street from our hotel and entry was free of charge so we couldn’t possibly not go.  We made short work of the flora/fauna section, the ancient rocks and other geological wonders, and the cavemen exhibits, after which we cruised through the Chinese dynasties pretty quickly until we finally started to linger at the opium war.  

It’s amazing to think that China ceded Hong Kong to the English as a bribe to convince the Brits to stop bringing opium into their country.  After Hong Kong changed hands the ethnic group that made up less than 5% of the city’s population was running the place.  That must have been frustrating.  Then there was the Japanese occupation during WWII.  Seems that Hong Kongians (Hong Kongers?) haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about over the years.

Leaving the museum, we ducked into a Starbucks then looked around for a place to eat.  Once again my appetite was in flux…was I hungry or full?  I just could not decide.  Logic told me that I must be hungry so I joined m’lady at a Chinese diner.  I didn’t feel too adventurous (or hungry) so I ordered a small chicken pie and a pork bun.  I used to eat pork buns quite often when I was in Taiwan and I figured it was a safe order.  Nope.

Both the pie and the bun were very sweet, and as a Westerner I am picky when it comes to mixing meats and sugar.  I had one single bite of the chicken pie and managed to get through nearly half of my pork bun.

Which didn’t matter.  At this point my body had easily convinced my brain that I hadn’t been hungry after all.

Next we aimed for Kowloon Park, which we had already walked by several times before.  Ascending the stone staircase we soon discovered that the park was pretty extensive and quite impressive.  We started along comic alley, featuring larger-than-life statues of anime characters, none of whom either of us had ever heard of.  We walked by a pond full of sunning turtles and found the a sanctuary – more of a small zoo really – replete with cockatoos, parrots, a couple of crazy looking critters called rhinoceros hornbills, and a bunch more.  

Next was the bird pond, which was loaded full of flamingos.  After an impressive pile of romping, our final two stops in the park were both a bit of a letdown.  One was a hedge maze that was stupidly easy (and only waist-high…what’s up with that?) and finally the sculpture park was pretty lame (and I do like me a good sculpture park).  But overall the park was pretty cool and really, whattya want for free?

On our way to the Star Ferry I stopped into one of the many, many McDonald’s outlets where I spent about fifteen confused minutes and zero dollars before walking back out empty-handed.  I had ordered a Big Mac on one of those touchscreen things but between the five counters buzzing with beehive activity and the imperceptible system of payment and/or food retrieval I had absolutely no clue as to how I was supposed to turn my chit into a burger.  When I stormed back out to the sidewalk in frustrated confusion I was sure of one thing at least: I was now certainly and unequivocally very hungry indeed.  But the ferry loomed.

We rode over to the island side of the city and found a bus that would take us to Stanley, a small town on the other side of the distant mountains.  It was a double-decker and we scored the front seats up top.  It was a really fun drive careening along the bustling Hong Kong streets to the fringe of the city and through a long tunnel that runs under the mountains.  Once we were out of the city we began to wind back up and down those mountains on a narrow two-lane pass, branches whacking up against the side of the bus as it slowed down and hugged the edge of the road when faced with oncoming traffic.

As we were exiting the city the bus passed a string of car dealerships.  Mercedes, Lexus, Ferrari, Maserati…  I mentioned to m’lady that I figured about 80% of the cars on the road were luxury vehicles and from our perch in the front of the bus I tested my theory.  I counted cars for the next ten minutes and found out I was actually a bit low in my estimate.  Lambos, Porsches, Rolls Royce…oh, the are all so beautiful.  Pretty much the only cars on the road besides upscale luxury models are minivans (of which there are many), and Toyotas.  The expendable money in Hong Kong must be tremendous.

We arrived in Stanley and stopped for a drink.  Famished as I was I topped up my order with a cheese and tomato chutney quesadilla.  Turns out ‘tomato chutney’ is a euphemism for ‘ketchup’.  Bleah.  Next up was a slow stroll through the many, many shops and stalls that were set up selling every imaginable piece of junk you could imagine but would never want.  

Okay, that’s not entirely true, I wanted to buy a few Rubik’s cube variations, of which there were many.  They love the Cube over here, no question about that.

We didn’t buy a thing through, and then we strolled the town.  There was a jazz band set up in the square and we heard their last two songs as we walked to the pier where locals were fishing by hand (without poles).  They were catching fish after fish and none of them more than three inches long.  It seemed like that’s what they were fishing for though; it’s not like any got thrown back in for being too small.

We had a beer at a waterfront pub and then went to another for more beers and dinner.  It was tourist-pricey but pretty good food.  Finally we headed back to the bus depot where we caught our ride just as it was pulling out.   Upstairs we found the best seats gone but no matter, it was another great ride back into the city.

We got off one stop early and strolled to the wine and dine fest that we had realized too late last night that we had in fact possessed free tickets for.  We waited in line with our free passes and were granted entry and handed four tokens each along with a couple of coupon booklets.  

The fest was quite extensive, huge even.  We dropped three tokens on a four-pack of beers, another one on two glasses of sparkling wine and then m’lady insisted (with my help) that we use the remaining tokens getting me two shots of high-end tequila that was poured through a giant block of ice.  Never mind that I had to suck on a tube that had been sucked on by thousands before me, it’s tequila, and tequila kills germs.  Right? 

The coupons were for free things at select booths, each of which had long lines that went unbelievably fast.  I mean some lines were a hundred feet long and you’d be through in less than two minutes.  We got free cookies, shrimp chips, nuts, cheese, and ice cream.  The whole festival was run astoundingly well and we were both super-impressed with the entire setup.  The only downside was that we didn’t see the Jack Daniels booth until we were on our way out the door with nary a token remaining between us.  

And there went our day!  We exited the wine and dine just before it shut down for the night at 11:30 and we took the ferry back over to Kowloon.  We were both pretty beat so the walk from the ferry to the hotel was long and slow.  Again I was tempted to stop for a reflexology session but once again I declined, visions of blissfully of laying down on my own hotel bed (which was little more than a thin mattress on a hard wooden slab) easily winning out.

We had spent 14+ hours away from the room today and we were dead tired.  For the first time on this trip I fell asleep hard and fast.  Luckily for m’lady she did too.

102817 Guangzhou with a Bullet

I can’t believe I was still asleep when the alarm went off this morning.  Even though I had slept a good eight or nine hours I could have stayed down for quite a bit longer.  I guess I’m back into my so-tired-I-can-fall-asleep-in-thirty-seconds zone.

We didn’t have much of a day planned.  We woke up, packed up and walked to the train station.  I got turned around and thought it was one way, m’lady thought it was another.  

She was right.  

Had I insisted on leading the pack we would have gone in the exact wrong direction, but (if I can try to save a little bit of face here) I didn’t.  Rather, I dutifully deferred to m’lady and followed her straight to the train station and did not in fact get us lost one bit.  So really, I went the right way on the first try.

Arriving at the station somewhat surprised and with a feeling of satisfaction (respectively), I and m’lady bypassed the busy and confusing (to me at least) ticket booths and searched for our platform.  We had already purchased our tickets a few days before so we simply cruised through security and waited for the train to arrive, which it did, exactly precisely immediately on time.

The train jettisoning us away from Hong Kong towards the mainland was nice, comfortable and modern.  And roomy too; there wasn’t that many people on board so m’lady and I were able to change to window seats.  What we saw was city, city, city, with a few very brief patches of greenery in between.  We had each brought a frosty beer with us for the ride which we enjoyed with Pringles, purchased from a passing conductor.  Less than two hours later we were in faraway Guangzhou.

We transferred over to the subway and got off at the stop closest to our hotel.  Spoiler alert: it turned out to be much closer than we thought.

Emerging from the subway tunnel, the first difference we noticed between Hong Kong and mainland China was a whole lot less English signage and a whole lot less English speakage.  The second thing that we noticed was a lot less taxicabs, like almost none.  We circled the large train station looking in vain for a taxi stand, our eyes darting constantly to the busy street hoping for drive-by’s.  M’lady was reluctant to try walking to our hotel – we hadn’t the least clue what direction it was in and we would have to lug our luggage with us and whattya know, eventually she waved down a taxi.  It took a while but the payoff was the super-cheap fare the cabbie quoted to take us to our hotel.  We discovered that the fare was fair; our hotel was basically across the street from the station.  By footbridge at least; by car it was actually a bit of a drive.

Our hotel was super-nice.  We checked in and went up to our room but our key wouldn’t work.  Down to the lobby I went.  The lady told me not to touch the door when I enter the room.  I tried to explain that I couldn’t enter the room at all.  There was certainly a language barrier going on, one that was acutely exacerbated by my evaporating patience.  Eventually she had a maid come up to help.  It turns out you have to hover the key about an inch from the door-sensor to make it unlock; if you actually allow the key to touch the lock it won’t open.  Ahhh, I see.  In retrospect I could see the sense in what the lady in the lobby had been miming to me but in the same retrospect I assure you that I had little to no chance of truly getting her drift without an actual demonstration.

I dropped our suitcases and quickly marvelled at our super-nice room and its grand stone balcony before bee-lining it to the liquor store I had noticed nearby.  Perusing the shop’s wares I spotted and purchased a bottle of Jack Daniels for about $30, much cheaper than the duty-free bottle we saw at the Hong Kong station (yes, they had a large duty-free store at the train station leaving Hong Kong).  We had a drink or two on the pleasant balcony before heading out for a walk around the neighbourhood.

Though you wouldn’t really know it if you didn’t know it, our hotel and the surrounding area is on an island; it’s surrounded on three sides by a fairly narrow canal and on the fourth side by a bay.  This was the colonial area back in the day and all the buildings are nice and ornate and official looking.  We did a brief perusal of the main drag and took in the sights, including a restaurant with a huge display out front containing tank after tank of the craziest critters you would ever want to eat.  They had giant crabs that looked exactly like aliens, large and small (though mostly large) fish of every stripe, and there was even a bucket of worms, all of it priced by the pound and ready to be delivered to your table via chef Chopsalot.

This is a major and very visible difference between China and North America.  Back home we tend to try and separate our dinner from any thoughts of the animal that made it as much as possible, whereas in China the front of each shop proudly displays all of the creatures on offer, living or dead.  Bleah.

We stopped into a restaurant called Lucy’s and had Western food for dinner; I ordered the beef stroganoff.  I managed to push the image of dead, raw stroganoff completely out of my mind and it was the best meal I’d had since we left Canada.

(Though as one who has eaten stroganoff where it was invented – at the Stroganoff Castle in St. Petersburg – I really should know better than to ever, ever order it again.  Though my meal was super-tasty nothing lives up to The Real Thing.)

After dinner we decided to play it safe and take the subway to the south train station (not the same station we had arrived at) to pre-purchase our ongoing tickets to Yangshuo, which turned out being fairly easy and also probably not necessary.  The effort was still worthwhile if only because it’s better safe than sorry, especially when one is travelling to pre-booked hotels – as we were – and missing a train could throw things rather askew.

As we were waiting in line to purchase the tickets m’lady pulled out her Mandarin phrase book.  “Maybe I’ll brush up on some phrases in case she doesn’t speak English” she said.  She was repeating a phrase over and over and I asked what it meant.  

“It means ‘Do you speak English?’” she told me.

“That doesn’t really seem necessary, does it?” I asked.  When she asked what I meant I explained that if she merely posed the question in English she would likely find out the answer just as easily.  I was more trying to be funny than anything but truth be told, if there was one thing in the whole phrasebook that could go, that would be it.

“You always contradict me,” she said.  How is one to respond?  Correct: I didn’t.

After we bought the tickets we rode the subway back to our ‘hood and walked over the bridge to our little island – no taxi for us this time.  We decided to call it a night and took advantage of the nice, large, comfortable room.  I poured a drink and parked myself on the balcony typing travel logs while m’lady lounged inside with a deep dive into her book.  

Then (he says, predicting the future) I finished typing this entry, shut off my computer and went inside to pour a final (but really, who can say?) nightcap.

102917 Pandas!

It took me a really, really long time to get to sleep last night.  As a result, this morning m’lady woke up first.  Once again I could have stayed down for hours longer but I knew we had a day ahead of us so I got up and at ‘em just as soon as I was comfortably able.

We went downstairs for breakfast, it was included with the room and it was pretty impressive.  Omelet station, cheese tray (mmm…blue cheese) and lots more.  Somehow m’lady and I both left breakfast a bit hungry, but sated.

We bee-lined it to the subway (with a little stop at Starbucks along the way) and went to the zoo.  We were surprised that it cost forty yuan (eighty with the amusement park, which we paid for) instead of 300 yuan like the guidebook said it would cost.  Attached to the ticket booth was a sign that read “panda enclosure is closed for renovations” so we surmised that perhaps the omission of one of the big attractions was lowering the price of admission…but really, I doubted it.  

We got in and m’lady quickly figured out we were at the wrong zoo.  “The animals aren’t supposed to be in cages, and there should be a safari drive, and gondolas…” she said, while all around us were sad birds inside sadder cages.  We meandered past one of the bird sanctuaries and were shocked to see three cats in the cage with the birds (including one cat that looked like a younger, leaner version of our own Chilly Willy).  I mean, cats in a bird sanctuary? Some sanctuary.  The little Chilly Willy cat showed significant interest in the birds but we saw no actual attacks.  The sight of the cats cheered m’lady a little, but not enough to make up for our error.  She had her head down and was moving quickly along the cages, “I don’t like it,” she said, while I was trying to catch glimpses of as many duck-billed this and webbed-warbled that as I could.  “Okay,” I told her, “let’s just go see the red pandas and then we’ll get out of here and find the right zoo.”  And that’s exactly what we did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a red panda, but they aren’t even pandas.  There’s only about ten thousand of them in the world (they live in Tibet) and they are just about the cutest critters ever.  We found the enclosure and it wasn’t nearly as sad as it could have been.  There were lots of climby things, they had plenty of space and it was not encaged.  

There were two red pandas and they were absolutely adorable.  They were active and near we the people, just a few feet from us the whole time and no wonder: despite the many posted warnings – including a real-live human being holding a sign that read “Do Not Feed The Red Pandas” – almost everyone was throwing popcorn etcetera at the little guys.  It drove us crazy.  We kept telling people to stop.  One guy poured water on a red panda’s head.  I came this close to walking over and punching his child in the face to make a point – it wouldn’t have bothered me a bit; I don’t like kids anyway* – but instead I looked him in the eye, pointed to my head and yelled, “Yeah dude, you had no idea that you weren’t supposed to do that, right?”  Sure, he got the idea, but it felt exactly the same as all the times I rail against inappropriate cellphone use; it’s not like I’m making a difference in the world or anything.  

Speaking of cellphone use, the world is completely addicted but cellphone use here in China is really off the hook (pun intended, as always).  I briefly counted when were went up to Victoria Peak and 11 out of 28 people in line for the tram were in the process of using their phones, that’s about 40%.  On the subway it jumps to about 80%.  Now, I know the subway is probably the #1 spot to be on your phone but it still amazes me.  If these people had any idea how addicted they were…Compared to this, quitting heroin would be a breeze.

Anyways, we ogled and coveted the red pandas (which the zoo insultingly called “lesser pandas”: Theravada pandas?) for an hour or so, then we checked out the one lemur and a couple of kangaroos and booked it to the other zoo.

Which turned out being unbelievable!!!!

We didn’t get there until after 1pm so we tried to bee-line it to the pandas but just had to stop at the flaming-o’s, the ducks (yes, we were amazed by the ducks, mostly because the glass enclosure allowed us to see what they do under water), some weird duck-billed fish (for realz), and the lemmings.  Who knew lemmings were so darn cute?  Other lemmings did, I suppose.

Then we walked by the panda restaurant (“If they are actually serving panda I’m definitely ordering some”) where we saw three pandas – a mama and her two children – in an enclosure.  The lady suggested we come back in a half-hour when they’d be awake.  We swooned and moved on, looking for a way to kill thirty minutes.

We decided to check out the panda garden, which we assumed would just be rides and statues and the like but no, we ended up running into seven more pandas!  And we hit them all at feeding time.  They only ate bamboo, but somehow these guys make bamboo look really tasty.  It was astounding, we were just a few feet from all these pandas as they sat on their big cute butts and wolfed down shoot after shoot of big bamboo.  It was one of my nature/animal lifetime highlights.  Though most people lingered for just a minute or two, m’lady and I stood there and watched these amazing critters for about two hours.

Aside from just the coolest markings, another thing pandas have going for them is how ridiculously cute they are when they eat.  They sit back and wolf down in a manner quite similar to what I look like when I sit on the couch with a bowl of chips and dip, a six-pack and a good Rocky movie.  One enclosure held the world’s only panda triplets – again we were there for feeding time; perhaps being awake means feeding time? – and it was adorable.  I wish I was still there.

For the record, the zoo had created really great looking habitats and all the pandas looked pretty happy to be where they were.

Somehow we managed to move on.  You can’t see the whole zoo in a day – not even close – but we tried to get around.  We saw white tigers, again during feeding time which was awesome, and proboscis monkeys, spider monkeys, elephants…you name it.  When we saw the miniature hippos I was actually happy to see them in enclosed habitats.  As a guy who has seen thousands of hippos in the wild and know a bit about how hard it is for them to survive even one season, well, I honestly think there’s a good chance that given the option most hippos would choose a good zoo over their natural habitat any day.

M’lady and Tigger

When it came to the tigers they had the “cages” set up in reverse: the humans were inside glass-walled enclosures while the animals romped and roamed and played and fed out in the open air just a few metres away. 

Before the park closed at 6pm we hopped the gondola and rode above the whole compound, which was really nifty.  We were riding over a safari, with giraffes and pachyderms and the whole lot grazing a hundred feet below us.  Then easy-peasy we got a shuttle to the subway and we made our way back to our hotel, arriving tired, happy, and half-starved.

(I was surprised to note that entering the subway system in China requires an airport-type security check, with an x-ray machine for bags and guards waving metal-detection wands in a very disinterested manner.  I beeped every time and was never given a second glance.  It gave me pause because I couldn’t remember ever hearing about a subway attack in China, but perhaps these sort of checks are one of the reasons why I haven’t.)

After a leisurely Jack & Coke we strolled back to Lucy’s (the same place we ate last night) for dinner and more drinks and it was great.  We were back at the hotel by 9pm and in bed by 11pm, with another great day in the books.

*Why is it that nobody – and I mean nobody except we the afflicted – realizes that some people have children-phobia?  Afraid of dogs?  No problem.  Afraid of cats even…weird, but okay, I’ll buy that.  Man, when I see someone walk into a restaurant with a kid I want to ask for my bill and get out of there.  I’ll cross the street to avoid them.  They are basically intolerable on airplanes.  They are monsters, they act without logic, they smell, they break things, they stare, they drool…my gawd, how can anybody stand being near one of them?  Baffling.  If it had been up to me human history would have lasted one generation, tops.

103017 Goodbye Guangzhou, ‘Yello Yangshuo

M’lady woke me up at around 8:45 so we could get some day in before we had to check out.  We went down to breakfast which was the same as yesterday except somehow way worse.  I went straight to the omelet station and ordered exactly what I had ordered yesterday and the guy gave it to me raw.  At least I wasn’t hungry anymore, and without all the pesky calories!

We went out to further explore our area, which was really nice.  Lots and lots of people were outside exercising.  We even came across an outdoor track for jogging and it was surrounded by several different permanently-installed exercise machines, all of which were very busy.  It was basically an exercise-playground for all ages.  One was a wax-on, wax-off machine, there was a jogging/arm-flailing device, another was a sit-down leg-extender, etcetera.  We saw school kids exercising alongside seniors, middle-agers, and teenagers alike and it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed a fat person since we had arrived in the country.

One of many exercise areas in Guangzhou

There were also lots of statues, all of people and all likely by the same artist.  It was just a really nice vibe all around.  Soon enough we went back to the hotel, packed up and checked out.  We rode the subway to the train station and made it to our seats literally two minutes before the train left the station (for the record, I think it pulled out a few minutes early).  

It was one of those high-speed trains and it was super-slick.  Almost imperceptibly the train starts to move and smooth as silk it accelerates until the speed ultimately tops out at 246kms/hr (there’s a digital signboard in every compartment that lists information including upcoming stops, outside temperature and current speed).  What was until recently an eight-to-ten hour trip took less than three hours on the new supertrain.  It’s just another example of the modernity, cleanliness, order and efficiency that I just never thought of when I thought ‘China’.  With close to a billion and-a-half people calling the place home I’m really glad they seem to be doing things right.

Anyway, as we were getting close to our stop I could see perfectly clichéd Chinese lumpy mountains outside; blobs of impossibly steep tree-covered stone standing up like fuzzy granite teeth zipping quickly past the windows.  And in no time (natch; we were going almost 250 kms/hr) we arrived at our destination where we were careful to heed the recorded warning: 

“Be ready to get off the train quickly as it will only stop for a short time.  If you don’t get out the door in time you cannot get off the train.”

These guys like to keep to a schedule, except for that early departure I suppose.  Their ticket-machines probably had detected that everyone was already on board or something.

We landed in Yangshuo (or so we thought) right on time – like, to the minute – and disembarked (quickly).  There were about a dozen taxi drivers waiting on the otherwise empty platform.  They were obviously not allowed to approach us, but they had no problem beckoning us from twenty feet away.  Eventually we picked one and told him where we were going.  “One hundred Yuan,” he said, I said “No way.”  He told us it was forty minutes away, again I said “No way.”

Way.

Turns out the train doesn’t actually stop in Yangshuo (despite the fact that it clearly stated ‘Yangshuo’ on that very informative digital sign in our compartment), rather it stops thirty-three kilometres away from Yangshuo.  We hired the taxi and enjoyed the rural drive to our hotel immensely, surrounded as we were by those towering peaked mountains the whole way.  

Our hotel

We arrived, checked in and were shown our room.  “I’ve upgraded you to a room with a view,” we were told.  The place is pretty nice, a small complex of stone and greenery with all kinds of different accommodations.  We dropped our bags, mixed some drinks, and relaxed in the waning light on the stone patio overlooking the (apparently very famous) Li River.  When we tired of all that relaxing we went to the tiny “restaurant” and found a cute little cat outside that I snuggled and named Mika.  

The view from the hotel terrace

The four-table restaurant was empty (the resort seems pretty close to empty overall, as of this writing I’ve seen just two other couples here) but we scared someone up and ordered some pretty great food.  After dinner we looked for Mika to give him/her a bit of beef saved from my plate but couldn’t find the little furball anywhere.  Instead we headed back up to our room for a relaxing night laying around and reading books, with a brief stop on the patio to gaze at the lights of the city below bouncing off of all those crazy mountains.  

We’re booked in here for five nights so we have plenty of time to see the sights, so we’re both very happy to put off starting all that until tomorrow.

103117 West Street

Boo!

I slept really well last night despite yet another rock-hard bed.  Then, around 8:30 this morning, shortly after I answered in the affirmative to m’lady’s whispered, “Are you awake?” I heard a sound that could only be a ghost.

“Wooo-oooo-ooooo!”  

I rolled over and squinted through unfocused eyes and there on m’lady’s bed was an apparition!  “Woooo-ooooooo-oooo!” it said, rocking back and forth, looking much more cute that frightening.  I started roaring with laughter as m’lady pulled her bedsheet from over her head and wished me a Happy Hallowe’en.  For the next few hours every time I thought of it I burst out laughing again and again.  So adorable.

We spent an hour or so getting up and around and decided to walk into town for the day.  Our hotel (hostel?) is about three kilometres from the city itself, down a dirt road from us (literally down – we are sleeping on a mountain) and across the river and it proved to be a pleasant walk on yet another beautiful day.  We got to the water and ended up walking a bit too far in the wrong direction but soon realized our mistake.  Going back we easily found the river shuttle that took us to the other side.

We stopped for a coffee and played with a super-cute, very Chinese-looking cat before pounding the pavement lackadaisically looking for the touristy street that we knew was around here somewhere.

We examined the hand-drawn photocopied map the hotel had given us and steered ourselves in the right direction.  We certainly knew West Street when we found it.  KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and moreover block after block of shops and restaurants along a pedestrian boulevard with canals and bridges winding all around.  It was a very modern tourism neighbourhood with updated traditional touches and it made for a great day of meandering.

We stopped for lunch and a beer almost immediately – pizza and spring rolls – and spend the next few hours window-shopping.  We stopped at an info booth and enquired about the river light show, which is far and away the biggest tourist attraction here in Yangshuo.  There are two shows per night and tickets are around $40CAN per person.  We half-decided that we might possibly cap our day with the show and returned to our tromping through the shops ticketless.  

I bought a couple of t-shirts and postcards, a gift for one of my nephews and a ukulele to plunk on for the rest of the trip.  M’lady bought presents for her family and a few postcards too and soon enough I was hankering for another beer.

The beer begat another pizza which begat another beer and we soon decided to put off the light show for another night.  We do have five nights here after all.  Instead we re-meandered the busy streets, which were even busier once it got dark.  It started to become a bit of a madhouse but it was pretty fun.  While I did see pumpkin-lights in a couple of places and a few Hallowe’en decorations and even one, single person in costume (who seemed to be taking the fact in stride), for the most part the Witchy holiday didn’t seem to be much of a thing at all in Yangshuo.

Finally we decided to call it a night.  We found a grocery store for some supplies (water, beer, mix, chips, and Mr. Brown’s canned coffee) and looked into a taxi.  We realized too late this morning that we should’ve asked the receptionist at our hotel what we might expect to pay for a cab so we would know if we were being overcharged but we hadn’t, so we were left to guess.  Given that the forty-minute ride from the train station the day before had cost us Y100 we figured twenty, maybe thirty yuan would be reasonable.

Rather than flag down a taxi on the road, ladies stand at the busy entrance to West Street trying to book cabs for tourists.  We showed a lady our hotel’s business card and she told us it would be Y50.  Crazy! I said.  She told me it was a long walk up the hill at night and bid me farewell.  When I came slunking back I offered her thirty.  After a while she came down to forty but we still hummed and hawed.  Our hotel didn’t really seem very far away…

I remarked to m’lady that we were waffling over a $2 difference and suggested we do it.  She consented and the lady called us a ride.  The drive back was certainly way longer than we thought it would be, through a tunnel, over a bridge, and twice driving on the wrong side of the road into approaching traffic.  When we finally got back to the hotel we figured Y40 was a fairly good price after all.

Back at the room we looked over the day’s shopping bounty while I pulled on a couple of beers while they were still cold (there’s no fridge in the room, which is very hostel-like).  Before too long we called it a night and turned in.

110117 Bicycles and Butterflies

We woke up in the morning with few plans and in no rush.  We lingered in the room for so long that when we finally went outside I had a Jack & Coke with me.  We went to the patio overlooking the mountains and m’lady watched me do Tai Chi.  If only she had been drinking chai tea at the same time it would’ve been perfect.  In between bouts of reading, lazing, and drinking we hammered out our plans for the next few days and strolled to the reception area to act upon them.  

And of course our plans got trampled on from the get-go.  We had figured on going to the light show this very night but whattya know, it’s sold out.  So back we went to the patio, this time with cold beers from the restaurant.  

Somewhere in there we had lunch in the otherwise barren dining room (where we convinced ourselves that we were now the only people staying here at the resort), and rehatched our plans.  Back at the lobby we lucked out and found the helpful but rarely-seen English-speaking lady was back, and indeed helpful.  She suggested a few things to help fill out our itinerary and picked up the phone and booked it all for us, leaving the rest of our day as free as the day thus far had been.

I finished a book and started another, played with my new ukulele and pretty much there went the day.

(For lack of anything else to write, I offer some random observations:

There are lots and lots of butterflies everywhere we’ve been.  Every one of them seems to be completely different and their vibrant colours shimmer when they flutter by.  Waiting for a taxi one afternoon I had a butterfly land on my arm.  When was the last time you had to shoo a butterfly off of your arm?  It gives me hope for the planet.

They drive on the right side of the road in mainland China, in Hong Kong they drive on the left.  “One country, two systems” seems to have many applications.  Like money for instance.  How many cities have their own currency?  Hong Kong does.  (So does Macau for that matter).

I want to mention the bicycles.  In all of our time in Hong Kong I saw a total of two bicycles.  In mainland China I’ve seen thousands upon thousands.  Almost all of them are the ride-share type of bikes, similar to the ones we have back in Canada that nobody ever seems to use.  Here in China they use them like crazy.  Who knows how many different companies scatter millions of bikes around the country, blue ones, orange ones, red ones…each company with their own style and colour (and subscription rates I assume), and they are all popular. 

The share cycles in China don’t have to be parked at a fixed bike station.  Rather, all of them lock up using a rear-tire style of lock that immobilizes the bike.  To unlock one you simply scan the bike’s QR code with your phone and you are sent the combo number that unlocks that particular bike’s tire.  When you’re finished with the bike you simply lock the bike’s back tire up again and leave it anywhere you want.  With so many people in China it probably won’t sit where you leave it for very long.

It’s a brilliant system and looking around it’s obvious that it works really well; everyone is riding one of them and it was rare to see someone on a privately-owned bike.  Of course, the non-cell phoner in me bristles at the fact that without a phone you can’t use these bikes, but as it doesn’t directly impact me (yet) I can easily just sit back and appreciate the system for what it is: clever and effective.

110217 Xing Ping and a Bad Impression

Well, we certainly made up for our slow day.

M’lady was up for the sunrise, I slept in until past 8am.  We found each other and got on the road a little before ten o’clock.  

Walking down the dirt road leaving our hotel I spotted something unusual in the woods.  It looked like three or four cases of Halls cough drops but a Chinese brand, and all of it still in the plastic.  I looked a little further and discovered two large piles of refuse.  One was more of the Chinese Halls, the other was all packs of gum, also still in the plastic.  All of it was obviously new and still in the boxes that the stores would display and all of it dumped in the woods just a dozen feet off of the road.  Weird.

When we reached the paved road we crossed to the gas station and kept our eyes open for buses.  We were hoping to get to Xing Ping but to do so we had to match the Chinese characters the guy at the hotel wrote down for us to the Chinese characters on the front of one of the busses.  It took maybe ten minutes but we found one and flagged him down.  Y10 and thirty minutes later and we were there.

Our main reason for going to Xing Ping was to take a river tour on a bamboo raft.  The rafts aren’t actually bamboo.  They are made of plastic PVC tubing but the plastic is moulded to look like thick sticks of bamboo.  So modern-traditional, these Chinese.

We hadn’t yet eaten, nor did we have any supper the night before so we stopped for coffees and omelettes and followed that up with a pot of milk/coffee/tea, a blended concoction that tastes a lot like just tea.  The larger tour boats hog the river between 11am and 1pm so the smaller bamboo boats don’t take tourists out during those hours.  That left us to kill some time so we perused the shops and decided whether or not to climb the nearby mountain to take in the views, which is one of the big reasons to come to Xing Ping.

By the time we decided to climb the mountain after all it was about 1pm – no need to kill any more time – but we carried on with the climbing plan anyway and set out to find the trail.  We ducked into a shop that sold beautiful wood carvings.  They were quite expensive but I was pretty sure I wanted to come back to the shop before we left town and get myself a serious, lifelong souvenir.  As we said goodbye to the friendly fellow who ran the shop we asked him where we might find the path leading up the mountain. 

“Go this way,” he said, pointing. “Until you see all the sheep and then turn left.”  

That was weird.  We had wandered much of the town by this point and we hadn’t seen any herds of sheep.  Moreover, neither of us had seen a single sheep on the whole trip thus far.  In a flash of recognition I asked him, “Do you mean the boats?”  

“Yes, yes,” he replied, “where there are many sheeps and boats, that is where you will find the path.”  

And so it was that we found the steps leading up up up, which were accompanied by many poorly-translated signs warning us (and everyone else) not to even consider climbing the staircase as it was clearly much too dangerous.

And up up up we went.

It took a good forty minutes or so to get to the top but get to the top we did (after passing several more warning signs and lots and lots of litter).  At the peak we found a little pagoda, a handful of other tourists, and a stellar view.  We met a couple of Canadians up there (first ones this trip) and chatted with them a bit before heading back down again.  The journey down was much less sweaty but even more treacherous; we had to take many of the tall, steep, rocky steps sideways. 

For the last month or two the sole of my left sneaker had been coming loose.  By the time we left for China it was half off but holding up fairly well.  About three-quarters of the way down the mountain it gave way almost completely.  The sole peeled almost entirely away from the shoe and was left just dangling from the tip of the toe.

It was like I was wearing one big flip-flop; I guess I was wearing a flip-.  I took it really easy the rest of the way down and made it to street level with my sole hanging by a thread.  We found a store and looked up the word “glue” in m’lady’s phrasebook.  We were surprised that the word was actually in the book and even more surprised that the lady indeed had glue for sale in her little shop, and at only $1 a tube no less.  And it worked too!

With my sneaker happily retrod we headed to the water where – after much haggling – we booked an hour-long bamboo raft tour to be shared with another couple.  The other couple were Chinese and didn’t speak any English but they proved to be a whole lot of help.

First, the lady we booked with escorted the four of us to the waterside and pointed us to a ferry.  “What?!?  No!” we said, pointing to the smaller bamboo boats that lined the water’s edge.  The other couple smiled and pointed to the other side of the river, assuring us that all was good.  Ahh, we would be starting our bamboo tour from the opposite shore of the river. 

It took a while, but the ferry finally got moving and deposited us on the other side.  However just before it departed our booker lady got off the boat and walked away.  Ummm…I thought, pointing this out to m’lady.  Again, the other couple indicated we had nothing to worry about, pointing to another lady sitting on the ferry that was clearly our new point-man.

On the other side of the water we sat and waited.  M’lady and I had no idea what we were waiting for, but we were starting to worry.  Y’see, we had already prebooked the Impression light/water show in Yangshuo for the night’s entertainment, and we had to be back at our hotel at 6:45 to catch our ride to the show otherwise we would lose out on the eighty bucks we spent on tickets.  And here it was nearing 4pm and we were not yet on a boat.

We debated whether or not to bail on the boat trip altogether and try to get our money back but we reasoned that with nearly three hours left we would certainly make it back to our hotel in time.

Soon a little shuttle vehicle showed up – basically a motorcycle with bench seating for a half-dozen people in the back – and we hopped on.  And waited.  Ten minutes later a driver appeared out of nowhere and off we went.

But to our surprise we didn’t go down a road.  Rather, we traversed an amazing little interlocking brick path through the woods, branches screeching off the roof and the sides of our motorcycle/bus the whole way.   The ride was so, so much fun!  After a pretty long time we ended up on a stony beach, and after a bit more waiting finally along came our boat.  The other couple insisted we take the front bench and we obliged.  In a moment the captain dipped his long-tail propeller into the water and off we went.

We were surrounded by steep karst mountains on all sides, it looked positively Seussian.  After about twenty minutes of magical puttering along the river the driver inexplicably pulled up to a little village and dropped his anchor on the dock.  It was inexplicable to us anyway, but obviously not to our companions, who quickly hopped ashore.  We joined them and found ourselves walking among a small village that was clearly very, very old, but had no reservations about building brand-new houses among the ancient ones.

We took a few pictures and circled the village for ten minutes or so and when we got back to the boat our driver was nowhere to be seen.  We were starting to worry that we were cutting things too close but we were still very much in awe of the scenery hulking over and around us.  Eventually the driver arrived and handed us each a piece of odd, very bland fruit that looked a bit like a white orange.  It tasted like nothing, and then he handed us more.

Back on the boat we moved on for a few minutes before the captain abruptly turned us around and gunned it.  We went back the way we came and kept right on going, and soon enough we arrived back at Xing Ping, precisely where we had initially boarded the ferry.  As we got off the boat I asked our very helpful companions for the time and found out it was almost 6pm.

Woah.

M’lady and I power-walked back to the bus station, cruising by a thousand restaurants that we would have loved to stop at, not even slowing down at the woodworkers shop where I had been hoping to haggle a beautiful carving down to $200 or so.  When we got to the depot we found our bus ready to pull out but by this time we both had to use the bathroom so badly we were willing to miss the bus (and eat our show tickets) for a bathroom break.

We lucked out though, as the bus was miraculously still there when we returned from the facilities.  In no time it pulled out with us on board.

The bus dropped us at the bottom of our dirt road at 6:34pm and we raced up the steep hill towards our hotel.  Thank goodness the glue was holding up on my sneaker or we never would have made it.  And not only did we make it, we nailed it, stepping in the hotel office at 6:45 on the button.

We even beat our driver, who was mercifully late.  We squeaked out enough time to slip up to our room and quickly change clothes.

When the car arrived our driver kept up our pace, racing through the streets and depositing us at the big show in no time flat.  She power-walked us to a small desk and told us to wait there for five minutes and that our tickets would come.  She pointed to where we should meet her after the show and then she ran off.

Impressions is the big thing to do here in Yangshuo but neither m’lady nor I were at all convinced that it was going to be our sort of thing (despite our grand efforts to get there on time).  It certainly is a lot of people’s thing though; we were both shocked to see how many people were coursing through the turnstiles.  

We got our tickets and were pointed the way in, which took us through a security line that was labelled in English “Explosion Prevention Line”.  The crowd was being ushered into separate little holding areas before being corralled through separate metal detectors.  I was simply amazed at the orderliness of the Chinese.  Everyone lined up in the most perfect lines within each holding pen without being told how to line up.  It was quite a sight.

When we found our seats I was further astounded.  I had expected a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred people in the audience but there were at least 6,000 people there.  I guess it makes sense; the show has a cast of six hundred after all.  I was also astounded by the setting.  The bleachers faced the most picture-perfect cove you could possibly imagine, ringed by massive, towering mountains that rose up out of the water like fingers, all of them lit up making the landscape look like a classic Chinese rice-paper ink painting.

The show itself was broken up into seven chapters that chronicled the history of China and was performed by an enormous cast who used the water as their stage.  In addition to the illuminated mountains there was fire, spotlights, brightly lit floats and electrified costumes.  Of course it was all in Chinese and impossible for us to follow and though the show started quite well – with two hundred kids waving torches in front of a hundred rafts sporting flaming bonfires – it was fairly lame overall.  Considering each show brings in a quarter of a million dollars in ticket sales (by my estimation, and they present two shows per night) you’d think the choreography would be a bit tighter.

But the reason this show will forever stand out in my memory is because of the crowd.  Never in my life have I seen a more disrespectful group.  Not a word of a lie: there were a thousand loud, nonstop conversations going on in the stands all around us the whole time – if anyone was whispering I didn’t hear it – so much so that I turned around to everybody in particular and yelled, “It’s absolutely absurd how much people are just talking and talking and talking!” while widely gesticulating with my arms.  

But that wasn’t it.  Aside from all the chatter and the absolutely insane amount of cellphoning going on, with a solid fifteen minutes left in the show hundreds upon hundreds of people got up to leave.  Taking this as a cue, within moments entire sections stood up en masse to also leave.  Of course this just happened to be at a point in the show when dozens of actors had to run through the audience.  The action left the exits temporarily blocked so everyone just stood in the aisles, not caring a bit about the thousands of us who were still seated and trying to watch the show.  And of course the leavers were talking louder than ever, probably about how great the show had been.  For them the night was over and to hell with anyone else.

And it must happen just like this all the time because the house lights went up when there were still a few minutes left in the show.  M’lady and I looked at each other in wonder…Is it over or not?

I’ve never seen anything like it.  Honestly, it was an embarrassment for the country.  If the Chinese treat their own artists and their fellow citizens with that level of blatant disrespect I don’t want any part of it.  You won’t catch me going to another show here, no way.

I wanted to punch them all.

But I punched no one.

Outside we stopped at a store and bought some snacks in lieu of dinner (again) and met our taxi right where she said she’d be.  In no time at all we were back in our rooms resting up for what was looking like an even bigger day to come.

110317 Mountains, Bridges, Caves and Coffee

When we first arrived at the Yangshuo train terminal (which is actually more than thirty kilometres away from Yangshuo) we hopped in with a cab driver named Mo to get to our hotel.  Along the way he pointed out this and that, eventually offering to show us all around the area for a full day for Y400.  We told him we hadn’t made any plans yet, but I did take his card.

And after four days in Yangshuo we decided that the best (only?) way to see the main sites in the area would be to do exactly what Mo suggested.  Frankly, our hotel lady suggested the same thing, though she said she would arrange it for Y450 for the day.

The extra $10 notwithstanding, I liked Mo and I liked that he spoke pretty good English.  And Mo, if you are somehow reading this, I swear I tore apart everything I had trying to find your business card.  But I couldn’t find it, so we ended up with the same cabbie that took us to and from the Impression light show the previous night, Chim (or was in Ching?  Maybe Cheen?).

We were ready and waiting at 9am and Chim (I’m gonna go with Chim) arrived a short time later in her small, blue four-door Volkswagen Santana.  We briefly discussed our itinerary, buckled in and off we went.

As we were cruising through town headed towards our first destination I became acutely aware of three things: 1) I needed coffee.  2) I was pretty darn hungry, having eaten only mock-Pringles and mock-Oreos for my mock-dinner the night before, and 3) we were on the road that I knew would go by West Street, where all the Western food chains were.  I asked if we could stop in and Chim said “sure”.  

We bypassed the Starbucks (their coffee isn’t as good as it is back home and it’s very, very expensive.  Like, we’re talking $5 for a small coffee expensive), instead opting for the McDonald’s next door.  We each got a coffee and I ordered myself a sausage McMuffin and a chicken McMuffin.  Okay, I ordered them both as meals to save a few yuan so I got a couple of free hash browns out of the deal.

Now here’s the thing with me and sausage McMuffins: I thought I loved them for years and years before I finally admitted to myself (enough times) that I don’t actually like them very much at all.  Really, it was the fact that they were only available before 10am that always got me; I was hooked on their exclusivity.  I am seldom up and out of the house before 10am so on the rare occasion that I was and I happened to see a McDonald’s I would generally pull in and order myself a sausage McMuffin*.  

Okay, I’d usually order three.

And of course after eating three greasy meat sandwiches without any condiments I would always feel a little ill.  And while I admitted this to myself every single time it wasn’t until I started admitting it out loud to m’lady that it finally hit home: I don’t really like sausage McMuffins.  And yet I’d still stop in for one whenever I got the chance, but knowing I didn’t really like them I cut it down to just one at a time.  I still didn’t like them, but the tummyache wouldn’t be as bad.

And you know what finally got me to stop ordering them?  When McDonald’s started offering breakfast anytime of day.  Sausage McMuffins are no longer a limited commodity so they no longer hold any allure to me.  I really should see a psychologist.

Anyway, the reason I ordered one on this day (or so I’m telling myself) was because the options were limited.  They were only serving breakfast and I don’t eat any eggs that come from McDonald’s (a guy’s gotta have standards, right?).  I can report that it was better than back home, if only because the cheese was cheesier.  

The chicken McMuffin on the other hand was a disappointment.  I only remember seeing such a thing on a McDonald’s menu once before (in Romania, though I didn’t get one then) and I assumed it was a junior chicken patty served on an english muffin.  

Nope.

It was actually chopped-up bits of real chicken, with some…was it cole slaw?…in place of McChicken sauce.  Though it was much real-er food than I expected I didn’t like it as much as I would have liked the McChicken patty, but it was still pretty okay.  I’d like to say that the hash browns were the same as they are in North America but I’m not sure as I haven’t had McDonald’s hash browns in probably thirty years or more.  But really, the important thing was the coffee which – though definitely sub-par – hit the spot bang-on.

I suppose it’s a bit ironic that the first stop of our sightseeing day was at a tea plantation.  Chim drove us up a mountain and led us through a building to the back deck where endless mountains lined with tea plants (tea trees?) spread as far as the haze would allow us to gaze.  We gaped and ogled and took a thousand pictures which was good practise for the rest of our day, full as it was with gaping, oogling and picture-taking.  

After about ten minutes someone brought us each two glasses (yes, glasses) of tea, one green and one regular.  I’m not much of a tea drinker but the regular one was all right I guess, but nothing to write home about (despite all this typing).  The green tea tasted like warm water.  And both of them caused me to get leaves in my mouth every time I took a sip.  They should invent a cup (or a glass) with a screen near the bottom to filter out the leaves.  It would be way easier than a teabag, especially when there isn’t a teabag.

Cruising through the hilly terrain on our way to the next, unspoken destination Chim pulled off at a few viewing spots so we could do a little gaping, ogling and picture-taking.  I tell you, these karst pokey-outey mountains are just so remarkably picturesque (and oglesque); I could just stare at them forever.  The mist that looks suspiciously like smog doesn’t hurt the old eyes either.  Okay, sometimes it does, but it sure helps the whole place look pretty magical.

(Chim told us the mist meant rain was coming soon.  Yeah right.  If that’s true then it has been threatening rain every day since we arrived in China, and we have yet to see a drop.) 

Our next stop was some mountain that purported to offer nice views from the top.  We weren’t deterred one bit by the one thousand steps we would have to climb to see the view, but we were deterred many bits by the Y60 per person fee to do so.  After climbing up the mountain in Xing Ping a day earlier there was no way we were interested in dropping $25 to do it again.  Plus with the pending rain (yeah, right) the view probably wouldn’t have been that great anyways.  We told Chim we weren’t interested and got back in the car for the next leg of our journey.

Which ended up being another unspoken stop on the tour, at a place called Shangri La.  No, not the real Shangri La.  This was one of those pioneer villages that is set up to depict traditional life a long time ago, back when things were traditional.  At least that’s what it looked like from a distance.

Bailing on the mountain trek saved us an hour or so, which I suppose is what inspired Chim to walk us around the perimeter of Shangri La.  It was pleasant with lots of nice scenery, and it easily ate up the hour we had gained.

Next we drove to a bridge that was surrounded by bamboo boats, much like the one we had ridden the previous day in Xing Ping.  The bridge was nice enough, but again we surprised Chim when we told her we weren’t interested in a boat tour.  I lingered trying to get a shot of the bridge without any people on it while m’lady stopped to buy herself just the cutest bamboo hat ever.

Next up was another bridge but this one was actually quite famous and pretty impressive.  It might be called Dragon Bridge – I’m not entirely sure – but I do know that it is over six hundred years old.  Okay, I’m not completely sure about that either; it might have been four hundred years old.  Anyways, it was certainly very ancient and it was quite a sight besides, and amazingly enough we almost managed to get pictures of it with nobody on it.  

I say “almost” because there was a guy sitting near the top of the bridge the whole time we were there, and he was endlessly playing with his phone and picking his nose.  It was so frustrating.  There were two different wedding shoots taking place while we were there and at one point one of the professional photographers asked the dude to move.  He iLooked up from his iBooger and his iPhone and immediately obliged, moving from one side of the bridge to the other where he sat picking, scrolling, and spoiling an entirely different part of the photos.

As we crossed the bridge to leave I loudly and sarcastically explained to m’lady that the guy must just love having his picture taken and as I approache him I clicked off about a dozen close-up pictures, turning backwards to continue as I strolled by.  He looked up as I took the first shot and casually went back to his business, completely oblivious and/or not caring about my intended transgression at all.

I should just let stuff like that go.  I don’t know the dude’s story or anything about him.  Maybe he was texting his ancestors who built the bridge in the first place, how do I know?

Let’s see, what was next on the agenda?  Oh, I think it was Moon Hill, which is a mountain with a crescent-shaped hole in it.  Again it was a big climb, but at only Y10 per person it felt like a steal so up we went.  It was probably the highlight of the day so maybe we were wrong to skip the other mountain?  While I found Moon Hill much more picturesque from a distance it was great to arrive at the top and have the whole place to ourselves (except the two old ladies that were trying desperately to sell us some water, Coke, beer, or postcards.  How many times can a guy say, “I’m sorry, no thanks”?).  Just as we started coming back down we ran into another couple coming up, then another, and then a tour of British girls.  Hopefully the two old ladies did brisk business after we left.  They certainly had worked hard to get themselves and their wares up there!

As the day wore on we learned lots of things from Chim.  I found out that the circular concrete planters we often saw were indeed graves (Chim seemed spooked out that I even asked…Chinese tend to be very death-averse) and I discovered that the character I kept seeing that looks like the letter J with wings – /J\ – means what I thought it did: small.  “Shua” is how it’s pronounced.  I already knew “da” and “chung”, meaning medium (or middle or centre) and large, and it occurred to me that the reason I didn’t know the character for “small” was because I had learned these words ordering pizzas when I had spent a summer in Taiwan twenty years before, and I never, ever order small pizzas.

I should add that we learned most of these things in a very curious way.  Y’see, Chim doesn’t speak hardly any English at all, and outside of ordering pizza my Mandarin is almost non-existent, but she has a babel app on her phone (that’s what I call it anyway) where she can speak into it and a voice will instantly spit out the translation.  Alternatively, we could speak English into her phone and it would translate into Mandarin for her.  Pretty astounding, pretty handy, and pretty common ‘round here.  We’ve seen it several times since we arrived; it’s a real game changer and yet another reason why I’m glad neither of us has a cell phone.

(As inconvenient and frustrating as it can sometimes be, one of the big reasons I travel is to find barriers.  When travelling, even the most mundane tasks can often turn into crazy, challenging adventures, and if international travel gets too easy then that pleasure will go away.  Don’t get me wrong, I take things pretty easy, just not too easy.)

Our last stop of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most: Silver Cave.  I’m a fan of caves in the first place and the picture of Silver Cave in the brochure was so colourful, so unique and engaging that I really wanted to check it out.  I was concerned that I was going to be more taken with the photographer’s skills than the cave itself, a worry I often point out to m’lady when she comments that a hotel looks nice online (“Is it a great hotel or just a great picture?” I always wonder aloud), but if you don’t go you won’t know.

Now I know.  

I’ve toured through quite a few caves in my day and I know they are chilly – usually about 65 degrees or so – so I changed into a long shirt before going in (I was already wearing jeans, which I had regretted a few times already during the hot, sweaty day).  We got our tickets and English ear-sets and stepped into the cavern.

I soon found out that any idiot with a camera could easily best the pics in the brochure and the reason why is because the cave is lit with coloured lights.  It makes every picture look totally astounding.  M’lady and I marvelled after the first few shots, “Why doesn’t every cave do this?”

We soon discovered why.  Though picturesque as all-get-out the coloured lights actually make it hard to really appreciate the natural beauty of a cave, partially because of the uneven, eye-tricking lights and partly because the candy-colours are so distracting.  We took tons of excellent shots but had a hard time enjoying what was otherwise one of the more interesting and beautiful caves either of us has seen.  

There were two other mitigating factors: The place was packed with people, we’re talking wall-to-wall packed.  There are just so many people in China…it’s really hard to fathom if you haven’t experienced it.  We were consistently part of a massive, slow-moving throng and when the cave would bottleneck it would be as densely packed as the Toronto subway during rush hour.  Seriously.

And all those people are probably what led to the other problem, which really dampened our pleasure (pun intended, as they all are).  Instead of being a cool 65 degrees in there, the mass amount of bodies made the environment swelteringly muggy.  Halfway through the two kilometre trek we were both drenched in sweat and clamouring for the cave to end.  And here I was dressed up ready for the North Pole.  After enjoying a pretty tiring day already, amazing as the cave was we couldn’t get out of there soon enough.

(Another likely reason that it didn’t cool down in the cave is because after entering we only went up instead of down.  When we exited the cave we were actually two or three storeys higher than where we had started.)

When we finally emerged from the cave the hot air outside felt like a cool refreshing breeze.  We found Chim’s car and rode back to Yangshuo with all the windows down.  Though we were both half-starved and in dire need of showers I spotted a nearly-full moon rising big and yellow behind the unreal mountain range and couldn’t resist asking Chim to pull over for one last photo op.  Of course cameras in the hands of amateurs can never make such pictures match reality but you can rest assured, it was a remarkable sight.

Back at the hotel my shower felt like a million bucks and dinner tasted like gold.

It’s hard to believe the entire day of driving around cost the same amount of money as our two tickets to that lame, seventy-minute light show had cost us the night before.  

But like I say, if you don’t go  you won’t know.

*Remember, that’s a sausage McMuffin without egg.  My gawd, back in the days before the sausage McMuffin graduated to the value menu it was almost impossible to get one without an egg patty on it, no matter how many times you told the dude at the counter that you wanted “a sausage McMuffin WITHOUT egg.”  

“I don’t want any egg whatsoever.”  

“Please, please don’t bring me a McMuffin with egg on it.”  

Ninety seconds later you’d invariably find me pulling icky egg patties off of three sausage McMuffins with egg.  Every freakin’ time.  I even wrote them letters.

110417 Free Beer and the Guilin Twins

It was our last morning at the Dongling Resort and we went to the tiny restaurant for breakfast for the first time.  I was wary; when we had eaten dinner there I noticed a few icky-looking breakfast-ish items on the menu – “crispy egg” and that sort of thing – so I was very pleased to see that they actually had a wholly different menu for breakfast.

I had been looking for a chance to crack open the jar of peanut butter I had brought with me from Canada so I eagerly ordered toast with butter, along with a coffee and a chicken & mushroom omelet.  It was pretty pricey at Y50 but I wanted to fill up.  M’lady ordered a breakfast combo: French toast, bacon and egg and a cappuccino.  As per usual all of our items arrived one at a time.  First came my little tiny coffee, a small teacup half-filled with bitter, day-old tasting java.  I knocked it back in two sour bites.  Next came my toast, three full slices which – when peanut-buttered – was a meal unto itself.  And a rather glorious one at that, peanut butter maestro that I am.  

Next came m’lady’s cappuccino quickly followed by her French toast, which was just deep-fried bread with honey and no egg whatsoever.  After some time my omelet finally arrived.  It was large and delicious but in no way could it be accurately called an omelet.  It was simply and solely a mountain of chicken, mushrooms and scrambled eggs and it was the best plate of food I’ve had on the whole trip.  

We waited and waited for the rest of m’lady’s breakfast to arrive until we decided her bacon and egg had been forgotten.  We mentioned it to someone, apologies were made and in literally seconds her food was delivered.  

After breakfast we both endured some prodigious packing and checked out.

It was not surprising that our now-regular drvier Chim was the cabbie that arrived to deliver us to the bus depot; clearly she’s the goto cabbie for the hotel.  When we arrived at the bus station we hadn’t even gotten out of her Volkswagen Santana when a lady started beckoning us.  “Guilin, Guilin!” she shouted, pointing us towards the nearest bus.  “Guilin, Guilin!”

“Um, yeah,” we said, shrugging our shoulders at how easy this was turning out to be.  In no time we settled into the two seats directly behind the bus driver and in even less time we were off.

The bus stopped several times along the way in order to seek out more passengers, which made sense.  When we had pulled out of the station m’lady and I were two of only four passengers on a full-size coach.  Before we left town the bus was almost full.

I noticed several curious things during the ninety-minute trip to Guilin.  First, there was a very nice, obviously brand-new bicycle path running alongside the highway almost the entire way to Guilin, though I only saw two bicycles on it during the whole trip.  In lieu of bicycles, I saw at least a hundred motorcycles and scooters racing along the bike path and a car too.  The car was just flying down the path at a potentially literal breakneck speed.  Deadly motorized traffic notwithstanding, I’m guessing that the path will eventually get more bicycle use.  I saw lots and lots of signs promoting cycling and sport in general as a way to help realize “the Chinese Dream”.  The propaganda machine is clearly rolling in the direction of sustainable transportation.

Speaking of that, the vast majority of the scooters are electric-powered, easily 90% or more of them.  This goes along with everything else I’ve noticed in China.  Everywhere I look it seems like the country is truly striving to be environmentally conscious, which frankly goes against everything I was ever led to believe.  I’m hoping that they are genuinely trying to make up for past mistakes.  Plus they must be getting sick of providing free health care to the millions of people that get sick from polluted air.

I also noticed that it’s not unusual for vehicles of all sizes to drive on the wrong side of the road, and most traffic lights along the way were not working at all.  And while this should lead to deadly traffic bedlam I only saw three traffic accidents on the short journey.

When we hit the city limits I noticed the passengers were being let off the bus the same way they were let on; wherever they wanted to go.  I asked if we could get dropped at the train station and the bus stopped in the middle of a busy street.  We disembarked and walked in the direction we were pointed, soon arriving at our destination.

We thought it best to take care of our ongoing transportation straight away and luckily the girl at the counter (who was baffled by everything we tried to say) found a fellow employee with moderate English skills that could help us.  We had suspected quite rightly that there was no direct rail access to Macau but after about fifteen minutes of back-and-forth we purchased tickets to Zhuhai, where we supposedly will find free busses running into Macau.  Given that Macau is a gambling mecca it makes sense to me that they would do all they could to make it as easy as possible for people to get there, including offering free shuttle busses from the end of the rail line.

Future tickets in hand, we hopped a cab to our hotel.  It was the first time on the trip that we actually saw a taxi meter in operation and it turns out the cabs are dirt-cheap when they are being legitimately operated.  The fifteen minute ride (due to traffic) cost just $3.

Our hotel was curiously named the Zen Tea House.  When we entered the lobby we were immediately ushered back outside so we could exchange our shoes for slippers.  The tiny pair I was given were completely insufficient for my double-wide feet and they comically covered just the ends of my toes.  The proprietor noticed and handed me another pair, “For you we have special slippers,” he said, and they fit like Cinderella’s glove.

As we re-entered the lobby for the second time the first words I heard were, “Would you like a beer?”

“Yes!” I said, a little too fast and much too loudly.  There was actually a sign on the wall that read, “Free Beer.”  I’ve seen my share of “Free Beer” signs in this life of mine but there’s always a catch, as in “Free Beer (tomorrow).”

This time there was no catch.  We sipped our frosty ales as we were checking in and soon we were shown “the best room in the hotel”, room 501, on the top floor with an adjoining rooftop deck that we seemed to have all to ourselves.  The room was very clean, modern, sparse, and hip.  And all this for $40 a night.

Just as the sun began to set we lit out for a walkabout.  We crossed a few bridges and found a pedestrian street which was packed with people.  It’s just amazing how populous China is; even getting a tiny taste gives one the sense of what it means to have over a billion people in the country.

Halfway down the street I turned to see m’lady surrounded by a half-dozen young girls asking her a million questions in halting English.  “Where you came from?”  “Where you go now?”  “Can we eat dinner with you?”  Thankfully she answered the last question in the negatory and after a few obligatory photos with us we left them and continued our wandering.  

Up and down the strip we went, finally settling on a small outdoor restaurant stand for dinner where the food was cheap, oily, and very tasty.  So cheap in fact that when m’lady realized that she ordered the wrong thing she just went back and ordered the right thing.  The price of two meals was still a bargain.

Our table in the alley was across from one of the many, many restaurants that had large fish in enormous tanks outside.  Twice we watched as customers selected their dinner from amongst the swimmers.  The lady netted out the critter, weighed it and gave it a quick, percussive smack on the pavement before walking into the restaurant and handing the fresh kill to the chef.  

I’m glad nobody ordered the veal.

Something I find endlessly entertaining is reading all the poorly/randomly translated English t-shirts that people wear (Chinglish, as one tour operator described it).  To be fair, I remember being sixteen years old and buying a shirt at the Biway just because I thought the Chinese characters on it looked cool.  It probably said something like ‘True Ice Cream Dragon’ or something equally absurd.  Anyway, as we hit the small night market I saw my favourite t-shirt of them all, though this one was neither misspelled nor a series of oddly juxtaposed words.  Walking with her parents I saw a very cute little girl, maybe around four years old wearing a pink shirt.  Printed on the front in Osh Kosh B’gosh-style comic sans font were the words, “Dead Kennedys”.  Take a moment to picture it: cute little girl…conservative-looking parents…pretty little pink t-shirt…”Dead Kennedys”…I so, so wish I had had my camera at the ready.

Our destination was Shan Lake which boasts the famous Sun and Moon pagodas, each one about eight storeys tall and lit up gorgeously under a full moon.  We slowly circled the entire lake, joining throng after throng of tourists that stopped for picture after picture of the twin towers from every possible angle.  And every shot was gold.

We finally came full circle and happened upon a park filled with a crowd watching a presentation on a large stage.  We joined them and caught the tail end of nine police officers demonstrating karate-like takedown techniques in front of an audience that clapped and clapped at every maneuvre.  

Fairly spent, we slowly walked back to our hotel as a never-ending string of scooters, cars and people zipped by us in all directions.  They say New York is the city that never sleeps.  Well, those New Yorkers should really get a load of the Chinese in their own habitat.  Nothing seems to ever close and the crowds never seem to dissipate.  It’s really quite incredible.

Also incredible is how they light up the karst mountains that ring the city at night.  The brightly lit bulbous mounds were a stunning sight to see as we strolled towards the Free Beer House…er…I mean Zen Tea House, especially shrouded as they were in a Monet-like mist of pollution (or is it potential rain?).  

I never thought China would be so beautiful. 

110517 Guilin: Four Feet and Seven Stars

I wanna tell you, people sure do smoke around here.  Well the men do anyway, and to a shocking degree.  I’ve seen women smoking as well but the percentage of women to men partaking is notably miniscule.  

Walking through the streets I decided to see how many of the next forty men I passed were smoking, and I counted eight.  I did it again and strangely I got the exact same number, eight out of forty, that’s 20% of the men I saw that were actively smoking at the time.  Who knows how many lit up after they walked by.

And no wonder!  It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but every store has a display case full of cigarettes directly out front.  The packs have wildly varying prices, starting at about a buck a box and going up to twenty dollars per pack.  It makes me wonder if people who smoke the cheap brands occasionally splurge and buy the pricier brands, unlike in North America where people tend to stay loyal to their favoured poison.

A final observation on the subject: the way the men smoke is significantly different than the way people smoke in the West.  Here in China men tend to hold the cigarette directly in the centre of their mouth pointing straight out, and they often smoke without using their hands, just holding the cigarette with their lips.  It looks extra absurd.

(People spit a lot too.  I’ve seen signs everywhere indicating no-spitting policies; in the metro, in hotel lobbies, in elevators…I hear men hocking and spitting all the time.  I assume it’s related to all the smoking.)

Anyway, m’lady and I awoke in our zen room and went down for our breakfast, included in the $40/night room rate.  We got to choose between a Chinese or a Western breakfast.  We both chose the latter which consisted of an egg, a small serving of beans and corn, two pieces of…maybe ham?, a fruit bowl, a piece of broccoli, two fat slices of toast and unlimited coffee.  It was all quite glorious (except the broccoli of course).

After breakfast we went straight to the nearest recreational area (of many), Seven Stars Park.  We shelled out Y70 each for entry (though nobody ever checked our tickets) and balked at the extra Y28 fee to explore the cave.

When we started into the park we found it fairly empty and quite lovely, exploring the many paths that intertwined around one of two twin karst mountains.  We constantly came to crossroads in the paths, and as the map to the park to the park proved to be utterly unreadable we selected our course randomly.  It mattered not, as we had no agenda and no plan except to spend as much of the day as we could in the park.

Soon we came to a vast interlocking brick pathway littered with families enjoying the beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.  Then we started seeing booths selling food, toys and souvenirs, and signs pointing us towards one attraction or another.  We found a temple, a rock climbing area, a large field ringed with statues of cartoon characters, a penny arcade where we dropped a few yuan into some obviously-rigged claw games, a path littered with wild monkeys (and huge crowds feeding them), and we finally circled around to the zoo.  

Despite a large photo of a panda we discovered that there were not in fact any pandas (or red pandas) in the zoo so we opted not to shell out $13 per person to enter.  After a few more laps around (part of) the huge, huge park we were done with it and we got out of there, walking on tired feet back to our hotel.

We decided that the time was ripe for our first foot massages of the trip.  I had been saying that I was going to go for one almost every day, but somehow it had yet to come up.  The lady at the hotel desk suggested a nearby spot, we walked in and were handed a menu offering twenty different types of foot treatments, each one aimed at improving one’s life in any number of ways and all of them priced at about fifteen cents per minute.

Which is dirt cheap.

Somehow we both selected the shortest ones, at forty minutes each.  We sat next to each other and dunked our feet in buckets of hot water that had been treated with a dissolving powder.  We were told to turn around and we were happily surprised to discover that our treatments started with a good 10-15 minute back massage, which felt fantastic.

When I pulled my feet out of the bucket to get started the guy went to work getting rid of all the dead skin on my feet, using a myriad of tools and utensils and going at me with an almost comic fervour that had debris flying all around.  I swear, the guy should have been wearing safety goggles and a hazmat suit.  Easiest weight loss program ever.

I guess I should point out to those that don’t know me: I have very unusual feet.  As a matter of fact, a drawing of my left foot is the title page of the physical pathology section in the international medical encyclopedia from the year 2000.  I have a hereditary condition called hallux valgus, and mine is the most extreme case in my family.  

Imagine this: as we are forming in the womb our feet begin to grow much in the same way as our fingers do, though there is a tendon that pulls them together at the first knuckle and another that pulls them together at the second, so eventually we have short toes with limited movement instead of long, agile fingertoes.  Someone with hallux valgus is missing part of the first tendon, so our big toes try to grow outwards like opposable thumbs.  The second tendon, however, pulls the big toes back in, leaving a bumpy angle on the side of each foot.  The end result is I have super extra wide feet.

Add to that a bit of surgery I had at age twelve that stopped the big toe on my right foot from growing any longer and yeah, I got weird feet.  Twenty years ago I never would have endured the embarrassment of a foot massage.  Heck, back then I was so weirded out about my own feet that I never went barefoot, not even on the beach, and I never ever wore sandals.  Ever since I dated a girl in medical school who explained to me what I had (and who drew my foot for that textbook) I’ve actually become almost proud of my unique leg-enders.

Anyway, when the dude finally started in on the actual foot massage he went in hard and strong.  Equal parts pleasure and pain, he brought me to the brink of screaming in agony and at times left me almost drooling with unrestrained joy.

Along the way he pulled out his phone and had it translate a few questions for me.  It’s amazing how accurate the thing can be and yet how it can get things so very, very wrong.  At one point he asked if they would make much money offering their foot service in Canada and I spoke into the machine, “People would pay more money for this service than you are charging, but I think you would be less busy overall.”

The translation came out something like: “The groceries in your lung do not reciprocate with the octopus element, surely.”

As I type this I am wearing a t-shirt that I purchased in Yangshuo.  On it is the phrase, “Knowledge likes pants invisible but very important.”  After hearing the babel app translations I am no longer mystified as to how these atrocious mistranslations can happen.

Speaking of poor translations, throughout the park we saw many signs in Chinese and English and without exception the English translations were odd, cumbersome, and strange.  It’s the same everywhere we’ve been, and these are official government signs.  It boggles the mind to think that a country this large and powerful can’t find one fully bilingual person to proof read the official sign translations.  Seriously, how can that be?

Back to the massage, I can report that I’ve had dozens of reflexology sessions back in Canada (though at the hands of only two different practitioners), and the session I experienced in China was wholly different than any I’ve had before.  As my massage was ending the fellow spoke into his babel app, which asked me if I would like to “…make the foot very uncomfortable for ten yuan extra.”

“Sure!” we both said.  Turns out it meant ‘cupping’, a technique where a glass cup is heated by fire and applied to the soles of the feet, creating suction.  After about a dozen quick shwoop-pops he heated up a bamboo piece and left it suctioned onto the middle of each of my soles.  After leaving these to sit for about five minutes or so he pulled them off and looked inside.  

“Do you have full of moisture?” his phone asked me.

“Huh?” I replied.  “The machine must have gotten your question wrong, try again.”  

He did.  This time it was no question.  “Your body is full of moisture, sir,” it stated, as the man turned the bamboo cup upside down and a trickle of water (I hope it was water) poured out.  M’lady’s bamboo cups were empty.

No wonder the moon messes me up so much.  I’m an ocean.

When we walked out of there I was so, so relaxed I just can’t explain it.  We stopped into our hotel to chill out for a while and I asked the lady at the desk if we could buy a couple of beers.  

“But the beer is free sir,” she said, pointing at the Free Beer sign.  “I’ll get you each one.”

Are you kidding?  Does the Free Beer sign really mean free beer all the time?  After I finished mine I asked for another.  Yep, it really means free beer all the time.  I was astounded and excited.

As dusk approached we headed out to the same market area that we had visited the night before.  M’lady made a concession and suggested we try the Burger King (my favourite fast food) but I shocked her by stating that I’d rather find something local.  We aimed towards the place we ate the night before but along the way we got distracted by a small booth that was advertising Chinese hamburgers.

They were actually called “Xi’an meat clip buns”.  The chef took out a fatty slab of pork, minced it with a cleaver, cut in half a flat bun that looked like an English muffin but wasn’t and stuffed it with the meat, adding cilantro (for m’lady but not for me, thanks.  I’m one of those), added some spicy sauce and charged us about $1.50 each.  We sat at a nearby table and devoured them.  They were as delicious as they were greasy, and they were plenty of both.

On we walked.  I bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red book in the market for about $4 and a shirt in a discount store with a bit of Chinglish on it for a friend, and I stopped for a cheap deep-fried chicken burger.  M’lady looked into a ton of stores and found a few gifts for family, but mostly we just wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere.  

Amid the crowds strolling the pedestrian street with their purchases was a beautiful golden retriever walking along beside his master and the dog was carrying a shopping bag in his mouth.  We turned and watched them until they were out of sight; it was hilarious.  I can’t help but think that the guy initially taught his pet to do that specifically for times when he asked for a doggie bag in a restaurant.  That’s why I would do it.

By 9pm I was tired and a bit bored.  We decided to call it a night and walked back to the hotel.  When we got there my feet were killing me.  I came so close to going back for another reflexology session but decided to wait until morning.  

As we entered the lobby of our hotel the proprietor jumped up, “Do you want a beer, they’re free!”  My gawd, I love this place.  I took the beer and headed to the elevator.  As the doors opened the man shouted behind me, “If you want more just come on back down and help yourself!”

Ah, to be a younger man.  There was a time when I would have left this guy questioning his policy.

110617 Macau Lost and Found

We woke up much too early for our scheduled breakfast but after twiddling ourselves bored for an hour or so we decided to head downstairs early.  We were first to arrive in the small dining room and the lady put on two (yes, two) fresh pots of coffee.  Before you knew it our plates were in front of us, the same as yesterday only this time the eggs were mercifully scrambled (I’m weird with egg yolks, folks).

After we emptied our plates (and one of the coffeepots) we bee-lined it back the foot massage parlour and when we found it closed I was crestfallen.  After the joy of yesterday’s reflexology session I had cursed every day I had allowed to pass without getting a footrub, and I wasn’t about to miss any more.  

We still had at least two hours before we had to check out and get to the train station so we decided to walk down the block a bit to kill some time.  We came to an exercise park, very similar to one we had seen in Guangzhou.

The park was ringed with a whole bunch of exercise machines.  They looked very similar to playground structures except these were designed for adults – particularly the elderly – and just like in Guangzhou the park was busy.  There were some empty ones so m’lady and I gave a few of them a spin.  

It really made me wonder why we don’t have the same things back home; lord knows the growing North American population could use them.  The more I think about it the more absurd it seems that playgrounds in North America are exclusively geared towards children.  Once you’re in your teens or above, forget it.  Join a gym, do it yourself, or simply do nothing and grow large and unhealthy.  And here we are.

I have not seen a single obese person since arriving in China and surely exercise parks such as this one are largely responsible.  Not that everyone I see is in tip-top shape or anything, but it sure looks like everyone is keeping on the right side of health.  The one, single time I saw a Chinese person who looked somewhat overweight was when we visited Silver Cave.  As I was walking past she accidentally stepped in front of me.  

“Oh, pardon me!” she exclaimed with a thick British accent.  That explained that.

It’s curious how often I forget that just because someone looks local doesn’t mean they are.  

On the way back to the hotel we noticed that our massage place had opened.  We sat ourselves down, selected from an indecipherable menu of sixty-minute treatments and blissed out for the next hour.  

We were back at the hotel checking out right on time at twelve o’clock sharp.  They called us a cab to take us to the north train station and a half-hour later we paid the $5 fare (things can be so cheap here) and ducked inside the small depot.  

We perused the food court and passed on a tempting chicken/French fry place in favour of some cheap, delicious fried noodles.  I bought a tube of Pringle-ish chips and a couple of beers for the four-hour high-speed journey and we settled in to wait for the train.  Of course it arrived right on schedule.

When we boarded I was delighted to find that our seats were in a sleeper car but disappointed when our booth/cabin filled up with four other people and a diaper-swathed babbler.  

At 1:45 on the button our train pulled out.  Man, does the rail system run on time around here.

Finished with our little tour around mainland China we were headed for Macau, a Portuguese territory (or some such thing – iI still haven’t quite figured it out) basically adjacent to Hong Kong that is world’s largest gambling mecca.  But the train doesn’t go all the way to Macau.  That much we knew for sure.  What was much less clear was how we would travel the rest of the way to Macau, though we had been assured it wouldn’t be a problem.  Our best guess was that the train would get us close to the city and free busses would be waiting to take us the rest of the way, though with no actual information on the subject forthcoming it was really only a guess.  

But I was confident enough not to worry too much about it.

I figured that a city that runs on gambling would make it as easy as possible for people to get there, so I just crossed my fingers, cracked a beer and settled in for the speedy journey.  

Turns out I was half right.

When we pulled into the train depot we almost immediately saw a Wynn’s Resort booth that was manned by several uniformed women.  That boded well; all we had to do was to find a similar booth dedicated to the Countdown Hotel or the Hard Rock (as the Countdown was recently known as).  Or perhaps City Of Dreams…Our hotel reservation said something about “City Of Dreams”…we assumed it was the name of a complex or neighbourhood or something that included our hotel.  Oh, the guesses!

I asked one of the ladies at the Wynn booth.

“City Of Dreams,” she repeated.  “Go downstairs, turn right and walk maybe…five minutes.

“You’ll see it,” she lied.

I had read somewhere that you had to walk across a bridge to enter Macau, or something like that.  This was vaguely verified by an almost-English-speaking woman who helped us purchase our train tickets back in Guilin, but we really didn’t have much of a clue what it all meant or what we were supposed to be doing now that we were here.  Or almost here.  Or wherever the heck we were.  

We went downstairs and turned right.  Walking through multitudinous crowds of people we saw plenty of busses but nothing that really gave us much of a clue as to how we were to proceed.  We got to what I can only describe as the end, beyond which was a terminal of some sort that was lined with security officers and metal detectors.  We turned around and started back.  We found an escalator and descended into what was clearly a shopping centre.  Down there we found a sign for Macau – the first we had seen – but it was pointing us back upstairs.  As we were about to reboard the escalator I saw a guy sitting in a small Apple booth scrolling through his iPhone.  I figured working for Apple meant either he would speak a bit of English or he would at least have a translation app handy so approached him and asked our one-word question:

“Macau?”

He pointed back up the escalator and indicated that we were to look for a bunch of security officers and metal detectors.  That was the way to Macau.  Oooohhh.   We retraced half of our steps, crossed the line of security and found ourselves in an immigration/customs holding pen.  I still wasn’t convinced that we were in the right place but sure enough we were ushered through the immigration line easy-peasy beyond which was a door that led to a row of busses, each with signs advertising different casino resorts.  And there among them was one labelled: City Of Dreams – Crowne/Countdown/Hyatt.

Whew!  That was tricky.  It’s hard to believe they had no signage outside the customs terminal whatsoever.  Anyway. 

We got in line and two minutes later we were sitting comfortably on the cushy Greyhound (free of charge).  Moments later we were off.  I hadn’t realized that our train had dropped us off in a border town so I was expecting to be on the bus for fifty miles or something.  Nope!  Macau was right there.  And it turns out that our hotel was the first stop.  Whew!  That was easy.

When we pulled out of the depot I could see a ton of brightly lit casinos in the distance but the bus quickly turned, crossed a long bridge and headed in exactly the opposite direction.  I was crestfallen; if there was a Strip I wanted our hotel to be on it.  The traffic was pretty thick so we were on the bus for about a half-hour.  Outside my window were dark, towering office buildings as the glitz and faux glamour faded in the distance behind us.

Comically, had I been sitting on the other side of the bus I would have seen an even glitzier, even fauxxer Strip of big-time casinos grow as we approached the bigger of Macau’s two gambling areas, with the Venetian, the Parisian, MGM and many other big names looming outside the left-side windows.  This made it all the more surprising when we got off the bus and found ourselves under a canopy of lights at the super-glitzy entrance to our towering hotel.

It was around 6pm when we arrived at The Countdown to check in.  I was pretty impressed with the twin Lamborghinis that straddled the front door.  As we lined up for the front desk I became even more impressed with the clever countdown clock that took up the entire back wall of the main lobby.  The timepiece amounted to six frosted pieces of glass.  Behind each was the silhouette of a man writing and erasing numbers with paint rollers and cleaning rags.  The descending number was counting down to the grand opening of The Countdown’s new location, which was clearly a little over five thousand hours from completion and would presumedly be rebranding under a different name.  

With each minute that ticked away the man behind the appropriate window (or windows) would wipe away the number on his pane of glass and paint the next lower number in its place.  When we entered the lobby the wall/clock read 5453:42.  That’s five thousand, four hundred and fifty-three hours and forty-two minutes.

Soon the last fellow started erasing his “2” and painted in its place a “1”.  A minute later he started erasing again, this time painting a “0”.  When he started turning his “0” into a “9” the fellow in the next window started wiping away his “4” and replaced it with a “3”.  So now the clock/wall read 5453:39, or five thousand, four hundred and fifty-three hours and thirty-nine minutes.  Most amusing of all was how bored the first guy seemed to be.  With almost five hundred hours to wait until his next number change he spent his time pacing around, texting on his phone, and occasionally sitting down on a stool to rest.  Hilarious.

Of course they weren’t really people back there.  In truth they were video screens, but it looked real and I totally loved it.  The only clock I’ve seen that even compared was one I saw years ago in the airport in Seoul that told the time, date, and outside temperature by manipulating hundreds of tiny waterfalls.

We checked in and rode the elevator to the 22nd floor.  As soon as we entered our room I flung back the curtains and was overjoyed when a majestic Vegas-like vista enveloped my vision.  Intricate tropical pools, vast constellations of sparkling lights, big fancy waterfalls, and a horizon of gaudy architectural  splendour stretching to the sky.  I was ecstatic.

“I’m going to go find us a bottle of whisky,” I said to m’lady, racing out the door.  

“Don’t get lost or stolen,” she called after me as she ducked in the bathroom to take a shower.  

I went down to the concierge desk and asked where I could bag my quarry and I was surprised that he sent me to a whole other casino.  “On the third floor of the Venetian you’ll find Watson’s,” he told me.  “That is where you can purchase both liquor and wine.”

The Venetian was basically next door.  I’m a sucker for the pretension and glamorous facade that is offered in gambling meccas and I was primed to get my boogie on.  I walked there at a clip, excitement growing with every quick step.

In less than five minutes I was inside the Venetian.  It took five minutes more to find Watson’s.  “We don’t have whiskey or wine here sir,” I was told.  “Only water.”

What?!?!  Arrrgh.  

“Where can I buy whiskey?” I asked, forcing my gritted teeth into a smile-like shape.  “I don’t know,” she told me.

I stalked through the third floor like a starving tiger until I found a variety-type store amongst the Rolex, Prada, and Chanel luxury outlets.  “We don’t sell alcohol here, sir.  Maybe you should try Watson’s?”

Aaarrrrghhhh!!!

“Or if you prefer, you could visit our duty-free store downstairs on the first floor.  I’m sure you’ll find what you are looking for there.”

Was I running by this time?  I guess I was.  And sure enough, there on the first floor was indeed a duty-free store.  The Jack Daniels was prohibitively expensive so I grabbed a litre of Canadian Club for only 80MOP, which is about $15CDN.  (Macau’s currency is locked to the Hong Kong dollar and both currencies are accepted throughout the territory.)

Success at last, but that could certainly have been a whole lot easier than it was.

I asked the very friendly staff at the duty-free where I might buy some Coca-Cola to go with the rye and they pointed me to a nearby booth.  I noticed the Cokes there cost 22MOP each – almost $4.50 for a small bottle – so I balked and raced back upstairs to Watson’s.

It wasn’t until I hit the threshold of the drugstore that I remembered what the lady there had told me ten minutes before: “We only have water.”  I quickly looked around and, seeing she was right I power-walked to the variety store that had directed me to duty-free; I remembered seeing Cokes in their fridge.  

I grabbed two cans and stepped up to the cash.  She rang them up: 30MOP each.  “Are you kidding me?!?!” I actually said out loud, utterly exasperated.  “No.  I absolutely can not pay $6 for a can of Coca-cola,”  I turned around and walked straight out.  

At this point I had been gone a half-hour or more, easy.  M’lady probably thought I’d been sucked into a blackjack table and might well be pacing the floor up in our room.  I ran to the nearest exit, hoping against hope that I’d find some reasonably-priced mix somewhere along the way back to The Countdown.  I didn’t.

As I passed the concierge in my hotel lobby I stopped long enough to get directions to the resort’s variety store in the basement though I thought it prudent to check in at our room first.

I opened the door sweating and out of breath.  “Hi,” m’lady called out cheerily from the bathroom.  “How did it go?”

Whew!

I briefly outlined how it had went and ran back out the door.  I went downstairs to buy the Cokes and lo, in the variety store right there in the basement of our very own casino what did I find but bottles, bottles, and more bottles of wine and hard liquor taking up almost half the shop.  Being completely honest they only had Scotch and high-brow ports and sherries and the like, none of which I would have purchased.  But still.  

On my way back upstairs I did something I don’t do too often: I returned to that snivelling, know-nothing poor excuse of a concierge and counted off the man’s insufficiencies on the fingers of my right hand before his frozen face.  

I told him that not only did Watson’s not sell any type of wine or liquor whatsoever, but that there was in fact a duty-free store in the Venetian that was well-stocked and reasonably priced, and further that The Countdown’s own variety store sold wine and liquor, and it was just one level below where we were standing, and, well, everything!

“Oh,” he said with a lame shrug.  “Sorry.”  

I got back to the room in a bit of a mood, having spent close to an hour doing what should have taken no time at all, but it was nothing a few too many drinks couldn’t cure.  M’lady tagged along drink-for-drink and once we got sufficiently loose (for the first time on this trip) we headed out to find some food.

I knew my way around the Venetian so I led her up to the food court on the third floor.  Unfortunately most of the restaurant kiosks were shutting down so we quickly settled on McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries.  After we ate there wasn’t much left to do with the night so I walked m’lady back to our room and headed back down to do some gambling.  

I had heard that baccarat was popular here but I wasn’t expecting it to be the only game in town.  Okay, that’s not true, but at The Countdown’s casino it was almost true.  I scoured the vast gambling den and was amazed to find they only offered two different games, baccarat and an Asian game I had never seen before that centred around a pair of dice hidden under a covered glass dome.  No blackjack, no poker, no roulette.  A casino floor isn’t the most ideal place to learn the ins and outs of a new game, especially a casino floor where English is a distant second language, so I booked it over to the Venetian once again.  

Believe it or not, Macau is the gambling capitol of the world, raking in five times as much revenue as Las Vegas.  And I could see why; the table minimums were quite significant.  The cheapest blackjack table I could find listed a table minimum of 300MOP: more than $50CAN a hand, minimum.  Jeeze, I wanted to gamble a little but I couldn’t risk that kind of cash.

Eventually I found a reasonably priced roulette table and dug in.  I traded 300MOP for a handful of chips and my first spin won me about whole bunch more.  I should have left the table there and then.  I considered it but my tired mind was kept very busy converting the multiple exchange rates needed to count my stack: this many colourful chips equals how many MOP which is trading at what rate versus the US dollar which in Canadian is…

…By the time I figured out that the first spin had netted me $250CDN my stack had filtered back to the house.  That’s not how it was supposed to go.

I was almost to the door when I thought, “to heck with it, get back there and win your money back.”  I had been in this situation before and turned things around so I marched right back to the table and lost another 500MOP in a shockingly brief amount of time.  

If there were free drinks to be had I never saw them, nobody around the table spoke a word English, and no one really seemed to be having a good time.  Every head was bowed to their chips, deep in concentration.  There were no Vegas-style shouts of victory or hopeful pleas for luck, “Come on seven”’s, or woo-hoos! anywhere.  In fact it was eerily quiet in there, especially for a casino.  In the end I lost about $250 and didn’t have any fun at all.   

So it was with a subdued weariness and self-imposed disappointment that I rode the elevator up to the 22nd floor, where I let myself in and quietly slipped into bed without waking m’lady.  There was nothing worth talking about.

(Incidentally, though I rarely play roulette when I do I generally do quite well, with two exceptions: this night and another when I played on a ferry between Sweden and Finland, and in both of those cases the wheel was European-style.  That is, instead of having a spot for both “0” and “00” it only had the single “0”.  Of course with only thirty-seven spots available instead of thirty-eight the odds are actually better, but these were the only times I played on such a table and both times I found the little ball consistently landing in the slot right next to my big bet.  Both times I stood there convinced that if another spot were added to the wheel my numbers would come up just like they always do when I’m in North America.  

I mean, on this night I bet heavily on a single number on just three spins and each of those three times the ball landed directly next door to my wager.  Any one of those hits would have netted me a $700+ payout.  The dude next to me hit every one, which didn’t make me feel any better about it.

But that’s gambling.)

110717 What Happens in Macau…

It was a lovely wakeup up there on the 22nd floor of The Countdown Hotel and Casino, high above the Macau skyline.  We took it easy getting started and when we did we tried our best to see what the almost-country had to offer besides casinos.  Our map told us that there was a small traditional neighbourhood just behind the Venetian so we set out on foot to find it.

The farther we got the more unlikely it seemed that there could actually be anything traditional anywhere near the countless giant resorts that rose from the reclaimed swamp area.  But a few twists and turns and we found it: a small grid of tourist shops and restaurants nestled in the long shade of casino towers.  

Though it was fairly early – well before noon – I was still rather surprised to find so few people about.  I mean, for the first hour of meandering we were alone almost everywhere we went.  The reason I found this so odd was because with a population of almost 700,000 people in a minuscule thirty square kilometre area Macau is technically the most densely packed area in the world.  

It sure didn’t look like there was 20,000+ people per square kilometre.  It looked more like a dozen.

We did some trinket shopping and found a nice place to sit down for some lunch.  I hit a home run with my turmeric chicken and soup, m’lady did okay with her open-faced beef sandwich but she followed that up with an egg tart from a street vendor, a toasty treat that is extremely common ‘round here.  After lunch we wandered until we saw all there was to see of the small neighbourhood and then we circled back to the hotel to drop off our purchases.   Back downstairs ww hopped the free shuttle to the centre of Macau proper for some proper sightseeing.

When we disembarked next to the Emperor Hotel I finally believed the hype about this being the most densely populated area on the planet.  Every street, sidewalk and alley was packed with tourists and locals alike.  The tourists were mostly looking for the ruins of the St. Mark’s Cathedral while the locals were mostly looking for the tourists.  We stopped into a few shops along the way and soon found the remains of Asia’s greatest Catholic Church.

Built in 1602 and suffering a debilitating fire two and-a-half centuries later, the only thing that remains of the once-grand cathedral is its still-grand facade, a tall, thin movie set-looking church front with nary a church attached.  The irony of a gaping nothingness hiding behind the wafer-thin facade of an ornate, grandiose Catholic Church was not lost on me whatsoever, but I shan’t digress.

We wandered further afield and stopped into a few more shops, eventually winding back at the Emperor Hotel where we popped into a variety store across the street.  We almost emptied their shelves, picking up water, beers, and canned iced coffees, plus several Coca Colas at the astounding bargain of just 8MOP each.  If I ended up with a few extra Cokes I could probably hawk them outside our hotel store that prices them at 30MOP a can.

We slugged back a couple of beers as the bus took us back towards our hotel complex in Taipa, passing a thousand incredible pieces of stunning architecture along the way.  Back at the hotel we went down to the pool just before it closed for the night, finally using the swimsuits we had brought.  The pool attendant was super.  He was really friendly, escorting us to select the deck chairs of our choice where he placed fluffy towels for us both and bid us a good time.  We had the entire pool area to ourselves (okay, there was one other person in the hot tub when we got in, but we scared him off in a jiffy) and we soaked it all up and splashed around for a half-hour or more.  

Afterwards we stopped into our room for a brief but necessary rest before heading back to the good old Venetian for dinner in the food court.  This time we managed to catch the kiosks before closing time and we each ended up at the same counter ordering fried noodles.  Mine were super-delicious, m’lady’s a less so, just like lunch.

M’lady wasn’t interested in an evening of gambling (she rarely is) and neither was I really, so after dinner we called it a night.  Back in the room m’lady crawled into bed and I wheeled the big easy chair around to face the panoramic wall of windows.  I spent the next hour or so doing my Vegas best to go through a bottle of rye and trying to convince myself that I was staring at a huge fish tank.

I almost succeeded.

110817 Countdown to the Ozone

I opened my eyes at 8am and was in line at the Starbucks in the hotel lobby when they opened at 8:30.  I’m often amazed by how flippantly I can drop $8 on a pair of coffees but in the right circumstance I do it quite readily.  M’lady and I took our time getting up and about, and with a late checkout set for noon we had enough time to go back to the Venetian’s food court for more fried noodles.  This time m’lady ordered the same thing I did and enjoyed it very much.  Smart girl.

On our final stroll through the casino I decided to try for a Hail Mary, dropping a final 100MOP on the roulette wheel.  Of course, the thing about Hail Mary’s is that they rarely convert.  I did not convert.  M’lady surprised me by eyeing the slot machines with interest.  She stopped at one that featured a lion and in honour of our much-missed kitty cat back home she fed a 20MOP bill into the machine and gave it a twirl.

And lo, there came five lions marching towards us on the screen and credits started clicking.  She counted on her fingers and figured she had won $20CAN on the first. spin.  Clever girl that she is, she bee-lined it to the cashier without even sitting down.

When we checked out of the hotel I was surprised to hear the clerk apologize for the trouble I had encountered trying to find a bottle of liquor on our first night.  Standing there, I considered the comment a rather outstanding attention to detailed customer service but now that I think about it, in addition to giving the concierge a bit of a dressing down that night I also complained about it to another concierge the next day, plus for the first time ever I had filled out the comment card that was in our hotel room when we’d checked in, so I can’t imagine that a flag or two hadn’t been planted next to my name on their computer.

We hopped aboard the free shuttle to the Taipa ferry terminal (we took a lot of free shuttles in Macau) and bought our tickets back over to Hong Kong.  Quick as you like we were onboard jetting towards the world’s most popular tourist destination city, and we were on our way there fast.  I was super-impressed with the speed of the ferry, especially considering the crossing was a distance of something like forty kilometres.

But like I say, we got there in no time, and after a five minutes of dragging our luggage along the busy sidewalks we found our last hotel of this trip, a Travelodge on Hollywood Road.  After a short rest we lit out for a final romp through Hong Kong, starting at the Cat Street pedestrian market.  We were a bit disappointed to find nary a cat in sight but the junk shops held our attention for a good two hours of window-shopping.  Afterwards we ducked into a nearby temple for a quick lookaround and found the room completely overrun with aromatic smoke emanating from thousands of incense sticks stuck in massive cauldrons and hundreds of thick incense coils hanging from every inch of the ceiling.  

We stopped into the airport express train depot to book tickets for our morning commute but were told that they could only be purchased on the day of travel.  We took the opportunity to measure how long it took to walk between the terminal and our hotel and discovered it to be a forty minute journey.  Facing an 8:30am flight we reasoned that it would be better to take a cab to the express terminal in the morning and celebrated our clever pre-decision with a quick drink in our room before heading back out for a stroll to the Star Ferry.

We sipped beers as we crossed to Kowloon and sipped even more as we wandered the night market.  This excursion was my idea; the last time we were here I had seen some bootleg Lego (called Lele) and wanted to buy a Star Wart (yes, Star Wart) Millennium Falcon for m’lady’s nephew.  Wandering the many and varied booths I discovered three vendors with the goods.  Some cursory bargaining unveiled the most entertaining bargainer and after ten minutes of back and forth I walked away with the Lele tucked under my arm for the somewhat reasonable price (I suppose) of 190HKD, or something like $35. 

Our final destination of the evening – and the trip as a whole – was something I had been eyeing (and all but insisting on) for the last month or so: Ozone, the highest bar in the world.  Sitting atop the Ritz-Carleton in Kowloon, the high-end (in all respects) nightclub is on the 118th floor of what looks to be the tallest building in Hong Kong.  We could see the building from everywhere of course, and with our necks craned towards the towering beacon we made the long trek there by foot, twisting and turning through huge city blocks and finally arriving very tired and in much need of an overpriced drink.

Never mind that we were pulling on dollar-beers purchased from 7-11’s (which are quite literally on every block) the whole time and we really didn’t need any more drinks.  Also never mind that by the time we finally got there I was so tired I didn’t feel like going in.  Fortunately m’lady’s reasoning that we might as well check it out while we’re here got us through the door.

Ozone has a funny dress code: after dark men have to be wearing pants.  On the face of it that seems like a pretty valid restriction but oh yeah: shorts.  Amazingly, if you aren’t wearing long pants when you arrive they will loan you a pair, just like ties at restaurants that appear in corny jokes and old movies.  I almost wished I been wearing shorts but alas, I was in jeans.  Imagine getting so drunk that you forgot to return them and waking up in the morning wondering where the hell did I get these pants?  

(The very thought gives me a chilling sense of déjà vu.)

The building is so big it couldn’t all be hotel and it wasn’t; the Ritz-Carleton starts on floor number 103 and rises up from there.  When we stepped towards the bay of elevators to go up the tower a Ritz-y employee approached us and asked if we could be helped.

“Yes,” we replied.  “We’d like to go up to Ozone for a drink.”  The lady literally looked us up and down head-to-toe, pausing to decide whether or not we passed her muster.  Sure m’lady could always cruise through such scrutiny, but how I – lurching about in ratty jeans and a sweat-through t-shirt and carrying a large box of Leghetto under my arm – got through this thin, perfumed checkpoint made me marvel at the clientele this bar was willing to accept.  Regardless, she escorted us to a waiting elevator and deposited us inside with an unfriendly smile.  As we elevated m’lady suggested that perhaps the lady had merely been checking to see if I was wearing pants but I doubted it; clearly she had been debating whether we were Beverly hillbillies or just plain old  hillbillies and oh, how I wish I had just handed over one of my Lamborghini’s to the valet.

We chuckled about this as the elevator rose to the 103rd floor, the only stop offered.  When we stepped off the elevator we were greeted by another elegantly-dressed employee who directed us to another elevator, and this one whisked us straight into the bar.

At a glance it was obvious that the place was seriously upscale, and the server who led us outside to the patio was only slightly more subtle in her scrutiny of us than her ground-floor counterpart had been.  “Are you staying at our hotel?” she asked.  “Listen lady, I’m wearing pants.  Ain’t that enough?” I thought, though I merely answered, “No, we aren’t.”

The place was busy and you couldn’t find a waiter with a geiger counter.  I approached the bar and ordered a cocktail for m’lady and a bottle of Goose Island IPA for myself.  It came to about $60CDN for the pair of drinks.  Somehow the barkeep could tell without asking that I didn’t want to start a tab.

We sat at the topless window and swooned at the view, which was amazing despite a misting rain.  Without a structure in sight that came even close to our height we had un unfettered overhead view of one of the world’s great cities.  The buildings we had walked by on our way to the bar had seemed enormous, now they were little dots below us.  We were on the top floor with the open sky above our heads and it was astounding.  We nursed our drinks and wondered at the many Richie Riches sitting nearby us as we reminisced about our very amazing super-budget soon-to-end vacation.

I think it really adds to the mental picture to remember that sitting on our table was that large, 1500+ piece Star Wart Millennium Falcon while people all around us were ordering $2,000 bottles of wine and leaving them half full (half empty?) on the tables.  I even ducked into the toilet just so I could stiff someone else out of a tip (official attendant or not, I make it a habit never to give money to a stranger in a public washroom).  Overall it was a great experience and a really fun time and we got out of there just after midnight.

Though the distance from the Ritz-Carleton to the dock where we would catch the Star Ferry back to our hotel looked minuscule from our perch up in Ozone, it occurred to us that everything looked minuscule from up there so we opted to take the metro instead.  On our way down we stopped in the hotel lobby on the 103rd floor and poked around a little (let them try and kick us out – we were leaving anyway).  There were two restaurants there, both very fancy-schmancy and both with pretty fine views of their own.  The subway station underneath the building proved quite convenient; we rode the train underneath the bay, switched lines and in no time we were back at our hotel.  

We stopped at the desk to request a wakeup call for 5am (gulp!) and settled in for up to two hundred minutes of shuteye.

110917 Zài Jiàn China!

Anything that happens at 5am comes pretty early (although in my younger days I would have been more likely to say that anything that happens at 5am comes pretty late), especially a wakeup call at a Travelodge.  I was feeling at least as old as I am (which is rare) as I dragged my carcass through the shower and donned my last clean clothes.  Downstairs, the hotel staff hailed us a cab that pulled up right outside the door a minute later and a mere $6 later we were at the train station seeking out the airport express.

Man, was it a good decision to take a taxi.  The amount of effort it would have taken us to drag ourselves and our luggage through a maze of sidewalks to the station at that time of day made the ride well worth the money.  We bought our train tickets and did something I’ve never even heard of: we checked into our flight and dropped off our luggage right there at the downtown train terminal.  No lugging our stuff onto the train where it would take up unwarranted space, no lining up at the airport…It was so utterly convenient and made so much sense.  I hope this won’t be the last time I see this option.

We made it in time to catch the first train of the day, which departed at 5:50am.  In exactly twenty-four minutes (how can stuff run so on time?) we were at the airport and with our boarding passes already in hand we cruised security and made it to our gate with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled 8:30 departure.

(There was a slight hiccup at the security gate when the x-ray machine detected a forgotten can of beer in my carry-on.  The attendant fished it out and gave me a questioning shrug as he motioned towards a garbage can.  Surprised to be offered a foot in the door, I reached out for the can and once proffered I cracked it open right there in the security line and I pounded it back in a single open-throated gulp.  I finished that beer off in three seconds flat, and with a quick crush I tossed the empty can into the garbage myself, earning a nod of approval from the otherwise stern security dude.

I turned around expecting accolades from m’lady but got a bemused eyeroll instead.  Though I swear I saw a couple of guys in line behind us quietly clapping their hands.  It was, after all, still well before 7am.

For all our efficiency we ended up having more time than we thought as our plane sat resting on the tarmac, not lifting off until we were a full hour late.  Uh-oh.  We were just hopping over to Beijing where we had a mere seventy-minute layover before our flight to Canada was scheduled to leave the ground.

It is amazing though how the pilots can make up for lost time if they really want to.  Makes you wonder why they don’t always fly that fast.  Could it be that airline pilots are slackers that get paid by the hour?  Anyway, before we landed the stewardesses pitched in and arranged the half-dozen or so of us who were making the same tight connection and readied us into the front couple of rows of economy class for quick departure.  Even still, our already tight connection had been strangled considerably.

M’lady and I ran as fast as we could muster and were fast-tracked through three different security/immigration lines (unlike most countries, China checks your documents when you leave their country) and we made it into our seats with five minutes to spare.  

Our flight home is a brand-spanking new Dreamliner 787 with plenty of entertainment options (I’m listening to The Grateful Dead’s fabled concert at Cornell on 5/8/77 as I type this) and as luck (and strategy) would have it, the seat between m’lady and I has remained unoccupied which should make the twelve-hour trip to Montreal that much more comfortable.  Then we will board a bus for Ottawa and our vacation to China (and Hong Kong and Macau – or is that redundant?) will come to a close.

M’lady and I both agree that we would love to return to Hong Kong and spend considerable more time exploring China too; Macau not so much.  Everything we encountered was really interesting, the people we met were all quite friendly and helpful, the country was primarily clean and inexpensive, travel was pretty convenient across the board, the food was great, and we felt absolutely safe everywhere we went.  That’s a lot of checked boxes right there!

Plus our visas are good for ten years.  Never heard of that before.

It’s hard to believe that not only did we fly to Hong Kong for $500 return, if we had waited a few weeks we could have booked flights for $400, and from Ottawa taboot.

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