China and Instagram

After many months of watching others posting hipster-inspired photography through the Instagram app, I have finally lost my inner battle and given the gadget a try.  Truth be told, it is extremely addictive, and manages to make even the most boring of scenes appear to be interesting.  Magic indeed.  Here is a shot taken in downtown Guangzhou.  Despite being done on what may be the single worst camera phone of all time, Instagram worked its tricks and turned this into a picture that I actually really like.

Creators and Programs at Instagram, I tip my crappy camera phone in your direction.  This is one excellent piece of programming.

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The Community

A number of people have requested to see my new neighborhood in Guangzhou, and though I would have loved to oblige immediately, I have been doing active battle with the internet and all devices associated. I took almost 5 hours to figure out how to configure the new router. For one reason or another, it didn’t occur to me that the instructions and all portions of the software would be in Chinese. Lesson learned.

My new apartment is in a community unlike anywhere that I have ever lived. To begin with, Guangzhou is nothing short of tropical, and, as seen in the pictures, the landscape suits the word lush in all respects. Humid doesn’t quite cover the quality of the air. Saturated may be more appropriate.

There are a ton of great pictures to be taken, but I’m not quite ready to completely irritate the neighbors . Given my status as one of possible 10 foreigners living in this area, I stand out plenty as it is. It is unusual for me to see anyone not of Chinese decent. The community is gated, and I estimate the population to be somewhere between three and five thousand, a strange mix of young and old, with more children then I have ever seen in my life. Everywhere I look, there are children bouncing around, riding scooters and bikes, and causing chaos on roller blades. I can picture no place more fantastic to grow up as this little world. It is an ongoing block party in a land where the temperature never seems to drop. I also have no reservations in saying that this is, hands down, the cleanest place that I have ever been in China. The only draw back that I have found is that it is nearly an hour from the central city, but this is not too terrible as I am located directly across the street from any number of buses and a subway.

If I have time this evening, I hope to go out and take some night shots. The lighting here is fantastic, and there is something that I find very attractive about the Guangzhou nights. It is so humid that the night air tends to be foggy, condensation following a hot day.

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Internet Restored

It took three weeks, but after much cursing and hair pulling, I finally have internet in the new apartment. The amount of time that I spent trying to figure out how to live without the web has confirmed my understanding of how addicted I really am. But who cares, the world is at my hands once more!

When I moved into my first apartment in Beijing, we were lucky enough to have an internet package already installed, but soon enough it came time to renew our contract. This would have been easy enough, but because internet is typically purchased in 6 month to year long contacts, it was of no surprise that no one could remember who we had purchased our service from. Imagine for a moment that you have no idea who your provider is, but you need to pay a bill. Throw three foreigners with poor Chinese into the equation and you have quite an adventure ahead. We went so far as to go door to door in our complex asking neighbors who they got their service from. Most of them didn’t understand what we were trying to ask, and those that did were so entertained by the idea of foreigners trying to get things done that they weren’t much more help. After hours of digging and questioning, we found the phone number that we were looking for, and that was that.

This time around, I have not been so lucky. Three weeks ago, I had one of the girls that I work with call in to find out who was responsible for the internet in my community. In a format similar to the U.S., certain companies have the rights to place service in certain areas. Unlike the U.S., however, there are only a few main companies, and all of them are heavily controlled by the government. The result is that there isn’t much need for them to get anything done in a timely manner. At first, the answer was that they weren’t sure if they put internet in my community, and they would have to check. Checking took four days, at which point they called back with an answer. This was great, except that they had gotten my address wrong, and as such, the answer was null and void (despite being an apartment complex directly adjacent to my own).   Add another 4 days.

Eventually, it was determined that they could provide service, but they weren’t sure when they would be able to install it. Another staff member in the office explained that they would call when they had time, but that I shouldn’t expect any news any time soon. Three days passed, and no call. Once again, we were forced to pick up the phone, this time being more direct in demanding a time that they would arrive. Someone on the other end said they would arrive in the next three days, and would call before they arrived. Given that I work almost an hour away from my apartment, this wasn’t exactly convenient. Three days later, they called, ready to come install everything on the one day when I wasn’t able to come home.

The story goes on like this for some time, and ultimately becomes stagnant and entrenched in bureaucratic depths that seem to line a post socialist economy. Long and short, I got my internet, it just took days longer than I would have liked. In honor of this moment, I have included two pictures taken from my balcony in the closing hours of the day. It was an unusually clear day in Guangzhou, and I was graced with the sight of the mountains in the distance.

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A Flight to Guangzhou

The smell of smoke appeared quite suddenly while the crew was serving lunch, which is probably why no one on the plane thought to immediately question the acrid air. I wasn’t even aware that something was amiss until I tried to ask the attendant for a refill on my drink

“Hold on just a moment”

The man had stopped his routine of serving, and was looking around the cabin for something that only he could see. That’s when I noticed the undeniable tinge to the air, an absolute smell of trouble. The attendants stopped serving, pulled their cart back to the galley behind us, and I could see one of them making a phone call. In this small time, the smell suddenly got much worse, and more people were looking around with the beginnings of what may have been a panic.

In a moment, the attendants were back, opening each compartment on the plane one by one and pulling out the contents. With each one, I had a great fear the there would be some fantastic explosion, the yet undiscovered pile of smoldering something-or-other finding itself suddenly fed a big dose of oxygen. I was surprised that they did not bother to see if the outsides of the compartments were hot, but then again, they were, at this point, visibly anxious. Burning electrical circuits have a very distinct smell, somewhere between ozone and a mix of plastics and metals. This was, to the letter, the smell that now characterized our economy cabin. Sitting directly over the wing, it was clear that the smell was coming from the vents on the floor and the ceiling.

The attendant who appeared to be the most in control hustled back to the phone and made another call. In a moment, two of the pilots were in the aisle next to me, looking extremely concerned. They consulted for a moment, relocated a few passengers sitting across the aisle from my seat, and then began the process of trying to remove pieces from the floor, perhaps hoping to find anything that might resolve the matter. At this point, it seemed clear to me that there was an obvious choice in front of us; if you are in command of a plane that is obviously suffering a mechanical issue, find the nearest airport and request to land. We were still an hour from Guangzhou, and the last thing I wanted was to be left with no apparent answer to what could be nothing less than a major red flag. I envisioned a burning suitcase in the cargo hold below, a set of wires that had shorted out, a rodent that might have fouled the inner workings of the wings. And yet, there was nothing to show. The pilots turned off the lights and the overhead displays, as well as the air circulation system, and the smell was gone.

We landed in Guangzhou without fanfare, but the moment we stopped, the air was turned back on an the cabin was once again filled with the odor of charred mystery object. We disembarked and went to collect our bags. Despite being in a relatively small terminal, the bags took almost an hour to be delivered, leading me to speculate that a team was probably climbing not only through the jet, but also through all of our stuff to see if they might rule out a cause. Should they have found nothing in the bags, I can’t imagine what process would need to be undertaken to find the issue in the plane itself. I can only hope that on my next trip north, I am no so unfortunate as to ride the same plane again.

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The New Apartment

It’s been a busy month among busy months, and as I look now, I see that I have failed to make even one post in the last 31 days, a sore failure on my part.

After much discussion, preparation and rescheduling, I finally made the move the Guangzhou, way down south next to Hong Kong, but as I write this post I am currently sitting back in Beijing, after a week of business (and getting a Chinese Drivers License, but that’s a story of it’s own).  I will fly back south tomorrow morning to continue our project, and then it’s off to Hong Kong on Wednesday or Thursday for a visa issue.

In the meantime, I have a few pictures of the new place.  I have always had a hard time photographing indoor spaces, and this was no exception.  To compound the fact, I was also in the process of departure for Beijing, as can be seen in the clothing scattered around the rooms.  I had washed all of my things the night before, but Guangzhou is humid to the point where nothing dries.  Laying it all out inside the space seemed like a good idea, but was of no avail.

Oh yes, and my balcony overlooks an industrial complex and highway.  Most excellent

I haven’t had much chance to explore this new city, other than the compulsory trip to Ikea, but I’m hoping that within this next week I will have a bit more time to get some pictures of the community I live in.  It is gated, there are palm trees, and if I didn’t no better I would have never picked it as a part of China.  Until then….

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Snake Dinner in Guangzhou

I’m spending the week in Guangzhou on a business trip of sorts, and went out to dinner this evening with some of the people in our company to the finest cuisine Guangzhou has to offer-  An assortment of Snake.  As we entered the restaurant, we passed a large crate with a number of three to four foot long creatures inside, and I was quickly aware of the direction things were headed.  When I was told that we would be eating snake, I figured that there would be a dish or two, but in a fashion similar to Beijing Duck, the entire meal consisted of dishes made out of the various parts of just one animal.

Long and short was that most pieces were delicious, and tasted nothing like I would have thought.  The only parts that did not sit quite so well were a strange slurry made of entirely of minced snake tendon, as well as the snake liver, which had an okay texture but a challenging flavor.  The meal was finished off with a glass of snake-egg egg whites, spiced with some local herbs. A year or so ago I watched someone on TV eat a similar such meal, and declared that there was no way I would do the same.  I must be slipping.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of time to write in the last few weeks.  Work has been full tilt, and I am preparing to move to Guangzhou (part of why I’m here), which means that my mind is completely held up with other topics.  One the other hand,  it means there will be plenty of new stuff to write about!

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Jinshanling Great Wall

I spend a fair amount of time hiking around parts of Beijing, and recently spent a day hiking the Jinshanling section of Great Wall to the north of central Beijing.  In the past, I visited the wall at Badaling, but the two trips cannot even be put into the same category.  While Badaling is nothing short of a Great Wall Disneyland, Jinshanling is borderline empty, and many sections are in their original condition (built in the 14th century), making the experience feel quite a bit more authentic, if you will.

Along with authenticity comes a significant change in safety.  On many section, there was little to no wall, and a remarkable drop.  The builders of the wall did their best to place the structure along ridge lines, making it all the more difficult to attack.  It was one of the best hikes I have been on in a long time, and though my knees paid for it dearly, it was a day well spent.  You cannot tell from most of these pictures, but there are sections of stairs that are approaching 60 and 70 degrees in angle.  Don’t slip, friends.

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Fevers and Foothills

There are few things that I find less pleasant than hiking with a fever, and yet this is exactly what I found myself doing yesterday morning.  The hike had been planned a few weeks in advance, but the fever waiting until the night before to join.  I was attending this hike in a work related capacity, and had put up the money out of pocket.  Fever or not, I was putting my boots on.

I brought a supply of Sudafed from the U.S.  I typically hate the stuff, but I don’t see how I could have made it through the day without.  One pill and an hour later, I found myself feeling like a stuffy superhero.  I fumbled my way through finding the bus and my group, and off we set for a set of low lying foothills just north of Beijing.

It was not the best weather for hiking, with a thick blanket of smog hanging in the air.  Even at our destination, almost 150 kilometers outside of central Beijing, it was still difficult to see more than a mile.  It was a great hike, but I was glad to be back home and in bed at the end of the day.

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Manila From the Roof

I’m back in Beijing, fresh from a week long training in Manila.  It was an excellent training, and well worth the week.  There was not, unfortunately, much time to go out and explore the city as I had hoped.  One evening, after a long day in a conference room, I sat on the rooftop patio and watched the sun go down.  Part of me wanted to go out and roam the city with the last bit of the day, but I was just as content to sit and watch from a distance.

Writing this blog has taught me a few things about the nature of travel, in particular the way in which you approach travel if you expect to be writing about your experiences.  There are times when I catch myself trying to hard to understand the place that I am visiting.  Sitting on the roof and on the steps in front of the hotel did not get me much view of the city, but it was relaxing and I had a great time.  I should probably take time to relax more often.

Everyone told me that the Philippines was incredibly dangerous and that I was going to be abducted and similar such stories.  In reality, I had no sense that that Manila was any more dangerous than parts of Brooklyn.  Sure, if you go around with a fancy camera and point it at the wrong people, it may very well get you into a sticky spot, but this is universal.  Everyone that I encountered was friendly, and I saw far more smiling faces here than I typically do in Beijing.  I am sure that I will return some day.  I suspect that Manila and I were made for one another.  Warm weather, great food, slight sense of danger, and the greatest disparity between rich and poor that I have ever seen.  It is a writers dreamland, though it seems that pulling out a pen and paper falls in the category of things you probably shouldn’t do.  I stayed in a first rate hotel, was served day a night, and on the ground right behind the hotel was one of the filthiest slums that I have ever seen, sitting direct on a river of garbage.  A land of volcanoes, tropical flora and fauna, and corruption like you would not believe.  Some day, I will return.

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A Flight to Manila

The woman in terminal 3 told me that I was mistaken, and that my flight was actually departing from terminal 2.  Not only that, but it was not delayed as I had been told, but was still departing on schedule, in just under an hour.  The Beijing Capital International Airport is city unto its own, and and hour was not very much time.  I would have to get onto a bus, get to the other terminal, make it through customs and security and then sprint to gate 206, the furthest gate in terminal 2. During this whole process, I couldn’t help but wonder why they would call terminal 3 the international terminal if all of the terminals had both domestic and international service.

The agents at terminal 2 were confused, and confusion is never  a good thing when you are in a rush.  I had given them my passport, they had scanned it, and nothing was showing up.  No ticket, no standby, nada.  And yet they kept assuring me that there wasn’t a problem.  After much delay, many phone calls to  mysterious people higher up on the food chain, they gave me my boarding pass, and off I went.  The boarding pass showed that my departure time had been pushed back by an hour, but all of the monitors still said that the flight was about to board.  It has become my diehard policy to stick with the earliest time provided.  On this occasion, it proved to be uneccessary, but on past occasions it has proven to be a wise decision.  Arriving at the gate, I saw no plane, and not even an attendant at the counter.  Late it is.

The plane arrived very late, but in one piece and generally ready to be boarded by it’s next lot.  I sat waiting for the call to begin, and watched as an agent from the boarding counter walked around the room, periodically stopping at a passenger to show them something.  I noticed that she was only stopping to speak with foreigners, and soon enough she found her way to me.  She held a ticket stub in front of me that had my name on it, and asked me to confirm if I was the one she was looking for.

“Sir, the plane is very crowded today”.

Never the words that you want to hear from a ticket agent, and certainly not after the trouble that I had checking in.  In other countries, an agent at the check-in counter will tell you that you do not have a seat.  In China, it would not have surprised me if they issued me a ticket that had already been filled, allowing someone else to deliver the bad news.  Back to the agent;

“We have no option but to push you up to business class”.

I was shocked on all levels, but accepted the change.  The agent took my ticket, crossed out my old number and wrote in the change in ballpoint pen.  I think I might try this on my own sometime.

For many years, I have trash talked all of the individuals who I see sitting in the first and business class cabins.  The full distinction that is made between these areas and the rest of the plane epitomize everything that I do not appreciate, from the curtain the separates the cabin to the request that passengers in economy keep their distance.  This being said, a flight in business was the most luxurious flight I’ve ever been on.

“Some juice, Mr. Spademan?”

We hadn’t even begun to taxi and already I was reaping the rewards of a false placement.  Sipping my juice and eating a bowl of assorted nuts, I took a moment to look around the cabin at the other chosen few.  Were we all here through anomalous seating errors?  Were these other passengers (all of whom were wearing suits)pretending as I was that this was a life to which they were accustomed?  I did my best to act important, in spite of my sneakers and smudged t-shirt.

We ordered our food, with a selection of American style chicken, a non-descript fish and Filipino Bistek.  I chose the the later.  The attendant asked what I would like to drink, and I asked what beer they had available.

“Sir, are you familiar with our beers from the Philippines?”.

I am not, and did not even pretend to be.

“Well then, why don’t I choose for you.  Do you like strong beer?”

And with that said and done, the attendant went into the galley, returning a few moments later with a Philippines special.  A can of Colt 45 had appeared on my tray.  My love of business class, along with my complete respect for the Philippines Airline company, have been sealed.  True to the words of the Attendant, this beer had been brewed in the Philippines, and was far stronger than any colt 45 I have had elsewhere.  On the label, it read “The Finest of American Beers”.  Oh, if only.  After a meal of raw salmon, Bistek, and cream with mango, I was soon in the land of dreams, rocked to sleep by the turbulence of a flight into warmer climates.

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