Touch the Wonder Donkey

I had the day free from work today, but after yesterday’s strenuous sightseeing, I didn’t feel like another big expedition, so I just explored the neighborhood around the hotel, which is really not very far from where my apartment will be.

I’ve heard stories both ways about bicycles in Beijing. Some writers said with the proliferation of cars, bicycles were becoming less prominent. I don’t know what it was like twenty years ago, but to an American it seems like there are lots of bikes – way more than in any American city. And they come in quite a variety of design, two-wheeled and three, sometimes with a little motor, sometimes a weather cover.

Here’s a scene typical of the contrasts you see here. In the background is a fancy new complex. In fact, my boss JW lives in one of the buildings you can’t see, hidden behind the red and white one. CL lives in the new building farthest away. None of my coworkers lives in the foreground building, but it’s pretty standard Beijing accommodations, or a little nicer than most.

The Good Wood Coffee Company is on the street behind the hotel. I’m fascinated by words and how people communicate, so I just love things like this.

Across the street from Good Wood is the Bruce Lee Restaurant and one of many McDonalds locations.

A little further to the east you come to Alien’s Street. See? It says so right there on the sign. The aliens in this part of town seem to be mostly Russian.

Across the street from the hotel is the Dongyue Taoist Temple, which was first built in 1319. To quote the plaque outside:

In the history, the Dongyue Temple was built for offering sacrifice to gods or ancestors on a national scale. The folk sacred celebrations are more splendid, and now the Dongyue Temple, a valuable cultural and historic heritage site becomes the cultural activity center of profound cultural backgrounds in terms of folk custom. After its restoration, it is used as the Beijing Folk Custom Museum.

I proofread that paragraph very carefully. It is word for word exactly what is printed on the plaque outside the temple. Odd translation aside, it’s a very lovely spot, quite a haven of quiet in the midst of the bustling city. You step inside the gate, and suddenly the air is still and tension seeps out of you.

There are a number of ornate buildings. This is the central one, with a tour group. In the center of the doorway is a huge bronze urn with giant incense sticks burning in it.

All around the central area are little rooms with painted figures illustrating scenes from myth and history.

The courtyard is filled with carved pillars. In past centuries, the city’s trade guilds would commission pillars to commemorate their donations to the upkeep of the temple. That’s a turtle at the base, in case you’re wondering.

The most famous of these pillars is protected by a glass frame, and if you stand in just the right place, you can catch the reflection of a modern apartment building in it.

Here’s a close view of the base of one pillar. You can see how elaborate the original carving was, as well as how it’s cracked and crumbled over the centuries, plus some of the repair efforts.

There is also this life-size ceramic horse, which is called the White Jade Horse because people thought it looked like it was carved from white jade.

Opposite the White Jade Horse is the Bronze Wonder Donkey. In centuries past, it was believed that touching the statue could cure all manner of disease and ailment. They still touch it today – I saw it myself.

Dinner tonight was lasagna at JW’s place. KW wanted to try out her new oven. Their kitchen, for some reason, came without an oven. There’s a cooktop, but I guess a lot of Chinese people just don’t use ovens that much. When JW first picked out the place, he didn’t notice the absence – it’s not the kind of thing an American would think of. It took some wrangling with the landlord to get an oven installed. The experiment was a success, and the lasagna worked out quite well.

Must sleep now. Head keeps nodding over…


That’s a really great wall

After a night of on-and-off sleeping, I got up around 8 and started getting ready for a day of being a tourist. In my email was a copy of a Wall Street Journal article about Ticketmaster’s entry into China. Now the world knows what we’re up to. One thing I found interesting was the statement about how after we did ticketing for the last summer games in Athens, we closed up shop in Greece and went home, because after the Olympics there were not enough venues with enough events to sustain our kind of business. But here in Beijing, the government is very keen to keep using all these facilities they’re building for years to come, giving us a potential market of hundreds of millions of customers (counting only the growing middle class as they did in the article).

As I write this, I’m killing time waiting for D to come online on Skype. We’re hoping this nifty free software will help us keep in touch, along with all the emails we’ve been exchanging. For some of my other friends I’ve been using Trillian, chatting mostly on AIM. KW was talking at dinner lat night about how they got a webcam to use with Skype.


It’s a drive of a bit over an hour to get to Badaling, a very popular section of the Great Wall near Beijing. The city itself sits in a large flat valley, with mountains rising suddenly up to the north. A nice modern freeway goes all the way out to Badaling, and beyond.

There’s a big fancy gate here, and the driver dropped us off just outside of it. Given its proximity to the city, it’s a very popular tourist destination, very crowded, especially on a day as lovely as this one. I’ve probably mentioned before that the sky here is almost never blue. A normal day is grayish-tan above, and hazy below, and buildings ten blocks away can be hard to see. The weather today was absolutely stunning.

Entrance costs a reasonable 45RMB (something like $7.25). We skipped the museum and headed straight for the wall. This section dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and has been restored within the last thirty years. We also skipped the cable car, opting to do things the old fashioned way.

It was especially crowded up one side from the entrance, so we turned the other way, where fewer people went. As you can see, the terrain is quite rugged, and the Wall follows it up and down, resulting in some very steep hiking.

Did I say “hiking”? Climbing might be more accurate. At some places, the walkway at the top goes from smooth stone to steps, and even to what is nearly a ladder.

We were making our way to a particular tower we could see from the entrance. It looked like a good place to get a high vantage, which it was, but getting there was quite the cardio workout. I’m sure our leg muscles will be sore the next few days. This might have something to do with why this section was less crowded.

At the guard tower, the view was a good as we expected. We continued just a little past it to get a good view beyond. With binoculars, we could see sections ahead that didn’t seem to be open to the public, and had not yet been restored.

Among the many interesting sights were impractical footwear choices.

After all that walking and climbing, we were quite ready for chairs, food, and beverages. We picked one of a number of restaurants outside the gate and had a tolerable meal indifferently served. But it included three big (600ml!) bottles of Tsingtao as compensation.

We called for the driver, and headed back for the city. Along the way we passed the building that will house our permanent office. It will be the new home of some parts of the Gehua conglomerate (if that’s the right word), and as Gehua is part of our joint venture, we get part of the fifth floor of the G-Box, nicknamed for obvious reasons. It will be a welcome step up from the Huabei building where we are now.

That was quite an afternoon. It’s hard to imagine how remote the Great Wall was to visitors from the West who came to China in the early 20th Century, before the Revolution, and how accessible it is now.

From the hotel, I walked over to the Wonderful Digital Jungle and bought a USB card reader for the camera’s compact flash cards for 50RMB ($8), then stopped in at 7-11 for something to drink. I picked out a bottle that looked like tea, and was happy to discover it was unsweetened. So many of the drinks I’ve had here were very sugary. Still full from lunch, I’ve opted for just a little snack instead of a full meal.

Oddly enough, while I can post to this journal, I can’t look at the completed pages. It seems that all blogspot.com addresses are inaccessible from here. Maybe some other blogger here wrote something the government did not approve of, and they’ve blocked it. Or maybe it’s some technical glitch. In any case, I click the Publish button and hope for the best.


You think traffic is bad in your town?

On the subject of China, we tend to get inundated with statistics: the biggest this, the most that, and so on. I heard the other day that in Beijing alone, a thousand new cars are on the streets every day. That kind of growth on top of a population of 16 million and a bunch of cars already out there leads to some pretty nasty traffic. Today was the worst day I’ve seen yet. I think a substantial fraction of the next two years of my life will be spent sitting in taxis that are not moving.

As an American, I’m used to very rigid traffic flow. Cars stay in their lanes, pedestrians stay on the sidewalks, and there aren’t really that many bicycles. Pedestrians have the right of way, and there are thousands of rules which are actually enforced. In Beijing, traffic rules are only guidelines. And cars have the right of way over pedestrians and bicycles. Maybe it’s due to the construction, but you see many streets wide enough for six cars abreast each way with no lanes painted at all. There’s usually a fence down the center separating the two directions of flow, but when there isn’t, it seems to be a matter of which driver has the most guts that decides who drives where. When the street is crammed, cars drive on the sidewalks, or park there if it suits them. A police car with flashing lights gets no special treatment either. We have a joke here: the green walking person on the pedestrian crossing light doesn’t mean WALK, it means GOOD LUCK.

It’s ironic that a country viewed from the outside as being populated with conformists with a strict government should have such extreme freedom, whereas the US, a country of individualists who celebrate personal freedom, has rigid rules.

Just an observation.

I’ve seen a few accidents, including a little Nissan that caught the front end of a bus, but surprisingly few considering the chaos. All in all, it works amazingly well. Construction is the wild card in the system.

Picking up where I left off last time…

When I got home from work yesterday, I took a little while to rest in my room and caught up on email, then packed up the camera and went out to wander the neighborhood. The sidewalks (and streets and so on) were crowded with people and bicycles and cars going every which way. I just walked around feeling like a nerdy kid. I went into the Wonderful Digital Jungle, which in addition to a bunch of booths selling just about any kind of electronic gear you can imagine, contains several restaurants and a big supermarket. After that, I was tired, so I just hit the hotel’s BBQ buffet, where you pick out your ingredients and a guy cooks them for you, more or less like the Mongolian places we have in the US. With some different ingredients, of course.

And it was my best night yet for sleeping, straight through from 11 to 6:30, with only brief interruptions. I don’t know if I’m actually adjusting yet, or was just exhausted.

Today was another long day, and it’s not over yet. I had a conference call with people back in the States at 7, which I took in my hotel room. The car was scheduled to pick us up at 8 – there are three of us now staying at the Kuntai – so I had very little time to get ready, and I had to dress nicer than usual. We were going to the press conference to announce officially that Ticketmaster is the exclusive provider of ticketing services to the 2008 Olympic Games. There were press cameras everywhere, and I suppose I’ll be visible on Chinese TV in the background of shots. Since every speech had to be done in two languages, it seemed to take forever. Then we had to pose for pictures.

Then upstairs to the office and a bit of work. For lunch we went back to the same place we ate on Tuesday. I’ve been accused of writing mostly about the non-Chinese food I’ve had (pizza, KFC), but I promise, I have been eating Chinese as well. We like this place a lot. I don’t know what it’s called, but the food is good and it’s quite inexpensive. Six of us ate well on 77RMB (around $10). There was a great chicken-peanut dish with hot peppers in it (basically kung pao chicken), a broccoli dish, one with pork (I think) and some sort of green vegetable, and two different kinds of fried rice. Then back to the office for more work, until a little after five, then hop in the van for a few minutes at home (or hotel) until dinner at 7:30 at a place called the Green T. House, which is supposed to be really good. I’ll keep you posted.

And it’s about time for me to leave for dinner.


The Green T. House is a very interesting place. It’s a combination art gallery (more to the modern side than Rembrandt) and restaurant. The sign outside is a long piece of etched glass vertical along the entrance, and the door is painted pure white and is ten feet wide and around twenty feet high. You push on it and it swings away from you, revealing a curtained entry way. It’s in a large space with very high ceilings, and all the walls are painted white. They have projectors and multicolored lights that move around onto different walls. The chairs are all works of art too. At our table, most of them had backs about eight feet high, in an sinuous shape, which is interesting looking but awkward to hang a coat on. At one end of the table was a very strange couch of an asymmetrical curvy shape.

The cocktail menu was etched onto a piece of glass, and the food menu was a bound book of 50 or more pages done in a combination of Chinese calligraphy and English writing, and instead of simple descriptions of the dishes, there are poetic phrases. “The fish swims in a stream of light” and so on. Several of the group had been there before and took care of the ordering. I started off the evening with a Green T. Martini, which came in a large fluted glass; the olives were threaded onto a long thin bamboo leaf. For utensils we had really long chopsticks, about 14 inches or more of dark wood. I will try to do justice to the presentations.

  1. Walnuts and gorgonzola on a wafer of Asian pear, served on a platter featuring a live goldfish swimming in a large wine glass.
  2. Wonton dumplings spaced around a black slate slab with small bowls of dipping sauce.
  3. Scallops encrusted with something crunchy, a dab of wasabi on top, and a puff of slivered seaweed (I think that’s what it was).
  4. Hollowed half tomatoes stuffed with shrimp and kernels of corn in a creamy sauce.
  5. Thin asparagus spears cut in half and arranged with the tips lined up in a square on top of the stems, which were lined up at a 90° angle, topped with a light sauce and raspberries.
  6. Small barbequed ribs in criss-cross pattern with puffs of slivered carrot on top.
  7. Roast duck in a fancy presentation (this is Beijing after all).
  8. Little bits of meat (consensus was lamb) in a dark sauce.
  9. Pancakes of dough cut into curves and arranged with drops of sauce.
  10. Cylinders of seasoned ground beef wrapped around some kind of green vegetable, arranged standing vertically in a diagonal line across a large platter.
  11. It seems like there was another “entrée” kind of dish.
  12. A large round platter with balls of ice on top of dry ice, so fog rolled off of it. Balls of green ice cream (not sure what flavor) dotted the mound, along with a bunch of grapes and a sprig of some plant kind of like holly only the leaves weren’t spiky.
  13. A long thin platter with little triangles of really intense chocolate.
  14. A large round bowl with fog rolling off it so thick you couldn’t tell at first what it was. In the center was a small bowl of incredible chocolate mousse.

Out of solidarity with JW’s wife K, I opted for the white wine instead of my more usual red. It was probably the best pinot gris I’ve ever had. I don’t remember the winery, but it was Alsatian.

Well, now that everyone reading is convinced that I’m a hoity-toity cuisinary snob, I’ll wrap up. Tomorrow is my first day of tourist-type activities. JW, KW and I are going up to Badaling to see the Great Wall.

An unusual construction site.


Chinese pizza and other strange things

Wednesday morning I got up early enough to go downstairs to the breakfast buffet, which consists of a variety of Chinese and Western style foods. They have a cereal bar, pastries, an egg station where you can have eggs cooked any way you like, bacon, sausage, and so on, plus fried rice and other Chinese dishes. There are also fruits and cold cuts, including some kind of smoked fish that I really like. While I was eating, another coworker came in and joined me. HC is in town for about a month; he works on the website designs for the Olympic ticket applications.

At 9, several of the rest of the gang met us and we went to the BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) building for a meeting. After the meeting, some of us visited the gift shop and bought some official items. I got a baseball cap and a set of the small mascots, the Friendlies (now called Fuwa). Read about them here.

For lunch we decided on a shorter walk and went to KFC. I've seen several of them around town. The weather had cleared up by then and the typical hazy sky had turned an actual shade of blue. It was warm enough I didn't need my jacket. Anyway, the menu was rather different than an American KFC, so I just pointed at combo #2 on the menu, which looked like a chicken sandwich. It came with a very sweet orange soda drink and a little corn salad instead of coleslaw. The sandwich was a little spicy; I will not even hazard a guess what part of the chicken was featured in the meat.

The official contract signing ceremony is coming up Friday morning, so a couple of Ticketmaster bigwigs flew into town Wednesday afternoon. We met up with them at the Raffles Beijing Hotel. HC and I got there early and wandered around looking at the art on display and the fountains. It is quite a place. We had dinner at the restaurant called East 33. If you check out the slideshow on their web site, you'll see some pictures of it. We all opted for the buffet, giving us a huge selection of very nicely prepared dishes. I went for a combination of Western and Asian items. We had some very nice wine, and the desserts were luscious. It was on the way back from there that I saw the rainbow neon over the street.

I went right to bed after getting back to the hotel. It was about 10:30 by then. Once again I woke around 3:30 and slept badly after that.

I had only a half day in the office today, since the afternoon was given over to apartment hunting. More on that later. The interesting part of the day at the office was lunch. We had food delivered from a Pizza Hut that is not far from the office. Delivery in this case meant we paid for the pizza and cab fair for the delivery guy both ways. We got a variety of pizzas, but not many of them would appear on the menu of an American Pizza Hut. One had pineapple, black olives, little chunks of tomato, some kind of chicken meat, fake crab meat, kernels of fresh corn, and mozzarella, and the sauce tasted like 1000 island dressing. Another one had sausage, pepperoni, ham and cheese and didn't seem to have hardly any sauce at all. The seafood pizza had little shrimp, fake crab, calamari rings, little bits of octopus tentacle, pineapple, green pepper, and a sauce that tasted a bit like cocktail sauce. The seafood one was my favorite.

The building I looked atAfter lunch, BG and I took a cab to her apartment to meet up with our real estate guy. She had already checked out two potential vacant places in her complex, which consists of ten big buildings. Each building has two numbers, split vertically down the middle, so they say there are twenty buildings, but it's just ten structures. The first apartment was on the second floor looking down onto the garden area at the center of the complex. It was pretty nice, with a very large kitchen, but had a kind of dark quality to it.

This is the building with both flats.

Living room of second flatThe other was on the eleventh floor (though they call it 12 since buildings never have a floor 4 here, 4 being an unlucky number, along with 13 and 14) and has light colored wood floors, and very cheerful light. It also faces onto the central garden, but the extra height gives it views out over the city.

Living room of second flat.

Guest bedroom of second flatIt's a little smaller than the other one, but I liked the feel of it more, and the bathroom was nicer. The kitchen is smaller, but it also has a window to the outside for some natural light, and the washer/dryer is enclosed in its own little room off the kitchen.

Guest bedroom.

Kitchen of second flatI gave to go-ahead on the second place, and if all goes well, I'll be able to move in next week. More on that as things develop.


And as this post is getting a bit long, I'll sign off for now. Time to think about dinner, and I'm on my own tonight.


Skip Monday, go to Tuesday

One of my coworkers says it always seems to take people eight days to adjust to the change in time zones. I would hope for something shorter, but we'll see.

As we rode in from the airport, JW would point out the window and say, "When I first visited here in May, those buildings weren't there. And that was just open space over there." I mentioned before that construction is going on everywhere, and that is no exaggeration, just plain fact. I have not seen a single block of a single street that didn't have work in progress. Old buildings are being ripped down, new ones are going up, sidewalks are getting redone, cranes adorn the skyline in every direction. It's simply mind-boggling — I swear 50% of the population is involved in construction, and the other 50% are out on the sidewalks or riding bicycles or in cars. I've been told that by law or decree or something, all the visible construction has to be done in a few months (I forget the exact date), so they'll be finishing up the outsides of all the buildings and working inside after that. All the cranes are supposed to be gone. Already, I'm told that workers are camping out in the buildings they're working on, and our future office space is housing the security and construction staff who work there. Work goes on 24-7, so you'll see sparks from welding in the middle of the night.

The Kuntai Royal Hotel is one of the nicer hotels I've stayed in, with marble in the room's entryway and bathroom, nice furnishings, and attentive service. I've taken some pictures, but don't have a way to get them out of the camera right now since I didn't bring the USB adapter for it. There's an electronics store close by, so it shouldn't be hard to find one.

Later: As you can see, I've taken care of that.

As I mentioned previously, there's lots of neon. Parts of this town are like Las Vegas or Tokyo in that respect. Very fancy light shows going on. Last night I saw an arch over a street that was like a rainbow with the colors flowing from either side to the center. I think that was down near Tian'an Men Square, though it was dark and I didn't see the square itself. Everything seems to shut down around 11pm, so in that respect it's different than Las Vegas.

Tuesday morning I went in to our temporary office, which is in a run-down old hotel called the Huabei. Half of the building still seems to be a hotel (the A side), and the other side (B) is the Beijing Olympic Media Centre. They have a lot of press conferences and so on down on the 2nd floor. We're on the 4th, and there's a sign that says Forbidden City Film Company when you get off the elevator. The hallways are lined with posters for Chinese movies. But it's a dingy, smelly old building with ratty carpet and lousy ventilation, and our part of it is in the center so we don't even have any windows. The smelly part comes mostly from cigarettes. It is very strange for me to see people smoking in the office, and the lack of air circulation doesn't help. Every once in a while I have to get up and walk out into the hall for air that's slightly fresher.

Tuesday the Americans of the office walked a few blocks from our building to a restaurant for lunch. We had one Mandarin speaker with us, but they also had a big color-picture menu, so we could just point at what we wanted. We ordered way too much food, which was of course served on a big lazy Susan in the center of the table so we could all help ourselves to what we wanted. I liked most of the dishes we had. And yes, it was not like Chinese food I've had in the US. Before we got our food, they brought out a live fish flopping in a net for our approval. There was a kind of salad made from very thin strips of celery, a dish that consisted of pecans or walnuts glazed with a sweet soy sauce, a very strange looking kind of mushroom, and a bunch more. The fish came steamed and filleted in a very attractive presentation, and tasted delicious.

After stuffing myself at lunch, it was especially hard to stay awake. Between the jet lag and the full stomach, I was nodding at my desk. I got back to the hotel around 6pm, took care of a bit of email, and was in bed shortly after 7 without thinking about dinner.

I woke around 3:30 and only slept fitfully after that.


Big metal bird flies over big water

Location: Kuntai Royal Hotel, Beijing

I'm here.

My internal clock is all confused — I don't know what time it is, or even what day. OK, my computer tells me it's 7am back in Seattle, and the hotel clock says it's 10pm here. I think we're both on Monday now...

Getting to the airport this morning (OK, technically it was yesterday morning, but it feels like today to me) was an adventure. In all the confusion leaving the house, I managed to leave behind one of my bags — the one containing the computer I'm writing on now, so it was pretty important. Hey, I had four bags, plus (ahem) three things to carry on. The bad news it I didn't realize the bag was missing until we were at the airport and had paid for parking. The good news is we had left really early so there was time to hurry home and get it. That left me with just barely enough time to check in, get through security, and board the plane. No time to get any food before boarding, and no time to pick up any Chinese currency. And of course a short flight like Seattle to San Francisco doesn't serve any food, so all I had from waking up until after 1pm was a couple little packets of pretzels and a tiny glass of orange juice.

When I got to SFO, I went over to the international terminal as quickly as I could, got some Chinese money, went through security, and found someplace to eat. Huevos rancheros definitely took the edge off, and then I found a place that could make me a latte. I had a little while to organize my carry-on things before my row was called to board. There was a whole athletic team of guys in grey sweats with CHINA on them — I don't know what sport it was. Many of them were fairly tall, so it could have been basketball or volleyball. There were also a lot of Americans wearing big pins with a red logo on them that I couldn't read. Some sort of tour group, no doubt.

The duration of the flight was about 12 hours, and the 747 was completely full as far as I could tell. The food was pretty decent on Air China, stir-fry chicken and vegetables (actually a little on the spicy side) with steamed rice for the first meal, along with a tasty little chocolate dessert. They didn't come around very often with beverages, however, and the glasses were tiny. I tried a miniscule glass of red wine. I think the label said Great Wall, and I couldn't tell if there was a variety listed. It was not the worst red wine I have ever tasted. I'll leave it at that. For the second meal, I had noodles with veggies and little tiny bits of chicken.

I completely skipped the movies, and read The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Films, which was enjoyable, though it suffered from a ridiculous number of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. Who edits those things?

And I listened to the Zen on all-track shuffle, so I got monks chanting mixed up with Mozart on piano, the history of reggae, Japanese rock, and obscure progressive items. And I napped a little, though not much.

I filled out three little forms on the plane for customs, swearing I have not come into contact with any poultry and so on. Customs and Immigration was ridiculously easy, much faster than my trip to the UK in 2001. They took my papers, stamped them, and said thank you.

My new boss JW was waiting outside the customs area with a driver, who loaded my stuff into a Passat and took us to my hotel. After having a shower and a few minutes to settle stuff into the room, JW walked me around the corner to a nice little restaurant where we ate and talked. So much to get up to speed on, and that's not even counting work!

Later I'll take some photos and post them. My energy level is flagging fast, and it's getting to be a reasonable time to go to bed. My first impressions are: it's a really big city, and there's lots of neon, and there are lots of stylishly dressed people. No signs of any drab conformity, and there's construction absolutely everywhere.


The cross-oceanic library

I thought I'd make a list of the books I'm taking with me. An inventory might be handy in case something goes astray in transit. It's kind of an odd selection, consisting largely of books that I haven't read that were easily accessible (not packed in boxes in the basement). There are also a few I've read before but feel like reading again.

In my carry-on bags:
Coyote — Allen Steele
The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies — John Scalzi
China — Eyewitness Travel Guides
Culture Shock! Beijing — Kay Jones & Anthony Pan

In checked baggage:
The Queen of Springtime — Robert Silverberg
Dance, Dance, Dance — Haruki Murakami
A Deepness in the Sky — Vernor Vinge
Coyote Rising — Allen Steele
The Rough Guide: First-Time Asia

In a box to be shipped:
What If? — ed. Robert Cowley
Broken Angels — Richard K. Morgan
Dark Matter — ed. Sheree R. Thomas
The Tale of Genji — Lady Murasaki
The Star Dwellers — James Blish
Three Famous Short Novels — William Faulkner
Illegal Alien — Robert J. Sawyer
Forward the Foundation — Isaac Asimov
Shadow's End — Sheri Tepper
Flights — ed. Al Sarantonio
The Intuitionist — Colson Whitehead
Musashi — Eiji Yoshikawa
Brightness Reef — David Brin
The Europeans — Henry James
The Weird Colonial Boy — Paul Voermans
The Killing Thing — Kate Wilhelm
The Four-Gated City — Doris Lessing
Hidden Talents — David Lubar
Mountains of Majipoor — Robert Silverberg
Phases of the Moon — Robert Silverberg

I had sort of hoped to take more of Silverberg's Majipoor books, but they're buried a little too deep in the basement boxes to get at without a taking more time than I have.

As I prepare for leaving, I've been using available moments finishing up Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Told by Herself by Harriet Jacobs. It belongs to my sister, and I'd like to read it all before I have to return it.

Counting my underwear

The other day I was doing some packing, and found myself counting out how many pairs of underwear I would need before leaving, so I could pack any extra that were clean. It occurred to me that this is a sure sign that D-Day (that's "D" for Departure, or course) is getting pretty close. It's also probably a sign that my situation has led me to attach undue significance to unimportant things.

The only events of real significance are the arrival of my passport with the Chinese visa in it (got here with two days to spare!), and my inability to actually get any Chinese currency. OK, that last is really a non-event. JW had told me that before leaving that he went to a Bank of America branch and exchanged some US currency for Chinese RMB, so I went to my credit union, got some cash, and walked uptown to a BOA. As it turns out, starting October 1, they no longer do currency exchanges at branches. Account holders have to request the transaction online, then go in and pick it up a few days later. The teller recommended I go to TravelEx in the Westlake Center, so I hiked further uptown and went in. They would have been happy to do it for me, but they didn't happen to have any RMB on hand. The nice clerk there called down to one of their SeaTac branches and reserved some for me to pick up on Sunday morning. At least I got some exercise, having walked all the way from Pioneer Square to Westlake Center, and then down to the Pike Place Market to meet D for lunch at the Pan Africa Cafe for some good African food. That's something I might not be able to find in Beijing.

(I actually wrote some of this next bit a few days ago, but didn't get around to posting. I'll keep with blog format and work backwards in time.)

Pretend this next paragraph was posted 10/19.

Thursday was D's birthday. She had to work, so when she got home, we got ourselves together and went to this new pizza place in our part of town. It's kind of a strange place — a combination of casual and sorta-classy. They've got big screen TV's that were showing baseball playoffs, and the staff dresses on the casual side, but the food is not cheap, and they do the service well, as the waitress did a very nice job of presenting our bottle of wine. Slices of pizza cost around $5, but they're really huge, and a single piece is all one person needs. I've never seen one, but apparently a full pizza is something like 28" across, and costs $30+. Anyway, we had a great dinner and then went home and watched the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera on DVD. What a snapshot of another era! And pretty funny too.

Pretend this was posted 10/18.

Wednesday was a day of relief after a time of mounting tension, mostly dealing with the passport and visa mentioned above. I had not heard any news about it since last week when the letter of invitation from China had yet to arrive. No letter, no visa; no visa, no entry to China. Yikes! I was getting a little concerned, but on Wednesday afternoon I got a call on my cell phone that it had come through. It was being sent overnight express to the Seattle office. That was a huge relief. On the phone, she said that she hadn't been worried about it not coming through in time, but nobody bothered to share that optimism with me. I'm not really a worry-wart by nature, but I was certainly headed in that direction on this one.

Pretend this was posted 10/17.

Tuesday was my last soccer game with Kick Arsenal. We played on one of the nice new artificial turf fields out at Marymoor Park in Redmond, so the distance to get there was compensated by the nice playing surface. The weather was pleasant, heading towards the chilly side, but that's what I prefer for playing anyway. The game ended in a 2:2 draw, which is pretty good considering our record this season. After the game a bunch of us went to the Celtic Bayou (yes, it's exactly what you would think with a name like that) for beers in memory of the departure of the team's last remaining founding member. That's me, if you didn't guess. A group of employees at Ticketmaster started the team back in the spring of 1999, and with all the turnover in players during the intervening years, I was the last one left, and the last Ticketmaster person still hanging in there. Many strange stories were shared, and we ended up getting kind of noisy, though not apparently bad enough to merit a warning from the management. I will not even try to attempt a recap of the topics covered. As far as any readers of this know, I have some dignity.

Thanks for your cooperation in pretending.


What I like about you

One week to go. At this time a week from today, I will be on an Air China jet somewhere over the Pacific, so I got to thinking about what I’ll miss and not miss about this place that’s been my home for just over twenty years.

Things I will miss about Seattle (not exactly in order):
  • My wife
  • Our cats
  • Seeing Puget Sound from my living room window
  • Being able to hop in the car and drive myself somewhere
  • The relatively clean air and mild climate
  • The sight of Mt Rainier off in the distance
  • My wife’s cooking
  • Being a day’s drive from my parents
  • Playing soccer on Tuesdays with the mighty Kick Arsenal
  • Having 3000+ CDs at my fingertips to suit my musical mood
  • Having a couple hundred DVDs around if I feel like watching them
  • Having lots of books around, etc.
  • Various favorite restaurants, pubs and bars
  • Netflix
  • Watching Lost on Wednesday nights
  • Cheese, and probably some other food items
Things I will not miss about Seattle:
  • The Alaskan Way Viaduct
  • Scooping the litter box
  • Having to drive myself places in ugly traffic
  • A city government that can’t seem to do much of anything, including a mayor who looks like a sausage
  • The never-ending construction next door to our house
  • Credit card offers in the mail
  • Annoying political advertisements
Feel free to leave comments suggesting other things I should miss or not miss. I’m sure I’m forgetting lots.


It's my party

Starting music: Adrian Belew - Side Three

Last Friday was my last day in the office where I've worked for the last 17 years, and it was a pretty low-key ending. I mostly spent the day sorting things into piles: box up for shipping to China, recycling, and trash. I'll admit to a small bit of disappointment that after all those years spent there, I didn't get so much as a good-luck card. No lunch, no drinks after work, nothing. Oh, well. I know that true happiness lies in not having expectations, and therefore not being vulnerable to disappointment. I'm a generous person and like to look at things in the best light, so I'll put it down to a simple lack of organization in the office: the person who used to plan these things is no longer there, and no one else has taken the initiative.

This week I've been splitting my time between packing and other preparations, and finishing up the projects from my old position.

Last night my wife planned an informal get-together for friends and family at an area brewpub. Lots of people showed up, and (no surprise) I didn't get to really spend enough time with any one person. Thanks to all who showed up, and to everyone else: you shoulda been there — it was a great time! For those who didn't get invited, my apologies. We used pretty much every email in our combined address books. Many of them turned out to be old and defunct.

RocketShipX41 and friendsOne thing that kind of amazes me is how many of my friends have been to China. There were at least three at the party who shared personal experiences and offered suggestions. I guess I hang around with a worldly bunch. Both of the guys (aside from me, and if you don't know which one is me, why are you reading this blog?) in this picture are China vets. Those who were there will notice something odd about this picture. I do not have a martini in my hand. Someone was slacking!

People having a good timeOne guest was even thoughtful enough to bring a gift. Not that I was asking for anything, mind you, but it's always nice to gather the warm fuzzies when you can. It's a travel book, and the giver was smart enough to figure that I already have travel guides to China, so she got The Rough Guide: First-Time Asia which looks to have a good overview of many nations that I could have the chance to visit. Like all the Rough Guide books I've seen, it's very down-to-earth and direct, full of practical tips and observations. Though I noticed it does not have a chapter on North Korea... I wonder what's up with that.

More party guestsMiddle music: KBB - Live 2004

This time, these two weeks before departure, are a bit frustrating. In some ways I wish I was already in Beijing, because the tasks to be taken care of before leaving are tedious. But on the other hand, I'm trying to make the most of these days, connect with people I know, do fun things, and so on. That being said, I probably should finish this post up and get back to some of those tedious things...

Just look at all the fun they are havingBut I have one more picture, and feel the compulsive need to write some text to fit next to it. This one features some of my teammates from Co-Rec Soccer (standing, not eating). My last game with the team will be on Tuesday, and with my departure, the last founding member of Kick Arsenal will be gone. They may be a bunch of newcomers, but they're good people, and maybe I'll get a chance to catch a game on the occasions when I visit Seattle. It's a team with many world travelers. I can remember times when people have missed games from being in England, Kosovo, Uganda, and Yakima.

OK, enough bloggifying for one day. Back to work...

Ending music: Koenji Hyakkei - Hundred Sights of Koenji


Meditations on a one-way ticket

I now have a one-way ticket to Beijing sitting on my desk. The symbolism of this object is pretty obvious: I am going somewhere and staying there. This is not a short trip, I will not be a tourist, I am relocating.

This is the first time in my life that I have purchased a one-way ticket, and I wonder how many people ever do in their lives. I suppose most Americans, who do tend to move from one place to another within the country, drive to their new homes and so never buy a one-way ticket.

The process of purchasing this ticket was anything but straightforward. It seems many people are planning to fly to Beijing the same weekend I am. When I first investigated flights a few weeks ago (before it was practical to buy), there were lots of options at convenient times, but by last Friday, things were getting thin. I clicked on "book now" and got an error message. The message said to try again later or try calling on the phone to book. I waited till the next morning, tried the website one more time, then called an agent. The only flights left available were on Air China, and Air China's web connection was having problems. The agent tried all sorts of different possibilities on three different days, and reported that the flight I had originally picked was completely booked up, as were most of the others. I ended up with my third choice of departure dates.

Anyway, I'm booked now, and the end result is the same as if I had got the day I wanted. I'll be in Beijing. And some day, a couple years from now, I'll buy a one-way ticket back home.

Ending music: None (just finished watching the season premiere of Lost).