Does this make me a mall rat?

Ever since I first saw the shopping center in Beijing with the English name The Place, I have been fascinated with the sheer scale of the over-the-top design. Little did I suspect I would eventually be commuting there every day. It’s one of those locations here that if you call it by its English name to a local, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about, in spite of the prominent signs everywhere. That’s because the Chinese name is 世贸天阶 (Shimaotianjie), which translates to something like World Trade Sky Stairs – in other words, nothing even remotely like the English name. As an aside, it reminds me of a certain classic rock song about a stairway to heaven and the futility of seeking material wealth, but that’s neither here nor there in spite of the ironic appropriateness, since The Place is, if nothing else, a monument to celebrate wealth.

It’s really filled up since I first wrote about it a year and a half ago – most of the empty spaces have been filled, and there are a whole bunch of restaurants on level B1. Of course, the main novelty here is still the Skyscreen. Luckily they’ve got a lot more content available for it. Every evening at 6:00 we hear it start up and the glow from it creeps into our office. We’re on the sixth floor, which puts us exactly even with it, so we can’t see the images from our windows, but when we leave the building, there it is.

Sometimes they just show boring animations of their logo flying around, but they have several interesting CGI pieces, like that outer space one I posted on Youtube. The most frequent one involves an undersea scene.

Tonight I saw one that I didn’t get any pictures of. There were ghostly human figures floating above a landscape of barren mountains, and then it zoomed down to green hills with trees, and we fly along until buildings appear, and then we’re flying among skyscrapers. There were some pretty cool images of flying cars in between the towers (a little like Coruscant in the Star Wars movies). Eventually the view pulls back and you can see it’s an entire planet covered with buildings – in fact it looks a lot like a Dyson Sphere, and as the camera pulls back, there’s also a Ringworld. Somebody is keeping up on their sci-fi imagery.

Anyway, The Place is a very strange place. Like shopping centers all over the world, it is gearing up for the Christmas season. Now, Chinese people don’t really celebrate Christmas, and gift-buying is mostly relegated to the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), so it’s not like the stores are really pushing anything more than the normal consumerist excess. But Western marketing is a very powerful force, and it seems they can’t resist the temptation to join in even if it makes no difference in sales.

A couple weeks ago they started erecting a giant tree-shaped scaffolding in the middle of the courtyard.
Then they covered it with green.
They have since added giant decorations to it, but I haven’t seen it lit up yet.
And they built an ice skating rink.

Not only that, but they’ve got a camera set up somewhere and they show pictures of the skaters and the mall on a portion of the Skyscreen. The weather here is now cold enough that most days, the ice is not in much danger of melting, and before long, they’ll probably be safe all day without even running the massive refrigeration unit.

And yes, ice skating is well-known in China. I have a friend who grew up in the northern province of Liaoning, and she tells me that when she was in grade school and the pond next to her school froze over, the kids would spend their lunch breaks skating.

The decorations are not limited to the outside. I mentioned the restaurants. Here is one of them.
I don’t even know where to begin deciphering this image I took with my phone… though I suppose the real deeper meaning is that there is no deeper meaning. It’s just the result of people unfamiliar with foreign imagery putting together what they think is a Christmas display. But…a saxophone?


Memories of the sky

Way back at the beginning of last month I went to the Modern Sky Music Festival. In my previous post about it, I promised I would get around to telling about my two favorite bands there, 33 Dao (No. 33 Island) and Cold Fairyland (Lengku Xianjing). It’s about time I got around to fulfilling that promise.

After coming to China, these were two of the earliest bands I really liked, and they’re both from Shanghai. Cold Fairyland showed up in my internet searches as a promising “progressive” band mixing traditional Chinese music with jazz and rock. I listened to the sample tracks on their website and liked what I heard. I’ve since picked up copies of five of their albums, some of which steer a little close to New Age territory for my taste, but on the whole the combination of pipa and cello with guitar, bass and drums is fascinating. The name comes from the Chinese translation of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s novel Sekai no owari to Haadoboirudo Wandaarando (Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in English), which I might add is a great book.

A long time ago I read a review of 33 Dao’s album, and it was one of those reviews where although it wasn’t completely positive, I could tell it was something I’d like. I bought a copy at the first opportunity and fell in love with its eccentric, artistic pop music. To my knowledge haven’t played in Beijing before, so I was very excited when I saw them listed on the festival schedule. Given how much of their album utilizes studio effects and non-musical sounds, I was very curious to see what they would be like live.

They came on after Ourself Beside Me’s abbreviated set. They’re a five piece, mostly lined up with two guitars, bass, keyboard, and drums, three of whom sing. One of the guitarists switched to bass for a while, leaving the bass player free to just sing.
As it turned out, the music worked quite well stripped of the studio manipulations. Most of the album’s female vocals were handled by bassist (Wu Shanmin if she’s the same one from the album credits), and leader/guitarist Zhang Zhendong was the male singer. Keyboard player Zhang Ling also sang from time to time. Guitarist Li Dong and drummer Yuan Chaozhen didn’t sing.
I get the impression they do not play live very frequently (I do watch Shanghai music listings, and almost never see them mentioned), and I have to admit they weren’t very exciting visually. Luckily the music made up for that shortcoming.
Their music is full of odd contrasts, with song sections resembling carnival music, and others like twisted rock, and they handled it all very well.
I think everything they played was taken from the album, with no new material. All in all, quite a wonderful experience.

I hung onto my spot against the security barrier, braving the nearby chain smokers and the annoying drunk kids to keep my good viewpoint for Cold Fairyland. I knew I didn’t have to worry about their music coming off well live, since I have their live album.

This was one of the best live music experiences of my time in China so far. Their music is so interesting, with diverse elements combined in interesting ways, and so well executed, that I was enraptured the whole time.
Leader Lin Di was at center stage with her pipa. She’s an excellent player, both flashy and melodic, taking from both tradition and her own sensibilities.
She occasionally put it down and stood to sing.
Cellist Zhou Shenan provided a low-end counterpoint to the pipa and guitar with her nifty electric instrument.
On the studio albums, most of the keyboards are played by Lin Di, but for this live show there was an added player. Guitarist Song Jianfeng often trades lead lines with the pipa.
They played a selection of tunes from several of their albums. I spoke briefly with Lin Di after the set and she said that their regular drummer had been unable to make the trip, so they played a shorter than usual set.
And here’s a short video I took of them performing “Liaoluan (Puzzle)”:

That was a great experience, and I really look forward to seeing them live again, hopefully with a full length set!


Back in the U.S.A.

In a departure from the normal topic of China, this time I’ll share a few pictures from my recent trip back to the US. I took the direct flight from Beijing to Seattle on Hainan Airlines, which saves a lot of time compared to even the Air Canada route via Vancouver.

The first few days I was home, the weather was reasonable. Here’s a clear day view from our front deck.
I promise if you look really closely you can see a bit of water between the trees. That’s something you can’t get in Beijing (and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether I mean the water or the blue sky).

This is a cat named Baby.
She is not a skinny cat.
No, the cat in the picture above her is not her, but another cat with a strong resemblance.

When she gets a chance, she likes to hang out in the yard.
Speaking of the yard, there were a few dahlia stragglers still in bloom.
And speaking of cats, here’s the other one, generally called Pele.
Here’s one of the parts of the house in Seattle that I miss:

Another highlight of the trip was seeing Sam Phillips at the Triple Door. This is a really nice club in Seattle where they unfortunately keep the lighting really low.
She is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, with a wonderful expressive voice.
She’s a pretty good guitarist too, and plays both acoustic and electric. And in case you’re wondering, that other instrument is a Stroh violin.

Her drummer also used uncommon instruments.
Here he’s holding a drum in one hand and hitting it against his leg while he plays a cymbal with his other hand. He also had a tambourine strapped to his ankle and a table full of various objects to hit and shake.

One of the fun things she did was for the song “Animals on Wheels.”
She was accompanied by a piano recorded on a microcassette which she held up to the microphone.

And all too soon, the stay in Seattle was over (though I’ll admit to being tired of the rain), and it was time to return to Beijing.

Here’s a rugged part of Siberia we flew over.
Here in Beijing, winter has definitely started its inquiries, and will soon be moving in. After a couple of cold nights, I got my heat turned on, so all is fine now at home.

While I was away, those of my coworkers who are still with the company moved into a temporary office space at The Place, which I’ve written about before:
At the moment, we’re all on folding tables crammed into one room.
That picture was taken with my BlueBerry, so excuse the quality.

Sometime next month our permanent office should be ready. It’s also at The Place, in one of the other towers.


I feel safer already

I’ve traveled by air within China a number of times before, and in general it has been much less hassle than traveling within the US. All the TSA’s security measures of questionable effectiveness seem to provide much bother for little real safety gain. Until recently, you could take up to a liter of liquid with you on a domestic flight here, and there was none of that take-off-your-shoes foolishness.

Well, I don’t know if it was just in honor of the Olympics or a permanent change, but the convenience factor here took a nose-dive on the recent Yunnan trip. To add to the confusion over what you can and cannot do or bring, each airport seems to have its own interpretation of the rules.

The hassles started more or less from the moment we left home (and were not actually security related). The new rapid transit train to the airport is open, so we decided to take advantage of it and save on the taxi fare. It’s normally about ¥80 for a taxi from my place to the airport. The train is ¥25 per person. As far as we were able to tell, there is no way to get to the train without navigating stairs. You can take a big lovely set of escalators from the ground level down, but that puts you on a landing where you have to go down a short flight of stairs to a security checkpoint, where you have to run your bags through an X-ray machine.

That puts you inside the Beijing Subway system. To get to the Airport Express, you have to go around to another area to purchase your ticket. Then you go through a security checkpoint where you have to run your bag through an X-ray machine. I think there must be some way to get to this point without going through the first checkpoint, but that would also mean that you can get to the subway without getting X-rayed. Hmmm…

Anyway, from there you go down an escalator to a very small landing area where you wait for the train. It’s a relatively nice train, but there is not a lot of room to stow bags, so unless you’re willing to put your bag at the end of a car and sit where it is out of view, you have to stand up if you have more than a carry-on.

It takes 17 minutes to get to the new Terminal 3. Our flight to Kunming, however, took off from Terminal 2, so we stayed on the train. Total time to T2 is about 30 minutes. All of which are faster than a taxi.

When you get off at T2, you go through another security checkpoint, there’s only one officer checking everyone, so when a train lets out, you end up with a big long line. All they do here is run the little chemical-sniffing paper over parts of your bag. (At T3, they have a fancy sniffing machine, but T2 has to be content with the old tech.)

After you check in and get your boarding pass, you get to the regular security line. The usual, laptop out of bag and so on, but no need to remove your shoes. We were only going for a weekend, so we hadn’t planned on checking anything, and crammed all we had into our carry-ons. They ran D’s backpack through the machine twice before opening it to search. They dug through it for what seemed like forever, not finding anything to complain about, then finally triumphantly held up a tiny bottle of Purel sanitizer. Aha! Not allowed. They confiscated it and let us proceed to our gate.

Right on time, we got onto our plane. We could see out the windows that it had started raining outside. By the time everyone was on board and they went through the safety spiels, the plane was rocking back and forth from the buffeting wind, and rain was hitting the windows as hard as if we were already in the air. We started to see flashes of lightning outside.

They announced that we would have to wait for the weather to clear before we could take off. A wise decision, of course, but it was already getting pretty stuffy inside the cabin. Before long they brought around the drink carts. They did not seem to have any alcohol available.

After twenty minutes or so, the storm slacked off a bit, and we could see other planes taking off. They told us we were waiting our turn in queue, and would take off soon. But before that time came, the weather took another turn for the worse and all take-offs were halted.

Then they brought around the food cart. It was a mid-afternoon three-hour flight, so we normally would have had dinner an hour after take-off. Feeding us seemed like an admission that we would have at least an hour more on the ground. Just after we started eating, there was an announcement that operations had resumed and we would be leaving soon, so we all hurried to wolf down the food.

It was another false alarm. By the time we finally left the ground, we were almost two hours behind schedule. I had built a two hour layover in Kunming before or connection to Lijiang just in case, but this pretty much ate that up.

Aside from a bit of turbulence and the lack of any further food, the flight south was uneventful. Beneath us we saw nothing but clouds until just before landing.

Of course we had missed our Lijiang flight, and as it turned out there was no other one for us until the following morning. I guess that’s one down-side to buying steeply discounted tickets.

We stopped at the ticket window and arranged a replacement flight at 11 the next morning, then called the hotel in Lijiang to tell them we were stuck in Kunming. We asked at the airport information desk where we could find a hotel, and they said there was one across the street.

The less said about our hotel arrangements that night the better. It was really cheap and not really worth the pennies we paid.

When we got to the airport the next morning for the Lijiang flight, D’s carryon again had problems. It contained exactly the same things that had passed muster in Beijing after the Purel was ditched. This time they pulled out a 14oz. (396g) tube of skin lotion. On reflection, I have no idea why they let something so large through in Beijing. This lotion is fairly expensive stuff (and not readily replaceable in China), so we dropped out of the line, put the hand lotion into a different bag, and went back to the check-in counter to check it. So much for our carry-on-only plan.

That did the trick and we whizzed through the Kunming security line this time.

I’ve already written a number of posts about our short time in Lijiang and our visit to the Stone Forest. But getting home again presented challenges. At the little airport in Lijiang they have a big sign that informs you in Chinese and English that you have to remove belts and shoes in order to pass through security. That’s something I’ve never had to do in China. But we complied and there was no problem.

Back at Kunming, we had already worked through their process, so it was no problem.

I think that now the Olympics are past, things may have lightened up a bit – maybe someone else can confirm that in a comment. It strikes me as odd that in China, a country widely regarded as featuring strong monolithic central control, should have such regional variation in a matter that is so tightly regimented in the US.

I’ve used the Airport Express train since then, and this time the first escalator was closed down for maintenance, leaving me to lug my big bag down a long flight of stairs. As far as I can tell, the train is not accessible for a wheelchair at all. I looked all over and did not see an elevator. The airport stations seem to be accessible, and the trains themselves have fold-up seats in designated areas for wheelchairs, but I don’t know what a person in a chair would do once they got off the train on the Beijing end of the line. It is possible to get onto the Airport without going through two X-ray machines, however. When the attendant saw me approaching the first one with my bag, she asked if I was going to the airport; I said yes and she waved me past it – which of course means that if I had lied, I would have been able to take my large unscanned bag onto the subway.


Olympic memories

Being a compendium of recollections about the 2008 Beijing Olympics told through pictures that didn’t fit in other posts.

Here’s a local scene that is symbolic of Beijing during August and September of 2008:
That’s the eastern entrance to the building where our office was, the one I used on days when I either walked from home or took a taxi. You can’t read the sign from this angle, but you can see the red arrow telling you to go around to the north entrance. This was a frequent minor irritation, as the bicycle parking area is on the south side of the building.

Note that the doors are chained shut with bicycle locks. The people with the cart are making a delivery of vegetables to one of the restaurants in the building, and the security guard just finished digging through the bags looking for...whatever he was looking for. This was part of the increased security initiative all over the city. Around on the north side, they were checking building passes for all who came in, and visitors had to sign a log. At least that’s what the sign said – my Chinese teacher walked right in a couple times, and another time she had to wait while I came down to vouch for her. Anyone with an Olympic credential was also let in without question.

With the chains on the door (note that the one on the right side is on the outside of the door, while the other is on the inside), I couldn’t help thinking that in case of an emergency evacuation, people could easily get trapped trying to go out this way, depending on where the key is kept and how quickly the chain could be opened.

Here’s another typical scene.
The town was full of volunteers. This is a bunch of them at the Yonghegong Lama Temple subway station.

For the Opening Ceremony, I went to a place called Club Obiwan, which is along the shore of Xihai, one of the lakes in the western part of downtown.
Club Obiwan has three levels of fun, as well as a pretty cool name.
They had a big projection TV on the roof for the Opening Ceremony, and it got pretty crowded.
That was early in the evening, just before the show proper started, and before the place really filled up. Given all the hype about 08/08/08 8:08, I was a little surprised that the festivities started so much ahead of time. At the actual appointed time, I couldn’t tell any difference from what was happening at 8:07.

Several hours later, the festivities were over, and it looked like this:
I’m not sure how they managed to accumulate so many bottles. There was so little room on the roof that I went four hours without having a server get anywhere near me. I must say it was quite inspiring to see the amount of pride the Chinese people watching obviously felt in this whole thing. This was their moment, and they were very proud of their country.

From our rooftop, we could kind of see a little of the fireworks, and we clearly saw a couple of the infamous footprints that were computer-enhanced on the broadcast. They just looked like rings from our angle.

As I mentioned in my Beach Volleyball post, RR and I had to walk a long distance around Chaoyang Park after leaving the competition area. Here’s something we passed on the way.
Giant inflated kids, one doing martial arts, and one shooting a gun. Near them was another oddity.
I knew Shaq was tall, but dang!

At the Fencing session I attended, there was some entertainment in the break before the medal ceremony.
I clearly remember them dancing with swords, doing a kind of martial arts choreography, but you can’t see any swords here.

I mentioned a few of the corporate pavilions on the Olympic Green, but only showed a few pictures. Here’s the China Mobile building.
I’m told that’s the face of a famous Chinese actor known for comedy. Around the side, you can see a basketball player breaking through the wall. It’s actually a pop star, not an athlete. There were several other pop stars represented.
And the hostesses wore strange costumes that made them look a bit like anime characters.
Volkswagen had one of the few exhibits that was actually interesting. OK, to be fair I didn’t go inside any of them, but they looked really dull. VW had an outdoor display area with some cool cars behind glass.
Of course people like to pose with such things.
But you can occasionally get a clear shot.
They weren’t all race cars.
Several times a day, they had an aerial acrobatic show above the cars.
The Olympic Green was really huge, and given how restricted access was, it often looked like this over large areas.
While walking to the Closing Ceremony, I saw a group of volunteers (possibly with some kind of celebrity) showing the love.
I don’t know if it was a spontaneous outburst of collective spirit, or if they were rehearsing for something.

Near them were some cool statues on a historical theme.
In the large pond running up the middle of the Green, there were fountains.
And we saw a proud member of the Fire Department.
There you go. An assortment of Olympic-related odds and ends.