Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Musings from the Middle Kingdom

June 16, 2014

I am sitting in the ANA lounge in Chengdu waiting for my flight to Tokyo. It is day 11 of a 12 day around the world trip. I have spent eight days in China. It is 90+ humid degrees in the lounge and about 70 degrees outside on this June morning – just a small example of the many minor irritations one experiences when traveling in the Middle Kingdom. This trip took me to Beijing, Xining in Qinghai province, Lhasa in Tibet and Chengdu in Sichuan province before a 24 hour stopover in Tokyo to get my fix of Japanese food and pick-up some Japanese gum on the way home. I always buy gum in Japan. Some might say it is odd to travel 7,000 miles to buy your favorite gum but I don’t question your odd habits so please give me a pass on this one. This trip was interesting – a quick look at both positive and negative developments in China.

I was in Beijing on a clear day - the top is closer to normal
I was only in Beijing for a day but the weather and air quality was as good as it gets in the crowded capital city. The driver who picked me up was friendly and chatty. Despite my limited skill in Chinese, we talked most of the 45 minute ride to the hotel. After he dropped me off, the driver spoke with the person who arranged the pick-up and expressed surprise that I could speak (limited) Mandarin – a surprise to me too since I moved back to the US from Shanghai over three years ago. I was glad to have some practice since I was traveling the next day to the interior of the country where English skills are not as prevalent as in Beijing or Shanghai.

The primary reason for the trip was to speak at a green energy conference in Qinghai - a mineral rich but still underdeveloped western province with big ambitions. I got off the plane in the capital city of Xining and was met by a driver holding a sign with my name. Apparently he didn’t know it was my name and perhaps thought it was a company name. He told me in Mandarin that he was waiting for five more people; but continued to wave the sign. I told him it that was my name on the sign and not likely to help him connect with his other passengers who turned out to be five executives from a couple different companies in Beijing. Even after assembling his six passengers the driver showed no sign that he was ready to depart. The other passengers began to grumble as the airport emptied and we all stood there waiting to move to the hotel. Finally, I called the conference organizer and asked why we were waiting – a few seconds later she called the driver who was standing next to me and asked him why he had not departed with his “VIPs”. The driver looked at me - seeming to link the call I made in English with the call he got in Chinese as soon as I hung up. I was tired and frustrated and asked him what the holdup was - much to the mirth of my co-passengers who were surprised to hear Chinese (or at least a reasonable facsimile) coming out of my mouth. I have learned over the years that it is not a good thing to anger your driver who was clearly embarrassed to be verbally spanked by his foreign passenger so I sat in the front seat on the ride to the city and tried to make amends. Fortunately, it seemed I was at least partially successful in that endeavor. He smiled as I said goodbye (or maybe because I said goodbye) and, at last, I was at check-in.

The first time I visited Qinghai Province was twelve years ago. I still have a clear memory of that trip. I stayed at the “best available” hotel and walked down a very dimly lit hall to my shabby room that inspired me to sleep in my clothes. A lot can change in 12 years. A word to the intermittent traveler, any hotel called “best available” should be avoided if at all possible. My daughters still talk about a “best available” hotel we stayed at in the Tibetan countryside.

On this trip I checked into what I like to refer to as a “3.9 Star - 5 Star”. The hotel has aspirations of being a 5 star and is advertised as one but on a global scale is not quite a 4 star. Nevertheless I was delighted to see a big room that was clean and even had a large flat screen TV. After I solved the riddle of how to get off the hotel advertisements and into the channels, I only had to click through 36 different Chinese offerings before I found a channel with movies in English – good thing I enjoy watching movies from my 20s. When jet-lag called me at 4am, I turned on the TV and saw Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson. You just can’t see “The Breakfast Club” too many times.
After the visit to my cinematic past,  I met friends for breakfast. Breakfast buffets in China always provide interesting fare. Spicy diced rabbit is not normally on my breakfast menu but since it seemed low carb, why not? I have to say the green tea bread was delicious. I have never shied away from “thousand year old eggs” but given the recent scandal on use of toxic chemicals to speed up the egg aging process, I opted for fried eggs instead. Twelve hours in Xining – so far so good. 

Sadly, due to the toxic chemical scandal, I passed on the 1,000 year old eggs this time
In total, I spent four days in Xining. The governor and his boss (the head of the communist party in the province) attended my presentation the first afternoon. I was quite surprised to have so many cameras from local media in my face as I got up to speak. I was sent internet links to clips of the TV coverage and emailed them to friends and family. Seemed odd that my “15 minutes of fame” would happen in China. I attended a dinner with the governor the first evening – a lot of toasting with the lighter fluid like substance known as “bai jiu” aka white alcohol. The alcohol percentage can run from mid 30s to low 60s. It tastes bad when you drink it and tastes worse the next morning when you wake up. Bai Jiu has a “lingering finish” on steroids.

The second day during a break in the conference I was handed an envelope. “This is your honorarium for speaking yesterday” I was told by the smiling conference staff member. I put the envelope in my briefcase. After lunch, I opened the envelope and saw many crisp $100 bills. They did not look like the $100 bills I was used to so my first thought was that maybe my industrious hosts had printed them locally. A brief visit to Google allayed my fear that the “Benjamins” were not the real deal. It just seemed odd that the first time I saw the new US currency was in a remote part of China.
During the five years I lived in China, I met many Communist Party officials especially when I visited smaller cities. It seemed like all of the SOCs (State Owned Companies) I did business with had a party member involved in management. Normally the “party guy” didn’t know much about the business he was “managing” and was along for a free meal and a chance to work on “business development” (aka drink) with foreign companies. I was very impressed by the party officials I met in Qinghai this time. The province is attracting significant companies who are selling their products to companies like Apple. I was impressed.

I first saw the new "Benjamin" (top) in Qinghai - I was glad they weren't a local product
 On my final day in Qinghai, I was taken to an outdoor concert by the China National Symphony- flown in from Beijing at great expense. The venue was at 9,500 feet above sea level and it was cold and rainy. I was told it only rains four or five days a year in the desert but it rained each day I was there. The organizer looked out at the barren hillside and decided he needed to do something to brighten the gloomy day. A quick call on his cellphone and within 30 minutes, several hundred sheep, a large complement of cattle and local cowboys came over the hill to provide a more interesting backdrop for the festivities. Nobody throws a party like the Chinese.

My hosts provided an army coat to keep me warm at 9,500 feet
Part of my invitation was a side trip to Tibet. My last visit to Tibet was in 2006 - I took “Power Bars” and toilet paper with me expecting the worst. I didn’t need either one except in the previously mentioned countryside “best available” hotel. Lhasa was wonderful place to visit in 2006. Still very much Tibet. Although I was glad to return, I was saddened to see the so called “progress” foisted on Tibet by Beijing. There were Chinese flags flying atop each monastery. The Tibetans and their neighbors across the border in Xinjiang province are not happy with Beijing’s plans for their future. The central government has taken a heavy hand in both places – see the helpful young police/army that line the streets around the Dalai Lama’s former home in the picture below. Word is they are there to “help” the tourists……

The Government rules for visitors, I draw your attention to rule #4 - no "hullablooing" or "slapsticking" in the monastery

Despite the above, I enjoyed my 48 hours in Lhasa. I was surprised that so many monks in Potala were carrying smartphones and IPads. I was asked by one of them where I was from. I told him and then asked him for a World Cup update which after a few quick movements of his thumb he was happy to read me off the screen of his Samsung smartphone. Like anywhere in the world Tibetans will adapt to the modern age. I just wish China would allow them to keep their culture intact. If you want to see Tibet – you better go soon because it is disappearing fast and becoming China... and not by choice.
Just one of many "help" squads in Lhasa courtesy of the Central Government