No Seattle but Susesi

September 30th, 2009

For a number of years I’ve been interested in travelling as much as possible. I love seeing new places and I love the feeling of being on the road, being on my way somewhere. I assume that there are underlying psychological reasons for this: a sense of not belonging anywhere that makes me constantly search for something new. I’m not interested in correcting those issues though, since I like travelling! (Now, that’s a circular argument if you’ve ever seen one.)

Either way, one thing has led to another and through the years I’ve gone from solely private trips, to business trips that involved troubleshooting and customer assistance, to more varied tasks such as System Manager in an outsourcing case, and representative at standardization organizations.

What this means in practice is that lately I’ve been gotten my fair share of travels.

What it also means is that I’m having some trouble finding a good time to go on vacation.

I thought I had everything planned beautifully right now: China last week, France this week, and then I go on vacation to Turkey for a week this Saturday. Just look at the hotel! Susesi De Luxe Resort Looks wonderful! And look at the reviews on Tripadvisor. Sounds great!

Then irony struck. I’ve unfortunately never gotten to travel to the US on business – no meetings there, and no customers there so far. But lo and behold: I was asked if I had time to go to Seattle for a technical meeting with a potential customer!

…Can you guess when the meeting is? Of course, exactly the same week that I’m away at that lovely Ultra All-inclusive hotel in Turkey.


Beijing 2009 – Week 28-31 – Beijing Zoo, Martial Arts and More Bars

August 24th, 2009

Beijing. China. The beginning of June to the beginning of August. Sure, I’ve traveled a bit before this, and I’ve been on job trips to various countries. But it really is a big thing to spend six weeks working in a foreign country – especially one where you can’t speak the native language. In retrospect I think that’s the biggest obstacle I encountered during the whole visit: no matter how many small phrases or words one learns, it’s just not enough to be able to communicate with people. If I’m ever going to spend another long stretch of time in China I’ll make sure to learn the language – at least to some extent.

All in all it was a wonderful experience. Amazing sights to see, a lot of culture to experience (both ancient and contemporary), incredible all-nighters at different bars and clubs, great shopping, weather ranging from blazing sunshine to smog and rain, events and music and interesting people, and much more. My first four weeks were covered fairly well but for the second part of my journey I thought I’d sum things up more quickly. You’re getting one month’s worth of awesomeness covered in a single few lines. And pictures.

Beijing Zoo is a terrible place. Miserable pandas in plexiglass cages, mangy animals looking half dead and tourists gawking at them all day long. It’s awful that I contributed to the animals’ position since I paid my entry fee to see them – but how would I have seen the situation they’re in otherwise?

Let’s just say that I won’t recommend people to go there. The only happy animals seem to be the stuffed ones in the souvenir shops.

There are some nice bar streets in Beijing. I’ve tried quite a few areas: Sanlitun, Workers Stadium in general, Houhai, The Place, Ritan Park, Solana, around Chaoyang Park and some other places as well. The variety is good, ranging from common tourist traps to cozy Western pubs to seedy back alleys to Russian dance clubs – and much more. And the people you meet can be just as varied as well! All in all, I must say that the bar hopping was incredibly fun and a very positive thing about my trip.

It’s hard to pick a favorite place to visit but I think Sanlitun and the area around Workers Stadium wins. If I had to select only one bar area to visit in Beijing it’d be there: within a few blocks you can find everything from great clubs to bars to always-open pubs. Some of the tourist traps try to scam you, but as long as you don’t agree to anything or order anything without looking at the menu first you’ll be fine. Another way to be safe is to avoid all places with bright neon signs and bouncers, of course. Sanlitun and Workers Stadium has many “normal” bars as well.

In the picture above you can see a rare sight: me with a light stubble. I don’t have a trimmer, so it’s only when I shave off my beard completely that I have that four-day stubble thing going on. And that doesn’t happen very often…

The Chinese cuisine is also something I’m very happy to have experienced. Varied and interesting, some great and some…not exactly to my taste. But always interesting.

The hotel was also very good. It could have been a hell to spend six weeks in a hotel room, but the people were very helpful and everything worked excellently. Except for the water bottles. Come on! When will you get the hint that I’m not using your complimentary water?! 14 bottles plus three in the fridge. Man!

I’ve been focusing a lot on Beijing, but I actually got to see a little of Shanghai and Suzhou as well. It was expensive as diamond-studded crap, but I had to go up the Shanhai World Financial Center. Not as high as Taipei 101, but it really was a magnificent sight.

Another exciting thing that happened during my trip was the mixed martial arts competition Rising Force 13 – The Art of War. I was in China – I had to see some martial arts, after all! They had a heap of fighters and some very interesting fights (and some uneventful ones too), but the funniest part was that a Swede won the main event. I felt like a complete arse, sitting there shouting “Yeah! Go Sweeeeden!” after he won against the Chinese bloke. Thousands of Chinese supporters muttered harsh words and shook their heads, while we chuckled and hoped that we wouldn’t get assaulted.

Well, I think it’s time to wrap up things for now. This summer was great, and I hope to visit Beijing again soon. When? Who can tell… Maybe I should ask this frigging huge crystal ball found in Yashow Market!

Beijing 2009 – Week 27 – Soccer, Bars and Happy Valley

July 14th, 2009

At this time (end of June, beginning of July) I had been in Beijing for almost a month. Things were starting to settle down; the excitement was gone; the shining pearl of unfamiliar strangeness that was Beijing was starting to feel strangely familiar. It might have been due to my adventures the weekend before, or simply the fact that I needed to rest, but a few days went by without anything worthwhile to report. Up at 7 AM, taxi to work, sit inside the office for 9 hours, and then a taxi to a restaurant or bar for dinner. Then back to the hotel for a movie and some light reading before doing the same thing again the next day.

Sounds awfully dull. And I guess it was; but it was exactly what all three of us needed by now.

We frequented restaurants and bars around the Sanlitun / Gongti (Workers Stadium) area most of the time. There we could find English-speaking personnel and Western-style food; in retrospect I guess we might have had a slight case of homesickness, and we clung to the few Western things we could find. Sanlitun is a strange mix of outright tourist trap bars, expensive imported goods shopping malls (The Village), and cozy back alleys with pleasant restaurants, bars and small shops. It’s just a matter of finding the right places to visit.

This is not one of those, even though the statues are pretty cute:

Speaking of food, Chinese food ranges from extraordinarily good and cheap to…very strange. It’s a small wonder that we felt inclined toward familiar dishes after sights like this:

Looks just like a tiny baby hand, doesn’t it? It’s things like that that made us order pizza from The Kro’s Nest on Wednesday instead of going out to eat. That place has excellent pizzas but unfortunately for us we didn’t realize that a medium pizza is not really a medium pizza. It’s a gargantuan pizza that could feed a soccer team for two weeks! We cheekily ordered three medium pizzas (“Yeah, I’m pretty hungry. Let’s go for a medium each”) and ended up with pizza-stinking rooms for two days until we convinced the housecleaners that indeed, we were quite finished with the pizzas and we were not going to eat a single bite more of them, and they were very welcome to dispose of them.

Thursday we went to a soccer game. Beijing against…some blue team. I had never been to a soccer match before, and it was a thrilling experience to be present when 25 000 screaming hooligans shouted their joy as Beijing scored 1-0. But no matter how exciting it was, it wasn’t exiting enough to make me stay for the entire game. Me and a colleague went to The Den instead to have a beer and some dinner.

Ironically enough, they had the game running in The Den so we could follow the second half while sipping an ice-cold Corona. On the way home we had trouble getting a taxi so my colleague decided to call it quits and took the subway home. Let’s just say that taxi always wins, even if one has to wait for a while to catch a cab.

In the hotel I noticed that my ever-growing collection of complimentary water bottles on the toilet had come to a stop. It ended up at ten bottles – from an original two. The bottles are still there, and I really don’t know what the hotel personnel are thinking… Oughtn’t they have noticed that I prefer to buy tastier water in larger bottles?

Friday was a great day. I guess our brief bout of homesickness had left us, because we found our way to a large sports bar called Goose & Duck (since the owner is Canadian, he explained while we emptied our bladders next to each other, and his wife is Chinese). There we had a good meal, good beer and got treated to a free comedy magic show with magician Arthur Trace. Quite funny, and quite a good show! I think I’m going to watch it again one of these days.

But the fun didn’t stop there. We had some more beers and got to see cheerleaders and a Phillipino live rock band, and we ended up staying at G&D until the band had finished playing and most of the crowd staggered home in a drunken stupor. Go Friday!

Saturday we were all envigorated after such an excellent beginning of the weekend, so we went to the Happy Valley amusement park. It’s a very big place, very well-made and was full of Chinese people gawking at us whiteys. Four times we were stopped so that people could have pictures taken with us. Hm… Maybe we could arrange a deal with the park owners, and act as an attraction?

The rides were awesome. At lest two of them. The rollercoasters weren’t plentiful, but what they had sure worked well! Heard from one colleague: “why did you let me convince you to go on this one?!”

Sunday was quite slow after all that excitement, and I really didn’t want to go anywhere. “Come on,” they chided, “you have to join us for dinner at least! Let’s take a walk to Gongti!” I knew I should have trusted my intuition, because ten minutes out the door, the heavens opened up for us. And not in a good way. We were soaking wet by the time we got to Danger Doyle’s, ending a half-dull week in a very fitting manner.

This marks half of my time in Beijing. Four weeks to go and lots more to experience…

Beijing 2009 – Week 26 – KTV, Ballet and a Black Saturday

July 8th, 2009

The third week in China was relatively uneventful at first. Monday morning met us three Swedes hung over and tired after we had spent the Sunday night at a Japanese teppanyaki place. There was unlimited food and drink, and they cooked the food by the table. Most impressive handiwork by the cook, and somehow we managed to down quite a few bottles of sake. The last bottle was just a tad unneccessary, though. Somehow we got through the head-throbbing work day and then decided to have a quiet evening at the hotel, as soon as we had gotten some fast food to munch on.

“Hey, how hard can it be to find fast food here in the Central Business District? KFC is just by the hotel – let’s walk a bit further and search for something else.”

Well, we walked around the corner into the back alleys behind the hotel, and we were met by an amazing sight. In the front there’s a busy road with business people walking around busily, but behind the hotel is a (what looked to us) poverty-stricken area with run-down houses and Real Common Chinese people living their daily lives – completely hiddden from sight to us ignorant westerners. I have to admit that it felt a little like we would end up getting mugged as soon as we walked into one of the narrow passages, but that’s probably just common xenophobia – Beijingers seem to be very kind most of the time.

Tuesday was a slow day. Work and then movies on the computer in the evening; not much else happened. Speaking of movies: it’s irritating how many interesting sites are blocked in China. I’m not advocating piracy here, but I just started watching Hajime no Ippe: The New Challenger and it’s relatively impossible to get hold of the new episodes without resorting to fansubbed releases on torrent sites. However, all torrent sites are blocked in China! And even if I sneakily use a proxy to access the sites themselves I find that the actual torrent traffic is blocked too! Quite annoying.

And even more annoyingly, Lolcats and Cute Overload are blocked as well! I don’t see exactly how these can be deemed subversive and dangerous to the government, but damn you China! I want my daily dose of cute kittens! Thankfully it’s possible to set up an SSH tunnel to a lab server at work through my job VPN, and proxy HTTP traffic through that one. Yay, kitties!

Wednesday was a terrible day. We had a slow day at work – nothing worked as it should – and then we had a bad evening at Houhai. We walked around for ages looking for some suitable place to eat, and we ended up at a bar with a patio where we ordered three pizzas. Unfortunately, only one pizza arrived. After 45 minutes. We asked if the other two were coming, and the waiter looked surprised but only said “Uh, a moment! Coming soon!” It turned out that we had had a communications breakdown, and they weren’t even started. It would have been nicer to say that instead of hoping that we’d stick around for another 45 minutes. We sighed, paid for what we had eaten, and stomped off in search for more food.

We walked even further, and the next place was ridiculously expensive instead. It was even more expensive than Sweden – tourist price at its worst. Another disappointment. By now we had lost our good spirits (despite the gorgeous view at Houhai lake) and just wanted to get a cab to the hotel. Of course, that’s when we realized that – for some reason – all of the cabs present either didn’t know the location we wanted to go, or plainly refused to go there. Strange! I wonder why.

Thursday things got better. We went to a KTV place after work, and was treated to a wonderful karaoke evening, a buffet (with mystery meat) and beer. We learned that if you ask for Corona, Corona ye shall have. We simply wanted a bottle each to have something other than Tsing Tao, but the Coronas kept pouring in after that. I guess that it’s foolish to feel pity for an outsourcing company that benefits from doing work for us, but I still feel ashamed at the thought of how expensive those beers must be to them compared to us.

The karaoke was spectacularly fun, either way! We mixed Chinese and English songs, and some of the performers were very good indeed. One thing that’s quite different compared to Swedish karaoke is that ballads and slow songs are the most popular ones, unlike in Sweden where all the rock/pop classics are sung. I brought down the house with my rendering of Sinatra, but I should have stopped there: Summer of ’69 was way too high for my poor unused vocal cords.

Interesting events and opportunities for mental cultivation are plentiful in Beijing. On Friday we saw the premiere of an interesting version of Swan Lake in the Olympic Water Cube. Classic ballet was mixed with synchronized swimmers, Chinese gymnasts and divers. I wish I had read up on the story beforehand, though – I felt like such an uncultured lout when I realized that I had no idea what exactly was going on in the different acts and scenes.

The Olympic Park is a very pleasant place in Beijing, and very pretty at night when the stadium and the Water Cube is lit. It’s also huge and takes a long time to walk around.

I wanted to have a nice picture of myself posing in front of the stadium. Too bad that I look completely insane.

Saturday we went to Haidian, the electronics Mecka of Beijing. Sweet mercy, there’s a lot of crap there! We found some nice bargains: cute USB fans for 25 RMB, nice headphones for RMB 25 and a media player for 200 RMB. The media player is actually quite good! Its hardware is unknown, and the brand is unknown, but it supports many different music/video/text/image formats and I’ve been using it to watch documentaries on my way to work. Since it can handle video playback without any problems I guess that there’s either a fast > 1 GHz CPU in it, or it has a rendering chip with supports for many formats. The latter is probably most likely.

After that things went downhill. We found Danger Doyle’s, an Irish pub, and spent many hours drinking there. Good selection of beer, excellent rooftop patio, decent food, nice atmosphere. There was a birthday party on the roof, and they had a little masquerade with the theme “dress up as a song from the 80s or 90s.”

I thought we were there a few hours, but the clock was 1 AM when we walked out. About that time my colleagues wanted to go back to the hotel, but I wasn’t done for the night.

I revisited a few bars we had been to earlier, but around 2 AM things started getting…blurry. I distinctly recall talking to a Jamaican and some other people in a bar in Sanlitun, but after that things are very vague. I know that I left the place with some British and American businessmen who called med Sven, and that I lost my guidebook somewhere. (To my dismay! I had made notes of good places in it.) I also know that I played pool in some sleazy place somewhere, because I have a picture to prove it even though I don’t remember it at all.

Then I know that we went outside, and…did something…and went somewhere… Either way, the next thing I recall is that the clock is 8 AM, the businesspeople are leaving for the airport (’cause they have a flight at 10 AM), and that I’m left playing pool in a hotel bar somewhere with two hookers.

I guess that sounds pretty bad, but I assure you that I wasn’t aware of the fact at that time! It wasn’t until we walked out of the hotel bar and they asked me subtle things like “Should we go to your hotel?” and “Have you ever been with two Chinese girls?” that it dawned upon me what their line of profession was. I tried to get some insights by asking them if they feel comfortable with their occupation, and we had a nice little chat until they realized that I definitely wouldn’t do anything naughty with them out of respect to my girlfriend. That concept seemed quite odd to them and we parted ways shortly after that.

It’s an amazing feeling to walk around at 9 AM in the blazing sun in Beijing, broke, no idea where you are, with a drunken smile upon your lips because you’ve had a wild and crazy night.

Beijing 2009 – Week 25 – Live Music, Pole Dancing and the Forbidden City

June 29th, 2009

Aside from work a lot of things happened during week 25. On Tuesday I started googling for underground live music in Beijing, and I read about Club 13, D-22 and a lot of other places. However, one thing in particular caught my eye: three German bands were playing at Yugong Yishan on that very Tuesday! Yugong Yishan is a reference to a Chinese proverb about a foolish man attempting – and succeeding – to remove a mountain. But that has very little to do with the actual club itself.

I got distinctive flashbacks to my high school years; the place was small and crowded, and the audio was decent but not brilliant. The bands were also decent and quite worth watching, even though I guess I won’t be telling my grandchildren about them in years to come. There were also lots of Germans present at the club. Apparently this was part of a Chinese-German cultural exchange thing.

I don’t recall the band names, but they were a pop band with a female singer, a pop-punk band with some young guys, and some celtic death metal to top it all off. Very interesting mix.

On Wednesday we decided to explore the Sanlitun bar area, starting with a visit to The Tree, a quite hidden and secretive little Belgian pub. They have an excellent athmosphere, cozy interior, good selection of beer and quite possibly one of the best stone-oven baked pizzas that I’ve ever tasted. And some quite expensive beer…

We moved on to the appropriately nicknamed Gauntlet – the tourist trap street of Sanlitun – where we got ripped off and ended up paying 80 RMB for a Heineken at one of the places. 80 RMB equals about 8 Euros. That’s one-a expensive-a beer-a! After that we learned to always look at the menu first. Another interesting thing that happened was that we got lured into a place that offered pole dancing. Unfortunately for us we forgot to check what gender…

Eventually a girl did go up on the stage as well, but by that time we were howling with laughter, thinking that we just had gotten screwed for the second time that night. Still, that pole dancing guy really was impressive!

A lot more restaurants and pubs followed that week, and we explored the Sanlitun area quite well. The 80′s night at Alfa is particularly worth mentioning! That place rocks. I also hadn’t had enough of live music so I watched a phenomenal reggae band at the MAO Live House, close to Houhai. Quite impressive – and well worth the 60 RMB entrance fee.

Afterwards I went on to Houhai, a bar district next to the lake from which it receives its name, and ended up chatting with a Danish troubadour.

“So, I guess you’re singing to earn a little extra at the side?”
“Oh.. Nah… I just get free booze.”

For some reason I decided to walk around the lake and ended up meeting a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) harassing a couple of guards.

I spent a couple of hours walking along with the banana, his wife and a friend of theirs, experiencing bad Vietnamese coffee and strange youths fishing for clams or something in the lake.

After a while I bade them a drunken farewell and made my way home.

The week ended with a trip to the Forbidden City. It’s a very impressive place…but somehow not as impressive as I expected. It’s a gigantic area covered with statues and elaborately painted houses; it’s strange to think that all of it belonged to the Emperor in days of yore, but it wasn’t varied enough to keep up my interest very long. Well worth a visit, but nothing compared to the Great Wall. I have high hopes that the Summer Palace will be more interesting, whenever I end up going there.

Some more shopping also ensued. 70 RMB for an 128 GB USB memory? Too good to be true?

Indeed, it was too good to be true. After filling it with 32 GB of data it crashed. I wonder what’s inside…

Hmm, looks like a USB controller chip of some sort. What does the flash chip say?

D’oh! The sneaky bastards! They removed all useful information from the flash chip!

Stay tuned for more Beijing stories in the following weeks.