China Trip, Oct 2011
Originally, Mark Looram and I were going to meet in Singapore on Oct 23, spend a few days there, then take the Orient Express to Bangkok, where we had some business. His plans changed, leaving me with a few days on my own in Singapore before he arrived.
I went onto meetup.org and found a group getting together for a Deepavali concert/celebration on my first night there. I was welcomed to the group and made friends with some fellow travelers, Kobkul and Nun from Bangkok.
The three of us spend the next day seeing the popular Singapore sights.
Mark L. Joined us on Wednesday, then he and I headed for the Regent's Hotel on Thursday where a bus would take us to the Fabled Orient Express To Bangkok.
The trip contained a great deal of 'pomp' and very little 'circumstance' as 75 people, mostly elderly, western retirees, spent three days and two nights riding in inimical style, dressing in fashion, and spending a great deal more money then a trip of this distance would normally require.
We traveled In style. Our private cabin had sufficient room for two with our own private bath and shower.
Indeed there was some excitement. Bangkok was experiencing its worst flood in recorded history prompting evacuations, travel advisories, and cries of "apocalyptic crisis". Obviously this did not overly concern us as, we assumed, our upper class accommodation would be exempt.
The food was excellent. A large breakfast was served each morning in the cabin by our (somewhat creepy) attendant, Falun. There was a small buzzer in the cabin where we could call on him 24/7 (his words) for anything we wanted. Neither of us would have been the least surprised had he responded with a lugubrious Addams family "You Rang?"
He would set up and make our beds every night. Mine folded up into the wall, Murphy style while Mark L's seconded as a couch.
Meals were held in the dining car where formal dress, minimum suit and tie were required. No Jeans or 'training shoes' allowed.
There was entertainment and relaxation.
A few brief side trips.
And, of course, incredible scenery that flashed by all too fast. I read Murder on the Orient Express" on the Orient Express.
There was no reliable source of Internet on the train (I survived in spite of it) but occasional news drifted in, mostly about the flooding in Bangkok.
Numerous headlines about mass evacuations, travel advisories, and catastrophe left us wondering whether we should, indeed, be traveling into the middle of this. The train manager assured us that there were no problems and the reports were exaggerated. We didn't believe her.
Further reports about the airport being filled with evacuees and that all flights for the next 30 days were booked solid left us wondering whether, if we did get in, could we get out? The train manager assured us that everything was fine. We wondered whether we were going to spend the rest of the trip being refugees.
But for lack of any alternatives, we chugged onward.
Sleeping was difficult on the moving train, especially as the crisis had apparently commandeered the locomotive we were supposed to use and stuck us with a old, broken down engine that was unable to pull us up the hill. Agatha Christie was at risk of being replaced with the "The Little Train The Could". Still, it couldn't. A second engine, attached behind us to push did accomplish the rise, but not without a midnight full of jarring and bumping.
Three days on a train, regardless of the circumstances, brought both us to the verge of "stir crazy". We wanted exercise. We wanted to sleep in a bed that didn't move.
Toward the end of our trip, immediately after crossing the famed "Bridge over the river Kwai" we were told that the tracks ahead were flooded and we would have to finish the journey on a bus. The train manager assured us that the roads were clear and there would be no problem. She was no more believable this time, but still we had no options.
Signs of the flood were everywhere. Piles of sandbags guarded shops and buildings. People had parked their cars on the sides of all the elevated roadways to try and keep them out of the water. The water itself, fortunately, was not to be seen.
After an overnight in Bangkok, including dinner at a local restaurant of (crunchy and delicious) fried shrimp heads and desert at the Hard Rock Cafe, we made our way to Hanoi.
Going to Vietnam
I grew up in a time in America's history where the phrase "going to Vietnam" was the most terrifying of all possible nightmares. Now I was filled with the instinctive teenage trepidation, but going nonetheless.
Initially, Hanoi seemed strange and wonderful. Narrow streets were packed with motorcycles and cars that had long ago abandoned any semblance of order.
Vehicles with horns blaring swerved around pedestrians and each other managing four different directions; up, down, and both ways across one way streets.
Sidewalks were crammed with shops, parked mopeds, people sitting on the sidewalk cooking and eating, walking, hawkers, and tourists.
It smelled like smoke and diesel fuel.
We found a small restaurant that served the best artichoke I've ever eaten -- and that is significant as I claim artichokes as my "favorite" food. It was stuffed with baby clams, bathed in a sweet buttery sauce, and can only be sullied by any attempts to describe it.
We booked a tour for the following day. Hulong Bay was highly recommended, but was a four hour drive and out of the question for us, having been recently imprisoned on a train for three days. We opted for the nearby "three caves" tour that promised a short ride in the van, a boat ride, a bicycle tour, and a hike to a temple. The exercise sounded delightful.
The "short ride" was not. It was at least two hours of swerving, beeping, pot-holy (oh god!) roadway. We were stopped by the police and The tour operator was required to pay a bribe to continue... but this was apparently normal.
Making it worse, toward the end of the trip in the countryside, the locals appeared to be using at least half of the roadway as a warm, flat surface for drying their rice. The two-way street which was normally wide enough for one and a half cars, was reduced to a bicycle path. I felt like we were driving over someone's hard-earned supper.
On arrival at the lake, we were led into what appeared to be the Vietnam equivalent of a 'greasy spoon' and treated to a surprisingly tasty lunch of grilled goat's meat, green stuff, sweet white creamy gook (can I say that word?), and french fries that would have made Ronald proud -- even if they didn't understand "ketchup".
After lunch, we were led across the street to a lake where hundreds of low, flat row-boats awaited us. In the back, at the oars, sat a wizened, frail-looking local woman wearing the traditional conehead hat. There was room enough for two, maybe four people in the boat. Mark L and I lumbered into the seats (I, the seasoned sailor, nearly capsized the craft).
She proceeded to row, row, row us gently down the stream. Surprise! She rowed with her feet! In a back-saving rolling motion with her bare feet, she pulled, pushed, and turned the oars with what seemed like no effort at all.
She rowed us through breathtaking scenery and dark caves for out about a hour to a clearing where vendors tried to sell us all manner of cheezy souvenirs. When we declined to buy something, the vendor told us we needed to buy a snack and a drink for the woman who rowed us there. Unable to resist that small act of mercy, we paid top dollar (maybe $1.50) for our driver's snack of water and cookies... which she promptly shared with us.
On the way back, the woman stopped the boat, stowed the oars, and opened up a large metal box that had occupied the middle of the boat. It was filled with scarves, silk embroidery, linens, and all manner of tourist-trash items which guilt and compassion bade us to buy. We spent, in total, about half a million Vietnam Dong (about $25.00).
Although she did all the rowing, we had noticed small kid-sized paddles in the boat. Intent or doing something besides just sitting there, we had asked for them at the beginning of the trip, and rowed enthusiastically throughout the trip. We needed the exercise after sitting in the van all day. There were passengers rowing the little oars in other boats, but none so heartily as we rowed. We worked up quite a sweat. Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because we had treated her so generously, or perhaps only in jest she motioned to her feet, the oars, and my feet. She was offering me the the chance to row! I jumped at the chance (again almost overturning the boat) and took my position at the stern of the boat.
Almost immediately, I gave up on trying to row with my feet. I have no idea how that was done, so I put my back into rowing with my arms. The makeshift oar-stays, consisting of sticks and rope we difficult to manage and kept coming loose. The boat was heavy and the heavy oars quickly filled with seaweed that would not let go. After a few feeble strokes she moved to take over but I did not let let her. I kept changing my position until I could manage to move the boat in a straight line. Tourists in other boats cheered and the locals laughed. Apparently this was not a common sight. I rowed hard and in a short time, began to tire. Mark L. took over after a while, floundered at first, then found the rhythm. Soon she took over the helm, laid back against the seat, and effortlessly foot-rowed us back to the landing. We got some exercise. She got a good laugh and a very generous tip.
On the return trip to Hanoi, an overturned truck caused a three-hour delay, making an uncomfortably long ride unbearable. Here, deep inside a catastrophic traffic jam, the vehicular equivalent of pushing and shoving, shouting and screaming ensued. We would cut people off, sending motorcycles into the ditch to vie for better position in the endless procession of creeping motorists. The sound of blaring horns stung my ears as the taste of sooty diesel smoke scraped my throat.
Hours later, we arrived at our hotel, completely exhausted, disgusted, and dirty. I decided I don't like Hanoi.
Originally, I had a one-way ticket to China. I was planning on getting my return trip when I was ready. Because the tickets were being paid for by American Express miles, I was able to do this.
Flying on a one-way ticket is a particularly freeing feeling.
When are you coming back?
Where are you coming back from?
Wherever I happen to be when I'm ready to come home.
Unfortunately, Customs an Immigration does not take kindly to this kind of freedom. I was informed at the ticket counter in Boston that, without a return ticket I was likely to be stopped in Singapore and (he said it with a slightly ominous tone) "interviewed."
I whipped out my trusty IPad and, right there at the counter, booked an mileage reward economy class return ticket from Hong Kong for November 4. I figured it would be easier to change the ticket then submit to an "interview" after a 23 hour flight.
Of course, as November 4 neared, I realized that I really, really, really, didn't want to fly coach when a free upgrade was available. so I called the airlines and they found me a business/first seat on November 6th. I took it. I was sure I would find something interesting to do in Hong Kong for a few days.
...and I did. Meetup.org listed a "business social networking event" where a group of about 50 professionals met to discuss methods and merits of using social networking in Hong Kong. As I am considering opening a sales office in Hong Kong, this turned out to be fascinating and relevant.
So all I needed was to extend my hotel stay for a few days.
Apparently there were a few high-end conventions going on in town, as well as an overflow from the Qantas Airline strike that left thousands stranded in Hong Kong. The hotels, submitting to the law of "supply and demand" had all, for the the most part, at least doubled their prices.
Mark L had, at one point, suggested that I take the 45 minute train ride out of Hong Kong to the Chinese border and a great copy-shopping city named Shenzhen. He said it was one of the best places to get copies of Rolex watches, souvenirs, and miscellaneous stuff. Because I had a harder-to-get "Multiple Entry" visa from china I was permitted to come and go from the country as I pleased.
I booked a cheap room in Shenzhen for Friday night, went to the airport and dropped off my suitcase at the "Leave Luggage" service and, with just a backpack, took the subway to China.
I have learned that when Mark L suggests something, it's usually a WIN. This was no exception.
The "Mall" was bigger than main street Peterborough and five stories high. It was crammed full of booths and kiosks selling all manner of merchandise (I tried, in this writing, to say something less feeble than "all manner off.." but my attempts were futile compared to the reality of this experience).
Shops were crammed into every corner of this huge center. Every store, kiosk, and stand had a person standing beside it who would say "copy watch, Gucci bag, iPhone 4.." if you stopped to look in a window, someone from the store would come dashing out, grab you, and pull you inside where they would stand between you and the door until you negotiated a price.
But best of all... And a definite highlight of my trip, they spoke very little English. Everywhere I had been so far, my attempts to speak the Chinese I have been learning for the last four months went ignored. Everyone in Singapore and Hong Kong spoke English fluently. Here, my Chinese was actually useful. I went into stores and bought things not because I needed them, but because I was having so much fun speaking Chinese. Indeed, I am a rank beginner, but they highly appreciated my attempts and I had several somewhat involved conversations.
Hong Kong - Last Night of Red Lights
Originally, I had thought to spend Friday and Saturday night in Shenzhen, then leave early Sunday morning to get back to Hong Kong for my noon flight. As I went to China through Hong Kong exit Immigration, Customs, China entry immigration, I realized that there were far too many variables to make the Sunday morning trip to catch a flight stress-free. So I booked a Saturday night in Hong Kong in a 'cheap' hotel and headed back on Saturday Morning to meet Mark L for lunch.
Leaving China on Saturday was a madhouse. It took several hours to clear customs and immigration and I can only imagine how sweaty I would have become had I been racing to catch a plane. That didn't leave me time to check into my hotel, so I went straight to lunch.
Mark L asked "Where are you staying tonight?"
"Some hotel in the Wan Chai area."
He cracked a strange smile and told me about the history of the area. apparently, during the Vietnam war, the Wan Chai district was the area frequented by American soldiers and became one of the world's largest 'red light' districts.
That night, although I wasn't inclined to brave the risks of street sex-for-sale, I did go for a sightseeing walk. Indeed, every doorway housed a few young women selling anything I could want. Sex clubs, dance bars, and unmarked but neon-lit doorways tried, unsuccessfully, to entice me in. Older asian woman would pluck at my sleeve or even grab my arm "....you want nice clean ladies? Massage?" I would shake my head and walk on. A few called after me, "you want boys?"
It didn't feel sexy at all, it felt dirty. Having read up on the area beforehand, I knew that if I had gone into one of the bars I would have been hustled into buying expensive drinks for girls - that they are highly professional at soaking tourists - then offered more. It might have been fun to go see but I was 'touristed-out." I needed to escape and ducked into what appeared to me a quiet Japanese restaurant. I hadn't had any Sake this trip yet!
An attractive hostess sat me at the bar and helped me choose a nice, chilled, Dai Ginjo Sake. Later I ordered some Sashimi and noticed the hostess sitting at the bar nearby. She would refill my cup when it was empty and I asked her advice about eating the whole shrimp, "Do I eat the head?"
She laughed gently and explained that, no, of course you don't eat the head. You just eat the body of the shrimp then suck on the head to eat the eyeballs and brains. we started talking.
Reyonna Lam was actually the owner of the Japanese restaurant. Although a Hong Kong native with no Japanese history, she had always liked Japanese food and started the business on her own. she talked about some of the challenges being a female entrepreneur in Hong Kong. Several hours, and bottles of Sake later, we became friends.
The Ride Home
I flew Continental on Sunday from Hong Kong to Newark to Boston. I arrived home Sunday night, about 6 pm. My Shower. My Bed. My Pillows!
I get to sleep around 9 PM, not expecting to sleep through the night as the time change tends to take a week or so to get though my system.
I was woken at 5:30 AM by the buzz of my phone ringing.
A shiver of panic surged through me, "Who would be calling at 5:30 AM?"
It was Continental Airline's automated phone system telling me that my Monday Morning flight from Newark to Boston was "on time." Why would they do that?