Tuesday, October 30, 2007

...In which the lazy blogger uses photos to catch up

So I haven't posted since leaving Qianmen for the Sport and Environment conference, mostly because we didn't have internet for most of that time, but also because I haven't really known what to write about. I kind of took the blog on a weird, pedantic jog in my last post, and I haven't been sure of where to go from there... so I'm just gonna post a few pictures. It's better for everyone this way.
The conference was a bit of a downer. Andrea covered it pretty well, so I'll just add that the site itself will look way cool when finished, but BOCOG and the IOC have missed a huge opportunity by proving every skeptic who says that "sustainability" is just a new buzzzword for the same, tired PR totally correct.
Then, there were the bugs in the hotel. And judging by the large smears on the walls, we weren't the first to spend a few long nights at the Century Longdu Apartments sending large, fast-moving bugs to the big, poorly maintained high-rise in the sky.But our weekend by the O-Green was not all bad. We happened to wander into the "South Silk Road" restaurant because everything else in the vicinity of the Conference Center seemed overpriced and westerner-oriented, and we hadn't tried Yunnan food yet. We were not surprised to find that the cuisine of the southwestern province is delicious, exotic and a refreshing contrast to the typical northern dishes, but we were shocked to discover that the place was dirt cheap, considering the high quality of ingredients and upscale decor. Here you can see the Fire Beef which was spicy and impossibly tender, and Pork with Mild Peppers and Sour Papaya, which was sweet, slightly spicy and sour with lime and cilantro flavors. Another highlight were the steamed buns which were made with sweet potato and cornmeal, and stuffed with sweet, smoky shredded barbecue ham. Probably the best restaurant we've been to yet, at the price.Since getting back to Templeside, we went down to Chongwen by subway to check out more hutongs... I've been wanting a picture of this warning on the subway for some time.
Large parts of the protected areas in Chongwen look like war zones, particularly where the streets have been widened. Houses are simply gashed open to make way for the street, leaving half standing structures along these newly-paved roads, giving the place a kind of small-scale Dresden 1946 look. This army tent with a small plot of corn behind it really added to the whole post-apocalyptic feel.
These cats were a much-appreciated photographic distraction from the acres of rubble.
This is a picture from a billboard which currently blocks access to the Qianmen site. It shows what the place will look like once they get rid of all those pesky old buildings.
One of the coolest things about the hutongs which haven't been depopulated are the fruit markets. Fruit is super cheap, and of amazingly high quality. It doesn't all look good from the outside, which fools the American who is used to uniform displays of spotless produce, but the vendor will bust open the spotted, greenish tangerine you just turned your nose up at and make you eat a section, proving that it is lacking nothing in taste and juicyness. The grapefruit here are my favorite... the one in this picture is actually on the small side, as the really big ones can easily be the size of a human head. They are harder and crunchier than I'm used to, but taste delicious, and are a meal unto themselves.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What wouldn't you do for a billion bucks?

Working with Andrea as she investigates the destruction of Qianmen's historic neighborhoods has given me the opportunity to explore a number of related issues and try new research methods. Some are fun, like running around with a camera trying to get pictures over walls without being spotted by guards, and some are less fun... like good, old fashioned dot-connecting. Here's some of what's come up:

China's economy has been blowing up for the last ten years, averaging about 10% growth in the last 5 years, compared to a global average of less than half that. Production not consumption is king here, and rather than the high personal debt rates that we have in America, savings rates in China are particularly high. These savings have been increasingly flooding both the stock markets and real estate markets, which explain both the facts that a) you see construction projects every other block here and b) China now has more billionaires than any nation on earth other than the US of A. Real Estate companies in particular are getting Google-sized IPOs based on a situation which Associate Professor at Beijing University Michael Pettis might call "the double-bubble"
"In real estate you're getting overinflated profits from borrowing money to get cheap land and then selling at inflated prices; and then you've got a stock market that is valuing a dollar of earnings at about 40 or 50 times. So you've got a bubble on top of a bubble."
It's funny too, because the situation he's referring to specifically here is that of SOHO-China, a real estate company who's recent $1.6 billion Hong Kong IPO grew 15% on it's first day of trading in an otherwise down market... oh yeah, and it's also the company now behind the Qianmen development which Andrea and I are looking into. Not only that, but the the success of the IPO was basically dependent on the Qianmen project "working out" for SOHO, given that the offering was for a price premium more than 1.6 times it's net asset value without the Qianmen project, but as this story in Marketwatch puts it:
The IPO price range's premium to NAV narrows to a maximum of 30% when the value of the Qianmen project is included, analysts said.
"It's really a gamble on whether you think the Qianmen project will get regulatory approval or not. After all, it's heritage sites we are talking about here," said an analyst with a mainland Chinese asset management fund, who declined to be named.
But like any gamble, when the zeroes keep getting tacked on, the risk soon becomes impossible to pass up. SOHO's profit was 340 million Yuan in 2006, and this year it's set to be 1.62 billion Yuan. If the Qianmen project gets held up (hint: it won't) their profit will *only* climb to 1.86 billion, but if (when) it does, the 2008 profits are expected to come in at 2.63 billion Yuan. Given the fact that SOHO's IPO lit up the Hong Kong market with 15% growth on it's first day, it seems pretty clear that investors (including Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal) have more faith in the power of projected profits than China's heritage protection laws.

And that's where the rubber hits the road. The Qianmen development is taking place in a parcel of land that is clearly marked in the Beijing Conservation Plan as a protected area, and from what little we can see between the huge barriers in place to prevent nosy parkers from getting a good look, most of the area is either leveled or just now being built. This is bad for a number of reasons which Andrea is far more qualified to explain, but there are numerous other reasons for why this situation is about more than jealousy of those who make it big during market bubbles. For one thing, it's hard to have too much respect for people who make lots of money in a real estate boom in a country where private property is a relatively new phenomenon. The rights and responsibilities of property ownership, the ability of local and central governments to abridge those rights at the behest of developers, and the recourse for property owners facing illegal evictions are all cutting edge issues here. It was a bit mind-blowing to talk to people working in NGO's, who would explained that the policies of the earlier communist eras created a historical context in which ownership is often impossible to determine, let alone verify, and eviction notices can be posted within a few days of the arrival of the wrecking ball.

But, this is not just a case for shaking ones head sadly and saying "that's just China." The 17th CPC Congress is just wrapping up in Beijing, and when the apparatchiks get done with the self-congratulations, they recognize that they have a lot of work to do. The general term "scientific development" is becoming a guiding principle for the party under Hu Jintao, and it points a course in which economic numbers are no longer the only measures of success, and the "harmonious society" is the ultimate goal. Now to a westerner this all sounds very "dear leader-ish" but even on state-run TV the debates over the environment, economic stratification and heritage protection are very real and surprisingly honest. Hell, the Vice-Minister for Construction has even compared the recent destruction of historic architecture to the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. From how I saw this issue just a month ago, that would be like hearing George Bush comparing Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet Gulag: unthinkable. Now it seems more like George Bush comparing Iraq to Vietnam: an admission that good intentions created a situation that is now entirely out of control.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Life Aquatic

Shanghai is, if nothing else, an exhausting city. After several days of heavy-duty shopping, huge crowds and harrowing subway rides, it was definately time to do something a little more relaxing. We couldn't have picked a more tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle than the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium. Wandering around the beautiful tanks of placid, colorful fish we forgot all about the 18 million go-getters we are sharing this non-stop city with... at least until we tried to catch a rush hour subway back across the Huangpu! Here are some pictures of our afternoon at the aquarium...Who wants this guys job? Dude, don't look now, but there are Giant Japanese Spider Crabs right behind you...
Andrea thought this giant Amazon River fish needed to be put in line, hence the angry fist.
Shark tunnel was way cool.
Going down the elevator, Andrea was getting way excited.
Seal, upside down.
A turtle... not that exciting, but pretty damn cute.
Fish chomping on lettuce. Kind of like "Jaws" for vegetarians.
Andrea trying to reason with more unruly fish.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Qingdao to Shanghai

We awoke early yesterday, and since the weather was the best in the last two days I took an early morning dip in the Yellow Sea, swimming out to the farthest shark net on bathing beach 1 (about a half mile). The water was mild and refreshing, but accidentally swallowing small amounts nearly made me yack up my potato pancake breakfast.

After packing up and checking out of our hostel, we had a light lunch of delicious Shandong steamed dumplings, sat and chatted with the beer lady of Sifang Lu while getting some beer for the train, then caught a cab for the train station. Although we had been warned that the train from Qingdao to Shanghai was particularly long (20 hours) and not especially cheap compared to flying, we have both enjoyed taking the train... this time was no exception. Since our time in China is being divided between cities with anywhere from one to nearly four times the population of Oregon, the window of the train is our only exposure to the rural conditions in which the majority of Chinese people live.

The sights from the window only further deepen the complexity of impression that China leaves on the passing traveler. Lush, wild watersheds dividing huge agricultural fields, themselves split into infinite plots of grains, vegetables and flowers. Large-scale, mechanized agriculture was not strongly evidenced, and the conical sheafs of corn and small groups of workers in the fields were more reminiscent of rural scenes from 50 years ago, then anything you'd see in the American midwest today. But like everywhere else in China, time in rural Shandong and Jiangsu provinces does not stand still. Beside abandoned cinderblock collective farm buildings which look like they had never been inhabited by humans, the flashes of welding torches shone through the gathering dusk. Even as evening faded to night, lights illuminated huge construction sites, as workers toiled through the darkness. The contrast between the gaping, hollow window openings of old buildings which seemed to never have been fitted with frames or panes and the rising skeletons of new buildings were as incomprehensible as the piles of garbage directly next to arduously cultivated fields. If I ever come back here, I will have to spend far more time in the countryside.

The rythmic vibration of the train lulled us to sleep in our comfy bunks, and gently woke me again feeling refreshed... subtract what a hotel would have cost, and this train thing actually turns out to be a hell of a way to travel. As we approached Shanghai, the canals and waterways of Jiangsu province provided a new glimpse of life in China: ancient looking houseboats, homes opening directly onto the water and groups of men fishing from the riverbanks using poles and huge nets. Quickly the small homes and quiet canals gave way to ever higher and higher apartment blocks, and before we knew it, we were in Shanghai. We took the subway to our hostel (a much better ride than Beijing's metro, but less english and pinyin signage), checked in and then took the tube downtown to explore the City.

I don't want to pass too quick a judgment on Shanghai, but the hordes of fellow honkeys, aggressive street hawkers, poseur veneer, and generally frantic pace was a little off-putting after quaint, sleepy Qingdao and friendly, down-home Beijing. But, we've got plenty of time to discover the joys of mega-city life, and already the cheap food and abundance of shopping options are pointing the way. Still, I hope we can get out of the city at least once to wander the intriguing countryside which so confounded me from the train window.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Damn... let's go to the brewery.

After arriving in Qingdao, and briefly exploring the city and beaches, we were so impressed with the beautiful weather that we made the snap decision to stay an extra night here, so as to get in plenty of swimming, sunning and beach lounging before heading to Shanghai. That night in the hostel bar I made a point of asking the bartender what the weather was supposed to be like for the next few days. "Nice," he said. "Sunny," he said.

When we woke up yesterday morning we couldn't tell what the weather was like because you can't even see the sky from our window, but we geared up for a day of beachfront leisure, only to be greeted by gray skies and fog. In our optimism, we thought the sun would burn it off and bring back the clear skies and sun of the day before. So, we wandered around looking for breakfast, a quest which ended up taking hours due to the lack of the streetfood vendors and small bakeries which we had become dependent on in Beijing. Meanwhile it started raining.

Having finally found some potato pancakes, steambread and dried fruit, we made our peace with the fact that we wouldn't be going to the beach that day. So we went back to the hostel, got some real clothes on and hailed a cab to take us to the famous Tsingtao brewery to sample the local goodness. Now, the Lonely Planet Guide Book (which, frankly, sucks) tells us that the term for Tsingtao Brewery is "Qingdao Pijiuchang" and our cabby repeated the phrase as if he knew what we wanted. But, instead of delivering us at our intended destination, he took us out to the local "Beer Carnival" on the edge of town, which wouldn't have been a horrible mistake if the place had looked like it had been open at any point in the last 30 years. Instead, it was crumbling, dilapidated and a disgrace to its enticing name. So then we played pictionary and charades with our cabby, trying to explain what a brewery was, before he called someone who spoke english, at which point he laughed and drove us to the Brewery.
At the brewery, we got to check out all kinds of old-timey beer making stuff, smell hops and yeast and learn all kinds of things about Tsingtao we never knew...
...like its history. Did you know that it was founded by Germans? how cool is that?
We also discovered, that despite its despicable Nazi roots, Tsingtao beer cares about the environment. This was the last picture in a whole display on environmental responsibility... and I thought that there was nothing I could do to help the environment!
The highlight of the brewery (besides the free beer) was the drunk simulator, a room that induces an extreme state of unsteadiness. We still aren't sure if this was caused by a sloping floor, or the rad mural of KISS and other rock greats, but it sure made us feel like we had our slant on.
To enhance the enjoyment of the drunk simulator, there was a camera inside to capture every awkward stagger. This elderly couple didn't look like they enjoyed the experience quite as much as we did.

After cruising the gift shop, and being hugely disappointed by the tasting room (you couldn't try their black beer or the frighteningly enticing "spirulina beer") we ditched the place in total agreement that the Deschutes Brewery in Bend is a way more entertaining experience. With nothing better to do, we had a long two-pitcher lunch at a restaurant across the street, by the end of which we were entertaining ourselves by dubbing the Red Army drama on TV into english. The black beer was good (stout taste without the thick, heavy body), and luckily we had a business card in chinese to show our cab driver, ensuring a drama-free ride back to the hostel. After all, we were in no state for another extended game of charades.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Goodbye Beijing, Hello Qingdao!

It was tough to believe that we'd really been in Beijing for 11 days, and that the next leg of the trip was beginning. Every day in the northern capitol was so jam-packed with experiences, smells, tastes, sounds that it seemed like we'd already been there a month, but there was still so much to do!
But time does not stand still for even the precious sentimentalities of the traveler, and so grabbing a few pitas filled with roast lamb, lettuce, shredded cucumber and chinese barbecue sauce for the trip, we took the underground to the imposing Beijing train station and caught an overnight train to Qingdao. The trip was relaxing and low key: a few hours of reading (William Vollman's magnificent Europe Central- highly recommended!), a somewhat short night of sleep in the very comfortable "soft" sleeper car, and waking to watch the sun rise over the broad expanse of Shandong province. Flat fields of grain punctuated by stands of trees, huge clusters of (former?) collective farm buildings, and lone figures standing by large fires in the low-hanging mist sped past the window of the train.
After arrival (through a nasty industrial zone), and a convoluted cab ride (must get hostel directions printed in Chinese in the future...), we arrived at our hostel, dropped off our bags and took off to explore "The Pearl of the Yellow Sea."
Qingdao seems about as different from Beijing as is possible without leaving the country... think the difference between Chicago and Santa Cruz. A far cry from Beijing's flat grid layout and traditional Chinese monuments, Qingdao is a hilly maze of crazily winding streets, lined with a huge number of shabby old European buildings from the days when the town was a German concession. It's definately a tourist destination, but stray off the beaches and main drags, and you find streets and markets that reach levels of filth and smell that the relatively meticulous Beijingers would turn their noses up at. It reminds you of the considerable efforts that Beijing has made to shine up its image for the upcoming Olympics, and the extent to which the rest of China is still lagging behind.But don't let me give you the wrong impression... Qingdao is a great city. It is very laid back, and you can tell that the locals enjoy a slower pace of life. The weather was fantastic (as you can see from the pictures), the beaches are haunted by tanned locals exercising, swimming and tanning, and the air is full of dragonflies. Tiny seafood restaurants line the streets with your next meal swimming (or floating belly-up at the cheaper places) in a tank on the sidewalk, and on all but the busiest streets you can find someone with a tapped keg of the delicious local beer who will be happy to fill a plastic bag for you to sip from as you wander around. What better way to wash down a delicious meal of noodle soup filled with tiny clams and a hunk of barbecued octopus with a spicy, sweet, tangy barbecue sauce? Considering that all the above can be yours for about $2, Qingdao makes a compelling case for being heaven on earth.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

More Pictures, Less Talking

Hutong breakfast (clockwise from bottom): Tamarind Gingerbread, Jiang Bing, Sesame Sticks (think semi-sweet fried pretzels with sesame seeds) and Cha (jasmine tea).
China has a conflicted relationship with it's Communist past. This Adidas ad shows that they are getting over it, though.This band kicks serious ass. I swear to god, the violin player could make that instrument sound like a fairytale princess singing from an enchanted castle. It was enough to make you want to cry... The old and the new. A pagoda on lake HouHai and a giant building being constructed in the central business district. You might be able to see the cranes on top of the huge buildings frame which make it look like something out of Star Wars.HouHai bar district at night. Trendy and overpriced, but not without its charm..
The Drum and Bell towers across HouHai at night. Not a bad sight to stare at while getting tossed in a bar, eh?If I could master the Chinese way with words, I wouldn't have to put so many pictures in my blog posts, now would I?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Panjiayuan Market: The Quirk-Loving Shoppers Heaven

Panjaiyuan Flea Market has quite the reputation as the best market in Beijing (if not the world) for Chinese and other Asian pottery, stonework, woodwork, fabric, paintings, calligraphy, etc, etc, etc. Word has it that even Hillary Clinton has shopped there. Let me confirm once and for all: Panjaiyuan rules.

We got up rather early to the sound of rain beating on the roof, got dressed, grabbed a backpack and headed out the door to catch the subway. This was the first time we had taken the underground, and it was clean, rapid and cheap. Since the rain had only been an early-morning phenomenon since we arrived in Beijing, we ignored the guys hawking cheap umbrellas for 1 yuan at the subway exit and took off south towards the market... after all, we're Oregonians right? As we walked the mile+ from the subway stop the rain only got worse, leaving us thoroughly soaked when we finally arrived. Rather than jumping right into the semi-covered market, we decided to dry off for a moment, and had breakfast in the vendors cafe-- fry bread and millet porridge-- the perfect way to gather our strength for a big morning of heavy duty shopping.

Panjiayuan is huge. Four football field-sized permanent awnings cover the majority of the stalls, with two-story rows of small shops surrounding them. Vendors are roughly divided by the type of goods they are selling, creating huge sections of pottery, beads and the like. It took us a good three hours to scan the majority of the stalls before even buying anything. Once we had some conception of what we were interested in, it was time to get down to the business at hand, namely haggling. Although research had told me that there was a basic formula for success with Chinese vendors, the truth couldn't be further from the truth. Some vendors would knock large chunks off their prices if you so much as hesitated, others weren't interested in dealing with you at all if you looked down your nose at their first price. Most would laugh and say "cheaper, cheaper" at first, but then act dismayed and upset and in some cases simply wave you on if you asked them to knock too much off the price. It was a hugely engaging challenge to pick a low number that would make them hesitate for just a second, and finally agree if you let them tack a few yuan on to leave them with "the upper hand."

Anyway, we shopped for hours, and left feeling as if we'd found everything we wanted without spending much money at all. Here's a little sample:

These two original oil paintings were too cool and quirky to pass up. They are part of a series depicting babies in the roles of generals, dictators and the like. Can't wait to get them framed!
Andrea got this carved horn bracelet for a song... sometimes walking away pays off!
Asian spaceman tin toy. If we ever go back to the market, someone is going to have to physically restrain me from ruinous debt at the tin toy stand. Some very cool stuff there.
These were the surprise find of the outing: Chinese serialized versions of Tintin books. $2.50 a pop, and found under a stack of Cultural Revolution posters (got a bunch of those too!) in a mini-shop on the periphery of the market.
The always-popular Chairman Mao watch with "wave-to-the-people action." Sorry Ben, no snowglobes.
Tibetan-style wood box with elephants and Tibetan script. Sturdy enough to stand or sit on (as demonstrated by our vendor mid-haggle) and hand-painted. Sadly, shipping costs will pad the otherwise low-low price. Still, a sweet box... especially for this elephant lover.
So, there's more including several packs of playing cards (including the Iraq Most Wanted and "Red Memories"), the afore-mentioned Cultural Revolution posters (repros), silver jewelry, and a few gifts which shall remain nameless so as not to ruin the surprise. All for well under $200. Not too shabby.

Friday, October 5, 2007

High on Hot Pot

"I don't know," said Andrea as we made our way around HouHai Lake for the second time this morning, "I mean, the idea of boiling my own meat just doesn't sound all that appetizing." Luckily just as we thought we couldn't walk another step for fear of collapsing from hunger and exhaustion (on our "day off from all the walking" no less) we came across a packed restaurant, which just happened to specialize in Mongolian Hot Pot-- the very topic of our earlier debate. We were both so hungry, that we didn't even have time to argue... we just sat down and ordered what seemed like a reasonable amount of food. What this translated into was "small pot of competitive product," a huge bubbling vat of fiery broth filled with massive hunks of lamb bone with slow-simmered meat flaking off, one plate of raw, thin-cut "fatty cattle" (beef), one plate of mutton and a plate of daikon radish.

The first step in the nearly hour-long feeding process was to clear some room in the Hot Pot by grabbing a few big bones and gnawing off the tender, melt-in-you-mouth meat. The broth was thick with lamb flavor, which was perfectly balanced by fiery chilies and cilantro, and into this fabulous concoction we dipped the beef, mutton and daikon, allowing it to cook for a few short seconds before shoving into our mouths. The result was spicy, tender and filling, without being heavy or oily like much Chinese food can be-- in short, one of the best meals we have had since we got here. As delicious as the whole thing was, there was no way we could have finished the whole ridiculous pile of meat in one sitting, but luckily the place was nice enough to let you bring leftovers home with you, so after (barely) finishing the meat we cooked ourselves, we had them bag up the meaty lamb bones and broth to be consumed for dinner.

Hot Pot was brought to China (so the story goes) by the Mongols who conquered the place back when things were going so well for them. These nomadic warriors didn't have the time, tools or inclination to create the complex cuisines that their settled conquerees took such pride in, but what they did do was cook thin strips of meat in water which they boiled in their helmets. The barbaric roots are evident in the eating of this delicious meal: this is not your typical chopsticks-and-rice Chinese meal which can be eaten while following any kind of rules of etiquette. There is a visceral thrill to gnawing tender, juicy lamb meat right off the (occasionally identifiable- the trick is not trying) bone, dipping steambread into leftover broth and washing it all down with beer, and the act of eating it perfectly compliments the wild, spicy and generally unrefined character of the food. Allow me to demonstrate:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Roses of the Middle Kingdom

Since I have devoted a whole post to cars, I thought I'd also showcase some of the beautiful roses that we saw in the Temple of Heaven Park... after all, I also know that at least one reader out there loves her some roses... so here goes!