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Velvet

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  1. 110617 We woke up way too early for our scheduled breakfast, but after killing an hour we decided to go down moderately early. We were first to arrive and the lady put on two (yes, two) fresh pots of coffee as soon as we sat down. Before you knew it our plates were in front of us, the same as yesterday only this time the eggs were mercifully scrambled (I’m weird with egg yolks). After we emptied our plates (and one of the coffeepots) we bee-lined it back to our massage spot, and when we found it closed I was crestfallen. After the joy of yesterday’s reflexology session I had cursed every day I had let go by without getting a footrub, and I wasn’t about to miss any more. We still had at least two hours before we had to check out and get to the train station so we decided to walk down the block a bit and kill some time. We came to an exercise park, very similar to one we had seen in Guangzhou. The park was ringed with a whole bunch of different exercise machines, very, very similar to playground structures, except these are designed for adults, and particularly for the elderly. Just like before, we found the devices being well used and we both gave a few of them a try. It really made me wonder why we don’t have the same things back home; lord knows the growing North American population could use them. The more I thought about it the more absurd it was that playgrounds in North America are exclusively geared towards making children active. Once you’re in your teens or above, forget it. Join a gym, do it yourself, or grow large and unhealthy. These parks are probably one of the reasons why I have not seen a single obese person since I’ve been here. Not that everyone is in tip-top shape, but it sure looks like everyone is keeping on the right side of health. The one, single time I saw a Chinese person who looked fairly overweight was when we visited Silver Cave. As I was walking by the person in question she stepped in front of me. “Pardon me,” she exclaimed with a British accent. That explains that. It’s funny how often I forget that just because someone looks local doesn’t mean they are. On the way back to our hotel we found that our massage place had opened. We sat ourselves down, we both chose a sixty-minute treatment and blissed out for the next hour. We were back at the hotel checking out right on time at noon. They called us a cab to the north train station, and a half-hour ride later we paid the cabbie the $5 fare (things can be so cheap here) and went in. We perused the food court and passed on the chicken/French fry place in favour of some cheap, delicious fried noodles. I bought a tube of Pringle-ish chips and a couple of beers for the four-hour high-speed journey and we waited for the train. I was delighted to find that our seats were actually in a sleeper car but disappointed that we were sharing our booth with four other people and a diaper-wearing babbler. At 1:45 on the button the train pulled out. Man, does the rail system run on time around here. We were headed for Macau, a Portuguese territory (or some such thing - it’s pretty hard to figure out) that is adjacent to Hong Kong (by water) and fairly well known as a gambling mecca. The train doesn’t go directly to Macau. As a matter of fact, the nearest we could gather was that the train would take us pretty close and free busses would be waiting to take us the rest of the way. As unlikely as it sounds, I figured a city trying to draw in gamblers would make it as easy as possible for people to get there, so we crossed our fingers, stared out the window, and settled in for the speedy journey. And I was half right. When we arrived at the train depot we almost immediately saw a Wynn’s Resort booth that was manned by several ladies. That boded well; all we had to do was to find a similar booth dedicated to the Countdown Hotel, or the Hard Rock (as the Countdown was recently known as), or even City Of Dreams, which we assumed was a complex that housed our hotel. I asked one of the ladies. “City Of Dreams,” she repeated. “Go downstairs, turn right and walk maybe five minutes. “You’ll see it,” she lied. I had read somewhere along the way that you had to walk across a bridge or something and free busses would then take one to Macau. This was somewhat verified by the almost-English speaking lady that had helped us with our train tickets in Guilin, but we really didn’t have much of a clue what we were doing. We made our way downstairs and turned right. Walking through crowds and crowds of people we saw plenty of busses but nothing that really gave us much of a clue. We got to what I can only describe as the end, beyond which was a terminal of some sort that had security officers and metal detectors at the entrance. We turned around and started walking back and ultimately decided to descend down an escalator into what was clearly a shopping centre. Down there was found a sign for Macau, the first we had seen, though it was pointing us back upstairs. As we were about to reboard the escalator I saw a guy sitting in a small Apple booth looking at his iPhone. I figured working for Apple meant either he would speak a bit of English or he would at least have a translation device so I asked him our one-word question. “Macau?” He indeed directed us back up the stairs, further indicating that we should enter the secure area. We did and soon found ourselves in an immigration/customs area. I was still not convinced we were in the right place but we went through immigration nice and easy and soon found ourselves at a row of busses, each with signs advertising different casino resorts. And there among them was City Of Dreams - Crowne/Countdown/Hyatt. Whew! That was a bit tricky. It’s hard to believe they had no signage outside the customs terminal whatsoever. We lined up, soon enough we got on a bus (free of charge) and the first stop dropped us at the front door(ish) of our hotel. Whew! That was easy. Here’s what I didn’t know: our train dropped us off at a border town - Macau was literally right there. I thought we had to take a bus for thirty miles or something, but nope. On our bus ride in we could see a ton of brightly lit casinos in the distance, and we soon crossed a long bridge and drove far away from them. I was crestfallen, as I really wanted to be staying in the thick of things. Due to heavy traffic we were on the bus for about a half-hour, and all we could see outside of our window was dark, towering office towers, the glitz and faux glamour long since having faded over our horizon. Comically, I realized later that had we been sitting on the other side of the bus we would have seen an even glitzier, even fauxer casino area loom, with the Venetian, the Parisian, MGM and many other big name casinos growing as we neared. It was around 6pm when we arrived at the Countdown. I was pretty impressed with the twin Lamborghinis that sat inside the front door. As we checked in I became even more impressed with the clever countdown clock in the main lobby. Clocking in at 5000+ hours to go (until their new casino would be opening in a different location), the timepiece amounted to six frosted pieces of glass, behind which were silhouettes of men with paint rollers and cleaning rags. With each minute that ticked away, the man behind the appropriate window would wipe away the previous number and paint the new time on his pane of glass. 5437:42 Soon the last fellow started erasing his “2” and painted in it’s place a “1”. A minute later he started erasing again, this time painting a “0” while the fellow in the next window erased his “4” and replaced it with a “3”. Most amusing of all was how bored the first guy seemed to be. You could see him texting, pacing around, and occasionally sitting down on a stool, having almost five hundred hours to wait until he would have something to do. Of course there weren’t really people back there; it was video, but I sure liked it. The only clock I’ve seen that even compared was one I saw years ago in the airport in Seoul that was made up of hundreds of tiny waterfalls. We checked in and rode the elevator to the 22nd floor. As soon as we entered our room I flung back the curtains and was overjoyed to see what basically looked like Las Vegas directly outside. Pools, big fancy waterfalls, lights, crazy, unique architecture. I was ecstatic. “I’m going to go find us a bottle of whisky,” I said to Heather. “Don’t get lost or stolen,” she called out as she went in to the bathroom to take a shower. I went down to the concierge and asked where I could find my quarry and I was surprised that he sent me to a whole other casino. “On the third floor of the Venetian,” he told me, “You’ll find a Watson’s. There you can buy wine and liquor.” The Venetian was basically next door. I walked there at quite a clip, excitement growing with every quick step. I’m a sucker for the pretension and glamorous facade that is offered in gambling meccas and I was primed to get my boogie on. In less than five minutes I was inside the Venetian and after about five more I found the Watson’s. “We don’t have whiskey or wine here sir,” I was told. “Only water.” What?!?! Arrrgh. “Where can I buy whiskey?” I asked with a forced smile. “I don’t know,” she told me. I stalked through the third floor until I found a variety-type store amongst the many luxury outlets with names like Rolex, Prada, and Chanel. “We don’t sell alcohol here, sir. Maybe you should try Watson’s?” Aaarrrrghhhh! “Or if you prefer, you could visit our duty-free store on the first floor. I’m sure you’ll find what you are looking for there.” Was I running by this time? Probably. And there, on the first floor was indeed a duty-free store. The Jack Daniels was prohibitively expensive so I grabbed a litre of Canadian Club for only 80MOP (Macau currency is basically locked to the Hong Kong dollar, which is accepted everywhere. The bottle cost about $15). That could certainly have been much easier than it was. I asked the very friendly staff at the duty-free where I might buy some Coca-Cola and was pointed to a nearby booth. I noticed the Cokes there cost 22 each, almost $4.50 for a small bottle so I balked and raced back upstairs to the Watson’s. It wasn’t until I hit the threshold of the drugstore that I remembered what the lady there had told me ten minutes before: “We only have water.” I quickly looked around and seeing she was right I power-walked to the variety store that had told me about the duty-free; I had seen Cokes in the fridge there. I grabbed two cans and took them to the cash. She rang them up, priced at 30MOP each. “Are you kidding me?!?!” I actually said out loud, clearly exasperated. “No, I can’t pay $6 for a can of Coke,” I said, tearing out of there. At this point I had probably been gone a half-hour or more - Heather probably thought I had sat down for a little blackjack or something and was likely pacing the floor up in our room. I ran towards the nearest exit, hoping against hope that I’d find some reasonably-priced mix along the way. I didn’t. As I passed the concierge in my hotel lobby I stopped long enough to get directions to the resort’s variety store in the basement though I thought it prudent to stop into the room first. I opened the door out of breath and somewhat sweaty. “Hi,” Heather called out cheerily from the bathroom. “How did it go?” Whew! I told her exactly how it went and left to buy the Cokes, and lo, in the variety store right there in the basement of our casino what did I find but bottles and bottles of wine and hard liquor (though admittedly not any types that I would have preferred). On my way back upstairs I did something I don’t do too often: I went back to that snivelly, know-nothing poor excuse for a concierge and told him that Watson’s did not sell any liquor at all, that there was a well stocked duty-free store in the Venetian, and that their own variety store sold liquor, counting off the man’s insufficiencies as I went on the fingers of my right hand. “Oh,” he said lamely. “Sorry.” I got back to the room in a bit of a mood, having spent close to an hour doing what should have taken no time at all, but it was nothing a few too many drinks couldn’t cure. Heather joined me almost one-for-one, and once we got sufficiently loose (for the first time on this trip) we headed out to find some food. Fortunately I now knew my way around the Venetian so I led her over to the food court on the third floor. Unfortunately the restaurant kiosks were shutting down so we ended up catching McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. After we ate there wasn’t much left to do with the night so I walked Heather back to our room and headed downstairs for a bit of gambling. I had heard that baccarat was popular here but I wasn’t expecting it to be the only game in town. Okay, that’s not true, but at the Countdown casino it was almost true. I scoured the floor and was amazed to find they only offered two games, baccarat and another Asian game using a pair of dice hidden in a covered glass dome. No blackjack, no poker, no roulette. The casino floor isn’t the most ideal place to learn the ins and outs of a new game, especially a casino floor where English is a second language at best, so I booked it over to the Venetian again. Believe it or not, Macau is the gambling capitol of the world, raking in five times as much revenue as Las Vegas. And I can see why; the table minimums are quite significant. The lowest blackjack table I could find had a table minimum of 300MOP, more than $50CAN. Geez. I wanted to gamble a bit but I couldn’t risk that kind of cash. I found a roulette table and dug in. My first spin won me about $250 and I really wish I had left the casino right then. I actually considered it, but my tired mind was having difficulty doing the multiple exchanges needed to count my chip stack. I had dropped 300MOP, been given a handful of chips, won a stack more and busied myself trying to determine how many MOP I had and how much that translated to in CAN. By the time I figured it all out the answer to both queries was zero. That’s not how it was supposed to go. I was almost to the door when I thought, “to heck with it, get back in there and win your money back,” so I marched right back to the table and lost another 500MOP. In the end I lost about $250CAN and didn’t really have any fun at all. If there were free drinks to be had I never saw them, nobody around my table spoke any English, and nobody really seemed to be having much fun. It was a heads-down-and-gambling kind of crowd. Incidentally, though I rarely play roulette I often do quite well, with two exceptions: this night and a night playing on the ferry between Sweden and Finland, and in both of those cases the wheel was European-style. That is, instead of having a spot for both “0” and “00” it only had the “0”. Of course with only thirty-seven spots available instead of thirty-eight my odds are better, but both times I found the little ball inexplicably landing in the slot next to my big bet, which convinces me that if another spot had been added to the game my numbers would have kept coming up like they tend to do in North America. I mean, there were three instances where I put $20CAN on a number and all three times the ball landed next door to my selection. Any one of those hits would have netted me a $700 payout. The dude next to me kept hitting them though, which somehow didn’t make me feel any better about it. But that’s gambling.
  2. Thursday, December 7th. Sponsored by Collective Arts Brewing and Smoque Shack. http://mayfairtheatre.ca/movie/the-last-waltz/
  3. 110517 I wanna tell you, people sure do smoke around here. Well, the men do anyway, to a shocking degree. I’ve seen women smoking as well, but the percentage of women to men partaking is miniscule. Walking through the streets I decided to see how many of the next forty men I saw were smoking, and I counted eight. I did it again and strangely I got the exact same number, eight out of forty, that’s 20% of the men I saw that were actively smoking at the time. Who knows how many lit up after they walked by. And no wonder! It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but every store has a display case full of cigarettes directly out front, with wildly varying prices, starting at about a buck a pack and going up to twenty dollars per pack. It makes me wonder if people who smoke the cheap brands occasionally splurge and buy the pricier brands, unlike in North America where people tend to stay loyal to their flavour. Finally, the way the men smoke is also significantly different than the way people smoke in the West. Here in China men tend to hold the cigarette directly in the centre of their mouth pointing straight out, and they often smoke without using their hands, just holding the cigarette with their lips. It looks extra absurd. (People spit a lot too. I’ve seen signs everywhere that indicating no-spitting policies; in the metro, in the hotel lobbies, in elevators…I hear men hocking and spitting all the time. I assume it’s relating to all the smoking.) Anyway, we awoke in our zen room and went down for our breakfast, included in the $40/night room rate. We got to choose between Chinese and Western breakfast. We both chose the latter, which consisted of an egg, a small serving of beans and corn, two pieces of…ham?, a fruit bowl, a piece of broccoli, two fat slices of toast and unlimited coffee. It was all quite glorious (except the broccoli of course). After breakfast we went straight to the nearest recreational area (of many), Seven Stars Park. We shelled out Y70 each for entry (though nobody ever checked our tickets) and balked at the extra Y28 fee to explore the cave. When we started into the park we found it fairly empty and quite lovely, exploring the many paths that intertwined around one of the twin karst mountains. We constantly came to crossroads in the paths, and finding the map we were given to be utterly unreadable we selected our course randomly. It mattered not, as we had no agenda and no plan except to spend as much of the day as we could in the park. Soon we came to a vast interlocking brick pathway littered with families out enjoying the beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. Then we started seeing booths selling food, toys and souvenirs, and signs pointing us towards one attraction or another. We found a temple, a rock climbing area, a large field ringed with statues of cartoon characters, a penny arcade where we dropped a few yuan into some obviously-rigged claw games, a path littered with wild monkeys (and huge crowds feeding them), and finally circled around to the zoo. Despite a large photo of a panda outside the zoo we discovered that there were not in fact any pandas (or red pandas) in the zoo, so we opted not to shell out the $13 per person fee to enter. After a few more laps around (part of) the huge, huge park we got out of there, walking on tired feet back to our hotel. We decided that the time was ripe for our first foot massages of the trip. I had been saying that I was going to go for one almost every day, but somehow it had yet to come up. The lady at the hotel desk suggested a nearby spot, where we were handed a menu offering about twenty different types of foot treatments, each one aimed at improving your life in any number of ways, and all of them priced at about fifteen cents per minute. Which is dirt cheap. Somehow we both selected the shortest ones, at forty minutes each. We sat next to each other and dunked our feet in buckets of hot water that had been treated with a dissolving powder. We were told to turn around and we were happily surprised to discover that our treatments started with a good 10-15 minute back massage, which felt fantastic. When I pulled my feet out of the bucket to get started the guy went to work getting rid of all the dead skin on my feet, using a myriad of tools and utensils and going at me with an almost comic fervour that had debris flying all around. I swear, the guy should have been wearing safety goggles and a hazmat suit. Easiest weight loss program ever. I guess I should point out to those that don’t know me: I have very unusual feet. As a matter of fact, a drawing of my left foot is the title page of the physical pathology section in the international medical encyclopedia from the year 2000. I have a hereditary condition called Hallux Vagus (the most extreme case in my family). Imagine this: as we are forming in the womb our feet begin to grow much the same as our fingers, though there is a tendon that pulls them together at the first knuckle and another that pulls them together at the second, so eventually we have short toes with limited movement instead of long, agile fingers. Someone with Hallux Vagus is missing part of the first tendon, so our big toes try to grow outward, like opposable thumbs. The second tendon, however, pulls the big toes back in, leaving a bumpy angle on the side of each foot. The end result is I have extra, extra wide feet. Add to that a bit of surgery I had at age twelve that stopped the big toe on my right foot from growing any longer and yeah, I got weird feet. Twenty years ago I never would have endured the embarrassment of a foot massage. Heck, back then I was so weirded out about my feet that I never went barefoot, not even on the beach, and I never wore sandals. Ever since I dated a girl in medical illustration school who explained what I had (and drew my foot for that textbook) I’ve actually become almost proud of my unique leg-enders. Anyway, when he finally started in on the actual foot massage he went in strong. Equal parts pleasure and pain, he brought me to the brink of screaming in agony and at times left me almost drooling with unrestrained joy. Along the way he pulled out his phone and had it translate a few questions. It’s amazing how accurate the thing can be, and yet how it can get things so very, very wrong. At one point he asked if they would make much money offering their foot service in Canada and I spoke into the machine, “People would pay more money for this service than you are charging, but I think you would be less busy overall.” The translation came out something like this: “The groceries in your lung do not reciprocate with the octopus element, surely.” As I type this I am wearing a t-shirt that I purchased in Yangshuo. On it is the phrase, “Knowledge likes pants invisible but very important.” After hearing the babel app translations I am no longer mystified as to how these obvious mistranslations can happen. Speaking of poor translations, throughout the park were many signs in Chinese and English, and without exception the English translations were odd, cumbersome, and strange. It’s the same everywhere we’ve been, and these are official government signs. It boggles the mind to think that a country this large and powerful can’t find one fully bilingual person to proof read the official sign translations. Seriously, how can that be? Back to the massage, I can report that I’ve had dozens of reflexology sessions back in Canada (though at the hands of only two practitioners), and the session I experienced in China was wholly different than any I’ve had before. As my massage was ending the fellow spoke into his babel app, which asked me if I would like “to make the foot very uncomfortable for ten yuan extra.” “Sure!” we both said. Turns out it meant ‘cupping’, a technique where a glass cup is heated by fire and applied to the soles of the feet, creating suction. After about a dozen quick shwoop-pops he heated up a bamboo piece and left it suctioned onto the middle of each of my soles. After leaving these to sit for about five minutes or so he pulled them off and looked inside. “Do you have full of moisture?” his phone asked me. “Huh?” I replied. “The machine must have gotten your question wrong, try again.” He did. This time it was no question. “Your body is full of moisture, sir,” it stated, as the man turned the bamboo cup upside down and a trickle of water (I hope) poured out. Heather’s bamboo cups were empty. No wonder the moon messes me up so much. I’m an ocean. When we walked out of there I was so, so relaxed, I just can’t explain it. We stopped into our hotel to chill out for a while and I asked the lady at the desk if we could buy a couple of beers. “But the beer is free sir,” she said, pointing at the Free Beer sign. “I’ll get you each one.” Are you kidding? Does the Free Beer sign really mean free beer? After I finished mine I asked for another. Yep, it really means free beer. I was astounded and excited. As dusk approached we headed out to the same market area that we had visited the night before. Heather made a concession and suggested we try the Burger King (my favourite fast food) but I shocked her by stating that I’d rather find something local. We aimed towards the place we ate the night before but along the way we got distracted by a small booth that was advertising Chinese hamburgers. They were actually called Xi’an meat clip buns. The chef took out a fatty slab of pork, minced it with a cleaver, cut in half a flat bun that looked like an English muffin but wasn’t and stuffed it with the meat, adding cilantro (for Heather but not for me, thanks. I’m one of those), added some spicy sauce and charged us about $1.50 each. We sat at a nearby table and devoured them. They were as delicious as they were greasy, and they were plenty of both. On we walked, I bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red book in the market for about $4 and a shirt in a discount store with a bit of Chinglish on it for a friend, and I stopped for a cheap deep-fried chicken burger. Heather looked into a ton of stores and found a few gifts for family, but mostly we just wandered and soaked in the atmosphere. Amid the crowds strolling the pedestrian street with their purchases was a beautiful golden retriever walking along beside his master and the dog was carrying a shopping bag in his mouth. We turned and watched them until they were out of sight; it was hilarious. I can’t help but think that the guy initially taught his pet to do that just for times when he asked for a doggie bag in a restaurant. That’s why I would do do it. By 9pm I was tired and a bit bored. We decided to call it a night and walked back to the hotel. When we got there my feet were killing me. I came so close to going back for another reflexology session but decided to wait until morning. As we entered the lobby of our hotel the proprietor jumped up, “Do you want a beer, they’re free!” My gawd, I love this place. I took the beer and headed to the elevator. As the doors opened the man shouted behind me, “If you want more just come on back down and help yourself!” Ah, to be a younger man. There was a time when I would have left this guy questioning his policy.
  4. 110417 It was our last morning at the Dongling Resort and we went to the restaurant for breakfast for the first time. I was wary; when we had eaten dinner there before I noticed a few breakfast-ish items on the menu - “crispy egg” and that sort of thing - so I was very pleased to see that they actually had a wholly different breakfast menu. I had been looking for a chance to crack open the jar of peanut butter I had brought with me so I eagerly ordered toast with butter, along with a coffee and a chicken and mushroom omelet. It was pretty pricey at Y50 but I wanted to fill up. Heather ordered a breakfast combo, French toast, bacon and egg and a cappuccino. As per usual, all of our items arrived one at a time. First came my tiny, little coffee, a small teacup half-filled with bitter, day old-tasting java. I knocked it back in two sour bites. Next came my toast, three full slices which, when peanut-buttered was a meal unto itself. Next came Heather’s cappuccino, quickly followed by her French toast, which was just deep-fried bread with honey, no egg whatsoever. After some time my omelet arrived, which was large and in no way could be called an omelet. Rather, it was a mountain of chicken, mushrooms and scrambled egg and it was absolutely delicious; the best plate of food I’ve had on the whole trip. We waited and waited for the rest of Heather’s breakfast to arrive until we decided her bacon and egg had been forgotten. We mentioned it to someone, apologies were made and in seconds her food was delivered. After breakfast we both endured some prodigious packing and checked out. It was not surprising that Chim was the cabbie that arrived to deliver us to the bus depot; clearly she’s the goto taxi driver for the hotel. When we arrived at the bus station we hadn’t even gotten out of her Volkswagen Santana when a lady started beckoning us to her bus. “Guilin, Guilin!” she shouted, pointing us towards the nearest bus. “Um, yeah,” we said, shrugging our shoulders at how easy this was turning out to be and taking the two seats directly behind the driver. In no time we were off. The bus stopped several times along the way to seek out more passengers, which made sense. When we had pulled out of the station Heather and I were two of only four passengers. Before we left town the bus was almost full. I noticed several curious things during the ninety-minute trip to Guilin. First, there was a very nice, obviously new bicycle path running alongside the highway almost all the way to Guilin, and I only saw two bicycles on it during the whole trip. I also saw about a hundred motorcycles and scooters and one car that was just flying down the bike path. I’m guessing that the path will eventually get more use; I saw lots and lots of signs promoting cycling and sport as a way to help realize “the Chinese Dream”. The propaganda machine is clearly rolling in the direction of sustainable transportation. Speaking of that, the vast majority of the scooters are electric-powered, easily 90% or more. This goes along with everything else I’ve noticed in China: everywhere I look it seems like the country is truly striving to be environmentally conscious, which frankly goes against everything I was ever led to believe. I’m guessing that they are trying to make up for past mistakes. Plus they probably are getting sick of providing free health care to the millions of people that get sick from polluted air. I also noticed that it’s not unusual for vehicles of all sizes to drive on the wrong side of the road, and most traffic lights along the way were not working at all. And while this should lead to deadly traffic bedlam, I only saw three traffic accidents on the short journey. When we hit the city limits I saw that the passengers were being let off the bus the same way they were let on; wherever they wanted to go. I asked if we could get dropped at the train station and the bus stopped in the middle of a busy street. We disembarked and walked in the direction we were pointed, soon arriving at our destination. We thought it best to take care of our ongoing transportation straight away and luckily the girl at the counter (who was baffled by everything we tried to say) found a fellow employee with moderate English skills that could help us. We had suspected quite rightly that there was no direct rail access to Macau but after about fifteen minutes of back-and-forth we purchased tickets to Zhuhai, where we supposedly will find free busses running into Macau. Given that Macau is a gambling mecca it makes sense to me that they would do all they could to make it as easy as possible for people to get there, including offering free shuttle busses from the end of the rail line. Tickets in hand, we hopped a cab to our hotel. It was the first time we actually saw a taxi meter in operation, and it turns out the cabs are dirt-cheap when they are being run legitimately. The fifteen minute ride (due to traffic) cost just $3. Our hotel was curiously named the Zen Tea House. When we entered the lobby we were immediately ushered back outside so we could exchange our shoes for slippers. The pair I was given comically covered just the ends of my toes, completely insufficient for my double-wide feet. The proprietor noticed and gave me another pair, “For you we have these special slippers,” he said, and they fit like a glove. As we walked in the door the second time the first words we heard was, “Would you like a beer?” “Yes!” I said, a little too fast and much too loudly. There is actually a sign on the wall that says, “Free Beer.” I’ve seen my share of free beer signs in this life of mine but there’s always a catch, as in “Free Beer (tomorrow).” This time there was no catch. We sipped our frosty ales as we were checked in and soon we were shown “the best room in the hotel,” room 501, on the top floor with the adjoining rooftop deck that we seemed to have all to ourselves. The room was very clean, modern, sparse, and hip. And all this for $40 a night. Just as the sun began to set we lit out for a walkabout. We crossed a few bridges and found a pedestrian street which was packed with people. It’s just amazing how populous China is; even getting a tiny taste gives one the sense of what it means to have over a billion people in the country. Halfway down the street I turned to see Heather surrounded by a half-dozen young girls asking her a million questions in halting English. “Where you came from?” “Where you go now?” “Can we eat dinner with you?” Thankfully she answered the last question in the negatory and after a few obligatory photos with us we left them and continued our wandering. Up and down the strip we went, finally settling on a small outdoor restaurant stand for dinner where the food was cheap, oily, and really tasty. So cheap in fact that when Heather realized that she ordered the wrong thing she just went back and ordered again, the price of two meals was still a bargain. Our table in the alley was across from one of the many, many restaurants that has large fish in tanks outside. Twice we watched as customers selected their dinner from amongst the swimmers, the lady netted out the critter, weighed it and gave it a quick, percussive smack on the pavement before walking in the restaurant and handing the fresh kill to the chef. I’m glad nobody ordered the veal. Something I find endlessly entertaining is reading all the poorly/randomly translated English t-shirts that people are wearing (Chinglish, as one tour operator described it). To be fair, I remember being sixteen years old and buying a shirt at the Biway just because I thought the Chinese characters on it looked cool. It probably said something like ‘True Ice Cream Dragon’ or something equally absurd. Anyway, as we hit the small night market I saw my favourite t-shirt of them all, though this one was neither misspelled nor a series of oddly juxtaposed words. Walking with her parents I saw a very cute little girl, maybe around four years old wearing a pink shirt. Printed on the front in Osh Kosh B’gosh-type comic sans font were the words, “Dead Kennedys”. Take a second to picture it. I so, so wish I had my camera at the ready. Our destination was Shan Lake with the famous Sun and Moon pagodas, each one about eight storeys tall and lit up gorgeously under the full moon. We slowly circled the entire lake, joining the throngs of tourists that stopped for picture after picture of the twin towers from every possible angle, and every shot was gold. We finally came full circle and happened upon a park with a crowd watching a presentation on a large stage. We joined them and caught the tail end of nine police officers demonstrating karate-like takedown techniques in front of a crowd that clapped and clapped. Fairly spent, we slowly walked back to our hotel as a never-ending string of scooters, cars and people zipped by. They say New York is the city that never sleeps. Well, those New Yorkers should really get a load of the Chinese in their own habitat. Nothing seems to ever close, and the crowds never seem to dissipate. It’s really quite incredible. Also incredible is how they light up the karst mountains that ring the city at night. The brightly lit bulbous mounds are a stunning sight to see, especially when shrouded in the Monet-type mist of pollution (or is it potential rain?). I never though China would be this beautiful.
  5. 110317 When we first arrived at the Yangshuo train terminal (which is actually more than thirty kilometres away from Yangshuo) we hopped in with a cab driver named Mo to get to our hotel. Along the way he pointed out this and that, eventually offering to show us all around the area for a full day for Y400. We told him we hadn’t made any plans yet, but I did take his card. And after four days in Yangshuo we decided that the best (only?) way to see the main sites in the area would be to do exactly what Mo suggested. Frankly, our hotel lady suggested the same thing, though she said she would arrange it for Y450 for the day. The extra $10 notwithstanding, I liked Mo and I liked that he spoke pretty good English. And Mo, if you are somehow reading this, I swear I tore apart everything I had trying to find your business card. But I couldn’t find it, so we ended up with the same cabbie that took us to and from the Impression light show the previous night, Chim (or was in Ching? Maybe Cheen?). We were ready and waiting at 9am, Chim (I’m gonna go with Chim) arrived a short time later in her small, blue four-door Volkswagen Santana. We briefly discussed our itinerary, buckled in and off we went. As we were cruising through town headed towards our first destination I became acutely aware of three things: 1) I needed coffee. 2) I was pretty darn hungry, having eaten only mock-Pringles and mock-Oreos for my mock-dinner the night before, and 3) we were on the road that I knew would go by West Street, where all the Western food chains were. I asked if we could stop in and Chim said “sure”. We bypassed the Starbucks (their coffee isn’t as good as it is back home and it’s very, very expensive. Like, we’re talking $5 for a small coffee expensive), instead opting for the McDonald’s next door. We each got a coffee and I ordered myself a sausage McMuffin and a chicken McMuffin. Okay, I ordered them both as meals to save a few yuan and I got a couple of free hash browns out of the deal. So, here’s the thing with me and sausage McMuffins: I thought I loved them for years and years before I finally admitted to myself (enough times) that I don’t actually like them very much at all. Really, it was the fact that they were only available before 10am that got me. I am seldom up and out of the house before 10am so on the rare occasion that I was and I saw a McDonald’s I would generally pull in and order myself a sausage McMuffin*. Okay, I’d usually order three. And of course, after eating three greasy meat sandwiches without any condiments I would always feel a little ill. And while I admitted this to myself every single time it wasn’t until I started admitting it out loud to Heather that I finally realized that I don’t really like sausage McMuffins. And yet I’d still stop in for one when I got the chance, but at least I cut it down to just one at a time. I still didn’t like them, but the tummyache wouldn’t be as bad. And you know what finally got me to stop ordering them? When McDonald’s started offering breakfast anytime. Sausage McMuffins are no longer a limited commodity so they no longer hold any allure to me. I really should see a psychologist. Anyway, the reason I ordered one on this day (or so I’m telling myself) was because they were only serving breakfast and I don’t eat eggs that come from McDonald’s (a guy’s gotta have standards, right?). I can report that it was better than back home, if only because the cheese was cheesier. The chicken McMuffin on the other hand was a disappointment. I only remember seeing such a thing on a McDonald’s menu once before (in Romania, though I didn’t get one then) and I assumed it was a junior chicken patty served on an english muffin. Nope. It was actually chopped-up bits of real chicken, with some…was it cole slaw?…in place of McChicken sauce. Though it was much real-er food than I expected I didn’t like it as much as I think I would have liked the McChicken patty, but it was still pretty okay. I’d like to say that the hash browns were the same as they are in North America but I’m not sure, as I haven’t had McDonald’s hash browns in probably thirty years or more. But really, the important thing was the coffee which, while sub-par, hit the spot bang-on. I suppose it’s a bit ironic then that the first stop of our day tour was at a tea plantation. Chim drove us up a mountain and led us through a building to the back deck where endless mountains lined with tea plants (trees?) spread as far as the haze would allow us to see. We gaped and gazed and took a thousand pictures, which was good practise for the rest of our day, which would also include a lot of gazing and picture-taking. After about ten minutes someone brought us two glasses (yes, glasses) of tea, one green and one regular. I’m not much of a tea drinker but the regular one was all right I guess, but nothing to write home about (despite all this typing). The green tea tasted like warm water. And both of them caused me to get leaves in my mouth every time I took a sip. They should invent a cup (or a glass) with a screen near the bottom to filter out the leaves. Way easier than a teabag, especially when there isn’t a teabag. Cruising through the hilly terrain on our way to the next, unspoken destination Chim pulled off at a few viewing spots so we could do a little gazing and picture-taking. I tell you, these karst pokey-outey mountains are just so remarkably picturesque (and gaziesque); I could just stare at them forever. The mist that looks suspiciously like smog doesn’t hurt the old eyes either. Okay, sometimes it does kind of sting one’s eyes, but it sure helps the whole place look pretty magical. (Chim told us the mist meant rain was coming soon. Yeah right. If that’s true then it has been threatening rain every day since we arrived in China, and we haven’t seen a drop of rain.) Our next stop was some mountain that purported to offer nice views from the top. We weren’t deterred one bit by the one thousand steps we would have to climb for the view, but we were deterred many bits by the Y60 per person fee to do so. After climbing up the mountain in Xing Ping a day earlier there was no way we were interested in dropping $25 to do it again. Plus with the pending rain (yeah, right) the view probably wouldn’t have been that great anyways. We told Chim we weren’t interested and got back in the car for the next journey. Which ended up being another unspoken stop on the tour, at a place called Shangri La. No, not the real Shangri La. This was one of those pioneer villages, set up to depict traditional life a long time ago, when things were traditional. At least that’s what it looked like from a distance. Bailing on the mountain trek saved us an hour or so, which I suppose is what inspired Chim to walk us around the perimeter of Shangri La. It was pleasant, with lots of nice scenery, and it easily ate up that hour we had gained. Next we drove to a bridge that was surrounded by bamboo boats, much like the one we rode the previous day in Xing Ping. The bridge was nice enough, but again we surprised Chim when we told her we weren’t interested in a boat tour. I lingered trying to get a shot of the bridge without any people on it while Heather stopped to buy herself the cutest bamboo hat ever. Next up was another bridge but this one is actually quite famous. It might be called Dragon Bridge, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that it is over six hundred years old. Okay, I’m not completely sure about that either, it might have been four hundred years old. Anyways, it was certainly very ancient and it is quite a sight besides, and amazingly enough we almost managed to get pictures of it with nobody up there. I say “almost” because there was a guy sitting near the top of the bridge the whole time we were there, and he was endlessly playing with his phone and picking his nose. It was so frustrating. There were two different wedding shoots taking place at the bridge when we were there and at one point one of the professional photographers asked the dude to move. He iLooked up from his snot and phone and immediately obliged, moving from the top of one side of the bridge to the top of the other side, spoiling an entirely different half of the photo opportunities. As we crossed the bridge to leave I sarcastically explained to Heather that the guy must just love having his picture taken, so as I walked by him I stuck my camera in his face and clicked off about ten pictures, turning backwards to do so as I strolled by. He looked up as I took the first shot and casually went back to his business, completely oblivious and/or not caring about my intended transgression at all. I should just let stuff like that go. I don’t know the dude’s story. Maybe he was texting his ancestors who built the bridge in the first place, how do I know? Let’s see, what was next on the agenda? Oh, I think it was Moon Hill, which is a mountain with a crescent-shaped hole in it. Again it was a big climb, but at only Y10 per person it felt like a steal, so up we went. This was probably the highlight of the day, and while I found Moon Hill much more picturesque from a distance it was great to arrive at the top and have the whole place to ourselves (except two old ladies that were trying desperately to sell me some water, Coke, beer, or postcards. How many times can a guy say, “I’m sorry, no thanks”?). Just as we started coming back down we ran into another couple coming up, then another, and then a tour of British girls. I hope the two old ladies did brisk business after we left. As the day wore on we learned lots of things from Chim. I found out that the circular concrete planters we often saw were indeed graves (Chim seemed spooked out that I even asked…Chinese tend to be very death-averse) and I discovered that the character I kept seeing that looks like the letter J with wings - /J\ - means what I thought it did: small. “Shua” is how it’s pronounced. I already knew da and chung, meaning medium (or middle or centre) and large and it occurred to me that the reason I didn’t know the character for “small” was because I had learned the other two from ordering pizza when I spent a summer in Taiwan twenty years ago, and I never, ever order small pizzas. I should say that we learned most of these things in a very curious way. Y’see, Chim doesn’t speak hardly any English at all, and outside of ordering pizza my Mandarin is almost non-existent, but she has this babel app on her phone (that’s what I call it) where she can speak into it and a voice will instantly spit out the translation. Alternatively, we could speak English into her phone and it would translate into Mandarin for her. Pretty astounding, pretty handy, and pretty common too. We’ve seen it several times since we arrived; it’s a real game changer and yet another reason why I’m glad neither of us has a cell phone. (As inconvenient and frustrating as it can sometimes be, one of the big reasons I travel is to find barriers and overcome them. When travelling, even the most mundane tasks can often turn into crazy, challenging adventures, and if it gets too easy that will go away. Don’t get me wrong, I take things pretty easy, just not too easy.) Our last stop of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most: Silver Cave. I’m a fan of caves in the first place, and the picture in the brochure of Silver Cave was so colourful, unique and engaging that I really wanted to check it out. I was concerned that I was going to be more taken with the photographer’s skills than the cave itself, a worry I often point out to Heather when she comments that a hotel looks nice online (“Is it a great hotel or just a great picture?” I always wonder), but if you don’t go you won’t know. Now I know. I’ve been in quite a few caves in my day so I know they are chilly, usually about 65 degrees or so, so I changed into a long shirt before going in (I was already wearing jeans, which I had regretted a few times already during the hot, sweaty day). We got our tickets and English earsets and stepped into the cavern. And I soon found out that any idiot with a camera could easily best the pics in the brochure, and the reason why is because the cave is lit with coloured lights. It makes every picture look like gold. Heather and I marvelled after the first few shots, “Why doesn’t every cave do this?” We soon discovered why. Though picturesque as all-get-out the coloured lights actually make it hard to really appreciate the natural beauty of a cave, partially because of uneven, eye-tricking lighting and partly because the candy-colours are so distracting. We took tons of excellent shots, but had a hard time enjoying what was otherwise one of the more interesting and beautiful caves either of us has seen. There were two other mitigating factors: The place was packed with people, we’re talking wall-to-wall packed. There are just so many people in China…it’s really hard to fathom. It was a massive, slow-moving throng and when the cave would bottleneck it would literally be as densely packed as the Toronto subway during rush hour. Seriously. And all those people are probably what led to the other problem, which really dampened our pleasure (pun intended, as they all are). Instead of being a cool 65 degrees in there it was swelteringly muggy. Halfway through the two kilometre trek we were both drenched in sweat and clamouring for the cave to end. And here I was dressed up for the North Pole. After enjoying a pretty tiring day already, amazing as the cave was we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. (Another likely reason that it didn’t cool down in the cave is because after entering we only went up instead of down. When we exited the cave we were actually two or three storeys higher up than where we had started.) When we emerged, the hot air outside felt like a cool refreshing breeze. We made our way back to Chim’s car and rode back to Yangshuo with all the windows down. Though we were both half-starved and in bad need of a shower I couldn’t resist asking Chim to pull over for one last photo op, as the nearly-full moon rose big and yellow behind the unreal mountain range. Of course cameras in the hands of amateurs can never make such pictures match reality but you can rest assured, it was a remarkable sight. Back at the hotel the shower felt like a million bucks and dinner tasted like gold. It’s hard to believe the entire day of driving around cost the same amount of money as our two tickets to that lame, seventy-minute light show the night before. But like I say, if you don’t go, you won’t know. *Remember, that’s a sausage McMuffin without egg. My gawd, back in the days before the sausage McMuffin hit the value menu it was almost impossible to get one without an egg patty on it no matter how many times you told the dude at the counter that you wanted “a sausage McMuffin WITHOUT egg. I don’t want any egg whatsoever. Please, please don’t bring me a sandwich with egg on it.”
  6. Aloha - Remembering BradmAn evening to commemorate the life of our good friend Brad McFarlane featuring some of his favourite Ottawa musicians:Burnt ReynoldsPaulie and Stu from The Dusty DriftersDeath CakeSuper Awesome ClubWednesday, December 13th, 2017Irene’s Pubno cover/8pm
  7. Aloha - Remembering Bradm An evening to commemorate the life of our good friend Brad McFarlane featuring some of his favourite Ottawa musicians: Burnt Reynolds Pauly and Stuart from The Dusty Drifters Death Cake Super Awesome Club Wednesday, December 13th, 2017 Irene’s Pub no cover/8pm
  8. 110217 Well, we certainly made up for our slow day. Heather was up for the sunrise, I slept in until past 8am. We found each other and got on the road a little before ten o’clock. Walking down the dirt road leaving our hotel I spotted something unusual in the woods. It looked like three or four cases of Halls cough drops, but Chinese, still in the plastic. I looked a little further and noticed two large piles of refuse, one was more of the Halls, the other was all packs of gum. All of it was new, in the boxes the stores display them in, and all of it dumped just a dozen feet off the road in the woods. Weird. When we reached the paved road we crossed the street to the gas station and kept our eyes open for buses. We were hoping to get to Xing Ping, but to do so we had to match the Chinese characters the guy at the hotel wrote down for us to the Chinese characters on the bus. It took maybe ten minutes but we found one and flagged him down. Y10 and thirty minutes later we were there. Our main reason for going to Xing Ping was to take a river tour on a bamboo raft. The rafts aren’t actually bamboo, they are made of plastic PVC tubing, but the plastic is moulded to look like thick sticks of bamboo. So modern-traditional, these Chinese. We hadn’t eaten yet, nor did we eat supper the night before so we stopped for coffees and omelettes, and followed that up with a pot of milk/coffee/tea, a blended concoction that tastes a lot like tea. Because of the larger tour boats the smaller bamboo boats don’t take tourists between 11am and 1pm so we killed some time perusing the shops and deciding whether or not to climb the nearby mountain, which is one of the big reasons to come to the town. By the time we decided to climb the mountain after all it was about 1pm - no need to kill any more time - but we carried on with the climbing plan anyway. I ducked into a shop that sold beautiful wood carvings; they were expensive but I was pretty sure I wanted to come back before we left town and get myself a serious, lifelong souvenir. Before leaving the friendly fellow who ran the shop we asked him where we might find the path leading up the mountain. “Go this way ,” he said, pointing, “until you see all the sheep and then turn left.” That was weird. We had wandered much of the town by this point and we hadn’t seen any herds of sheep. Moreover, neither of us had seen a single sheep on the whole trip thus far. In a flash of recognition I asked him, “Do you mean the boats?” “Yes, yes,” he replied, “where there are many sheeps and boats, that is where you will find the path.” Oooohhhh. And so it was that we found the steps leading up up up, which were accompanied by many poorly-translated signs warning us (and everyone else) not to even consider climbing the staircase as it was clearly much too dangerous. And up we went. It took a good forty minutes or so to get to the top, but get to the top we did (after passing several more warning signs and lots and lots of litter). At the peak we found a little pagoda, a handful of other tourists, and a pretty stellar view. We met a couple of Canadians up there (first ones this trip) and chatted with them a bit before heading back down again. The journey back was much less sweaty but even more treacherous; we had to take many of the high, rocky steps sideways. For the last month or two the sole of my left sneaker had been coming loose. By the time we left for China it was half off but holding up pretty well. About three-quarters of the way down the mountain it gave way big time, the sole peeled almost entirely away from the shoe and was left just barely clinging to the tip of my toe. It was like I was wearing one big flip-flop; I guess I was wearing a flip. I took it really easy the rest of the way down and made it to street level with my soul hanging by a thread. We found a store and looked up the word “glue” in Heather’s phrasebook. We were surprised that the word was actually in the book and even more surprised that the lady had glue for sale, at only $1 a tube. And it worked. Happily retrod, we headed to the water where - after much haggling - we booked an hour-long bamboo raft tour with another couple. They were Chinese and didn’t speak any English but they proved to be a whole lot of help. First, the lady we booked with escorted the four of us to the waterside and pointed us to a ferry. “What?!? No!” we said, pointing to the smaller bamboo boats that lined the water’s edge. The other couple smiled and pointed to the other side of the river, assuring us that all was good. Ahh, we would be bambooing from the opposite shore of the river. It took a while, but the ferry finally got moving and deposited us on the other side. However just before it departed our booker lady got off the boat and walked away. Ummm…I thought, pointing this out to Heather. Again, the other couple indicated we had nothing to worry about, pointing to another lady sitting on the ferry that was clearly our new point-man. On the other side of the water we sat and waited. Heather and I had no idea what we were waiting for, but we were starting to worry. Y’see, we had already prebooked the Impression light/water show in Yangshuo for the night’s entertainment, and we had to be back at our hotel at 6:45 to catch our ride to the show, otherwise we would have to eat the eighty bucks we spent on tickets. And here it was nearing 4pm and we were not yet on a boat. We debated whether or not to bail on the boat trip and try to get our money back but we reasoned that with nearly three hours left we would certainly make it back to our hotel in time to get to the show. Soon a little shuttle vehicle showed up - basically a motorcycle with bench seating for a half-dozen people in the back - and we hopped in. And waited. Ten minutes later a driver appeared out of nowhere and off we went. But to our surprise we didn’t go down a road. Rather, we traversed an amazing little interlocking brick path through the woods, branches screeching off the roof and the sides of our motorcycle/bus the whole way. The ride was so, so much fun! After a pretty long time we ended up on a stony beach, and after a bit more waiting finally, along came our boat. The other couple insisted we take the front bench and we obliged. In a moment the captain dipped his long-tail propeller into the water and off we went. We were surrounded by karst mountains on all sides, it looked positively Seussian. After about twenty minutes of magical puttering along the river the driver inexplicably pulled up to a little village and dropped his anchor on the dock. It was inexplicable to us, anyway, but obviously not to our companions, who quickly hopped ashore. We joined them and found ourselves walking among a small village that was clearly very, very old, but had no reservations about throwing up brand-new houses among the ancient ones. We took a few pictures and circled the village for ten minutes or so, and when we got back to the boat of course our driver was nowhere to be seen. It was starting to feel like we were cutting things pretty close, but we were still very much in awe of the scenery hulking over us. Eventually the driver arrived and handed us each a piece of odd, very bland fruit that looked a bit like a white orange. It tasted like nothing, and then he handed us more. Back on the boat we moved on for a few minutes before the captain abruptly turned us around and gunned it. We went back the way we came and kept right on going, and soon enough we arrived back at Xing Ping, precisely where we had initially boarded the ferry. As we got off the boat I asked our very helpful companions for the time and found out it was almost 6pm. Woah. Heather and I power-walked back to the bus station, cruising by a thousand restaurants that we would have loved to stop at and that woodworkers shop where I had been hoping to haggle a beautiful carving down to $200. When we got to the depot we found our bus ready to pull out but we both had to use the bathroom so badly we were willing to miss the bus (and eat our show tickets) for a bathroom break. We didn’t though, the bus was miraculously still there when we returned from the facilities, and in no time it pulled out with us on board. The bus dropped us at the bottom of our dirt road at 6:34pm and we raced up the steep hill towards our hotel. Thank goodness the glue was holding up on my sneaker or we never would have made it. And not only did we make it, we nailed it, stepping in the hotel office at 6:45 on the button. We even beat the driver, which gave us enough time to slip up to our room and quickly change clothes. When the car arrived our driver kept up our pace, racing through the streets and depositing us at the big show. She power-walked us to a small desk and told us to wait five minutes, our tickets would come, pointed to where we should meet her after the show and then she ran off. Impressions is the big thing to do here in Yangshuo, and despite all our effort to get there on time neither Heather nor I were at all convinced it was going to be our sort of thing. It certainly is a lot of people’s thing though; we were both shocked at how many people were coursing through the turnstiles. We got our tickets and were pointed the way in, which took us through a security line that was labelled in English: Explosion Prevention Line. The crowd was being ushered into little holding areas before being corralled through the metal detectors. I remember being amazed at the orderliness of the Chinese; everyone lined up in the most perfect lines within the holding pen without being told. It was quite a sight. When we found our seats I was further astounded. I had expected a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred people in the audience, but there were at least 6,000 people there. I guess it makes sense; the show has a cast of six hundred after all. I was also astounded by the setting. The bleachers faced the most picture-perfect cove you could possibly imagine, ringed by massive, towering mountains that rose up out of the water like fingers, all of them lit up like a classic Chinese rice-paper ink painting. The show itself was broken up into seven chapters that chronicled the history of China, performed by an enormous cast who used the water as their stage. In addition to the illuminated mountains there was fire, spotlights, brightly lit floats and electrified costumes. Of course it was all in Chinese and impossible to follow and though the show started quite well, with two hundred kids waving torches in front of a hundred rafts sporting flaming bonfires, it was really fairly lame overall. Considering each show brings in a quarter of a million dollars in ticket sales by my estimation (and they present two shows a night), you’d think the choreography would be a bit tighter. But the reason this show will forever stand out in my memory is the crowd. Never in my life have I seen a more disrespectful group. Not a word of a lie, there was a thousand loud, nonstop conversations going on in the stands all around us - if anyone was whispering I didn’t here it - so much so I turned around to everybody in particular and yelled, “It’s absolutely absurd how much people are just talking and talking and talking,” widely gesturing with my arms. But that wasn’t it. Aside from all the chatter and the absolutely insane amount of cellphoning going on, with fifteen minutes left in the show hundreds upon hundreds of people got up to leave. Taking this as a cue, moments later entire sections stood up en masse to leave. Of course this was just when dozens of actors were coming through the audience, leaving the exits blocked, so everyone just stood in the aisles, not caring a bit about the few thousand of us left trying to watch the show. And of course the leavers were talking louder than ever, probably about how great the show was. For them the night was over and to hell with anyone else. And it must happen all the time, because the house lights went up when there were still a few minutes left in the show. Heather and I looked at each other in wonder…Is it over or not? I’ve never seen anything like it. Honestly, it was an embarrassment for the country. If the Chinese treat their own artists and their fellow citizens with that level of blatant disrespect I don’t want any part of it. You won’t catch me going to another show here, no way. I wanted to punch them all. But I punched no one. Outside we stopped at a store and bought some snacks in lieu of dinner (again) and met our taxi right where she said she’d be. In no time at all we were back in our rooms resting up for what was looking like an even bigger day to come.
  9. 110117 We woke up in the morning with few plans and thus, in no rush. We lingered in the room for so long that when we finally went outside I took a Jack & Coke with me. We went to the patio overlooking the mountains and Heather watched me do Tai Chi. If only I could have watched her drink chai tea at the same time it would’ve been perfect. In between bouts of reading we hammered out our plans for the next few days and strolled to the reception area to act upon them. And of course our plan got tramped on from the get-go. We had planned to go to the light show that night but whattya know, it was sold out. So back we went to the patio, this time with beers. Somewhere in there we had lunch in the otherwise barren dining room (where we convinced ourselves that we were the only people staying here at the resort), and rehatched our plan. Back at the lobby we lucked out and found the helpful English-speaking lady was back, and helpful. She helped us fill out our itinerary and we booked a few things, leaving the rest of our day as free as the day thus far had been. I finished a book and started another, played with my new ukulele a bit and really, there went the day. For lack of anything else to write, I offer some random observations: There are lots and lots of butterflies everywhere we’ve been. Every one seems to be completely different and their vibrant colours shimmer when they flutter by. Waiting for a taxi one afternoon I had a butterfly land on my arm. When was the last time you had to shoo a butterfly off of your arm? It gives me hope for the planet. They drive on the right in mainland China; in Hong Kong they drive on the left. ‘One country, two systems’ seems to have many applications. Like, money. How many cities have their own currency? Hong Kong does. (So does Macau for that matter). I want to mention the bicycles. In all of our time in Hong Kong I saw a total of two bicycles. In mainland China I’ve seen thousands, and almost all of them are the ride-share type of bikes, which they have back home but you never see people use. Here in China they use them like crazy. Who knows how many different companies scatter millions of bikes around the country, blue ones, orange ones, red ones…each company with their own style and colour (and subscription rates I assume), and they are popular. The share cycles in China don’t have to be parked at a bike station. Rather, all of them lock up using a rear-tire style of lock that immobilizes the bike. To unlock one you simply scan the bike’s individual code with your phone and you are sent the combo number that unlocks that bike’s tire. Then, when you’re finished with it you can simply lock the bike back up to itself and leave it anywhere you want. With so many people in China it probably won’t sit where you leave it for very long. It’s a brilliant system and looking around it’s obvious that it works really well; everyone is riding one of them and it was rare to see someone on a personally owned bike. Of course, the non-cell phoner in me bristles at the fact that without a phone you can’t use these bikes, but as it doesn’t directly impact me (yet) I can easily just sit back and appreciate the system for it’s cleverness and effectiveness.
  10. Velvet

    RIP Malcolm

    It's a shame people have to die. He was a huge part of a huge band, a band that has given me the shivers at just the right moments along the years. Thanks for the everything Malcolm.
  11. 103117 Boo! I slept really well last night, despite yet another extra-hard bed. Then, maybe around 8:30 this morning, shortly after I answered in the affirmative to Heather’s whispered, “Are you awake?” I heard a sound that could only be a ghost. “Wooo-oooo-ooooo!” I rolled over and squinted through unfocused eyes and there, on Heather’s bed, was an apparition! “Woooo-ooooooo-oooo!” it said, rocking back and forth. Cuter than you could possibly imagine, Heather had pulled her bedsheet over her head and she was doing her best to wish me a Happy Hallowe’en. It made me laugh hard and long. For the next few hours every time I thought of it I burst out laughing again and again. So adorable. We spent an hour or so getting up and around and decided to walk into town for the day. Our hotel (hostel?) is about three kilometres from the city itself, down a dirt road (literally down - we are sleeping on a mountain) and across the river. It was a pleasant walk on yet another beautiful day, we found the water and walked a bit too far but soon realized our mistake and going back we easily found the river shuttle that took us to the other side. We stopped for a coffee and played with a super-cute, very Chinese-looking cat (is that racist? The cat’s very round face was so flat that his nose was in a little divot) before pounding the pavement lackadaisically looking for the touristy street that we knew was around here somewhere. We examined the hand-drawn photocopied map the hotel had given us and steered ourselves in the right direction. We knew West Street when we found it. KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and moreover, block after block of shops and restaurants along a pedestrian boulevard with canals and bridges winding all around. It was very modern, with updated traditional touches, and it made for a great day of meandering. We stopped for lunch and a beer almost immediately - pizza and spring rolls - and spend the next few hours window-shopping. We enquired about the river light show - the big tourist attraction here in Yangshuo - at an info booth. There are two shows per night and tickets are around $40CAN. We half-decided we would cap our day with the show and returned to our tromping through the shops. I bought a couple of t-shirts and postcards, a present for one of my nephews and a ukulele to plunk on for the rest of the trip. Heather bought presents for her family and a few postcards for herself and soon enough I was hankering for another beer. The beer begat another pizza which begat another beer and we soon decided to put off the light show for another night. We do have five nights here after all. Instead we re-meandered the streets, which got even busier after dark. Frankly it became a bit of a madhouse, but it was fun. While I did see pumpkin-lights in a couple of places and a few Hallowe’en decorations and even one, single person in costume (who seemed to be taking the fact in stride), for the most part the holiday didn’t seem to be much of a thing at all in Yangshuo. Finally we decided to call it a night. We found a grocery store for some supplies (water, beer, mix, chips, and Mr. Brown’s canned coffee) and looked into a taxi. We realized too late this morning that we should have asked the receptionist at our hotel what we should expect to pay for a cab so we would know if we were being overcharged but we didn’t, so we were left to guess. Given that the forty-minute ride from the train station the day before cost us Y100 we figured twenty, maybe thirty yuan would be reasonable. Rather than flag down a taxi on the road, ladies stand in the busy entrance to West Street trying to book people cabs. We showed a lady our hotel’s business card and she told us it would be Y50. Crazy! I said. She told me it was a long walk up the hill and bid me farewell. When I came slunking back I offered her thirty. She finally went down to forty but we still hummed and hawed. Our hotel didn’t really seem very far away… I remarked to Heather that we were waffling over a $2 difference and suggested we do it. She consented and the lady called us a ride. The drive back was indeed way longer than we thought, through a tunnel, over a bridge, and twice driving on the wrong side of the road into approaching traffic. When we finally got back to the hotel we figured Y40 was a fairly good price after all. Back at the room we looked at the day’s shopping bounty and I pulled on a couple of beers while they were still cold (there’s no fridge in the room, like a hostel). Before too long we called it a night and turned in.
  12. Velvet

    Bar Robo tonight

    Oh geez...fading fast... Stupid lingering jet lag.... Have a great time everyone!
  13. Slash is the best in the world at what he does, hands down.
  14. 103017 Heather woke me up at around 8:45 so we could get some day in before we had to check out. We went down to breakfast, which was the same as yesterday except way worse. I went straight to the omelet station and ordered exactly what I ordered yesterday and the guy gave it to me raw. At least I wasn’t hungry anymore, and without all the pesky calories! We went out to further explore our area, which was really nice. Lots and lots of people were outside exercising. We even came across an outdoor track for jogging, and it was surrounded by different, permanently-installed exercise machines, all of which were very busy. It was basically an exercise-playground for all ages. One was a wax-on, wax-off machine, there was a jogging/arm-flailing device, another was a sit-down leg-extender, etcetera. It’s all starting to make sense. We saw school kids exercising en masse, old people, middle-agers, everyone; and it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed a fat person since we arrived. There were also lots of statues, all of people and all likely by the same artist; it was just a really nice vibe all around. Soon enough we went back to the hotel, packed up and checked out. We rode the subway to the train station and made it to our seats literally two minutes before the train left the station (for the record, I think it pulled out a few minutes early). It was one of those high-speed trains and it was super-slick. Almost imperceptibly the train starts to move and smooth as silk it accelerates until the speed ultimately tops out at 246kms/hr (there’s a digital signboard that lists information including upcoming stops, outside temperature and current speed). What was until recently an eight or ten hour trip took less than three hours on the new supertrain. It’s just another example of the modernity, cleanliness, order and efficiency that I just never thought of when I thought ‘China’. With close to a billion and-a-half people calling the place home I’m really glad they seem to be doing things right. Anyway, as we were getting close to our stop I could see those clichéd Chinese lumpy mountains outside the train window, blobs of impossibly steep stone standing up like treed granite teeth zipping quickly past the windows. And in no time (natch; we were going almost 250 kms/hr) we arrived at our destination, where we were careful to heed the recorded warning, “Be ready to get off the train quickly as it will only stop for a short time. If you don’t get out the door in time you cannot get off the train.” These guys like to keep to a schedule, except that early departure I suppose. Their ticket-machines probably detected that everyone was already on board. We landed in Yangshuo (or so we thought) right on time - like, to the minute - and disembarked (quickly). There were about a dozen taxi drivers waiting on the platform. They were obviously not allowed to approach us, but they had no problem beckoning us from twenty feet away. Eventually we picked one and told him where we were going. “One hundred Yuan,” he said, I said “No way.” He told us it was forty minutes away, again I said “No way.” Way. Turns out the train doesn’t actually stop in Yangshuo (despite the fact that it clearly stated ‘Yangshuo’ on that very informative digital sign), but rather it stops thirty-three kilometres away. We hired the taxi and enjoyed the rural drive to our hotel immensely, surrounded by towering peaked mountains the whole way. We arrived and were shown our room. “I’ve upgraded you to a room with a view,” we were told. The place is pretty nice, a stone and greenery complex with all kinds of different accommodations. We dropped our bags, mixed some drinks and relaxed in the waning light on the stone patio overlooking the (very famous) Li River. When we tired of that we went to look for the restaurant and found a cute little cat outside that I snuggled and named Mika. The restaurant was empty (the resort seems pretty close to empty overall, as of this writing I’ve seen just two other couples here) but we scared someone up and ordered some pretty great food. After dinner we looked for Mika to give him/her a bit of beef saved from my plate but couldn’t find the little furball anywhere. So instead we headed back up to our room for a relaxing night laying around and reading books, with a brief stop on the patio to gaze at the lights of the city below bouncing off of all those crazy mountains. We’re booked in here for five nights so we have plenty of time to see the sights, and we’re both happy to put off starting all that until tomorrow.
  15. Hey all, Petr Cancurra and Don Cummings (organ from Bumpin' Binary) are playing tonight (Sunday) at Bar Robo in Chinatown. I'm gonna try to make it, hope to see some of you there.
  16. 102917 It took me a really, really long time to get to sleep last night. As a result, Heather woke up first. Once again, I could have stayed down for hours but I knew we had a day ahead of us so I got up as soon as I could. We went downstairs for the free breakfast, it was included with the room and it was pretty impressive. Omelet station, cheese tray (mmm…blue cheese) and lots more. Somehow Heather and I both left breakfast a bit hungry, but sated. We bee-lined it to the subway (with a little stop at Starbucks along the way) and went to the zoo. We were surprised that it cost 40 yuan (80 with the amusement park, which we paid for) instead of 300 yuan like the guidebook said it would cost, though we noticed a sign that read “panda enclosure is closed for renovations” so we surmised maybe that was why…but really, I doubted it. We got in and Heather quickly figured out we were at the wrong zoo. “The animals aren’t supposed to be in cages, and there should be a safari drive, and gondolas…” she said, while all we could see were sad birds inside sadder cages. I pulled her into one of the bird sanctuaries and we were shocked to see three cats in there (including one cat that looked like a younger, leaner version of our own Chilly Willy). I mean, cats in a bird sanctuary?!?! Some sanctuary! The little Chilly Willy cat showed significant interest in the birds but we saw no actual attacks. All this catplay cheered Heather a little, but not enough to make up for our error. She had her head down and was moving quick, “I don’t like it,” she said, while I was trying to see as many duck-billed this and webbed-warbled that as I could. “Okay,” I told her, “let’s just go see the red pandas and then we’ll go find the right zoo,” and that’s what we did. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a red panda, but they aren’t pandas. There’s only about 10,000 of them in the world (they are from Tibet) and they are just about the cutest critters ever. We found the enclosure and it wasn’t nearly as sad as it could have been. There were lots of climby things, they had plenty of space and it was not encaged. There were two red pandas and they were absolutely adorable. And even better, they were out and near we the people, just a few feet from us the whole time and no wonder: despite the many posted warnings and the human being holding a sign that read Do Not Feed The Red Pandas almost everyone was throwing popcorn and the like at the little guys. It drove me crazy. We kept telling people to stop. One guy poured water on the little fellah’s head. I came this close to walking over and punching his child in the face, hard - it wouldn’t have bothered me a bit; I don’t like kids anyway* - but instead I looked him in the eye, pointed to my head and yelled, “Yeah dude, you had no idea that you weren’t supposed to do that, right?” Sure, he got the idea, but it felt exactly the same as all the times I rail against inappropriate cellphone use; it’s not like I’m making a difference in the world or anything. Speaking of cellphone use, the world is completely addicted but cellphone use here it is really off the hook (pun intended, as always). I briefly counted when were went up to Victoria Peak and 11 out of 28 people in line for the tram were in the process of using their phones, that’s about 40%. On the subway it jumps to about 80%. Now, I know the subway is probably the #1 spot to be on your phone but it still amazes me. If these people had any idea how addicted they are…Compared to this, beating heroin would be a breeze. Anyways, we ogled and coveted the red pandas (which the zoo insultingly called “lesser pandas”: Theravada pandas?) for an hour or so, checked out the one lemur and a couple of kangaroos and booked it to the other zoo. Which turned out being unbelievable!!!! We didn’t get there until after 1pm so we tried to bee-line it to the pandas but just had to stop at the flaming-o’s, the ducks (yes, we were amazed by the ducks, but only because the glass enclosure allowed us to see what they do under water), some weird duck-billed fish (for realz), and the lemmings. Who knew lemmings were so darn cute? Other lemmings I suppose. Then we walked by the panda restaurant (“If they are actually serving panda I’m ordering some”) and saw three pandas; a mama and her two children, in an enclosure. The lady suggested we come back in a half-hour when they’d be awake. We swooned and moved on, looking for a way to kill thirty minutes. We decided to check out the panda garden, which we assumed would just be rides and statues and the like but no, we ended up running into about seven more pandas! And we hit them all at feeding time. They only ate bamboo, but somehow these guys make bamboo look really tasty. It was astounding, we were just a few feet from all these pandas as they sat on their cute butts and wolfed down shoot after shoot. It was one of my nature/animal lifetime highlights, and we spent hours. Aside from just the coolest markings, another thing pandas have going for them is how ridiculously cute they are when they eat. They sit back and wolf down in a manner quite similar to what I look like with a bowl of chips and dip, a six-pack and a good Rocky movie. One enclosure held the world’s only panda triplets - again we were there for feeding time; perhaps being awake means feeding time? - and it was adorable. I wish I was still there. For the record, they had great looking habitats and all the pandas looked pretty happy to be there. Somehow, we eventually moved on. You can’t see the whole place in a day - not even close - but we tried to get around. We saw white tigers, again during feeding time which was awesome, and proboscis monkeys, spider monkeys, elephants…you name it. When we saw the miniature hippos I was actually happy to see them in enclosed habitats. As a guy who has seen (thousands of) hippos in the wild and know a bit about how hard it is for them to survive even one season, well, I honestly think there’s a good chance that given the option many hippos would choose a zoo over their natural habitat. Before the park closed at 6pm we hopped the gondola and rode over the whole place, which was really nifty. Then easy-peasy we got shuttled to the subway and we made our way back to our hotel, arriving half-starved. (I was surprised to note that entering the subway system in China requires an airport-type security check, with an x-ray machine for bags and guards waving metal-detection wands in a very disinterested manner. I beeped every time and was never given a second glance. It gave me pause because I couldn’t remember ever hearing about a subway attack in China, but perhaps these sort of checks are one of the reasons why I haven’t.) After a leisurely Jack & Coke we strolled back to Lucy’s for dinner and more drinks (the same place we ate last night) and it was great. We were back at the hotel by 9pm and in bed by 11pm, a great day i the books. *Why is it that nobody - and I mean nobody except those afflicted - realizes that some people have children-phobia? Afraid of dogs? No problem. Afraid of cats even…weird, but okay, I’ll buy that. Man, when I see someone walk into a restaurant with a kid I want to ask for my bill and get out of there. I’ll cross the street to avoid them. They are generally intolerable on airplanes.. They are monsters, they act without logic, they smell, they break things, they stare, they drool…my gawd, how can anybody stand them? Baffling. If it were up to me, human history would have lasted one generation, tops.
  17. 102817 I can’t believe I was still asleep when the alarm went off this morning. Even though I had slept a good eight or nine hours I could have stayed down quite a bit longer. I guess I’m back into my so-tired-I-can-fall-asleep-in-ninety-seconds zone. We didn’t have much of a day planned. We woke up, packed up, and walked to the train station. I got turned around and thought it was one way, Heather thought it was another. She was right. Had I insisted on leading the pack we would have surely gone in the wrong direction but (if I can try to save a little bit of face here) I didn’t. Rather, I dutifully deferred to Heather and followed her straight to the train station and did not in fact get us lost one bit. Arriving at the station somewhat surprised and with a feeling of satisfaction (respectively), I and my lady bypassed the busy and confusing (to me at least) ticket booths and searched for our platform. We had already purchased our tickets a few days before so we simply cruised through security and waited for the train to arrive, which it did, on time. It was nice, comfortable and modern. And roomy too, there wasn’t that many people on board so Heather and I were able to change seats so that we could see out the window. What we saw was city, city, city, with a few very brief patches of greenery. We had each brought a frosty beer with us for the ride which we enjoyed with Pringles, purchased from the conductor. And less than two hours later we were in Guangzhou. We transferred over to the subway and got close to our hotel. Closer than we thought, actually. The first difference we noticed between Hong Kong and mainland China was a lot less English signage and speakage. The second thing that we noticed was a lot less taxicabs, like almost none. We circled the large train station looking in vain for a taxi stand with our eyes to the road hoping for drive-by’s. Heather was reluctant to try to walk to our hotel - we hadn’t the least of a clue what direction it was in and we would have to lug our luggage with us and whattya know, eventually she waved down a taxi. It took a while but the payoff was the super-cheap fare the cabbie quoted us to take us to our hotel. That is until we discovered that our hotel was basically across the street from the station (by footbridge at least. By car it was actually a bit of a drive). The place was super-nice. We checked in and went up to our room but our key wouldn’t work. Down to the lobby I went. The lady told me not to touch the door when I enter the room. I tried to explain that I couldn’t enter the room at all. There was certainly a language barrier going up, exacerbated by my admitted evaporating patience. Eventually she had a maid come up to help. It turns out you have to hover the key about an inch from the door-sensor to make it unlock; if you actually touch the key to the lock it won’t open. Ahhh, I see. In retrospect I understood what the lady in the lobby had been miming to me, but in the same retrospect I also realized that I had little or no chance of getting her drift without an actual demonstration. I dropped my bags and quickly marvelled at our super-nice room with ample stone balcony before bee-lining it to a liquor store I had noticed along the way. Perusing their wares I spotted and purchased a bottle of Jack Daniels for about $30, much cheaper than the duty-free bottle we saw at the Hong Kong station (yes, they had a large duty-free store at the train station leaving Hong Kong). We had a drink or two on the pleasant balcony and went for a walkabout. Though you wouldn’t really know it if you didn’t know it, the area our hotel is on is on an island; it’s surrounded on three sides by a fairly narrow canal and on a fourth by a bay. This was the colonial area back in the day and all the buildings are nice and ornate and official looking. We did a brief perusal of the main drag and took in the sights, including a restaurant with a huge area out front containing tank after tank of the craziest critters you would ever want to eat. They had giant crabs that looked exactly like aliens, fish of every stripe, large and small (though mostly large), and there was even a bucket of worms, all of it priced by the pound and ready to be delivered to your table via chef Chopsalot. It a major and very visible difference between China and North America. Back home we tend to try and separate as much as possible our dinner and any thoughts of the animal that made it, whereas in China they proudly display in front of their shops the creatures on offer, living or dead. Bleah. We stopped into a restaurant called Lucy’s and had Western food for dinner; I had beef stroganoff. It was the best meal I’d had since we left Canada. (Though as one who has eaten stroganoff where it was invented - at the Stroganoff Castle in St. Petersburg - I really should know better than to ever, ever order it again. Nothing lives up to The Real Thing.) After dinner we decided to play it safe and take the subway to the south train station (not the same station we arrived at) to purchase our ongoing tickets to Yangzhou, which turned out being fairly easy and also probably not necessary. Which was fine; better safe than sorry, especially when you’re travelling to pre-booked hotels, as we were. After we bought the tickets we rode the subway back to our ‘hood and walked over the bridge to our little island - no taxi for us. We decided to call it a night and take advantage of the nice, large, comfortable room. I poured myself a drink and parked myself on the balcony typing travel logs while Heather lounged inside and delved into her book. Then (he says, predicting the future) I finished typing this log, shut off my computer and went inside to pour a (possibly but who can say?) final nightcap.
  18. Language and food were on an opposite sliding availability scale. The worse the English got, the better the food was and vice versa. But passable English and passable food was generally somewhere nearby.
  19. 102717 Well, that didn’t work! Once again I laid there not sleeping, but not until 5am or anything. It makes me realize how blessed I am with the ability to fall asleep in no time at all; I can generally fall asleep in ninety seconds or less. Regardless, at least I got more sleep than Heather did; she doesn’t snore, I do. I got up around 10am, Heather was already up. They drive on the left in Hong Kong, a change that can be quite dangerous to the right-driving tourist. I would normally have to constantly be telling myself to look right! Look right! but with all the one way streets running this way and that the city has gone to the effort of writing directly on the road itself at each and every intersection the phrases: <—Look Left and Look Right—>. It’s unspeakably helpful, and I’m sure the idea has saved countless lives and injuries. Maybe it’s financed by the insurance companies. Our first stop was the Museum of History, just across the street from our hotel and free of charge. We made short work of the flora/fauna, ancient rocks and cavemen exhibits, cruised through the dynasties pretty quickly and started to linger at the opium war. It’s amazing to think that China ceded Hong Kong to the English just to get the Brits to stop bringing opium into the country. After the changeover the race with less than five percent of the city’s population ran the place. That must have been frustrating. Then there was the Japanese occupation during WWII. These guys haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about over the years. Leaving the museum, we ducked into the Starbucks and looked around for a place to eat. Again my appetite was in flux…was I hungry or full? I just could not decide. Logic told me that I must be hungry so I joined Heather at a Chinese diner. I didn’t feel too adventurous (or hungry) so I ordered a small chicken pie and a pork bun. I used to eat pork buns a lot in Taiwan and I figured I was safe. Nope. Both the pie and the bun were very sweet, and as a Westerner I am picky when it comes to mixing sugar and meat. I had one, single bite of the chicken pie and managed to get through almost half of my pork bun. At this point my body convinced me that I wasn’t hungry anymore anyway. Next we aimed for Kowloon Park, which we had passed several times before. Walking up the stairs we soon found that the park was pretty extensive and quite impressive. We started along comic alley, featuring larger-than-life statues of anime characters neither of us had ever heard of. We walked by a pond full of sunning turtles and found the bird sanctuary - more of a small zoo really - with cockatoos, parrots, a couple of crazy looking critters called rhinoceros hornbills, and a bunch more. Next was the bird pond, which was full of flamingos. Our final two stops in the park were a bit of a letdown, the maze was stupidly easy (and only waist-high…what’s up with that?) and the sculpture park was pretty lame (and I do like me a sculpture park), but whattya want for free? On our way to the Star Ferry I stopped into one of the many, many McDonald’s outlets where I spent about fifteen confused minutes and zero dollars because I walked out without a clue as to how I was supposed to get the Big Mac I had ordered on their panel screen. I stormed out of there convinced of one thing at least: I was hungry. We took the ferry over to the island side of the city and found a bus that would take us to Stanley, a small town on the other side of the mountains. It was a double-decker and we scored the front seats up top. It was a really fun drive, first through the bustling city, then the long tunnel that runs under the mountain, and then winding up and down the mountain itself, the bus whacking against branches and slowing down for oncoming traffic on the narrow pass the whole way. As we were exiting the city the bus passed a string of car dealerships. Mercedes, Lexus, Ferrari, Maserati. I mentioned to Heather how 80% of the cars on the road were luxury vehicles and from our perch in the front of the bus I tested my theory. I counted cars for about ten minutes and found out I was a bit low in my estimate. Seems the only cars on the road besides upscale luxury models are minivans (of which there are many), and Toyotas. The expendable money in Hong Kong must be tremendous. We arrived in Stanley and stopped for a drink. I was famished so I ordered a quesadilla with cheese and tomato chutney. Turns out ‘tomato chutney’ was a euphemism for ‘ketchup’. Bleah. Next up was a slow stroll through the many, many shops and stalls that were set up selling every imaginable piece of junk you could imagine but would never want. Okay, that’s not entirely true, I wanted to buy a few of their Rubik’s cube variations, of which there were many. They love the cube over here, no question about that. We didn’t buy a thing through, so we strolled the town. There was a jazz band set up in the square and we heard their last two songs as we walked to the pier where we watched locals fishing by hand (without poles). They were catching fish after fish, and none of them more than three inches long. It seemed like that’s what they were fishing for though, it’s not like any got thrown back in for being too small. We had a beer at a waterfront pub and then went to another for more beer and some dinner. It was tourist-pricey but pretty good food. Finally we headed back to the bus depot where we caught our ride just as it was pulling out. Upstairs we found the best seats gone but no matter, it was another great ride back into the city. We got off one stop early and strolled to the wine and dine fest that we had realized too late last night that we possessed free tickets for. We waited in line with our free passes and were granted entry, four tokens each and a couple of coupon booklets. The fest was quite extensive, huge even. We dropped three tokens on a four-pack of beers, another one on two glasses of sparkling wine and then Heather insisted (with my help) that we use the remaining tokens getting me two shots of high-end tequila that was poured through a giant block of ice. Never mind that I had to suck on a tube that had been sucked on by thousands before me, it’s tequila, and tequila kills germs (right?). The coupons were for free things at different booths, each of which had long lines that went unbelievably fast. I mean some lines were fifty feet long and you’d be through in less than two minutes. We got free cookies, shrimp chips, nuts, cheese, and ice cream. The whole thing was run astoundingly well and we were both super-impressed with the entire setup. The only downside was that we didn’t see the Jack Daniels booth until we were on our way out the door, tokenless. And there went our day! We left the wine and dine just before it shut down for the night at 11:30 and took the ferry back over to Kowloon. We were both pretty beat so the walk back to the hotel was long and slow. Again I was tempted to stop for a reflexology session but again I passed in favour of the bliss of laying down on my own hotel bed (which was little more than a thin mattress on a hard wooden slab). We had spent 14+ hours away from the room today and we were tired. For the first time this on trip I fell asleep fast. Luckily Heather did too.
  20. 102617 I was half awake when I heard Heather puttering around. I cracked open an eye and saw she was dressed and ready to head out the door. “Where you going?” I moaned sleepily. “To get us coffees,” she said, like an angel. “Do you remember the Starbucks we saw last night near the 7-11?” I asked. “Yep,” she replied, and off she went. It was 11am and I could have easily laid in bed for several more hours but I felt it prudent to get up and about and try to get in step with time on this side of the planet. I was showered, dressed, and smiling by the time she got back with her cups of brown goodness. We left the hotel around 12:30 and walked to the Star Ferry terminal. For just fifty cents each we rode the ferry across the picturesque harbour, once again marvelling at the astounding array of skyscrapers on both sides of the water. On the other side we traversed the labyrinth of raised walkways until we finally found the HSBC Building, one of the stars of last night’s light show. When the HSBC Building was built it was the most expensive ever, construction costs for the architectural wonder soared to a billion dollars. We went inside and rode the angled escalators up the the first level. Underneath us was all glass, above us air. For such an expensive project they sure sacrificed a lot of floor space to make way for their extremely open concept. Much of the building is basically hollow. We searched for an antique poster shop Heather had read about, discovered it had moved to online-only and decided to make for Victoria Peak, the pinnacle of the mountain that lines the west side of Hong Kong. We rode the funicular up (the oldest funicular in Asia, it started in 1888), which was a gravity-defying G-force blast and spent the afternoon enjoying the astounding (yet unbelievably smoggy) view. We explored the complex up there (we had paid extra for the Sky Terrace 428, which gave us access to the open-air top floor of the angular concrete complex, the highest elevation 360 degree views of the city, which wasn’t really worth it) and after some humming and hawing decided on eating dinner at BubbaGumps, just one floor below the rooftop terrace. It was my first time experiencing the franchise, which I’ll rate just a millistep above the Hard Rock Cafe for food, which isn’t a great compliment, but man, the view from our window seat was delicious. We lingered over an extra beer until it got dark so we could enjoy the night view as well and then we got in the prodigious line to ride the funicular back down. I’m sure it would have been quicker to walk down the mountain like several people do but I’m glad we didn’t - my legs and feet were already feeling the pressures of the day. We arrived back down at the bottom just as the nightly laser/light show was going off. It’s so not a thing that we almost didn’t notice that it was even happening, although to be fair that’s mainly because the lit-up buildings are so impressive on their own. The lasers add but a smidgen to the already sense-exploding skyline. Mostly ignoring the lasers we meandered in the direction of the ferry and stopped by a wine-tasting expo on the waterfront. Turns out there was an admission charge so we didn’t go in, which is too bad: when we got back to the room later I noticed that the flyers we had been given when we purchased our tickets for the funicular were in fact free passes to the wine fest with four free drinks included. Oops. Instead I merely posed with a giant great white shark statue and we moved on, boarding the ferry to take us back across the harbour. Finally we completed the slow plod back to our hotel and gave our gams a much-needed rest. Along the way I toyed with the idea of a foot massage/reflexology session but was too tired to even stop for one. It’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity; there are probably more foot massage places than restaurants in our area, and there are a lot of restaurants. Regardless, it wasn’t yet 10pm when we made it back to the room and flopped into our rock-hard beds for the night. All in the name of beating the jet lag.
  21. I have a falling-asleep superpower for which I am quite grateful.
  22. 102517 Kind of lost a day there due to time change. Hong Kong is twelve hours ahead of Ottawa. Makes me wonder: if I brought my cat with me on the plane would he still be nocturnal? We arrived in Hong Kong at 10:30 last night. By 11pm we were standing in line at the lost luggage service, by midnight we were on the express train into the city. The train was super-modern and extremely efficient/easy to use. So was the subway system we transferred to - easy-peasy. Walked to our hotel (an easy task given that we were both without luggage), again fairly easy to find and checked in. I walked to the nearest 7-11 for some beers and snacks. Okay, I actually went to buy a bottle of water but when I saw all that beer in the fridge I forgot to buy the water so I had to go back. When I went back I bought more beer (for Heather this time) and darn-near forgot to buy the water again. We didn’t get to sleep until about 3:30am, which is a little strange after a twenty-six-hour travel day. I was shocked when we woke up and checked the clock; it was 1:30pm. I know to me that’s 1:30am, but I haven’t slept that late in a long time. We got up, retrieved our luggage that had been dropped off at the front desk, and got out of there for a walkabout and to look for a place to eat. Heather was starved, I wasn’t hungry at all. After looking at about a thousand menus (restaurants are absolutely everywhere in our area) we settled on a semi-fancy place. Heather got dumplings and noodles with pork while i got the vermicelli with shredded spicy beef. For some reason my appetite left me shortly after I ordered but I ate probably half my meal. The highlight of lunch was when Heather bit into her first dumpling and hot liquid squirted out of it and shot straight up her nose. After lunch we went for coffees around the corner and killed time until it was time to go to the waterfront. We aimed for the Avenue Of Stars, the Asian version of Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame but were shut out as the area is being renovated. No biggie, but I was looking forward to seeing the Bruce Lee statue. Regardless, we found ourselves in the right place for the nightly laser show. Every night at 8pm Honk Kong hosts the world’s largest (or was it Asia’s largest?) permanent sound and light show at the harbour. We found a good spot and stared in quiet awe at the astounding skyline while we waited for the show to start. Aside from the stunning architecture of the countless buildings lining both sides of the harbour, at night many of the structures become canvases for giant light shows. I had only seen this once before, at a hotel we stayed at in Miami, but this was redonkulous. At least a dozen buildings were constantly flashing and pulsating, and it looked just awesome. So awesome, in fact, that the laser/light show itself was decidedly underwhelming in comparison. Aside from the sheer logistics of co-ordinating the lasers and the individual building lights to sync up (perfectly) with the music it was really not so impressive. They need to get CK5 out here for a week or two to design some serious visuals but hey, it was better than nothing. The show ended at 8:30 and we idled up Nathan Road past Jordon Road to the night market (after stopping at 7-11 for a couple of traveller beers - drinking in the street is so civilized; I’m surprised I never see anyone but me doing it). The night market was about as interesting as the light show; that is, better than not going but really, it was just a bunch of Made In China crap. (I got a kick out of the Star Wars Lego knock-offs though: Star Wart and Star Plan.) By then my appetite was back to jumping up and down so we searched for a restaurant and ultimately settled on a Thai place where I devoured an order of garlic bread and got halfway through a plate of chicken Pad Thai before mysteriously losing my appetite once again. After dinner we decided to call it a day and went back to the hotel and went to bed, though neither of us could sleep. I haven’t laid awake trying to fall asleep in years but I was awake until at least 5:30am. It’s hard to fight jet lag.
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