Archive for Travel

Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

Attention, passengers

In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.

In the event of a shallow water landing, your tray table may be used as a skimboard.

In the event of a school lunchroom landing, your bag of peanuts may be used in a food fight.

In the event of a Portland, Ore., landing, your seatbelt may be used as a fashion accessory.

In the event of a rich fantasy life, your blanket may be used as a superhero’s cape.

In the event a fellow passenger or member of your flight crew turns out to be a Cylon skinjob, the overhead bin may be used as a sweet-ass hiding place.

In the event your irrepressible “creative juices” and/or “zany little urges” bubble inevitably to the surface, your barf bag may be used to fashion the most adorable shabby-chic hand-puppets for your Etsy store.

In the event of a quenched thirst, your copy of SkyMall may be used to order a beverage holder shaped like an armadillo for just $19.95 plus shipping.

In the event of a routine flight and landing, your contact information may be used to relentlessly send you “deals” on upcoming flights we have severely under-booked to places nobody wants to go.

Air travel sets a low bar for bars

When I’m here in my own city, making the best of my mundane workaday world, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m visiting a different city, be it for important work or a frivolous vacation, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m en route from one of those places to another, well … even then, I sometimes go to bars.

The latter mostly happens in airports. I rarely travel by car, bus, train, boat, rickshaw or jetpack. Rarely. In fact, in my admittedly limited experience, most train stations, bus stations, marinas, ports and late-model automobiles don’t even include bars, which should not be overlooked as one possible reason their popularity as alternative modes of long-distance transport consistently takes a back seat to air travel.

(It may be worth mentioning that I once got obscenely drunk on a ferry to Victoria, B.C., while playing Rummy and downing B-52’s with a high-school crush. I never slept with her, but when we got to the island we sat in vibrating massage chairs together, which — if you’ve ever tried it, I’m sure you’ll agree — is probably the next best thing. Even so, I would absolutely get drunk on a ferry again given the opportunity, so score one point for watercraft. Well played, boats.)

Incidentally, one of the nice things about airport bars is that the chances of “hooking up” are infinitesimal. Most people who belly up to an airport bar are just killing time until their flight boards. Sure, you might strike up a conversation with them, and you might even hit it off. But I’ve spent hundreds of hours sipping (or, in some cases, gulping) whiskey in various airport establishments around the world and I’ve never once heard one of those conversations end with the line, “So … your city or mine?”

Invariably, you’ll go your way and your fleeting friend will go theirs. As a result, despite the typically cheesy decor and generic names that reek desperately of some Midwest marketing focus group, airport bars are surprisingly unpretentious. Their barstools tend to fill up with people who genuinely appreciate a good beer or a fine cocktail and, at least in that sense, they often remind me of my favorite bars both at home and abroad. While trendy nightspots shower publicly in their immediacy, drawing mirror-kissing trendspotters with fruity novelty drinks, the humble airport bar — like any serious watering hole — knows what it’s there for. It’s not a dance club. It’s not a catwalk. It’s just a bar.

One of my few quibbles with airport bars is that they’re not open 24 hours, and nearly all are closed when you need them most — during that painful layover in the wee hours while waiting for the red-eye home. Here in my town, the airport bars close down between 9 and 11 p.m. and don’t re-open until 7 a.m. I do a lot of early-morning travel, and generally rely on a quick drink to supply the fortitude for tolerating my fellow passengers. As such, the minutes between 6:55 and 7:00 tend to take their sweet time passing by, allowing for the type of self-reflection that once prompted me to tweet, “The only thing more depressing than last call is first call.”

You take the bad with the good, though. The best airport bar I’ve ever visited was in the United Airlines first-class lounge in Beijing, China, which was a serve-yourself open bar that had recently been re-stocked with a fresh bottle of green-label Johnnie Walker and plenty of ice. I won’t lie: As I worked my way through the first half of its contents, I found myself for the first time in my life honestly hoping that my flight would be delayed. Sure, it was free Scotch Whisky — the good stuff, too — but my mindset then was more or less the same as it is in every airport bar: “Hey, I’m not driving.”

Comedian Greg Giraldo has a hilarious routine about getting drunk at the airport that includes the line, “Do you have any idea how wasted you have to be for someone to say, ‘Sir, you’re just too drunk to sit in a seat’?”

And that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? Ultimately, air travel — for all its technological marvel and modern convenience — is excruciatingly dull at best. If everything goes perfectly — boarding is quick and efficient, departure is on-time, the pilot has a deft touch and your cabin mates are without exception polite and considerate — your day amounts to sitting quietly in a seat, doing absolutely nothing for hours on end.

Might as well have a nice buzz.

Don’t get too comfortable

Jumbo Slice

Size, as it turns out, does matter.

I just got home from Washington, D.C., where I spent the weekend to attend the bachelor party of a close friend and former colleague. We had ridiculous amounts of fun. I caught up with old friends and made new ones — all of them smart, creative, amibitious and, without exception, wonderful human beings.

I joked yesterday that when I met the groom-to-be about eight years ago, he was “a broken man.” But it wasn’t really a joke. He was miserable then, almost completely lost at sea, with nothing to buoy him but a nagging sense that things had to get better.

Within a year, he took a leap of faith and moved to the capital to take a demanding but potentially rewarding job that he wasn’t fully confident he was cut out for. “I feel like an impostor,” he told me in the early weeks of his new gig. But he stuck with it, because if nothing else it was challenging. It was interesting. Mainly, it was different.

Since then? His professional trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. He has risen with distinction to the very top of his profession. Today he’s an extremely influential man in arguably the most influential city in the world. And, oh yeah: Next weekend, he’ll be married to an impossibly wonderful woman who makes him happier than I’ve ever seen him.

In the wee hours of Saturday night, we were riding home in a cab down 18th street in Adams Morgan when another friend spotted a neon sign that beckoned to him like a siren.

“Jumbo Slice,” it said.

“Stop the car! Let us out here!” he cried, and the driver obeyed. The rest of us were too drunk or half-asleep to question it.

So next thing I know, we’re stumbling through a crowd of drunks toward the promise of gooey cheese and pepperoni and grease running down our arms on a scale that is at least somewhat more “jumbo” than we’re accustomed to.

I’m happy to report the neon sign did not lie.

You don’t really get a sense for it in the photo, but these slices were massive, requiring multiple paper plates to (barely) support their bounty. They were the perfect ending to a night that had celebrated excess. And as we walked slowly back toward home, munching on our Jumbo Slices along the way, the groom-to-be drunkenly related the tale of their evolution.

“Originally they were just, you know, merely huge,” he said. “But then the place down the street started making a bigger slice. So these guys started making theirs a little bigger and then the place down the street bought a whole new oven — a bigger one, so they could make even bigger pies. Naturally, this place had to respond in kind, and so now it just keeps escalating. There’s no telling when it will end, really.”

“It’s like a pizzeria arms race,” one of us said. “A Cold War of kitchen equipment,” someone countered. “We can only hope that one or the other side enters a phase of perestroika and the whole thing ends peacefully,” we added, laughing hysterically between bites.

And that’s when it occurred to me: You really need to be around people who challenge you if you’re ever going to get anywhere.

“Things That Weren’t Built In A Day” for $200, Alex

The Great Wall

I am sooooo high.

I was hunkering down in the first-class lounge at the Beijing airport with my laptop and a bottle of Johnnie Walker while I waited to catch a plane back to the States when it occurred to me. “The fact that I talked my way in here tells me either Eastern cultures find social ineptitude irresistibly charming or my charisma is temporarily bolstered by an absolutely insatiable need for social contact.”

Indeed, you can’t fully grasp the meaning of the word “alienated” until you’ve gone two weeks without any significant human interaction beyond drawing stick figures on cocktail napkins or smiling and nodding while pointing at menu items. Decades of take-out fried rice orders had led me to believe communication with the people of China would be a lot more conveniently numbered than it turned out to be.

Innocent attempts to further bridge this cultural chasm could lead to results as mildly inconvenient as turning down the wrong street or as embarrassing and unfortunate as inadvertently propositioning a hooker. (Yes, really.)

After two weeks of awkwardly navigating the social byways of foreign tourism everywhere from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the hillside cave-slums of Xi’an, I concluded my journey with a visit to the Great Wall of China.

They say the Great Wall is the only man-made object you can see from outer space (mercifully, they specify “man-made,” thereby disqualifying my forehead), which gives you a pretty good idea that this is one heck of a long wall. In fact, it stretches on for about 5,500 miles — almost twice the width of the entire United States.

What they don’t tell you is how high it goes. On my last full day in China, I visited a well-preserved, 300-plus-year-old section of the wall in Mutianyu (about 40 miles outside Beijing) that winds up, down and around the area’s mountainous landscape. I had to take a skyride just to get to the base of the wall, and once I got to that point, both directions offered a daunting uphill climb.

But, hey, I’m pretty fit for a chain-smoking alcoholic, so what the hell?

To reach the wall’s highest point, I trudged up steep inclines and haphazard steps for nearly 45 minutes without taking a break. By the time I reached the top watchtower, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, my face and arms were covered with dead bugs, and my legs and lungs were burning with the fire of conviction. I slumped down on the stone and the sun beat down, basking me in its triumphant glow. Moments later, a couple of other tourists climbed wearily over the threshold, and we exchanged tired glances and mustered half-smiles that said, “We made it!”

It was glorious.

Five days later I’m sitting at a desk in a long row of similar desks, quietly filling out time sheets and approving expense reports. It probably goes without saying that this sort of juxtaposition affords one a fair amount of what people like to call “perspective.”