Breaking away from DPRK orbit
Beijing 6C / -7C 42F / 19F sunny no smog
After spending last night and all day working without obstruction on the DPRK blog
post, suddenly I'm cutoff. I guess Norad was distracted, watching Santa and misseed my ping. Not just my site, but all the internet for me, too. I shut down and take a break. I walk around the lobby looking for my lost Xi Jiao Hotel connection with my phone. As it tries to find a connection and send a text message.
It's a short walk to Building 8, the recreation building. The second floor coffee bar is also a Japanese restaurant with 50 pct off sushi, my Christmas dinner and solo celebration. I order spicy tuna roll, miso soup, salad for 44Y or $7.21.
After Christmas and my trip to Pyongyang, I hadn't been sleeping well for a week. The Korean trip generated images, conversations, thoughts. I close my eyes, pull the drapes, and chant Om mani pahdmi hum, but sleep eludes.
Saturday December 28
Mike Zhang and his wife Xiong Jie or Jane invite me to their home in the suburbs south of Wudaokuo for dinner. Taking the subway and changing a couple times is not a problem. Mei wenti! While Jane prepares the dinner, Mike and I go downstairs in their apartment to a strip of commercial shops where there is a large, prosperous and famous after one year of operation anmo clinic.
A friend of theirs from their hometown in Szechwan is joining us with her son who is home for winter break from Cal Berkeley where he is studying mathematics as an undergraduate. Mike and Jane's son is also an undergraduate in the US at University of Oregon at Eugene and will be graduating this June in Sports Administration.
Mike pours me a beer in a small glass from his collection of Augertos pijiu founded in 1903 while Jane continues prepping in the kitchen. She's preparing homestyle hot pot Jiating huoguo. Accompanying that is rice porridge mi zhou. Cut piles of bamboo sprouts zhu sun, needle mushroom jin zhen gu, Chinese onion da cong, yam shan yao, fish gazi yu, dried dofu doufu gan, and thinly sliced bao pian, rolled mutton and beef yangrou he niurou are brought to the table and set around an electric skillet dian lu filled with a simmering broth made of sesame oil zhima you, hoisin sauce hao you, and soy sauce jiang you with a sprinkle of pepper seeds lajiao zi. This is brought to a boil feng teng and simmered wen huo.
Jane mashes garlic suanni with the butt of her meat cleaver, adding it to a dish of chopped green onion cong hua. On the stove in a wok, she is cooking red hot pepper hong lajiao, with chopped fresh pork xinxian zhurou in lard niu you and peanut oil huasheng you. Combined with the chopped seasonings, this is the base for the dipping sauce each one gets in a small bowl at their place at the table.
I'm on the subway at 10PM, after dinner in the suburbs near Cishousi Zhan, when suddenly it stops and dumps out all the passengers into the street in the night, somewhere I don't know where I am.
Saturday December 14
Before this, before the Pyongyang trip and before Christmas, I go shopping with
Monica, a Canadian expat research scientist. She lived in the same Puji apartment building as I two years ago with Greg and her cat Velvet. After four years in the National Laboratory at Tsinghua, researching DNA in the automation department, she jumped out and snagged herself a super new job at Novo Nordisk in Beijing. Joining us is Li Zhang, a research assistant from the archaeology department. Three girl friends getting together for the first time in a couple of years. We meet at the new Wudaokuo Starbucks where we can sit upstairs and look down at the busy plaza in front of the Hualian Shopping Center. I get a 32Y $5.24 white chocolate cranberry swirl tall.
Monday December 16
One of the first people I met at Tsinghua in 2011 was Dustin Song Tao, a student and monitor of his class. My laoban CHEN Hong found him for me. Whereas I was not able to learn Mandarin from Dustin over coffee, I did learn much about his life and times, and I shared with him customs and ideas from my culture over dinners with his tongxue, classmates, and cooking parties at my Puji apartment with other young people.
He now attends graduate school at PBC School of Finance at Tsinghua University, graduating this June. This morning he joins me for breakfast at the hotel.
Tuesday December 17
Today I visits Pei TONG in her laboratory in the Life Sciences building at Tsinghua University. Centrifuges, pipettes, and refrigerators at -79C in every corner, lab upon lab of young research scientists. Pei is 25-years old and already has attained her PhD testing for HIV AIDS vaccine. She orders lunch delivered-- spaghetti!
Crossing campus in the freezing afternoon, long shadows cast by Tsinghua's tall buildings on campus. My former laoban meets me outside her new office in the Tsinghua Worker's Union building down the street from the Old Gate. CHEN Hong received a promotion to Vice Chairman of the Worker's Union this year. She shares her spacious office with another Vice Chairman. The south facing windows hold a collection of jade and green plants. She insisted on keeping her old computer console, although they offered her a new one. She is loath to move and re-index her deep archives. Besides, she knows where everything is filed.
Sitting in the conference room with trophies and beautiful ceramics displayed along one long wall, we sip hot cha and launch into discussing translating my book into Chinese.
Wednesday December 18
Beijing 1C / -8 34F / 17F sunny, no smog
Pyongyang 1C / -10C 35F / 14F sunny with morning freezing fog
I take the subway to Art District 798 to meet David Kay. Today, he's hosting an Amazon.com China event at his Yuenfen Gallery/restaurant/loft. We chat for an hour in a glass enclosed study where he can watch everything. Light projectors, huge flower arrangements, the chefs to the other side below. He tells me many expats are leaving Beijing. He says, things are tightening up. I'm not sure what that means. Might have something to do with the gentle tapering down by the US Federal Reserve, scaling back buying bonds. The yuan retreated today, reducing QE stimulus reflects the US economy improvement will have long term positive impact on global economy but brings short term volatility to currency markets. It could have to do with the new Chinese President Xi's crackdown on graft and corruption.
In the street, I catch a cab and run to meet two more friends. Xia Chen and Yan Liu are two women I met at a poetry reading in Tsinghua back in 2011. Yan is a Professor at the Beijing International Studies University, Institute for Transculture Studies. It was she who invited me to the conference in Hainan back in November. Xia is a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
They live in a fabulous, split-level flat in the Wanjing West neighborhood. They have access to the roof on the sixth floor shared by only one other flat. Numerous sunporches on every side provide high rise, container gardening platforms where Xia grows beans, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and grapes in Styrofoam containers in the summer. Her house husband cooks for us-- he's a day trader. Conversation jumped from politics, Japan, the US, Beijing, housing market, culture and penjing over a bottle of Great Wall red wine.
After dinner, we bundle up and the three women walk downstairs and across to another building in the gated subdivision with parks. It must be gorgeous with green trees in summer. The private China Poets Club is financed by another eccentric billionaire turned poet, Bei Chang, who made his fortune marketing traditional Chinese medicine to medical institutions. The club just sponsored their first World Congress of Poets. When it is time to go home to Wudaokuo, he dons a blue, wool, billed cap, overcoat and drives me to the station in his new black Chinese Audi.
Friday December 27
Two doors up from the Xi Jiao Hotel at #9 Dongwangzhuang is the Korean/Japanese bistro Mingshengju. All evening friends and colleagues drop in at the second floor mezzanine dining room, bringing gifts of chocolate and fresh longan. Dishes from the kitchen start arriving and bottles of Tsingdao beer.
Monica and Greg are here. So is Dustin and Li. Shasha flies by with amazing brilliance and dances for us in the space between the long table and the railing.
Feng blazes in after work at the Tsinghua Housing Department, managing the social contacts at ours and an adjacent table of people totally unrelated but complementary to our group.
Breaking the spell of DPRK
I'm on the subway at 10PM after dinner with Mike, Jane and xin pengyou when I look up to see a tall and handsome conductor sternly saying something to me and implacably shooing me and all the passengers in the car out onto the platform and up the stairs to the exits.
I emerge into the dark somewhere I don't know where I am. I beat past the illegal cab drivers looking for a legitimate one. I'm standing near the intersection that T-bones a major bus terminal where most of the stranded travelers are queuing up to board.
Two guys in a car offer to take me to Wudaokuo di tie zhan for 30Y or about $5.
They are laughing and seem OK so I get in the back. They drive around the intersection looking for another fare. When I arrive at Wudaokuo it is 10:30PM and my bicycle is stolen from in front of the subway entrance where I locked it. There is a police kiosk nearby. A young office walks me from there to the main police station near BLCU. I make a report although I doubt they will find it. There are a lot of people in the station talking loudly. I have no idea what their problem is.
That night I sleep well for the first time in over a week.
December 29 Sunday 胡同 [hú tòng]
The historic neighborhood of alleyways and lanes near the Nan luo gu Xiang subway station in Dongcheng District is a year round tourist draw. Today is clear and sunny when Feng's husband drops us off at the Wudaokuo di tie zhan. The character of the old buildings have been preserved while adding new public toilets for the crowds of visitors. High end and kitschy style shops crowd the narrow street, punctuated by street food vendors and occasional tiny restaurant.
January 11 Saturday BaDaQu Eight Wonders Park
Today is the first day I've experienced smog since arriving in Beijing December 8, four weeks. Mike is taking me hiking in the Western Hills near his home. It seems the air gets more congested the farther we drive west into Shijingshan District. Taking back roads through the rural villages, Mike connects with a network of Beijing District fireroads. Here, we are above the smog at about 450 meters or 1500 feet. Short, dry chaparral covers rocky hills and sandy bluffs. Views drop away in every direction in overlapping planes of receding ridges, dissolving into misty smog and surmounted by electricity stanchions and generator smokestacks.
We drop into the back of the BaDaQu park of eight shrines. Traversing the north most portion of the park to return to our parked car, we pass workers mixing concrete, laying bricks, plastering and painting small buildings around the shrine sites for more incense burning. At the car, Mike pops the seal on the bottle of Castle Rock Spring Water I brought from home in my suitcase as a gift for a time like this. We pass village kids leading horses next to the narrow lane winding down the hill.
January 13 Monday
Since I returned to Beijing, I've noticed small changes pointing to the coming holiday. One is the peasant woman who faithfully sat with her truck of fruit near the hotel entrance; she's gone, presumably to her hometown.
This morning I wake early, breakfast and walk to meet my future business partner, Weisuo LI or Jeff. He's a 25-year old go-getter agent at the Wudaokuo Home Link office in Huaqingjiayuan in Wudaokou in Haidian. We met a week ago, before my side trip to Qingdao, Nanjing and Shanghai. That day, I was canvassing Wudaokuyo for a print shop to make business cards for my new iteration as English Website Consultant 英文网站咨询师.
I notice him crossing the street with me, dressed in a snappy black suit, white shirt and tie, a spring in his step and singing to himself. Once on the other side, I ask if he knows a print shop. His English is good. And in fact, he knows Japanese as well. He grabs my arm and guides me to an upstairs shop, negotiates the price and stays with me until the cards are designed. I pay 70Y $11.47 for two boxes. Jeff promises to pick them up the next day and hold them for me until I return to Beijing a week later.
In exchange, I offer to make an English website for him as a promotion for my new venture. Over the weekend, I got his domain name. We work today for two hours at the upstairs workroom at the HomeLink office with twenty curious guys and gals working at computer monitors or on phones. In the chaos, Jeff's actual laoban materializes to see what's going on. See the new site here: HomeLinkWudaokou.com.
Walking back to the hotel later in the day, after lunch and some last minute shopping, I'm hopefully looking for the fruit peddler. The corner at the imposing entrance is populated with a couple of taxis, but no peddler. I pick up some snacks and yogurt drink at a tiny market and return to my room, thinking about a new story plot integrating the Snowden and NSA revelations into my American in Beijing continued adventures. Perhaps Book 3. I've collected enough characters, situations and settings for six books. Personal experience plies imagination and some factual open source data, making the storyline seem so real, it could be real. But it's just fiction :)
World Statistics Book Reading
Germans read 15 books a year
Chinese read 4 books a year
Americans read 4 books a year*
British read 15 books a year
*If you remove the 25% that don't read any books, the figure floats up to 15 or so
Yi hui jian