I’ve never been a thrill-seeker per se. I’d say I’m adventurous, but thrills also come with chills and spills sometimes, which I’m none too crazy about, so I back off at that level. But I have friends who’ve bungee jumped off the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colorado; I have a couple of friends who sky-dive, and I’ve known a bunch of people who ski the black-diamond hills. And I’ve got a friend who’s a fighter jockey and had to bail out when both his engines failed, going over 450 knots – something he was very lucky to survive.
Me? I don’t even do roller coasters. Ferris wheels? Forget about it. I’ve been on Splash Mountain at Disneyland, and almost shit an entire brickyard. I’ve been to the top of the World Trade Center a few times, the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty, but each time, I would grab hold of the rail, lean backwards away from the edge, and peek down, always keeping my center of gravity low, and leaning backwards. Lame, ain’t it?
But one thing I do love despite my avoidance of heights is flying. Whether it’s in a real airplane or in front of my computer, flying Microsoft Flight Simulator. I just love to fly. The closest I’ve ever come to flying for real was taking the co-pilot’s seat in a United Airlines 767 simulator at their Flight Training Center in Denver. The pilot/instructor who was demonstrating allowed me to overfly the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. Incredible experience.
In real life, I’ve been on a Continental MD-80 whose nose-wheel snapped right after we’d rolled off the active runway on landing at Sea-Tac; another one that had to be emergency-evacuated because of a leak while refueling in Spokane; and I’ve experienced a couple of aborted crosswind landings, which can be extremely unnerving, because they’re so unexpected. I also flew out of Denver a day or two after a Continental DC-9 flipped over on takeoff, the wreckage still sitting in the grass between the north-south runways.
I was on a United Airlines non-stop flight from Seattle to Hong Kong a bunch of years ago, before Kai Tak was closed in favor of Chek Lap Kok. The plane was a 747-SP, which I believe no longer fly — that was the short, fat, long-range version of the widebody, a Special Performance model. And it was a 13-1/2 hour flight.
We took off and headed north/northwest, over Vancouver Island, and then over some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery I’d ever seen – the Aleutian Islands. Thankfully, the skies were clear, visibility was unlimited, and I was on the right side of the plane in a window seat on the upper deck, with a front-row view.
Here and there I could see lakes on some of the mountaintops. Heated by the volcanism that makes the Pacific rim the Ring of Fire, they steamed as their surfaces shined. Only a thin film of wispy clouds ever came into view; this was a flight I’d always remember. We also overflew Wake Island, its distinctive shape making it look like a lone galaxy surrounded by an infinite universe of water.
I had one last Black Russian and went to sleep for awhile. Woke up just in time to see Mt. Morrison, the highest mountain on Taiwan, below us. It’s part of a range of mountains that runs north-south on the eastern side of the island. Breathtaking scenery. Makes me wonder how come Taiwan isn’t a traditional vacation destination?
It was getting close to evening. We’d taken off from Seattle at 1:30 in the afternoon, and it was getting towards early evening as we began to approach Hong Kong. We encountered some clouds, and then we flew into a thick layer of them before the air brakes were extended and we slowed down for the approach.
It began to get bumpy as we descended through 10,000 feet, and the weather wasn’t improving any as we continued to bleed off speed and altitude. Every now and then we’d hit an air pocket and drop suddenly, and the engines were whining some kind of spooky sounds, and I was getting a little nervous.
We were still in the clouds when the announcement came that we were on final approach, and as we finally broke through the clouds a few seconds later, I looked out the window, and saw a woman in her high-rise apartment watching television, in a 6- to 8-story building, not much taller. My next thought was, “Oh no….”
I honestly thought we were going to come down in a residential neighborhood. I could see people sitting down to dinner, and watching television, and I could see the clothes on their clotheslines so clearly, I probably could have ballparked what size they were.
As I dug my hands into the arms of my seat, we banked slowly to the right, then leveled out, and the next thing I saw was the airport’s inner marker, and then the stripes on the wet runway beneath us. I sat back and waited for the bump of the wheels, and as they touched the ground I began breathing normally again.
The arrivals area was a sea of humanity; the taxi area worse. It was by now almost 8 pm in Hong Kong, and a day later, and it felt like the middle of rush hour. I soon learned it was always rush hour in that city, but from that day on Hong Kong was my base of operations in Asia, and my hometown away from home.Here are two videos for your reference. Unfortunately, the site admin is a dickhead, and refused to allow me to re-post them here.
Landing at Kai-Tak in the rain, cockpit view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g-ArLYsloI
What these approaches look like from street level: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyU9OLqQ8XA
NEXT: FORCED AIR CONDITIONING
I’m talking about the hazardous level of air pollution in Beijing, not the litany of crimes against humanity the Communist Chinese government visits upon its citizens every day, although The Black Cloud of Beijing can be counted as one of those atrocities.
A clear day with fresh air has become a thing of the ancient past in the Chinese capital. People ride around on their bicycles, now less and less common as more Chinese can afford cars, with inefficient paper filter masks, as many of the particles pass right through the filter as easily as water through a strainer.
Imagine a United States without an Environmental Protection Agency. That’s China today. Think about that shit before you vote for President this November. Yeah, that’s right, Teabaggers, I’m talking to you.
Out past the city limits you can still find an agrarian culture mixed in with modern factories that were moved outside the cities to pollute the suburbs. And in front of the shiny new facades of office buildings or heavy industry plants, you can still see evidence of that: tractors, three-wheeled passenger scooters, all made in the 1940s-1960s, before China opened up to the West, and all puking out clouds of black sooty exhaust, which mixes in with dust from the fields, and smoke from the stubble of previous crops.
The Chinese knew decades ago that their cities would become unlivable as they modernized their machine. But all they did was spread the pollution across a much wider area. An hour from Beijing, there are enormous paper-recycling plants, fed by garbage from your dumpster or mine, or the store down the street.
Waste paper exports to China are huge. Ask any steamship operator that runs the Asia routes; they stay alive by loading up with waste paper before they sail back to China. Otherwise, they’d be empty.
Profits on the importation of foreign waste paper undoubtedly contribute to the Chinese navy’s modernization, and the commensurate gearing up of their entire military.
When you boil it all down, the United States is doing now what they did before World War II; we helped gear the Japanese up by shipping them scrap metal, which was returned to us as bombs and bullets, starting with Pearl Harbor.
We made the same mistake again when we gave Japan the transistor, which of course led to the Made in Japan era and the downfall of the American education system.
“How’s that?” you ask. We send Japan scrap metal; they make bombs and drop them on us. We send Japan the transistor, and they make Nintendo, thereby bombing Americans of school age into vidiots. Now, we send China our garbage, and they build up their military with the profits.
And which two rogue countries are on the brink of obtaining nuclear weapons? North Korea and Iran, the two countries with the most brain-fucked leaders on the planet. And they’re both asshole buddies with who? China.
Do we need to be reminded every single day how our dealings with unfriendly foreign powers have come back to strike us in a deadly manner in the past?
Sadly, we do.
NEXT: Rapid Descent
A corkscrew and a bucket of ice.
You’d think it would be simple enough, wouldn’t you?
I checked in at the Grand Regency Hotel in Qingdao, China, and expected, understandably, to get the special treatment promised by the hotel that boasts itself as the first five-star hotel in Shandong Province. The lobby was ornate, modern, lots of polished marble, and literally an army of bellhops, ashtray-cleaners, table-polishers, you get the idea. I was impressed from the start.
I had just come from Dalian, across the bay in Liaoning Province, and wanted to be spoiled. Dalian was a gray, dreary city, right out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984. I’ll save the rest for another time – Dalian deserves its own space.
So, back to the hotel: I sign the papers, get my card and my passport back, and I bend down to pick up my laptop bag. Two bellhops were on it in a flash, blitzing me from both sides. “No, Sir, I carry,” they said in stereo.
“No, that’s OK. I’ll take this; you can take the rest,” I said to either of them.
The elder of the two made another try for my computer bag.
“Hey! I said I’ll take this one.”
“Please,” he says, not making direct eye-contact, but focusing on the bag, “I will carry. I take it to your room in few minutes.”
I took the laptop bag, picked up my papers and room-key card, took a couple of steps toward the elevators, and pointed to the rest of my luggage for the overzealous lobby-monkey. Unless you have a badge or a gun, possession of my computer, even temporarily, is not tolerated. Especially in China. Story for another time.
I step out of the elevator on my floor, check the sign, and made a right towards my room. Right outside the elevator, on the ceiling, and not concealed in any way, was a security camera dome. OK. As the hall bent toward the right, at the apex of the bend, on my left, was another security camera dome. Hmm.
As I passed some rooms, I noticed that there were still more security cameras. One on the ceiling directly over each door; and another one straight across the hall, which was mounted where the wall opposite the room met the ceiling. All angles covered. I was not liking this.
About a step inside the room, on the ceiling, was another goddamn security camera. “Better not leave the bathroom door open,” I’m thinking, but the bastards probably have a couple in there too. And… another pair of cameras, strategically placed, of course, in the bedroom. Great! They had every goddamn inch of the room covered.
I sat on the straight chair at the desk they provided with this deluxe king-sized room, slogged down a locally-brewed Tsing Tao Beer, and read through the Official Hotel Rules for Visitors to The People’s Republic of China while I awaited the arrival of my luggage. I was looking forward to taking a nice hot shower before my first meeting, which was in about three hours.
A different bellhop arrived with my luggage. I learned later that the guy who wanted my laptop bag hadn’t worked there long enough to deliver luggage; he was only the luggage collector. Impressive — I was being served by specialists.
I closed the door behind the bellhop, locked it, put the chain on the door, and plugged the peephole with a piece of tissue. What I really wanted to do was to cover the camera domes with shaving cream or something, but I went about the business of settling in and preparing for my meeting. I’d have time to make my political statement. Instead, I took a shower and got dressed.
My guests arrived right on time, 9:30 PM, and buzzed me from the lobby as I’d requested; told them to come on upstairs and gave them the room number. Another lobby monkey brought them up, dropped them at the doorstep, and did a swift about-face. Visions of PLA marching through Tiananmen Square.
The office manager, whom I’ll call Xiong, because his breath was like a bear’s, and his assistant? interpreter? date? – I wasn’t sure which – came in; I greeted them and they both welcomed me to their city. Then Xiong asked me if I’d ever heard of their “fay-merce” beer, as he pronounced it, which was much more potent here in China than the swill they export to the United States.
“Yes, of course,” I answered, thinking I’d missed the opportunity to offer them something to drink. I smiled uncomfortably, but continued smoothly, “and forgive me for not offering you a drink….”
“No problem! Don’t worry. I can order some tea,” he said, waving off the apology, “I call downstairs,” and he picked up the phone on the table and ordered. I signed for it when it arrived, we had our tea and made our conference call back to the States, and they were gone by 10:45. “Rules say Chinese must be out of room by eleven o’clock. Hotel for foreigners only,” Xiong said as they left.
I locked the door and flipped the bird to each of the cameras that had me in view. “Fuck you, Deng Xiao-Ping, and Li Peng, and their mothers too.” Business was mercifully over. I sat down on the bed to swap my shoes for my slippers, and felt like I’d just sat on a block of cement. What the fuck? I’m supposed to sleep on this… this slab?
I made a post-meeting call and was done in about a minute and a half. But only the bar downstairs was open, and I was hungry and tired, and now I was really steamed about the goddamn concrete bed. And I didn’t want to wait an hour for limited room service, which was all they had after eleven.
Then I noticed a welcome basket on the dresser next to the armoire. Damn! How did I not see that? Apples, oranges, a little basket of tiny sweet cherries, a triangular box of Toblerone, some cheese and crackers, and two bottles of local wine, a white and a red! And a card from the people I’d just met with and hadn’t thanked because I just noticed it.
The Soup Commie
I picked up the phone on the night-table, and punched the Room Service number. They picked right up, and I asked for a corkscrew for the wine, and a bucket of ice to chill it in. The guy asked someone there a question in heavily-accented Chinese. I understood a few words. “Shenme?” was one of them. It means “What?” After he got his answer, he comes back to the phone, “OK, ten minute. Thank youuuu….”
I turned the TV on, flipped through the channels, and was pleasantly surprised to find CNN International, as well as Star News, which I knew from Hong Kong, and a number of CCTV channels, one of which was in English. Knock on the door. “Room Service.”
Things were looking up. I open the door, and the first thing I smell is soup. Huh? He lifts the metal cover for a moment to reveal what’s under Dome #1: a bowl of soup. “Corn soup,” he says. I suppress a laugh. I notice there’s no ice bucket.
“Where’s the bucket of ice?” I’m not pleased.
He gives me a quizzical look, and says, “We… do not have basket… for rice. I apologize.” And he lifts Dome #2 to reveal a huge bowl of rice. “Is large bowl OK?” I look up toward the ceiling, wanting to ask God a rhetorical question, but I looked right into the camera dome above my head. Steaming now.
“No! Not OK! Bu dui!” I turned around, picked up the phone, and called Room Service. “Excuse me, this is Room 815. I just called and ordered a corkscrew and a bucket of ice, and the guy’s standing here with corn soup and a freaking bowl of rice! Do you have anyone there who speaks English!?”
“Moment….” Man with slightly less affected English comes on the phone. “I’m sorry, sir. What was it you ordered?”
“I – ordered – a – corkscrew – and – a – bucket – of – ice,” I said, enunciating every word, careful to cover my New York accent. He’d never get “kawks krue” in a million years. And I repeated it, explaining as I went along: “A bucket of ice, to chill a bottle of wine, and a corkscrew, to open the bottle,” as if I were teaching an English class. How could he possibly mess up? “OK, ten minute. Thank you,” and he hung up.
I turn back to Mr. Room Service. I couldn’t resist: “No soup for me!” and I politely closed the door. Back to investigating the incredibly solid mattress. I lift off the bedspread and toss it over the side, and continue to pull off layers until I reach mattress. There’s not very much soft to be found below the blanket.
I slap my hand on the mattress, and there’s maybe a couple of centimeters of ineffective padding above and below, and an even thinner layer on the sides. Inside, springs — probably like the ones they have at NORAD — and a thick wooden frame and a metal rim that jabbed me in the ass when I sat on the edge of the mattress. You could bounce a dime off the goddamn thing, and it sounded hollow. Where the hell is that goddamn corkscrew and bucket of ice?
The Last Straw
Knock on the door. Now they’re tuning into my thoughts. It really had been an exhausting day, starting with a 5:00 AM wakeup call in Dalian. Same Room Service guy, this time with a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice, and two glasses. Nice presentation, but we still have a failure to communicate. I take the open bottle out of the bucket, put it on the tray, and take the bucket of ice.
I put one of the two bottles I’d received into the bucket of ice, and put it down by the mini-bar, and I give the guy a buck and send him back. By now it’s after midnight, and I’m wearing a pair of Denver Broncos sweats and a Bruce Springsteen “Born In The USA” album-cover t-shirt. But the bar is open, so I take the bottle and my room key, take the elevator down to the mezzanine, and walk into the bar.
Not surprisingly, it was almost empty, except for some suits. I signal to the bartender, show him the bottle I’m holding and pantomime a corkscrew. He takes a good look at this fat, pissed-off American, and motions for me to give him the bottle, then takes it to a machine mounted behind the bar, and pops the cork in a second flat. Then he hands it back to me with the neatly-pulled cork.
I handed good old Jeeves a couple of dollars, and padded my way back to the elevator, bottle in one hand, cork in the other, got off on the 8th floor, looked up at the camera over my room door, took an Animal House sized gulp from the bottle, and thundered a belch that would have made Jon Belushi proud. Victory was mine!
The Five Stars
I managed to drink enough of that wine to get a good seven hours of sleep on the China National Institutional Rock-Hard Mattress Import/Export Co. Factory Number Three deluxe king-sized slab, and checked out right after breakfast. I had my people pick me up in front of the hotel, and let them check me into a smaller, more personal, hotel right across the street from a beautiful string of waterfront parks.
Xiong put the cap on the trip by advising me that ALL the hotels in China are Five-Star Hotels — just count the stars on the flag out front.
Taking a Chinese friend to the Museum of Flight in Seattle
One of the reasons I used to travel overseas on a regular basis was that very few people who flew eight thousand miles to do business in major port cities wanted to waste time in Denver, Colorado. Unless they were forced to change planes in Denver, and/or they got snowed in, we rarely saw foreign visitors; and on the rare occasion when we did, they stayed overnight and then split town the very next morning.
So, it was a very special occasion when, after I’d moved to Seattle and left the industry, one of my friends and former associates from Shanghai was in town, and spent a couple of nights at my home in between business meetings. Franz had chosen the name he did because when he started doing business overseas, he mostly interfaced with companies in Germany. He would have used “Fritz,” he told me, but that was the name of a big company in the shipping business, whom its competitors disliked.
Franz was a brilliant guy; he’d just missed out on going to Columbia University by a few points on some exam, but he’d been on track to become a physician until then. He ended up in the shipping business, and luckily he eventually found his way to the West, as did a number of my friends.
I had a lot of time to think about where to take Franz on his first-ever trip to the U.S., and the first place I came up with was The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field/King County Airport in Seattle.
The United States may not have man-made wonders like The Forbidden City or The Great Wall, but we do have some great museums where you can actually play with some very cool stuff.
I previewed him on the exhibits he could expect to see, and he was really looking forward to going on the old Air Force One.
We set out for the museum early so we could maximize our time there. We were behind a few groups who’d arrived shortly before we did, so we paced around the entrance area, and suddenly Franz looked up as if he’d forgotten something.
“What’s up, guy?” I asked him.
“I need to get my passport; it’s in the car,” he apologized.
I asked him why, and he postulated that surely a foreigner needed to hand his passport over to gain entrance. “No, why would they need your passport?” I asked him.
He thought about that for a moment and said, in a hushed voice, “Because I am from a Communist country, and that was your president’s plane. Isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah,” I told him, “but it’s open to the public, which means you can go on it and take pictures and do whatever anyone else can. These things aren’t national secrets; it’s just an old airplane.”
I think he was confused by how casually I referred to it. To him it was a really huge deal; to walk through the airplane that used to carry the President of the United States of America, leader of the free world. To me, well, I never did like Henry Kissinger, and I spent my last year of high school protesting in the streets to demand Richard Nixon’s impeachment. So it was for me a reminder of my tumultuous teenage years.
I’d also stood in the shadow of President Clinton’s Air Force One, a mighty and impressive 747 a couple of times, and although I never had the chance to see the inside of it, I was quite impressed by it.
Franz and I walked back to the car anyway, but not to pick up his passport; instead, we went to get his camera and a spare roll of film, which he’d left behind because he never expected to be allowed to take pictures there. He was pretty excited to see the American fighter jets, but even moreso to see the Chinese MiG-15 a North Korean defector flew to freedom during the Cold War.
I really didn’t think much about it, because I’d seen the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels many times before. But it was the first time he’d ever seen one of his own country’s fighter jets.