Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fast Trains and Google Maps

I now travel several times a month for work. Last week when I flew to Shanghai I landed at Pudong Airport, where I was able to take the maglev high-speed train to downtown Pudong, in only eight minutes. The train reaches a speed over 440 km/hr for about two seconds before starting to decelerate, and a group of passengers stood in front of the digital display, cameras in hand, ready to snap their photos when the train reach its peak speed. This evening I needed to reach Beijing Capital Airport quickly because of time constraints so I took the bullet train from Dongzhimen station in downtown Beijing. The 20 minute trip, covering a shorter distance than the Pudong run, was not nearly so comfortable and wouldn't have saved me much time at all if it hadn't been rush hour and I'd had a good driver.

When my flight reaches its destination tonight I'm prepared to tell a cab driver the city where I want to go, about an hour away, and I have the phone number of my hotel and a pdf copy of a map as backup. The original plan had been for a driver to pick me up from the airport and drive me to the hotel, but the cost turned out to be exorbitant. Last week I sheepishly asked an assistant to email me a copy of the hotel address and a Google map, with all information in Hanzi (Chinese characters), just in case of a last minute change in plans. When a colleague called tonight to ask if I'd have a problem getting from the airport to my final destination by taxi instead of limo I was able to tell her not to worry, I was prepared. Long live contingency plans!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Best View in Shanghai

This week I'm in Shanghai for a conference. After today's sessions I headed into downtown Pudong for some exploration. The area has changed extensively since I last walked along the waterfront in 2005. Then there were some skyscrapers and many cranes, part of the construction boom. The cranes are still there, but there are many more tall buildings.

One of the most eyecatching is the 88 story Jin Mao Tower, completed in 1999. Like many landmark buildings in Asia, the bottom floors are used for retail space. Office space inhabits the floors above that. Floors 54 and above are used for the Grand Hyatt Hotel, with a bar named Cloud 9 on the 87th floor.

Quiet and sleak luxury is the general feeling when you walk into the space. The decor plays second fiddle to the view of the Shanghai riverfront and the nearby Oriental Pearl Tower, and acknowledges that with understated elegance. At 9:30pm I was one of a handful of people in the bar area, though tables around the corner from us were filled with couples and small groups of friends. The bartender knew what he was doing an made a perfect dirty martini, with just a hint of vermouth.

It was a lovely evening.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Blue Skies

Beijing has had blue skies for the last several days. More than usual. It's lovely.

Yesterday I ran into a friend and we both remarked on the beautiful day that was beckoning us outside, and that we've seen more beautiful days this year than we did last year. We're not the only ones who have noticed the trend.

The economic downturn has resulted in fewer exports from China, which has caused factories all around the country, including the areas around Beijing, to shut down. Fewer factories mean less emissions. And blue skies.

We're enjoying the blue skies.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sunshine and Joy

Springtime is here, for real, at long last.

Heat in most (non-luxury) Beijing buildings was turned off on March 15. While we had a couple of warm days after that we've spent most of the last week with low temperatures, shivering in our apartments. I've been sleeping with my electric space heater on high, heavy wool socks on my feet and a second comforter on my bed.

Today, however, spring has sprung. I broke out a new linen shirt that I had seamstress make for me, based on another shirt that I brought from the U.S. last year, rode a bicycle to run an errand, then met a friend and her two young children for lunch at a hidden noodle bar for lunch, with the sunshine streaming through the window.

We don't know the name of the place, only that to enter it you need to go into an unmarked door off of a back alley, but the noodles were fresh and delicious, and mine came with eggplant and green peppers. Afterward, we went for iced tea and played with the children before taking a short walk in the sun.

Last week I bought several plants for the apartment, in an attempt to counter some small part of the pollution that I am breathing. A lavender plant and two small cacti for my bedroom, a lemon balm plan for the living room. By Wednesday the lemon balm was wilting. At first I thought it didn't like the cold so I brought it into my bedroom (I have a space heater going at night, since it's been quite cold for the last couple of weeks), but Thursday it was even worse. Ayi (cleaning woman) put it on the patio, but it still got worse. Yesterday I was showing it to my language tutor, who had seen it healthy and lush after i bought it, and realized that it was light. I watered it last week but apparently not enough. The poor thing was dry as a bone. I gave it a pitcher of water and by the time I got home from pizza and movie night at a friend's house it was looking much better. This morning it appeared back on the track to providing lots of leaves for lemon mint tea this season. I had to cull a bunch of leaves but I'm glad I managed to save it.