China Trip—Day 5

January 22, 2006

5:30 PM Nick left this afternoon to return to the States. He’ll fly to Chicago, change planes, and fly on Birmingham. He and Mark and Dave have had a blast hanging out together. I don’t think this will be his last trip to China.
12:56 PM I’ve already commented on the traffic. Just one more word. I thought drivers in Haiti were reckless, but they’ve got nothing on the drivers in Beijing. For one thing, nowadays lots of private citizens have cars (a huge change from a few years ago when virtually everyone rode bicycles). Then you have buses and a vast array of cabs plus you have motorcycles, bikes, pedicabs, and pedestrians who cross the street whenever they feel like it. Every trip except one this week has been by taxi. It’s cheap and the drivers are fearless. One day we were heading down a jammed thoroughfare toward the center of the city. The driver wanted to go faster so he started driving astride the stripes that mark the lanes on the street. There we were on a packed street, riding between the lanes and no one seemed to notice. Plus people honk over here even quicker than in the states. We’ve had, oh, maybe 100 close calls this week. Every single time we nearly hit a biker or a motorcycle or a pedestrians. No big deal. Cars create their own lanes, people drive diagonally, everyone honks all the time, and bikers and pedestrians weave in and out of the traffic. It’s just plain crazy. And after a while, you don’t even think about it.
12:55 PM Fireworks are now legal in Beijing and late into the night you can hear vast explosions, far greater than the fireworks we hear in the States. These are huge arsenals that sound like a armored division has fired off a few rounds. Even as I type this note, I can hear fireworks in the distance. They say it becomes nonstop as Spring Festival gets closer.
12:17 PM Spring Festival (sometimes called “Chinese New Year”) begins next weekend, but a vast exodus of people leaving the city to go home started on Friday. A crowd of 100,000 mobbed the train station when snow storms to the west blocked the rail lines. Marlene, Nick and Mark spent an hour and a half in a cab going about 15 miles on Friday afternoon because the traffic was so heavy.
11:53 AM Guess what we saw today? Blue skies! Today is the first clear day since we’ve been in Beijing. In twenty-four hours we’ve gone from unbelievably polluted air to semi-clear skies. I told Marlene that I’m sure they’re hoping for about fifteen straight days like this when the Olympics come to town in 2008.
8:45 AM Yesterday I spoke to two different groups of leaders–once in the afternoon and once in the evening. The nature of the events (and the sheer size of Beijing) made it impractical to return to the Mac Center in between. My host said they were taking us to a fine Chinese restaurant, and did we want to go mild or spicy? Several days ago we visited a restaurant that Mark and Nick both thought was too bland. So of course I said let’s go spicy. Bad idea. Very bad idea. We visited one of the finest Szechwan restaurants in Beijing. Very swanky. Valet parking, well-dressed patrons, an enormous menu of many pages with pictures of every dish. I knew that Szechwan cooking is hot and spicy from watching Iron Chef. But I was not in the least prepared for what was to come. Our host ordered hot and spicy snails, carp cooked in a huge vat of oil with numbing peppers, shrimp with spicy coating, spicy peanuts, plus a few other dishes I can’t remember. It was a glorious meal from the gastronomic perspective. I even ate one of the snails and thought it was okay. But after the first dish or two, the spices began to get to me. I knew I was in trouble, but what could I do? I still had another presentation to make later in the evening. So we ate and ate and they kept bringing out dishes. Finally the time came to leave. My stomach had turned into a raging volcano. Marlene had a similar reaction, though much less. Nick less yet. And Mark evidently has a cast-iron stomach. I hasten to say again that the restaurant was lovely and the food was beautifully prepared. The problem was all with me.
We went to the next place for the presentation and it lasted almost two hours of me speaking through a translator and then answering questions. I barely made it through. It was a long night and it’s been a long morning. Someone told me they call it “Asian stomach.” The moral is clear: If you’ve got to do two long presentations, and they want to take you out in between, and they ask you if you want spicy, say no.

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