Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Lengthy Reminiscence: Part Four (and Final)

TSMP in the Forbidden City.  She did touristy stuff while I froze my ass off at work. 

More Forbidden City
Still More Forbidden City
The tale continues…earlier installments are just below. (ed: still sorta true - see below for Parts One and Two)

After about five days of work, we (the client and I) finished editing the RFP, producing a final document which was ready to be put “on the street” for prospective bidders. One of the final activities was to wrap up some administrative details, which necessitated a visit to the Chinese government contracting authority who handled the business end of the deal. The contracting authority was an entity separate and apart from the Ministry of Rails and was responsible for oversight of the project. The purpose of my visit with these guys was to verify that the consulting contract had been completed to the MOR’s satisfaction; all items on the Statement of Work, including the deliverables (the RFP), were done; and EDS could submit our bill for services rendered. I delivered a written statement from MOR saying the work had been completed to their satisfaction, and from my point of view that should have been the end of it. But first I had to complete an interview with a contracting officer.
The contracting officer was a middle-aged, bilingual bureaucrat who spoke excellent English, and my visit with him was anything but pleasant. I suppose the guy had to justify his existence, because I was subjected to a half-hour’s worth of what could only be called an interrogation…in the worst sense of the word. While I wasn’t waterboarded or anything, it was close. A clerk or some sort of minor functionary ushered me into a small bare office where the interview took place. The office was furnished only with a desk, two metal chairs, and was lit by a single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The office resembled the set of a bad spy movie, which is one of the reasons I characterize this interview as an interrogation.

As I entered the room the officer, sitting behind the desk, pointed to a chair in front of the desk and instructed me to “sit.” He gave me his name, took a few minutes to read the MOR documents and then began to pepper me with rapid-fire questions about the nature of the work, why it took so many hours to complete, who were my principal counterparts at MOR, did they express any dissatisfaction with my work or the deliverables, were there any loose ends, did I give MOR my very best efforts and so on. The officer asked many of the questions over and over, some were repeated several times. He abruptly concluded the interview by handing me some documents and dismissing me, literally, with a “Very well. You may go.” And that was it. He didn’t rise from behind the desk and there was no parting handshake. Just a curt “You may go.” I walked out of the office, and the building, more than a little angry. This encounter had been completely different than the sum total of my other experiences the past week, and I was mildly shocked. Maybe the guy was having a bad day, or maybe this was just the way they did business. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t pleasant, as I said. But it was over.

I returned to MOR’s offices and gave them their copies of the documents given to me by the contracting officer. I was then led to the same conference room where the week’s activities had begun, and was surprised to see all my project counterparts, the Chief Engineer, Wen, and several other people gathered there. What followed were several speeches (in Chinese) by the Chief Engineer and the junior engineers, many smiles, thank-yous, and handshakes all around. I, in turn, made a brief speech thanking them for their hospitality, cooperation, and hard work. All very formal!

The Chief Engineer presented with me with a parting gift, followed by a brief period of informal socializing, with tea and sweet cakes. The Chief Engineer asked (through Wen) when I was leaving Beijing (day after tomorrow), and what were my plans for the following day? I replied TSMP and I were going to do more sightseeing, after which the Chief Engineer had a brief exchange with one of his subordinates. Wen then told me the Chief Engineer was giving me the car and a driver for the day tomorrow, and we were going to go to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Wen told me the car and the trip were rewards for a job well-done. And then it was time to go. It goes without saying that those two experiences, back-to-back, were as different as night and day…a true “good cop, bad cop” kinda thing!

PLA Soldiers on the Wall
Wen, car, and driver arrived at the Shangri-La early the following morning and we were off to the Great Wall, which was about an hour’s drive outside of the city. Once again, it was cold. Bone chilling cold, and if that Lada had any heat, it only got to the occupants of the front seat. TSMP and I shivered in the back. We arrived at the Great Wall and spent about two hours there, clambering all around, taking lots of photos, and just generally having a marvelous time. TSMP and I were impressed with the scale and scope of the Wall, its skillful restoration, and the sheer numbers of people that were there. There were literally thousands of people, the crowds were amazing. The majority of the people were Chinese, including quite a few PLA soldiers and officers. There were also many tourists of every conceivable nationality. The people-watching opportunities were unlimited and fascinating.

Wen gave us a running commentary of the history of the Wall all through out our visit and included lots of trivia, including the fact that I was now a “real man.” Say what? Wen explained there’s an old Chinese proverb that says a man isn’t truly a man until he’s stood upon the Great Wall. Well, Allll-RIGHT!!! I’m a man, spelled M-A-N… da, da, da-DAH! (Apologies to Muddy Waters.)  (pic: Wen and TSMP on the Wall)

We had lunch and did some shopping at an artists’ mall (for lack of a better word), where we picked up a beautiful large watercolor painting of blooming cherry blossoms, done in the classic Chinese motif. As an aside of no purpose whatsoever, that painting was one of the few items TSMP decided to keep when we ended.

And then it was on to the Ming Tombs (there are great photos and external links at this reference), which weren’t nearly as interesting (to me) as the Great Wall. Whereas the Great Wall was over-run with tourists, we were virtually alone at the Ming Tombs, a fact I found rather strange. The architecture was great, as was the extensive collection of statuary, but the cold was really beginning to get to me by the time we arrived at the Tombs. And, as I mentioned previously, the lack of heat in the car meant that warming up was a virtual impossibility. (pic: At the Ming Tombs)

We capped off the day with a tremendous meal in a roadside restaurant on the way back into the city. The meal, and the restaurant, seemed pre-arranged. Our driver pulled right into the restaurant’s “parking lot” with no prompting from anyone, and we all got out of the car and went inside. An unusual aspect of this experience is the restaurant’s proprietors wouldn’t let us eat in the main dining room; we were ushered upstairs to a small room where the four of us ate, alone. I though that rather odd. But, that’s a small point. The meal, as I said, was tremendous. The four of us shared what had to be 15 main course dishes, all delicious, and all served up with great flair. There was meat, chicken, a huge baked fish (bass, I think), and numerous vegetables, some spicy hot, and some not. Each dish was deposited on one of those large lazy-susans one finds in Chinese restaurants all over the world, and we ate Chinese style. That meal was the best meal I had while in China.

We got back to the hotel in the early evening. TSMP, Wen, and I got out of the car and said our good-byes. Wen blushed, very visibly, when TSMP ignored his outstretched hand and gave him a hug and a big kiss on his cheek instead. The good-byes were quite poignant, as TSMP and I had become quite attached to Wen during the week. And it all went by SO fast…

And so we left for Tokyo the following day. Our arrival at Narita, and the subsequent bus ride into Tokyo was something of a relief. TSMP and I both arrived at that particular conclusion simultaneously, remarking on that fact to each other nearly at the same time. We agreed that it was largely because we were now in familiar surroundings, the known versus the unknown. It was good to see lots of cars, lots of traffic, and above all, lots of light. Beijing was unbelievably dark. (pic: back in familiar territory - Tokyo)

Bedtime in Japan - at one of TSMP's host family's house
Why I love Japan - Beer Machines!
TSMP and her best friend Junko
We spent a week in Tokyo and the surrounding vicinity (including Christmas Day), staying and visiting with friends and TSMP’s host families from her Rotary exchange student days. The week in Tokyo is worth a story all its own, so I won’t go into detail, except to say it was something of a sentimental journey. TSMP and I met in Tokyo in 1975, when she was an exchange student at Sofia University. Yeah, she milked that exchange student thing for all it was worth, and then some!
Some final observations I was unable to work into the foregoing narrative(s)…

Besides being dark and cold, Beijing was also the most polluted city I’ve ever visited, bar none. There was a fine layer of soot all over everything in our hotel room by the end of the day, despite the Herculean efforts of the housekeeping staff.

Each city I’ve ever visited outside the US has a characteristic and unique…uh…aroma. Beijing smelled old to me. It was a musty sort of smell, a combination of coal smoke, diesel exhaust, natural dust, and construction dust plus an indeterminate “other.” As I said: unique.

The elevators at the Shangri-La had carpets inside with the day of the week lavishly embroidered on them, i.e., “Monday,” “Tuesday,” etc.. TSMP and I never figured out when, or how, the carpets were changed. We made a game of trying to catch the staff changing out the carpets, hanging out in and around the elevators at midnight, but we never saw them do it. And the “day of the week” changed precisely at midnight!

While I'm on about the hotel, I have to mention the servers in the Lobby Lounge, who were all beautiful, tall young women dressed in qipaos, the silky, clingy, traditional female Chinese dress. The one with the slits up the side…all the way to mid-thigh. And the servers were quite friendly, too, bordering on flirtatious. I got several hard looks from TSMP on account of that fact. Well, that and my trying-not-to-be-obvious leering.

We thought our driver was a member of the Chinese KGB (or equivalent thereof). We always had the same driver, he never said a word, and he was always observing us in his rear-view mirror. We were sure he spoke English, even though Wen said he didn’t. TSMP and I devised several “tests” that convinced us the guy did indeed understand English. That aspect of the trip was kinda strange, yet fun and interesting.

And finally…I replaced that dishrag, the one that started this series of incredibly long posts, with an English tea towel. That tea towel was, up until now, used for the sole purpose of drying my glasses after I wash them. And I’ve had it nearly as long as the dishrag it replaced. Don’t get me started on how I came to acquire that rag. Or where. ‘Tis a whole nuther story, as they say…


  1. Bravo! Thank you for taking us on your trip down memory lane. The last paragraph wrap up just delighted me because of course I had forgotten about the dishrag that started it all. Maybe we can look forward to some day hearing about the tea towel?

  2. Great story! Suddenly I find that I am hungry for Chinese food. What did TSMP do during the day while you worked? Was there shopping near the hotel where she could do some sightseeing on her own?

  3. Laurie: Dunno about the tea towel. I know the thing came from Britain. I just can't remember (clearly) if I picked it up while TSMP, a good friend of ours, and SN1 were on vacation there in '89 or so, or if I nicked it from the corporate apartment I stayed in while in London on a job in '94. Either one or both would make good stories, though. Except there's a lot about the vacation I can't reveal. The walls have ears...and they can read, too.

    Lou: TSMP had her own "punch list" of things to do and see, and she kept busy...which is an understatement. She spent a full day in the Forbidden City, and I seem to remember she went back a second day because there was so much to see. On another day she went to a university near the hotel and dropped in unannounced on the Dean of the English department, who took her around and spent nearly half a day with her. That was a good story. And yes, she did some shopping, as well, with recommendations from the concierge on where to go for what. Beijing had different shopping areas for different things...

  4. Marvelous story! (applause, applause) Thanks, Buck!
    I hope that Wen is okay. (Pronounced Juan?) He seemed like a super nice guy.
    That bureaucrat sounded intimidating. That would give one a taste of what the poor locals have to deal with. Reminds me of that book on the Soviet bureaucracy, "Nomenklatura." I got some insight about that sort of behavior and I shudder at imagining it. You had quite an experience, Buck!

    TSMP sounds like a real adventurer and a great travel companion.
    The Great Wall must have been amazing to see.

  5. Thanks Dad! As much time as we've spent together, there are always things I learn just by reading your blog!

    I remember fondly the vacation of '89! What a great trip: London, pubs, Oxford, pubs, B&Bs, pubs, castles, pubs, the Tate, pubs, traveling on the tube, and did I mention the pubs?


    Party right off the plane!

    New Years eve at the Dew Drop Inn!

    I'm sure you could tell that story...I even have pictures if you're interested...without incriminating any of us, I think...

    Well, most of it anyway!


  6. I think SN1 should tell us some stories.

  7. Bec said: TSMP sounds like a real adventurer and a great travel companion.

    She was all that and a bag o' chips! I DO miss the girl...

    About Wen (pronounced "When," without the "H"): TSMP wrote him twice after we returned from Beijing and she never received a reply. Makes one wonder if he ever received the letters, because he didn't strike us as the sort who wouldn't answer...

    Buck: I agree with Lou...I think you ought to entertain us with stories about that '89 vacation! You left out Lyme Regis, Stonehenge, and Glastonbury, among other stuff... Besides, you have the photos (I don't) and I don't think you've killed off nearly as many brain cells as I have in the the time that's passed since then. An arguable point, to be sure, but I think you get my drift...


Just be polite... that's all I ask.