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Work in Shanghai ended Friday afternoon.

Next stop:   Beijing, to test the Peking Duck and inspect the Great Wall and Forbidden City. We had tickets for the 9 o’clock bullet train leaving from HongQiao station.

The hotel concierge suggested we get a taxi at 7:30 am, allowing an hour to get to the train station.  With a 5:45 wake up call, we tried to allow time to dress, finish packing, have breakfast, and get to the taxi stand by 7:15, no problem.

And it worked fine.  We were at the stand at 7:18 am, and the bellboy asked for our tickets so he could tell the driver where to take us.  The ticket said ShangHai HongQiao station to Beijing South station in both Chinese and English, and the train was the G2 leaving at 0900.  The bellboy said something to the effect of, “This isn’t the right station.  I know where it is.” After the chaos of getting two giant suitcases and assorted small baggage loaded into the car in the rain, I asked, “Are we going to HongQiao station?” and he replied, “I know where it is.  Don’t worry.”

Those famous last words: “Don’t worry.”

We piled into the car, and with the bell boy’s instructions, our driver pulled into light traffic. Through the winding streets of Pudong (new Shanghai).  Through the tunnel under the Pu river.  Through the winding streets of Puxi (old Shanghai).  And we were at the train station by 7:45, very comfortably early.

The taxi driver loaded all our baggage onto a cart run by a pair of energetic boys who charged us 80 RMB to take the bags from the taxi drop into the station.  We followed them at a quick trot through car traffic, through foot traffic, up an escalator, across the square in a light rain, and to a place where they could study the huge electronic departure board outside the station.

“Ticket.”

They looked at me, and it took a moment to figure out what they wanted.   I handed them one ticket, and they looked, handed it back, looked at the board, conferred, waited for the board to update, studied it, looked at their watches, and conferred again.  I began to study the board, too.  No G2.  Maybe I didn’t understand the system.

“Ticket.”

They needed another look.  After another consultation with each other, one of them began explaining the situation to us. Unfortunately, his English was almost as limited as our Chinese.  Frantic hand signals.  Nancy asked, “Taxi?  Wrong station?”  Pointing to his watch, one of them shook his head saying, “No.”  Everything came into sharp focus when they grabbed our bags and began to RUN across the drizzly plaza to a subway station.

We were at the wrong station.

Taking a subway anywhere was going to be a challenge because we were not travelling light.  In addition to two large rolling suitcases, we had my heavy computer bag, my small camera bag, Nancy’s handbag, Nancy’s travel bag, and a heavy bulky package consisting of one silk duvet, one silk duvet cover, silk sheets, and three silk pillow cases—all extra-king sized.

Back into the rain at another quick trot, following our bags into the station, through the halls, down the escalators, through more halls, and to the entry turnstiles.  It was still not obvious what the official position of these guys was, and a variety of unpleasant possibilities began to play in my mind.  Given that the clock was ticking down toward our departure time, our options were painfully limited.

One of the guys materialized two subway tickets, used one, encouraged Nancy through the gate, and followed with her bag.  As the gate closed behind them, I had only one choice left.  The second ticked opened the gate, and I passed through.  We were irrevocably in the hands of the Travel Gods. The trailing guy shoved my bag under the gate, hoisted himself over it, and we all were RUNNING through the station again, dodging and weaving around busy commuters.  I cannot begin to express the anxiety that Nancy felt as I tried to encourage her to “have faith and enjoy the adventure.”  Yeah, right.

When we got to the train platform, “Money.”  Boy 1 asked for 400.  OK, S$80 ought to cover the cost of subway tickets and leave them plenty for their trouble.  Fine.  He took the money, motioned that Boy 2 would go with us, and disappeared.  Boy 2 stayed, wrestling both big bags and half our carry-ons.

Now we noticed the subway stations for this line were listed above the entry door.  Nothing even close to HongQiao.  The subway arrived, and Boy 2 and bags hopped aboard.  Of course we followed.  Nancy was beginning to look pale.  She was now aboard a crowded subway car, in a strange city in China, surrounded by people and signs with whom she cannot communicate, heading in some unknown direction, with a very good chance of missing our 5-hour trip to Beijing.  From her perspective, not good.

More hand signals between me and our guy, and I finally worked out that we were going to transfer to a different line at the third stop.  Nancy also does not like making subway connections in the best of conditions.  Our train stopped, we piled off, bags and all, and began RUNNING again, up one escalator, down a couple of halls, a pause while our boy worked out whether to go right, left, or down, another escalator, and onto a second subway.  With some great relief, I saw that this one ran to Hongqiao Train Station – all the way at the end of the line, one stop beyond Hongquiao Airport!  The clock began to tick even more loudly; it was now 8:10 am.  A trip to the airport in thirty minutes seemed very optimistic, and we had to go one stop further. The car sped along, door opening at a dozen stops, and arrived somewhere near our train station at 8:42 am.

Hongqiao Station is a big place.  Very big.  A major terminus for trains from all parts of China to Shanghai.  We RAN again.  Up more escalators, down more halls.  Our boy paused to look around, try to get his bearings, and off we went with him pulling both bags, smaller parcels balanced atop.  Tick, tick, tick.  He stopped at an information desk to ask for directions.  This way.  RUN.

8:46. Tick tick tick

He stopped at another information desk.  That way.  RUN.

8:48.  TICK TICK TICK

Finally, we came to the transfer hall and saw the door for G2 at the far end of it.  RUN, dodging the crowd, through the door, and we finally saw the entry gate to our bullet train platform.

“Money.”

He typed a number into his cell phone to show me.  600.  Another S$120. Ow!

Sometimes, a graceful concession to the demands of the moment seems the best option.  It was 8:52.  This boy had managed to get us here in time, against all odds, with all our luggage.  In truth, he was asking for an outrageous payment, but I was grateful and didn’t have time to dicker, quibble, be outraged, or negotiate.  I paid. RMB, not dollars, but still a lot, even for the services rendered. He probably expected less than he asked, expecting me to haggle.  Sometimes, the role of the American businessman is to spoil the market.  I did.

He got us on the train, got our luggage put away, and got us settled into our seats by 8:57 am, at which point he waved and disappeared.

At exactly 9 am, the train pulled smoothly out of the station , as our heartbeats and breathing gradually returned  to normal.

Flying silently through Chinese countryside, the speed, prominently displayed in our car, vacillated between 300-315 km/hour.  That’s roughly 180 mph.

We pulled into Beijing South on time five hours later, primed to start our Beijing adventure.

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#1 – The hotel in Hong Kong was not very far from our office; it was a little further from our office to the client office. We had agreed to meet our local colleagues at the client office, and, while it was walkable, taking a taxi seemed easier and less likely that we would get lost and arrive late. The bellman hailed a taxi; the two guys from Singapore got in; we gave the taxi driver the building name and off we went.

Hong Kong is different from Singapore. The streets are as at least as crowded, but the taxis are much more aggressive. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride came to mind. The drivers speak English – some – but maybe not as fluently or as comfortably as in Sing. A good rule is: get in, sit down, hold tight, and close your eyes. Flag down, HK$20 on the meter, and off we went. We were at the client office building within five minutes, maybe less. The driver was not particularly happy with such a short ride. The meter still read only $20 (under US$3). My colleague tried to pay, using a $100 bill. The driver was not happy. And expressed it. We found a $20 for him. Then we discovered that the sidewalk side door would not open. After a few tries, it still wouldn’t open, and the driver wanted us out of his cab. He expressed his displeasure loudly. Sitting on the street side, I opened my door a little to check for traffic. Very, very busy road. The driver expressed his unhappiness. I tried to close the door again. He expressed even louder unhappiness. It took us a while, but we finally escaped, and the driver roared off.

#2 – After lunch in the hotel complex, we had an afternoon client meeting in the same building. We took the same strategy of taxi to the meeting. Different cab, same wild ride, same short fare. My colleague (the other guy from Singapore) is a native Singaporean of Indian descent. That is to say, he’s obviously not a Westerner. This time it was my turn to pay the fare. The meter read $20, I did the quick mental calculation, hoping that I had the right conversion rate, to US$3, and gave the driver $30. Big percent tip, not so big in actual dollars. It only seemed fair for such a short trip. Handing him the money, I said “xie xie,” Mandarin for “thank you.” I wanted him to know that I knew the fare amount and did not expect any change in return. He said, “thank you” (English for “xie xie”), we got out of the cab, he drove off, and we went to our meeting. On the way upstairs, my colleage told me that I had fulfilled the standard Westerner role of spoiling the market by overtipping. Good to do what is expected of you.

#3 – When it was time to go home, we took a taxi from the hotel to Central, where we could catch the express train to the airport. The ride was a little longer than our morning rides, but the meter only got to $23. I think my colleague was still feeling the reverberation from our first ride of the day, so I had the responsibility of paying. We decided that we’d include all our pocket change as the tip, so we wouldn’t have to worry about the airport metal detectors. When we got to Central, I had a $20 bill and a handful of change amounting to about $8 or so. I gave it all to the driver who did a double take and wanted to make sure that I understood that the fare was (much) less. Knowing my role as a Westerner, I wanted to play it well. Spoil the market. With the appropriate body language – lots of smiles, head nodding, hand waving – I indicated that it was all for him and wished him “prosperous New Year” in somewhat fractured Mandarin. That broke the ice. He corrected both pronunciation and language. Cantonese is the usual Chinese in Hong Kong, so we spent a couple of minutes getting me straightened out on the Cantonese version. When I had it more or less straight – that is, pretty good for a Westerner, from his point of view – we both had a good laugh.

Gong xi fa cai to one and all!

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This morning Mike and I walked to Holland Village to have hair cuts, and we got the works again, including massage shampoos.  And somehow I got talked into an extra-deluxe moisturizing treatment, and he got talked into an extra-deluxe product to prevent further hair loss—so we left our “salon experience” a little lighter than we expected . . . but stylishly coiffed.  Then we had to “research” some fancy kind of festive torte for next Saturday when we’re having a couple of young women (another story) over for Christmas Eve dinner.  So we went window-shopping at several bakeries/dessert places in Holland V and found out how early we’d have to order our something decadently chocolate for next weekend.

Next on our agenda was heading to an Orchard Road mall where we knew a Citibank branch was open on Saturday afternoon.  This involved first waiting for a jammed bus, standing all the way, and fighting our way through Christmas shopping hordes on the street.   We spent another 30 minutes at Citibank with an extremely polite youngster attired like a banker in dark suit/white shirt filling out the paperwork, passport info, and signing multiple forms.  This was just to get me a supplemental credit card for one Mike already has.  By then we were starving for lunch, and the Ion Mall “food hall” (mammoth food court with many dozens of places) was jam-packed.  But we finally found a tiny table and ended up with a great roasted duck lunch with veggies.  But after all that window shopping for tortes, it didn’t feel right without stopping at one of the enticing shops to buy two tiny bits of dark chocolate truffle on our way out ($4.40—and they were VERY tiny).

We still had to go grocery shopping—and this time we were off on the MRT (subway) to Carre Four a “megamarket” in a different 10-story mall (slightly cheaper prices than the typical Cold Storage supermarkets).  It’s so big it’s on two floors, and because it’s the holidays, it was also more mobbed than usual, but we managed to fill our cart with $245 of food and wine, including a plump whole duck to roast for the aforementioned Christmas Eve dinner (and inspired by our duck lunch).  Mike was careful to point out to me that  the “whole” duck included a long neck and head attached. We then stood in the taxi line for 10 minutes with our 10 bags of groceries and were whisked home in another 10 minutes.

We unpacked and put everything away and were both so exhausted that we sank into the sofa to “read,” where Mike woke up from a dead sleep in the pitch dark at 7:30 pm.  I had somewhere along the line staggered to our bedroom and was also dead asleep.  So he fixed a couple of omelets for a late dinner, and now it’s just after 9 pm, and I’m writing YOU!

So that’s a tiny glimpse into a Singapore Saturday for us, and weirdly, it’s all starting to seem somewhat normal.

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An IKEA Weekend

Nancy arrived early Saturday morning. I set the alarm for an unreasonably early hour and set off to catch the first train of the day to get to the airport to meet her. Even at 5:30, I was not the only person on the train, and as we went from one stop to the next, the train gradually filled up. By the time we got to the airport – two transfers later – the cars weren’t quite rush hour full, but there was definitely a good sized crowd. As expected, at the last stop – the airport – the station was well-organized for the traveler to be able to find a departing or arriving flight and get to the correct terminal with minimal confusion.

Unfortunately, the train ride took longer than I anticipated, and Nancy had begun to wonder whether she was stuck somewhere in Asia with no money and no ticket home. I found her wandering through the airport, pushing a cartload of luggage, and anxious to get to the apartment. The taxi stand has a Disneyworld-style serpentine line of ropes and posts to compress a big crowd into a small, orderly space. When she first arrived and started exploring, Nancy wondered why such a big area had been set aside for so few people. By the time I arrived and we wheeled the baggage cart into position, the line was about half full – at 6:30 in the morning! The line moved quickly, and we were soon in a cab giving the driver our address.

Our street – Cornwall Gardens – is a double challenge for taxi drivers. First, it is a street that is unfamiliar to most of them. Second, they tend not to understand my accent when I say the name. It is an interesting challenge trying to explain where we live when I really have no idea. The driver wants me to give him some help and directions. Sorry – I’m genuinely and completely clueless. And my American accent seems to work at cross-purposes to their Singaporean accent. The first time I gave a driver the address, it took us awhile to work out that he thought I said something-something “mall”. Nancy made the excellent suggestion that we carry a map to point out our street. Definitely worth a try.

After a nap and look around the apartment, it was time for another trip to IKEA. More clothes hangers, a lamp, a work desk, a shoe bench, and other odds and ends. The odds and ends were easy and all went into our big blue IKEA bag. The furniture was a little more problematic. Instead of wrestling it off the shelves and onto a cart, we “inquired of the staff” who looked it up in their computer inventory and printed out our order. We gave the order slip to the cashier who stamped it, and then we took it to the Merchandise Pickup counter. Stamped again, and this time assigned a pickup number – watch for the number on the tv monitor. So far so good, but now we had to deal with some practical realities. First, the desk, in its flat box, was too big to fit into a normal taxi for a ride home. Second, by that time, it was raining hard. Nancy, still a little sleep deprived from the trip, was starting to wonder about the wisdom of an Asian adventure.

After twenty five minutes or so, our number appeared on the monitor and our big boxes were wheeled out of the back room. There is a wall phone with a direct line to the Singapore central cab dispatching agency, and I called. Although there is no real language barrier, there is a very distinct accent barrier, which is magnified on the phone. I successfully explained where we were and that we needed a “maxi-cab” (the phrase used by the IKEA staff). “We don’t have maxi-cabs. We have London cabs and MPVs. Largest package size is 1.7 meters. Ok?” Um, let’s see. I don’t know what an MPV is, and I really have no idea whether this box is longer than 1.7 meters. “Ok – sure! I think we’re ok,” (I said, hopefully.) “What’s your handphone number?” Ummm – I have no idea, it’s in Nancy’s bag, she’s way over there, and I can’t even look.  Then I stopped talking to a person and started listening to a recorded message – nominally in English, but only some of which I could understand – that repeated every 20 seconds. After five minutes, I decided (still hopeful) that all was well and that we should wheel our cart with large boxes through the double doors (marked “Staff Entrance”) by the elevator to the (very industrial) loading dock in the back of the building to wait for the cab. The rain had stopped, the humidity was 98%, we both wanted to be someplace else, and we waited.  A couple of guys came out to have a smoke, finished, and went back to work. And we waited. A woman pointed to the direction the cab would arrive from, and we waited. The sun started to come out, and still we waited. Lots of people get big boxes from IKEA. They have to get them home somehow, yet we were the only people waiting in this very industrial area for a cab that was taking forever. It seemed wrong, we were still waiting, we were beginning to feel just a little bit desperate, and Nancy was no longer buying my story that there’s always something unusual that you have to adapt to out here.

After fifteen minutes that lasted forever, I put the cell phone in my pocket and called to order a cab again. This time, they would “call back on your handphone with the taxi number”. And back we went to the loading dock to wait for the call. Five minutes later, I was told that they had found a taxi for us. Great. “How long should I expect to wait for it?” I’m not sure exactly how I asked this question, or how it was interpreted, but it was definitely not what I intended. I was put on hold, waited for another five minutes, and was told, “Thank you, Mr. Mike.  Sorry for the wait.  I’ve found a taxi for you.  The number is”  now a different taxi number. I don’t quite understand this process, whatever it is, but I sure didn’t want to disrupt what seemed like it was succeeding.  I said,”Thank you,” and we waited. Ten minutes later, a gold SUV rolled up and the driver got out and cast an appraising look over our cart and boxes. I waited for him to say that they were too long for his car, but instead, he lowered the back of the center seat, squeezed the long box in, and off we went, homeward bound at last.

Boxes wrestled home, up the elevator, into the apartment, onto the floor, and furniture assembled with only one mis-step. Now we have a handsome shoe bench sitting outside our front door with several pairs of (very large!) shoes under it. And a handsome desk for our computers sitting in the the spare bedroom. It’s starting to look like home.

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Public toilets are fairly common here, and, as you might expect, they vary from modern, new, and clean, to a little older and, well, crappier.  Sometimes, there’s  a minder who sits at the entry door and collects 20 cents as a user fee. The facilities in the Bugis MRT are middle of the road.  No minder.  Not the most modern, but not all that bad, either.  Mostly Western style, but one squat toilet for the more traditional folks.

There is an apparatus on the wall near the door (after you enter) that looks sort of like the giant roll of tissue that is often found in the stalls in public facilities at home.  On closer inspection, it turns out that that’s exactly what it is.  And there’s a little sign, advising that this is the only place to get tissue – it is not available in the stalls.  It’s freely available, but a little planning here can make a lot of difference.

Temp 84, Humidity 79%, feels like 94.

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Some subway station names are easy for me to remember:  “Orchard” “Somerset” “City Hall”.

Some are a little more challenging.  In the morning, I take the North South red line in the direction of Marina Bay and transfer at City Hall to the East West Green line in the direction of Joo Koon, alighting at Tanjong Pagol.  In the evening, I take the Green line toward Pasir Ris, transferring to the Red line toward Jurong East, passing through Dhobi Ghaut.

I’m sure it gets easier with time, but for now I have to look at the map every day to make sure I’m going in the right direction.

At seven o’clock in the morning, the cars aren’t empty, but there are seats available.  At eight o’clock, cars are jammed full. Moving onto or off of a car requires a slow shuffle of inexorable progress or you’ll be left behind.  Aggression isn’t needed – and it would probably be bad form. I haven’t seen any, and everyone is respectful.  On the other hand, determination is a requirement.

Getting in and out of the station is a little easier.  Allow yourself to be swept along with the mob.  Have your smart card pass ready to tap at the gate and you’re in.  Or out. Probably no worse than New York at rush hour, and maybe a little better.  The line through the gate moves steadily and quickly. The gate shows how much money is still available on your card and tells you when it’s time to top up. I get to the office for about 78 cents.

Signs in the subway are in four languages (and three scripts): English, Chinese, Malay, and Hindi. Announcements are in English, Malay, Chinese, and I assume Hindi too. Station signage is all in English.

One other clue that this isn’t Kansas: in various official paperwork, my official ethnicity is “other”. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise when in the sub-one percent minority.

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