Sunday, January 31, 2010

China Trip #5

Dateline Beijing/Shanghai: January 10, 2010
We left the hotel about 8:00 AM. As usual, street vendors were trying to sell us that last minute souvenir like a Chinese hat. As the bus pulled out, I saw outdoor ping pong tables down a side street, with a couple games in progress in spite of the 10°F temperatures. Because it was a Saturday and traffic was lighter, the trip to the airport went quickly. Airport check-in was much like that of any American airport but the security check seemed a bit more intense. For example, my glasses prompted a scan with a hand wand, something that did not happen in the U.S. Students had their small bottles of hand sanitizer confiscated.
The flight on China Eastern was much like a domestic flight in the U.S. Full plane. Flight attendants were all very young. Announcements were recorded in both Chinese and English rather than live. No safety announcement about airbags or floatation like is required on U.S. flights. The meal was totally Chinese food. It was a little bumpy because of weather - when we arrived in Shanghai it was raining and about 45°F.
After a bus ride on busy streets in which our guide told us how Shanghai was far more western than Beijing, we checked into the hotel. Again, our passports were collected. This is a very nice hotel with an atmosphere much like you'd experience anywhere in the U.S. After a short opportunity to catch our breath and get situated, we left on the bus to visit the Jade Buddha Temple. Raining lightly and chilly. We entered the courtyard to the smell of inscence and people praying. We toured the gardens and various rooms with statues of various buddhas and saw the two famous white jade Burmese Buddha statues.
The smell of incense filled the temple. A number of the faithful were there praying, observing, and getting in touch with their faith.
The gardens and courtyards of the temple were beautiful. We were allowed everywhere and photos were permitted in all areas except for the temple room itself.
The famous reclining Buddha.
Leaving the temple and throughout Shanghai there was lots of construction. The scaffolding is bamboo, something we often saw in Shanghai and in Hong Kong.
Shanghai city lights from the window of our hotel room.
Returning to the hotel we enjoyed a rather formal Chinese dinner on the 9th floor with the whole group. From my western pallette, likely being served a menu designed for Americans, it seems we are getting similar dishes at the restaurants. But, there is an incredible variety of tastes, textures, and styles. Will I ever master chop sticks?

Say what...?

According to Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the decennial redistricting process is political but he doesn't "think the commonwealth has suffered because of it." Huh?
A bit of background: following the Census that will be conducted this spring, in 2011 the General Assembly will draw district lines for Congress and for both houses of the General Assembly. Districts are supposed to be as close in population as practical. Local governments will use the demographic info to draw their political boundaries and adjust precinct lines.
In the General Assembly, the temptation is great to draw districts that are favorable to incumbents. If redistricting to benefit politician or party is done with too much gusto, it may be struck down by the courts. Even so, our lawmakers can find plenty of ways to draw districts that pass judicial muster, but still give them (and friends) an electoral advantage. As Delegate Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) noted, "... the truth is we know that the party in power uses that as a tool to either strengthen their political power ... or they use it to dilute districts so they can pick up other seats."
Delegate Jones may not think the commonwealth has suffered because of partisan redistricting, but the truth lies elsewhere. If "safe" districts are created for incumbents, challengers will be discouraged and we'll see more uncontested seats. Bad for democracy, bad for the commonwealth. But, good for Delegate Jones' reelection?
Republicans in the House of Delegates are already angling to stack the redistricting deck in their favor. While Democrats in the Senate should be able to block the worst abuses, they may also engage in mutual back scratching when it comes to redistricting. No matter which party does it, redistricting in which partisanship is a factor is bad for Virginia. Bad for democracy.
During the 2010 session, the General Assembly should enact legislation to take politics out of the redistricting process. It may be too late for a state constitutional amendment to govern the process in 2011, but lawmakers can can put in place some nonpartisan, open, and transparent safeguards. Last year the Senate passed Senator Creigh Deeds' amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission, but it was killed in the House of Delegates. Governor McDonnell has said he favors reforms - will he deliver or cave in to political pressure from Delegates? It is time to slay the gerrymander in Virginia.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Look in the mirror, Bob

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (VA-6) has just sent out an email calling on President Barack Obama to exercise fiscal disciple to rebuild the American economy. The congressman worries that Obama's freeze will "only lock in the out of control deficit spending levels that have been enacted."
If so, the freeze will be locking in the excesses of the Bush years when Republicans controlled both or one house of Congress. Among their "accomplishments" after inheriting a budget surplus of $236 billion:
  • Bush and the GOP expanded the federal budget by some $700 billion.
  • Bush launched two expensive wars in which we remain mired.
  • Bush started the bailouts of the financial industry.
  • Bush and the GOP presided over a $2.5 trillion increase in the federal debt.
Where were today's Republican advocates (like see-no-Republican-evil-Bob) of fiscal restraint when President Bush ran up the red ink adding more debt than all previous presidents and leaving us with a financial crisis worse than any since the Great Depression. If you want to place blame for deficits, debt, and our struggling economy, look first in the mirror, Bob.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

China Trip #4

Working with a student teacher, getting ready for AARP TaxAide, and now training for census work. I'm finding blog-time scarce. Knowing that memories (especially mine) fade fast, I'm still organizing pictures and editing my journal. Slowly words and pics will make it here.
Dateline Beijing, January 9, 2009
We left early this morning for a tour of a state owned steel mill. Starting with the obligatory company museum history tour much like a museum you might see at a large American factory. Points of emphasis included the fact that early equipment was mostly second hand from America or Europe and that an important part of the workers’ motivation was working hard for the good of the state. Reminding me of “factory or mine towns” in American history, the mill provided housing, recreation, stores, and schools to workers and their families. Newer equipment and more western incentives were introduced during the 1990s and, although still state-owned, the mill is operated more like those in other nations. They talked about their environmental stewardship, modernization, global products, and a new facility constructed on an island just off the coast. The guide from the company spoke in Chinese and was interpreted by a Chinese-American professor at Adelphi. I got the feeling we were being given the company, I mean the state, line.
Many of us felt the plant itself looked out-of-date and like something from the 1950s. Dirty. Smoky. Few employees around on this Saturday morning. We did see a control room with about 10 guys monitoring computer screens, but most of the rest seemed low-tech. Perhaps that is the nature of a steel mill?
That afternoon Hanna took the Virginia four to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Cold and sunny so many others were out and walking with family and friends. I’m sure everyone knows Tiananmen Square is immense, but it is hard to appreciate just how big it is without being there. We found one virtual geocache - our first in China! While taking the photo a Chinese girl and her mother approached and watched us for a minute, then pointed to my beard saying, “you look like the Merry Christmas man.” She asked to take a picture. Her picture is above.
Changing of the guards.
As we moved towards the entrance to the Forbidden City, Hanna went to get the tickets and left us to take pictures and two more couples approached us wanting pictures with the "Merry Christmas man" and we attracted a following for a short while.
The Forbidden City is so completely stunning, so ornate, so huge, one surprise following the last one. Nothing I can type here will capture its essence. Even my pictures fall short. We had to move fairly fast, but we stopped at all the main buildings for Hanna’s descriptions and to take a few pictures.
Hanna pauses to tell us a little history of the Forbidden City.
How many thrones does one guy need?
I had programmed the coordinates for a virtual geocache and as we got close it became apparent that it wasn’t in the main courtyards but off to the side in the maze of buildings and courtyards. I was with others who weren’t quite so interested in a side trip. Besides it was cold and we were tiring. But, 130 feet as the crow flies!! They grinned and tolerated me it as I darted into different alleys and luckily found it fairly quickly - a large (rock/mineral of some kind) that we understand was placed outside the bride’s marriage chamber.
The gardens near our exit from the Forbidden City were beautiful and stunning. The trees, the artificial rock wall, everything. Wish we could visit it in warmer months when it is lush and more colorful!
A guard tower, wall, and moat seen from outside the Forbidden City. Getting inside would have been tough.
We made a short visit to a Tea Room. As a Virginian my tea vocabulary is mostly "sweet tea" so there was much to learn. So many teas. So many tea pots. So many tiny cups. All very interesting, but I'll stick to iced tea.
That night Hanna led us through icy alleys to a small family-owned hot pot diner with half a dozen small tables filled with local families. She stayed to help us order a variety of of meats, vegetables, and fish before leaving for a dinner honoring a friend’s wedding. We had two hot pots boiling - one mild and one spicy. Very spicy. A few small bowls with different dipping sauces were scattered around the table. Struggling not only with chop sticks but with knowing cooking times, we dove into one of the most interesting and frustrating dinners of the entire trip. Never very good with chop sticks, I found retrieving some food items from the hot pots extremely difficult. Imagine trying to pick up a slippery marble-sized “fish ball.” The helpful owner came over, and with a smile, tried a couple times to tutor me (by hands-on demonstration - he knew only Chinese, I knew only English) in the fine art of chop sticks and hot pots. Maybe it was the two big bottles of Tsingtao beer that affected my coordination, but at least I didn’t need chop sticks to get it (the tiny glass of beer) into my mouth. My chop stick skill improved (never did get those fish balls) but must admit was greatly relieved when his daughter took sympathy and brought us forks. The entire meal for four,which included beer and soft drinks, cost us about 90 Chinese RMB, or just over $13.00.
Returning to the Dongfang Hotel, I found my way downstairs to the tiny bar thinking some of the Adelphi students might be there or at the nearby karaoke. I didn’t spot them but had a good time chatting with the young bartender whose English was very good. I ordered a Snow beer even as he told me his favorite beer is Budweiser. A quick glance at the cooler showed Bud, Corona, Bud Light and a few other American brands. The bartender wanted to talk “English,” that is talk about speaking English. He asked “do east coast Americans talk differently from west coast?” We had a good converstation about regional accents, pronounciation of a few words like “aunt,” and some slang usage. He commented that the most difficut English to understand is people from England and noted that Chinese like Americans much better than the English. It was reference I heard several times during our stay in Beijing.

Stage Fright

Governor Bob McDonnell used a stage provided by Virginia taxpayers, the State Capitol, to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union message. In his short talk, the Virginia governor was surrounded by adoring Virginians of all backgrounds who demonstrated a unique talent at reacting to the "Applaud Now!" cards periodically posted by stage hands. Mr. McDonnell appealed to bipartisanship (not found in the room) by often quoting a founding father of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson.
Exit stage right.

Monday, January 25, 2010

China Trip #3

Interesting buffet breakfast at the Dongfang hotel. Some western foods but most was Chinese and very abundant and fresh. Of course, there were things we liked and things we didn’t especially care for... we tried almost everything over the three mornings we were there. Fruit juices were sweet and syrupy. Bacon was like the cheapest you'll find in the U.S. The guy making omelets was a pro. The sauteed greens were great as were all the fresh fruits.
We left for the Great Wall about 8:00 AM. Almost a two hour bus ride starting in very heavy traffic until we cleared the most urbanized areas of Beijing. Along the way our guide told us more about the Great Wall, about housing and other living conditions in Beijing, and about some of the things we passed along the route.
The Great Wall. Words cannot do justice to the overwhelming awe it inspires. Awe for the work over very difficult terrain. Awe for the immensity of it. Awe for the human lives sacrificed for its construction. We walked as far and high as time would permit, returning to the bus with only a few minutes to spare. A bitter cold day, probably 0° to 10°F, my mustache and beard was stiff with ice crystals. Along the way a teenage girl asked to take my picture, saying I looked like a Panda - probably because of my black hat contrasted with with white beard. My wife pointed out, mine and another in our group were the only beards to be seen.
In spite of the cold, there were many people walking, some elderly and others with small children. Some women in fashionable boots hardly designed for walking the steep steps and uneven stones of the Great Wall.
Returning to the bus and visitor center, some in the group enjoyed tea in the gift shop while others browsed the merchandise. There were abundant clerks who followed us, as soon as we showed interest in the item the clerk was there pushing the sale or offering alternatives. We saw pesky store clerks and overstaffing often, especially in and around Beijing. When checking into the hotel (late evening) there were three or four clerks (in the U.S. two would have been a surprise). Small teams of men would be chipping and shoveling snow along roads.

When we got back to Beijing we took a rickshaw ride through narrow streets and alleys and along a large frozen lake. We understand it is beautiful in the warmer months, brightly lit at night, and a popular area for locals to gather. Today though, it was bitter cold and mostly deserted.

Perhaps you can see the Budweiser sign on the restaurant. Often repeated. According to a young bartender at the Dongfang Hotel Bud is very popular. Ditto for other beers found in American stores - Corona, Coors Light, etc.
Okay, it was sort of a tourist thing to do, but the the rickshaw drivers seemed to appreciate the work and tips on this bitter day. When we arrived they were passing the time playing cards and playing hacky sack. And, trying to stay warm. Along the route they played pranks on each other, got a tow by holding the back of the rickshaw in front, and raced through the narrow alleys.
In Beijing and at the Great Wall we saw many wielding traditional brooms and garden shovels to remove snow from sidewalks and gutters. Just days before we arrived, Beijing had been brought to a near standstill by an unusually heavy snowfall and low temperatures kept most of it around. Most main roads had been plowed, but side streets and even some lanes of highways had significant snow cover.
In the urban areas, most Chinese live in apartment buildings like the one above. This one was nicer than many, but not as upscale as others. Many apartments, especially in lower income areas, are well under 1,000 square feet and often house multi-generation families. You often see clothes drying outside windows or on small balconies in apartments and dorms all over China. Looking for a place to live in Beijing - check these out.
Our Virginia group broke from the NY group since they had arrangements to meet students at a Chinese University. We caught a cab and went to the Pearl Market, a shopping area famous for haggling to set prices of both legitimate and knockoff goods. Five stories tall and with all sorts of vendors - watches, electronics, luggage, clothing, leather goods, on and on! The sellers were aggressive talking to us as we passed, waving items in our faces, the most aggressive grabbing our arms. We bought a few items, all probably knockoffs of name brands, and maybe good deals. Maybe not. While we haggled and made counter offers, we were clearly on their turf and this kind of negotiation is foreign to most Americans except for a yard sale. Plus, there is the whole currency conversion thing - in short, we probably shouldn’t have done this our very first day in Beijing. I bought a SwissGear backpack for about one third less than it is listed on Amazon and a Canon camera battery for about half the price as on Amazon. So far, both perform as if new, but time will tell, I reckon.
But we did fall prey to a minor scam. Coming out of the market we took a waiting taxi who said it would be 40 RMB or about $5.85. Since we didn’t know exactly where the restaurant was and we were in a hurry we jumped in. Turned out the restaurant was pretty close and the ride should have cost perhaps 15 RMB. Counterfeiting is a huge issue with RMBs and one of our bills he said was “no good,” but we told him it was all we had and he took it, probably to pass it on to another unsuspecting American in a dark cab. Our guide told us to avoid cabs that are parked near "tourist" areas and to always demand to see the meter (the driver said his was broken).
Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant famous for Peking Duck. We experienced the “joys” of the traditional lazy susan which perhaps was a good thing as we became quickly acquainted with students from Adelphi University on Long Island. I ordered a Yanjing beer that came in a large bottle (500 ml, I think) but the glass provided was small - about twice the size of of a shot glass.
In addition to the food likes and dislikes, much of the conversation centered on the day's travel adventures and misadventures, the morning at the Great Wall, and some of the cultural differences we’d observed at the hotel and local shops. One of the NY students said she was very surprised at a local shop, “yeah, they had like cigarettes, water, condoms, and dildos right at the checkout. You don’t see that back home?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

China Trip #2

We been home a few days - seems like we've gone thru a time warp... "Governor Bob McDonnell" just doesn't roll off the tongue well. The governor wants to sell the ABC stores for a one-time windfall, is looking the other way as public education (a cornerstone of economic growth and jobs creation) is withering due declining state support, and wants us to drive 70 mph on I-81.
Well, he is reopening the rest areas, but with no solid plans except a hopeful "adopt-a-rest area" scheme and having guys in orange scrub the urinals. After seeing that, some folks may keep on by the rest area at 70 mph.
Anyhow, it always amazes me how much catch-up is needed on the home front after being gone for a couple weeks. Plus, I missed the AARP TaxAide training and have been going through the slow online recertification process... torture. While my schedule continues to be hectic, I'm finding a little time to get back to CCC and posting about our trip. Will include a few of the nearly 1,000 pictures I took. In between, I'll toss in my 2¢ about goings on in the Valley and Commonwealth.
Dateline Chicago and Beijing, January 8/7, 2010
Flight from Chicago was smooth and followed route over Hudson Bay, near North Pole, and over Siberia. Plane full, economy class crowded but everyone in good humor. Then the check-in procedures at the airport includes a quick health screening, a walk thru infrared scanner checking body temps, and a long line waiting to have passport/visa checked. A few people were pulled aside and questioned briefly about a stuffy nose or cough. Finally able to grab checked luggage and meet our guide, “Hanna.” The airport was super clean and utilitarian. Little commercialization such as found in U.S. airports until we went through the gauntlet of duty free shops on way out. While security is evident in the U.S. it is more obvious at the Beijing airport, most of them younger, in uniform, and most wearing (useless) masks.
Trip to hotel was through rush hour traffic some on a toll road that was moving (but not as fast as in U.S.) and lots of stop and go as we approached the central city. We were picked up in a Buick van and saw a few other American cars such as Jeep. Roads dominated by Asian brands such as Honda, Toyota and Hyundai but there were many VW’s and most taxi cabs seemed to be Jettas or Hyundai. Hanna pointed out things along the way but because we were so tired and there was a bit of a language barrier I’m not sure how much sank in. Reminded us of travel in the congested areas of NJ turnpike.
A few other early impressions along toll road and highway:
  • Many of the cars were upscale.
  • Impatient drivers, lots of horn tooting, swerving back and forth into lanes.
  • Buildings along road seemed darker than you’d find in a US city - less outside lighting.
  • Every now and then caught the smell of burning coal and noticed some smokestacks.
  • Glad I am not driving. Very glad.
As we approached the central part of Beijing, where we are staying, there were more bright signs and we saw far more people on streets, among shops, etc. Hanna pointed out Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, and other places we plan to visit.
Arrived at the Dongfang Hotel and checked in. Of course, that meant checking and scanning our passport/visa again. Rooms are nice and have some western touches... with differences. For example the mattress is, compared to US, thin and hard... but pretty comfortable... or maybe we were just whipped! Pillows are a wider, thinner rectangle and seem to be the husk filled type. Room was very warm although it is very cold outside. Room key is slipped into receptacle just inside door to activate room electricity, so lights shut down when you leave the room and take key card. Not used to this style shower and curtain and made a mess. Like western hotels they provide soap and shampoo but no lotion. In addition to shower cap they provide slippers, toothbrush and paste, combs, and a condom. That prompted lots of chatter among the student in our group, especially since it was there only on the first night. TV (not a flat screen) has a bunch of channels but it looks like just three in English – China business, BBC Asia, and a old movie channel.
Our first meal in China was pizza. Yep, pizza. But, we'd arrived late and there was little time to head out for some Chinese - imagine we'll have plenty of that over the next few days. The pizza was good, about like take-out here. The Tsingtao beer was cold.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

China Trip #1

We've been traveling in China. Beijing, Shanghai, and now in Hong Kong. Of course, blogs and social networking were blocked on the mainland, but here in Hong Kong we might as well be anywhere in the U.S. (except for a public school). So, my posts will be added late. Here goes. Better late than never. Pardon typos and grammar.
Chicago, January 6, 2010 Ah, the joys of modern air travel. Sitting in O’Hare Airport waiting to board United 581 to Beijing. Taking a Boeing 777 that seats 251. Right now, 235 are checked in. Of course, we’re flying economy which includes two lunches and a movie. Yippee. The flight is just under 14 hours and 6579 miles.
The weather in Beijing is sunny and 1°F. Just a tad colder than here.
Yesterday was supposed to be our flight, but the leg from Reagan/National to Chicago was delayed due to a maintenance issue and by the time we got to Chicago the Beijing flight had left. So, United put us up for the night and bought us a (modest) dinner. We walked in the cold Chicago winds and found a geocache. Slept well, but the hotel air was very dry which affected everyone's’ breathing and skin.
I will say the United staff was helpful and handled our (and everybody else) with grace and good humor. Ditto for the TSA folks. Most travelers were relaxed and handled all the hurry up and wait with smiles. It is easy to get a little impatient with those folks who didn’t check online or with a travel agent to adhere to luggage requirements. A group of four guys took about twice as long in the check-in in repacking and rearranging. But, we had no place to go anyhow so I engaged in a favorite pass time - people watching.
Back in the Shenandoah Valley, people watching reveals more diversity than it did just a few years ago. But, you haven’t seen diversity until you’ve hung out in a big airport for a while. It is a big and wonderfully varied world in which we live and travel. In addition to the people there’s the languages, the clothes, the types of luggage..... the everything.
OK, boarding the plane. Don't know when I'll be able to post this.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pay up and hopefully shut up

Augusta County Circuit Court Judge Victor Ludwig ruled that Francis Chester neither did his homework nor followed the Code of Virginia in his suit against Augusta County's 2009 real estate reassessments. In short, he filed a frivolous lawsuit. The judge ordered Chester to pay a $2,000 sanction, writing in his opinion,
...the purpose of the court in imposing sanctions is not to 'silence' an attorney who pleads a poor case. It is to attempt to ensure that he pleads a better one next time.
Back in October I watched Mr. Chester stumble and bumble in court and tossed in my 2¢ by urging that he be fined. Judge Ludwig made the right decision and imposed a very reasonable fine. Of course, Chester's buddy, swacgirl, who once compared him to Thomas Jefferson, is POed.
The only part of the judge's decision with which I disagree is hope that a sanction will ensure Chester will actually plead a better case next time. Dreaming the impossible dream.