Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Congee or Croissants?

Waking up a bit disoriented from the hotel, but more from strange early morning smells; first floral, possibly lily like, and then the strong fermented smells similar to Tianjin cabbage in a crock. Michele, when she lifted her head, smelt nothing. I knew that I wasn’t off, but I couldn’t pin down the source, until we got up for breakfast. Last night with Gary’s help we had chosen the breakfast package for an additional fee, which provided free internet access.
The wraparound lounge off of the lobby opened onto a restaurant with buffet stations. We were initially greeted and seated by the hostess, again in sort of bizarre garb for 7 AM; long dresses sort of Suzie Wong like with a slit up on side to the midthigh, with little golden ties at the top, matching bolero jackets slightly asymmetric with a square paneled Asian motif on one side, too high heels for food service and the prototypical nametag of corporate food and hotel workers.
Coffee and tea were served as we rose to investigate the buffet. In many ways, I had never seen such a multiculti arrangement. The juice bar also had mineral water available since the bathroom water wasn’t potable; this was endemic to every hotel we stayed in. Additionally, kiwi, watermelon and honeydew juice were served alongside the usual suspects. Chefs manned the congee, soup noodle bars stocked with assorted pickles, tea eggs, shiitakes and greens, the western breakfast, (French toast, fried eggs, omelette station, and attendant meats), displays of pan fried noodles, lackluster renditions of Italian seeming pastas, tonkatsu style chicken cutlets, roasted vegetables with a predominance of lettuce, sumptuous pastry displays that though visually spot on, on the palate the mimicry was a bit wan. Miso soup stations, a salad bar with four choices, none of which really melded into a cohesive salad and no dressing, oil or vinegar in sight. Adjacent to the frisee there was some marinated red cabbage whose juices I assumed were meant to function as sauce. A western cereal bar with a toaster and white bread set up, milk, pourable yogurt and fruits. A dynamic fruit display of many western fruits, and longan, stewed prunes, local citrus with their leaves attached, loquat, canned litchi and ……large lozenges of maki sushi, with the fluorescent yellow pickles, surimi, and mixed vegetables, and a smoked fish designed for a Russian: sable, peppered mackerel, sturgeon, salmon and a few cured or smoked meats; yet no bagel, cream cheese or even bread to put them on. All for sixty Yuan per day, or about ten bucks.
In a way this was some kind of modern Jetsonian living. I would make passes, dipping into a country or culture with each new plate full of food. Midway through our meal we discussed the trajectory of our day.
Working from list I received indirectly from Alan, I had emailed Michael the night before. He was alleged to speak passable English and be pleasant. A few of the folks who Alan had emailed had proffered suggestions for drivers based on car quality and age, English skills, and general disposition. We never heard back from Michael. I wondered if reading English was not within his ken. Making my way down the remaining names, I tried Zhao first, largely because he was quoted as having a newer model car and a recent license. Somewhere I saw us breaking down in the countryside with a stranger, no common language, tools or short term hope. The assistant dining manager, Esi Oi telephoned Zhao for us and negotiated an arrangement. In a certain way, were he a suspicious quantity this might not have been the best modus for success. Initially he was occupied, and hesitated to commit; though when we agreed to his rate of $500 Yuan minimum, the cash won out. He was going to run an errand and be at the front door within 2 hours, by 10:15-10:30. With that info we decided to dress quickly and took a cab to Tiananmen Square for our first look-see. Our goal was to better locate ourselves and walk back the 20-30 blocks for a glimpse of the morning city life. Walking towards the square, we saw many people sporting a variety of surgical masks, some quasi fashionable with their quilted color patterns.
Perched like a cat about to pounce the façade of the Forbidden City sits studying the vast Square full of milling people, police vehicles, hucksters, tour guides and foreigners. Conveniently a major eight lane boulevard separates these two iconic locales controlling any undesired cross fertilization between people and ideologies. Though quite cold the air pollution was ever present somewhat staved off by the winter chill; allowing filtered sunlight to warm our faces. L.A. pales by comparison. Unfortunately, the reeking odors of sulphur and coal burning followed us everywhere we went in the city. By the look of the cheap external fans or antiquated AC systems in most windows even of the most rundown buildings, I surmised that summer was brutal and the pollution quite fierce. This first dose was both awesome and forbidding all in a moment of what appeared to be just post-teenage soldiers in classic Communist military long coats, brown fur hats and a level of attentiveness to their post which appeared to suggest complicity with either party politic or naïve love of authority and sense of purpose.

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