No vendor trips this year, not to the usual destinations (Vegas, San Frisco) or unusual destinations or any destinations. Got out of Hong Kong a couple of times—most notably to Macau where we did a roundtable discussion in early July. But while last year was notable for a shortage of such trips, this year featured various junkets which regrettably I was unable to attend. Too busy: Hong Kong Syndrome.
So when I was greenlighted for a trip to China, fabuki. I'm there. A prosaic destination like Beijing or Shanghai? Nah...i scored a dual-entry visa (they're pricey) and new pages in my passport (formerly free, they're now pricey too...is the US govt going broke or something?).
Up before 0800 in rainy Hong Kong, taxis are not in sight, I take a crowded MTR train to the Airport Express station. Fly to Changsha Airport in Hunan Province and meet my one Hong Kong journo compatriot and the PR rep. The airport is fairly new but small—they're already constructing a new terminal.
Journo-pal needs a Net connection, so we hang at one of the local eateries, which lets In some of the facility's underpowered air-con. They set up a large fan, which helps cool us off and keeps some of the cigarette smoke at bay. Not everyone is smoking, but it's often disgusting: between the one-child policy and the millions who die annually from smoking-related diseases, China seem determined to put a dent in its gargantuan population.
Fortunately, the free Wi-Fi at this place is fast, and I've got something I need to write and send out now, so I get that done. After that, time to cruise the airport as pal spends more time on the Net connection. Although I'm used to eccentric gift items, the souvenir shops at Changsha Airport have some of the more bizarre retail gift-items I've ever seen
Some of the food-packs have forearm-size pieces of meat/fish/pork-belly preserved...somehow. Some of the food I can't recognize AT ALL. Things I can recognize, like large jars of small fish preserved in chili oil, seem more Hannibal-Lecter than airport-gift-shop. Ironically, the walls are lined with lovely ceramic tea sets and bamboo tea containers—things you'd buy for relatives in North America and Europe that would delight them. Between these two extremes: chewing gum, candy bars and most importantly, bottled water.
The airport's other facilities are foot-massage places and VIP lounges reserved for, get this, bank VIPs. I guess if you have a super-phat account with one of China's big banks, you can hang out in these lounges. Maybe if you were a senior exec with, oh, an AIRLINE, you would...have a super-phat account with one of those banks.
We spend hours in this pokey airport. I didn't get a foot-massage as the two people I was with weren't interested. I did eat some interesting noodles, drank coffee and fruit juice, sweated and mostly tried to stay interested. At some point we found out our flight was delayed, perfect.
At the Zhangjiajie Airport, our group is put on a bus for a "half-hour" ride which lasts more like an hour, cruising along a rural highway not unlike Wisconsin. Small roadside stands sell whole watermelons. A few roadside places made of wood sport red lanterns and look like kung fu movie sets, as we trundle by. Finally we're at the hotel, which has a triple-height lobby and is surprisingly tasteful—less so are the greeter-staff uniforms: the men wear white cowboy hats while the women wear uniforms from one of China's many ethnic tribes.
They're impressive but as we're late, we're told that if we want to eat dinner we need to do so NOW as the restaurant is about to close. So, I spent the entire day getting to some place in Western Hunan Province to rush for the tail-end of a hotel buffet. The "glamorous life of international tech journalism" needs a mascot: a sarcastic imp with a watermelon-belly and a grating, sawtooth laugh.
Those unaccustomed to a mainland buffet will be bemused, I've faced a few and some were designed by that fiendish imp. Go to a Shangri-La Hotel (they've got them in Beijing and ShanghaiHotel and the buffets are heaven. Other places, you take your chances. In Hunan, even the dishes that don't look spicy can take your head off. I made it through a decent amount before giving up, sweat-glands and sinuses torture-tested. Got some fruit and what-not to put the fire out, then went to my room, which required a 200-meter walk organized impromptu by an energetic young employee. Simple really: walk over a couple of outdoor bridges to an obscure elevator, take the third floor and walk 100 meters past rooms marked "35xx" until suddenly the "15xx" rooms appear.
The central air-con is weak, and I'm still sweating as I unpack. Jump in the shower and wash off the day's dust. The room is nice, and considering I'm in the center of a continent where the weather is usually chilly-to-frozen, I can deal with the weak air-con. The cable TV is amazing: 61 channels in Mandarin and one channel (CCTV9) in English.
Sleep fairly decently and next day, time for a whole lotta tech-speak...
Lotta techspeak. Afternoon ends with a small group interview with some senior execs from the States. As is often the case, a half hour of content trumps most of the keynotes and announcements that took up the entire morning.
But the top guy said it during his keynote: "When in China, anytime you have a chance to attend a 'gala dinner', don't pass it up." So promptly at 18:30, we went to the main hall for said event. However, we got some of the last remaining seats, at the side of the stage, so while I only have a few shots of the entertainment, there were acrobats and kung fu kids and a fire guy and a guy putting a sword against his bare back while his assistant struck it with a thick bamboo pole until the pole broke and dancers and singers and silly audience-participation poetry-reading contests and nonstop Hunan fun. I just was in no position to snap much in the way of fotos, although ironically a cohort got a shot of me onstage getting ready to rip the sifu into four pieces (we failed).
The theme was based around "Avatar" as the mountains of Zhangjiajie were used in the film—Cameron just CGIed off the bottoms and made them the "Floating Mountains of Pandora." This meant the staff wore one piece blue costumes and blue pointy ear things.And are they not CUTE?!?The hill tribe costumes were still on and guests were offered a bowl of rice whiskey prior to entry. It smells like paint thinner and I don't drink alcohol but it was a nice gesture.Hotpots were set up and simmering on the table...This one in front with the pork balls and vegetable was very tasty. I didn't try the soup in the white tureen...other small dishes had various appetizer-things, at bottom left is an array of sliced pear in red marinade, tasty.The jug wrapped in burlap contains more paint-thinner for those who prefer getting batfaced to dealing with the food. Guess the meat in the steel hotpot, go ahead.Yes, it's frog. Not much meat on those little critters, but this wasn't bad: whole cooked garlic cloves and onion-variants, interesting sauce.
This beef dish look spicy to you? One bite and you'd be yelling "HuuuuuuuuuuuuNAN!"The ol' chicken feet...I like the Cantonese ones cooked in orange-colored sauce, but the plain white ones make me think...eh, chicken feet.We obviously didn't have enough meat/chili things so they brought pig's trotters. Gelatinous, piggy, not bad at all. But what's that thing at left?Shrimp and squid cooked with celery and melon balls and served in a carved melon-half. It was kinda Canto-style, and yummy.Oh yeah, give me a roast pigeon and I'm happy. Gamey, highly seasoned. A couple of places in Hong Kong are famous for roast pigeon and some people like to suck out the brain (they slice off the back of the head for easier access). So of course I'm daring my companions to snaffle up pigeon-brain, but they declined, the wimps.These were great: sticky rice packed around pork ribs and steamed.Entertainment time! Myself, kung fu kids and audience-members prepare to get medieval on this dude.The fire-guy: he was entertaining, but seated to the side with microphone stand in front, shooting directly into bright blue Avatar-style spotlights, this was the only shot even close to decent. He was sticking the blazing torches inside his shorts and stuff.End of the feast: the fish in foreground was superb. Can't remember what all else we ate, but as we left the dining hall......we are STILL cute!!
Tomorrow: the mountains!