Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The East Asian High Speed Train or The True Orient Express

I booked the sleeper train for our first big trip out of Shanghai. The adventure started in the taxi, in truth just getting a taxi; those fuckers.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with friends. While we said our goodbyes the guard at the compound attempted to get us a taxi. As we were cutting it close, our friends helped. We spread out covering all sides of the road, on foot and on bike, attempting to flag down one damn taxi.

Finally in a taxi and on our way, we headed to one of two railway stations in Shanghai. Or at least I thought there were two. Apparently there is a third and 30 minutes before departure, that station is where we found ourselves. Rushed and confused, we studied the departure board. No train. The attendant tried to explain the mistake. He pantomimed and pointed down while yelling in Chinese. A sympothetic fellow traveler jumped in to translate. He was far more experienced in translation techniques, yelling louder and using more exaggerated hand gestures. Another Chinese traveler walked by and in perfect English said to his companion, “They are lost.” You speak English and won’t help? “You jerk!” I wanted to holler after him, but focused on extricating myself from well meaning idiots.

Having wasted 10 minutes we ran from the station and gave a waiting driver 100RMB to get us to the right station. Rocketing through downtown traffic at 100KM/hr (no exaggeration, I was watching the dial) we got to the station with 5 minutes to spare. We got through security and jumped on the last car, the door shutting behind us. That was ¥100 well spent.

If I were a writer I would set a story on the sleeper. It was awesome. We went with the soft sleeper.  The compartment had two bunks, table, chargers, and linens. It was everything I dreamed of minus mahogany, brass, and Hercule Poirot.

With the lights off we watched the Chinese night. We passed open fields punctuated by skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings. All were black. No lights. No windows revealed a parent up late with a child, no one sneaking into the kitchen for a late night snack. No night-lights. No stairwell lights. No sign of life. Why were these buildings black?

We paid for three beds. The wee one was below the height for a required ticket. The railway regulation assumed, correctly, that a child of this size would prefer to sleep with someone else. That someone was Spencer. One bunk remained. We threw our excess baggage there. Technically, we didn’t pay for it, but since we were the last to board and had done so from the back of the train and walked through to our carriage at the front, we saw many empty rooms and carriages. We were confident that the space was available.

In the middle of the night things got weird. After a midnight stop we heard a knock on the door. A woman came in and climbed into the open top bunk. She was quiet, silent even, but ever present.

The train arrived on time and was a great experience. I would definitely do this again with the kids. 12 hours was a along trip, but it was all fun and sleep, with only a little weird.

Traveling home we opted for the 5 hour G train. We chose the first-class ticket. The second-class seats were smaller. The business-class and sightseeing section was too expensive. The first-class rows swivel, so next time I will not book a row on either side of the aisle, but request one row behind the other. We can then swivel around and look at each other’s beautiful and content faces, while passing the time playing cards or reciting poetry. No, that is not true.  After noisily arguing and antagonizing each other to the parental shrieks of “Will you knock it off?” 12 of our carriage mates will suspect that the angelic blond children were stolen away from a good mom and defensively stab the evil kidnapper while passing through a dark tunnel. The police will be told a stranger boarded the train.

J slept in her big, spacious seat. Trouble with a capitol T made a temporary best friend and played iPad games. The only bummer was that the Internet didn’t work well on the trip. There was no Wi-Fi on the train and there were few cell towers outside the cities. So while the kids were occupied, the adults were forced to read real books and write shitty blog posts. I had planned on getting a lot of work done, email and stuff, but instead am used pen and paper.  If only I were Agatha Christie.

For more information on the Chinese Railway:

Sample schedules and prices:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Shanghai Air Quality Index (AQI) Apps and Links

China is notorious for poor air quality. About two years ago world newspapers wrote about political fireworks (Get it? Fireworks and China? No? Okay, blog on that later.) set off by State Department Mission to China into the smog filled Chinese skies. China, too, had a system to determine air quality, but the readings differed in substances monitored, and frequency. Air quality rumors still abound, but the political differences were worked out long before the Maguires arrived in Shanghai.

The State AQI is located somewhere on the US Consulate compound. This is public knowledge, but I have no idea where the monitor is and don’t really care. On ground level, after I have stopped, dropped, and rolled, I find the air to be fresh and clean there as it is filtered by a park-like abundance of trees, plants and flowers. Still, the shafts of sunlight highlight millions of particles floating in air and tastes gritty.

The air in the outlying neighborhoods appears to be worse than at the Consulate. This is not proven true, but completely antidotal. I don’t electronically check the air quality every day. When I walk the children to school in the morning we observe the buildings in the distance. How distinct are the outlines? What color is the sky? We can usually guess within 30 PPM. This may seem like a far margin of error, but we are really talking about the difference between unhealthy and unhealthy.

A quick search of Google gives several websites and apps. More often than not, the top hits are based on the US Mission to China readings. The following sites officially explain the readings and offer monitors.

I wrote this rather than hashing today. The air quality was over 300 in the morning. It was the third day in a row of Very Unhealthy or Hazardous readings. Not a great day to go on a run. Definitely not a great day to force the kids to run. 

U.S. Consulate Shanghai Air Quality Monitor
Comprehensive description of air quality and stages. The reading is currently 188, unhealthy.

Consular General Shagnhai Twitter Feed
Hourly updates. The reading is currently 181.

Real-time Air Quality Reporting System: Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Group
Consolidating Chinese and Ameircan readings, this site has the best visual representation of air quality. Today the reading is 193 and there is a cartoon Chinese girl crying.

Health and Safety in Shanghai
Dedicated to educating Shanghai residents.  This site is longer, but more comprehensive and better funded than mine.

Get the app at any of your favorite app stores.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Throwing Rocks at Taxis

The neighborhood kids having been using the word "hate" a lot. They throw it at each each other causing tears and pain. All the parents have talked about removing this word from their vocabulary. "Hate" is a strong word. "Hate" is an emotional word. I have come to realize that "hate" is a word that I use frequently in Shanghai while shaking my fists and stomping my feet. It can not be removed. "I hate _________!" (Fill in the blank).

"I hate taxis!" This is my most common exclamation. Those little beat up, cigarette smelling, half-tone painted vehicles are everywhere with their honking and nosing into the pedestrian right-of-way.

Most of the drivers are from the provinces. They cannot read pinion or English, only Characters. They do not speak English and can not understand my poor pronunciation. Thinking that I have figured out the game, I hand the driver a business card or note painstakingly written in characters taken from Google Translate. Twice, the drivers pulled over and kicked me out of their taxi yelling something unintelligible and shaking their reading glasses at me. I am not the only one who has been kicked out of a car for making a driver put on his glasses to read. Why do they keep their glasses in a case on the dashboard and not more accessible? I hate taxi drivers.

A green light on top means that they are trolling for passengers and a red light means that there are passengers riding. Bullshit! Those green taxi drivers don't even look for passengers. They drive by at full speed taunting would-be passengers. Sometimes there are passengers, sometimes not. 20 minutes can pass with red, green, and no light taxis driving by hordes of people waving on the corner and not a single driver will stop. Fuck you taxi drivers.

The story is that these taxis are responding to a call from one of the apps. There are other stories that drivers do not like Westerners. I think these are all true. We need them more than they need us. It makes me angry.

Uber has come to Shanghai, but do I really want a luxury car to pick me up for twice the price?  The one time I road in an Uber car it got into a car accident, with itself, in the middle of an empty 2 lane road. Yes, that happened. How about one of the taxi apps I hear so much about? Well I can't figure out what the required app is. Maybe it is my Chinese phone, my Chinese app store, and my Chinese search engine, but this particular app is beyond me.

Alright you fuckers be warned. I have filled my pockets with rocks. If you don't stop I will throw rocks at you. Oh yes I will. I have cargo pants with lots of pockets and I am not afraid to fill those pockets with rocks. Rocks with your registration plate on them.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 Holiday Card

To all of our family, friends, and dear readers:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Maguires.