Friday, October 27, 2006

Don't Look Down!

My column went up today. It is my 24th. It’s somewhat hard for me to believe I am pushing on towards a year and 25+ columns now. Writing it has been great for me on many levels and most of them have come fairly easily.

Even the ones I labored over line by bloody line – columns which were anything but easy to actually write – were clear to me from the start. In other words, I knew exactly what I wanted to express and just had to wrestle over the words. Now as I stare into year 2, I don’t really have a clue what I will write about next, or next or next…

I’m not really panicked or even all that worried, because I feel that the columns have been getting better and better and I have faith in myself to keep the roll going. And sa B.B. King once sang, “You better not look down if you want to keep on flying.”

But there’s no doubt that I’ll have to dig a little deeper to keep them going because as I‘ve noted before, I’ve picked all the low hanging fruit. I’ve written about most of our day to day experiences and all the things I hit around here regularly..

Now I have to decide which direction to go. There are no shortage of stories to be told, but it is going to take some thought to decide which direction to head.. chronicling Beijing? Chronicling our lives? Chronicling a more general expat existence and all the issues that come with it? Probably some combination of all of the above, but I’m thinking I want go more and more into Beijing life, even stuff that doesn’t directly relate to being an expat per se. In part, I want to do that because just getting out and doing things and interacting with regular Chinese people is fascinating and fun and it inspires me and I need that.

I’m feeling a little slow moving, a little less inspired than a year ago. I suppose that’s natural and please keep it in perspective; everything is going great, we’re all well, happy, etc. I guess it’s just a form of sophomore slump. How can everything be as exciting this year as it was last?

There goes the neighborhood

I have been thinking of writing about the way old Beijing is just being ripped down block by block and replaced by huge, glass skyscrapers, all over the central city. People hear about the hutongs (old alleyway neighborhoods) being torn down, but there are also endless blocks of old Soviet-style apartment buildings, about 10 stories high. Now, architecturally, these are no great loss, but every time they got torn down a whole bunch of people get booted.

They get some compensatory money but it’s not enough to live in town so they cfatter and all these neighborhoods vanish and people lose their little villages. It’s sad.

There is a place like this on a busy thoroughfare, which Becky goes down every day on her way to work. As the blocks get torn down , there is a fence put up around it and the entrances have slowly been getting bricked over. Yet you can still see people walking around and until recently you could still people living there. At night, there were lights illuminating it here and there. It looked spooky and somehow profound.

I’ve been wanting to go down there with Dong, my Chinese teacher, for months., to talk to people and see what’s what. I finally headed down yesterday by myself, just to check it out and see if it’s worth returning with him. Unfortunately, I was a little late. It is really largely abandoned now. There are piles of rubble with people climbing around and salvaging bricks, and a few people sitting sort of forlornly atop them. You can see all oft his in the pictures here.

Emerging on the other side, there is sort of an alleyway leading into a block of apartments that are still occupied though at the end of the block they are already abandoned. That’s what I took a picture of here -- the one with the lanterns. There are still little shops and restaurants in there, and a market selling meat and fruit and veggies.. which I pictured here.. note how the meat is just sitting on the counter, no refrigeration or anything. I see that all over in markets here,. But it always looks pretty clean and even at the height of summer there aren’t flies.

Anyhow, on the sidewalk, there were some old men playing this checkers/chess game I see guys playing.. it looks complicated and they think a lot in between each move. I took some video of these guys and will get it together soon. There were a bunch of guys watching them and no one even looked at me as I stood and filmed.

I walked on through and emerged on Sanlitun Street, a pretty major thoroughfare which I didn’t somehow realize I was approaching. And then it struck me just how squeezed this little neighborhood is and how doomed it is. Sanlitun was known as bar street and they already torn down a whole block to build a giant building of some sort and that turned out to almost butt up to the alley I was walking through.

Oh damn!

Just like that, blogspot is banned again and I can't view the site.. just when some friends here were starting to read it and I was feeling inspired to get cranking...

Here today, gone tomorrow... you never know what the Great firewall of China will deflect next.

Joshua Anchia-Cohen

A big welcome to the world to Joshua Anchia Cohen, born in Costa Rica to cousin Amy Cohen and her husband Kenneth Anchia. How do you say Mazel Tov in Spanish? IN Chinese it is goong-see.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


We have a mold problem. I’m not sure how bad it is but there is some nasty black stuff font eh wall of our playroom downstairs and we had a pipe leak which brought water damage to the already nasty rug down there. We’re changing that and will repaint but I know we need to do something more.

I asked around and ended up with the name of this woman who has had huge mold problems and become something of an expert. We spoke and she freaked me out a little. I decided that I really didn’t want to too far with her. She was clearly obsessed and I feared where pursuing her lines of inquiry would lead…

She told me how difficult it was, how contactors and workers here didn’t get it, how you had to make them take down all the edging… on and on.. She also told me that you can get some mold remediation stuff at B&Q, which is basically a British Home Depot and which has several stores here but which I had never visited.

We finally had someone come over and measure for a new rug in that room. Which I think will alone solve a lot of the problem but I wanted the floor cleaned with this anti mold stuff before the new one goes down… so I finally headed for B&Q today.

The place was just like a dream Home Depot. It was organized in pretty much the same way on the first floor, with a warehouse-type setup, though the second floor had a more normal-store like vibe. The employees even wore orange aprons similar to those at HD. But there were a couple of big differences. For one, the place is spotlessly clean and uncluttered. And more profoundly, there were four or five employees waiting at every department to help customers. You can shoot howitzers down the aisles at the NJ Home Depots and not hit any helpers.

I went in and walked right up to the paint department, which seemed like the right place. A nice young woman helped me and I told her I wanted something for mai-yo (no) mold” and she started asking me what color I wanted. No, no I said. I finally realized that when I asked Becky’s office manager Lily how to say mold, she text messaged me the word for “molding” instead. So I was asking the paint store asking for something for “no molding.” No wonder the poor salesgirl was confused.

She went to a store phone and got a manager or someone who spoke English but of course that didn’t help either. I sort of realized I had the word wrong and tried to explain – “Mold is the stuff that grows if there is water first and it is bad, very bad. It is black.. it can be green.. it makes you sneeze.. Ah-choo… Bu hao (no good)…” on and on to no avail.

Then I realized that I might have the mold lady’s number still in my text message from when Theo sent it to me long ago. I looked and it was there. I called, she answered.

“Uh, hi. This is Alan, Theo’s friend who called you a while back to talk about mold.”

“Oh yes.”

“I am in B and Q and I can’t find the mold stuff.”

“It is on the second floor, through the kitchens, on a shelf close to the back wall, near the vacuum cleaners. It is a German product, with English writing.”

“Thank you.”

I went up there, ran into two ladies I know from the compound, said hi, kept going.. and found the stuff. I bought three bottles and now we’ll see about getting it on and how effective it seems to be.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Becky and friends road race

Last week, Becky ran an 8k race as part of the Beijing Marathon. She was with friends Kristi Belete, Vivian Nazari and Liz Durkin. These are before and after pictures and I don't think they look any worse for the wear.

It started at Tiananmen Square at 7:30 AM. They left here at 6:30. I got in that morning at 3:30 from CD Jazz Café, after playing funk and blues in the smoky club all night.

Between us, we really are one fantastically well-rounded person.


The new Insider’s Guide to Beijing came out a few weeks ago. It is a fairly massive tome and very good and quite well read in our world. I wrote a few pieces for it, including a rewrite of my first WSJ column. They ran that in the front as part of the introduction to the book, and this picture ran with it.

They asked me last year if I would pose for a photo and I said sure, then decided to get the kids into it. I felt weird standing there alone and posing. Odd to be on that side of a story. I went and yanked them all out of class for a photo shoot. Glad I did. The sunglasses are unfortunate, but whatcha gonna do?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Great journalism

This brilliant story about the Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas left me speachless. I now have a new favorite player. It has also encouraged me to renew a sub to Esquire. Wow.

Free Int'l Phone calls

Friend David Goldberger sent me this:

This company is making money on "telecom triage" - the federal subsidy
they collect from the federal govt for providing the call from Iowa is
less than the cost of providing the service, so they make money on
every minute. A loophole that the feds will probably close at some point,
but for now, free and legal phone calls for anyone in the United States
to a host of countries. All you have to do is dial a "gateway" number
in Iowa and then dial your international number...

More on it here.

It looks cool. They just added china, so someone can give it a try. My cell number is 1086-1391-172-8921.

Home is 1086-8450-6097.

I actually need to call Australia and will try to use it on my Vonage phone. Sort of funny, routing a China-Australia call through Iowa.

Some oldie but goodies

Icky Reingold sent me these pictures a while back. Taken probably 4-5 years ago at a Thanksgiving weekend Dixie Doc gig at the Penn Brewery, North Side of Pittsburgh.

That's me, Icky and Ripper if you don't know. Whatever happened to nicknames? And I mean real nicknames not JKidd-style initial BS.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

China holding up the U.S. Economy?

This is the first few paragraphs of the latest China story Becky ushered onto Page One. I thought it was well worth reading. If anyone wants to see the whole thing, let me know and I will forward you a link.

China's Reserves Near Milestone,
Underscoring Its Financial Clout

October 17, 2006; Page A1

BEIJING -- Sometime in the next few days, China's holdings of foreign currencies and securities will top $1 trillion -- a sum greater than the annual economic output of all but nine countries. The rapid growth in these so-called foreign-exchange reserves has made Beijing a colossus in the financial world, cushioned against shocks at home, but potentially able to trigger them abroad.

How China manages its growing pool of wealth has major repercussions for the global economy. Beijing's reserves totaled $987.9 billion as of Sept. 30 and are growing by roughly $20 billion a month. That total compares with the about $1.2 trillion in assets under management at U.S. mutual-fund giant Fidelity Investments.
[Hu Xiaolian]

As the pot grows, the secretive and sophisticated portfolio managers at China's central bank are trying gradually to boost their country's returns on its foreign-exchange holdings, at least in part by making somewhat riskier but higher-yielding investments. Last spring, an unsuccessful effort to divine their intentions sparked a steep run-up in the price of gold.

For the U.S., how China deploys its reserves is a question of some consequence. Most of China's currency reserves are invested in U.S.-dollar-denominated debt, such as U.S. Treasurys, which are considered the world's safest investment. That has kept demand for U.S. Treasury notes high -- and interest rates low. A change in that pattern could affect how much Americans pay for mortgage loans and other borrowings.

Some in Washington and in world markets fear that China might one day dump its holdings of dollar-based assets, setting off a tidal wave of sales that might swamp the U.S. economy. Despite such fears, there's no sign that China is making a major move out of dollars and into euros or other foreign currencies, even though Chinese economists have occasionally warned that the weak dollar holds down the value of China's holdings.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Jamming in memory of Danny Pearl

Last Saturday night was Daniel Pearl World Music Day, honoring the late, great WSJ journalist. He was apparently a great guy and great musician and on or around his birthday, the world celebrates with special performances in clubs all across the globe. I think it's important to remember that he was a person -- and apprently a really special one -- andnot just some martyr, though he is that, too.

My friend Matt Roberts’ Ah-Q Jazz Arkestra plays every Saturday at the CD jazz Café.. same guys Dixie played with a few weeks ago. He turned last Saturday’s gig into a special open jam for this event.. lots of guests.. including, gulp, me. Becky also “performed,” giving a nice tribute to Danny Pearl. I have that on film too and need to get her okay to post it.

I brought along Dave Loevinger, my sax man and we went up and played three songs. I sang them all and I think it went well. I think learning Chinese and actually trying to speak it to people has liberated me singing wise.. I’m more ready to just let it belt. I’m not sure how great it sounds – though it definitely got better – but I was comfortable, which is a little shocking to me, to be honest and the feedback was good.

This was filmed on my camera, which takes nice videoa nd it’s much more convenient than lugging the vid camera, but it sure fill sa Flash card fast. I told Katherine, dave’s wife, to film the first song.. but of course, these first 5 minutes of our 25 minute performance were the shakiest. We got it going nicely right after this video runs out. Notice at the very end of the last verse I’m singing, they started playing a horn section riff.. I loved that.. and they kept it going rest of the song..

I also played a solo after Matt’s, which I think went well, and started playing riffs and fills on the turnarounds, and turned up my guitar, which I don’t think you can hear that well here.

Following this, we did Little Milton’s “That’s What love Will Make You Do,” which was really well received, and Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning.”

Later, Dave jammed a bunch more along with a steady stream of Chinese guest musicians, who reallyw ailed, as well as a great Russian trombonist… I went back at the end of the night and played two funk songs with about six horns, including a bari sax.. new terrain for me and I really enjoyed it… It was about 1 am and Matt said, “there isa great Hungarian band coming here at 1:30. WE have top keep people here for ahalf an hour. Let’s play some upbeat and fun stuff.” It was two altos, tenor, baritone and trombone, plus me and bass and drums.. I’ve never played with horns like that and it was really, really fun.

The first tune was a two chord vamp so comfort level was easy to reach and then I played what felt like a pretty wicked solo turned up LOUD. Next tune was a little more complex and I was hummana hummanaing, and skipped a solo but I think it went moderately well…

The night ended with a two song performance by a great Hungarian big band.. Soul What – What a surprise.. They came in at about 1:30 from another gig, setup and blew away three songs.. young band, great arrangements, great playing, great energy, sexy singer.. great capper to a really fun night.. the ladies went home early, but Dave and I were out to about 3.
Becky left at 6:30 am to run an 8 k race as part of the Beijing Marathon.. kids mercifully slept in a bit for me and I wisely switched from Tsing Tao to Perrier at some point after midnight, making the morning bearable.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Last week's column

Finding Hidden Treasures
With Visiting Parents

October 12, 2006 11:30 p.m.

Because China is undeniably hot, living here means receiving a constant stream of visitors, ranging from colleagues to best friends and everything in between. They come just to see us or for tours, business trips and fact-finding missions. Our entire family enjoys the company and the care packages as well as the prompted visits to tourist-site that are often otherwise overlooked. Still, because we are not on permanent vacation, we have also developed a retinue of guides, drivers and tour companies to assist guests in getting around town.

But parental visits are different, and when my folks arrived about two weeks ago, I put virtually everything on hold to accompany them on their outings. It was wonderful to have them here just a year after my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer and things looked bleak. None of us ever lost our sense of amazing grace at his ability to simply be here, seemingly good as new; anything we actually did felt like gravy. But, boy, did we do a lot.

We made our way to several popular tourist destinations, including the Forbidden City, which I had shamefully never entered. My trumpet-playing father even made his China debut, performing with a friend's band at a downtown club. Everything was going great. Then I decided to take them on a wild Wall hike, in large part because of their enthusiastic reaction to my recent column about hiking outside the city.

Because the first week of October is one of the busiest travel times of the year, with a national holiday celebrating the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China, we battled dense get-out-of-town traffic for a solid hour. We finally left the masses far behind by heading up and over a twisty mountain road, plowing deeply into neighboring Hebei province. Finally, guide Tony Chen pointed me toward a sharp turn off.

We slowly bounced up a severely rutted dirt road, the drop-offs just to our right growing ever more precipitous as we ascended impossibly steep switchbacks. Feeling my parents' unease rising I struggled to focus on driving and stave off panicked thoughts that I was insane to drag my folks to such a remote spot. This highlighted the conundrum one can easily face; visitors expect you to take them off the beaten path, but how far off do they really want to go?

We finally arrived at a virtually abandoned village cut hard into a hillside. Tony explained that only about 15 mostly elderly people now lived here, lack of water and opportunities causing the others to move on. My anxiety began to melt away as we walked through a verdant valley and I sensed my folks' wonder and delight, taking in the vistas and the peasants picking crabapples off of fruit-laden trees. This is a part of China tour members rarely see but one I think is crucial to even begin understanding this vast country.

We hiked up a hill into increasingly arid mountains, which stretched as far as the eye could see. After about an hour, we came to a gorgeous section of the Great Wall, approximately 400 years old and totally unreconstructed. Though grass grew waist high on the top, the Wall was in great shape and we trekked atop it, my father marveling at both the construction and the solitude. Neither of us realized it was just our first course of outback exploring.

Two days later, we flew to Lijiang in Southwest China's Yunnan Province. The postcard-perfect old city has become increasingly popular with Chinese tourists in the last decade and was packed for the holiday. Though the central square was wall-to-wall people, our lovely little hotel was down a quiet alley. It was easy to escape by wandering through the perimeter's narrow, cobblestone streets, which were reminiscent of Jerusalem's ancient markets.

The area is the home of the Naxi minority, natives whose fascinating culture includes the world's last living hieroglyphic language. We spent a day in Yuhu village with guide Lushan Nguloko, who works for the Nature Conservancy and whose family runs a guesthouse out of their traditional courtyard home. Her mother and sister cooked us lunch, then we all toured the village on horseback. We also stopped by the former home of Joseph Rock, a self-trained botanist and anthropologist who lived there from 1922-49 and wrote extensively about the area for National Geographic.

On day four, we loaded into a van and headed north for Shangri-La. People have been searching for this fictional paradise since it was described in James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon." In 2002, the Chinese government changed the name of Yunnan's Zhongdian County to Shangri-La. As cynical as that ploy sounds, it actually seemed likely we were heading toward paradise as we left a gorgeous locale only to watch the scenery grow ever more stunning.

The expansive, snow-capped 16,778-foot Jade Snow Mountain, which had been hidden behind clouds our entire stay in Lijiang, was finally visible, looming outside our right window for close to two hours. We stopped to descend into the belly of the 3900-foot deep Tiger Leaping Gorge, gawking at the Yangtze River pounding over rocks at the bottom, before sending two of the kids back up in a shoulder-carried rickshaw. We paused again for lunch, then pushed onward.

After nearly five hours of endlessly climbing to over 10,000 feet, we reached a level plateau that was both achingly beautiful and distinctly different. We were in Tibet, no matter what the borders say, with a huge sky that stretched from mountain range to mountain range. White stupas (Buddhist prayer monuments) dotted the landscape, surrounded by free-roaming giant yaks and whole families of pot-bellied pigs rooting around freshly plowed fields. A few farmers trailed yaks, with plows attached to their animals by large nose rings.

It was mesmerizing, but the kids were deliriously ragged out from the drive and at least one total meltdown seemed imminent. When we turned onto the heavily rutted dirt road leading to the Banyan Tree resort I flashed back to our hairy drive up to the Hebei village. As we bounced and jiggled around, my father sarcastically said he had to hand it to us for finding such a place and I was certain I had gone a step too far dragging my children and parents into these wilds.

Then we pulled up to the hotel's main lodge and everyone, kids included, instantly knew the journey had been worth it. Simply put, it was the most remarkable place I've ever stayed. Both the setting and the buildings were somehow indelibly soothing and inspiring, so much so that it would have been hard to argue with the inflated tab even if my parents hadn't insisted on picking it up.

Walking by the nearby river we watched yaks, sheep and pigs heading home on their own as dusk approached. We were trailed by three Tibetan children, curious to peer at our kids and delighted when we gave them gum, granola bars and fresh fruit. The next morning we went for a short trek to a nearby village, with the kids riding horses. We drank yak butter tea and ate yak cheese inside a home with elaborate woodwork and intricate, brightly painted beams but no toilets. My father again said he had to hand it to us, but the sarcasm was gone. And then it was time to leave, our visit too short but incredibly memorable.

The six-hour trip home was mercifully uneventful and the next morning we had to face up to a return to reality -- kids to school, mom and dad to work and my parents back to the airport. A few days later, we all have a post-trip hangover, exacerbated by missing my parents and feeling a little extra isolated in their absence. But the true mark of a successful visit is feeling sad to see it end.

It's My Cousins' Really Cute Kid Day

This is Ashley Dallos, daughter of my cousin Andy Dallos and his wife Laurie. I'm not quite sure what is happening here, but she is adorable. They should bring her to China and let her be a princess.

Halloween preview of Rachel and Julia Cohen, Dan and Alisa's daughters. Another prizewinner.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shangri-La -- All pictures in video form

Trip was great. I was inspired. I think this is my video masterpiece thus far.

I put all the Shangri La pictures in there instead of posting them individually.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Naxi Village video UPDATED.. Look again if you already saw

Horseback riding in Yuhu, Naxi village outside of Lijiang, China. Yunnan Province. Music by Los Lobos.

Lijiang Pictures

Okay, Here we go... there's going to be a lot of pictures coming. this is only leg one. Shangri La to come soon.

Jacob loved the ubiquitous rice noodles... about 80 cents for a huge bowl at little old town joints.

Lijiang is an ancient city with beautiful rivers running through it.

Old city as viewed from our hotel balcony.

Becky and Jacob at the little noodle joint. jacob wanted to eat every meal here. Note the tiny stools.

We had a great lunch at Lushan's family house,
cooked by her mother and sister. One of the dishes was big pot of chicken stew, with a big ol' foot sticking out the top. It seemed like the right time to finally pop one in my mouth. It wasn't bad but neither did I see why Chinese consider it a delicacy. Just more fatty chicken.

Dixie watched me and said with a laugh, "Tood bad there's not another one." Lily overheard and suddenly appeared, dropped one into th ebowl and said, "another one." We all laughed. He ate.

Naxi "dong ba" or spiritual leader.

In front of Joseph Rock house with Lushan and her daughter Bei Bei.

Anna with her friend Bei Bei, daughter of our lovely guide Lushan.
Picture taken in courtyard of Bei Bei's family home in a Naxi (think
Indian) village, about 20 km outside of Lijiang.

Village Naxi

Jacob and Bei Bei dekerneling (?) corn at former house/museum
of Joseph Rock.. you will learn more in my column.

group picture in Lushan's family courtyard.

Eli took this one.

We stopped at a little store wfor treats and they invited us into their house when it started raining. Kids loved these dogs and this nutty little boy, doing Power rangers moves.

We trekked out to his gorgeous lake. There's a 17,000 foot gorgeous peak obscured behind the clouds behind us. Damn.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Quickie update

Back from a great great trip.

Folks left this morning and we are battling vacation hangovers to go along with mising them and wicked colds or worse (all of us except Eli, the Everready bunny of kids).

I took hundreds of pictures in Lijiang and Shangri La (which is basically Tibet) and will get more up soon. But first I have to finish writing a column and gettingmy feet back on the ground.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Leaving in the morning

We are heading out for Lijiang and Shangri La in Yunnan Province tomorrow morning. Won't be back until Sunday so these rapid posts will slow down big time. I wrote a nice story about our hike but didn;t have time to finish it and we are being picked up at 6:45 am... didn't get back from friends' until 8:30 and anna, who took a long nap, didn't go to sleep until 10:30. Oops.

Wild Great Wall hike in Hebei Province

We went somewhere very remote and very beautiful.. Suzi and Dixie loved it after surviving their heart failure caused by the dirt road we took.... Here is what it looked like.. music by The Allman Brothers Band: "Little Martha"

Full text of this journey to come soon....

More Dixie video

"I Found a New Baby"

Dixie says it's the wrong tempo but I think it sounds good.

Rodg "Ripper" Citron dives into the parental pool headfirst

Big Mazel Tov to Rodger Citron and Andrea Cohen on the birth(s) of their twin girls Alexa and Amelia. The two future members of Yale '28 are lucky enough to share a birthday (Sept. 27) with Becky. Here they are pictured arriving home from the hospital.

Rodg writes: "Alexa (the older sister by two minutes) is in the foreground, Amelia is no more than two minutes behind."

Skirbs Skirboll won the reply-to-birth-announcement contest in just ten words: