Don’t Touch the Red Button

During the two weeks I was in China, I took four different high-speed train rides (the absolute best way to travel). As with all other public spaces in China, there are lists of behavior rules posted all over the train, and a steady stream of announcements over the loudspeaker about prohibited “uncivilized” behavior.

Most of the announcements on the trains were the usual stuff: don’t talk loudly on your phones, don’t litter, don’t interfere with the train attendants, and don’t run and romp around.

But the one that I was most interested in was the admonition, DON’T TOUCH THE RED BUTTON!

Of course, it would never occur to me to touch a red button; in fact, I hadn’t even noticed any red buttons…..until they loudly declared the prohibition on touching red buttons!

Of course, I had to go hunting for the mysterious red button!

Rejuvenation Express

When China began building its amazing high speed rail system in the early 2000s, Hu Jintao was the leader of China. As with all leaders, he had a slogan or catchphrase that was used (ad nauseum) to symbolize his rule. With Hu Jintao, the slogan was “build a harmonious society.” For his 8 years in power, the word harmony and harmonious were ubiquitous; so much so, in fact, that to this day I still find myself wincing whenever I hear the words.

Even the high-speed rail system got in the act, and the trains were labeled “Hexie Hao”. There’s no good way to translate that term, as it applies to a train, but let’s just call it the Harmony Express.

“Welcome aboard the Harmony Express. The next station is Shanghai.”

In 2011 Hu Jintao stepped down and was replaced at the top of China’s political system by Xi Jinping. His slogan is “national rejuvenation.”

And just like that the train  that I was on this earlier this week, which sped along at 200 mph, was now called the Rejuvenation Express.

“Welcome aboard the Rejuvenation Express. The next station is Beijing!”

New leader; new railway slogan!

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Harmony Alert

 

A Vile Vial

My travel itinerary on this China trip took me to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. Besides being the center of China’s coal production, Shanxi is famous for vinegar. In fact, when you step off a train or plane, the smell of vinegar is in the air.

Upon arrival, our hosts took us to a traditional Shanxi restaurant. Beside each table setting was a vial of vinegar that looked frighteningly similar to a vial of medicine. Before eating the meal, we had to sip the vinegar through a tiny straw. Apparently it will cure pretty much anything that ails you.

Be that as it may, I found it rather vile!

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Vinegar, Anyone?

Ethnic Minority Park

I’m back in the Middle Kingdom for a couple of weeks, traveling with some friends. Last week, we stopped into the China Ethnic Culture Park, located close to the famous Bird’s Nest. Although I lived in the city for 15 years, it was actually my first visit.

However, even though I had never been there, the park is one that looms large in the annals of bad translation folk lore in the minds of Beijing expats who were around in the 2000s. In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the city launched a campaign to “clean up” the bad English signage. This was a good thing since the sign on the nearby freeway exit ramp pointing drivers to the park said RACIST PARK NEXT EXIT. It was a very very bad translation of the word minzu (民族) which is best (or at least better) translated as ethnic group.

On a Monday morning, my friend and I pretty much had the park to ourselves. In the hour we were there we saw 3 gardeners, 1 peddler, 2 leaf sweepers, 1 other tourist, and a slightly bored-looking group of high school students.

Here a a few photos:

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The Ship

In case you’re wondering about the ship we were on, it was the Norwegian Breakaway, one of the largest vessels in the Norwegian Cruise line’s fleet. 3900 passengers and 1500+ crew!

The highlight of every evening was watching the sun set as we left port.

 

Stockholm

The last port of call our Baltic cruise earlier this month was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden — another city that I have always wanted to see. And like the other cities on our trip, it did not disappoint either!

In fact, I would say that it’s location on the water and old world architecture make it truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

And of course, as was the case in Denmark, for this Minnesotan, everyone looked vaguely familiar!

It was a fantastic trip; hard to believe I was just setting out a month ago. If you ever have a chance to do a Baltic cruise, do it!

And now I’m off to Hong Kong for a meeting! Back Sunday!

Finland

When I was a junior high-school student at Karachi American School in Pakistan (in the early 70s), my art teacher was a woman from Finland. I liked her (even though I was terrible at art), and ever since then I have wanted to visit Finland. So I was thrilled that Helsinki, Finland was one of the ports of call on our cruise earlier this month.

As the ship docked early in the morning, a thick fog descended onto the city. We missed some of the wider views of the city, but it still managed to be impressive.

After a drive around the city, we travelled 35 miles east to visit the historic city of Porvoo, a charming 800-year-old town.

The town is dominated by the Porvoo Cathedral, a Lutheran Church that contains a statue of Russian Czar Alexander I. He looms large in Finnish history as the Russian ruler who granted autonomy to Finland after it was taken from Sweden.

One of the books I read in advance of the trip was The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth. It’s a great book that examines the history and contemporary social/political issues, as well as cultural characteristics of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It’s a great read.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

And a book I now have on my wish list is Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40, by Vesa Nenye and Peter Munter about the the Soviet attack on Finland during World War II. It’s a lesser-known story about that war.

Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40

And for a fun link to China, here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about the popularity of Finland among many Chinese:

Why do millions of Chinese people want to be ‘spiritually Finnish?” A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China — even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck a chord?

Three Layers of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a city of layers with each layer corresponding to a different historical era and and each visible in the architecture and various sights around town.

The first is the classical layer which can be seen in the ornate architecture of the city built by Peter the Great. Many visitors assume that it is classical Russian architecture, but our guide reminded us that St. Petersburg was built as a European city, not a Russian one. It is this layer that most attracts visitors.

The second layer is that of the Soviet era, during which the city was named Leningrad. Vestiges of that era can be seen in the giant, nondescript apartment blocks that dominate the outer areas of the city.

Seeing these giant housing blocks was quite disorienting since they looked exactly like the thousands of apartment buildings that are commonplace in Chinese cities. As soon as we got out of the center of town — the old city — I felt like we could have been in Beijing (minus the crowds, mind you). In fact the photo above looks a lot like my old neighborhood in Beijing.

It was quite disorienting!

The Soviet era is also visible in the subway system, with its ornate Stalinist art extolling the virtues of the working class.

The third, and most recent layer of St. Petersburg is that of the post-Communist era, characterized by traffic jams, shopping malls, and gleaming skyscrapers.

During World War II, Hitler ordered his army to capture and destroy the city. Although it was under siege for 900 days, they were never able to take it. It is estimated that more than 1 million of the city’s inhabitants died, either of starvation and disease or during the frequent bombardments.

An excellent book about the siege is The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, by Harrison Salisbury.

The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad