Editor's Note: "Good Food," a show on Santa Monica's National Public Radio affiliate KCRW, caught up with Mark last week while he was in China.
Click here to listen to Mark recount his meal at Water's Head village by the Great Wall and offer his thoughts on why getting a good local recommendation in Beijing is more difficult then it sounds.
Editor's Note: "Good Food," a show on Santa Monica's National Public Radio affiliate KCRW, caught up with Mark last week while he was in China.
Let me back up a moment. I had just spent my first night in Mongolia, in Tower A of Ulaan Bataar's Hotel Bayangol, a Soviet-style edifice notable for the fabulous neon sign hanging over its restaurant, but not much else. Byambaa, my guide, picked me up at nine that morning and we piled into a funny-looking vehicle called an UVZ 3909 and drove west out of the city, headed towards a Mongolian ger camp.
Days 30-31: I took a gamble on the train to Ulaan Bataar. The first class berths have two beds, and I only bought one of them. Most people will tell you to buy both, if you can afford it, because the risk is high that you could get stuck bunking with some fat businessman from Hubei Province who chain smokes and sweats garlic oil. At first, my prospects didn't look so good. There was a mad crush of people to get on the train, most of whom had half their worldly belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes or white plastic bags. When they opened the gates to let the people board, the people stampeded.
Editor's note: Several of you have complimented Mark on his photography and have requested that we post larger photos that could double as desktop wallpaper. We hear you, but due to bandwidth limitations, Mark is forced to modify his images to a slow-connection-speed-friendly size before posting them online. However, that doesn't mean that he won't re-post some popular photos in a larger size when he reaches a place with lighting-fast connectivity.
Tell us here what photos that you would like to see re-posted in a larger size and we'll see what we can do in the weeks ahead to make sure that your desktop soon hosts a lovely photograph of a Pacific sunset, the Great Wall, California's Highway 1, or even Mark lounging in a Napa Valley mud bath.
Day 29: For my last two nights in Beijing, I stayed at the Raffles Hotel, a big, colonial-style spread right on the main drag where Western business people like to stay in China so that they can forget they're in China. But the hotel has one thing going for it: breakfast. You can get whatever you want--porridge, bacon, fried rice, dumplings, eggs, noodles in broth, waffles. I opted for noodles and fried rice, for the simple reason that I wasn't interested in pretending that I wasn't in China. But then an unusual thing happened. I came down with a craving for pancakes, which, to be honest, isn't all that unusual.
My alarm clocks in Water's Head village
Day 28: Chinese roosters, like roosters everywhere, crow to announce the arrival of day. It is the best kind of alarm, and in Water's Head village, a crescendo of mules and goats figure into the mix, a brazen and undeniable call to action.
We got up, washed our hands, and rolled our sleeping bags. The toilet was situated in a shed out back, and was nothing more than a hole in the ground to squat over. It worked just fine, so long as you could tolerate the thigh-burn.
Day 27: Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China is not one big, long, continuous stretch of unending wall. It is several pieces of wall, with many gaps. It is also many different walls, though they all run roughly parallel to one another--east to west--separating China from the lands to the north. The Great Wall of China was not a raised highway used to transport goods and people across the country, it cannot be seen from the moon, there are no dead workers buried within its bricks, and no one knows how long it is. The Great Wall was built with a single purpose in mind: to keep out Mongol raiders.
Is there room in the back?
Day 26: My first night in Beijing, I bathed in an eighteenth-century palace, rode on a bus more packed than I thought possible, and ingested the spiciest cabbage in existence. This was before the fight broke out.
Let's begin with the palace. It was built as a residence for a Ching dynasty prince, and later turned into a Sichuan restaurant, which was something the prince never saw coming. According to lore, it was Deng Xiao Ping's favorite place to go for dinner, and in 1995 it was fashioned into the China Club Hotel. The China Club is something all too rare: an expensive hotel with character. I'm not sure my room was the prince's actual bedroom--you probably need to own a Gulfstream for that--but that was okay with me. My room, I thought, just might have been the quarters of the prince's favorite concubine, and that her spirit would visit me during the night. (No such luck, as it turned out.)
My Beijing-bound train
Day 25: We aren't more than a few minutes out of Hong Kong's Hong Hum train station when the music starts. Hey, it's that Billy Joel song, I think to myself and begin to hum along to "My Life," which is being sung in Mandarin. At the chorus, however, the song takes a turn towards the uplifting and majestic, as though it was written to inspire brigades of fresh troops, and I'm left wondering if someone should tell Billy Joel, but then imagine how a phone call between Billy Joel and the Chinese train authority would go. Plus, it's unwise to make assumptions of guilt. This is a culture that's 5,000 years old. They invented gun powder, they invented paper, they invented the compass, and, I presume, chop sticks. They've come up with a melody or two in that time.
Editor's Note: For his two week cruise across the Pacific, writer Mark Schatzker had the good fortune of enjoying the company of his wife, Laura, and baby daughter, Greta. Today it was time to say goodbye. Laura and Greta left this morning for Toronto. Mark, meanwhile, hopped on a Beijing-bound train to kick off the next phase of his "80 Days or Bust" challenge; two months of travel--solo this time--through Asia and Europe.
Here's a short video Mark created of his family back home in Toronto before the adventure began.
Greta. My bunny.
Today is the saddest of these 80 days. Laura and Greta left on a plane to fly back over the Pacific Ocean.
The morning was long and heavy. We ate breakfast, then undertook the painful process of packing separate luggage. Greta was wearing her bunny outfit, which is my favorite. At around 10 a.m., it was time to say goodbye. I lifted her up, kissed her warm, tender head and tears were rolling down my cheeks as she smiled and made googly noises at me, which was a 180-degree role reversal for us.
(For all you male readers, I realize this wasn't terribly manly of me. But I plan on steer wrestling a yak in Mongolia to make up for it.)
From a design point of view, the cruise ship was conservative tacky. It looked like it was decorated by a team of Hungarian-coffee-shop grandmothers with a dream budget--lots of chrome and brass, smoke crystal sconces and chandeliers, and plenty of glossy marble surfaces. You know the look.
My watch is correct again (+12 hours)
As I write this, it is 5:20 p.m. here and 5:20 a.m. on the Eastern Seaboard. My watch is correct once again. I am halfway around the world.
Here on the other side of the world, no one seems to think I'm dressed very well. Every second man I pass in the street wants to make me brand new a suit. So great is their alarm over my appearance that they assure me that one can be ready in just a few hours.
Laura visited the spa for the third time. This time, she underwent a treatment called the Ionithermie Cellulite Reduction Program, even though she has only microscopic quantities of cellulite which hardly require anything as drastic as Ionothermie, whatever it may be.
Here's how it went down. Laura identified the parts of her body parts designated for improvement and the therapist took a course brush and massaged these "cellulite areas" to "get the lymphatic system working." She followed this by applying a blue cream to Laura's back and front, then mixed some water into a bowl of powdered clay and added a secret ingredient: red algae. The algae-infused clay was spread over a mat, and a layer of electrodes was laid on top, like M&Ms on a birthday cake. Laura was instructed to recline on the clay-algae-electrode mat, and then another layer of electrodes and algae-clay were applied to her front, so that she was, effectively, mummified in the stuff.
Sun sets on the cruise, literally and metaphorically
This morning we sailed through the gap of ocean between the Philippines and Taiwan. The air outside was suddenly humid and dense and thick with the smell of pollution. To step outside now is to feel heavy and exhausted. It is as though Asia is exhaling on us.
We seem to pass one ship every hour or two. There was a big one this morning, another tanker. It inched by in front of us, stolid and humorless. Tomorrow morning we arrive in Hong Kong. The cruise is almost over. I had a burger for lunch today, the last until I get back to America.
Fabulously retro controls on the bridge
If I had the money, the first thing I would do upon getting to Hong Kong is buy the biggest, fattest, most ridiculously enormous SUV available and drive it up and down the city's streets--idling whenever the mood strikes, cranking the air conditioning with the windows open--just to appreciate the superb fuel economy. When it comes to fossil fuels, this ship has quite a thirst. It doesn't run on gas or diesel fuel. It burns what's known as heavy fuel oil, a petroleum product that, when cold, is hard enough to walk on. (This is the stuff Kim Jong-Il is always running out of. This and Cognac.)
My post earlier today about the mysterious birds--to me, anyway-- hovering around the ship drew a number of comments.
As far as the species of bird, there would be two camps: some say it's a masked boobie, and one person--KMKane, who sounds quite confident--says it's a gannet. So here's an added layer of intrigue: there are two more mystery birds (pictured above). One with a black head, and one that was brown with a funny looking beak. Does anyone know if these birds are rare or special in any way, apart from being spectacular hunters?
Serious action on the ocean today. At breakfast, a German man who boarded in Honolulu and has been selling duty-free diamond jewelry down in the gift shop at, he tells us, quite a discount, pointed over the railing and said, "Look, there is a ship." (The German gem dealer, incidentally, is one of the best-dressed people on board.) No one stirred. No one, that is, except me, because I have been left dumbstruck and agog--flabbergasted, really--by the shocking lack of ships out here on the Pacific.
This one involved a seaweed wrap. I was going for a terroir thing. You know, I'm on the ocean right now, I should be wrapped in seaweed. The seaweed itself was no longer in weed form. It had been dried, powdered and mixed with clay and something minty. With a little water, it turned into a soft paste that the masseuse spread all over my body, then wrapped me in tin foil. Unfortunately, it wasn't Pacific seaweed. It was from France, and thus the massage was not ocean-appropriate.
The captain politely turns down Greta's offer to steer the ship
It was a dark and stormy morning. The boat was heaving worse than ever, and I got up well before sun rise, opened the curtains and was met by an angry sea: frothy white caps, a howling wind picking up seawater and blasting it at the side of the ship, and a driving rain.
I couldn't sleep, so I grabbed my Sony Reader, which I loaded with books before leaving, and went up to the Lido Deck for coffee, convinced I was the only soul stirring on the boat. I arrived to find a collection of elderly gentleman already there, reading and drinking coffee. I settled down with a latte, a smoked salmon sandwich and my book and thought about the considerable pleasures of rising early.
Cruise the Pacific, listen to lectures on gas
turbines. It doesn't get any better
They have an ongoing lecture series here on the cruise. I attend them regularly. Today's was called "Jet Engines: The Roll of Gas Turbines in Global Energy Conversion," a topic my wife wanted no part of, but which I found gripping in the extreme. Did you know, for example, that the first jet engine-powered flight took place in Rockstock, Germany, in 1939? Today's biggest jet engine is made by GE and produces 127,000 pounds of thrust and weighs 20 tons. Among the smallest jet engines is one that measures three inches in diameter and produces 10 pounds of thrust. It is used mainly by radio-controlled-airplane enthusiasts.
The ship started pitching early this morning. We woke up expecting to see a fierce ocean outside our window. Instead, it was a vision of calm. There was a fine chop on the water, the conditions were perfect for waterskiing, and yet, amidst all this calm were big, gentle rollers that threw the nose of the boat up, and yanked it down again.
I am developing an obsession with the crew. Their lives seem substantial imbued with arc compared to the leisurely routines of the guests. Beneath their smiles and courteous nods, there is the aggravation and frustration of working life. There must be.
Every time we bring Greta out, the Filipino crewmembers crowd around, say hello and smile at our daughter. We strike up conversation. Invariably, each Filipino crewmember has three or four children they haven't seen in six months and will not see for another two. They will only tell you this if you ask, and they do their best not to seem sad. When Laura was getting back onboard in Hawaii, she saw the Filipino crew crowded around pay phones, calling cards in hand, waiting to talked to loved ones.
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