About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.

— Samuel Johnson



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 9/23/2017

Totals
Posts - 2453
Comments - 2558
Hits - 1,984,654

Averages
Entries/day - 0.47
Comments/entry - 1.04
Hits/day - 382

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:04 PM Pacific


  09:50 AM

After we managed to get it together on Sunday enough to actually do something, Bob (our host) came up with the unexpected suggestion that we go out for Western-style breakfast. Agreed. We might be suffering jet lag, but in whatever mid-Pacific time zone our stomachs had been left, they were hungry. The Western thing surprised me a little, though. Beijing is a great town for eating, he explained, but they drop the ball on breakfast.

Bob lives in an area where Westerners are clustered, being in the vicinity of a lot of the embassies. (Actually, Bob's block is a kind of Little Russia, where shop signs are both in Chinese and Cyrillic.) On our way to breakfast we walked past a few of the embassies, guarded by Chinese soldiers in good-looking olive uniforms with bright-red trim. I noticed that they were not armed, however. Bob thought that these were often kids from the provinces doing Army duty, and how odd Beijing must seem to them.

Our walk to breakfast took us through Ritan Park, a pleasant greenspace that was apparently once the site of imperial sacrifices for one of the seasons. We don't have parks like these at home exactly -- there were winding paths around tended gardens and ponds, with various gazebo-like pavilions around the place.



For breakfast we ended up in a place whose name, if I remember right, was "Steak and Eggs." It's sufficiently oriented toward the Western community that they don't bother with any Chinese on the menu. So it was eggs and all that for us, pretty competently done -- I had grits, too. Bob held up a bottle of pancake syrup: "Not so easily come by in Beijing," he said. I'll bet.

Then it was time for some serious touristing. We headed to the Silk Road, a slight misnomer. This is a six-story building crammed with stalls selling t-shirts, shoes, luggage, leather goods, suits, and so on.



The merchandise was pretty much the same between stalls, which always makes me wonder about the, you know, business model for any given stall. "We propose to sell the same stuff as the guy two stalls down," it would have to read. Dunno how they do it.

Well, that’s not completely true. How they do it is with a combination of two techniques. One is a very spirited come on. As you, the tourist, pick your way through the gantlet of stalls, each vendor accosts you, some of them aggressive enough to pluck at your sleeve:

Hey lady, lady!
You want t-shirt?
You want belt?
You want wallet?


Being a man and passing a stall of women's blouses does not exempt you:

You got daughter?
For you wife?


I amused myself by actually responding to all of this hawking -- oh, no, thank you, not for me. Not today. Really, no. As with responding to spam emails, though, actually acknowledging their pitch by saying you want to opt out just means you're a live one, and they redouble their efforts. The correct response, or at least the one to discourage things fastest, is to completely ignore the pitches. This is not a scenario in which polite people thrive. And golly, actually stepping into a booth brought on a press of attention as shirts were whipped off hangers and out of plastic bags.

The other technique is to use a, mm, fluid pricing policy. I was quite flattered to hear that all the vendors had a special price just for me, imagine that. Bob's theory was that even if you negotiated 70% off their first offer, you were getting screwed. This is not an area in which I am particularly competent, although I understand that first offers are just to test the credulity of the mark, as it were. Even with my modest skills in price negotiation, I got 50% knocked off an item without much effort, so I can only imagine how much less the bottom price was for real. A touch I found nice is that the vendors all have calculators -- all the same model, it seems -- and when it's price time, they punch in a number and then hold the calculator up so you can see their offer. The correct response is to look shocked, shocked, I tell you:



But we're just softies. On the other hand, I did see a Russian couple drive a hard bargain with some vendors selling luggage. Part of their success seemed to be in looking truly offended at the prices they were being quoted.

I'll note also (as I have before) how impressive I find it that people can learn enough English (Japanese, Spanish, Russian, French) to take on the tourist trade. The profit motive is a strong linguistic incentive.

Our shopping requirements quickly fulfilled, we stopped for coffee. The Silk Road is run, or at least overseen, by the government, and things are all at least officially above-board. Thus the entrance solemnly intoned Protect intellectual property rights and promote innovation and development, in the best Little Red Book style. This meant, I guess, that inside the Silk Road there are no stalls devoted to selling pirated CDs and DVDs. But outside there's a veritable cordon of gentlemen who accost you as you enter or leave -- CD? DVD? CD? DVD? Bob explained at one point. When the companies came in and started selling CDs and DVDs, they were asking US prices for them, which was ludicriously beyond the reach of most people. So a thriving piracy market sprang up to fill the gap. And these aren't just fly-by-night guys offering CDs out of the trunks of cars; these are full-on factories working to supply a billion-dollar market. Bob's got a stack of low-price DVDs at home, which is obvious when you read the fractured liner notes on the cover. There's a downside, though -- a certain percentage of the DVDs just don't work. But at less than $1 each, you can afford a comparatively high failure rate.

After our little jaunt, we strolled a bit and ended up at the erstwhile royal observatory. This modest little museum has a pretty courtyard and some exhibits of astronomical instruments mostly made of bronze. The accompanying explanations were probably pretty good translations, but even so, tended toward the technical -- sextant, astrolabe, gnomon, etc. -- so we mostly admired them for aesthetics and enjoyed the setting.



Our last stop was at the corner shop by Bob's place. Although for him it's just a convenient store, it features a selection that's probably not common in Beijing -- liverwurst, Australian wines, Trix cereral, bagels, Edam cheese, peanut butter, you name it. The name of the place is Jenny Lou's. As we heard the story, Jenny Lou was a rural woman who brought fruits and vegetables into Beijing to sell, and in fact, into this neighborhood of embassies and Western families. The wives who bought Jenny Lou's produce would occasionally ask if she knew where they might find that little something from home. Jenny Lou finagled some sort of contact with customs and became a reliable source for just about anything the embassy families might need. These days Jenny Lou has six stores and drives a Mercedes.

Then home, were everyone fell into a luxurious, deep nap that lasted probably longer than was wise, but oh man, it felt so very good to be asleep. In the evening, pizza was procured, thus rounding out our first full day in Beijing with a perfect record of no Chinese food. Bob promised, though, that from here on out we'd be eating native. Bring it on, sez me.

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