Tuesday, 7 October 2014: Planning ahead
Okay, yeah, I'll admit it. China kind of scares us. But we're going anyway, because you don't get the chance every day, especially in the context of a scientific meeting, a setting where we're likely to feel at home, or at least able to cope. We may sound adventurous when gleefully exploring the wilds of France, but we're not really very intrepid travellers when it comes to places where we (a) don't speak the language and (b) aren't supposed to drink the water.
Anyway, some while back, David was invited to speak at the 3rd World Conference on Marine Biodiversity (that's the third conference on world marine biodiversity, not marine biodiversity in the third world) in Qingdao, where the beer comes from. The beer still uses the old spelling, Tsingtao, but the city uses the new one; the "ts" and the "q" are both pronounced sort of like English "ch." A big plus, at least in my eyes, is that the conference includes a chance to tour the brewery.
Despite having lots of lead time, I don't feel as though I've prepared as thoroughly for this trip as for some; in particular, I have not attempted to master even rudimentary Mandarin Chinese. I have read the language section of a guidebook, where I saw how to say yes, no, please, and thank you, and I've acquired a phrase book, of the sort where you look up what you want to say, then show the book to your interlocutor, who can read the translation you're pointing at (a problem with trying to read the transliterations aloud is that the print is so small I can't make out the little diacritics indicating the tones). We are assured (by colleagues who travel there frequently) that Qingdao is a big draw for English-speaking tourists, that the staff at our (large, famous, and overpriced) hotel will speak English, and that most signs are bilingual.<>p> Qingdao is on the Chinese coast, southeast of Beijing and just about at the latitude of the center of South Korea and (farther east) Tokyo. The weather is predicted to be lovely for our arrival—sunny, with highs in the low 70s and lows around 60. Because of its coastal location, smog isn't supposed to be a problem.
Our first hurdle, in preparation for the trip, was acquiring Chinese tourist visas. Our passports must be presented in person at the embassy in Washington or at the consulate with jurisdiction over Florida, which is in Houston. Drat. Back in 2004, we had to fly to Miami for the day to get French long-stay visas; were we going to have to fly to Houston this time? No! As I found out by reading all the way to the bottom of the page, the passports must be presented in person, but not necessarily by us! I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about the agencies that purport to help travelers acquire visas, so I was pushing and pulling at the idea of prevailing on my sister-in-law and her family, who live in Houston, to do it for us, when it dawned on me that people go off to China all the time, from Tallahassee, on tours organized by their travel agents. A quick e-mail to our local travel agent produced a prompt recommendation of a reputable and upstanding firm, Capitol Visa Services, in Silver Spring, Maryland. I called them with my list of questions, to make sure I understood the whole process, we filled out and printed the multipage forms provided on the Chinese embassy's website (had to download a special font for the purpose, as ordinary roman fonts won't work in the blanks of a PDF form made up in Chinese characters,) acquired recent passport photos, and completed CVS's request-for-services form, and I mailed all the paperwork, and our passports, off to Maryland. A couple of weeks later, our passports returned, bearing the requisite visas, and the bill for the visas and for CVS's services appeared on our credit-card statement. Slick.
Next, I set out to produce a map on which to mark our hotel, the conference hotel, and a couple of tourist attractions, like the old German concession (the reason Qingdao became a brewing center is that the Germans held a "concession" or foreign zone there; the old section of town is apparently full of Bavarian architecture). Google obligingly produced a street map, on which I traced the route we would walk, through a large park, to the conference each day. Then, to get an idea what the two hotels actually looked like, I switched to aerial view. Yikes! No correspondence whatsoever between the street map and the aerial photos! Instead of a park, the photos showed what was obviously a huge sports stadium, with what I take to be an equally huge mostly underground circular parking structure next to it. The roads I had thought we would follow were shown as passing right through these structures, and not in a plausible way. At one point, the street grid of the map view extended out over what the aerial view showed as water!
I suspected the aerial view was more recent than the street grid of the map (I didn't see the city tearing out a sports stadium to install a park). Consulting a real, paper guidebook confirmed that conclusion—the stadium shows up on its maps. Hope the hotel will be able to provide an up-to-date street map. Apparently, when Google pulled out of China, they stopped updating their street maps.
Next was water. We were told not to drink the local tap water (or even to brush our teeth with it) or to use water fountains. In Brazil, we coped by buying jug after jug of Evian at a nearby shop, but I hoped to avoid that solution this time, as I didn't have enough Chinese to read the labels (is this water still or sparkling?) or prices, ask how much, tell whether old bottles had been refilled (scamwise) with tap water, etc. So I hied myself out to Bass Pro Shops and consulted the veteran scoutmaster who runs their camping department. I was looking for those old iodine tablets we used to use to purify water while backpacking in California but wound up instead getting a couple of packages of a chlorine-based version that promises to do in all microbes up to and including giardia, salmonella, cryptosporidium, amoebic dysentery, and presumably insects and small fish (and the scoutmaster assures me he's used it successfully on water so murky it was hard to tell when the table had finished dissolving) and not to have any unpleasant aftertaste (which the iodine always did). My plan was to accumulate empty water bottles during the trip over, then to acquire at least one liter or two-liter bottle of water at the hotel (each chlorine table is calibrated for 1 liter of water). After drinking the water from the large bottle, I planned to refill it with tap water, treat it with the tablets, then pour it into the smaller bottles, which I could conveniently pack several of in my rolling computer case for a day's hike around town without having to buy water. David has the same option, but I figure the meeting organizers will assure a steady supply of bottled water for the participants.
And electrical adapters. My sources all agreed that China uses a wide variety of electrical-outlet configurations but that the best bet was the the big square three-pronged job they use in Australia, which we happened already to have a couple of. A second choice was the two round prongs they use in France, which we have lots of.
I stocked up on hand sanitizer while I was at it and acquired a bunch of pocket-packs of Kleenex in case of toilet-paper shortage.
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