My goal for Saturday was to visit two of the three Carrefour grocery stores in Dalian. Up until Friday night, I was under the mistaken notion that there was only one, the store I was familiar with from many previous visits but my driver enlightened as to the existence of the others. My store is a few blocks up from the Shangri La Hotel and I used to go there once in a while to convince myself that shopping in China was not that different than shopping in France, Carrefour’s homeland. And it might very well be since I’ve never shopped in France. I will say it’s nothing like shopping in the US or in Spain, as I had made a point of visiting their store down the street from our hotel on La Rambla. There was nothing wrong with the original store, it is just not easily reached from my current digs and so I decided to see how the others compared in hopes that their location would make for an easier visit.

I collected my companion from his home (at the Shangri La) and we were off intending to stop at the underground electronics city on our way to the first stop. Well, it was closed for the holidays something we finally discerned after two walks through the underground Wall Mart which did little for my mental composure. That place is a mad house just as most of the underground shopping “cities” are.

Our arrival at the first store was heralded by a fireworks display, an event so commonplace here during the holidays as to be worthy of being ignored. In the West fireworks are a big deal – you go at night, you “ooh” and “ah” and everyone goes away all the richer for the experience. I remember lying on the Brighton football field with my high school friend Margaret Ryan and watching them explode overhead a long, long time ago. I also remember the holes burned in my tweed sports coat from the descending embers. Here though nary a day goes by without someone setting them off to celebrate something and during the holidays it’s not just every day, it’s all day, every day. Unlike us, the Chinese go for noise not spectacle so you see them equally during the daylight hours and the darker times. And no one seems to care about the residuals – ankle deep piles of red paper from the 30,000 pack of 1” Black Cats litter every gutter in town. You walk down the street avoiding the smoldering or even outright burning piles of paper hoping to avoid the handful of unexploded ordnance that might still linger in the ashes. Given the access the average Joe has to powerful explosives (these are not those 12” tall fountains we buy with 1” tubes, these are the size of refrigerator boxes and hold 40 or more 4” tubes) I wonder what the injury rate is. At home they would have the Parade of Handless Children as a message to irresponsible parents.

Carrefour #2 (as we named it, giving the #1 appellation to the original store) was on a grimy boulevard on the far side of town and nothing special. We wandered through unimpressed and were back outside in perhaps 15 minutes. We left and went on to #3 passing more explosions.

#3 was pretty nice – a good selection of everything but western cheese, few people, clean floors and best of all it was much closer to my place and very close to Metro, the Chinese equivalent of Sam’s Club. We had a hit!
I did a little shopping and then went on to Metro to spend some time browsing. I was there once before in the very beginning of my stay under the supervision of a young woman named Jane from the moving coordinators. She was so helpful as to make my shopping impossible and I left that day without buying much. And I’d not had a good reason to go back in the interim. On this day though I slowly wandered the aisles with a big cart, one of the ones with the casters for all four wheels that make you twist and turn your knees in ways that they were not designed for all in a futile attempt to keep the thing moving in a straight line. The pickings were good, good enough as to make you feel as though you were copping out by not shopping in a local store. Well, no one is going to challenge my Chinese street creds so I figured I was safe picking up a jar of Pesto, some Gnocchi straight from Italy, Land O’ Lakes pepper jack cheese and the very best of all – paper towels. This meant I would never have to clean up a dropped egg with one of my semi-plastic dinner napkins. Wandering around there was almost as good as being at home. Well, it was actually nowhere near as good as being at home. Not even close, but the package of Old El Paso flour tortillas made me feel better for about 30 seconds. I was heading home to a Quesadilla for lunch.

And that tiny glimmer of joy held all the way back to the Shangri La to drop off Mike and then all the way back to the Kerren. I unloaded the car, headed upstairs, unpacked, grabbing the pepper jack, opened a Coke and ripped into my bag of floury gems. They were moldy. Lunch ended up being cheese, peanut butter crackers and a tangerine. Another slice in the Death by a 1000 Cuts.

By now it was 2:30 or so and I had a couple of hours of daylight left so I decided to go trekking. I’d been told by several people about Da Hei Shan – Big Black Mountain and the stair step walk to the top. Using Google Earth I’d calculated it being about three miles and so I gathered my camera and GPS, a bottle of water, a map and a candy bar and took off.

My GPS had recently been made very much cooler to look at with the advent of a complete map set for China. Problem is the Chinese government is worried that I might be calling in an airstrike so they only deigned to allow sales of the maps with a built in offset and that offset is probably 500 meters, or about ½ to 1 city block. And only in the -X direction. So if you follow your track on the device your footsteps fall between streets when you’re heading north and line up perfectly going east or west. If you’re trying to do turn-by-turn navigation in a city, it’s really hard to know where you need to go when your position precedes the upcoming street by a long shot. Hence the paper map to support the 21st century solution.

The route took me up above the main drag of Kai Fa Qu through one of the industrial districts looking much like what we would call maquiladoras if we were in Nogales. Canon and Pfizer were the two more famous names I came across. Up and up I walked passing through districts completely new to me.

After successfully negotiating the crossing of a 4 lane road with no crosswalks and little safe space in the middle I was on the street that led to the entrance of the park. I turned at the brightest yellow factory I’ve ever seen and continued to climb up through neighborhoods that were getting slummier and slummier as I neared the top. I’ve not spent much time in China feeling at odds with my environment but this place just had a bad vibe. One side of the street held rundown apartment blocks, the other a trash strewn concrete arroyo along one side of which were little shanties constructed of miscellaneous rocks, pallets and boxes clinging to the side of the hill. A single file of big brown chickens walked along the edge of the channel and upon arriving at their roost took turns jumping up and in. I made it a point of crossing the street as I approached little knots of men standing around smoking; for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like taking any chances today.

Once out of the neighborhoods I was in the woods on a nice paved road that ascended hills covered with small pines and oaks. People were coming down on foot from up above and while they stared at me, the bad feelings from below were washed away by the clean smell in the air and the relative quiet. I passed three boys, 10 to 12 years in age carrying a box, fireworks I imagined. As children often do here, they said “hello” in English and I always reply in both English and Chinese, which throws them for a loop. We exchanged New Year’s greetings in both languages and I went on.

I started to hear familiar bird sounds and found myself in a flock of Great Tits working their way through the trees. The Eurasian analog of our Black-capped Chickadee, it is always nice for me to see and hear them. For a few seconds I could almost imagine that I was walking along one of the ditches in my little village back home.

Far up above I could see a stone structure on the top of a ridge commemorating some battle from long ago. Eventually I reached the top and stood in the parking lot having a look around. By now it was too late to consider climbing the mountain so I walked on a bit more, turned around and headed back down passing a few people jogging their way up.

It was getting colder now as the sun had just dipped below the far ridge. I stopped for a moment to watch some elderly people doing something in the rocky stream down below. They had bottles and we crouched down scrubbing them in small, unfrozen pools of water.

Continuing on I saw the three boys again standing in the center of a partially frozen pond that backed up behind a small concrete dam. “Funny place to set off fireworks” I thought and I was puzzled by the hole they had chopped in the ice by the box that was now on its edge. Slowing down, I had a better look. One of the boys opened the box and inside was a tiny white puppy, plastered into an interior corner with a look of abject horror on its face. The boys were planning to kill it by drowning it in the hole in the ice. Apparently they did not want to put a hand in the box as one of them was trying to drag the poor dog out with the stick. The other two stood there laughing and looking around as only boys in the middle of something evil can do. I was at a complete loss lacking the language to tell them to stop, being unable to go out onto the ice to save the dog and having no means to take the dog if I could get it away from them. And even if I could do any of those things, I was deep within enemy territory and about to challenge children. I can’t think of a time in my entire life when I felt more angry, frustrated, appalled and helpless in a single moment. I shook my head, pulled my collar up against the wind and went on.

This morning I had dreams of sleeping in, having a date at 10 for coffee with Matt and his family and a later date for the weekly expat hike. Around 7:40, a noise similar to gas forced hot air heating woke me up. It was quickly surpassed by the sound of a Boeing 747 landing on the street out front and that in turn was outdone by the racket of a thousand TOW missiles being fired against Iraqi armor – it was the Sunday morning fireworks display and I’ve never heard anything like it. The noise followed a consistent sine wave, rising and falling among the three volumes I’ve described and it went on and on. In the US a fireworks display like this would have cost $100,000 and filled the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park. I pulled back the drapes and took a look outside – the buildings that form the other two sides of the courtyard I look down on were completely obscured by smoke. I opened the window to get a better listen and the room quickly took on the stink of cordite.

And 75 minutes later, it was over.

The rest of today was spent on a pretty hike along the seacoast. We left the parking lot of the local American school about 1 in the afternoon and drove up and over a hill towards the sea where we were dropped off. Our path, lined with long middens of empty shells all arranged by species (who knows?) led up and over a ridge and then down along a lane with a few farm houses. The beginning made me think of Mexico and the enormous piles of shells I crunch over when out birding in the desert. At one house, Mr. Li, the 82 year old owner came out to have a chat. I told him I admired his home. We went down the lane, eventually arriving at a rocky beach where a few of the local residents were working on small fishing boats or cleaning bags of shellfish. One of the women in our group is from here and she struck up a conversation with one of the women from the village who was walking a big black Akita. It turns out that a Chinese real estate development firm has bought up all of the land around this beach with the intent of building a resort. We were instantly saddened by the prospect of these poor people being forcibly removed from their land and dumped in apartment blocks somewhere closer to town. The woman’s answer surprised me – she was glad to be getting out of that hardscrabble place and set up in a home with heat, electricity and hot water. I think we tend to romanticize the plight of the poor peasants when it comes to stories like this and this particular woman made that point loud and clear. But it made me wonder how Mr. Li might feel.

The walk was not easy, lot’s of climbing on loose rocks along cliffs overlooking the sea. A small squadron of noisy fishing skiffs made its way past us heading out to work in the aquaculture pens sitting off shore. In the near distance, two trees, more or less upright bobbed in the sea. We were trying to figure that one out when they were obscured by a dense cool fog that came rolling in from pretty much nowhere. For the first time the air smelled of clean ocean and not that rotten sea smell you get being around places where shellfish are processed.

Eventually we came to a large collection of concrete buildings set along an inlet in the coast. One of the workers came along and we struck up a conversation. He told us that the buildings were used to grow Sea Cucumbers. They were hatched and brought up until they were ready to be placed in the aquaculture pens we’d passed back along the coast. In his words, lots of money to be made in the Sea Cucumber business and judging from the prices I’ve seen, often in the hundreds of dollars, he wasn’t kidding.

From there it was along paved roads passing by a few tombs set up in the woods above the roads. Poor people here cannot afford a decent cremation so they bury their dead in the woods on east facing slopes. You tend mainly to see the tombs in areas associated with the kind of villages we’d just passed.

The last leg was up and over a rise by way of some woefully uneven concrete steps, pitched in a manner that prevented me from developing a rolling rhythm. I’m not sure what this place was, but the old fading concrete zoo animals suggested some sort of simulated nature path for children.

And that was about it for the day and the weekend – a ride home, dumplings for dinner, messing around with my Mac trying to download TV shows I’ve missed and one more night thinking about life. Not a lot of wisdom gained about the whole weekend expat experience aside perhaps some insight into the nature of peaks and valleys: paper towels can be a life changer but there may always be a moldy tortilla to bring you back to a more gritty reality.

(click to enlarge)