A New Crop of Boardgames

It’s been a while since my last boardgames post and I’ve played a number of other games in the last two years. Many of these games aren’t exactly new, but they’re new to me.

Some new favorites:

Hanabi Box

Hanabi
This is a cooperative card game with a unique twist. You don’t see your own cards until you play them. There are five colors of cards (plus a bonus rainbow color for advanced players) with numbers one through five. The goal is to play all five colors in order from one to five. Each player gets a turn and they have one of three actions. The player may give a clue to another player. The player may play a card from their hand. The player may discard a card. Players win by playing all twenty-five cards or by getting through the deck without four misplays. There are some limitations on the kinds of clues and the number of clues, but it’s a very elegant set of rules.

The game is deceptively simple, and there are layers of strategy in which clues a person provides, who receives clues and even how long it has been since a person has received a clue.

This a fascinating game, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Love Letter

Love Letter
Another fairly quick card game, but not cooperative. In this game there are eight types of cards ranging from a lowly guard all the way to the princess. The theme is that the player is trying to send a letter to the princess, and the person that sends her letter as close to the princess as possible wins the round. The players start with one card in their hand and then draw a single new card each turn. Each type of card has a unique effect, and the player must always play one card. There’s a good bit of interaction between players, and the rounds move very quickly. My girls love the game, though I’m not quite as crazy about it. The randomness of the card draws has just as much (or more) outcome on the game as the individual player’s decisions. This makes it fun for newer (or younger) players, but it gets old for those with more experience.

It’s fun, but simple, and well worth consideration.

Pandemic

Pandemic
Pandemic is an older game, but my group has only recently started playing it. We immediately loved the theme of CDC researchers trying to stop the world’s destruction by multiple viruses. The game requires good communication and good coordination in order to succeed, but even then there are no guarantees. Some of the role cards are significantly stronger than others, so if you’d like an easier path into the game, consider selecting some of the more powerful roles.

I love this game. The theme, the teamwork, the nailbiting tension as the draw deck dwindles and too many infections remain on the board. It’s a blast and a must-play.

Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica
In Terra Mystica you are playing as one of 14 different factions. The victory conditions are the same for every faction, but there are some differences in how they get there.

The basic goal of the game is to terraform land, build buildings, lead a cult, and score victory points. The game happens over the course of six (or maybe it’s seven, I don’t remember exactly) rounds. You get points along the way for leading some faction of the cult (Wind, Water, Earth, Fire) or building certain buildings.

The buildings themselves are pretty amazing. You have the settlement, recognizable from Settlers of Catan. It upgrades into the “trading post,” recognizable as the city from Settlers of Catan. The trading post upgrades to a Stronghold, recognizable as a squarish wooden thing, not from Settlers of Catan. Or if you’re feeling cultish, the trading post instead upgrades to a temple, recognizable as a round wooden thing that could belong to any other game ever. And finally the temple upgrades to a more expensive temple, not substantially different than a regular temple, called a sanctuary.

The real clever bit here is that your buildings are all on a little mat in front of you, and much like in Eclipse, when you place a building on the board, you then get paid the resources that the building was previously covering on your mat. Your settlements provide workers. Your trading posts provide money and “power.” Your strongholds provide something unique for each faction. Your temples and sanctuaries provide priests each turn, but also each one you build allows you to a gain a favor, and the favor itself provides various things including one time perks and recurring resources. The real key here is that you have to expand territory to put out new settlements, and those settlements provide additional workers, but when you upgrade the settlements, you put them back on your little mat, and you lose the worker income. So the game becomes a balancing act between going horizontal into more territory or vertical into better buildings.

There are four currencies in the game. One is money. It’s just… money. But money can’t buy you love, and neither can it buy you buildings unless someone actually builds them. So money gets used with your workers from your settlements to upgrade your buildings. Once you build temples, you get priests. They are used for things like building a navy (because buggery?) or incurring favor with the cults. Along the way, various things give you “power” and this is the most interesting currency, at least from a “I haven’t see anything work like this before” perspective.

Power is a finite resource on your playing mat, something like 14 little purple chips. These chips live in a set of three connected circles cleverly numbered 1, 2, and 3. They start in some combination of circles 1 and 2. The gimmick is that to spend them (which lets you do things and also moves the chips back to circle 1), you need chips in circle 3. And you can only move chips from 2 to 3 if all the chips are gone from circle 1. You can use power to gain extra money, extra priests, extra workers, bridges (recognizable as the roads from Settlers of Catan) that allow you to link buildings across rivers, and a few other things that don’t spring to mind. Once you get an engine going to bring in resources, power gives you a good bit of flexibility.

At the end of the game you score points for your position on each of the four cultist tracks. You also score for the total size (horizontal; it ignores vertical) of the linked buildings in your empire. And I definitely missed that the scoring ignored upgrades the first time I played, so that hurt. Ultimately, it’s a very clever, very fun game that combines the best bits of several other games, adds some of its own and calls it a day.

Risk Legacy

Risk: Legacy
This is not the Risk of my childhood. Yes, there’s still some dice rolling, and yes, Australia is still really strong, but there are so many changes that game only bears a passing resemblance to its namesake.

The biggest, most unique aspect of the game is that you the player will permanently alter the game every time you play it. At the very beginning of the game the players start by customizing their starting factions. Each faction has a sticker sheet with some abilities on it, and you only use part of those stickers. Once they are put on the faction’s card, they are permanent, and the others are thrown in the trash forever and ever amen. This is a theme that repeats itself through out the game. Events happen. Players respond. The game forever changes.

The second amazing aspect of the game are the “surprise” bins. The box ships with a number of sealed compartments. You are only supposed to open those compartments when the events listed on the compartment occur. This can be something like putting thirty armies on the board or using three nuclear missiles in a single combat or creating a special city. The boxes contain new cards to add to the game, new rules to put into the new rule book and all manner of wondrous and amazing things.

One of the single best moments I’ve had in any board game was when one of my regular gaming buddies and I got into a fight over a third buddy’s capital. The fight triggered an event, and it permanently modified that space on the board. It. Was. Glorious.

Unlike the Risk of yore, the game finishes when the first player acquires four tokens. At the beginning of the game (as in when you first start playing it), each player starts with one of these tokens, so victory can occur by capturing only three enemy capitals. No needs to conquer the whole world; only their nearest neighbors.

The game is intended to played fifteen times before the board stops changing. It’s been a blast getting to fifteen, and while there’s no reason to stop, I’m more likely to buy a new copy of it and start over from scratch. I really enjoy Risk: Legacy, and if you’re into wargames, you should take a look at it.

Short Story Available

Blogging is one of those activities that’s deceptively simple. How hard is it to write a few hundred words a month and keep people up-to-date on things? Hard, apparently. Because my first professionally published short story came out two months ago and I’m just now posting about it. (Though if you follow me on twitter @dbrentbaldwin you would have heard about it long ago…)

Anyway, Who We Once Were, Who We Will Never Be is available from Fireside Fiction. It’s very short, only about three pages (or 750 words for my fellow writers), but it packs a punch.

The story itself is a result of my trip to China last year. One Saturday evening I found myself trying to find a cab at Luohu Port, and I decided to cut through an alley to get to a better intersection. Halfway down the alley I ran into a number women that seemed very interested in inviting me upstairs. It was a very eye-opening experience, and this story grew from the question of “what if things in the alley went terribly, horribly wrong?”

Some News

Hello again, you handsome jumble of electrons. I have a few exciting pieces of news, which is synonymous with “I have things published again!”

As anyone following the blog is likely aware, I spent a chunk of my Spring in Shenzhen, China. I blogged about the trip at the time, but I also set to work on a novel set in the same area. I am very pleased to announce that the novel is finally finished. In addition to the novel, I also have a novella (i.e. a short novel) and a short story set in the same general area.

I grew up reading the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, those All American bad-asses, always running across parking lots without losing their breath, always foiling evil through cleverness and a little fisticuffs. (I always saw myself as Frank, more cerebral, more brown-headed.) From there I moved on to Tom Clancy and Jack Higgins and Micheal Crichton and grown-up thrillers with guns and spies and science. Take a few drops of spy thriller, mix in a little technothriller and dash with a trip to Hong Kong, and you apparently end up with Porter Melo, retired SEAL and CIA agent, dragged back into the shadow world.

When I set out to tell a story set in China, I looked around for historical conflicts I could use, and sure enough, there was a really obvious one right in front of me in Hong Kong and the democracy protests. Of course, I was about half-way through writing the novel when the 2014 Occupy Central protests began, and my fictional story was overtaken by reality. In my fictional world the protesters are not going to go quietly into that good night, but that’s a story for the sequel.

And so, I’m happy to share that Kowloon Sunrise and Kowloon Spring will both be available on Wednesday, November 26th. Both can be pre-ordered now at Amazon, and Kowloon Sunrise can be found at Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Nook.

The opening novella in the Porter Melo series.
The opening novella in the Porter Melo series.

After a decade of service in the U.S. Government’s black ops branches, former Navy SEAL and CIA agent Porter Melo has retired to a quiet life of fishing, sailing, and corporate espionage in Hong Kong. When a shipment of Top Secret weapons is hijacked just off the Chinese coast, Porter is yanked back into the shadow world he thought he’d left behind.

With vicious Chinese secret police, a murderous Japanese assassin, and ruthless Hong Kong Triads on one side, and a power-hungry CIA station chief on the other, Porter is in a race for his life to recover the weapons before they can be used against him… and against millions of innocent civilians.

The Kowloon Sunrise is a fast, furious story that centers on Porter, and I intend it to be the appetizer before the longer, meatier Kowloon Spring. You can find it here on Amazon, on Nook, on iBooks and on Kobo.

Kowloon Spring

When a mysterious Chinese agent tracks down former Navy SEAL and CIA agent Porter Melo in Hong Kong, Porter isn’t interested in the man’s offer: a ten million dollar payday for the high-profile assassination of the Mayor of Hong Kong, an assembly of Community Party officials, and the President of China.

But there’s one form of leverage Porter can’t refuse. When Porter’s brother Sam is kidnapped, the clock starts ticking, and Porter only has three days to find his brother and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to start a new world war with China on one side and the United States on the other.

Kowloon Sunrise is only available on Amazon for the first 90 days, but it will be everywhere else on February 27th. You can find it here.

In addition to the novel and novella, I also have a short story that will be published in late December. “Who We Once Were, Who We Will Never Be” has been purchased by Fireside Fiction, and it will appear the January 2015 edition of the magazine. This is a story set in China, but not precisely in the world of Porter Melo. It’s a dark, twisty little tale that originated when I wandered down the wrong back alley and later wondered what the worst thing that could have happened would be.

It will be available on the Fireside website in late December.

Toot toot!

One of the women in my writing group (hi Nina!) is participating in a thing called a blog train, and via a combination of charm and guilt, she has had persuaded me to write-up a little something.

What am I working on?

The working title is Kowloon Spring. It’s a near future thriller set in Hong Kong and southeastern China. I’m a few chapters into it and there’s already a major art theft, a plot to assassinate the chairman of the communist party, a separate conspiracy to overthrow the government of Hong Kong, and some major computer crimes involving the Chinese surveillance state. Thieves, spies, hackers. There’s a lot to love.

How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre?

I’m trying to squarely straddle a line between near future science fiction and spy thriller. When I come to a snag in the plot, I ask myself what Michael Crichton and Barry Eisler’s love child would do. The answer is seldom to kill people, but that’s only because there are far worse things that can happen to a character than death. I’m trying to add more big ideas than the normal spy thriller and more pacing than the normal science fiction. If I can shoehorn a Tyrannosaurus into this thing, I’ll feel like I’ve really nailed it. (That’s a joke. Kind of.)

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I want to read. Smart characters doing the wrong things for the right reasons. And it has to be exciting. I cannot abide being bored while reading, and if–as the writer–I’m boring the reader, I’m failing us both.

I recently spent five weeks in China, and that has been a major influence. I envision Kowloon Spring to be the beginning of a trilogy that explores the confluence of the surveillance state, urban migration, and an informed citizenry. People will put up with a tremendous amount of grief just out of habit. Eventually, though, someone will stand up and cry foul, and if enough people stand with them, change can occur very swiftly. The governments of North Africa can attest to that.

How does my writing process work?

It changes from book to book. I have an outline for this one that’s around five thousand words. In addition, I have character sheets for the main characters and a few more pages of notes and ideas for the major plot arcs of the sequels. Most days I set a goal of a thousand words, and I try to write extra over the weekends and on holidays. I can finish a first draft in about two months, but that’s after a month (or four) of planning and still requires another month of editing.

My novels tend to come in thinner than I’d like, so the first pass of revision is always to add additional scenes and make sure the story and the characters have proper arcs. This is done as soon as the first draft is finished, usually amidst plenty of pacing around the house and rambling aloud as I work through the story. At this point I’m ready for beta readers. I’ll do another revision based on their feedback. I may also do another pass after that to clean up the line level stuff. At that point it’s read for a copy editor and/or a proofreader.

So that’s it for the blog train. I’ll be back next quarter with my regularly unscheduled ramblings about food or indie video games or foreign countries or whatever I’ve been reading lately. Toot toot!

China: What You Need to Take

Beijing Street Food

1. Loperamide
Lopermide is the generic form of Immodium. If you’re used to North American cooking and sanitation, and you go to China, you’re going to get the runs. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. So plan on two loperamide for each day you’re in China. You may not need them, but it’s a guarantee someone else in your group will.

2. Antacids
You know, Tums. Because even if you don’t get diarrhea, you’re going to eat the street food (it’s amazing) and you’re going to want something to settle your stomach so you can keep snapping pictures and gawking at the splendor of Asia.

3. Travel packs of bathroom tissue
Yes, they have toilet paper in China. Most of the time. Except where the toilets look like this.

Squatty Potty

No, it’s not a hole in the ground. Yes, that’s a place you’ll need to take care of business. Okay, you’re right, it is a hole in the ground. And guess what, it doesn’t come stocked with TP. Bring your own.

4. Melatonin
Jet lag is a real thing. It took me about four days to get over it when I traveled from the US to Shenzhen. Doze on the plane a little, and when you land in China try to stay up until 9:00 PM so you can get on a Chinese schedule. And while you’re at it, don’t plan your trip to the Great Wall on the first day you’re in the country. You’ll be too tired. Go see the local sights for the first couple days, and don’t push too hard.

5. Nyquil / Dayquil
You’ll get sick. Or someone in your group will. Pack some flu medicine just in case.

6. Bandaids and Neosporin
At Mutianyu there’s a toboggan and it’s awesome and I totally fell out of my little chair and scraped all the skin off my left knee.

Mutianyu Toboggan

It was a really shaky chair, okay? I’m sure they have bandaids and Neosporin in China, but they won’t have them wherever you actually get injured.

7. A Book
Yes, you’re in China, and yes there’s plenty to do, but the plane ride from Chicago to Hong Kong is 16 hours. The selection of movies was surprisingly good, but you’ll still want to take a break from staring at that tiny screen.

8. Snacks
If you have kids, bring some familiar snacks. Granola bars or fruit chews or whatever it is the kids like. Chinese food in China is not the same as Chinese food in the US. (Caveat: I’m in a moderately sized city in the Midwest; there’s real Chinese food on the coasts.) You will not find the General Tsao’s chicken you expect. And while this is fine for adults, any kids–especially ones that are picky eaters–will appreciate something familiar, even if it’s a snack.

And seriously, so will you, Mr. Grown Up that thinks you can handle Chinese food. Give yourself a week a week in China and see how you feel after you get grease stains on your two favorite pairs of pants. See how you feel when the bird flu (i.e. minor cold) you caught on the plane really takes hold. You’ll be happy for that package of Fruit Roll Ups you stashed in your bag.

9. The Google Translate app with the Chinese language pack installed
The ability to type in “cold water” and have it come back with 冷水 is a life saver when you’re exhausted and thirsty and a tiny glass of hot tea just won’t do. Don’t be a horrible tourist and assume that saying something louder in English will make the non-English speaking Chinese waitress understand. Just whip out the phone and show her what you want.

If you install the language pack over wifi (or before you leave), there’s really no need to get the expensive overseas data plan if you have Verizon or AT&T back home. And while you can get a SIM card for cheap, keep in mind that mainland China and Hong Kong use different cell networks, so if you’re visiting both you’ll need two sets of SIM cards. And you’ll need your phone to be unlocked.

10. A sense of adventure
You’re in China. Things are different. Embrace the differences and enjoy the experience. Try the street dumplings. Gawk at the scorpions on a stick. Just be smart and be prepared.

Goodbye, Shenzhen

Stumbled across a beautiful little park while walking around Hong Kong Island.
Stumbled across a beautiful little park while walking around Hong Kong Island.

As I write this I’m sitting in the Hong Kong airport waiting on my flight home. It’s the third weekend in a row that I’ve been to Hong Kong, though the last two involved trips to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon rather than a direct trip to the airport on Lantau Island.

Random snap from a walk through Hong Kong Island.
Random snap from a walk through Hong Kong Island.

On my first trip to the city I went to Hong Kong Island and walked around for a while. It’s glass and buildings and hotels and parks. Bentleys and BMWs, Mercedes and Maseratis. Prada, Gucci, Michael Kors. If you’re looking for luxury and excess, Hong Kong is a great place to find it.
But you don’t have to walk far to see the poverty.

Forgive the ghosting on the traffic. The HDR app doesn't handle movement very well.
Forgive the ghosting on the traffic. The HDR app doesn’t handle movement very well.

Above the streets crawling with hundred thousand dollar cars were walkways full of women. Old and young. White and brown. And they’re all women, at least from what I saw. Covered walkways and stairwells teeming with women and girls playing cards and eating lunch and telling stories and living their lives. It reminds me of New York. Ostentatious wealth and abject poverty shoulder to shoulder. I don’t know where they are from or what their stories are.

Random snapshot of foot traffic alongside Nathan Road in Hong Kong. This was around 8:00 PM on a Saturday evening.
Random snapshot of foot traffic alongside Nathan Road in Hong Kong. This was around 8:00 PM on a Saturday evening.

After my first trip to Manhattan a few years ago I told my wife that Springfield and Manhattan have as much in common as Springfield and the moon. The differences between Hong Kong and Springfield are much the same, if slightly further apart. Shenzhen, though, I’m not so sure about Shenzhen. It’s very different, of course. Very Chinese. But the part of Shenzhen I was in was a middle class part of town. There’s a mall by the hotel, and as I walked through it on my last day in the city I noted the vehicles. The Hondas and the Toyotas, the Chevys and the Fords. It could have been the parking lot of any strip mall in Springfield. The stores were names I didn’t recognize, but they could have been the Chinese equivalents of Dr. Judy’s office or Rick’s Automotive or Buddy’s Carpet Care.

Less touty, less counterfeit and less expensive than Luohu. Less counterfeit being relative, of course.
Less touty, less counterfeit and less expensive than Luohu. Less counterfeit being relative, of course.

The cell phone is just as ubiquitous in China as it is in the US, but they’re bigger. Physically bigger. Everyone carries a giant white cell phone and talks into it (often on speaker) constantly. From the dolled up girls in their Benzes to the cabbies making their rounds. It’s a status symbol, and it doesn’t matter how poor a person is, they have a giant phone.

The sidewalk outside the hotel.
The sidewalk outside the hotel.

Children are the same little tyrants in China that they are in the US. They fight and cry and run and make their parents want to pull their hair out. And a minute later they come running back and grab your legs and wipe their snot on your hip and tell you they love you and pretty much just steal your heart. In China the kids pee on the sidewalk until they’re about five, but I’ve seen more than a few college kids relieving themselves in worse places, so I think it evens out.

One of the entryways to the upper part of the building. This particular one is just a dozen meters or so past the hotel where I stayed.
One of the entryways to the upper part of the building. This particular one is just a dozen meters or so past the hotel where I stayed.

I spent a fair amount of time talking to my Chinese colleagues. We were about the same age, and we were all programmers. They were traveling for work, too, and none of them were from Shenzhen. They came from Beijing and Shanghai and Guangzhou. They left behind their wives and children, and they looked forward to the weekends when they could visit with their families. We talked about work and family and American TV shows. We worked together, side by side, and we made progress even as the treadmill beneath us continued its endless cycle.

The street up a block from the hotel. It has three blocks restaurants. And a random forklift. Because China.
The street up a block from the hotel. It has three blocks restaurants. And a random forklift. Because China.

Folks have asked about everyday life in China. It is not so different than life in America. My life in Springfield is not the same as Carey’s life as an actor and a waiter in New York. Nor is it the same as Karen’s life as a stay at home mom in Chicago. Shenzhen is a city full of people from all over China, people of all economic classes. There is no set pattern of daily life across such a spectrum, no more than there is across the spectrum in America. We all live differently in some aspects, but we all have responsibilities. We work and we eat and we play and we laugh and we cry. We hug our wives and our husbands, our children and our parents. The wheel turns, and we turn with it. My colleagues, nay my friends, in China, they speak Java and I speak C#, but the syntaxes are not so different. And neither are we.

Border Crossing

It looked too good to be fake, even if I did start to get nervous while waiting to cross through the border.
It looked too good to be fake, even if I did start to get nervous while waiting to cross through the border.

The trip to the airport was entirely painless. I left the hotel in Shenzhen around 7:00 AM and caught a (27 yuan) taxi to the Guangdong border crossing. When I climbed out of the taxi a tout with a manbag over his shoulder approached and asked if I was going to the Hong Kong airport. He pointed me to the end of the taxi stand and produced a roll of stickers and a ticket and asked for 150 RMB. All of which, including the price, was in line with what I expected. I paid up, and about 15 minutes later (I think we were waiting on additional passengers to fill the shuttle) I was going through customs which took all of five minutes. It literally took longer for the shuttle folks to pack five passengers’ bags into the back of a Toyota van than it took to get through customs. The van took us straight through to the airport, and from the time I left the hotel to the time I reached my gate in Hong Kong International it took under two hours.

The touts slap this on before you cross the border, and someone picks you up on the other side when they see it.
The touts slap this on before you cross the border, and someone picks you up on the other side when they see it.
It took four people about 15 minutes to get the bags packed into the van. And the passengers still ended up holding half their stuff.
It took four people about 15 minutes to get the bags packed into the van. And the passengers still ended up holding half their stuff.

Beijing in 40 Hours

Imagine marching down this in a badly fitting uniform with 35 kilos of gear on your back.
Imagine marching down this in a badly fitting uniform with 35 kilos of gear on your back.

The flight to Beijing was supposed to leave at 7:45 Friday evening, but we ended up being delayed a couple hours. On the one hand, we knew we were going to be landing late and that meant getting to the hostel late, but on the other hand Shenzhen has what may be the nicest looking airport in the world. It’s new and modern and has more in common with an upscale shopping mall than it does a place like La Guardia or Philly. Including the overpriced food, but the free wifi made up for it.

This is a vent, and they are all over the airport. I think Shenzhen missed a great opportunity, though. They could have made them giant red capped mushrooms with white spots.
This is a vent, and they are all over the airport. I think Shenzhen missed a great opportunity, though. They could have made them giant red capped mushrooms with white spots.

We touched down in Beijing around 1:00 and the first thing I noticed was the cloud of orange smog. It was so thick I could barely see the planes 200 meters away. Then the smell hit me. An acrid, industrial stench, part jet fuel and part diesel fumes. The wretched stink of it snaked its fingers into my nose and into my lungs, and I was sure I would be breathing fire for two days. American cities have smog that wears tacky pants and makes you mutter about kids these days. Beijing has smog that doubles you over with a fist to the gut, takes your lunch money and leaves you with a wedgie.

The front door of the Lucky Family Hostel. The three lanterns light up at night, which is highly useful considering the hostel is located down a loooong (dark ((narrow)) alley.
The front door of the Lucky Family Hostel. The three lanterns light up at night, which is highly useful considering the hostel is located down a loooong (dark ((narrow)) alley.

Getting from the airport to the hostel turned into a bit of an adventure. The metro was closed, so our plan of taking the train to the subway and the subway to the hostel wasn’t going to work. And there were no cabs. First we tried getting a ride from one of the “private taxis.” The guy assured us he could fit five people, so away we went, following him through a parking garage and out to the street on the other side. It was dubious enough that we were going to let a tout take us, but when the lights flashed on his Maxima, we collectively decided to find something else. This turned out to be a really nice van with an older, grumpy Chinese guy driving. It wasn’t cheap (well, it was super cheap, but not by Chinese standards), but it took us to the hostel.

The hostel had beer on tap, and it was totally decent for what amounted to just over a dollar a pint.
The hostel had beer on tap, and it was totally decent for what amounted to just over a dollar a pint.

The hostel. I had never stayed at a hostel before. It’s located down the sketchiest alley in Beijing. Actually, it’s probably a very pleasant alley, but I come from a part of America where we don’t do alleys so much as we do giant fields full of cows. The alley was narrow and dark with buildings on either side that were older than my country. I have never seen so many rusty bicycles and scooters. The hostel itself was clean and simple and smelled like Shenzhen. Also it was cheap. And full of nice people. On the balance it wasn’t bad. Definitely an experience worth having, though not one I’m in a hurry to repeat. (Ten years ago sure, but I’m growing softer as I grow older.)

75 degrees, sunny, light breeze and no noticeable pollution. For two days Beijing was SoCal.
75 degrees, sunny, light breeze and no noticeable pollution. For two days Beijing was SoCal.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear and I slept right through it until about 10:00 since we didn’t reach the hostel until around 3:00 AM. By the time I did go outside, it was still bright, still clear and if I hadn’t known I was in Beijing, I wouldn’t have believed it. There are only so many perfect spring days that a person gets to experience in a lifetime. A few dozen, maybe. The kind of day where you don’t have responsibility, the weather is clear and 75 degrees and the whole world is just a short hike over the nearest hill. The weather for my two days in Beijing qualifies as two of the most gorgeous days in the history of days. And there’s a lot of history in Beijing.

I know because I saw some of it.

There are tubes under the water, and the fish tend to swim over them. I'm not sure if the tubes are for oxygen or food or are just that interesting.
There are tubes under the water, and the fish tend to swim over them. I’m not sure if the tubes are for oxygen or food or are just that interesting.

Our plan was originally to go to the Great Wall on Saturday. It involved taking the subway to a train station and an overland train to the wall. It was already pushing noon when we made it to the station, and we realized (with the help of some friendly Americans we ran into), that we weren’t going to have much time at the wall by the time we got there. Their advice was to go to the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City instead.

And so we did.

Head on shot of the central area of the Summer Palace.
Head on shot of the central area of the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace is a combination of nature garden, Buddhist temple, and tourist trap. We did the tourist part first, but quickly found the garden part. Hilly trails wander amongst the blooming cherry trees, and a lake sprawls behind it all. It’s the kind of place a body could go to spend a day and wake up a hundred years later. Excuse me, this is China. A thousand years later.

Architectural detail at the Summer Palace. This is on the back side of the Hall of Buddhist Tenets.
Architectural detail at the Summer Palace. This is on the back side of the Hall of Buddhist Tenets.

Shenzhen is undeniably Chinese, but it doesn’t have the sense of history that Beijing does. Shenzhen has only been around for about 30 years as a real city, but every building and every street and every alley in Beijing carries a weight of history upon its back. The demographics in Beijing skew much older than Shenzhen, and even the bicycles look like they’ve been around for 50 or 60 years. The saying is that America has space, but Europe has history. Europe has nothing on China. The English and the Germans were just tribesmen throwing rocks at the Italians while the Chinese were building a civilization.

No tanks or giant rubber ducks, fortunately.
No tanks or giant rubber ducks, fortunately.

We made it to the Forbidden City around 4:00, and learned that it closed at 3:30. Because of course you close your cultural attractions in the middle of the afternoon. I’m shaking my fist at you, China. I know you’re old and have an early bed time, but this is ridiculous. On the plus side, Tiananmen Square was magnificent. I saw the giant picture of Mao, but the whole time all I could think of was the image of the rubber ducky stopping tanks in the middle of the square.

Government building just off Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
Government building just off Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Tiananmen and the area around the Forbidden City is chock full of people selling things. Hats and postcards and green cans of Tsingtao. I’m not very good at bargaining with vendors. My idea of shopping is to either order it online (after hours of careful research) or let my wife buy it for me. So when the little old lady told me 30 yuan for a snazzy green army hat, I did the quick math and decided it was worth five bucks. No big deal. A few minutes (and a few vendors) later, one of my American coworkers starts negotiating with a vendor. The bastard got his hat for 15 yuan. And then the other American guy got one, too. Two hats for the price of my one! I’m still bitter. That’s two whole dollars and fifty cents I’ll never get back.

Look delicious, don't they? And yes, those are spiders, scorpions and centipedes, all on a stick.
Look delicious, don’t they? And yes, those are spiders, scorpions and centipedes, all on a stick.

We wandered past Wangfujing (I think; we literally just wandered past it) and saw the stalls full of scorpions and spiders and centipedes. No one was brave enough to try them, though I was kind of tempted by the octopus. I’ve had grilled octopus in NYC and it was heavenly, but something about trying it from a random vendor in Beijing made me hold off. Well, that and the Americans at the train station telling us that when they’ve had food there it’s made them sick. (Thanks again random Americans! Even if you are Cubs fans.)

I've had grilled octopus before, and it was totally delicious, so I seriously considered having one of these, but I wimped out. With two days in town, I didn't want to risk spending one of them with stomach issues.
I’ve had grilled octopus before, and it was totally delicious, so I seriously considered having one of these, but I wimped out. With two days in town, I didn’t want to risk spending one of them with stomach issues.

Dinner was at Da Dong, the same place Michelle Obama ate a week before us. And it was good. Amazingly good. So good that all other duck is forever ruined for me. Thanks, Obama!

The Mutianyu Great Wall. Somewhere around tower 8 or 9.
The Mutianyu Great Wall. Somewhere around tower 8 or 9.

And then there was Sunday. And Sunday was Mutianyu. (Following in First Lady Obama’s footsteps again.) The Great Wall of China. More like the Great Staircase of China. I don’t know how the other sections of the wall are, but Mutianyu is in the mountains. Big, jagged peaks. And the wall just climbs right up them. The cherry trees were in bloom, and the air was clear and crisp and cool. We took the cable car to the top and a giant freaking toboggan back down. (Seriously. A toboggan. I even fell out and skinned my knee like a kid.)

An offshoot of the Mutianyu Great Wall at tower 12.
An offshoot of the Mutianyu Great Wall at tower 12.

The wall is worth seeing. Go once. I’m not sure there are words for it. It’s long and it’s steep and it’s a testament to the willpower of a civilization to not just build it, but to keep rebuilding it over the centuries. Stone upon stone, kilometer upon kilometer.
It reminds me of Times Square more than anything. Just jaw dropping. There only a few places I’ve been that have just left me in awe, and standing at the top of a guard tower on top of a mountain and seeing the wall snaking away into the distance is definitely one of them.

Mutianyu cherry blossoms, taken from just below tower 4.
Mutianyu cherry blossoms, taken from just below tower 4.

I’m 1500 words into this and I feel like I’ve spent longer typing it than I actually spent in Beijing. China is a different world, and Beijing is so very different than Shenzhen. One of the folks I met at the hostel told me that he’s been here a year and a half, and he felt like it took a year to really get a feel for the country. I can believe it, though I wonder what he’d say a decade from now.

Taken from just outside tower 2, Mutianyu Great Wall.
Taken from just outside tower 2, Mutianyu Great Wall.
The stairs wouldn't be so bad if they weren't SO steep and SO uneven. But they are. And this is the restored portion.
The stairs wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t SO steep and SO uneven. But they are. And this is the restored portion.
Taken from the window at tower 1, Mutianyu Great Wall.
Taken from the window at tower 1, Mutianyu Great Wall.
Mutianyu features both restored and unrestored portion of the Great Wall. The unrestored portions are obvious once you see them. The wall is crumbling and overgrown, but still passable if you don't mind a hike.
Mutianyu features both restored and unrestored portion of the Great Wall. The unrestored portions are obvious once you see them. The wall is crumbling and overgrown, but still passable if you don’t mind a hike.

Jet Lag. Or “I know why business travelers look like zombies”

It’s about a 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong, and I left Chicago around 3:00 PM on a Thursday and landed in Hong Kong at 8:00 PM local time on a Friday. (7:00 AM Chicago time.) I dozed for a few hours on the plane, but it was a very restless sleep. Economy seats on Cathay Pacific’s 777 were similar to the economy seats on the US domestic 737s that the major airlines fly everywhere, i.e. they’re cramped at the hips and feet, and they don’t recline well.

After landing in Hong Kong, I traveled to Shenzen and managed to get to bed around midnight and slept for another four and a half hours with the help of 5mg of melatonin. Saturday was a long, fatigued day, and while I desperately wanted to take a nap in the afternoon, I forced myself to stay up until about 9:00 PM. Five milligrams of melatonin and I was able to sleep pretty soundly until about 5:30 AM Sunday. The jet lag hit HARD on Sunday, but again I stayed up all day, including a couple hours of (admittedly light) soccer with the other Americans here. Ten milligrams of melatonin Sunday night saw me drop like a sauce covered dumpling and sleep through from around 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM.

In the end, it took until about Wednesday to feel fully adjusted, but I was able to go out and do some shopping and eating the day after I landed, and play soccer two days later. I haven’t needed any melatonin since then, and I’m going to bed around 11:00 and getting up around 6:30, pretty much like I do at home.