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Day 6 – Chengdu to Tokyo in 3 Easy Steps

Posted by in China,Japan | May 22, 2013

It took a full day to reach Tokyo from Chengdu, with a bizarre connection in Beijing, and was an exhausting one. As modern as China has become it is far from as efficient, clean and well organized as Japan. And its authoritarian state rules made a long feel much longer. Everything in China happens exactly when it intends to.

The taxi ride to the airport was straightforward, but the check in locations and procedures far from clear. The website instructed I check in at Terminal 2, and that I must be present 2 hours before the flight. I left downtown Chengdu with plenty of time, and the taxi ride went off without a hitch. The airport was another story. Terminal 2 it turns out was only the correct terminal if you were flying just from Chengdu to Beijing. If you were leaving the country you had to check in at Terminal 1. When this realization dawned it meant sprinting the 1km to Terminal 1 with all my luggage. I had to check in 2 hours early, and that time was drawing nigh.

On arrival in Terminal 1 it was nearly impossible to find the check in counter for my airline, but I did, only to be told that they would only check me in 45 minutes before my flight. Hurry up and wait! When I did finally check in, the five other passengers and I exiting the country via Beijing were taken to a specific security check, and then kept in a room segregated from the rest of our flight’s passengers, who were in another Terminal. What on earth was the point of that? If it was to prevent us passing something between ourselves could we not do that on the flight? It was even more bizarre when you consider that when we did land in Beijing, we still had to deplane and exit through customs and immigration. That was another production in itself as we had to cross half the airport to do so. By the time they bused us back to the plane it was on the verge of departing.

China is a fascinating place, it is modernizing rapidly, there are skyscrapers everywhere, and signs of growing wealth. But there was also abject and utter poverty. Modern hotels, subways and airports stand next to shantytowns and squalor. Business men in designer suits walk past peasant labourers shifting loads of rubble by hand. In China it is still cheaper to hire people to toil where bulldozers and dump trucks could do the job faster and better. There are young people everywhere, literally armies of them. The young people the dozens of different securities services one encounters during the day while the old sweep the streets with brooms made of indigenous shrubs. It is a nation so desperate to catch up to its promise that it may lose itself in the attempt, but what a show it is putting on.

On arrival in Tokyo it took a couple of hours to retrieve my bags, clear customs and immigration and get into the city. Within the first hour the differences between Japan and China were immediately apparent. Japan is clean, organized and efficient, with nearly everything happening exactly on time. It is a vast populous country, but easy to find one’s way around with signs and announcements in English as well as Japanese. This is going to be an altogether different experience.

Day 5 – Last Full Day in Chengdu – Of Pandas & Ancient Cultures

Posted by in China | May 20, 2013

My last full day in China was all about seeing some of the other sites the Chengdu region had to offer, including the Panda Base and the San Xing Dui Museum. The Chengdu Panda Base is a zoo, breeding and conservation center dedicated to the Giant Panda and its diminutive namesake the Red Panda. Picture a zoo with just Panadas, in relatively generous enclosures and you get the picture. The facility has a nursery and dedicated wings for cubs, adolescents and adults. There were a lot of great viewing opportunities for both species and a particularly memorable scene of a cub and its mother sharing a meal of bamboo. There is an opportunity to have your picture taken with a panda, but the price has been apparently rising at many times the rate of inflation, and the schedule didn’t work out!

The San Xing Dui Museum was a very interesting stop, though there aren’t much in the way of ruins on display. The ruins and relics of the ancient Shu culture were only discovered around the turn of the 21st century. There has long been speculation about its existence, with mention of it in legends, inscriptions and traditions of other civilizations. Two major refuse pits were found, and it is astonishing what they found. As with many other contemporary Chinese cultures, they left behind a wealth of pottery and jade, but even more curiously a wealth of bronze. Bronze wares including wine vessels and culturally unique masks were found in prodigious quantities. Also found were ceremonial bronze trees up to 3.5 m tall. The find was confirmation that the Chengdu plain gave rise to unique civilizations which dating back at least 5,000 years.

On return to Chengdu I spent the early hours of my last evening wandering the streets of Chengdu and trying some of their local “snack” cuisine. It’s remarkable the range and selection of shops and brands they have here, but also the prices. Far from being home to bargains everything from Ipods to Lattes seem to cost more here. Electronics giants like Samsung and Apple could have as many as three shops within a block of each other. There are also seemingly multiple locations of brand shops like Louis Vuitton and Omega. There are also Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley dealerships. The new China is already a more prosperous place than I expected.

Day 4 – Wen Jun & Chinese Bai Jui Drinking Culture

Posted by in China | May 19, 2013

Today was a crash course in the art of Bai Jui, Chinese white spirit. I thought I’d be visiting a Chinese distillery and sampling Chinese white spirit, instead I was given a 0-60 lesson in Chinese corporate drinking culture. The whole purpose of the week I added on to my Japan/Taiwan whisky tour was to be introduced to Bai Jui, a Chinese white spirit that accounts for 1/3 of the distilled spirits in the world. I learned a lot today about the scope of the industry, how it’s made and most crucially its cultural reference. Can you say Gam Bai?

My driver picked me up from my hotel in downtown Chengdu around 9:00. I say around 9 (I think the actual time was closer to 9:40) because nothing happens exactly on time in this country, it happens exactly when it intends to. Nearly 1/3 of the two hour drive consisted of getting out of Chengdu, the +14 million person metropolis which is my base for this leg of the tip. Raining and overcast the rest of the drive was a bore, with the lush thick hedges along the road only occasionally providing glimpses of rice patties and small vilages. Our destination was Qionlai, a town by Chinese standards at just 600,000 people, in the heart of the “wine region”, which produces China’s finest Bai Jui.

Bai Jui is the single largest spirits category in the world both by volume and by value, yet it is almost unknown in the West. The native white spirit is only produced within China’s borders, and the vast majority of that in Sichuan province. The two largest brands, Maotai and Wuliangye account for 75% of the Bai Jui market and are state owned behemoths. They have a leg up on the more 1000 other producers because of their link to the Communist party, and especially in the case of Maotai their patriotic links. China is one of the fastest growing spirits markets in the world, and yet Bai Jui accounts for 99% of the total sales. The last 1% is the value of all other spirits categories combined.

On arrival I met the local Moet Hennessey brand team and toured their impressive facilities. From the word go there were stark contrasts between the modern stylish offices of Moet and the surrounding neighborhood. The operation consists of several workshops where the product is produced, maturation warehouses for the spirit, offices, a museum, a brand store and a Maison (or Brand House). Wen Jun is Moet’s only Maison in Asia, and there are but two in all of North America. The fact that they have moved into the market is confirmation of its already impressive size and the growth potential they feel it has. Moet’s Wen Jun Maison consists of 3 villas, a traditional Opera stage, dining room and reception. The facility is a blend of traditional Chinese culture, architecture and furnishing with a tip of the hat to modern western luxury style.

There are few overt similarities between the distillation techniques at Wen Jun, and even traditional distilling techniques in the west. The same principles are put to work though in strikingly different ways. The earliest versions of the process date back some 5000 years, with historical references to it first emerging 3000 years later. The modern process employed has changed little in the last 400, save for the replacement of bamboo by stainless steel and the introduction of machinery to aid the process. Even the aging process is drastically different with the spirit almost hermetically sealed into clay vessels rather than oaken barrels.

Most fascinating is the dry fermentation process as opposed to the wet/liquid fermentation processes used by most distillers in the west. A mix of grains: rice, glutinous rice, wheat, sorghum and corn are milled and blended and then mixed with the fermenting agent or “Qu” which consists of wheat and barley. Part of the previous batch is also mixed with the new grains to encourage consistency and help the process along. The mix of grains is then placed in a concrete pit 2 ½ meters deeps where it is sealed by a layer of clay. This keeps the alcohol from evapourating away from the mash. The fermentation continues for 70-120 days depending on the time of year and climatic conditions. This is considerably longer than most other producers and makes for a better quality product.

The distillation process is also drastically different from western methods with the whole mash dropped into a large pot where it is heated with steam. The steam causes the alcohol to evapourate into a mist which is channelled into a condenser. This is perhaps the only portion of the process which bares any significant similarity to western techniques. Though curiously there is no copper component to the metalwork. From what I can tell the alcohol’s flavour is not so much influenced by the manner of distillation, but rather by the qualities of the fermentation. As with single malt whisky production some Bai Jui producers, like Wen Jun, don’t take the full spirit run. The first alcoholic vapours to come off the still are unsafe, and others components of the spirit run have unpleasant falvours. Only 20% of the spirit is kept for aging and the rest sold on as industrial alcohol or to less discerning Bai Jui producers. The average strength of the spirit off the still is between 68-72%.

The best Bai Juis are matured for at least 3 years if not longer, in earthenware pots. The spirit does seem to mellow and change character in the pots, but exactly how is a mystery, at least to me. There post are fairly well sealed, meaning there is little to no evapouration and almost no interaction between the spirit and its environment. Oak matured spirits can rely on the oak to add character, remove unwanted impurities and interact to change each other. I did see some older Bai Juis while I was there and some of these did seem to have darkened slightly, presumably leaching elements from the vessel.

There are three principle types of Bai Jui: Soy Fragrance, Rich Fragrance and Light Fragrance. 70% of Bai Jui production is Rich Fragrance, and that style is generally considered the best quality. Wen Jun has two variants: Wen Jun and Tianxian. The regular Wen Jun is a premium product bottled at 52%, it comes in a very stylish decanter. Mainly composed of 3 year old spirit, the firms renowned Master Blender Madame Wu will blend spirits up to 38 years of age. Tianxian, its ultra-premium older brother is matured longer but also bottled at 52%. The blend for Tianxian consists of spirit up to 50 years of age. In both cases only very small quantities of the older spirits are used, added to give depth and balance.

Bai Jui is not a drink produced to be sipped, savoured or consumed like whisky or cognac, it is very much a social lubricant. It is a drink to be shared among groups of friends, family or most importantly business associates, and in prodigious quantities. Chinese business culture is all about relationships, and those relationships supersede even contracts or the western handshake. Relationships are built around communal drinking and treating your friends or associates to a bottle or three or four is a way of showing you respect and value your relationship with them. The drink is not sipped, it is drank in the form of shots while consuming food. It is not unusual for individuals to parties to consume a bottle/person or more in a single sitting.

It is all well and fine to be told about this cultural experience it is another to become a part of it. You’ll recall the guest villa I mentioned earlier? After a day immersed in Bai Jui education, including a comparative tasting I found myself back at the villa for dinner. Moet Hennessey uses the villa, its only Maison in Asia to host important customers and key influencers.  It is a form of marketing that acknowledges the role relationship building plays in Japanese business. Just as I was being hosted so too was a group of men from a wealthy province in the North West of China. The big man, both literally and metaphorically, was an importer of liquor into the province whose brands also included Wen Jun. With him were a number of subordinates, his Moet Brand ambassador and some government officials.

Towards the end of dinner, a Chinese operatic magician came in to entertain us. By this time we’d all had a lot to drink, and the curious Chinese wanted to drink with and get to know me too. Within a matter of 45 minutes well more than a dozen shots of Bai Jui were consumed, with each of them wanting to Gambei with me. The Big Man and I must have had six shots together—maybe more, at least 3 each at two different times. By the end we were all good friends and the Big Man and I discussed how we might do business with each other. The main government official, in charge of tourism in his state was also insistent that I should come see it. Maybe another trip, while I’ve grown an appreciation for the tradition, and how to recognize a good Bai Jui, one epic Gambei session per trip will be enough for me.

Day 3 – Arriving in Chengdu

Posted by in China | May 17, 2013

Up early to catch my flight, the hotel ordered a licensed taxi for me, and I was charged a reasonable fair for his services. It was about ¼ of what I paid on arrival, and a tenth of that was a highway toll. It brought to mind the U-turn my driver had made two days earlier, almost certainly an attempt to avoid the charge. It felt so good to be treated honestly and with respect, that for the first time on my trip I gave the driver a tip. It would not be long however until there was an opportunity for another lesson to be learned. Let’s call it Lesson #3: “always look exactly like you know what you are doing, even if you are completely clueless.”

Beijing’s Terminal 3 is a massive new facility. Wandering somewhat aimlessly through the check in area to find the right kiosk a young woman took me for what I am, and easy mark. Only this time I didn’t mind being taken for a ride. She took my flight information, passport and bag and cut to the front of the right check in line. What might have taken 30-40 minutes was over and done with inside of 3 minutes. Although I did feel a little miffed at being so easily picked out, $15CDN seemed like a reasonable fee to pay for such services. I was pleasantly surprised by the service on Air China, and as there were plenty of empty seats I was able to get a pair to myself with a view.

Chengdu like Beijing is a metropolis, with more than 14,000,000 in the city and surrounding areas. I had a few hours on arrival to explore the city, and I made the most of them. visiting the site of famed poet Du Fu’s thatched cottage and the Temple of Marquis Wu. The city of Chengdu is located at the heart of the fertile Chengdu plain in Sichuan province.  The plain has been an economically and culturally significant zone for more than 4000 years. The city of Chengdu has been the principal center or capital of that region since the 4th Century BC.

The Temple of Marquis Wu pays homage to an even earlier local hero, Zhuge Liang, the 2nd Century AD Shu Dynasty Prime Minister. An able and loyal commander, strategist, administrator and general, the posthumously titled Marquis of Wu is even more renowned than the King he served. A shrine was built to him after his death in the outskirts modern Chengdu. Statues of Zhuge, his administrators, generals and successors, some of which were made in the 1600’s adorn one of the shrines with tales of their deeds. It is at this same time that the Temples were rebuilt.

Du Fu (712-770AD) is a famous Chinese Tang dynasty poet. He is known as the poet saint. and some 1500 of his poems have survived. Du Fu took refuge during some troubled years in a thatched cottage he famously wrote of. The Du Fu thatched cottage site today features a multi-story pagoda roofed temple, a replica of his cottage, archeological ruins, and displays of his work.

After a long day of travel and exploring I passed out on return to my hotel room and didn’t wake up until the morning.

Day 2 – Beijing – The Forbidden City/National Museum/Tiananmen Square & More

Posted by in China | May 15, 2013

My first and only full day in Beijing was a busy one. By the time it was over I must have put 30km on my feet, and was barely able to walk. A long but interesting day. I started the morning on the roof top patio of my hotel, The Emperor Beijing. It was a clear morning without a cloud in the sky or any trace of the previous day’s brown smog. These conditions held for the entire day, it was beautiful, and brutally hot!

I arrived at the entrance of the Forbidden City just after opening, and it was already swarming with people. Surrounded by 10m high walls nearly 3.5km long I knew the site was vast from walking around it the previous day, but truly had no idea what was in store. The complex is incomprehensively vast, the largest palatial complex it the world with more than 9000 buildings, bays, courtyards and rooms. Even with the thousands of flocking tourists the scale of the site becomes rapidly apparent. There are a number of ornate gates and entrances separating different tiers of the palace complex and five enormous courtyards. Early concerns over the large crowds ruining the experience quickly evapourated when I began exploring some of the twenty-odd smaller palaces within the complex. The large groups generally seemed to be avoiding these areas.

The level of detail with which the palaces and other buildings were constructed is impressive. Great care seems to be given to nearly every detail including individual roof tiles. It is hard to imagine what the cost would be to rebuild the palace today, even in China. There were many highlights, but the Imperial Gardens, Opera House and exploring the side palaces were the most enjoyable parts of the visit. After leaving the Forbidden City from the north gate I crossed the street and climbed the hill opposite the complex. A series of pagoda roofed temples climb the hill, with the uppermost nearly perfectly in line with the north-south access of the Forbidden City. Even from up there, hundreds of feet above it, it is hard to fully grasp its immense size.

In the afternoon I wandered south towards the Tiananmen Square area which is home to the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People and more. At the National Museum there were some great exhibits on China’s Ancient History. Most of the museum, not surprisingly was dedicated to the Communist Era. The security presence was intimidating with a permanently stationed bomb disposal unit on the street out front, baggage scanners and an army of guards both inside and out. Most of the museum’s elabourate approach was cordoned off by fancy crowd control devices which funnelled visitors through narrow passages. On the edge of the roof were nearly half a hundred security cameras most of them trained on Tiananmen Square.

The security checks didn’t stop there. There were security screenings to enter Tiananmen Square and the imposing old city gate at its south end. There were also imposing security measures around the Great Hall of the People which is unfortunately only open until noon. I will have to come back to see Mao’s tomb…

The last major item on my must see list this day were the city’s Hutongs, or alleyways. Narrow busy shopping streets they are a trait of the old Beijing which is rapidly disappearing as the country continues to modernize and develop. If Lesson #1 was yesterday’s don’t ride in unlicensed taxis, today’s Lesson #2 was learned on the way to the Hutongs, ‘always carry correct change…’ It is all fine and well to barter over the price for a service, it is another to get the change you are due when the driver is trying to sell you another service in a language you don’t understand. Beijing is a fascinating city and while I would love to explore it more the other part of me is ready to move on. It is a bustling metropolis with many of its residents trying the hustle their way to a better life. One can’t blame the people for that, but when you are a 6’2” naive looking foreigner, it’s hard not to feel constantly on edge!

The Hutongs were lively and full of action with an astounding variety of street foods, some of it prepared in less than sanitary conditions.  Much of my walk back was along a slow meandering waterway, which eventually feeds the Forbidden City moats and Golden River. Exhausted, hungry and a little weary at the prospect of wandering out again onto the city’s streets I settled into a comfy chair on my hotel’s roof top patio. While the sun went down behind the Forbidden City and skyscrapers in the distance I enjoyed a couple of cold beers and a quiet dinner.