Thursday, November 30, 2006

Forgetting Los Angeles

Hong Kong, China

The first things to go are the proper nouns.

Streets. People. Businesses. Places and persons that I used to have on speed dial or would see or say every few days. But, four months after leaving Los Angeles, they are fading.

What's the street that runs diagonally through L.A., the one that's great for shortcuts? Not La Cienega, but another Spanish name. San Vicente, I am informed by one who remembers.

Someone asked for the name of an unpretentious L.A. restaurant. No problem. I know a great Italian place on Vermont in Los Feliz. You're likely to be seated between three cops and the Giovanni Ribisi family. Named . . . . Not Vesuvio. That's the place in The Sopranos. Not Roma, but another Italian place name. Something like that.

I sat in the hotel lobby, drinking tea and staring at the overpowering Hong Kong skyline, and I could not remember the talk show host's name. Chubby white guy. Broadcasts on ABC at midnight. Dating Sarah Silverman (her name I could recall). I could see his face clear as film, but I could not dredge up "Jimmy Kimmel" for another day.

It's slipping away.

The Caspian Beat

Hong Kong, China

A flash of the knife to Fox reporter Miguel D'Souza in thanks for writing about my recent Turkmenistan Airlines post. And the same to for its comments.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More To Come

Hong Kong, China

I have been distracted by a veritable orgy of social obligations. Additional posts later this week.

Friday, November 17, 2006

East and West

East and West: China, Power and the Future of Asia by Christopher Patten (Random House 1998).

On December 19, 1984, Margaret Thatcher, like many world leaders before and thereafter, committed a single mortal sin which will tarnish her place in history. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans, Neville Chamberlain appeased the Third Reich, and Mrs. Thatcher signed the Joint Declaration agreeing to retrocede, 13 years later, the entirety of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China.

That's not so bad, you might say, the Hong Kong colony was taken by force as a port for opium sales and was an anachronistic imperial appendix. True, but, in 1984, Hong Kong was home to more than five million loyal and peaceful British subjects who were told that their lives and property would be handed over to a repressive oligarchy, and that was that. A shabby way to end the affair.

Worst of all, Britain did not provide Hong Kongers with a refuge. Britain, to its shame, refused to grant the Hong Kong Chinese full British citizenship or even a right of residency within the U.K. The Hong Kongers were stuck. They could try to emigrate to Canada (as many did), or they could start to curry favor with Beijing, or they could decide to salt their assets around the world and ride out the transition, but the bottom line was that the powerful European nation that had ruled their city for 155 years was to become irrelevant at the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997.

Christopher Patten was the British official who administered the final five years of the transition. Patten was a career politician who became a diplomat in the usual manner: he lost. In 1992, Patten successfully served as the Chairman of the Conservative Party, leading Prime Minister John Major to victory. But Patten forgot to set his own house in order and lost his Bath constituency. As a dubious consolation prize, Major appointed Patten to be the Last Governor of Hong Kong.

Patten's book, East and West, is not a memoir of his years in the colony, which is a pity, because the initial chapters recounting the transition are the best reading. Patten details how the Chinese government was a constant hindrance to his administration.

Intellectually, Patten took the position that Hong Kong was British property until July 1, 1997, and that Britain could do what it pleased until that day. Politically, Patten understood that he had to meet the Chinese government at least part way, not least because he could barely get out of bed before Beijing and its envoys started telling him how he should run his shop.

The Chinese government took the position that any decision or initiative that would have implications after the turnover needed its approval. Obviously, this included almost everything the Hong Kong government did.

The issue that most exercised the Chinese officials was any broadening of democracy. Patten inherited a bizarre electoral system in which a portion of the Hong Kong legislature was directly elected by voters, a portion was elected by "functional constituencies" which represented various business interests (such as lawyers or bankers) and a portion was appointed. Any attempt by Patten to increase the number of directly elected legislators was greeted by shrieks from Beijing and a veto from the British Foreign Office.

The Chinese government was not subtle in pressing its case against Hong Kong autonomy in general or increased democracy specifically. The P.R.C. repeatedly attempted to link funding for the new Hong Kong airport to political concessions by the British. The big businessmen of Hong Kong, eager to court their future kings, vilified Patten as "bad for business."

As Governor, Patten would give an annual Policy Speech, discussing the government's agenda. The Chinese government wanted to control the content of this speech, and Patten said No, he'd write it himself. For his resolve, Patten became embroiled in the following exchange:

"My discussions . . . had a Kafkaesque quality to them. One after another, Chinese officials . . . would accuse me of having broken the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. 'How have I done so?' I would respond. 'Show me where.' 'You know you have done so,' they would reply. 'You must have done so, or else we wouldn't have said it.' 'But where?' 'It is not for us to say; you must know that you have erred.' 'Give me a single instance," I would argue. 'Well,' they would usually claim somewhat lamely, 'you have at least broken the spirit of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.' 'What do you mean by the "spirit"? Do you just mean that you disagree with me? Why not then discuss what I have done? Put forward your own proposals.' 'We cannot put forward our own proposals until you return to the spirit of the text.' The circles spun and looped; the arguments twisted and turned; the greased pig wriggled about the room, defying capture."

All of this left Patten with a bad taste in his mouth, and he spends the remainder of the book refuting various self-serving myths propogated by the Beijing authorities and their fellow travellers. Patten argues that there is no such thing as "Asian values," a phrase used by autocratic leaders to claim that China's Confucian culture does not require, or even desire, democracy. The concept of "face," Patten believes, is often used as a negotiating ploy to gain concessions. And the notion that the Chinese are not "ready for democracy" is, of course, piffle.

Patten takes exception to the "old China hands" and the "old friends of China" who reliably vouch for the uniqueness of China, urging that the rules used in dealing with any other country do not apply to the Middle Kingdom. What they really mean, Patten suggests, is that you need to conduct your business on Beijing's terms and allow your state-run "partner" to reap the best of the benefit.

The book is bittersweet, in part a wistful reflection at what was, in part a wary discussion of what would be. But the script had been written before Patten accepted the job, and he fulfilled his duty (pictured). Moments before midnight on June 30, 1997, Patten stood solemnly as the Scots Guards played "God Save The Queen" and the Royal Marines lowered the Union Jack. Minutes later, a private citizen in a foreign land, Patten boarded the royal yacht Britannia for its final voyage out of Victoria Harbour.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Five Segments on Turkmenistan Airlines!

Posted to the Travel Buzz forum at

"Turkmenistan Airlines: Not As Bad As Advertised!"

That's not much of a slogan, but it's the best that can be said of this Central Asian carrier, on which I flew five segments last week. The only collection of online reviews is at, and the marks were generally poor.

Turkmenistan, for those of you who don't keep abreast of obscure Caspian dictatorships, is a former Soviet republic that is 90% desert. The sand caps what is reportedly the world's fourth-largest reserve of natural gas, which is about the only reason anybody would visit. (The Turkmen also weave nice carpets.)

Turkmenistan's claim to fame is the bizarre behavior of its leader, President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, who granted himself the title "Turkmenbashi the Great." For a taste of his eclectic policies, please note that he has, in a roughly ascending order of lunacy, mandated white marble facing on all new buildings in the capital, outlawed smoking (when he quit), named countless buildings after himself, placed his likeness on all currency, erected gold-plated statues of himself throughout the country, published a series of books which are now the basis of the national curriculum, banned opera and movies as "unturkmen," imposed a new alphabet, renamed the month of April after his mother and ordered the closure of all hospitals outside the capital.

To opiate the masses, the Turkmenbashi heavily subsidizes the economy, and state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines is part of that plan. Water, electricity, salt and other staples are free. Gasoline costs 5 cents a gallon. Domestic airfares cost one to ten dollars for Turkmen and, even with taxes and commissions and foreigner pricing, a one-hour internal flight costs a visitor about $20.

I flew five segments: from Beijing (PEK) to the capital city of Ashgabat (ASB) and back, a one-way flight from the historic town of Mary (MYP) to Ashgabat, and a round-trip between Ashgabat and the northern town of Dashoguz (TAZ).

All flights were on Boeings, with 757s on the international legs and 717s domestically. The pilots were allegedly Western-trained and looked Russian, but none said a word during my five flights.

The planes weren't bad. The seats were maintained, and the cabins were clean. The same cannot be said of all Turkmen travellers, and avoiding an aromatic seatmate is key to a pleasant flight.

There were other signs that this wasn't the Delta Shuttle. The bulkhead wall at the front of each cabin bore a framed photograph of the Turkmenbashi, so there's no escaping his Brylcreemed mug. The Turkmen passengers paid no heed to any rules about seatbelts or cabin movement. Boarding the plane was all pushing and shoving, and the old ladies had the best moves.

Aside from a flight map on the 757s, there was no in-flight entertainment, although the return to PEK started with two Turkmen grandmothers, wearing their colorful national dress and flashing gold teeth, cursing and almost coming to blows. The food was standard airline grub, and the flight attendants were reasonably diligent, if
unenthusiastic, about serving drinks and responding to the call button, which the Turkmen pushed without hesitation. There was no in-flight magazine, which would, in any event, have been devoted entirely to articles about You Know Who.

Luggage limits were nonexistent, but, in a country where almost everything has to be imported, I was sympathetic. Those Turkmen who can get out of Dodge return with arm-breaking quantities of Chinese and Western goods. In PEK, some Turkmen boarded the plane with three or four bags; one man sat down with a case of wine. The space on my flight was so oversubscribed that three trucks of baggage were left behind. The stranded bags were to arrive on the next flight with room, tolerable if you're a Turkmen but infuriating if you're a traveller.

The new airport in Ashgabat was modern and minimally functional. Guess who it's named after. The airports in Mary and Dashoguz were Soviet relics where passenger comfort was of no concern. For example, there were no bathrooms airside; you had to wait until you boarded. The Turkmenbashi should spend a few petrodollars on upgrades.

Turkmenistan Airlines has no web site. It has no frequent flyer program that I could discern and is not part of any alliance. It serves the major cities in Turkmenistan in the sense that it connects them to Ashgabat. The foreign destinations include London, Beijing, Moscow, Bangkok and Istanbul. Flights through Ashgabat are cheap;
flights to Ashgabat are expensive.

Turkmenistan Airlines is cut-rate transportation which isn't so bad if your expectations are low. You might want to snag a boarding pass or other trinket with the company's name. It will make a nice souvenir after the carrier is inevitably renamed Turkmenbashi Airlines.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Enemies of the Internet

From AFP:

"The campaigning group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Monday
listed 13 countries it labelled as 'enemies of the Internet' ahead of
a 24-hour campaign in favour of free access to the web.

"The 13 countries are: Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Myanmar, China, North
Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and

"Three countries were removed from RSF's 2005 list -- Libya, the
Maldives and Nepal."

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Editorial Note

Beijing, China

I will be in Turkmenistan and completely out of touch from November 8 to November 15, 2006. After that, I will be in China for an unknown period of time.

China does not allow access to All of my posts from China are through blogger's e-mail-to-blog service, which has limitations. For example, I cannot post embedded links or photos using the service.

I also can't read comments or fix formatting errors, since I can't see my own web page from China.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Turkmenistan Airlines

Beijing, China

I will be flying to and from Turkmenistan on the state-owned flag carrier, Turkmenistan Airlines. The airline has no website.

TA operates 15 Boeings, which are used on international routes, and 54
Russian planes, which are primarily used domestically, according to

Passengers on TA flights have reported their comments to air travel
rating site Skytrax.

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There's A Little Green Man in My Head

Saigon, Vietnam

"Fuck off, you little twat," I said to the six-year-old girl.

"Fuck you up ass!" she responded.

At that moment, I knew that I had to find a new place to stay in Saigon.

* * * * *

Every major city in Asia has a budget travellers' ghetto, and Saigon's is named Pham Ngu Lao. The lodgings in the neighborhood, as in most "backpacker districts," run a shortened spectrum from cheap and grotty guesthouses to mid-range and passable hotels. The restaurants serve Western food, and there are plenty of same-day laundries. Every third storefront is a travel agency, and every sixth is an internet cafe.

A backpacker district is supposed to provide the necessities of independent travel at reasonable prices. A backpacker district is not supposed to turn you into a vengeful paranoid, swearing at little girls and starting fights with young Vietnamese men.

But that's what Pham Ngu Lao does to you. It gets into your head and under your skin and any other bodily metaphor you care to write. It's not so much a neighborhood as a neighbor, the tedious one you try to avoid but can't, and you watch, mesmerized and powerless, as your emotions arc from distaste to rage.

The dominant fact of Vietnamese life is that its people are poor but want to be rich, and they have decided that no-holds-barred capitalism is the way to achieve their goal. It has become a cliche to say that the United States lost the war and won the peace, but when one of the tallest buildings in town illuminates the night sky with the blue and white Citibank logo, the cliche can't be dismissed as lazy typing.

The vendors of Pham Ngu Lao have decided, for their part, that the way to fatten their bank accounts, at Citibank and elsewhere, is to harass every Caucasian in sight until he or she buys their product or service through force of bullying.

Some vendors are more aggressive than others. Some will merely call out as you walk by. "Custom suits." "Taxi." "Hasheesh." I don't mind these catcalls. The vendors have a right to tell me what they're selling, and I have a right to ignore them.

But Isaac Newton was correct, and entropy always increases. Storeowners start to yell at you when you are half a block ahead and continue until you are half a block away. Hostesses grab your arm and try to pull you into their restaurants. Pimps yell directly into your face. Old ladies selling piles of bootleg photocopied books will physically block your path, forcing you to shove them aside.

Hawkers loudly shill for the many nightclubs that double as brothels. One teenage tout followed me down the block, half a step behind, screaming in my ear.



"One free drink."


"Why not?"


"You gay boy. You asshole."

I whirled around and shoved him backward onto the sidewalk. He sat stunned, looking up at me, and I turned a corner and was gone. Shoving the guy was the stupidest thing I've done this entire trip, because he easily could have pulled out a knife or gun and made short work of me. But that's what Pham Ngu Lao does to you.

As a defense mechanism, you start to walk down the street with a scowl and hostile attitude, avoiding eye contact. If you so much as look at a merchant or her store, she will run out and pester you. Don't even think about consulting a map or guidebook while standing on the sidewalk; you will be mobbed. Don't stop moving, or they'll attack.

The entreaties are not isolated or occasional or often. In Pham Ngu Lao, they are constant and never-ending. Someone is in your face every five feet. You become paranoid and want to lash out at everyone who comes too close.

Nor does your hotel provide a respite. The hotel employees will not give you a straight answer to any question, because they want to sell you overpriced add-ons. They'll claim they don't know the location of the nearest laundry or the directions to the train station, but they'll be happy to launder your clothes or call a car and driver. Every morning, the woman at the front desk of my hotel would demand to
know where I was going. On the first morning, I made the mistake of
telling her and was subjected to a three-person tag-team pitch for
tour guide services. After that, I ignored her, to her obvious

Among the varieties of mercenary behavior, the worst is exhibited by a set of adults who use children to shake down travellers. Ostensibly, the children are selling flowers or cheap gewgaws, like bracelets. In reality, the supervising adult will select a likely street corner and instruct the children to stalk and harangue Westerners until they obtain some money for their efforts. The kids, lacking other socialization, don't understand that their actions are wrong, and most travellers are too timid or harried to try to teach them otherwise.

* * * * *

I tucked the Wall Street Journal Asia under my arm and walked out of
the restaurant. She had been waiting and pounced.

"You buy flowers," said the six-year-old, standing in front of me and
blocking my way.

"No," I said, walking around her.

"You buy," she said, snatching at my elbow.

"No. Toi!" I said, approximating a Vietnamese epithet for "go away" which literally meant "go die."

"Give me money," she said, following me.


"Yes. Give me money," she said again.

"Fuck off, you little twat," I said. She understood at least one of those words.

"Fuck you up ass!" she yelled, still shadowing me. "Fuck you up ass!
Fuck you up ass!"

I rolled up my Wall Street Journal Asia and gave the little girl a sharp bop on the nose with the newspaper.

She froze. I kept walking and melted into the crowd, as I counted to myself, "One. Two. Three. Fo--."

"Wahhhhhhhhh!" she cried, running back to her hidden minder. I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the central business district. I needed to find a new hotel in a calmer neighborhood and clean away the miasma of Pham Ngu Lao.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Great Firewall of China

Beijing, China

All attempts to read web pages hosted on or return a message that the page is not available. The home page will load up, but attempts to log onto the service crash the web browser.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Flight On Emirates

Hong Kong, China

I took Emirates flight 384 from Bangkok to Hong Kong last week, the first time I have flown on an Arab airline. Now I understand why frequent travellers rave about Emirates.

Emirates Airline (officially, there is no "s" at the end of the word "Airline") is owned by the Dubai government, which is a polite way of saying that it is owned by the ruling family of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed Al Maktoum. Although the Dubai government states that Emirates does not receive any direct subsidies from the government (other than start-up costs), the airline is part of the Maktoum family's strategy of diversifying the economy of Dubai, which is predicted to deplete its oil reserves within several decades.

The Airbus 777-300 was immaculate, with the walls and seats liveried in the colors of the desert, tan and yellow and brown. The bulkhead walls were painted with abstract desertscapes. All signs were in Arabic and English.

The female flight attendants wore beautiful tan uniforms, with red hats and white veils covering the back of their hair. The female flight attendants also looked like they had prepared for a night on the town, with noticeable attention to their hair and makeup.

The safety announcements ended with a sentence you will never hear on Delta: "Our cabin crew today speaks Arabic, English, Thai, Hindu, Urdu and Zulu." All announcements were made in English and repeated in Arabic.

The menu announced that no pork products were used in any of the offerings and that all menu items were in accordance with Islamic halal dietary law. The food was fine for a three-hour flight, and a salad made from pummelo, a relative of the orange, was a tasty surprise, like a subtle tangerine.

The flight left and arrived on time, and all passengers had the choice of several complimentary newspapers, including The Gulf News, the Dubai newspaper. I will definitely fly this airline again.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

World Hum Link

I have added a link to World Hum, an online blogazine which links to travel articles and blogs of general interest, albeit with a slant toward independent travel.

Riding the Choo-Choo

Hong Kong, China

I am taking the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, a journey of twenty-four-and-a-half hours. The distance between the two cities is about 1,200 miles (about 2,000 kilometers), roughly the distance from Miami to Philadelphia.

The train is scheduled to average a shade under 50 miles an hour, which isn't bad at all. The train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai requires 12 hours to travel about 430 miles, an average of about 36 miles an hour.

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Trapped at Bangkok Airport

Hong Kong, China

Call me Viktor Navorski Junior. Unlike Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, I only spent three days trapped at Bangkok's airport. Like his character, I would occasionally visit Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose picture I could always find at the fragrance counters. No Stanley Tucci, though.

* * * * *


"Sorry. You can't board flight," the counter agent for Bangkok Airways said. "Letter wrong."

She was right. My last name was misspelled by one letter on my Chinese visa. I had noticed it weeks earlier and meant to have it corrected but forgot.

"They won't let you in with error," the counter agent explained.

Her assessment of Chinese Immigration's eagle eyes may or may not have been accurate, but her airline's policy was not to take a chance. An airline can be fined if it transports you to a country which denies you entrance. Consequently, risk-averse airlines take a hard-line approach when checking your international travel documents.

Fine, I thought, I'll have the problem sorted in one of the "special administrative regions" of China that a U.S. citizen can enter without a visa. I'll turn in my now-unusable ticket to Xi'an, China, for a refund and hop on the next flight to Hong Kong or Macau.

Except that it was 12:30 in the morning.

Luckily, the managers of Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport understand that international travel operates 24/7. Restaurants, stores, information counters, ground transport and money exchanges were open all night. If this had happened at LAX, I'd have been looking at six hours without food or water or the most elementary services.

Two flights were leaving for Hong Kong at 5 a.m., so I queued up when the counter opened at 3 a.m.

"No tickets for sale," said the counter agent, who looked like a Thai version of Jackie Brown, worn out and approaching middle age working for a third-rate airline. "These flights are charters."

"Are there any empty seats on the flights?" I asked.

"No tickets for sale. These are charters," the counter agent repeated.

"That's not my question. Are there any empty seats on the flights?"

She called for her supervisor who came over, and we repeated the exercise. After some debate, I forced the supervisor to admit that at least one of the jets had an empty seat.

"Please sell me a ticket. Code it as a Y fare and sell me the seat," I said.

"No. Against rule."

"What rule?"

"Against rule."

The Owner Wants To Earn Less Revenue Than Possible Rule, apparently. Either the tour packager did not buy the empty seat, in which case I would be the buyer, or the tour packager bought the seat but failed to re-sell it, in which case the airline had the rare opportunity to sell the same seat twice. But logic is powerless in the face of "against rule."

At this point, I was too tired to deal, so I surfed the web for a cut-rate bed near the airport and flopped at the Avana Hotel, which caters to Thai and Chinese budget tourists at a rack rate of $40 a night.

* * * * *


"No one-way allowed," the ticket sales agent at Air Asia said.

"I have China visa," I said, showing her the visa and gambling she wouldn't notice the typo. "I also have onward ticket from Beijing to Turkmenistan. You can sell me a one-way ticket to Macau."

"I talk to supervisor," she said and vanished.

The onward ticket requirement is the bane of independent travellers. Many countries have a law which states that you cannot enter the country unless you already possess a ticket out of the country. But many independent travellers do not know when they will leave the country, or by what route, or by what means of transport. If you have the vague notion of flying into a country with an onward ticket requirement and riding a train out, you are in the grips of a catch-22, because you can't enter the country without the onward train ticket but you usually can't buy the train ticket until you are in the country. (Travel agents can obtain the train ticket for you in advance at an exorbitant premium.)

Fortunately, countries with modern tourism policies understand this dilemma and do not enforce the onward ticket requirement. China and Thailand are two such countries.

Unfortunately, the airlines strictly enforce the onward ticket requirement, even if the destination country does not. The airlines' position is that they don't want to risk being fined and they can't be expected to know the nuances of enforcement policy in every country.

I call bullshit.

The only people who benefit from an onward ticket requirement are airlines and travel agents, who force you to buy a round-trip ticket when all you need is a less-expensive one-way ticket. The airlines have lawyers who identify the formal entry requirements for every country into which they fly, so asking the attorneys to determine the actual state of on-the-ground enforcement isn't a vast additional burden. And we're talking about China, a country with millions of visitors a year, where ten minutes of internet research reveals that the onward ticket requirement is not being enforced. The airlines enforce the rule solely as a profit-padding device.

By the time the ticket agent returned from her lengthy meeting with her supervisor, I had accepted the fact that I needed to buy a round-trip ticket if I were ever going to leave the Bangkok airport. But ticketing for the Macau flight was now closed, so the issue was rendered moot.

Gulf Air, the flag carrier for Bahrain and Oman, had the next flight to Hong Kong.

"We don't sell tickets here," the counter agent said.

"What do you mean? You have half a dozen flights a day in and out of here," I said.

"We don't have any ticket-selling facilities at the airport. You can't buy tickets here," she explained.

I went back to the hotel and knocked back bottled water like it was Scotch.

* * * * *


"I am getting on a plane today to Hong Kong or Macau if it's the last thing I do," I said to myself. By this time, I was tired of airport food, tired of standing in line, tired of pushing my bags around on a cart.

Emirates had the next flight to Hong Kong. I walked up to the Emirates ticketing booth; to my surprise, there was an employee present. I asked to buy a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong, and she quoted a reasonable price. I bought the ticket, checked in and, two hours later, was finally out of Bangkok.

* * * * *


Government offices are housed in the "China Resources Building," which sounds more cheerful than "Your Imperial Overlords."

I explained to the Chinese consular officer that I needed my Thai-issued visa corrected to remove the typo. She leaned over and pulled from beneath her desk a large three-ring binder and began flipping through it for the applicable rule. After about four minutes of silence, she gave up on the binder.

She reached down again and pulled up one of the largest books I have ever seen. It was hard-bound, about three times the thickness of a Bible, and large format, like an art book or an old-fashioned bank ledger. It was written in Chinese characters, which made it appear even more intimidating.

Four minutes of silence passed as she looked through the book. Six minutes. Eight minutes.

"No rule," she finally said.

"She's going to say she needs to talk to her supervisors," I thought.

"I need to talk to the supervisors," she said and disappeared.

After about ten minutes, she returned.

"We cannot do anything to the old visa because this office did not issue it," she said, "but there is something we can do."

I knew where this was going.

"We can issue you an additional visa for $100."

For want of one letter.

I paid my fee, completed the paperwork and, two hours later, received formal and correctly spelled permission to enter mainland China.

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Good Odds

Hong Kong, China

The South China Morning Post reports today that, during most of the year, the gender ratio among 20- and 30-somethings in Lebanon is about five women for every one man. The men are working outside the country, usually in the wealthy Gulf states, and only visit Lebanon for the few weeks between Ramadan and Christmas.

This factoid may affect my travel plans.