01 November 2009

Formula One in Asia

I was fortunate this year to attend both Formula One races in southeast Asia. These bookend a large portion of the season, with the Malaysian Grand Prix being the second race of the year in April, and the Singapore GP being near the end in September (only three races followed it). Living where I do in Singapore, I may have the most convenient location for attending both races.

The Malaysian GP is run at the Sepang Circuit, which is a mile or so away from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The city of KL is 40 or so kilometres from the airport, so it is actually easier to fly in the day of the race, rather than go up early and stay in the city. The race was scheduled to start at 5pm, so I took an early afternoon flight and arrived around 2. After catching the shuttle bus and buying my ticket at the box office, I was in the circuit before 3. This gave me a couple of hours to look around the facility, but all I really wanted to do was get under the shade in my seat.

It was ridiculously hot and humid. Malaysia is never temperate, but it is really bad in April. It was raining when we landed, but it had cleared by the time I was at the track, and it felt like a sauna on steroids. My ticket was on the start/finish straight, under the canopy that covers the iconic stands lining the track and its 180-degree turn. So, I settled in, knowing that the weather forecast was for more rain.

The race started normally, with pole-sitter Jenson Button of the newly-formed Brawn team getting out to the lead. My seats had a great view of the start finish line and then a very fast down hill left-hand turn into a long curve that gave the drivers an opportunity to stay on the gas. The elevation change really make for good viewing. The cars the disappeared for a minute before rounding the slow 180-degree final turn that takes them down the start/finish straight. From these seats, you get a lot of viewing time per lap, which is great. Plus, I was high enough up (first row, but in the second deck) that I could hear what was being said on my hand-held Kangaroo TV set.

A few minutes into the race, we got welcome relief from the heat with a cool breeze. That (and the gathering dark clouds) signaled an impending storm, and the rain came a few minutes later. I had recently read a novel set in Malaysia, and the rain that day came as the author had described the daily downpours, as "violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets." It doesn't drizzle in Malaysia.

One thing about Formula One that separates it from other motorsport series is that they continue to race in the rain. The teams switch to wet tires, and off they go. That is, if the rain doesn't made racing too hazardous. Which it did that day. The fast downhill turn I described above became a slow maneuver in the rain, with rooster tail plumes flowing high and far behind each car. From my Kangaroo TV set, I could hear the drivers telling their crews of the terrible conditions. It was so bad that about halfway through the race, they stopped it. Eventually, they would abandon the race, the first time such action was taken since the 1991 Australian GP was halted because of heavy rain. Because the race was not finished, the top 8 drivers received only half points (Button got 5 instead of 10).

I waited to see the podium, which was still celebratory, and then trudged with the rest of the dripping masses out of the circuit. A 15 minute walk got me to the buses, and another 15 minute wait got me on a bus. From there, it was only a few minutes before I was back through security and on my way to Singapore. I was back home around 11pm, just about 12 hours after I had left that morning. A pretty good day, even with the rain.

Nearly six months later, the Formula One circus came to Singapore for the second instalment of the Singapore GP, the first night race in F1's history. Last year's race had been a wild success, but the 2009 edition was clouded by revelations that Renault driver Nelson Piquet, Jr., had crashed his car deliberately during the race last year, which allowed his teammate Fernando Alonso to pass several cars during the subsequent caution and claim victory in the race. The economic downturn had also dampened excitement for the race, and when I found I couldn't get walk-about tickets (which Alex and I had last year), I decided not to go.

Then, two days before the race, a friend at work gave me a ticket. In the Pit Grandstand. Right across from the Brawn pits. Probably 200 metres from the start/finish line. The seats were incredible. So, on race day, I headed out about 3pm to go to the circuit. From my front door, I was inside the gates within 13 minutes. Walk down the hill, get on the MRT, ride two stops, up the escalator, and out the door and through the gates. It was amazing! Of course, I then had to walk more than 20 minutes in the heat to get to my seats, which were on the very opposite side of the circuit.

The organizers did another great job this year. The food and beverage area near my seats featured all kinds of good food, including a re-creation of Emerald Hill, my neighborhood, complete with the shophouses and local bars. It was great to see Ice Cold Beer and Number 5 Emerald Hill right there, as if I hadn't even left home.

The cars look fantastic under the lights. After the excitement of the start, however, I found the seats to be less enjoyable than the walk-about tickets we had last year. Formula One cars are awesome machines, but you tend to sit in your seat for 90 seconds watching the big video screens for every 15 seconds of the cars screaming by. Kangaroo TV provides good coverage, but it is hard to hear when you are so close to the track (I was fourth row). All in all, a good experience, but I learned a lesson on where to view the action for next year.

My last four Grands Prix have been quite historic - the 2005 USGP, when only six cars raced because of problems with the Michelin tires on the remaining 14 cars, the 2008 and 2009 Singapore GPs, the first night races, and the 2009 Malaysian GP, the first race to be abandoned in 18 years and only the fourth in history where half points were awarded. I guess it's a case of being in the right place at the right time.

31 October 2009

Travel: Pulau Dayang, Malaysia

While this is listed as a travel entry, the sole purpose of the trip was so I could do my open water dives and get certified as a PADI Open Water Diver. Which I did! I have wanted to do this for several years, but it was a chance seating arrangement at a company meeting that put me by an experienced diver that made it happen. I asked him about classes, he messaged his friend the instructor, the instructor told me to come to the shop the next Monday, and I signed up. Two nights of classes, a pool session (we were able to get it all done in one night), a perfect score on the final exam (sorry, I had to brag), and I was off to dive in the ocean.

The dives would be off Pulau Dayang (pulau is island in Bahasa Malay). This is off the east coast of Malaysia, so I thought it would be a short trip. Wrong. We left around 7pm, and with Customs checks and dinner, it took us over four hours to reach the ferry terminal. Where we boarded a boat that took another four hours to get to the island. We did get to sleep on the boat, which was good, since we reached the island at 4am, hopped into our bunk beds (four to a room), and tried to get in a few more hours of rest before our 8am wakeup call for the 9am dive.

We did three dives on Saturday (all with the requisite testing) and two more on Sunday. It was awesome. The water was pretty clear - about 20 metres visibility for some of the dives - and the sites had some interesting characteristics. I had some issues with my buoyancy and (in the first two dives) equalizing. Part of the buoyancy problem is that I tend to breathe more deeply than I need, which adds to my natural buoyancy (no comments from the peanut gallery), but that will change as I get more experienced. I also tended to focus on one activity at a time, and more than once as I was trying to equalize, I found myself close to surfacing.

There is all kinds of great sea life here. Parrot fish, little nemos, cuttlefish, sea cucumbers, clams, eels...all kinds of cool stuff. Plus, the underwater terrain was very interesting. We did not see the whale shark, which was spotted the week before. Perhaps next time.

I did not have my camera with me but will add pictures of the "resort" and underwater action when I get them from my fellow divers. It was a really fun weekend, and I am glad to finally add to "certifiable" as an apt description of me, "certified". As in Open Water Diver.

The one downside was that a Singapore diver died at one of the dive sites over the weekend. He was an up-and-coming eye doctor here and an experienced diver. There are few details still, but he apparently fell ill underwater while working with a re-breather (mixes oxygen, nitrogen, and helium). He was pulled from the water before 9am on Saturday, so he was out and on his way to the hospital before we went in the water, and we didn't find out until we got back to Singapore. Quite a sobering illustration that diving - like any other outdoor activity - can be dangerous.

Christmas in October

On 25 October - two months to the day before Christmas - I returned from a weekend away to find workers putting up Christmas decorations over Orchard Road. It is now Halloween, and the decorations are fully in place, not only on Orchard but in the department stores. We are even seeing Christmas trees go up. In October!

Rumor is that this is in part for the APEC summit, to be held in Singapore in November (President Obama will attend). I think it is a manifestation of Singapore's kiasu mentality - must be first in everything. It is a bit odd, because we are only halfway through the Deepavali month (Little India is a beautiful sight at nighttime during the month), and it seems to go against Singapore's official policy of racial and religious harmony. I suppose the Christmas decorations on Orchard and in the department stores are more commercial in nature, however, so no harm done.


I have been wanting to write about China since my visit there in January. I find so much fascinating about the country and culture. I have been unable, however, to sit down and do it! It is some kind of writer's block. I intend to write about all my experiences (since my last entry on the country, I have been to Shanghai, and I plan another trip to China before the end of the year), but I will do so as I can put the energy to it.

In the meantime, I want to describe some of my other travels and goings-on here, so I will begin to do so. I have much to record.

18 August 2009

Travel: Beijing, the calm before the new year storm...

We were back to the city by early afternoon. I left my guide and driver with hong bao, the traditional red packets given at the new year, and headed out to explore the capital on my own. My first stop was the Temple of Heaven, where the Ming and Qing emperors would hold a twice-annual prayer ritual for a good harvest. This was an important ritual, as the emperor was considered the Son of Heaven, and this allowed him to show respect for the source of his authority.

This is a magnificent location, a huge park that deserves several hours of exploration. Which I gave it. The highlight is the triple-gabled Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a cylindrical structure painted in lovely bright hues.

[Standing admiring this structure, I found myself in a conversation with an Australian who had just visited the Great Wall. He told me he took the train, which had been completed for the Olympics. “What?!” I thought. Why hadn’t I done that? It was good that I had a guide, because I didn’t know anything about the landscape. But, now I knew how to get to the Wall on my own, and I would use that information the following day.]

The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are quite nice – very peaceful, filled with gardens and little compounds of buildings that were used by the Emperor and his minions in the day. Besides the hall above, there are several other notable sites, including the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. Plus, there were all kinds of smaller structures, wooded areas, pathways and other interesting bits that could have kept me there for a long time. But, as the day waned, it was time to leave, so I walked across the street for a cup of coffee and slice of cake (and an impromptu photo session with a quite nosy Japanese tourist). From there, I decided it was time to really put myself into Beijing’s hands, and I got on a bus. I didn’t know where it was going, but I figured that I could get off before I got too far from the city centre. And I didn’t have to worry about it – this particular bus line ended just a mile down the road! So, I got off, got on the same bus going in the opposite direction, and rode it back towards the Imperial Palace. The route skirts the east side of the palace grounds, then heads west and north, towards Bei Hai (north lake). This is where I got off – in the darkness that comes just after the sun has set. The lake is surrounded by shops and bars and restaurants, and it is a lovely site. I decided it was time to enjoy a traditional tea house, and I stepped into one conveniently located on the bank of the lake.

I was the only customer, as everyone else was preparing for the new year’s celebration. But, I still enjoyed the quite elaborate ceremony. It uses an entire set of tools, each of which has a very specific purpose. The ceremony involves smelling your chosen tea leaves, brewing a cup and then throwing the tea on the floor, brewing another cup, and sipping that using the lid of the cup to filter the leaves. The entire ceremony is described on a tablet made of small strips of wood that is rolled up and placed on the table. It was a very cool experience.

It wasn’t that close to midnight, so I headed back to the hotel to relax a little and plan where I would watch the celebration. Fortunately, I could take the same bus back up that I took down. So, off I went, back to Bei Hai, arriving around 10.30. The celebrations were already beginning, as evidenced by the small explosions in every direction. And this was just the beginning. It was to build to a crescendo that was unlike anything I had ever seen.

21 July 2009

Travel: Beijing, from Bird's Nest to the Great Wall

After surviving the frigid Forbidden City, I was only too happy to be back in the car, out of the wind and chill, and my guide pointed us to some traditional Beijing (Peking) Duck (at my request). Bian Yi Fang is a traditional Peking restaurant, more than 140 years old, where the hostesses wear the beautiful qi pao, the traditional Chinese long dress, complemented with fur stoles to help keep out the chill. It was a perfect first meal for the holiday. And it gave me just enough energy to visit the Bird's Nest, the stunning Olympic Stadium. Beside it is the Water Cube, site of the aquarian events. These are both interesting architecturally (including this interesting hotel within walking distance of the two), but without being able to go inside, you don't spend too much time there. So, I was back to the hotel for my previously mentioned nap.

It was dark and cold outside when I awoke, but also still and quiet. Perfect for a stroll down Chang'an Avenue and a quick ride on the subway. It is a short ride between stops east and west of the Tian'anmen Gate, and I wanted to get a feel of the subway for the rest of my trip. When I emerged on the west entrance, I was greeted by the sight of the National Performing Arts Center, illuminated - chameleon-like - in colors changing from white to blue to purple. The walk back down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (more on that later) took me back by Tian'anmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, and the Imperial Palace, all alight for the holiday, with the dozens of red Chinese flags stiff in the night breeze. Quite a sight.

It was an early start the next morning - New Year's Eve - for a trip to the Great Wall. It was still frigid outside, but the trip up to Badaling was pleasant inside the heated car. It took a while to get out of the sprawling city. Beijing is circled by a series of "Ring Roads", indicating how much the city has grown in recent times. I was staying in the heart of the city, near the Imperial Palace, and we would travel past the Sixth Ring Road before we left Beijing proper (it is actually the fifth of the ring roads, and the farthest one out).

Once we were out of the city, we began climbing into the hills north of the capital, and soon we were to see the first ramparts of the Great Wall. As one of my guidebooks says, it is like a long serpent, seeking out the pinnacles of the hills as it winds over the countryside.

Badaling is one of the most accessible portions of the Wall, with a low-level entrance as well as a cable car that takes you towards one of the peaks of the nearby hills. We took the cable car up, through the freezing wind. The gap in the car's door did not quite keep out the wind, so we were fully acclimated to the outdoor temperature by the time we arrived. It was perhaps colder than the previous day, although at those temperatures, it really doesn't matter. Our early start had gotten us there before the crowds, so we had this entire section of the Wall nearly to ourselves. It was fantastic! From the exit of the cable car, it wasn't a far walk to the highest point, with a great vista. From there, we could walk back down the entrance at ground level, with a mixture of easy slopes and very steep stairways. Along the way, you pass through a number of towers and guard houses (the towers were placed two arrow shots from each other, so that enemies storming the Wall would always be in arrow shot range). As I was walking down, I had to think what kind of terrible assignment it would have been to have guard duty on the Great Wall during the dead of Winter. I thought I might never be warm again.

Of course, a Honey Orange Latte from Starbucks helped. I finally was able to feel my feet on the drive back into the city, and was warmed up by the time we were back to the hotel. I said goodbye to my driver and guide with a traditional New Year gift, hong bao, or little red packet. It had been a good start to my New Year's Eve.

09 July 2009

Travel: Beijing, Winter and Spring

For Chinese New Year, I took my first visit to mainland China. Now, most Chinese will tell you that I have been to China several times, with my trips to Hong Kong and Macau, and even Taiwan. But, this trip to Beijing would be my first to the People’s Republic. And I loved it. So much so that I made another trip in May, to get a feel for the city without the bitter cold of January and visit some places I missed the first go-round. The following entries are the story of my visits to the Chinese capital, one in the dead of Winter, the other at the tail end of Spring.

Americans need a visa to get into the country. I of course waited until the last moment - the Tuesday before the Saturday I was to leave (still within the four-day period). I was impressed with the visa application process. I waited in line for five minutes at the Chinese Embassy in Singapore before everything was handled. They took my passport and application and told me to come back on Friday. On that day, I was dismayed to find a queue of 40 people. But, it took me all of seven minutes to get to the front, where I paid my S$190 (it is S$25 for Singaporeans - reciprocity for the US's high fees for Chinese nationals) and collected my passport with its shiny new multiple-entry visa. And a microchip telling the Chinese government of my whereabouts at all times, I am sure.

I arrived on the overnight flight (Beijing is about six hours from Singapore) and was greeted by freezing temperatures. It was about minus-5 C (in the 20s F), and the wind was ferocious. I had hired a guide and car, and the sight of someone holding a paper with my name on it (who wasn’t wearing a police uniform) was quite pleasing to this bleary-eyed traveler (I did not sleep on the flight). The trip into the city was shorter than expected; traffic was light, as it was Saturday and just two days before the start of the new year. Many had warned me that the city would be deserted – I was rather enjoying it.

A quick stop at my hotel (I love Asian hotels, because they let you check in at 8 in the morning), and we were off. I stayed at the Beijing Hotel, the landmark that was the only hotel where foreigners could stay for many years. It is luxurious in a Soviet sort of way - everything is big and clean and spartan - so I can see how it was the nicest hotel in the city during an earlier era. Regardless, it ended up being a perfect location for me. (I didn't quite have my wits about me when I arrived and only got a night shot later.)

While I was exhausted, I would have no problem staying awake outside, because of the extreme weather (the wind chill was minus-10, in the teens F). I brought my heavy coat, hat (that I thankfully bought in Santa Fe!), and new gloves and scarf. It wasn't enough. The wind reminded me of the Texas panhandle - just bitter. Our first stop was to be Tian'anmen Square, about a quarter-mile down Chang'an Boulevard from my hotel, but there was an official government/party function going on that day at the neighboring Hall of the People, and the square was closed. So, we headed across the street to the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City, entering through the Tian'anmen Gate (which is a bit redundant, as men in Chinese means gate). This is where Chairman Mao announced the formation of the People's Republic of China on May 1, 1949, after the defeat of the nationalists and their flight to Taiwan. You can't miss the gate - it features a huge picture of Mao. Welcome to China.

Every step of the hundred metres to the gate was miserable. And I like cold weather. When we got inside the massive complex, it wasn’t any better. The palace is so huge that you never felt like there was any shelter. The grounds are massive, and the wind just howled. Even the exhibits inside the buildings of the Forbidden Palace offered little warmth. Which is too bad, because there is a lot of really cool things to see. As much as I wanted to soak it in, I lasted only an hour. We jumped back into the car and headed out for any early lunch.

We made it to only one more sight before I gave up. I had the driver take me back to the hotel, and I was in bed by 2pm. It may have been the best nap I have had in years, although I think it took a couple of hours for me to completely warm up. That’s okay, because I slept until well past 9pm. So much for my first day.

My return visit in May offered a completely different climatic experience. My familiarity with the city’s transportation system meant I could bypass the car and driver and take the airport train into the city. This is quite efficient, delivering you to Dongzhimen Station on the Beijing subway's Line 2 (five stops from my hotel) in just over 20 minutes. I took the same flight as in January, arriving just after sunrise. The train is uncrowded at this time, and it offers a pleasant, timely and cost-efficient way into the city (if you are prepared to then board a subway for the remainder of the journey).

My seatmate on the plane told me that Beijing had essentially skipped Spring, as the weather had transitioned from Winter cold to early-Summer warm rather quickly. This was apparent as soon as we walked onto the jetway – it was quite warm. I thought I might enjoy a little brisk weather (I am always for little escapes from the constant tropical climate of Singapore), but that was out the window. And I had not brought any shorts. It wasn’t too hot, however, to stop me from getting off the subway a stop early to walk the half-mile to the hotel, enjoying the hazy morning (the pollution absent in January’s crisp, windy days was back with a vengeance on that heavy Spring morning).

I had chosen another holiday to visit – May 1 is the start of the Golden Week holiday – and the infamous Beijing traffic was again non-existent. I stayed in the Raffles Beijing Hotel, which is connected to the Beijing Hotel of my previous stay. But, it's a Raffles, with a touch of modern class that the Beijing Hotel lacked. My “room” ended up being a sizeable suite with a killer king bed. So, remembering the experience of my previous visit, I thought it prudent to catch a bit of rest before heading out. It was only 8 in the morning, you know. Of course, the rest of my day wasn’t much more productive than my first day in January – I just found the relaxing too appealing. I would make it back to the Imperial Palace that day, enjoying the more temperate environment.