Category: Travel

China Without a Passport

Want to know how to visit China without a passport? Just do like my wife and me, and head to Grant Avenue, near downtown San Francisco. That’s the heart of Chinatown.

Our Muni bus regurgitated us into a crowd of Asians, like we’d been shanghaied, and sped away on it’s electric cable, leaving us disoriented in the Orient.

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building towers above nearby Chinatown. At 853 feet, it was the tallest building in San Francisco from 1972 until 2018, when it was surpassed by the 1,070 foot Salesforce Tower.

Chinatown is aptly yclept. It’s abustle with throngs of Chinese immigrants, peppered with a few befuddled, agog, and somewhat frightened tourists. It occupies 24 square blocks of steep boulevards, mysterious alleyways, and hieroglyphic Hanzi characters on storefront signage.

Notice the alley beside this Buddha shop? Chinatown is famous, or perhaps notorious, for its alleys. Here, hidden from street view have been brothels, gambling halls, and other disreputable or low-profile establishments. And a Chinatown alley hosted the secret office of exiled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, where he raised money to support the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

Most of the denizens of Chinatown are immigrants from Hong Kong or mainland China. They speak little or no English. And they eye foreigners like my wife and me with wariness and animosity. Or so we imagined.

A typical Chinatown street.

If you visit Chinatown, I suggest you learn Cantonese first, or bring along a translator. Mandarin was once the dominant language. But that started to change in the 1960’s, when Cantonese-speaking immigrants began arriving in earnest. But hell, it all sounds Greek to me.

We wandered the streets like lost foreign tourists, eyeing the exotic goods offered at storefronts with a mix of wonder and morbid curiosity. The sidewalks were difficult to navigate, due to the ruck of Asian pedestrians on this Wednesday afternoon. I understand that weekends are even worse.

Red seems to be the favorite color of the Chinese. Red represents good luck, in Chinese culture, and is also thought to scare away evil spirits.

Chinatown is the most densely populated community west of Manhattan, with 54,000 people per square mile (Manhattan has 70,000 per square mile). Many of the immigrants here were professionals of respectable status in China, but have had to settle for low-paying livelihoods in restaurants and garment factories, upon arriving in Chinatown. As a result, they live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions.

I wonder if these red cat souvenirs are meant to scare away evil mice?

I put my wallet in my front pocket, and kept my hand close by. My wife clutched her purse. We chuffed and staggered up and down steep streets, trying to figure out what to do in this byzantine warren of legs, traffic, and loud city noises.

My wife caught my attention and cupped her hand to my ear. “I’m scared!” her voice quivered. “Get me out of here.”

That’s all it took to bring out my knight in shining armor. “Of course, my fair lass, I shall lead you to safety! Just follow me!

“But first, I’m hungry. I want to try some Chinese food.”

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None of the eating establishments looked very palatable for western stomachs, until we passed by a rather large-looking restaurant buried in one of the many, ubiquitous old brick buildings. My wife’s face brightened and appeared relieved. “Hey!” she shouted above the din of traffic, “this place looks big and clean, like they cater to Americans!”

We stepped inside. It was a grand, brightly-lit, high-ceilinged eatery, decorated in traditional Chinese ornamentation. A clean-dressed waitress walked by, pushing a stainless steel cart, and smiled at us. She gestured for us to come in further. Hers was the first friendly face we had encountered in this suspicious community, and it helped us regain our confidence.

We were seated at a large table by a waitress who spoke a bowl of Cantonese with one or two garnishments of English. We had captured one of the last available tables. This large eatery was packed with jabbering diners of eastern dialect. We were the only westerners in the building.

Suddenly a train pulled up beside our table. It was two waitresses pushing and pulling a large stainless steel food incubator. They opened up covers, displaying various Chinese dishes. “You want? You want?” They inquired as they pulled out steaming dishes and proffered them under our noses.

We were flummoxed. We’d never encountered this type of food service before. We were accustomed to menus, indited with English descriptions, and with numerical price tags. You know, where you choose from the menu, and someone writes down your order, as you calculate in your head how much this is going to lighten your wallet. We waved off the waitresses, hoping for a menu option.

They gave us annoyed looks and pulled away. But within seconds a new train pulled up, with new waitresses, and new offerings of exotic meals.

At this point we realized there would be no menus. So we carefully examined each dish. Finally we chose some spicy barbecue pork, and wontons that turned out to be stuffed with ground shrimp.

“Drink?” a new waitress walked up and inquired.

I wasn’t sure how much all of this was going to cost, so I decided to just order water.

“No free wata!” the waitress scolded. And she left in a huff.

Fortunately, complimentary tea was served, and although tea is poison I went ahead and slaked my thirst with the hot leaf juice anyway. And come to think of it, I’ve heard you should never drink the water in China, so perhaps tea was a safe choice for the circumstance.

I could take or leave the wontons, but the pork was heavenly, and I slurped and smacked down as many helpings as my clumsy chopsticks could handle.

As we ate, more food trains pulled up, with multiple offerings of delectables. The waitresses were pushy, and I began to wonder how much they expected us to eat here. Finally I shouted in my best Spanish, “No mas! No mas!” Spanish is the foreign language I’m most familiar with, so this was the best I could do for communication. But I think my angry look got the message across, and the food trains ceased.

I quaked in my hiking boots as we approached the cashier. The check was written in Hanzi characters, so we had no idea what this would cost. Were they going to try to soak us for $100? $500? $1,000? Would we be thrown into a Chinese prison if we refused to pay an exorbitant tab, and then have to contact the American Consulate?

It came to about $23. We threw in a $4 tip and then got the hell out of there.

We finally found a Muni and got on board. Within minutes the bus transported us back to America and dropped us off near our hotel.

We were back home safe, in our motherland. And we did not have to pass through Customs, or show anyone our passports. Which kind of surprised us. The contrast between Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco is very stark.

And as for China itself, we have both concluded that it’s a country we never have to visit. Because we’ve already been there.

We’ve been to Chinatown.

Leaving on a Road Trip

The Winchester House in San Jose, California, was one of our first stops. This 161 room mansion was the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester gun fortune. With all those rooms, she could have expanded to a hotel chain.

It’s 4:00 am, and we’re up and moving, looking forward to our next road trip and a cure for cabin fever. I pull the car up close to the front door and start loading luggage.

If a man knows what’s best for him, he will put the woman’s luggage in the car first, before he tries to find room for his own.

The Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco behind it.

My wife belts out an order: “Take the black bag!”

She means the multi-colored bag with the black handle. I don’t know this, so I stand in front of it looking stupid, trying to find the black bag. “Oh, I’ll get it myself!” she huffs impatiently, and snatches the bag and puts it by the front door for me to carry the rest of the way.

Five of the 21 California missions are in the San Francisco bay area. We pilgrimed to all five. Poppies bloom beside the northernmost mission, in Sonoma.

Our pack of dogs follows her every movement, as she frantically darts about the house looking for this and that to take on the trip. She screeches, “Move you fucking dummies or I will kill you!” She doesn’t mean a word of it, and the dogs know that. They continue to mosey and mill about her feet.

Sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, in San Francisco. Their playful ways reminded us of our dogs at home.

The dogs are aware that something is up. They’ve watched our madcap routine before. They know we’re abandoning them. They’re casting forlorn looks at us. We avoid their eye contact.

A meat market in Chinatown, San Francisco. For some reason, this too reminded us of our dogs at home.

I was hoping we could leave by 4:45. But no, she hasn’t poured her coffee yet. Coffee. That poisonous impedimenta that slows us down like leg irons, everywhere we go.

Time to leave the motel? No, wait, not until she walks to the lobby, pours one last cup of joe, and admixes the precise blend of cream and sugar to make it just right. Time to leave the restaurant? Nope. Not until she gets a cup of coffee to go, again carefully mixing in the perfect blend of condiments. Time to get out of the car and walk to the tourist attraction? Uh-uh. Not until she grabs her styrofoam tumbler of java, locates the ice chest, and creates a cup of iced coffee.

Lombard Street, in San Francisco. This is putatively the crookedest street in the world. So I guess a lot of politicians live here.

Ice. Coffee. And tea, also. Banes of my existence. I don’t use ice in my drinks, and I don’t drink coffee or tea. But she does. And it throws quicksand in our path to vacationland.

The north fork of the American River, near Auburn, California. Gold was first discovered on the south fork, sparking the 49er gold rush. It would have been discovered on the north fork first, but the prospector there had to brew a cup of coffee, and missed his chance.

At 4:55 am we finally drive off, feeling electric with excitement. Her electricity supercharges her mouth, and she starts yacking and yacking and yacking, while my ears sink lower and lower and lower, until they drop off my skull. But that’s okay, after just 300 miles of this she finally tires and nods off.

We ventured over the Sierras between snowstorms, and caught this wintry view of Lake Tahoe.

We see many sights on this trip, some of which I’ll be blogging about. And we make just as many memories. We laugh, we grouse, and we’re awestruck by all the new, unique things we encounter.

Mono Lake, and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles has a 350 mile-long straw, which it uses to suck up the snowmelt that would normally flow into this lake. It’s caused ecological catastrophe, and has been a source of controversy since 1941.

Finally, after a long, circuitous route through northern and southern California, and a few bits and pieces of Nevada, we drive home. We’re looking forward to familiar territory, our cabin fever cured. The dogs yap at the door, and paw us with happy feet as we step over the threshold.

13,754 foot Mt. Morgan, in the Sierra Nevada, overlooking Bishop, California.

This was how my last vacation went, and basically how they all go. It isn’t easy traveling with someone whose habits are different from mine. But I adjust to her, and she adjusts to me. And this makes it a whole lot better than traveling alone.

Because it wouldn’t be a vacation without her.

We spiced things up a bit, by going from 40 degree temperatures one day, to the 80’s the next, with this side trip through Death Valley.

A Nice Place to Visit

I couldn’t blog last week. They don’t let you blog inside a correctional institution. And besides, you can’t get an internet connection in prison.

What prisoners saw, shortly before docking at their new home. The large building at dock level is the barracks that housed the guards. There was one guard for every three prisoners at this supermax facility. The cellhouse is at the top of the hill, with the warden’s house to the left, near the lighthouse.

My wife and I went to San Francisco, and toured the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. This prison was closed in 1963, by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. It was taken over by the National Park Service in 1972 and reopened, this time for tourism. Today, about 5,600 tourists visit Alcatraz Island every day, making it the most popular landmark in the United States, and the seventh-most popular landmark in the world. It just beats out the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

We inmates, er, tourists, stood out on the dock in a cold, San Francisco wind, to be briefed by the warden, er, park ranger, on how to conduct ourselves during our stay.

Alcatraz has a lot of history. It began as a military prison in the 1850’s, then was converted to civilian inmates in 1933. It has housed the baddest of the bad, including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, and Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood escaped from Alcatraz in 1962, which embarrassed the hell out of RFK, and so that’s why he shut it down. Or so I think I learned from a movie, way back when.

Here, we all had to strip down and take a shower, after receiving the one-fingered wave.

But in my view the most famous inmate was #1259. These days he’s referred to as William G. Baker, and he’s one of the only two former inmates of Alcatraz still alive. Baker wrote a fantastic book about his time there, as a guest of the federal government, which I recently had the pleasure to peruse. Maybe I’ll write a review, after I get caught up on all the crap I came home to after getting out of the hoosegow.

Typical 9’ X 5’ cells. Alcatraz inmates never had cellmates, so they got to enjoy their palatial 45 square feet all to themselves.

We opted for the Early Bird Special tour, through Alcatraz Cruises, which is the only tour company that takes tourists to the island. The cost was a little less than $50 each for my wife and me. The Early Bird Special has the first tour boat of the day to reach the island, and it departs at 8:45 am.

The idea behind leaving this early was to beat all the crowds. Well, the boat was jam-packed with sardines, er, inmates, er, tourists, who debouched and populated the island in such massive, invasive numbers that the idea of “beating the crowd” was laughable. We should have known, though. I mean, there have been many campaigns that have addressed this issue, but so far no one has been able to solve the problem of prison overcrowding.

The upper two tiers of several cell blocks.

A long, sloped, switchback walkway takes you from the dock, up 13 stories, to the cellhouse on the hill. My wife couldn’t handle such an incline, due to her arthritis acting up in the cold, damp, San Francisco weather, so we rode a free tram that’s provided for weaklings such as us.

The prison yard. Prisoners were allowed outside to use this yard on weekends and holidays only. Unless it rained, which occurs fairly often in San Francisco.

The tour is an audio tour. Intake occurs at the cellhouse, where each new inmate, er, tourist, is processed. You are fitted with a control box on a loop that they hang around your neck. Until dead. But if you survive this, you put on headphones that are attached to the control box. Then you hit the play button on the box and hear the voice of someone who I guess is the warden. He orders you about, telling you where to walk, where to stop and stand, what to look at, and all the while filling you in on the history of this joint.

My wife and I failed to hit our play buttons simultaneously. So she and I were out of sync for awhile, she going in one direction, and me going in another, while occasionally bumping into each other. Fortunately there’s a pause button, where you can shut the warden up for a little bit. And this enabled us to synchronize.

The Golden Gate Bridge, through barbed wire leading to the prison yard. The top rows of bleachers in the prison yard allowed inmates to view the Golden Gate and the San Francisco skyline. It was a popular spot for artistic inmates, who painted “freedom”, as William Baker noted in his book.

Now and then my wife would nudge me and say, “Ooh, take a picture of this.” Whereupon I would have to disentangle my camera, which was hanging from my neck, from my camera bag, which was also hanging from my neck, and from the control box and headphones, which, too, were hanging from my neck. I was like a leashed dog that gets wrapped tighter and tighter around a pole.

Finally I dropped a few F-bombs, to the astonishment of some fellow inmates, er, tourists, nearby. I smacked the warden in the pause button, and got out of sync with my better half. Then I methodically removed all the impedimenta from my neck, untangled the cords and straps, then returned them in an orderly fashion.

The warden’s house, now in ruins. Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native Americans from 1969 to 1971, who were protesting federal policies toward American Indians. During the occupation several structures were destroyed by fire, although nobody admitted who, exactly, set those fires.

But the tour was very informative and fun, in spite of all the formidable logistics with cords and cameras and pause and play buttons. We learned about famous Alcatraz prisoners, such as The Birdman, George “Machine Gun Kelly”, and Clint Eastwood. We learned about the Battle of Alcatraz, which was a blaze of glory escape attempt in 1946, that cost the lives of three prisoners and two guards. And we saw the very cells, with the selfsame holes, dug by Clint Eastwood and his gang, when they escaped from Alcatraz in 1962.

Clint Eastwood played Frank Morris, in the 1979 thriller, Escape From Alcatraz. Morris, and brothers Clarence Anglin and John Anglin, fashioned lifelike images of their heads, which fooled the guards and gave them time to escape. They passed through vent holes they had widened, climbed up pipes to the roof, made it to shore, then floated away to who-knows-where, in a makeshift raft. Several military prisoners had successfully escaped this prison, but this is the only known possibly successful escape by civilians.

Imagine if Clint had been unsuccessful. We’d still have old Rawhide reruns, but we wouldn’t have such great flicks as, Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, and yes, Escape From Alcatraz.

Boats depart the island about every half hour. You can stay in prison all day, if you want, and catch the evening transit back to the mainland. But my wife and I got stir crazy. Immediately after the tour, we applied for parole. We rode the tram back down to the dock and grabbed the first departing vessel.

Alcatraz is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

The Alcatraz water tower, with a welcoming message left over from the Native American occupation.

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