China Diary

Day 36: Back in the Beersville


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The bullet train slid to halt on Qingdao station. The doors hissed open, ever so lightly, and we found ourselves back in the Beer Capital of China. We had five days of scouting ahead of us, but not today. Today, we were promised a Qingdao welcome – which means beer, white wine and seafood.

Qingdao is a weird mix between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a city for hedonists. Everything happens here half the speed of Beijing, and the distances are huge, so much of the time goes sitting in cars while going from one location to another. Another interesting thing I’ve found out about China is that there is basically no kind of bar culture. People drink what they drink over dinner, but afterwards, there’s not the “let’s go have a drink at a bar” -phase anymore. Basically, everyone goes to bed and is awake at the next day, bright and early.

IMG_9655Our Qingdao welcome was again in this rather seedy little restaurant. Waiting for us were three huge kegs full of Qingdao beer and a round table to be filled with seafood of all imaginable sorts: shellfish, crabs, shells… you name it. Arranged by mr. Zhu, the production manager, a man who loves to eat and have a drink, we were treated royally. As the evening progressed, me and Mika downed endless glasses for each crewmember’s honor, and continued to the adjacent room where the rest of the crew was dining. We got to know the Mongolian propmaster, a man of formidable stature and drinking habits; we got to talk more with our production designer – both of them, Gordon the actual production designer and mr. Wang, the art director, both of whom are great people, just as long as we forget the fact that we don’t really share a common language.

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Qingdao welcome

After the dinner we were driven to the hotel. This time, the production has treated us with rooms at this massive resort just by the sea. It took me forever to find my room from the 22nd floor, and as I entered, the room blew me away. A massive suite with a balcony overlooking directly at the sea. Having said that, the immense size of the establishment is just mindblowing. Whoever built this, wanted to create this area into a weirdly European-style resort. In front of the place, there’s a huge, interestingly designed “church” – or a wedding place, since although it resembles a church, it definitely isn’t one (this is, remember, not a Christian country). Right behind the church is a huge German-style square, surrounded by European buildings, cafes and that sort of stuff, but it all looks more like a film set than a real square, since there’s hardly any businesses, everything is in prim shape and there’s no grime anywhere.

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The weird church and the square.

Coming back home, I listened to some Riki Sorsa (my new favorite, don’t ask me why, must be the longing for home) and tried to talk with Annika, but she was having a night out with her friend so instead I headed to bed, falling asleep listening to the waves crashing to the shore twenty-two floors below me.

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This was all I got out of her last night, so… 🙂
China Diary

Day 35: …some questions.


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I had a lousy night of sleep last night, waking up after only four hours of tossing around. It took me a long time to get out of the bed, and finally when I did, I crashed instantly back in and decided to play a bit of Skyrim first before actually facing the day and going out to the office.

I was grumpy for most of the morning, bracing for the afternoon of meeting with an actor who had “few questions” about the script. It’s never a good sign, but knowing this actor, I was also half expecting for some really awesome conversations. And boy, did I get some. We started at 2:30, and finished at 6:30 for one hour of dinner, followed by another two hours of dialogue. Although it was hard and unforgiving, this gentleman’s approach is commendable: he wants to understand in depth the role, the world he is in, the characters, each of their motivations and the backstory, and he’s willing to drag into the light questions and issues that we hadn’t even thought. In short, after today’s meeting, we will go back and work a bit on some scenes of the film to make the script’s inner logic stronger. It’s good to do it now, because once you’re on the edit, it’s too late.

After the dinner, I felt my strength waning. Much of the discussion was in Chinese, so following that through Lei’s translation can become very daunting, and given last night’s lack of sleep, I found myself mostly shutting up for the last two hours. We decided to call it a day and continue later, and I skated back home.

Of course, at home I had another meeting waiting for me – this time, a Pixomondo meeting regarding Iron Sky The Coming Race post production. Budgets, excels, three-letter shot abbreviations and crappy Skype connection really blew the wind out of me.

China Diary

Day 34: Caribbean thoughts


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Thanks to the Chinese white wine, the red wine and the beers from last night’s amazing Mongolian dinner, I was feeling a bit under the weather the morning. By “a bit” I mean I couldn’t get out of the bed until 1pm, and by “under the weather” I mean I felt nauseous, my head was hurting like hell and something had crawled into my mouth overnight and died.

Of course, today we were to meet one of the key actors for the movie, but luckily as I arrived to Max’s office, I wasn’t the only one. He was also feeling rotten from last night’s dinner and singing, so we were equally hangoverish as we spoke with this intense, handsome young man who spoke perfect English and Chinese, and whom we really want to hire to play one of the key roles for the film.

The meeting went well, despite our compromised vitality, and afterwards I went back to my office and tried the Internet, but with no luck. I decided to retreat back to my hotel room where at least the net works a bit, and spent the whole evening in my room, rattling away emails and doing skype calls – both business and family – and watched a movie (4 Little Girls – a documentary on a bombing of an African-American church in the 60’s, by Spike Lee. Very good, very strong) and with Annika both were finding out shocked that hurricane Irma is doing bad damage in St. Martin, the place where we went few years back to our honeymoon. All the locations we had visited were destroyed, since the storm destroyed 90% of the buildings on the island! It’s incredible!

So if you are planning a trip, go to the Caribbean – they need your tourism dollars to repair the damages of Irma, badly. Here’s a picture of us in St. Martin, safley outside the hurricane season in 2016. Stay strong, my Caribbean brothers and sisters!

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China Diary

Day 33: Mongolian dinner


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Last night, we had the craziest dinner experience I’ve ever been to. Producer Max Wang is originally half-Mongolian, so he took us and some of his friends to a dinner at a place I want to call Little Mongolia, in Beijing.

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Max, Mongolian beauties, yours truly, and Mika!

The area consists of bunch of jurtas set up to serve as dining rooms, a huge lamb grilling station and a small pen for three camels. We were seated in one of the jurtas around a huge round table where the food was served. First, they brought in Mongolian tea – a big pot of boiling hot cow milk, which was then portioned into small wooden cups – not unlike Finnish kuksa of the indigenous Saami people.

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Max doing seating arrangements.

For drinks, they served beers, terrific red wine and – of course – the damn Chinese white wine. I mean, I love it, but it’s really heavy stuff, as I’ve told before… Anyway, we drank and enjoyed the Mongolian tea, and then the main guest was brought in: a full lamb that had been picked up to fry already one day before, and was now served to us on a huge platter. The lamb itself was sprayed on another table, it even had a pretty red ribbon on top of its’ head.

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Baaaaa!

Then, the dancers and the musicians swarmed in. At least 20 people, all dressed in traditional Mongolian dresses came in. We were given ceremonial golden vests, and me, Mika and Max were asked to the front to cut the lamb with a ceremonial knife. Afterwards, they started singing and dancing. There were beautiful ladies dancing, the guys were banging drums and we were whisked away on a trip through the Mongolian grasslands with throat singing and strange melodies.

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After some twenty-thirty minutes of performance, they left and we started eating. The lamb was just delicious, perfectly prepared and seasoned, added with the red wine and some sauces, I was in seventh heaven!

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As we had few more drinks, Max started to feel like singing, and later on, everyone was singing songs from their own culture – even I was forced to sing, and I chose “Pyydä mahdotonta” by CMX. I don’t know why. It was the only thing I could think of at that time. I did receive nice applauds for it, though, but really hearing Max sing (and he can sing!) and this Mongolian actress who was there singing, was really special. We do too little of that in Finnish culture – of course, there’s karaoke, but these guys were great without anything.

It was a terrific evening with great food, music and an experience I’ve never had! I only wish I had my lovely, dear wife Annika there with me to share it.

China Diary

Day 32: Noodles and Twin Peaks


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Mika is back in town, which means we organized the first big schedule meeting with every department, going through in detail what, how and where are we going to shoot and on which day. Lei had done fantastic work with the schedule – already on the first draft everything seemed to work very well; only some actor scheduling means a bit more hassle with the sound stages, but nothing we can’t solve. Mainly, we decided to cut one big set into two smaller studios where we have the access earlier to, so the building can start quite soon. Also, spacesuits pose a slight problem since their manufacturing time takes way too long for some scenes, so we have to find a way to go around this problem. But all in all, everything seems pretty good.

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\m/ Production designer Gordon Lee giving the horns \m/

I also got to meet the coolest actor I’ve met for the project so far. This girl, who works at the company, will play a small role of a street smart kid, and it turns out she has the exact background the character should have. Knowing all the secret underground clubs, rap acts, illegal super car races and whatnot, she told us all about the dark side of Beijing, and it was fascinating! For example, there are these big secret underground car racing parties, just like in Tokyo Drift, with rich kids with their super-expensive cars their parents have bought them. And that there used to be bike races across Beijing, but police started to hunt down the racers and set up nets across the streets to stop them. It was effective, and motorcycle street racing is no more such a big thing. In addition to casting her, I also asked her to consult on several scenes and some wardrobe decisions.

After a hefty set of noodles I settled in my room and finished off Twin Peaks: The Return. The final episode was – as a standalone – a David Lynch masterpiece, and the ending scene climbs right up there next to the level of the ending for Sopranos. What a great show, most important thing that happened to TV since Sopranos and before that, Twin Peaks’ first season.

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Just a pic of me watching Twin Peaks: The Return finale in my hotel room…

 

China Diary

Day 31: Keep your damn jack…


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Having to deal over the Internet with a VPN is driving me mad. We all know China has blocked its’ country from normal Internet, which is fine and it funnily doesn’t seem to matter almost at all to the locals, but for us, who are used to using Spotify, Netflix, Dropbox, WeTransfer, Skype, Whatsapp, Gmail, Google Calendar and Google, we’re pretty much screwed over here. So the only solution is to purchase a 100€/year VPN account. The problem is, whenever VPN is on (I’m using ExpressVPN, which is probably the best here in China), the data transfer is slow. And by slow I mean it doesn’t happen.

But it seems to have its’ bad days and its’ good days. Yesterday, I was able to watch a film on HBO Nordic via Finland VPN connection quite well. Every 20 minutes it stopped for some buffering, but it’s bearable. Today, same connection, same site – I was able to watch maximum 30 seconds of Twin Peaks at a time, with 5 minutes buffering time for every new 30 seconds. Needless to say, I decided to give it a rest for the night. Keep your damn jack…

We had a lengthy script meeting today with Max.

The meeting started off grimly, but ended on a high note, and I’m quite keen to read the changes. Meanwhile, the production train is moving forward, so I of course hope nothing too dramatic will change set-and-scene-wise, but we both understand that.

I’m also happy to say we have found pretty good solutions on the costume design and the production design front. I’ve struggled to find the right look for our male lead, but finally, after a lot of googling, references and tons of discussions I’m happy with what the costume designer has provided me. It’s simple, it’s very “regular” but it works well with the character.

We also had a huge problem finding the right look for the Moon Base in the film – I mean, it’s an Iron Sky, so the Moon set is the one people come to see in these films, right? I had tossed tons of different ideas to the trashbin, until today I wandered off just almost by accident to the production design department, and saw one of the guys working on something interesting on his screen. It turned out to be a new, unfinished sketch of the Moon Base, and it was spot on! I was very excited to see it, and told right away to mr. Wang the whole thing was beautiful. He was happy to hear it, and I could hear the unified vision clockwork slowly starting to rattle on, like Götterdämmerung’s engine on the first Iron Sky!

Since Tuomas is still in town, we went out for a hummus and guy talk (we have it too, ladies – it’s not as sophisticated as yours but we do share our heart with our friends every now and then!). Then, I came back home and tried watching Twin Peaks, failed at that, spoke with wife an hour or so and well, now I’m watching through the window as the steady flow of car headlights flicker on the street fourteen floors below and chewing the life’s gristle.

Always look on the bright side of life, as Eric Idle reminds us to do. I will! I just want that damn VPN to start working…

China Diary

Day 30: Planning Ahead


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Sunday’s my day off, and I decided to spend it the best way I know: by not getting out of bed at all. I placed the “bugger off I’m sleeping” -sign on my door and stayed in my bed the whole day. I played some Playstation (yeah, I lug that thing with me whenever I go away for a longer stay), watched a movie (3:10 to Yuma, the 2010 version with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale – really good!), ordered a room service hamburger and that was that.

Next week seems busy. I have two important cast meetings ahead of me, to begin with. First, there’s this big Chinese star whom we want to join the production, but he has some questions. So I’m expecting we’re having a nice talk over the script. And then there’s this American-Asian star whom we also hope to join the production, and I’ll meet with him, too. Much of the cast is coming together pretty nicely, but there’s still few holes on the list. Our plan is to nail the cast by the end of September, preferably slightly earlier, but before that, everything is still just talk, speculation, drafting the agreements and so forth.

Later in the week, we’ll be relocating back to Qingdao for the second recce. Mika is coming on Tuesday and we’ll be going through the locations we’re going to shoot the film in on. This visit also includes, of course, the visit to our sound stages. We’ve booked now two stages – one smaller, one humongous, to where we will build everything that needs to be built.

Oh, and last episode of Twin Peaks is coming tomorrow! A double-episode, which I suspect will be quite glorious. Unlike Game of Thrones, which has really gone down after George R. R. Martin left the show (well, he didn’t leave but it’s not based on his books anymore), Twin Peaks has been a huge success story in terms of artistic creation like you’ve never seen before. For sure, the show doesn’t gather enough eyeballs so it’s definitely not going to go on the fourth season, but that’s just fine. It shouldn’t. They found a perfect concept, wrote and executed a perfect last season and gave the big finger to every other show out there by telling them: “yeah, we created you – now watch what you’ll be trying to do for the next 25 years”.

 

China Diary

Day 29: The First Contact


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Saturday was a light day at work for me – a quick tour through the departments, few words with Max and then my Internet died and I faded out of the office. But for once, I had some plans for the evening: Tuomas Kantelinen, the composer from Finland was visiting in Beijing for the project he’s composing music for – Renny Harlin’s next Chinese film – and we decided to go out for a pizza.

IMG_9521…and that’s where I found all the westerners who had fled the Chinese cuisine for a day, happily munching away an Italian pizza, drinking Australian red wine and enjoying American bourbons. I had had a craving for a proper pizza for weeks, and now, finally, there it was. And I wasn’t disappointed.

After the dinner, I had another date set up, with another Finn who happened to be in town. Peter Vesterbacka, of Rovio and so much more fame was having a presentation at Chicago University in Beijing (yeah, funnily that makes sense), and we met with him and one of his friend from France at a lavish hotel bar. We spoke about movies and TV-series and had good ol’ time, a much-needed chat with new faces who are not in the industry and whom I’m able to communicate with. Slowly, I felt my soul regaining its’ strength.

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Beijing By Night

Afterwards, I thought about getting a taxi back home, but realized I was only under two kilometers away, so it was easy walk for me through sleepy business district of Beijing, all the way to Maggie’s, where I sat down for a nightcap.

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Wifey 🙂

The same waiter from the day before was there, and we started talking. His English is not perfect, but understandable. It was a slow night, so few other bar people came over the admire my tattoos, touching my hands like I was some kind of a freakshow, giggling and one of the girls even told me she wanted to marry me. Well, I’m not up for that, missus, my lilac-haired lady is waiting at home thank you very much.

There was a band playing. Apparently, a band that plays every night except on Sundays. No other band ever plays there, it’s just the house band and they probably play the same tunes every night. Chinese band doing American rap and rock, but surprisingly well. At least well enough for the ex-pats going crazy when tunes like Sex Is On Fire were on.

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Maggie’s Bar

I spoke with the bar staff for about an hour, probably misunderstanding most of what was said, and did some people-watching on the side. On the far end of the bar was a dirty old guy with way too young prostitute who was looking mildly nauseous as the guy made his advances. On the other side, a bunch of embassy workers from one embassy or another were on a night out, loud and behaving like they own the world. Of course, there’s the guy who gets the band perfectly, dancing (or swaying) through every tune and demanding at least ten handshakes from the band leader while. So, nothing new under the sun.

One interesting discussion I had with the bartender was concerning North Korea. The guy is from a town that’s just at the border of North Korea, but on China side. He told me how absurd it was when every night when the sun goes down the tall buildings on China side are brightly lit, but North Korea side is all pitch black. They have nothing, he told me. They fish in the river and come to China to exchange the fish to some daily necessities, but they are so poor it’s impossible to understand. Coming from someone who comes from rural China, not exactly the economic heaven either, it must be serious.

Little did I know, Kim the tubby leader of North Korea was at it again, this time blowing even a bigger a-bomb somewhere relatively near to China border. Today, the newspapers are all going crazy about his nuclear armament progress, and the North Korean media is spreading the images of the Korean version of Eric Cartman touring at the nuclear facilities, with his thin, skeleton-like army of advisors and aides at his wake, noting everything he says (and he appears to be quite a humorous fellow as well) in the tiny notebooks with extreme care.

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I’m sure whatever it is he’s instructing the highly trained staff of this nuclear weapon assembly plant about is instrumental to the success of the weapons experiment. Photo: KCNA, slightly cropped from the top.

The good thing is that when we move to Qingdao for shooting the film, we’re at the prime seats if things go haywire in the Korean peninsula. We should be able to see the fireworks from our hotel window if we’re lucky. To be honest I don’t think it’ll come down to that. North Korea already won the armament race and is holding Seoul as a hostage so there’s nothing anyone can do at this point anymore, other than not provoke them as they run out of money, and wait for the revolution if there’s one to come. Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 21.05.05

I came home around 1pm, and hooked up online with Annika. We spoke three hours straight on Skype, that’s a new high score, until I finally went to bed when the day was already dawning. Luckily, on Sunday I had nothing planned, so I was able to sleep in as late as I wanted.

China Diary

Day 28: Shopping Failures


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Today, I changed from my dark but spacey apartment to a small but comfortable hotel room. Instead of a nice, two-bedroom place with two big TVs, two bathrooms, two toilets and a kitchen, I now have… Well. A bed.

Located on 14th floor, I have a beautiful view over Beijing CBD district. Below me runs the always-busy main street, leading all the way to Tiananmen Square and beyond. Around, the tall rooftops are hidden in the smoggy autumn weather. The street noise is constant, yet distant, almost soothing. Like listening to waves crashing on the beach in Caribbean… Or, actually, nothing like that.

I also failed quite dramatically with shopping. I thought I have a small fridge in my room, which is kinda true, but it’s meant to keep few drinks cool, and not meant to be loaded full of cheese, cakes, ham, beer and fruits, like I did. So basically, I have to throw away all that I bought – over 50€ worth of great stuff – because it will rot overnight.

I visited the office for few hours but got fed up by the absolutely dead Internet connection there, and went back to my room. I had big plans about the evening, maybe trying my luck once more at the Maggie’s, or finding a decent place for a dinner, but none of it came to be, because I fell weirdly ill for few hours. I didn’t get properly sick, just got these chills and felt weak for a moment, but I blame the weather outside.

Unlike in Finland, where you just watch if it’s going to rain and how cold it’s going to be, here you also have to observe the air quality. And today, it was a disaster. You can’t barely see across the street, let alone the horizon! The smog has descended on the city so thick it’s hard to think sun would ever shine here. And smog, it’s weird stuff. It’s kinda like fog, but it’s more … violent. More engulfing, in a way that hurts your eyes and lungs, and really puts a concrete proof on the fact that we’re really doing our best to kill the nature around us. No matter what we do in Finland, when Beijing turns on their coal-powered heaters as the winter comes, it’s another huge hole poked in the atmosphere, and there’s not much of it left anyway…

So, all I really ended up doing was playing some Skyrim, few rounds of Hearthstone with Julius and watched a movie (12th and Delaware, a documentary on an American abortion clinic and the protesters around it, pretty good, available on HBO, check it out). Oh, and just to clarify, watching a movie here means watching ten minutes of a movies, then waiting ten minutes for VPN to recover, then another ten minutes… Thus, the term “kokoillan elokuva” – “full length feature film” comes into effect around here in ways I could never have dreamt of.

 

China Diary

Day 27: Four Stages Of Isolation


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After last night’s failure with trying to reach out for fellow humans, I woke up feeling cranky and melancholic. I love my job, I really do, but this is quite a sacrifice, not being able to go back home, not being able to have wife come over, not being able to see my kid or my parents. Or friends. Or anyone. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it again: I’ll never do a film this way again. Next time, at least in the agreement there needs to be a clause which determines frequent family travels and stuff. I mean, even prisoners get to meet their families, right?

Off to a bad start, that is. I went to the office and we had agreed a haircut at a nearby salon. My assistant Crystal said to take me there, but she was completely lost trying to find the place. The sun was scorching and I got crankier and crankier. While Crystal was searching for the barbershop, I decided I wanted a coffee.

I found a nice-enough looking cafĂ© and asked for an ice coffee. What they did was they poured a glass full of tap water and splashed some espersso in it. Feeling wretched, I snapped totally. I grabbed my skateboard, cursed on the way out and left the coffee there on the counter. They tried to reach after me but I was already half a mile away. What really got me was the fact that even locals don’t drink the tap water here, because it’s basically poisonous shit – it contains sediments, rusts, bacteria, virus, chlorines, and some other heavy metals. Now, I love me some heavy metal, but preferably externally, enjoyed on a stage somewhere at German countryside with 80000 other metalheads – but not in my coffee, unboiled.

All this led me to remember that I’ve read somewhere that there are four stages of culture shock, and apparently I’m going through them, one by one.

First, is the Honeymoon stage. During the honeymoon, everything is awesome. When I first came to Beijing, I thought it’s absolutely amazing in all aspects: a city that feels like it belongs to the Beijingers, the vastness, the beauty, the history… During the Honeymoon stage, the culture shows only its’ positive side and if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of there before stage 2 sets in. That’s called the Frustration stage. That’s when things begin to irk you. Well, that’s basically what my whole blog has been about for the last few weeks. The homesickness sets in alongside the longing for the comforts of home.

What I’m waiting for is the third stage, the Adjustment stage. That’s when things start to settle, you start finding friends, understanding the culture more deeply and possibly even getting a hang of the language a bit. Well, no fear for the latter one in China, that I can say, but the rest, I believe will happen. Unfortunately, I’ll be out of of here before I get the chance to go through the fourth, and the last stage – the Acceptance. It’s pretty self-explanatory – you accept you are now among this culture, learn to live with it and life goes on as it always has, only some of your preferences have changed to fit the new culture better.

There’s a pretty good article for those wanting to read more here.

So, dear reader – and dear me, reading this years from now, take my complaining in the right context: I’m going through stage 2 and it’s shit, but it will pass. Then, I’ll probably never stop yapping how awesome China and Beijing is, so that’s another one you’ll have to bear from me in the future.

In the evening, I went to my local joint and had a delicious dinner, alone, again. I’m probably the only white guy who ever entered the establishment, and there’s always the same family there serving, but every time I walk in there – and I’ve been there at least ten times in the last month – they act like they’ve never met me before. I wonder what’s that about… But the food, the food is good. And decent priced.