Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Long Post, I'm afraid....

I'll be signing books in Beijing at the Book Festival at 9:30 am this Friday, the 31st. It's at the China International Exhibition Centre. No details yet on the Bookworm event.


So the conference was terrific. 5000 Chinese SF fans, a host of Chinese authors, a Russian Cosmonaut, several Japanese writers and a clutch of Western authors – one English author (me) and Canadian author Rob Sawyer (who is probably the most famous and beloved foreign SF author in China), Nancy Kress and Michael Swanwick, not to mention David Brin for the first few days with his family en route to WorldCon in Japan, along with author David Hill and about a half dozen North American and Australian or New Zealand SF fans, academics, and people who thought it would be fun to go to Chengdu, and two Americans who already lived there.

And it was. Lots of fun, that is.

You can read about it here...

And the food...

The trouble with the food is that I really like it. Not just sort of like it, but really like it. After a couple of occasions when I stopped enjoying something after finding out what it was, I decided not to worry about what things were, or at least, not to ask. Mostly I'd just eat it and enjoy.

I remember in Singapore feeling like I was being fattened for the slaughter. In retrospect my time in Singapore was like a slimming week at a health farm. In Chengdu our Chinese hosts wanted to make sure that we were being fed and were happy, so every meal was, literally, a banquet. I can probably manage about one banquet a week in real life. One a day if I have to. Here I'd eat a large breakfast (because I do when I travel, because you're never sure when you'll eat next. Probably a big mistake in retrospect. But I loved the Chinese breakfasty things...) and then once the conference was over we'd find ourselves having a banquet for lunch. Followed, just at the point where I was beginning to feel no longer uncomfortably full, by a banquet for dinner.

Chengdu is in Sichuan province, where the Szechuan cuisine comes from. The food is great. I mean, I liked pretty much everything I put in my mouth. But it's now lunchtime on the following day and I am still feeling full from yesterday.

I'd met Rob Sawyer
before at the Hugo awards in Toronto, but we didn't know each other, met Nancy Kress with her late husband Charles Sheffield at ICFA in Florida, but didn't really know either of them, so enjoyed getting to know them (and Rob's wife Carolyn). I knew Michael Swanwick a little better because we share some enthusiasms -- James Branch Cabell and R.A. Lafferty and Hope Mirrlees for three -- and it was marvellous talking with Michael, who knows an awful lot about everything.

My view of the conference is sort of fragmented -- I signed a great many things for an awful lot of people. I talked and was translated as I talked. (I think my interpreter Heather was pretty good, because when she translated my jokes, people laughed.) There was an international forum on the future of SF or something like that.

The conference was about Science Fiction and about fantasy and about the future. My favourite bit of the conference was probably outside the conference – after it was over, a meeting in a teahouse between some of the Chinese authors and some of the foreign authors, just comparing notes and finding stuff out.

Let's see. Pandas. I knew about the Chengdu Panda reserve because I had a friend who worked there for a summer. Really, it was all I knew about Chengdu. It's lovely. And it's a wonderful thing being an honoured foreign guest somewhere like that -- you get shown all the cool stuff, get to see Pandas, red ones and giant ones, and then find yourself put in a blue disposable smock and gloves (to protect the pandas from you, asnd not the other way around) and you get a year-old Panda placed on your lap. Utter, utter happiness. Better than any number of awards. Makes being a writer completely worthwhile. I suspect that world peace and harmony would come about in weeks if people just got to put pandas on their laps every few months. Honest.

Then it rained. Real, monsoony rain. Nancy Kress told me that she couldn't get any wetter and I assured her she could, and it kept raining and she did. Lunch at the Panda refuge restaurant was a banquet, where the food just kept coming. (It would be easier if you knew how many dishes would arrive. But you never do. And when you think, Ah, that was all the food, you are surprised by the arrival of another five bowls.)

From the Pandas we went to a museum to learn about the Jinsha people and culture in that part of the world in what, in England, would be considered prehistoric times, only it wasn't prehistoric for them. The museum was fascinating. Unfortunately we weren't quite sure where we were or what we were seeing, and the Museum Guide wasn't up to giving us the five minutes of background that we needed to figure it all out, so we had to work it all out as we went along -- we were initially shown bones and excavations and had no idea who left the bones or even that there was a thriving city of 10,000 people there back in the dawn of time, and we only put it together on about the third or fourth museum room. Amazing stuff, though -- jade and gold workers from before what I would have thought of as history.

From the museum we travelled to another part of Chengdu, and dinner in a courtyard. Which, apart from it being the second banquet of the day, was amazing, lots of tiny courses, each brought over, and mostly I just ate and sometimes asked what I'd just eaten ("That sweet course? the red things in the white stuff?" "Those are wolfberries in cloud-fungus." "Gosh.") A full moon.

Michael Swanwick and I looked at a pavement, where a pile of garbage, an old cassette tape, and what looked like an old videophone were to be found, and we said, at the same time, “It's a Bill Gibson moment,” because it was, so I took a picture.

And back to the hotel. Where I fell asleep sitting up in a chair trying to do email. Which was why I only posted a picture of me and my panda as a blog entry that night.

Yesterday we got into a bus which took us to the Leisure conference. Outside, Michael Swanwick sat on a dragon head and achieved enlightenment.

Truthfully, I'm not quite sure why we were there or what it was for, but it was enormously enjoyable: a presentation on Chengdu and the Sichuan area as a holiday destination, I guess, and the future of leisure in Chengdu. Whatever it was, we had a wonderful time: we watched twin girls demonstrating a tea ceremony, three girls playing amazing things on ancient native instruments,

songs were sung, talks were given, speeches were made, and at one somewhat surreal point the North American contingent were chivvied up on the stage to massacre “Oh Susanna”. I videoed the event, and have made it very clear to all involved that for a significant amount of money I will refrain from putting it up on YouTube.

The Russian cosmonaut, on the other hand, could sing.

My own share of surreality had occurred a few minutes earlier when a chef had expertly demonstrated a dessert called, I think, Three Cannon Shots, in which rice is balled and bounced off a drum-top into a container of powdered sugar and cinnamon (I think), and then I was called up to demonstrate the technique as performed by an amateur. I managed to get all the balls into the right place on the third attempt.

Some of the statistics were astonishing. You could eat in a different restaurant in Chengdu every day, and not repeat a restaurant in 80 years....

Then lunch. David Hill, author and former chef, had made a Jambalaya using local ingredients, which was the strangest fusion cuisine I think I've ever eaten.
It was great, unique, filling... and was thus immediately followed by a hotpot banquet.

On the bus and to a local high school, where we were presented with flowers and saluted, introduced and led out again, leaving only the Cosmonaut and David Hill to talk to the kids.

Then a short shopping trip – I bought Maddy's birthday present and some books of postcards.

From there we headed out of the town for the Grape Festival. I think I'd sort of imagined the Grape Festival as something that probably went back thousands of years to Jinsha times, and I kept on thinking that until I saw people selling grapes beside the road, beneath huge red umbrellas.

The grapes were huge mauve California-style grapes, at which point it occurred to me to ask. “How long have grapes been grown here?” Turned out that they were a very recent crop, that the festival was four years old, and the grape vines were indeed originally from California. The people used to sell watermelons beneath the red umbrellas.

From there to a banquet.

And the food just kept on coming...

I skipped breakfast this morning. Just packed, and flew to Beijing, and I wrote most of this on the plane.


Random observations: Chinese planes are, on the basis of the two I've taken so far, nicer than US planes. Better service, cleaner, more comfortable. They remind me of being on planes in America twenty years ago, when it was less unpleasant.

Random observation two: Chinese driving and road-crossing techniques seem to exist in a cheerful anarchy that would get you killed in most, perhaps all, other countries. I have watched five cars drive abreast on a three lane highway. I've not yet seen anyone using a seatbelt. Haven't yet seen any accidents, which is very odd.

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