Monday, July 25, 2011

Hong Kong July 24-25

I'm sitting in a Chinese government guest house in Shenzhen eating french fries and drinking watermelon juice -- an appropriately weird end to this very long and sort of weird trip.

We arrived in HK late last night, which was a shame because that meant I missed a Sichuan restaurant that David and Rachel Schlesinger had booked. They sent me pictures of the food, which struck me as a little cruel under the circumstances. But I'm sure I'll have another chance at some point.

Not much to see of HK at night. We stayed at the Shangri-La, which I'd never be able to afford on my own. But the time was so short there was no time to enjoy it: just arrive, fall into bed, get up, repack, and leave. Good breakfast tho...

Clinton gave a speech this morning to the American Chamber of Commerce. The idea was to drive U.S. "economic diplomacy" and assure Asia that we are in the game for the long haul. Unfortunately the message was completely overshadowed by the budget/debt limit crisis and it hard to see how her audience would believe her when the news out of Washington is so dismal. Default? Seems incredible.

After the speech we got in the motorcade and drove to Shenzhen. I've never done that before, and it certainly takes one through some pretty impressive territory. Row after row of cargo loading cranes, all working feverishly. Long bright tunnels through mountains. An immense bridge, part of it suspension, crossing a river that was dotted with little rafts that we figured must have something to do with fish (or shrimp) farming.

We were alone on the road the whole way -- the benefits of an authoritarian gov't. And even Shenzhen felt like a ghost town. Not many people on the streets, no traffic, just cops keeping the motorcade moving. We ended up at this gov't guest house which looks and feels a lot like Diaoyutai in Beijing. We were expecting a cool (or at least ambivalent) reception but the Chinese have put us into a nice ballroom with tables and a sort of odd East/West minibuffet including french fries, melon balls, spring rolls...

She's here for a couple of hours and then the motorcade heads back to HK directly to the airport. Then -- the plane, for about 17 hours. I'm not looking forward to that but I am looking forward to getting home. This has been a really good trip: so many interesting places, a fair amount of news, and only one overnight (tonight, unfortunately) on the plane. It could be easy to get used to traveling like this, but I'm sure the next trip will revert to type and be a huge rush...

UPDATE: well a little bit of last minute excitement. As we were leaving the gov't guesthouse compound, the press van stalled out -- dead. Clinton's motorcade swept out of the gates and we were left stranded. Luckily there was one embassy car behind us, and one of the embassy guys jumped out and got us all to pile in. We then took off again, but as soon as we left the compound we realized that the motorcade traffic controls were off and the streets were FULL of traffic..bumper to bumper with buses, cars, people. It seemed hopeless. The embassy guy was really pretty heroic -- at every intersection he jumped out and negotiated with the Chinese police (using sign language..he didn't speak Chinese) to try to get us waved thru. He pressed the driver to speed up, and we were swerving hercky jercky through the traffic trying to catch the motorcade before the border. I'm not sure what would have happened if we didnt make it -- none of us had our passports on us -- but as it turned out the motorcade realized we had dropped off and was waiting for us at the border crossing. Phew.

As a reward (?) we were treated to the following for dinner -- behold: "Peking Chicken", as envisioned by the U.S. Airforce

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bali, July 21-24

Words to the wise, in any situation.

The Grand Hyatt sure beats the Heat Dome. We are here in Bali, just about 100 yards from the beach, while DC and the rest of the East Coast swelters in a huge heat wave. Its about 80 degrees here, there's a breeze off the sea, and the Grand Hyatt is set up to please. It doesn't feel the slightest bit like "Bali", except through the most jaded of marketers' eyes. But it feels lovely nonetheless.

We arrived on Thursday evening from Chennai, and went straight to the hotel. Clinton's visit here is centered on the ASEAN Regional Forum ("ARF" for those in the know), but also deals with North Korea and other issues.

We headed over to the Bali International Conference Center on Friday and pretty quickly got down to business -- Clinton had a relatively strong statement on Burma, which she said threatened the future cohesion of ASEAN, as well as some stuff about North Korea. That story quickly emerged as the main trunk of the day -- the North and South Korean nuclear negotiators for the first time in two years, and everybody is making positive but guarded noises about whether or not the "Six Party Talks" on the North's nuclear program can resume.

We spent a bit of the day at the conference center but then went back to the hotel. Its a strange place -- absolutely massive. The worst part is that you can never really be sure where your room is: all the buildings look similar, and are all at sort of strange angles to each other connected by covered walkways. We've spent more time wandering around trying to get our bearings than anything else.

The beach is lovely -- see pic. I went swimming yesterday afternoon, and took a walk on it again this morning. The water is pretty shallow but its great for splashing around in...and off in the distance you can see a major surf break, with huge waves crashing. At nightime you can walk along the shore and see the moon reflected off the ocean. The only off note are the Indonesian special forces guys standing in the shadows with machine guns..I'm not sure if this is for Clinton, or just a regular feature of life in Bali.

This morning there were only a few people around - including this guy who apparently hopped off his motorbike and got immediately to fishing without even removing his helmet.

We're back at the conference center now. We get periodic briefings from U.S. officials on what is going on..but never with much detail. The South China Sea story has also been pretty big, and Clinton today called on all the claimants to back up their stakes with legal documentation. The Chinese aren't going to like that, since their claim is based largely on "historical precedent."

Still -- this hasn't been a particularly grueling assignment, I have to admit. I finally had some things cleaned and pressed, so I feel more or less presentable again. We've had some ok food at the hotel (once we located the restaurant), and the story has been good but not flat out urgent.

We're here for one more day and then head off to Hong Kong for one night, then home. It feels like a long time -- but I'm not sad to be missing the Heat Dome with time at the beach!

Here's a final image -- sunrise in Bali

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chennai July 20-21

Just a quick entry for Chennai, where the schedule was pretty hectic and we only had a day.

First=Hot. This place, formerly Madras, is the hottest we've been to yet. I knew it was going to be (an Indian man, sweating happily in New Delhi, told me Chennai was "a sauna" and he wasn't kidding). Haven't seen much of the city but it is obviously a much more organic city than those parts of Delhi we saw. Traffic, full of buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuk pedicabs, is incredible and lots of people milling around on the streets.

We arrived at Chennai airport (see picture) -- the Indian infrastructure binge clearly hasn't reached it -- and then went immediately to the city's new library, billed as the largest in India, where Clinton gave her policy speech. The speech was pretty clearly aimed at China, although she was careful not to say so explicitly. But any call for India to "lead" in Asia is bound to ruffle feathers in Beijing.

We had almost no time to file, and then it was back in the bus to head to Clinton's "cookstove" event where she was advocating for clean cookstoves which officials say can do a huge amount both to combat premature deaths due to smoke exposure and to fight climate change by cutting soot emissions. Hot again, particularly standing under a covered veranda with a bunch of burning cookstoves....

We were able to ditch the motorcade there and come back to the hotel to write up the speech with more background/context. It all seemed to work (I did a brief story on the cookstoves too -- it may be a bit of Clinton propaganda, but its also a "worthy" topic and one worth getting out there.

Dinner last night was Italian..real Italian. The hotel didn't even have an Indian restaurant (I guess the local grub is way too hot for visitors who would stay at a hotel like this). But I had excellent scallops and a weird kind of pasta. It ended up cost about $100 a head, which seems criminal in this country...but the food was great.

We are packing now and off to Bali. Hopefully we'll arrive before the sun sets. The next few days are going to be busy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Delhi July 19-20

Naan of the Gods. Definitely the highlight of the trip to New Delhi...we went out for dinner last night at "Bukhara" (the original) -- tandoori oven roasted meat, great paneer, beer, and this most awesome naan.

Delhi isn't quite what I expected -- although I am the first to admit I haven't really seen any of it, so it may STILL be what I expected, but just somewhere else. We arrived late Monday night from Athens and came to the Taj Palace (Jim's favorite hotel in the world). When Clinton arrived they had a sort of Indian brass band playing at the entrance, with guards in full mufti holding torches and great banging drums. Very Survivor. The hotel is lots of marble and lots of staff all asking you what do you want, can I help you etc. etc. We had a drink in the bar (the only off-note..disco music and attitude) and then went to bed.

Just as I was getting to sleep the phone rang and one of Clinton's aides said to come down to the lobby. There had been a story out of Tripoli that about the Libyans announcing they had held talks with U.S. officials. We were brought down (at about 3 a.m. local time, but we're all at a stage now where we have no real idea what time it is anytime) and we talked to "a U.S. official" who essentially confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but emphasized that it was only to deliver a face-to-face message that Gaddafi must go. This was news, unfortunately, so I had to call in the headline to London and then run back upstairs to write the story. Back in bed by about 4 and up again at 9 to begin the day.

It wasn't a terribly hectic schedule which was fine with me. We followed Clinton to the Foreign Ministry where she was holding 'strategic dialogue' talks, and then had a press conference with her and the Indian foreign minister. They didn't say too much but clearly there hadn't been much progress on the biggest item of the U.S. wishlist,which is for India to change its laws governing corporate liability so that U.S. energy companies can sell them nuclear reactors. Its a tough question, because the only other competitors for selling reactors (France, Russia) are all state companies and as such not worried about liability issues. But even a minor accident could spell big legal trouble for GE or Westinghouse if they get sued in court, so the U.S. wants the law changed. Not an easy sell in the land of Bhopal.

After that I went back with one of my Indian colleagues to our bureau in New Delhi. There are a couple of old friends working there, and it was nice to see them if only briefly. We did up an update on my earlier story on Clinton's visit and then I took a buro car back to the hotel. I was trying to take some pictures out of the car window and the driver noticed, so he decided to show me some of the highlights of this neighborhood...stopping in the middle of traffic to point out this or that building and then urging me to "snap, snap" a photo. It was hilarious and he had absolutely no concern about tying up traffic flow....the pictures (on a blackberry, out of a car window) were no good but it was fun nonetheless. Still...we didn't get out of the "official" neighborhoods of Delhi which are all very well laid out and very leafy. Another fabricated capital city...I'd love to see old Delhi, but not on this trip.

We did do a quick excursion to a craft market -- sort of predictable stuff, but I did pick up a few things. And HOT. It seemed to get hotter as the sun went down. But I guess it is just as hot in DC this week...

After that it was NAAN and bed. I'm up early this morning and feel like I've had a good sleep so that is great. We leave in a couple of hours for Chennai, where Clinton is giving a "major address" on U.S.-India relations in the 21st century and doing a vew cultural things like a dance performance. The hope is that she'll get out there and try a few moves...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Athens July 17-18

Its a short one hour flight from Istanbul to Athens but the two places feel totally different. Athens on arrival was hot, with a big full moon looming. We convoyed to Clinton's hotel, and then on to our less fancy hotel -- but still nice enough, sitting across the street from a beach.

Whereas in Istanbul I woke up to the sound of the muzzein, here it was church bells. Right across the street in this very touristy neighborhood is a tiny little orthodox church, with an old man who came out to slowly ring the bell by pulling a rope on the clapper. There were a small group of people gathered outside..I thought they might be tourists, but then they all crossed themselves orthodox-style. Sunday morning in Athens!

It was a good day. Clinton had a meeting with the Greek foreign minister, at which she pledged full U.S. support for Greece's painful austerity measures (she compared it to chemotherapy). Then she had closed door meetings with the PM and the president, and we were taken to the Acropolis Museum in downtown Athens at the foot of the Acropolis itself. Its a beautiful, modern museum -- and the inside seemed so clean, all marble statues and bright light. The museum people were incredibly kind to us, setting us up in their VIP suite and bringing coffee and eventually meatballs and fruit. These days always seem to go by so fast -- we were there for a couple of hours and then Clinton came to sign a new cultural MOU with Greece aimed at putting new barriers to trafficking in cultural artifacts.

It was a funny event -- Clinton standing in the main gallery of the museum with the Parthenon in the background, a few members of Athenian cultural glitterati around, and then lots of tourists gawping from behind barrier ropes. This lady's shoes struck me as sort of peculiar..on the back they had a big IZOD alligator.

We didn't get to see much of Athens itself, but it seemed a smaller and grittier city than Istanbul. Lots of graffiti, lots of closed shops. The main square looked to have a permanent encampment of protesters angry over the austerity drive. The whole place feels terribly hot and dry...I wonder how they provide the city with water.

But hey, it's ATHENS! Something spooky about being in a place where "it all started". Flying over from Istanbul, I was looking at the in-flight map on the airplane videoscreen and the Aegean, with all of its islands, looked like a sort of mini-galaxy ... a world unto itself, until the larger world was revealed. I'd love to see more of it.

After Clinton left we made our way to a restaurant for an early dinner...and what a restaurant! It was recommended by the brother of one of Clinton's aides, and it was a spectacular place on a terrace with a full view of the Acropolis in the background. Gorgeous late afternoon light, not too hot, and just the right kind of food: Greek salad, octopus, some kind fried Haloumi cheese, stuffed eggplant...perfect!

After that -- long day !! -- we went back and watched the U.S. lose to Japan in the women's World Cup soccer. Too bad because it would have been nice to win, but you figure Japan might need a boost right now after everything its been through in the last few months.

Up early this morning for "bag drag" to deposit luggage. Then, since it early, sunny, and we are about 30 yards from the Aegean..I went swimming with my AFP colleague Christophe. Perfect water, big white cruise boat in the distance, a few islands dotted around......sometimes you just have to kick yourself to remind you its all actually real.

Seven hours or so to Delhi, where it is apparently 110 degrees.....

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Istanbul July 15-16

Wow. Istanbul! It looks fantastic -- sharp hills, water views, minarets -- just the way it's advertised. Definitely a place that makes you want to come back.

We got in early Friday morning and after some sleep followed Clinton over to the latest Libya Contact Group meeting, being held at an old Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosphorus. U.S. officials advertised this meeting as a "pivot point" in the war against Gaddafi, and it became clear why: Clinton said the U.S. would formally recognize the TNC as Libya's legitimate government, which means the rebels may be able to get their hands on frozen Libyan funds in the U.S.

Its hard to tell how closely these things are choreographed before they even start....U.S. officials said halfway through the day that the question of diplomatic recognition had yet to be decided, but the Italian foreign minister came out at almost the same time and said all of the coalition members had decided to give the TNC full recognition. And the "pivot point" comment ahead of time makes one think this was the pre-planned "deliverable" of the conference long before we arrived there.

Nevertheless, it made for some news which was great. The old palace (now part of a Kempinski hotel) was beatiful, and sitting right on the water (see above) with views of Istanbul's version of the Golden Gate Bridge. About halfway through the day somebody yelled and a regatta of about 50 sailboats was blowing by -- huge colorful spinnakers full with the wind, bright sunshine -- fantastic.

After the Libya meeting was over we convoyed up to Clinton's next meeting at an Islamic research insitute, where she had a meeting with the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (could there be a more unwieldy name?), a sort of Islamic UN. They had been trying for a long time to get the U.N. pass a resolution barring 'defamation' of religion -- something the U.S. sees as a violation of free speech rights -- and Clinton was there to talk to them about ways to have religion respected without violation freedom of expression. Tricky ideas and hard to communicate in a story, particularly when you are working at a tiny table in a dark ante-room of the research center where the temperature must have been 99 degrees.

Then..the day was over! It was already 7:30 pm but it felt early thanks to the time lag. A couple of us had a drink at the hotel's top floor bar, which has a stupendous view across the entire city with the Hagia Sophia in the distance. There just isn't time to get out and actually see anything like that this time around, but I definitely want to come back to explore it more.

Then we went down to dinner to a place which took pride in the fact that it had separate dining rooms (as well as separate kitchens) for its meat and fish dishes. I had kebab with onions and it was absolutely delicious.

Today we've got another full day -- Clinton is meeting "youth" at an Istanbul coffee shop, then meeting the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, then Turkish foreign minister and prime minister, where doubtless the Syria crisis will be front and center.

After that -- Athens.