Monday, March 31, 2008

Busy, Busier, Busiest

In the first week of this tour, we have visited an innumerable variety of amazing sights, including the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Terracotta Warriors. But even if we had just visited today’s highlights in that timeframe, it would have been a week well spent.
For today, we visited the Longmen Grottoes, half an hour out of Luoyang, as well as the White Horse Temple, another hour or so down the road. But the best was still to come: the afternoon was spent above Dengfeng, at the Shaolin Temple. See what I mean? A busy kind of day if ever there was one.
Still, it was interesting to see that the huge swath of nothingness that lay between Luoyang and Longmen develop into a fledgling college town in just 2.5 years.
The Grottoes themselves were as impressive as ever. If you’re unsure as to their colossal nature refer to yesterday’s post. To carve 15000 Buddha figurines into a cliff is impressive enough, but for that to have occurred 1300 years ago is verging on ridiculous. Then to see that some are as tall as 15 meters, the line is crossed and you’re looking at a damn near miracle. To put it mildly, it was quite a site.
The drive from the Grottoes to the White Horse Temple was…interesting, to the point of almost colliding with three buses overtaking consecutively. Not that I didn’t like it. If anything, it felt good to really be back in China as I know and love it.
The Temple itself was surprisingly pleasant. There was a gentle ambiance, embodying my admittedly limited understanding Buddhism. The pleasant smell of incense, sold by the kilogram in nearby shops, added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we were only able to spend half an hour there due to time constraints, but the experience was still deeply relaxing.
In a pattern that we have become very used to, we arrived at Shaolin at 2pm for a “late lunch,” within the same compound as one of the Wushu academies. Immediately after a decidedly average meal, we took in a performance at the adjoining academy. The feats of strength, both mental and physical, that were displayed by the students were just as awesome as my previous visit to the area. An interesting nugget of knowledge: the crack of the whip that echoes through the arena is caused not by any physical impact. It is the sound of the tip breaking the sound barrier.
Following the performance, we made quick stops at the Pagoda Forest and Shaolin Temple, where we saw firsthand what a Buddhist ceremony actually consists of. I now sit here trying to type of Zhengzhou’s most bumpy highway, but that is a minor annoyance that has no hope of offsetting what has really been an incredible day.

Flickr Update: As you probably will have noticed, I haven’t uploaded any photos recently, which is due to low bandwidth at hotels here in China, so I’ll try and put some more up when I get back to England.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

See ya, Shaanxi

Train travel has become a recurring theme here at Meldreth Musings over the past week or so. Today, I sit here on a double-decker train from Xi’an, in Shaanxi province to Luoyang, in neighbouring Henan province, home to approximately 100 million people, as well as China’s highest AIDS rate. So a word from the wise: don’t develop serious health problems or engage in promiscuous sex in this area.
Funnily enough, according to the Lonely Planet, the cause of the endemic AIDS problem is due to a government initiative. Back in the 1980s, China’s blood reserves were precariously low. Cash incentives and tax rebates were handed out to those willing to give blood. Henan is host to a large, poor rural population, so farmers and peasants pumped out blood by the gallon. Unfortunately, these were the days before careful medical sanitization, so all it took was one unassuming AIDS sufferer to contaminate the province’s blood supplies. The problem was publicly admitted discovered when the blood had already made its way into the region’s medical channels, and so the story goes.
But it ain’t all bad. What, from the sounds of things so far sounds like a large African country really isn’t. Between Luoyang and Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, two magnificent “cultural relics” can be found. First off, there are the Longmen Grottoes, where dozens of Buddha statues of increasing size sit carved into the cliffs towering over the Yellow River.
Several hours down the road lays the town of Dengfeng, built around a few tourist hotels and restaurants. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but there is obviously a cause of this tourist infrastructure, and it lays a few kilometres up the mountain: the Shaolin Monastery, where Wushu Kung Fu was developed. Down the single-track road from the Monastery is the Pagoda Forest, another dazzling testament to the engineering might of pre-Industrial China. Dozens of pagodas, big and small sit nestled among a hillside forest.
Near downtown Dengfeng, amongst the ever-popular Wushu academies lays the Shaolin Pagoda. After an ascent of several hundred steps, stunning views of the major sights of the area can be afforded. Of course, that is providing conditions are neither foggy nor Chinese polluted. But if those conditions prevail, then a mystical nature beholds the setting.
It probably sounds like this won’t be my first time in Henan, but boy, am I ever looking forward, after several slightly dull days in Shaanxi and Shanxi.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Terracotta

Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province is renowned for its link to the ancient Chinese ruler of Qin Shi Huang, whose tomb lays some 30km from the city center. As mentioned in my previous post, Xi’an has seen an economic revival due to the tourist industry, and so predictably, the area surrounding the Terracotta Warriors may well be the world’s first resort town composed entirely of concrete. Restaurants, hotels and shops are plentiful, all playing off the fame of the Terracotta centrepiece.
This was my second visit to Xi’an and the Warriors, and the tourist infrastructure has developed greatly in the 30 months since I first visited. True, the Brother-sponsored tickets are still around en masse, but restaurants and shops are everywhere, as well as a smattering of hostels and hotels.
The aura within the public pit complex is different. The clientele back then was slightly more purist, with archaeological aficionados here and there. Now, there are swarms of people wherever you look, from all economic thresholds and all nations.
But the awe had long disappeared from my imagination. “All” I saw was essentially a toy army. A simplistic way of looking at things, but accurate nonetheless. A terracotta state of mind, you might say.
Perhaps this would not be the case if I was able to rid myself of the nagging doubts of the story of the Warriors. For such ornate figures to still be intact 2200 years after their alleged construction. Sure, I believe they were constructed, but the fabrication theory seeps in once the story of the Warriors is examined. It is alleged that thousands of peasants burst into Qin’s tomb and smashed many of the warriors. But the Terracotta Army was “discovered” in 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Mao destroyed many ancient artefacts, and for a site of such magnitude to be passed over by the ferocious Red Guards. It just seems a bit stretched.
This may be the result of a somewhat terracotta state of mind, but terracotta evidence must be established before that state of mind is shattered.

Its Gonna be a Frosty Night

Forgive me if this appears to be a rant, but it appears that due to “Chinese State Rail Regulations,” the T2525 service from Taiyuan to Xi’an is not allowed to provide heat to its passengers. Translation: the heating is broken, deal with it. Still, in a way, the train – dirty duvets and all – balances out our terrific hotel back in Pingyao.
The International Financier’s Club/ Yunjincheng Hotel was one to be remembered. It was worth every atom of the five stars awarded to it by the Pingyao Tourist Commission Board. Set in the style of a 18th Century courtyard experience, complete with heated stone mattresses. Doesn’t sound very comfortable, but let’s put it this way: I haven’t slept better since arriving in China.
The town of Pingyao itself was fascinating. One of China’s few remaining walled cities, the ambience of pre-technology age China is fascinating. To think that somehow it managed to circumvent Mao’s hardline Communist policies serves to supplement an already unique atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Taiyuan. Once home to Oberlin College’s China link, the city of 3 million marked our arrival point in Shanxi province, but was more or less one grey dray, dotted by a few tourist hotels and a surprising amount of Russian-era architecture. True, the Jinci Temple was pleasant, and the toddlers’ rollerskating lessons adorable, the city itself doesn’t have a huge amount going for it.
Perhaps the Olympic cycling event, which is be held in the Shanxi capital, will bring with it a wave of economic prosperity, but that is a perhaps at best. Sure, all cities in China are economically booming, but nearby infrastructure has to improve.
An excellent case in point is Xi’an, several hundred kilometres further east. Originally an industrial town, it has blossomed wonderfully, with a per-head tourism industry amongst the most developed in China. There are facilities tailored to anyone’s tastes, A-list celebs and up. True, I wasn’t overly wowed by the Terracotta Army, but I know others who have raved about it.
Still, let’s hope frostbite doesn’t set in and spoil things! From Shanxi to Shaanxi here we come.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Of Beijing, Blogging and Trains

“Beijing, China: Teenage Naivety strikes again (AP)”

Headlines really should have been screaming that, for whatever reason, I formerly maintained the elusion that blogs from mainstream hosts such as Blogspot or Wordpress would be readily accessible in China. Instead, the Great Firewall of China steps in and a generic message reading “server taking too long to respond” appears on your screen. Paradoxically, Blogger.com is accessible, so I can update my blog, as will be obvious to you. I just can’t read it. Actually that’s not strictly true. Through the usage of a site called Proxy4china.com, even the notorious Na├»ve Teen can read all that the blogosphere has to offer.
Despite the lunacy of the internet control office, Beijing is a wonderful city. Whilst tourists generally come to see relatively ancient, ornate sites such as the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven, the Russian-inspired structures on Tiananmen Square, such as the Great Hall of the People, are some of the captivating buildings in the capital. Not for their beauty, which is yet to be discovered, but more for the way they make Beijing feel such more impressive, in the linguistic sense of the word.
This is not a knock on the genuinely beautiful buildings immediately to the north of the Square, but the Communist-era structures have so much more historical relevance that from the perspective of a history lover, those are the sites to see.
Recently, many of my blog posts have been written aboard some form of transport or another and this trend continues for I lie aboard the K601 train to Taiyuan, jittering and jerking here or there. My only previous experience of China’s sleeper trains was on a school trip to Xi’an when I was living in Nanjing a few years ago. On the –Nanjing-Zhengzhou leg of the trip, we were lucky enough to have a reasonably private hard sleeper compartment (think a soft sleeper compartment without a door and topped with two extra bunks). On the way back, all the way from Xi’an, we were delayed 2 hours on the tracks in a much more open carriage. Not much fun.
But today, I have opened a new chapter in my experience of train travel. I am travelling soft-sleeper, posh class. Key differences? There are doors, and there is considerably more space. That’s about it. On the newer Z trains, things are meant to on a scale more comparable to the Oriental Express, so if I get the chance to check them out, believe me when I say I will.
As we speed towards the greener areas of Central China, I will miss Beijing, the fervent metropolis that is, but on the other hand, I do like my lungs aren’t full of sand. Photos to follow tomorrow, and no, none of my lungs.

Zaijian

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jottings from Beijing

After 36 hours in and around the capital, the double-bladed China Syndrome is starting to strike and hard. In one corner, we have the dusty, smoky air that swamps many urban areas of China. In the other corner, we have the progressive attitudes and cheap street vendors that first got me hooked on the Middle Kingdom.

So far, the latter is holding strong, and being above the smog line on the Great Wall near Mutianyu certainly helped things. Speaking of which, the Wall certainly has been tidies up in anticipation of the tourist boom, and is night and day from the crumbling bricks I climbed 12 years ago when living in Beijing for two months.

There is a line of street vendors along the approach to the chairlift up the hillside to the Wall itself. That’s right chairlift, Japanese-made and all. There is also an Italian coffeehouse adjacent to the car park.

Of course, the sightlines from the Wall are amazing, although Mr Ciao, are tour guide, informed us that this was the clearest day he had seen in a long time. Nevertheless, it was fascinating gazing towards the huge, steep, rocky mountains stretching as far the Mongolian Steppes. To think that this was built in a time predating the technology is truly amazing, a task more arduous even than that encountered by the Egyptian pyramid labourers many centuries before. Still, despite all the history behind the Wall, the most enjoyable aspect of the visit was the toboggan ride to the base of the hill. Despite a Mao-jacket behooded girl shrieking “no pikature,” it was an exhilarating way to cap off a great day, once we figured out that are legs had to be stretched out to build up speed.

So far, the trip has been amazing, and visiting a craft factory was also a lot of fun. In a few minutes, we’re leaving for a Peking Duck restaurant, and the tomorrow we visit Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Summer Palace before taking the overnight train to Taiyuan, meaning I’ll be away from the internet for about 24 hours. Check back then for more exciting musings, and hopefully I’ll also have had a chance to update my Flickr by then.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Epitome of China

More to follow once I've caught up on some sleep. In the meantime, here's the link to my Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/10023454@N00/

CITS = ?

Well really, CITS stands for China International Tourist Service, and is essentially the PRC’s government tourist agency. In a country like China, having a government-affiliated tour guide could prove to be useful, for securing train tickets and getting problems sorted out.

But this could also complicate things. In every city, the CITS bureau has a list of endorsed souvenir shops. The tour guides receive a commission on all purchases made by their group there, and thus naturally will shepherd their tourists into such shops. This may not sound too bad, and it probably isn’t, but from my experience, one of the defining things in China is being able to wander down a little backstreet and stumble upon fantastic little flea markets where Cultural Revolution era Little Red Books can still be had.

Usually, these little knooks and crannies are not officially endorsed, meaning that you are less likely to be led towards them. Whilst in places such as Fuzimiao in Nanjing or YuYuan in Shanghai, flea markets are neigh unavoidable; they can be hard to find in other cities.

Still, this is not to say that all CITS guides are so heavily inclined to build up commission. For all I know, Mr Ciao will reveal these little curios to us, and most likely it is simply luck of the draw, and this rant isn’t even aimed at the tour guides themselves. This policy just seems a little on the archaic side of things.

And the cause of this indignation? Well this is my first real tour, and to date I have explored China without restriction in the most basic sense of the word. Whilst I’m looking forward to seeing from a slightly different slant, I’m praying those few degress don’t affect my impression of what is without a doubt one of my favourite countries on this planet.

With about 40 minutes to go before landing in Beijing, we’ll see.

UPDATE 14:44 Chinese Time: If my first impressions are correct, then Mr Ciao will help, not hinder us.

Mornin’ from Mongolia

Well 40,000 feet above Mongolia on a Boeing MD-11, to be exact. And on that subject, wow is Mongolia ever dry. One moment, we are cruising above the snow-coated mountain ranges near Irkutsk, the next, we are steadily flying over the Mongolian steppes. The difference is truly amazing. Granted, however, I’m not entirely sure that I didn’t drift off during that moment.

Good news though. So far, I have escaped the…ahem…consequences of Finnair catering. Imagine arriving at your favourite breakfast bar only to be told that today was Omelette, Pancake and Baked Beans. If you can imagine that, then you have a pretty good impression of the horror delight I experienced after two hours of surprisingly pleasant sleep.

In many ways, Finnair reminds me of Air China. Both airlines are sharp and efficient on short haul routes, with sparkly new aircraft. On long haul however, the fleet age goes up and subsequently the quality goes down. Whereas on Air China, my seat had a constant desire to recline, AY51 brought with it a wonky table. Nothing life-altering, but it didn’t give the greatest first impression.

Still, having a flight that is at most 2/3rds full means we can stretch out considerably, something that is a definite rarity on most “mainstream” carriers such as British Airways or American Airlines. And it gets better. Poor Finnair obviously feels shame at this slightly deficient portion of the international fleet, as there are PSPs and Personal DVD Players to save face until the MD-11s are fully phased out by 2010.

Here I should mention that from this year, Finnair are bringing in quite a number of Airbus A340s as part of their Europeanisation policy. The A340 is known as one of the quietist and most fuel-efficient long-haul jets, so this dedication to environmental awareness is again impressive.

Solely from a passenger’s perspective, the A340 will also be a treat, with powerports for every seat, inflight e-mail, on-demand TV and the ability to hear yourself think. Not a bad deal if you ask me.

Oh and Mongolia looks cool.

Mmm-Kay

So I was just reading the latest edition of The Hockey News. There is a special feature rankings the 31 General Managers of the National Hockey League. Yes, Dallas have two.

For some reason, Brian Burke’s prodigal son, Dave Nonis of the Vancouver Canucks. THN’s reasoning:

- Nonis has shown a post-lockout inability to sign that elusive forward to fill out the top six. Fair enough, but this season players such as Ryan Shannon, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows have shown that sought-after offensive touch. Combine that with the return of Brendan Morrison from a long injury layoff and the acquisition from Washington of Matt Pettinger for washed-out fan favourite Matt Cooke, and the Canucks legitimately claim to have 9 offensive forwards. There are 5 forwards averaging 0.25 goals per game, equivalent to 20 tallies over the 82 game campaign: Brendan Morrison, Daniel Sedin, Markus Naslund, Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler.

- THN also ranted at Nonis for refusing to forfeit Alex Edler and Ryan Kesler for Brad Richards, then of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Richards won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2003/2004, but since then has done little, and before being acquired by Dallas had a league-worst -17 and was on pace for approximately 60 points, and was also burdened with an $8 millon salary. Conversely, Alex Edler was named to the Western Conference YoungStars roster, is considered to be a dark horse candidate for the Calder Trophy, and is also projected to become a franchise defenceman. Likewise, Ryan Kesler is considered by many to win the Frank J Selke trophy, possibly as early as this year. Individually, those players are hardly worth trading for Richards, so it conversely to what The Hockey News thinks, it would be insane to trade Edler and Kesler for Brad Richards.

This isn’t even Eastern bias, this is just plain stupidity.

Harping From Helsinki

Well, if I’m honest, I’m not actually in the Finnish capital, I’m about 4km over the Ural Mountains, but Harping from Helsinki just sounds better. My overall impressions of the trip so far?

- They really ought to tidy up security at Heathrow Terminal 1. The atmosphere was very temporary, due mainly to straggling wires here and there.

- Helsinki is dark. I was expecting a suave, European capital. Granted, it is difficult to get an accurate impression from the air, but it definitely had a dull, dark ambience to it. To summarise in one onomatopoeic word, Brrrr...

Still, as I sit here aboard Finnair 51 to Beijing, I am filled with a pleasant apprehension as to what awaits us in the Middle Kingdom. One of the participants in this tour last visited China 30 years ago and is nervously anticipating what will to her look like a different country. Whilst I left only 18 months ago, that same fervour has beset me. For instance, have modern… no wait, sorry, space age trains been instituted on the Central China routes yet? To what extent has old Xianlin University and College Town been developed? Most importantly, will this still be the China I knew and loved?

I’m not sure I’ll know it, but I feel confident that I’ll love it, albeit from the sheltered perspective of a prope tourist. Still, for me the funniest thing about China is that is impossible to talk about it in the present tense, for when you do, you’re already out of date.

However, I don’t know what tense, let alone what language I’ll be talking in Monday evening after over 40 sleepless hours. Should be fun.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"I want in!"

Despite the recent unrest in Tibet and other parts of Western China, our tour is still going ahead, and I'll be blogging from various locations around China for the next few weeks, providing Blogger is not blocked by the firewall to end all firewalls.

Below is my itinerary:

Day 1: Helsinki Airport (lets pray for free wifi)
Day 2: Beijing
Day 3: Beijing, Train
Day 4: Taiyuan and Pingyao
Day 5: Pingyao, Train
Day 6: Xi'an
Day 7: Xi'an, Train, Luoyang
Day 8: Luoyang, Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin, Zhengzhou
Day 9: Zhengzhou, Plane, Nanjing
Day 10: Nanjing
Day 11: Nanjing, Train, Suzhou
Day 12: Suzhou, Bus, Hangzhou
Day 12: Hangzhou
Day 13: Hangzhou, Shanghai
Day 14: Shanghai
Day 15: Shanghai, Helsinki, London

Don't get your hopes up, as I probably won't have time/ means to blog every single day, but do check back every now and then for photos and that little thing that makes the world go around, musings.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Warning: Tread Carefully!

Since the dawn of modern diplomacy, domestic silence has surrounded contentious issues involving China. This trend wanders on after exiled Tibetans rallied and protested in the streets of Lhasa.
Their anger at China's staging of the Olympic Games this summer was apparently no match for local military forces, as two of the protesters lay dead in the parade streets surrounding Potala Palace and Jokhang Square. Predictably, organizations such as Radio Free Asia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were all up in arms over the turbulent incident, seemingly throwing caution to the wind regarding their purportedly pacifistic rooting.
Still, several thousand miles to the East, it was work as usual in Beijing as preparations hit full throttle in the run-up to the Olympics. Not a word of the Tibetan unrest is spoken amongst the marching band practicing on Tiananmen Square. Whilst gales of unrest sweep Lhasa, barely a breeze of notice is detectable over Beijing. Such a paradox is only possible in China, a country where, bizarrely, rampant capitalism, Communist doctrine and censured media all go happily, hand in hand.
However, Beijing understands that negative press is only going to sour the Middle Kingdom's shiny status as international dish of the day. Whilst the West screams for deliverance of freedom of speech legislation, China cowers behind the world's largest media firewall. But just why does the world's most powerful nation feel so vulnerable? All thats for certain, is that its another unnerving paradox that China could do without.
Ironically, though, the PRC is home to many bloggers, webmasters, so long and so forth, but if the Politburo was to officially condone the practice of citizen media, then much material would be lost. So on some level, it is a lose-lose situation for China's bloggers.
So where does that leave Tibet? Well, in short, Xizang, as the region is known in Chinese will be still be bound by high unemployment and isolation from the main currency flows of the Eastern seaboard. In that respect, it is difficult to understand what exactly the protesters were protesting. True, China should not impose its will on Tibet, but independence will hardly help matters. Its not as though there is money or diplomatic support in place to facilitate a transformation (see Kosova), so essentially Tibet is acting like a whiney little brother, wanting what it can't have and shifting blame on what is its essentially its big brother. And, as my little bro can attest to, that's a move that can come back to bite you. Hard.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Asking for Trouble

In the UK, common sense and logic has it that you just don't accept a ride in a private vehicle from a stranger. At times, this may seem like an over the top piece of parental advice, but is usually regarded as a sound tactic. Overseas, however, we lose this common sense for some reason.

Case in point: Scarlet Keeling, a Devon teenager living in India with her family, accepted a lift home from a stranger and wound up dead on a beach. Goa, India, where Keeling lived with her mother and siblings, is no London or Liverpool, but as a city of 1.5 million, similar precautions should be taken there as you might expect in the UK. However, as I can attest to, exotic countries can nullify one's sense of judgment. For example, when I was living in Nanjing, China, I thought nothing of flagging down a black cab. Well not nothing. I thought they were a cheaper alternative to licensed taxis. Granted I am a 16 year old male and Keeling was a 15 year old female, but the start of the sequence was the same. Whilst I usually traveled with several of my equally male friends, none of us were experts on the local road map and so could easily have been led into uncomfortable situations. Nothing untoward ever happened, but looking back, I was probably a bit foolish.

As the Keeling case proves though, foolish, naive decisions can bare consequences that are deadly serious. Unfortunately, Scarlet's problems were compounded as her mother and siblings were visiting another area of India at the time. The bells of the McCann case of last May are ringing whole-heartedly in my ears. Gary and Kate McCann left their 3 children, all under the age of 4, alone in a holiday apartment whilst boozing it up with friends. Fiona McKowen, Scarlet's mother freely admitted that her daughter had been dating a 25 year-old. In adulthood, a 10 year difference is not unheard of, but at that age, it is pedophilia. Pedophilia which the mother appears to have condoned. Whilst teenagers making naive choices is the global norm, parents need to be responsible in a foreign environments and avoid being lulled into the false sense of security that so often floats over foreign holiday hotspots. Otherwise fun in the sun will no longer be such a lethal tourist trap.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Changing of the Guard

In recent years, Arsenal have been an indomitable force on their travels to Milan's San Siro stadium. In 2003, they rebounded from a 3-0 home defeat courtesy of Obafemi Martins and Internazionale to win 5-1 in Italy. Now they have the second scalp to complete their Milanese footballing collection.
The Gunners dominated the Rossoneri for huge swaths of the 1st half, but were unfortunate to return to the dressing room without recording a tally, after enigmatic midfielder Cesc Fabregas pounded the bar from the edge of the area. Likewise, Hleb was unfortunate to be booked for diving after being clearly taken down just inside the penalty area.
The second half picked up largely from where the first half ended - with lots of hat if Arsenal continued to press but fail to score, then Milan would bite them and bite them hard. So, as if answering the pleas emanating from Islington and beyond, Fabregas came up with the goods, beating 6-7 Australian Zeljko Kalac to the bottom-right from 30 yards out. The always fervent atmosphere of the San Siro became ever the more poignant, with the Gooner faithful singing the famous "1-Nil to the Arsenal."
Yet that jingle soon became outdated, as substitute Theo Walcott broke down the right-hand wing, skipping past the challenge of Khaka Khaladze to thread a pass along the 6-yard line to Emmanuel Adebayor who, in thumping an emphatic finish into the roof of the net, broke his Champions League duck.
The youthful Arsenal had done away with the reigning European Champions, but, strange though it may sound, it was so much more than that. The Gunners had struggled of late, being run off the field against Man Utd in the FA Cup and struggling to a draw for the second successive week, not to mention Eduardo leaving the field in 3 pieces against Birmingham City.
2 years ago, Arsenal went desperately close against Barcelona in the Champions League Final. But on 21st May, could Arsenal make history in Moscow?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Plain Smart or Plain Lucky?

Much to the bane of Canucks Nation, Dave Nonis has filled the bottom 9 forward spots with "pluggers and grinders." Hardly eloquent vocabulary, and when the Canucks face off against the NHL's more talented offensive sides, the boys in blue and green will find themselves in hot water. But thankfully Gary Bettman arranged the schedule so each team played 32 times a year within its own division, and none is as gritty as the Northwest. See, the last 9 games of the regular season are against divisional rivals, and with 3 points separating 1st from 4th, the battle to make the playoffs could legitimately go down to the wire.
And this is where the genius/ luck of the Canucks management core shines through. Never do our loathed pluggers get up for a game more than versus rugged divisional rivals such as the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers. And with 9 North American grinders leading the way, the Canucks stand to destabilize the calm that has swept over St. Paul Minnesota.
Its no surprise that the Canucks' two best games this season have come over divisional rivals. Namely 6-2 against the Wild, and 4-2 versus the Oilers. Both teams challenged the Canucks physically, but in both cases, Vancouver answered three-way, with fists, shoulders and pucks to the twine. A winning combination right there, and if that slot machine gets lucky over the stretch drive, the Canucks will be well-set for the playoffs, because thankfully pretty hockey doesn't win Cups. Grinding hockey does, and hopefully Vancouver will be the next beneficiary of that philosophy. Boy will that ever make Dave Nonis look smart!

Time to face the facts!

I, more than most, find it difficult to listen when Naslund and the Sedins are described as "soft Euros." Previously, this was because I didn't think they were soft, and because I consider Euro, as a Euro, to be a derogatory term. After having to close my eyes for most of Sunday's pathetic encounter with the Chicago IceHogs/ Blackhawks, my pain derived from the former abated. When Henrik and Daniel managed to get the puck within 10m of Lalime's net, they were usually on their knees. Naslund? Was he really dressed for that game? Looking at the stat sheet, you wouldn't think so.
So, as the title indicates, the time has come to face the facts. Whilst the Canucks would be best served by effectively calling in the season, nobody in Vancouver, apart from the contingent of Albertan fans would be happy with that. So with a cattle prod getting ever closer to his backside, Alain Vigneault has to rally the troops. There is a delicate balance calling out your players and creating a locker room rift. But right now, with the playoffs advancing fast, Viggy has to ignore that fault line. When $13 million worth of hockey talent doesn't net a goal in 4 games, AV needs a big red phone to the Vancouver Sun and the Province. Somehow, he has to light that fire in the bellies of Pinky and the Brain, because right now they sure are looking more like the Sedin Sisters. So if the Canucks manage to turn it around after the apocalyptic scenes at the United Center, then Vancouver will have Ed Willes and Brad Ziemer to thank.
Indeed, thus far Vigneault has walked the potentially volcanic ridge that is the Canucks locker room with finesse. If he can continue to do so, he stays. If not, he's out of GM Place faster than he was out of Centre Bell.