Sunday, December 31, 2006

Earn my turns - from the backyard

I've been waiting a long time for enough snow to ski on Green Mountain, the 6,800 foot hill and open space park adjoining my backyard. After we got our second blizzard in 8 days, dropping about 3 feet of snow, the time had come! Yesterday I put climbing skins on my telemark skis, and went from my backyard, at about 6000 feet of elevation, to the summit.

The powder was perfect, and I got a great run of about 600 vertical feet. I earned my turns, as they say.

Later in the day, I went with Andrew and Amy up to bear creek and we cross country skied from Little Park to Lair 'O' the Bear. A great way to enjoy the snow.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Lightning in a blizzard

Last night, my family was eating dinner at home during Denver's second blizzard in a week. It's December 28, it's below freezing, heavy snow is falling and the wind is blowing hard. Amy and I both saw a bright flash out the window, and then looked at each other in disbelief. "Was that lightning?" she asked. "It couldn't be, " I said. "It must be some truck's headlights. I've never seen lightning in a snow storm before."

Did I really just hear thunder? Maybe it was just the wind. But then a few minutes later, we saw another flash. This time, I opened the window a crack and listened carefully. About 5 seconds later, I heard the unmistakable rumble of thunder.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Good Things

After reading through the comments on our blog it appears that we have done an awful lot of pointing out things that are different in China. Not all of these things are bad, just different; pointing them out is not the same as complaining about them. We haven't done as good of a job at pointing out the things we really enjoyed.

Public Transportation: The bus system in Hangzhou was really good. With light rail coming near our house soon I'm hopeful that I'll be able to use public transportation here more, but somehow I doubt it.

The Food: Yes, picking bones out of every last bite of food was annoying to us, but the flavor of most everything we ate was really good. Much better than Chinese food you get in the US.

The People: Most everybody we met was very generous with whatever they had, especially with Andrew. We rarely encountered a day out when Andrew wasn't given some fruit, candy, or small trinket by total strangers. The people we knew personally were also very helpful with everyday things like translating menus and showing us around town.

The Parks: We really enjoyed being in a garden city like Hangzhou. Compared to other Chinese cities we were in the number and quality of public spaces was excellent. Walking around the lake and the surrounding hills could easily make any afternoon enjoyable.

The Community: Our apartment was in the "burbs" of Hangzhou with many young families. It was great to watch Andrew play with all the kids in the courtyard. It was nice that the ladies at the store got to recognize me. I didn't hesitate to let my son ride the horse in the front of the store while I gathered up the few things I needed. It was a small store so I could hear him call to me from anywhere in it, still I'd never do that in the US.

The Experience: All the new things we saw every day made each day unique and fun. For the amount of time we were in China, there was little chance of getting in a rut.

Sleep deprivation

Between jet lag and late-nights working with the gang back in Hangzhou, I haven't gotten much sleep lately.

  • Saturday (on the plane): 2 hours of half-sleep
  • Saturday (at home): 2.5 hours
  • Sunday: 5 hours
  • Monday (Christmas): 8 hours - finally!
  • Tuesday: 5 hours (after working til 3 am with the Chinese team)
  • Wednesday: 3.5 hours

The surprising thing is that I seem to be doing fine - despite Amy's protestations that it's made me grumpy (that's actually due to a combination of the work situation and daily cleaning of dog messes). Maybe 3-4 hours of sleep is all I need?


It's been a while since I've seen any wildlife. In Hangzhou, and the rest of China, I never saw any wild animal larger than a bird - and not many of those, either. We didn't even see any roadkill.

Back home in Lakewood, I went to sleep last night to the chorus of a yapping pack of coyotes. This morning, I went running (in the snow) on Green Mountain, just outside my backyard, and spotted a whole herd of deer. I almost always see deer on my morning runs here, and often see foxes, coyotes, racoons, and rabbits. All of this just a few miles from downtown Denver. It's good to be home.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My Fabulous House

We really liked our apartment in Hangzhou, it far exceeded our expectations. However, I didn't realize how comfy our own home was until we had been away from it for so long. I've always thought we had a nice enough house, not the nicest or worst among the people we know. What I didn't know was how nice it is to have carpet in the bedroom and a washer big enough to wash your comforter. The strangest thing to me is how big my kitchen sink is - it just seems monstrous.

Bye Bye Daily Adventure

Although it was exceedingly pleasant to be able to ask the butcher at the store today for exactly what I wanted, I already miss the daily adventure of living in China. My biggest adventure today was having to shift into 4 wheel drive to make it up the driveway while trying not to stall the car because it had a dead battery after 4 months of sitting unused.

I'm unlikely to go looking for bed sheets and accidentally stumble across the wholesale meat market complete with live fish and a big sign stating "Wholesale cuts of American Beef" complete with pictures.

I didn't even have to bargain for anything. I tried bargaining for the guy at Checker to install the new battery in the truck, but it was a no go. Boring, Boring, Boring .....

Friday, December 22, 2006

Zai jian, Zhongguo

Goodbye, China! We're flying home today. If all goes well, we'll depart from Shanghai airport Saturday at 6:05 pm, and land in Denver on Saturday at 5:55 pm. That's right - we arrive 10 minutes before we left. Ah, the magic of timezones!
We really enjoyed our stay here. It was a great experience. We look forward to being back home, though.

Hooters in Hangzhou

Hooters - that uniquely American sports bar chain - has set up shop in China. They have 2 locations in Shanghai, and one in Hangzhou which opened yesterday. We joined another ex-pat couple there after dinner, mainly because I was curious to see what it would be like in China. Hooters sends some of their American waitresses to China to train their Chinese counterparts, and they've done a pretty good job of replicating the American Hooters experience here. They wear the same tank tops and orange shorts, and they're really friendly and talkative, which is very uncommon among Chinese waitresses, in my experience at least. Andrew repeatedly asked us, "why aren't they wearing pants?"
My Chinese co-workers didn't seem to understand the appeal of such a place - in fact, sports bars are almost non-existent here. One of the problems is that satellite TV is illegal, and you don't get much in the way of good sports on Chinese television. The Shangahi Hooters put up a satellite dish anyway, but the landlord in Hangzhou isn't willing to break the law, apparently.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Before we came I imagined that I would spend my time hanging out with the wives and children of Brad’s co-workers. The wives would be much like my friends at home: highly educated women whose husbands make enough that they have the option of staying home. They would of course all be fluent in English.

The reality is, of course, much different. Most of the guys Brad works with are young and don’t have wives or children. I can’t think of even one of his male co-workers that has a child living in Hangzhou. Some of them come to Hangzhou to work leaving their wives (who also work) back in their home towns near their parents. There are a couple of female co-workers with kids around Andrew’s age, but they are obviously working with Brad all day, not hanging out with me.

Both parents work in nearly all the families here. In most cases there is also a resident grandparent or nanny to watch the kids. When that’s not the case, there is always daycare. There is one family in our complex where the mom works and the dad takes care of their daughter nearly full time. They both speak fluent English and their 5 year old does too. We’ve had a good time getting to know them, but I’m not sure our association rises to the friend level.

So what do I want from a friend? Somebody that I can discuss more than the weather with. We can complain about our husbands, our respective governments, and our kids to each other. The Chinese people we have met have been more than generous with their time, advice, translating services, babysitting services, and especially food, but not so much their innermost thoughts.

I’ve made many acquaintances but very few friends. The few friends I have made are expat wives like myself. They are fun to hang out with and we can easily talk, but I am leaving a little disappointed with not having made any good Chinese friends.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Frost in Hangzhou

On my run this morning, I noticed something new - frost on the grass. Today -- Dec. 19 -- is the first day it's been cold enough for frost in Hangzhou. A few weeks ago, it was about 45 degrees F inside our office, but they finally turned on the heat a few days later. I don't mind a cool office, but when my hands get so cold it's hard to type, that's too cold.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

I finally posted photos from our 4-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge back in Oct-Nov. Amy blogged about it in the post There ARE Stars in China. It was 4 days of good hiking and unbelievable scenery on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. Check out the photos on Flickr.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Things I'd never get used to

As the end of our stay in China approaches I find myself getting nostalgic and finding things that I will miss. There are a few things though that I'd never get used to no matter how long we stayed:

traffic: No matter how many times we come millimeters away from hitting the guy on the bicycle or a car pulls in front of the bus without looking I always cringe.

Public vomiting: I can't remember the last time I saw anybody throw-up in public in the US - maybe in 4th grade. It doesn't seem to be a big deal here and every few days I see somebody leaning over the gutter and the rest of the world passing them by without a second glance. Once they have finished they continue on with their day like nothing has happened. Thankfully most people make it to the gutter, though more than once I've seen puddles on the public busses.

Pollution: Smog, cigarette smoke, and more than anything NOISE

Bedding: I'd have to get some fitted sheets made if we were staying longer

Comments on the Comments: Admittedly I have seen public vomiting in the US due to public drunkenness which is definitely not a problem in China. It's been awhile since I've closed the bars down and I'd forgotten this. Bourbon Street was much more disgusting than anything I experienced in China. No matter what, standing in a puddle of puke on a public bus is not fun and I would never get used to it. On pollution: no matter where you are if your boogers are black every day it is too polluted. On traffic: there are crazy drivers all over the world, but it seemed to me that more drivers were crazy in Hangzhou. Also, when you put pedestrians, bikes, and cars in such close proximity things tend to get crazier. In the big cities we visited (Beijing and Shanghai) traffic seemed less out of control, though more congested.
Except the pollution these are not necessarily things I'd like to change, just things I'd never get used to.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Is that a tour group?

We've mentioned several times the Chinese tour groups that pervade every tourist site following around their leader submissively wearing their bright colored hats.

Today Andrew and I watched Ice Age. During the scene where the Dodo birds march themselves off a cliff to extinction as a chaotic but cohesive group Andrew turns to me and asks, "Is that a tour group?"

Another note on tour groups: Today I went to the China National Silk Museum. This museum is quite large and very informative. They have some beautiful silk clothing on display and a very in depth description of the life cycle of silk all the way from the eggs of the silk work through weaving the fibers into cloth. All of this is complete with English signs that actually make sense (they even correctly used the term anthropomorphism). I was very impressed.

The last room in the museum is the only room that we saw any tour groups in, they avoided the rest of the museum. What was in this last room? There were 4 old style human powered looms set up with people weaving at them. Two of the looms were so large that they took 2 people to operate. The cloth the weavers were creating was beautiful and the whole process intricate and fascinating. Even this was largely ignored by the tour groups. On the other side of the room was a fashion show. Having the two things going on in the same room at the same time was so weird. The fashion show lasted 10 minutes at most and the models looked like the could not be more bored. They showed off an array of silk clothing and then the tour groups were hustled off into one of the 3 stores that reside in the museum complex. Once at the stores a sales man gave them a pitch that I can only assume included how to tell real silk from fake since he was lighting stuff on fire (real silk will not remain aflame and smells horrible when burned). After this, the women shopped and the men went outside for a smoke. Then it's back to the bus ...


Elong (the online travel agency - see previous post) may not have the technology to process a credit card without a very complicated procedure, but they do have the technology to search the web for references to them. I suppose that technology could be somebody that gets paid $1 an hour to Google "elong" and read any new entries that come up. However they do it, the day after our previous post Brad got a phone call and I got an email expressing apologies for the mix up and giving us some VIP points. I'm not exactly sure what the VIP points are good for, but it was a nice gesture anyway.

The whole situation really wasn't elong's fault. They are not the one's that canceled the flight and the fact that they called us and spoke to us in English to tell us that the flight was cancelled was more than I could have expected from another travel agency. As mixed up as the situation was, it was far better than arriving at the airport to find out that the flight was cancelled and it would be 21 hours until the next flight.

The way we handle money in the US is so abstract and removed from purchasing. We have our paychecks deposited into the bank directly. They send us an email once a month telling us how much money we have. We make purchases with a card that holds a magnetic strip containing a sequence of numbers that get transmitted somewhere else. We get an email once a month telling us how much we've spent. Once I have both emails I electronically transfer money from one place to another to pay for everything I've bought in the month. I use so little cash that I once put a purchase for 75 cents on my credit card.

The requirement in China for the physical pieces of paper (cash) representing value and the paper receipts representing the transfer of cash just seems crazy to me. I suppose I should be thankful that I don't have to use the barter system and pay for my airline tickets with chickens and whisky. (We once paid for a place to sleep in Laos this way - actually we gave our guide cash who paid for the room with a chicken and a bottle of whiskey)

Really when you think about it cash is no less an abstract representation of value than numbers on a computer screen. I think I prefer the latter.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tickets Please

For the most part, travel within China is not too expensive. However, getting the tickets can be an ordeal sometimes.

First of all, it is very difficult to use a credit card which means that you are dealing in large quantities of cash. Our trip to Lijiang cost around $1000 for the three of us. If we were buying in the US, we’d simply tell them our credit card number and be done with it. Even if we had to pay cash we’d hand over a thin stack of ten $100 bills. Here you first head to the ATM to take out as much money as the machine will allow. Luckily we have a high limit ATM near us that lets us take out $300 (or so) at a time. I am able to do this 3 times before the machine cuts me off. This still leaves me $100 short so Brad has to go to a different bank and use his card to get the rest. After combining our cash we have a large stack of eighty 100 RMB notes to hand over to the guy delivering our tickets.

The ticket delivery guy arrives and he has our tickets in hand, but speaks no English. We assume he’s the right guy and proceed to count out our money for him. All this takes place in front of the BoldTech security guard. We don’t know how much he makes, but our best guess is around $20 a day. It’s a little odd counting out so much cash in front of him.

We book our tickets online through which generally works out pretty well. However, while we were in Yasngshuo elong called to tell us that the flight we booked had been cancelled and we needed to choose another flight. One should think that this is not a problem, but you would be wrong. Since elong does not have an agent in Yangshuo we want to handle the change via the phone. This is just not possible. The new tickets are cheaper than the old tickets, but we can not just exchange them for some reason. Elong accepts credit cards, but phone authorization is not enough. To pay by credit card you must fill out a form and fax it back along with a copy of your passport and the credit card. So to do this you need internet to download the form, a printer to print it and a scanner or a fax to return it. Finding all of this in a small town in China is next to impossible, but I suppose it might be done. After begging them to authorize the purchase via the phone to no avail we decided it was best to just use a local travel agent. This meant getting cash for the new tickets. For some reason ATM’s in Yangshuo are particularly fickle and it took trying three different machines, but we finally found one that worked. We managed to communicate what we needed to travel agent who spoke no English after waiting some time for our receipts to be printed somewhere else and driven over to his storefront, we had our tickets in hand.

All that remained now was to get the refund on our original tickets. Brad had a co-worker call the travel agency affiliated with elong in Hangzhou that had originally issued the tickets. The had to call elong to confirm that we were entitled to a refund, but they said it should be no problem, just bring our receipt in. Luckily I had kept the receipt even though these were e-tickets and I was told I would not need it. We asked if they could deliver the refund as they had delivered the tickets. Not a chance, not even if we paid a service fee for it. The agency was located in a part of the city that I had never been to before but it wasn’t too much trouble to find. When I arrived and gave them our tickets they acted as if they had never heard of the situation though we had just talked to them less than an hour before. They had to call elong again, but in the end I walked out with a fat stack of cash.

Something that would have been so simple in the US that it would have taken a five minute phone call took several hours and had us running all over 2 different Chinese cities, but it all worked out in the end.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Build it and they will come

The Chinese have taken speculative building to a whole new level. All around Hangzhou, high-rise apartment buildings are sprouting like weeds. From my apartment, I can see dozens of cranes busy at work within a mile radius, and it's the same all over the city. Dozens of other towers have been recently built. Of the thousands of units available, though, only a tiny fraction is actually occupied. A huge, riverfront tower nearby is nearly dark at night time, with only a handful of lights on. I've been told that wealthy people are snapping up real estate as fast as they can get it, despite having a fat chance of finding renters any time soon.

All this construction is powered by cheap labor from rural China. I'll get into that topic in a separate post, though...

Longji Rice Terraces

After Yanshuo we traveled North to the Long Ji Rice Terraces (also called Dragon’s Backbone Terraces). In this area the local people have terraces whole mountains for cultivation of rice. The sight is really spectacular on so many levels. It is really beautiful, even in the cold mist that pervaded when we were there. Contemplating the amount of work that went into creating and maintaining the terraces is staggering. The people that live here are of two minority tribes, the Yao and Zhuang. It is designated as an autonomous minority region, but I’m not really sure what that means. The two villages that we visited, Longji and Ping’an, were both Zhuang villages. The Zhuang women are famous for their very long hair.

We arrived in the morning and walked up to our hotel in Ping’an. I didn’t realize this before we arrived, but it is around a kilometer from the parking area to the village up steep stairs. This was not a good place for the rolling suitcase so we paid somebody $1.25 to load our suitcase up in a big basket and carry it up to the Li Qing Hotel for us. After having some noodle soup for lunch we set off for the nearby village of Longji. There is a maze of paths through the terraces and after asking the way several times we finally made it. Longji was interesting primarily because there are no hotels and restaurants catering to the masses of tourists as there are in Ping’an. The old houses and the narrow walkways through town are fun to walk through and the village is small enough that there is not too much worry of getting lost.

It was a cold, foggy day and our hopes of seeing terraced fields stretching into the distance were for naught. The clouds occasionally parted long enough to see the next rise in the hill, but never farther than that. We spent the evening huddled around the fire watch a DVD.

The next day was more of the same weather so we walked around Ping’an trying to get a feel for the people and village life. Amongst the hotels and coffee bars there are pig sty’s and chicken coops. For every man passing with a load of bricks to build his family’s guesthouse there is a woman passing with a bucket of slop for the livestock that will soon be dinner for the family or a tourist. Besides the village residents it was interesting to see the Chinese tourists. Like us, they come out of curiosity, and their impractical shoes and fancy city clothes are a stark contrast to the traditional outfits of the residents.

After about 24 hours of bitter cold weather we left for the airport and Hangzhou. We were disappointed to never have had a good view, but glad to have come none the less. See more photos here.


Last weekend we traveled to Yangshuo. We stayed at the Outside Inn which is located in a little village about 5 km outside of Yangshuo. The tourist sign introducing the village states that it has 10 part members of the Communist Party. I’m not sure what a part member is or why this is important, but we had a good time there.

On the first day we were there we rode bikes up one side of the Yu Long River to Baisha and back down the other side. The rough road and trails made for some bumpy riding, but the small farm villages and amazing karst formations made it all worth while.

The most interesting part of the day was visiting the market at Baisha. Any kind of item necessary for daily living could be found there. Everything from pirated DVD’s (75 cents each) to plow blades to live chickens, rabbits, and fish for dinner could be found. We had a hard time spending money here. We parked our bikes behind a sugar cane stall and offered to pay for the privilege, but our money was refused and they insisted that we take some sugar cane to chew on. We walked around for a bit and ended up standing under an awning to wait out a rain burst where an old lady gave us some oranges. After the rain cleared in a few minutes we tried to buy some of her oranges, but she too refused our money. When we insisted she ended up giving us even more oranges, which we in turn had to give away to others since we didn’t want to carry so many. After poking around for awhile we had a bowl of 25 cent noodle soup (very tasty) and headed back to the bikes. I felt like the market was a glimpse into genuine rural life in China. There were no tourist items for sale and not once did we hear, “Hello, lookee lookee.”

What we did hear throughout the day was, “Hello, Bamboo?” The lack of tourists at this time of year combined with the sheer volume of bamboo rafts available made this call a nearly continuous part of our day. We did finally take a ride on a raft the following day and it was a pleasant respite from pedaling. Unfortunately, due to unlucky timing we ended up in the middle of a Chinese tour group playing loud Chinese opera music and asking their oarsmen to get close to us so they could take pictures of Andrew.

Before the raft trip we cycled to Moon Hill and climbed up for some beautiful views of the area. Later in the evening we ventured into Yangshuo proper and walked up and down the main drag and had dinner. The tourist scene is alive and well there and you can buy your post cards and t-shirts with no problem. When we were there the tourists were predominately Chinese, but there is no shortage of pizza and banana pancakes indicating that this is a popular place for Westerners too. The thumping music and constant sound of vendors vying for your attention made me glad not to have stayed too close to here.

For more pictures check out our flickr site.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Menu of Bad Things

Andrew is very curious about all the things that can go wrong on any given form of transport. He always wants to know what kind of emergencies can happen. Will the train derail? Will the airplane catch on fire? What happens if you open the door while a car is moving? He never fails to point out an emergency exit out of a building.

Most recently while the movie showing emergency procedures was showing before take off he wanted to read the “menu of bad things.” By this he meant the safety instruction card showing pictures of what to do in every possible scenario.

Yangshuo photos

We returned last night from our last big sightseeing trip in China, this time in Yangshuo and the Long Ji rice terraces, both near Guilin. We'll write more about it later, but I've posted some photos from Yangshuo at Flickr. Yangshuo and Guilin are famous for their karst formations - vertical pinnacles of limestone - surrounding the countryside. I also added the link to My Photos on the right under Links.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Clothing Drive

When we leave China we will be donating many of the toys Andrew has acquired while we are here along with some clothes he has outgrown to an orphanage. This is actually one of the orphanages sponsored by our adoption agency so the donation has special meaning for us besides putting the stuff that just wont fit in our suitcases to good use.

I came up with the idea to do a clothing drive at Andrew's preschool to gather up more stuff than we had. Considering that the preschool he attends is in a neighborhood where most residents are in the top 10% of wage earners and tuition is about what government statistics say the "average income" for a Chinese worker is I thought that the kids and parents might have a few things that they could part with.

I first mentioned this to Andrew's English speaking teacher. I could tell that she didn't really understand what I was trying to get at so I didn't pursue it. Next I talked to one of the other parents who is fluent in English. (His 5 year old is also fluent in English, Mandarin, Shanghainese, and now they are working on Spanish.) I started out by explaining what I wanted to do and then asked him if people would find this culturally strange. His reply was, "Yes, very strange."

So what do the Chinese do with their old items? They pass them off to friends and relatives and when their usefulness there has passed they go to the household workers (nannies, cleaning ladies, etc..) and when they are done there they go out into the trash which gets sorted piece by piece for recyclables and other "valuables". If something has any usefulness left in it at this point the trash man (or woman) will either take it home or sell it.

Andrew's Big Adventure

Andrew and I went to Shanghai together yesterday in a fun day just for him. I hadn't decided for sure that I was going to go, but when the, "Mommy can I get up now?" alarm sounded at 5:45 I decided we had plenty of time to make the 7:15 train to the big city (Apparently Hangzhou's 4 million isn't big enough).

We took a 2 hour train ride and caught the light rail to within a kilometer of the Shanghai Children's Museum. We had fun there learning about submarines and the space shuttle. We then went to lunch and Andrew's favorite Chinese eatery, McDonalds. After listening to Christmas Songs with Chinese words over lunch we spent the rest of the afternoon window shopping and playing with the displays set up in the toy store. It was then off to the subway and back to the train station for the journey home.

To top off the day when I got to the train station I was able to tell the cab where to go without pulling out my map or address card. He said the name of the restaurant in our complex, Waipo Jia (Grandma's Kitchen) so I knew that he knew right where he was going. I was so proud of myself.

Andrew's Little Sister

One of the questions Andrew gets asked by complete strangers is, "Do you have a brother or sister?" His answer is usually, "Not yet, maybe next time we come to China." This usually confuses them quite a lot.

I think this intrigues them since nearly every 3 year old in China is an only child.

If they speak particularly good English I may explain our adoption plans, but generally I just leave them confused.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ex-pat Thanksgiving

This was one of the most interesting Thanksgivings I've ever had. We had a buffet dinner in Kana's Pub, a Chinese Bar run by an Indian man (Kana) in celebration of the American "food festival" of Thanksgiving.

While most Americans living here have either a kitchen adequate to cook a proper dinner or opted to spring for the $35 buffets at either the Hyatt or Radison hotels we thought our experience might be more unique.

The food itself was mostly traditional, turkey, mashed potatoes, green salad, etc. I have to say I really enjoyed to Indian influence on the deviled eggs. For $13 we got all you can eat and drink (wine - from Spain, beer - from Denmark, and soda) and we stuffed ourselves.

We went out with another couple from BoldTech, Michael and Aleah, who recently arrived and will be staying for a year. There were several other Americans at the bar and many of their Chinese friends. Early in the evening a friend of Kana's with a 5 year old half-Chinese daughter introduced himself to us as Cliff Connors. He acted as host for the evening and took pictures of everyone. Andrew had a great time playing with his daughter and I ended up playing pool with one of his employees, named Raining, for much of the evening.

There was no pumpkin pie so we went across the street to a Starbucks copycat place and had chocolate fondue for desert. It was a tasty way to cap off a very pleasant evening.


Today we joined my coworker, Patrick Ding, on a day trip to some sights near the city of Fuyang. Our first stop was the Jiuxiao Biyun Cave. It was a good thing we had Patrick to translate, and Patrick's college buddy, a Fuyang native, to guide us on the 5 different buses it took to get there. I suppose if we had just hired a cab from downtown Fuyang (after the first 2 buses), we would've been able to get there, but it would've cost a few more kuai (Yuan). The cave, discovered in 1980, claims to be the largest single cave room in the Asia-Pacific region, and I believe it. It's by far the biggest cave I've visited. The path around the perimeter of the dome-shaped room is 1.5 km (about 1 mile), and it has several massive columns and many other interesting formations.

After lunch, we motored on to Longmen (Dragon Gate) town, which contains architecture and history from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The old town is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and a guide is must so you don't get lost. Again, our trusty translator Patrick saved the day since the guide didn't speak any English. More than 90% of the people here share the same family name - Sun - and are decendants of the Wu emperor Sun Quan. It seems that a large percentage are also involved in the business of stringing badmitton racquets (usually translated as badminton in China) - people all over the town were busy working on these, and Patrick tells us the local racquets are famous in China.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Enchanting Lijiang

The city of Lijiang, in China's southwestern Yunnan province, is a fascinating place. We spent a full week here and in surrounding areas from October 30 to November 6. Lijiang is the longtime home of the Naxi (pronounced nah-shee or nah-hee) minority. The town itself is a maze of narrow stone cobbled lanes and small canals which until recently provided the residents' drinking water. It's strictly pedestrian traffic in the old city - no cars - which makes it pleasant to simply stroll around for hours - or even days.

Although the place is heavily touristed, it nonetheless has great deal of charm. Among the hundreds of souvenir shops that fill the ancient buildings are quite a few with really interesting, locally produced arts and crafts. In many cases, you can watch the sculptors, artists and weavers at work. The wood and mud brick Naxi architecture in the city center fared quite well when a strong earthquake hit the town in 1996, killing hundreds and leveling most of the newer concrete structures outside the old town. It's now a UN World Heritage site - well deserved, I'd say.

Many of the old women wear traditional Naxi clothing, and the pubs lure Chinese tourists with groups of women singing in traditional garb.

There's also the stunning backdrop of Yulong Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) to add to the town's majesty. This Himilayan peak rises above the city to an elevation of 5500 meters (somewhere around 18,000 feet). One other enticing feature Yunnan can boast compared to China's crowded east coast - blue sky!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

$7 Guiness in Hangzhou

It's tough to find good beer in Hangzhou, so when I do find it, I'm willing to pay a premium. Seven bucks (58 RMB) for a pint of Guiness does seem a bit steep, though. That's what I paid for liquid dinner tonight at the Night & Day bar on Hangzhou's main drag for nightlife, Nanshan road, along the shore of West Lake (Xi Hu). Along with six of my colleagues, we arrived at about 8 pm, and we were the only patrons in the pub. After an inexplicably long debate with the server about how to seat 7 people in a completely empty bar, we settled in to relax. Another prolonged Mandarin conversation resulted in one pint of frothy Guiness for me, and 6 empty glasses for the rest of the crew. No matter how much I sang the praises of the liquid gold from Ireland, my Chinese colleagues refused to join me in partaking such a hearty brew. A few moments later, a wooden mini-keg of sufficiently light and easy-drinking Tiger beer arrived at our table for my compatriots.

The atmosphere here is interesting. Electronic club-ish music, in English, fills the room -- loud, but not quite loud enough to require shouting. One TV shows Chinese basketball, and another displays some dancing girl show that seems like it could only have been staged in Vegas, featuring topless dancers in wild feather dresses, juggling magicians, and crococile wrestlers. A bit later, a 4-person band takes the stage, consisting of one caucasian keyboardist and 3 swaying Chinese vocalists performing covers of western tunes in English and phonic Espanol.

Want a shot of whiskey? They've got Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker black label, not to mention Macallan 12-year Scotch, but you've gotta buy the whole bottle. No single servings here, mister. No worries if you don't finish it. Just take your claim check, and they'll keep your bottle safe and sound for you to return and finish some other day. If a pint of Guiness costs $7, you can bet a full bottle of quality imported Scotch ain't cheap.

If the tunes aren't enough to keep you entertained, never fear! They've got Chui Niu, which literally translated means "blow cow". A better translation would be "blow your own horn". This is a dice game where two players each roll 5 dice in an overturned cup, then one player declares how many of a particular number he/she thinks are showing. The opponent can choose to agree with the count, call "BS", or raise the number. Whoever gets caught bluffing or guesses the wrong count must take a drink as punishment. Never a dull moment.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Yellow Mountain - chapter 2

Amy already blogged about Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan), but I want to share a few more photos and stories about this site, with it's impressive Yosemite-esque geology, and throngs which put Yellowstone on the 4th of July to shame. We stepped on a public bus in Hangzhou with about 10 of my colleagues from the US and China, and heard a short speech about and the bus rules, which prohibit smoking. Of course, the speech was in Mandarin, but my colleague translated this one bit of welcome news for me. But alas, I as I've mention before, the Chinese aren't much for rules, and a few blocks into the ride, out came the cheap cigs. The offending passengers graciously agreed to snuff out their smokes, but a short while later, the foul odor began again. I walked the length of the bus, but couldn't find any lit cigarettes. "Did someone light up and finish it off in a few short drags?" I thought to myself. A while later, the same thing again, but still I couldn't locate the culprit. Finally, I found him - sitting behind the wheel of the bus. After asking politely but firmly, Mr. bus driver stopped smoking. After that, we could sit back and enjoy the Chinese-dubbed version of the 1980's American B-movie Ministry of Vengeance on the bus video monitor. Don't rush out to your local video store for this one folks - I'm pretty sure English dialogue wouldn't have made it any better.

But I digress - this was supposed to be about awe-inspiring mountains, wasn't it? For starters, let me provide some context. Hiking in China means tromping on stone stairways, not primitive trails. It also usually means cable cars, which hoist throngs of chain-smoking Chinese tourists to heights which would otherwise be inconceivable. The local government sure is getting their piece of the action, charging an exorbitant 200 RMB ($24) for the privilege of setting foot on the mountain, and the cable car costs another 65 RMB ($8) - one way! That's a small fortune for the average Chinese person, folks. The only common folk who are gonna hike Huang Shan are the porters who ferry food, drinks, kerosene, and hotel linens up and down the 5000+ vertical feet of stone steps. It's actually cheaper to pay people to carry these goods up and down on bamboo poles than to load it into the cable cars. Even 30 feet long steel rebar is carried up on porters' shoulders. Unbelievable.

Did I mention steps? These aren't your ordinary steps. You see, the granite crags here are nearly vertical in spots, so the Chinese actually carved steps right out of the granite. Amy and my co-worker, Spring Chen, demonstrate the trails in these photos.

Our group actually earned the summit by hiking the whole mountain, and it was well worth it. The steep climb was breathtaking, and so was the scenery. But possibly the best part was that the difficulty of the climb kept the throngs at bay, so we could enjoy the hike in relative peace. The summit of Celestial Capital Peak, at 1810 meters, was a worthy destination for our BoldTech group.

Just below the summit, as we ventured toward the growing crowds, is a narrow fin of rock known as the fish back, which is no place for anyone who fears heights.

Did I mention crowds? We're actually fortunate that it's mid-November. A few months ago foot traffic was so heavy that a rail divided the main trails to separate each direction of traffic, and police patrolled the trails to force people to move along.

But there's a good reason so many thousands of Chinese visit this place on any weekend. It's simply spectacular. No wonder it has inspired generations of Chinese artists and adventurers.

Xian - the city that never sleeps

Xian (a.k.a. Xi'an and pronounced Shee-ahn) is a large city in central China where we spent the first 2 days of our recent vacation. We stayed at the Melody Hotel in the heart of the city, with a room overlooking the central square, the ancient Drum Tower, and the traffic noise that was still going strong at 3 am. Xian is most famous as the base for journeys to the nearby Terracotta Warriors, but it's an interesting city in it's own right, at least for a few days of sight seeing. Xian has a long history and interesting architecture - it's one of the few Chinese cities to keep it's ancient fortification walls intact. These massive walls form a 13 kilometer rectangle around the heart of the city, with just 5 or 6 gates letting traffic in and out. We went for a stroll on the walls, which gave a decent view of the smoggy, crowded city. The best thing about it, perhaps, was the 40 RMB ($5) entrance fee that kept it nearly deserted and offered a rare respite from the throngs that one must face almost everywhere in this country.

The city has a sizeable muslim population concentrated in one section of the city center, offering a different variety of restaurants and shops than we're accustomed to seeing in china. The big mosque here is interesting primarily because it looks no different, from the ouside anyway, than the many Buddhist temples we've seen in China.

We also visited the Taoist Temple of the 8 Immortals, which outwardly is also nearly indistinguishable from the Buddhist temples. The visitors' rituals of incense burning, kneeling, and making offerings are similar, too. The subtle differences, though, made it a worthwhile visit. For example, several women were rubbing each of 8 stone lion statues surrounding a small pool of water.

Andrew enjoys playing with the lions, too.

It was also interesting to see the Taoist practitioners in their traditinoal garb and long beards, such as this old man.

The antique market, just outside the temple, is an unbelievable crowded affair where hundreds of individual seller display there wares on sheets of newspaper, laid on the ground, and crowds of shoppers jostle each other in the narrow aisles between these rows of goods. This market had everything from ancient Chinese coins (the ones with a square hole in the middle) to broken bits of dishes, to furniture.Many people pass right through Xian without stopping on their way to the Terracotta Warriors. If you have the time, I recommend spending one or two days in the city itself.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Love Lock

Isn't it sweet ?

Remember that episode of the Amazing Race where they had to find the lock that matched the key...

Brad and I had our names engraved on a love lock which is now affixed to a chain overlooking the Grand Canyon of Huangshan. The keys to the lock rest somewhere at the bottom of the canyon as they were promptly thrown over the edge as soon as the lock was in place. Guess we're stuck together for good now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Yellow Mountain (Huangshan)

Yellow Mountain is an iconic Chinese mountain like many captured in the traditional ink brush paintings. It's rocky granite peaks rise straight up as if to touch the sky. Hiking up the peaks is an exhausting, but rewarding, experience, as each vista surpasses the last. To view the sunrise from the top of the mountain is a splendid thing. Islands of rock with a few clinging trees float in space above a sea of orange tinted clouds.

The orange of the sunrise is as bright as any you will see anywhere, enhanced by the pollution from nearby Shanghai. The hike up through bamboo forest is enjoyable as you weave through the many porters toting everything from clean bed sheets to watermelon to legs of pork and lamb to the hotels on top of the mountain. Our visit to Heavenly Capital Peak brought us into contact with our first tour group on the mountain, but crowding on this peak wasn't bad. After snapping some photos and purchasing a medal with Swanson engraved stating we had made it to the top we continued on our way to the main mountain top area.

In about a half an hour we reached the top of the cable car and any notions that we had of enjoying some peaceful hours in the Chinese wilderness were quickly dispelled. The scenery continued to be beautiful but actually seeing it through the tour groups that gathered at every lookout became more of a challenge. The crowding and noise (and this was the off-season)made the remaining two hour walk to our hotel less pleasant than it might have otherwise been but still worth the effort to see the sights. On the plus side, this seems to be the one place in China where no smoking rules are actually enforced. However, you can still smoke in the mountain top hotels which made the option of sitting in the 1RMB/minute massage chairs in the hotel lobby definitely out. I suppose they would have been great if you didn't have to breathe while sitting in them.

The worst $100 hotel

We went to Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) last weekend and stayed at a hotel on top of the mountain. The room cost around $100 per night, by far the most we've paid to stay anywhere in China. Given the location we weren't expecting it to be quite as nice as the Crown Plaza in Beijing ($55/night) but we were expecting it to be nice.

The room itself was like any room we've paid $15 to stay in elsewhere. The bed linens were clean, but not much else. It only cost $1 per hour for cleaning, so you would think that once a month or so they could wash the smashed bugs off the wall. How does a ceiling get dirty anyway?

If it couldn't be clean at least the staff could be friendly, right? Even Andrew didn't get great treatment here.

Finally, we only got 3 hours of hot water and heat a night. I may be a spoiled American, but for that kind of money I want a hot shower whenever. (Of course, like every other hotel room in China, the drains were backed up so when I did get my shower the bathroom flooded.)

I will give a thumbs up to the view from our room. We were lucky enough to have an East facing room so the view at sunrise was incredible. Since we hadn't had heat since 9:00 pm the night before even our room was chilly, but at least we didn't have to stand out on the breezy patio with the chain smoking Chinese tour groups to watch the sunrise.

Overall, I give a thumbs down to the White Goose (Bai e) hotel at Huangshan. There has got to be a nicer place to stay.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

In China's Shadow

This op/ed piece by Reed Hunt -- In China's Shadow: US must change to compete -- published in the Denver Post, is an interesting viewpoint on globalization. Here's a preview:

China is now to the United States what the United States was to Europe in the 19th century: the world's biggest new market in terms of consumption and production and the place where standards of living are rising most quickly. China is the birthplace of firms with a chance to take leadership in every sector of the global economy.

So, is America up to the challenge?

Clash of civilizations?

In this post, I'm straying far from my normal subjects and venturing into the turbulent waters of politics and religion. My friend Steve Runkel sent me this link to an interview with Wafa Sultan broadcast on Al Jazeera television. She has an eloquent and intriguing viewpoint on the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world. She argues that it isn't a clash of civilizations, but rather "a clash between civilization and backwardness". I couldn't have said it better myself. View it for yourself here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Blocking my blog in China

The Chinese government is doing it's best to block access to my blog, and maybe everyone else on, too. They often don't outright block access, but they slow down the response from "undesirable" web sites so much users aren't willing to wait, or the browser just times out.

Until recently, I've been able to get around this problem by viewing my blog on a proxy server at Tonight, though, even that site isn't working. Hopefully it's just a temporary issue.

Interestingly, I can almost always access blogger to create my blog posts, but then I just can't view them...

The Shanghai security incident

One of my co-workers, David Hastoglis -- a BoldTech vice-president, actually -- recently visited the Hangzhou office. On his return to Denver, I asked him to carry back some of the souvenirs and gifts we've purchased so we won't have so much to carry back ourselves. We gave him a bag full of gifts including several campy, decades-old Chairman Mao alarm clocks, where Mao's arm actually waves back and forth as the chairman beams his warm smile. It seems my innocent request led to an interesting incident at the Shanghai airport. Here's a transcript of my IM conversation with the aforementioned VP...

davidhastoglis: I got stopped leaving Shanghai to have my packages inspected.
Brad Swanson: doh!
davidhastoglis: I don't know why, but they didn't like the looks of large metal objects with alarm clocks next to them.
davidhastoglis: :0

Brad Swanson: ooooh - didn't think about that. sorry for the hassle

davidhastoglis: It was funny, because when they took me to the inspection room and took everything out they just couldn't understand why I would have alarm clocks that didn't work.
davidhastoglis: I told them I had the clocks because they were funny.

Brad Swanson: did they speak decent english?

davidhastoglis: They said "waht's funny about them" and I replied "They are chairmain Mao clocks".
davidhastoglis: The guy said "Waht is funny about that".

Brad Swanson: LOL!

davidhastoglis: I realized the error in my joke and said "nothing. it is funmy because they are old and don't work".
davidhastoglis: They let me go.
davidhastoglis: It wasn't a hassle but a funny story I thought.

Brad Swanson: just tell them we love Mao so much in America that we even want broken clocks with his image

davidhastoglis: Yep, you are sharper on the ball than me.

Brad Swanson: i'll practice my speech before i pass thru security on the way home
Brad Swanson: so i can say it with a straight face

Monday, November 06, 2006

Purple Haze

On most days, smog blankets Hangzhou. It's about a mile to the hills across the Qian Tang river from our apartment, and they usually appear only as dim, hazy outlines when I go for my morning run along the waterfront. It's certainly debatable whether vigorous exercise in this atmosphere does more harm than good. The dust that settles on our furniture and floor is dark, almost black. It could be worse, though. Coal-burning power plants have been relocated farther from the cities, and hydroelectric power lessons the soot in the air. Gasoline-powered scooters are verboten in Hangzhou and some other big cities, so folks ride along on eirily silent electric bicycles instead, cruising at around 20 mph. On the other hand, I heard one time that China doesn't impose emissions standards on auto manufacturers, presumably to keep the vehicles more affordable for the masses. Hopefully China is on a path toward a brighter environmental future, but don't count on blue skies and clear water any time soon.

Cheap cigs

Chain smokers, rejoice! For the low, low price of 2 Yuan ($0.25), you can get yourself a full pack of 20 foul smelling cancer sticks. Anyone who thinks he's getting decent tobacco for that price, though, is definitely smoking something.

Fortunately, the smoking habit here isn't quite as bad as other places - like Turkey, for example - where chain smoking is the national pastime.


With millions of low income people across the country, there's no need for an official recycling scheme in China. Drop a plastic bottle on the street, and you can be sure someone will pick it up within minutes. There's an army of government-employed workers sweeping the streets and side walks who are eager to snatch up any recyclable material, and plenty of private citizens happy to do the same. Just a few weeks ago, the city installed trash and recycling bins around our neighborhood; so far, littering still seems to be the preferred method of disposal. Hopefully that will change with time.

Life and Death in Shanghai

If you're not familiar with the insanity and brutality of communist China under Mao Zedong, pick up a copy of Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng. This extraordinary woman survived to write the story of her 6 and a half years of imprisonment in China's cultural revolution of 1966-76. With the help of her Christian faith and mental strength, she steadfastly refused to make a false confession, tormenting her tormentors with her stubborn resolve.

After her release, she was closely monitored by neighbors, her party-appointed maid, old friends pressured to spy on her, and a "student" of hers (she taught English). All these people repeatedly set traps for her, hoping she would say something to incriminate herself. She eventually learned that her long ordeal was the result of the power struggle at the highest levels of the party, where Mao's wife, Jiang Qing was trying her best to discredit Zhou Enlai to secure her succession of Mao.

The communist party eventually declared the cultural revolution to be a flawed policy, but all the official blame was placed on Jiang Qing and her comrades in the so-called gang of four, sparing Mao the brunt of the blame and perpetuating his personality cult.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

There ARE stars in China

I was beginning to wonder if there were stars here. After being in China for 2 months I can't once recall seeing the stars. Through the haze of pollution and the lights of a large city they just aren't visible.

Last week we went to Lijiang in the Yunnan province and the very first thing we noticed when we got there were the stars.

It was a fabulous trip!

We spent two short days in Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors (see Amy and Andrew with the warriors in the background) and some other sights around the city. The warriors were cool but I actually enjoyed another burial site better. At the Tomb of emperor Han Jing there were also warriors, but they were only about 2 feet tall. He also had a whole bunch of animals and other daily objects in the burial grounds and the museum is brand new. You could get much closer to the dig site than at Terracotta Warriors and it was much less touristy. We took a taxi and arranged for a fixed price for the day; it was just under $40 for about 9 hours of driving us around.

After Xian we flew to Lijiang where we saw the stars. Lijiang has a great old town full of ancient houses and brick paved streets. At night paper lanterns light up the streets and the air turns crisp. It's maze of alleyways is blocked off from cars and canals run through the city making it very pleasant to walk around, especially if you get up early enough to beat the hordes of hat wearing Chinese tour groups. Since there are so many tour groups the old town is full of nothing but souvenir shops and restaurants, so a day walking around old town is plenty.

The highlight of our trip was a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. By some accounts this is the deepest gorge in the world. The gorge rises from the river at around 5700 feet to the mountains above at over 17000 feet. One fellow traveler asked us if gorge was derived from gorgeous or the other way around. In any case it was spectacular. Unfortunately, plans are underway to dam the valley and change the scene for forever. At this time of year I would guess that around 25 people a day (all but a couple of them being Westerners) start the 15k trek through the gorge so we were finally able to get away from the mobs of people that are everywhere in China. Every couple of hours there is a village of a couple hundred people with a guesthouse where you can grab a meal or spend the night. We hiked for 6 hours the first day and spent the night at Halfway House. Even the view from the common bathroom was amazing as evidenced by the picture through the door of the ladies room. We spent the whole next day lounging around Halfway House and exploring the farms in the village. On the next day we got a couple of horses and went up to 12000 feet or so for some incredible views of the surrounding mountains (picture above). We had climbed part way up Haba Snow Mountain and were looking across the valley at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yu Long Xue Shan). Except for the horses and their owners not another soul was in sight. Incredible!

After the horse ride we walked an hour and a half to the next guesthouse which was on the road through the canyon. In the morning we descended to the middle rapids of the Jinsha river (an early stretch of the Yangzi) to be astounded by the torrent of frothing, bubbling, thunderous water. Andrew asked why it did that and I explained that a lot of water was trying to get through a small space. His very astute response was, "It's kinda like traffic."

After this we returned to Lijiang and Mama Naxi's Guesthouse. I can't say enough about Mama's hospitality. I promise if you stay here you will not go hungry. Breakfast cost 25 cents and dinner (which is all you can eat, and then all Mama can coax you into eating so as not to offend) is only $1. There is no menu, Mama and her daughters and nieces just cook up a dozen amazing dishes and you eat what ever you like. In general we found the food in this region to be more salty and oily than elsewhere, and Mama's cooking was no exception, but for variety it couldn't be beat. Staying at guesthouses is a great option for us. There are several small rooms that face a courtyard where there is room to relax and socialize. This means that we can put Andrew to bed early and still enjoy the company and tales of our fellow travelers over a beer in the courtyard while keeping our room in sight and in earshot. It's more like staying with a family. Andrew had a great time playing with the dogs and cats and nieces while we were there. Before we left Mama gave Andrew a piggy bank made out of a coconut and many of Mama's guests gave him their coins to put in it. We had to promise to come back or at least send Andrew back when he is bigger.

Alas, we are back in Hangzhou and back to work.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Chinese Chips

Got a craving for Lay's potato chips? No problem - we've got plenty of those here in China. A hankerin' for Pringles? Got that covered too. Want some new and funky flavors? No worries! Here are your flavor choices:
  • Classic American
  • Texas Grilled BBQ
  • Mexican tomato chicken
  • French Chicken
  • Italian red meat flavor
  • Ziran steak (sorry, I don't know what/where Ziran is)
  • Cucumber
  • Braised pork ribs
  • Korean kimchi
  • Beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck)
Now I've got the fever for the flavor of the Pringles...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More Expectations and observations

Poverty: I've been surprised by how little poverty I've seen. I expected to see evidence of poverty everywhere I looked, but I've really not seen much at all. Even in some of the small towns we've been to the housing seems adequate and the slums (surely there must be some) are kept well out of view. The closest thing to a slum we've seen is the construction worker housing. The workers stay in temporary buildings which are sometimes little more than bamboo shacks on the property where they work. Once the building is complete they move on, it's not a permanent slum. We're going to the rural Western part of the country next week and getting away from the Eastern sea coast so we might see a different standard of living out there.

Men: In this patriarchal society little courtesy is shown to women. Men and women seem to fall into the same general categories of work as in the US. In Brad's office all the HR staff is women and 95% of the programmers are men. All the teachers in Andrew's day care women. However, there is no such thing as "ladies first". I've never had a problem getting a seat on a bus when Andrew was with me, but it is always a woman who gives her seat up for the lady with the baby. On the other hand, husbands and boyfriends don't seem to have a problem carrying their beloved's purse for them - even if it high fashion pink.

Bugs: I was expecting to see some nasty bugs here, and we definitely have some mosquitoes, but mostly the bug level is the same as in Colorado. I'm relieved that there are no cockroaches lurking in my less than spotless kitchen. However, I'm sure the bugs are kept in check by a less visible threat from insecticides.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Funny signs & shirts

Rarely does a day go by in China without some amusing sign or a T-shirt catching my eye. Here's a few of the best ones yet.

From a bell tower overlooking Beijing:

No throws the thing

This one is from a jacket for sale at the Hangzhou train station:

Yeah, my photo kinda stinks, so here's the transcript.
Skull Dekoh: Instead of Lovin treat your frier
The thing that I find most amusing about that one is that someone managed to string together 6 seemingly random English words (ignoring the first 2) and create a phrase that is grammatically correct, yet nonsensical. Reminds me of Madlibs.

I spotted a woman right outside our office building at lunch one day wearing a T-shirt with text below (front and back, respectively). Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera.

de puta
Pablo Escobar, el magico

Ten bucks says she doesn't even realize it's Spanish, much less have any idea what it means.

And today, while hiking along a mountain ridge above Hangzhou, I saw a Chinese boy about 3 years old with a confederate flag on the front. Superimposed on the flag are the words:

It's a white thing. You wouldn't understand

I'm devastated that my camera batteries were dead today. I would've loved to get that photo!

Friday, October 20, 2006

My Greatest Hits

For all my fans, this is the album you've been waiting for. Brad Swanson's Greatest Hits - all on one 33-RPM LP! Vinyl, baby - vinyl.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fireworks at 6:15 a.m.

Fireworks are a common phenomenon here in Hangzhou, especially over the past few weeks. At first I thought it was for the National Day holiday, but I've since learned they're mostly for weddings. The groom often picks up the bride at her house in the morning - apparently as early as 6:15 am, at which point the family launches a noisy salvo of fireworks. The end of the wedding day seems to be another popular time to light up the sky -- 10:30 pm is a favorite time for these professional-grade displays which literally ricochet off neighboring apartment buildings. Don't plan on sleeping in - it's futile!

Pajamas in public

Take a stroll in the morning or evening in Hangzhou, and you're likely to spot women wearing pajamas - silk pajamas, usually. I've seen them doing exercises with fans and swords (tai chi?), strolling with friends, and even riding bikes. I remember seeing something on TV one time about the pajama fad in China, and supposedly pajamas are a status symbol; a way to tell the world "I can afford fancy clothes just for sleeping in!"

If you're in a high-rent district, wearing pajamas sends one more message: not only can I afford pajamas, but I can afford to live here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Great Wall without the crowd

The crowded day at Ju Yong Guan left me longing for a more satisfying Great Wall experience, so I went back the next day, this time by myself - Andrew and Amy stayed in Beijing. I hired a driver to take me to Mu Tian Yu early in the morning, and arrived before 7 am. The souvenir stands aren't even open yet, there are only a handful of people in sight, and it's a beautiful, cool morning. This is the way to see the wall.

This section has been restored, just like Ju yong guan, but it feels older and more authentic. The scenery here is more spectacular, too, with steeper, rugged mountains.
I reached the highest point of the restored section, and the only thing between me and miles of ancient, unrestored wall is a flimsy sign reading "closed to tourists". Without so much as a chain across the stone doorway, this is practically an invitation for adventure and one which I definitely cannot resist. Besides, the Chinese ignore every other rule and sign anyway (no smoking signs, traffic signs, etc.) so why pay any attention to this one?

For the next few hours, I explored this rustic section of the wall by myself. Shrubs and trees are slowly reclaiming the walkway, and watch towers are partially collapsed. The wall stands about 10-15 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and it's constructed from huge stones and very well-made bricks. The large watch towers are only a few hundred yards apart - surprisingly close together considering the extra effort required to build them. The amount of manual labor required to construct such a massive structure in this steep, remote location is unimaginable.

Watch a 10-minute video of my adventure below.

Great Wall: Ju yong guan

For our first visit to the wall, we chose Juyongguan (Ju yong pass), a recently restored and very steep section of the wall closest to Beijing, partly because it's supposed to be less crowded than the Badaling site a few miles up the road. It's hard to imagine that someone else could be more crowded; for the first quarter mile or so here, it's shoulder to shoulder with police directing pedestrian traffic on the wall to keep it from grinding to a complete halt.

Fortunately, after a short way, about half the crowd gives up on the arduous hike, with some steps as much as 18 inches tall, and heads back down. Andrew had it easy, riding the whole way in an Ergo baby carrier on my back. Despite the crowds, we enjoyed hiking on a bit of (restored) history and the view from 1000 feet above our starting point.

The China Daily

The China Daily is the national English-language newspaper. No ads, and just 12 pages long. I expected it to be packed with commie propaganda, but instead it seems to be more focused on politically benign and often unimportant tidbits of news. Here's a sampling of some of their recent, earth-shattering front-page stories:
  • Free newspaper launched in Guangzhou [a city near Hong Hong]
  • Thai Princess unveils country's first royal blog
With just 1 page of international business news, they stick to the important stuff, such as
  • Joe Blow named new CFO of Progressive Insurance Co. [in the US]
That one really rocked the international markets!

Here's another good story: the Chinese government has launched a campaign to improve the manners of Chinese people travelling abroad.
Uncivilized behavior is becoming a real embarassment for China. Spitting and littering top the list of behavior among Chinese travelers.
Travelers are also being admonished not to talk too loudly and to respect queuing rules. Can't they launch this campaign in the homeland first? Please!

In the interest of fair and balanced journalism, there are a few things we Americans could stand to improve, too.
  • Look around - is anyone else in your host country wearing short-shorts, obnoxious T-shirts, plunging neck lines, or exposing their belly buttons to the world? No? Well then you shouldn't be, either. When in Rome...
  • I don't care how many people speak a little English so they can more effectively overcharge you for crappy souvenirs. Learn how to say at least "hello" and "thank you" in the local language

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Old Mao good, new Mao bad

Our audio guide at the forbidden city described October 1, National Day, as the anniversary of the liberation of the nation; the day when Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China from the Meridian Gate at the forbidden city, the place where the famous, huge portrait of Mao hangs today. I expected a greater show of nationalistic fervor in the capital city of this single-party nation. The only noticeable signs of the holiday we saw, apart from the massive throngs of people, were a tiny number of people carrying cheap, paper PRC flags. No fireworks, even. There did seem to be a big crowd pouring out of Tiananmen square after the early morning flag-raising ceremony.

Back in Hangzhou, large fireworks displays were a daily occurrence near the holiday - as late at 10:30 pm and as early as 6:30 am!!! -- but I've learned that these are for wedding celebrations and have nothing to do with the holiday.

We did notice a number of people wearing red armbands, reminiscent of the Red Guards from the openly-despised Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 which brutally supressed expression, culture, and religion. Most of the people wearing them were middle-age or older. Many of them were sweeping trash from the street and in the forbidden city, and a few of them were sitting and talking in front of their homes or small shops. I asked my co-workers about these folks, and was told the modern-day Red Guard are volunteers who agree to keep the city clean and safe. They're also somehow associated with the communist party, but my friends weren't able to quite explain how -- due to their limited English, not a reluctance to discuss it, as far as I can tell. I've openly discussed a few other politically sensitive topics with the Chinese, and they don't seem to shy away from it.

We hired a pedi-cab (rickshaw) driver to take us through Beijing's famous hutong, a complex web of narrow alleyways and crowded courtyard houses which at one time comprised most of the city. He spoke very limited English, but was able to clearly communicate his disdain for the cultural revolution. Interestingly, he had mixed feelings for Mao himself, the ultimate architect of the cultural revolution and the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward, a soviet-style economic experiment which was at least partly to blame for the starvation deaths of an estimated 30-60 million Chinese. The pedicab driver's quote:

Old Mao good, new Mao bad.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Living in an authoritarian state

It's sometimes easy to forget that I'm smack dab in the middle of an authoritarian state. Capitalism is sweeping China, but democracy and human rights are not. The Newsweek article Silent Games is grim reminder that I have no freedom of speech here, and the government exercises tight control over what information I can get my hands on. Fortunately, the internet is difficult to completely control. I can read the Newsweek article, for example, and western news outlets like CNN are accessible on the web, too -- at least today it is.

Google on the term police state, and the first link is the wikipedia entry. Somebody wanna let me know what it says? I can't read it because the wikipedia site (which is a fantasic, free on-line encyclopedia) is blocked in China. No doubt the entry on Tiananmen Square isn't too flattering to the People's Republic.


China is very different from my expectations. Having traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos I had expectations of what an Asian country should be like and China is very different.

Rules: I had expected that a country with an authoritarian government would be populated with people who are used to following rules and regulations. It seems that as long as you stay out of politics there is very little you can't do. Go ahead and smoke in front of the no smoking sign, only Andrew will ask you why you are smoking when the sign clearly says not to. Ride your bike over the bridge with the huge sign with the slash through the picture of a bike. And it is most definitely not a problem to pass a police car on the shoulder of the road while going double the speed limit.

English: I expected more people to speak more English. There is usually someone around to help translate when it is necessary and if there is really a problem we can use the cell phone to call one of Brad's co-workers to translate, but your average waiter or salesperson does not speak English. When we were traveling before finding someone who spoke English was never a problem. I think this largely has to do with being on the tourist circuit. We did not have this problem in Beijing, but we were in an area heavily traveled by foreign tourists.

Clothes: Apart from costumed waiters at theme restraints and on tourist boats the only people I have seen wear "traditional" clothes are monks. People wear western style clothes and I have no problem finding any style I want from sweatpants to couture. What is different is the way people match their clothes. People's shirts are often very loud and flashy and women's shirts frequently have beads or sparkles. It's no problem to wear that orange shirt and purple pants together. In SE Asia it was more common to see people in traditional or at least partly traditional clothes.

Shoes: My comments on shoes are largely the same as clothes but bear special mention in that most Chinese women are slaves to fashion. There are tablets at the Great Wall with a quote from Mao stating, "You are not a man until you have climbed the great wall". What if you do it in high heels? You're probably not a man, but it's a feat I witnessed none the less.

Buildings: While the palaces and temples of Beijing are colorful they don't hold a candle to the flashy temples of Thailand. Though there is more splashes of color and intricate designs in the architecture surrounding Beijing the buildings elsewhere are more reminiscent of East Germany, utilitarian rectangles. Very functional, but not very pretty. Most of the newer buildings (which in Hangzhou is many) have more style with curves and key holes and other modern flair, but there is very little of what I would consider "Chinese" architecture.

Shopping: I was prepared to buy our daily goods at an open air market. There is no need, I simply walk a block to the local chain grocery store to get my everyday goods. If I want something exotic, like cereal or low fat milk, I just take the bus downtown to Carrefore (a French chain similar to Super-Walmart).

I'm surprised by how much my life is the same. Andrew goes to school and I work. In the evenings he plays with the neighbor kids before or after dinner. Brad goes to work every day. I go shopping for food and clothes. The biggest change is that we don't get to see our extended family regularly. Also, I feel really uninformed. We listed to radio streamed on the internet over breakfast and every now and then I checkout MSNBC online, but I don't get nearly as much US or international news and I can't understand the local news.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Beijing's Forbidden City

Our first stop in Beijing is the vast palace grounds for two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing (pronouced ching). This opulent and heavily fortified palace was the exclusive domain of the emperor, his family and his entourage of officials, concubines, and eunuchs for 500 years. Today, it's official name is the Palace Museum and it's open to the masses for a small fee. The massive Meridian Gate (below) guards the southern end of the compound.

The grandiose site names are guaranteed to instill awe, and perhaps a few chuckles too:
  • The gate of character cultivation
  • The gate of divine military genius
  • Hall of preserving harmony
  • Hall of supreme harmony
  • Palace of earthly tranquility
  • Palace of abstinence
The last one at least has an interesting story. Prior to certain ceremonies, according to our British-accent English audio guide, the emperor was compelled to abstain from onions, garlic, alcohol, and sex -- no doubt a difficult proposition with the harem right next door. Interestingly, the emperor actually increased his consumption of meat during the period of abstinence in order to increase his strength for the impending ceremony.

All the buildings in the forbidden city are capped with yellow roof tiles; this color tile is reserved only for the royal palaces and sacred temples.

This photo shows a sample of the fancy artwork adorning the temple structures.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Night train to Beijing

Last Saturday (Sept. 30) we took the non-stop overnight train from Hangzhou to Beijing. Via airplane, we would have lost at least a half day each direction, but with the train, you travel when you'd normally be sleeping anyway. You sleep on a comfortable bed, and wake up at your destination, relatively refreshed and ready to go. Except for the few passengers who ignore the no smoking signs, I have no complaints.

Andrew had fun playing with a 9-year-old girl who shared our compartment. Andrew and Betty (her English name) had lots of fun running up and down the corridor. Andrew sang while she played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on her flute. In the morning, after saying goodbye and walking thru the train station, we came across a distraught Betty who was in tears because she had to leave Andrew. He's breaking hearts already.

We're staying at the Crowne Plaza in Beijing, a 5-star hotel and one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in, for only $65 a night. Gotta love it.

The cafeteria

One of the 'perks' of our office in Hangzhou is daily free lunch served in the building cafeteria. This seems to be common practice at large office buildings. Think back to your high school or college cafeteria and imagine if it was located in a dreary windowless basement (dungeon?) and you'll have a good idea what it's like. Get in line, get a tray, point to what you want, and someone with a hair net and surgical-type face mask (a legacy of the SARS outbreak?) dishes up a portion of the mediocre fare.

In an unexpected capitalist twist, they have 2 companies serving grub competing for your business. At least there's some incentive to make the food decent.

This is one case where the setup in Bangalore (where I spent 3 weeks with my last job) was far superior. There, the company hired a catering company to fix a tasty lunch every day just for the 30 or so people in our office.

Dining in China

Dining in China is usually done family style, and round tables dominated by a lazy suzan are common. Dishes are brought to the table in random order throughout the meal; just when you think you're finished another one appears. The plate of melon slices is the only sure way to know that your dining experience has come to an end. Unless the dish is a soup, your own chopsticks also double as serving utensils, so you can't be too squeamish about your neighbors' chopsticks touching the food.

Chopsticks are a fun novelty for the occasional visit to a Chinese restaurant back home, but let's be honest -- unless you're eating sushi, forks are the way to go. Have you ever eaten a serving of soy beans, one at a time, with chopsticks? Or how about soft, slippery tofu? The Chinese have a short cut for these situations - hold the plate to your mouth and shovel it in with your kuaizi (Mandarin for chopsticks). Loud slurping sounds are perfectly acceptable, especially for long noodles, by the way.

You had also better get used to bones. Fish, poultry, frog, pork, beef -- it's all served with plenty of bones. Whole bone-in chicken is commonly chopped into half-inch cross-sections, so dodging jagged bits of bone is a necessity with every bite. (Anyone remeber the Simpons episode where each of box of Krusty O's cereal features a bonus of jagged metal Krusty O's?) Many types of fish are so packed with annoying little bones that's it's just not worth the effort to eat - especially with chopsticks. In another case of western ettiquete clashing with eastern, the Chinese seem to favor the technique of spitting out the bony bits after chewing.