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.