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.