Heading East …
April 17, 2012 Leave a comment
April 7, 10:40pm 2012, Somewhere over China – I am now 13 and half hours into my 14 hour flight from Detroit to Beijing. This is my first trip to China. I have filled out my immigration card and put my shoes back on. Ready to get off this plane and begin to see this new world. I uncharacteristically slept for about 8 hours on the flight. Feeling good.
I am heading to China to give a Keynote address at the Asian Pacific Web conference, a professional meeting on Internet and web technologies, not surprisingly, largely focused on issues and research in Asia. It is an honor to be invited and I am committed to fully embracing the opportunity to see the country and its peoples. China has emerged as a legitimate player in academic research in computer science within the last ten years, but few of my colleagues have had direct experience with its institutions. There is very much an effort by China to dispel the negative images of the past. I suspect my invitation here is in some way a part of the effort.
A bit of important history; China was essentially a feudal society until about 1912, when a long string of civil wars broke out between different imperial and communist factions. The wars ended in 1949 with the formation of the modern People’s Republic of China. Between 1949 and 1977 (when Mao died and the gang of four were arrested), the government held absolute control over the population. Everyone made the same wages and lived a very basic life. Part of the Mao’s plan or “great leap forward” was to increase the population. The size of the population doubled over that time. Some estimates state that over 45 million people died of starvation. Life during that time was bleak and there was little social or technical progress. In 1977, the government loosened controls over the people and allow increased capitalism. It took a long time, but modern China is the result of the near 40-year loosening of controls. I am very interested to see how things have changed.
China is the most populous country on the planet with 1.3 billion people. This is about 4 times the population of the U.S. in about the same amount of space. I understand it is a big, crowded, place with many contradictions, political and otherwise.
To be truthful, I have many preconceived notions of China. The are strange, conflicting and sometimes-offensive popular culture images projected onto China in the US. I have always had a kind of fascination with China and its people. I suppose it started when I read “The Good Earth” in middle school. The book is a rags-to-riches story of pre-communist life in China. It painted a diverse, gritty, but yet somehow harmonious life. I am expecting something of the same.
They just told me to shut off my laptop. Here we go.
April 8, 6:27am 2012, Beijing – Dawn is breaking of Beijing. I got to the hotel around midnight last night, checked into my room, read, and went to sleep. It was a twitchy, up and down kind of night, but I feel great this morning.
I have to say I was surprised by the trip from the airport to hotel last night. Beijing is nothing like I pictured. I was suspecting something like Delhi, but in truth it was closer to Dallas. It is an absolutely massive city with an overwhelming number of highways going every which way. The cars were clean with no visible rust or damage. At the high end, there were top end Mercedes, Alpha Romeos, and the like. Most cars were Volkswagens and Hondas (there was a huge advertisement at Airport for Honda CRVs). The number of American cars like Buicks and Fords also surprised me.
I was prepared and forewarned about the dirtiness of Beijing. Truth be told, it was as clean as Seattle. From what I saw the roads where absolutely immaculate and the green spaces well cared for. There was no sign of poverty or blight to be seen. Not that I don’t think they exist, it is that Beijing (or the parts I have seen of it) is like any affluent city in the world.
There is one caveat to this, however. The smog is unbelievable. There is a brownish yellow haze over the whole city that one can smell and almost feel. I went to bed last night thinking it was foggy and woke up looking at across a sea of yellow clouds that envelops the entire city. Looking at it, I think I will stick to the treadmill in the hotel gym at the hotel rather than suck that muck into my lungs.
The hotel I have been put up in is called the Foreign Experts Hotel. It is a nice, clean establishment that is clearly a state run operation. There are plenty of top drawer, 5-star hotels in Beijing, and this one is a little less fancy, but highly livable. My hosts have been kind enough to put me up in one of the best rooms. I have a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and plenty of space to move around. It is as big as the apartment my wife and I had when we got married. It will do nicely for my short stay.
There was a funny scene when I checked in last night. I think it is a little indicative of China. They were polishing the marble floors in the lobby when I arrived. There was one buffer machine, one squeegy on a pole, and four workers. Apparently they decided to dump what amounts to all of the wax for the job in one side of the room and slowly worked it the approximate 75 feet to the other while buffering and squeegeeing. Of course, this really was like pushing 10 gallons of oatmeal down a football field. It was getting everywhere, and the participants seemed to be getting angrier and angrier at each other. To make things worse, everyone who stepped into the hotel would step in the mess and track it back to an already clean spot, at which time the workers would have to backtrack and to it again. It was midnight and they had perhaps made it 20 feet. I don’t know what time they started, but I suspect they will complete the job in late August.
The other thing to note was the sheer number of people working in the lobby. I counted at least 4 or 5 people behind the desk, the 4 workers battling the floor, two policemen sleepily chatting in chairs at the other of the room, and about 3 bellhops. So, at midnight in a basically empty lobby, there were twelve employees working. Gotta be a state run operation.
It is approaching 7am as I write this. I need two things to make it through the morning, coffee and Internet. Going to work on that.
April 8, 8:07am 2012, Beijing – Just back from breakfast. It is complimentary buffet fare. It is all Chinese cuisine except for a few Western dishes. All of it is quite good and tasty, but very rich. I tried some dumplings, leaks, cantaloupe, what they call Bacon (thinly sliced ham), scrambled eggs with some vegetables I could not readily identify, and a really good piece of toast with salted butter. Oh yes, and coffee. I was very different from what I have at home, but it will do. There were perhaps a dozen people working in the restaurant, which made about a four to one ratio of employees to customers. Quite nice, really.
I got back to my room and took a shower. Again, really no difference here than in any western city. Nice facilities, but a little cramped. I did however misplace my watch in my room. Irritating.
I am to be picked up in the lobby in 15 minutes. We are going to the great wall to tour. I am very excited. This should be great fun. Found the watch.
April 9, 8:07am 2012, Beijing – Long day yesterday. A tour guide picked me up at the hotel around 8:30am, where we proceeded to another hotel to pick up six other guests. After some green tea and nice conversation with some of the other invitees at the other hotel, we set off across Beijing. It was a glorious, clear sunny Sunday morning (the smog had apparently blown off the city, and it seemed clear). Sprits were high and the assembled crew chatted away as we drove.
We headed out of the city in a seemingly northern direction. We were to see two sites that day, a mausoleum of one of the early leaders of China, and the great wall. A day for the bucket list, to be sure.
Heading out of the city deserves some qualification. There about as many people in Beijing as there are in all of Australia. The city about 175 kilometers across and has more thirty-plus floor housing complexes than any city I have ever seen. These are all new, clean and fairly attractive. We drove through Los Angeles-level traffic for about an hour and a half with no end in sight. The highways were new concrete and all of us commented that we could be in any city in the US. Well, maybe not Newark.
We arrived at the shrine around 10:15 and got out. Even after that long drive, we are still not close to being out of Beijing. One of our party was on crutches, so we moved a little slowly into the park. The shrine is setup so you walk about a kilometer from one end to the other in a nicely manicured garden. The walkway was lined with beautiful willow trees and gigantic stone animal statues. Being early spring, the trees are budding with bright green leaves. It is a cool morning and the effect is quite nice. We amble through the park marking time with idle discussion ranging from work, art, and the state of crime in Oakland, California.
Beijing is similar to Los Angeles in other ways too. The climate is very hot and dry, and the open ground that is not actively managed (what little there is of it) is covered with those scrubby green-brownish bushes that cover most of southern California. The city is also surrounded by rocky brown mountains that look as though they could barely sustain life.
As we walk I begin to notice the quality of the sun. It is that penetrating hot sun that feels like it is burning your scalp. As I have very little hair, the effect is pretty strong. I commit myself to wearing my hat the rest of the day. My fair skin and this climate are a bad mix.
The walkway is lined with animal statues. First lions, then camels, then elephants. The come it pairs. First two lions resting and two standing guard, a similar quartet of camels, and finally elephants. Apparently these are the guardians of the shrine. On the ride from the hotel our guide has provided an intensely detailed description of the shrine and order of dynasties, what all the symbolism is, and many other aspects of China. I was too tired from the trip and preoccupied with looking at the city to follow much of it. It does make me determined to pick up a book on Chinese history when I get home.
Speaking of our guide, she was a nice, pretty woman in here thirties. She made us call her Dana because there was no chance of us actually correctly pronouncing her name. She went to a University that specializes in tourism and works hard at this job pretty much non-stop (this was a theme with people in China). All being related on one way or another to University life, we talk quite about the educational system in China and how it works. I could sense sadness in her that she did not find another career more challenging (she was obviously quite bright), but she did her best to hide it.
The Chinese educational system is very different that I expected. Everyone gets to go to school up to high school. After that, you have to pay—sometimes a lot. Once you finish high school you can take a test to see what Universities you get into. If you score really high, you get to go to the best schools. If you score low, you get to go to the worst schools or none at all. Also, like in the US, it matters where you are from. If you are from a different province, you have to score much higher to get into the good schools. The last part I could never really square with the communist ethic. If you want to get into a better school but score low, then you can pay more. The lower your score, the more you have to pay. In this way, the truly rich get to send their kids to the best schools independent of merit.
We finished our walk at the other end of the park tired and a little hot. The van turned slowly into traffic and after about 15 more minutes the city began to drop away to hot, arid land.
Here we entered what is referred to as “rural China”. Rural and metropolitan China are very different places. The former is agrarian and poor, whereas the latter is industrial and more affluent. As we heading into the countryside we saw many farms and smallish towns. The housing was much cruder, and the style of living was much more basic. Being Sunday, women were washing clothes in basins, the populous (mostly farmers) were gathered in small enclaves exchanging stories and smoking, and kids were playing in muddy streams.
The farming towns are collections of connected, single story brick buildings. Often accompanied by a front courtyard, each house seems to contain what looks to be no more than 3-4 rooms. There is trash around and the disrepair is similar to any of the borderline third world low income villages and towns around the world.
Note that I don’t say poverty. Interestingly, China (at least the part I have seen) does not have the overly destitute populous you see in countries like India. Rather it has a massive community of subsistence level workers. I saw no evidence of hunger or need. To be clear, the average quality of life I have encountered in is below that in the western world, and substantially lower in the country. I just don’t see obviously hungry kids begging in the streets or the other markers of poverty so pervasive in other parts of the world.
We begin to climb into the mountains and the villages become more primitive. A farm village here, a quarry there. Every inch of the mountains here is terraced to create room to grow nuts and other things. Like Japan, the size of the population and amount of available real estate requires that every inch that can be used, gets used. Dotted amongst the tiers of farmed tree are non-fruit bearing peach trees which luckily have just begun to blossom. It makes for a beautiful sight. We climb in and out of hills and continue our journey.
At last we arrive in a largish and more contemporary village we are told is near the base of the great wall. Our driver and guide stop a nice looking restaurant and we go in. The food starts coming in piles and quickly we gobble it up. It is tasty fare consisting of chicken, eggplant, tofu, fish, green peas, egg dishes with tomatoes, and many other sundries. The food is excellent and well spiced. I finally got to try one of the red Chinese peppers and was not disappointed. Hot hot hot. We finish and move on toward the wall.
About 10 minutes after leaving the restaurant, we arrive at the bottom of the hill on which one part of the great wall rests. We look up the monstrous hill and note with some relief that there is a cable car heading to the base of the wall. We unload the van, with Terry (our friend on crutches) to watch from the bottom. The rest head up the steep hill to the bottom of the cable car run.
We arrive at the top of the cable car run and have a horizon-to-horizon view of the wall. Here, it rests on a ridge of a considerable range of mountains. It is crowded here, but not—as I am told—by Chinese standards. We walk up an entryway flight of stairs and onto to the top of the wall. Words fail me on the scale of the wall, so I will just go with it is impressive. About 20-30 feet tall with guard towers about every 100 yards. The side facing away from Beijing has small holes in the wall for arrow fires (murder holes?). The wall is perhaps 10 yards wide and every brick is perhaps 2x2x2 feet. How they got materials to the top is beyond me. The sheer effort to required to build this 5,500-mile structure is unfathomable.
We all look around a couple of guardhouses and begin to walk down the wall. The part we are on is an undulating section of mountain on which the wall was laid. Some in our party begin to get tired and fall back. First one, then three, and eventually it is me, my host, and a first year graduate student from China. My host Yanchen—a wonderfully cheerful and pleasant professor in his early to mid-fifties holds out as long as he can. He says he must stop and is tired. To my horror I realize that he has been trying to hold off for some time and feels that it is only good manners to stay with me. I run about 5-10km a day and am in great shape, so I feel doubly bad for dragging him this far. My other companion is a young Chinese student who refuses to stop and joins me for the ascent to the top of the wall. By the altimeter in my watch, the last stretch is a 110 meter vertical climb in perhaps 300 meters of horizontal distance. The last 10 meters is up a vertical stairs that you climb on your hands and feet. The view from the top is amazing, and I get a great shot of the valley. After resting a few minutes we head back down. We reach the base and the assembled crew hails our effort. We chat and have great fun heading back to the van.
Having expended our energy for the day, the return ride is more restive. We are all at various stages of jet-lag and late afternoon (about 4:30pm at this time) seems to be low-ebb for this sort of thing. There is a dinner to be held that night and we exchange possible plans for the evening.
I get to the hotel and realize that I am bone tired. Having been in China less than 24 hours and the excitement of the day, I realize that I don’t have anything more in me. I drink a couple of beers, call home, surf the Internet, and relax. Around 7pm I order a rather good club sandwich and watch a movie on my laptop. My goal is to make it to 9pm (to avoid more jetlag tomorrow) and I make it.
April 9, 10:11am 2012, Beijing – I have decided to skip out on some of the professional stuff today and see more of Beijing. I tried to get a guided tour, but I was too late and everything was already booked. I am going to head out on my own and see what comes of it. It is always more stressful to go out on you own in places like China, but the adventure is sometimes a lot more fun. Lets see what happens.
Going to get a shower, pack my backpack, and see what the Forbidden City has to offer …
April 10, 6:32pm 2012, About 30,000 feet above China between Beijing and Kunming. Now setting off on the second part of my trip. My first three days was in Beijing and my next two will be in Kunming. Kunming is in south central China about 150 miles north of Viet Nam and about 1300 miles from Beijing. Because it is much further south and in a different region of Asia, it promises to be a very different kind of place. I get to sightsee for one day (Wednesday) and give my keynote the next (Thursday).
I woke up to yet another strange event this morning. I got up and looked out my window, out on the highway was a truck that was ablaze. Not just a little, but shooting flames upwards of 10-20 feet off the ground. It just sat there burning in the middle of a 6-lane highway for a full 10 minutes before I heard the fire trucks. What was truly amazing was that the other drivers did not seem to care much. They would ease by the flaming wreck—often within a foot or two. If you have ever seen a gas tank blow (I have, it is spectacular), the very last place on earth you want to be is near it. Yet, there went the drivers, one after another. It was like watching a game of vehicular Russian roulette. Crazy. After the ten minutes the fire trucks showed up and put out the fire. The car was removed efficiently and traffic returned to normal.
I guess I have not had a chance to write about yesterday yet—just too tired at the end of the day yesterday and too busy preparing my keynote and getting on the plane today to write.
After deciding to go it alone yesterday morning I took a deep breath and jumped into a cab headed for the Forbidden City. I was staying about a block from the Olympic site containing the water cube and the bird’s nest, so getting there was a long slog. At first it was 4 lane highways but the city began to close in as we drew toward the center. Beijing is built around concentric circle roads that mark the major regions of the city. The closer to the center you are the more expensive it gets. The direct center is the hidden city.
As we began to approach the hidden city the traffic went from bad to worse. It was very slow going. The cab driver turned down a side street and stopped the cab. I was a little confused as were sitting in front of some touristy looking shops selling the low-grade crap you can find at any major landmark. He gestured vigorously and pointed down the main street. After a few seconds I realized he was suggesting that the Forbidden City was just down the street. Satisfied, I paid the driver, jumped out, and headed down the street.
At this point I would comment that English is not spoken by many people in China. This makes getting around a little harder and sometimes more stressful (more on this point later). Many of the Chinese academics I encounter professionally here speak English fluently, but I have discovered that this is not the norm. Of course this makes total sense, but only in Japan have I had this much trouble communicating.
I continue on down the street for few blocks when I get my first view of the city. Or rather, I see one of the moat and walls surrounding it. The hidden city is a massive complex of palaces surrounded by a 50-meter wide moat and a 20-meter tall wall. It was the home to the last two dynasties of China the Qing and the Han, and is about 600 years old. I would estimate it is probably about 2-3 miles fully around the moat.
I look down the street and there appears to be an entrance. There must be at least 1000 people milling about. I begin to close the gap between the entrance and me when the street vendors accost me. Some are selling books, toys, and the random stuff one finds again in these places. The truly aggressive vendors are the rickshaw drivers. The stereo-typical walking wagons have been replaced with 3 wheel bicycles. There are lots of them and the kind get behind you and yell “HEY MISTER” or something like that. They get a reaction from me the first couple of times, after which I recall my days in New York and I aggressively ignore them.
I finally arrive at the entrance. Something is wrong. It appears that all these folks are leaving, not entering the Forbidden City. I make my way to the portal against the tide and read a sign “THIS IS AN EXIT ONLY, PLEASE ENTER BY THE SOUTH ENTRANCE”. I look to my watch compass and deftly calculate that indeed I am at the north entrance. This means that I have to walk all the way around the entire hidden cite to get to the entrance. I look both east and west and see the moat stretches on the northern edge about ½ mile in both directions. Cursing the cab driver and his unwillingness to face the traffic, I arbitrarily begin to head west. After about 10 minutes, I reach the northwest corner of the moat and turn south.
The problem now is that that I have to work my way though unfamiliar neighborhoods to get far enough south to head east to reconnect with the Hidden City entrance. I begin heading that direction and after 15 minutes I begin to get nervous. The bustle of the hidden city has given way to city life. There are no more vendors or families heading to see the sites. Just houses and random businesses. I consider turning around before I get too lost but decide to press on. After another tense 10 minutes, I see a road breaking left that leads to a previously undisclosed western gate to the city. I make for it and find myself crossing a bridge to the other side of the moat. There is a road on this side that goes along side, heads south, then back east again to the southern gate. 15 minutes later I am at the south gate.
Here I encounter The Throng. The throng is a seemingly endless collection of humans in one place that move in a kind of hypnotic undulating mass. I have only encountered The Throng in a few places; India, the Tokyo Subway, and a Def Leopard concert in 1987. Here the Throng are tourists (95 percent of whom are Chinese) seeking to view the city and are crammed together like mackerel.
Everyone is filing through the ticket queues and paying 60 yen (about 10 dollars) for an entry ticket. I pay for mine, purchase a map and a poorly translated booklet, and head through the massive arch into the city. I reflect, just for a moment, on the dignitaries, soldiers, and finally revolutionaries that went through this arch. The sense of history is palpable.
I walk in the main courtyard and am dumbstruck. It is perhaps 400 yards by 600 yards with a river running through it. There are three bridges crossing the river to a massive gate. The city consists of an outer palace region and an inner palace region. This is the first courtyard of the outer regions. I move around the courtyard and snap pictures from a number of different angles in an attempt to capture the scale of the place. I do my best and move into the next chamber. It is even more grand. I spend the next 3 hours just moving around the city and exploring seeing different courtyards and palaces.
I could go on for pages about the Forbidden City, but I could not really do it justice. The concentric courtyards and palaces were huge and intimidating. The ancient objects showed incredible wealth and craftsmanship. All of the palaces were in the inner city, and arranged not unlike a neighborhood. When in use, each palace was inhabited by the Emperor, his wife, his consort, some family members, and other officials of the regime. Each palace was arranged with an outer wall housing a number of rooms with a shared courtyard in the center. The more important the person, the larger and grander the area was. The center or the inner city was the garden. The garden was at the far north end of the city surrounded by palaces. There were many rock formations, gazebos, shrines, and plants. Apparently this is where the people in the inner city would meet and entertain themselves. It was truly beautiful.
The one thing I found very surprising of Forbidden City was the level of disrepair of the palaces. The paint was pealing all over the place and the palace contents, while behind glass and protected, were faded and dusty. Given the advances made in the rest of the country, this was really out of character. This is the kind of place that I would have expected to be better cared for. Weird.
I finally make my way out of the palace and emerge at the exit I started at nearly four hours before. I look at my watch and see that it is still only 3pm. I have two options, I can a) go see something really cool like the summer palace on the other side of Beijing or b) do something stupid like just start walking in a random direction. Predictably, I choose option b.
I will say that one of the lessons I have learned traveling the globe is that the best way to get to know a place to just wander around the places where people actually live. The landmarks are impressive and enjoyable, but it is in the daily life where you learn what the place is. Remembering some promising shopping and food the way we came in the cab earlier in the day, I try to reconstruct reverse directions from memory. Sadly, this is not generally speaking a task that I am not well suited for.
I walk in a northernly direction for about a half and hour and begin to get into a shopping district. There are all kinds of shops from Pharmacies, to groceries, to Camera shops, and just about anything you can name. There are many kiosks selling tasty looking goods. Even though I have not eaten since breakfast, I remember deeply regretting eating street food in other parts of the world. I demure.
About this time, I see to my left a side street l see water. A lake in fact. I walk down the alleyway and find myself standing next to a beautiful lake. It is a medium sized lake with paddle boats and fishermen, vendors selling ice cream, and many people simply enjoying a warm day. I see that most of the people are couples; some old, many young. The sight of them makes me miss Megan. She would enjoy this lake.
Well now I am thirsty. A day and a lake like this deserve some kind of drink. Lemonade won’t do. I scan the horizon for a bar and I see that one side of the lake has a number of bars on roofs overlooking the lake. Right on. I practically knock down an old lady getting up the street. It takes a minute, but I find the stairs and head up to the roof.
The waiter hands me a menu and I begin to play the “point to the thing you want” game I have become so good at. I scan the menu and see the standard fare of Chinese beers when my eyes cross over “JIM BEAM WISKEY”. Now were talking. Jim Beam ain’t top shelf whiskey, but it will do nicely. Gimmie one of those and a beer. Feeling right with the world, I await anxiously for my drinks.
My drinks arrive and he puts them on the table. I smell the whiskey and praise my good luck. I look down and see that the Beam has been delivered, inexplicably, with an ice cube in it. Now China may have invented paper, fireworks, good karate movies, spaghetti, sweet and sour pork and many other things great and small, but no civilization should ever allow anyone to put an ice cube in strait whiskey. Over the railing the ice cube goes and I set to have a drink in a warm spring sunset.
One detail I have left out. The bar has loud speakers that are blaring “rock-a-billy” and country songs from the US. It began with “Sixteen Tons”, followed by Pasty Cline singing “I fall to pieces”. I finish my drinks and get the hell out of there when they play, without a bit of irony, Conway Twitty.
I head down the street and see a rather well traveled ceramics shop. This is clearly a place where the locals buy their day-to-day gear, so I pop in. It is perhaps 10 feet wide and 10 feet tall. Every inch of the place is covered with different tea sets, chopsticks, and plates. What I am after is on one side of the shop—rice bowls. I am looking for a set of four for Megs, the boys, and me. I pick out a set Megan would like (red and black) but there is only two. The shopkeeper and I look everywhere in the store to find a matching set and after a good 15 minutes we find their twins. I purchase the four for perhaps 20$ US, and leave the shop.
It is after six and starting to get dark. I want to head back to the hotel, so I head for the main road. I step out and try to hail a cab. Here’s the problem. None of them will stop for me. They appear to be giving me stern looks and I don’t know why. After about 15 minutes I still have nothing. I panic a little because it occurs to me that if there is a standard way to call a cab, I don’t know it. Finally, somebody stops and I point to the hotel name and address written in Chinese I had smartly acquired before I left the hotel. I make it to the hotel, have a good dinner, and fall asleep before 9pm.
April 12, 2:00pm 2012, Kunming – It has been a while since I have been able to write. I am sitting here at the Airport waiting for the first leg of my return trip home. I am off to Beijing where I will stay the night and then grab a Delta flight for home.
Time to catch up. I arrived with a number of folks from the conference Kunming around 9:00pm Wednesday night. Air Chia was rudimentary but livable and I was none the worse for wear. We were met by a contingent of folks from the local University and we set out in several personal cars in transit to our new hotel.
The problem now is that the people who picked us up don’t know where we are going. Kunming is a large city by western standards with an impossibly complicated road system, so I don’t fault them for getting lost. Yanchen is obviously getting rather annoyed at the locals, but me and my backseat companion (Michelle, a dean from a University in Queensland, Australia) crack jokes and chat about life. We are both obviously tired, but the ride is rather pleasant. It takes us about an hour to get to the hotel (we learn later we were only about 15 minutes from the airport).
It is probably worth commenting why Michelle and I are finding humor in the situation. China has this rather odd characteristic that things are very often much, much harder than they have to be. Almost always due to the best of intentions, simple things become difficult. In this case, in an effort to make our transit the ten miles more comfortable, our hosts turned a 15 minute, ten dollar cab ride into an hour long trek to every corner of the city. This was repeated a hundred times over the last week and it has begun to wear on me considerably. It went from confusing, to funny, to irritating. I suppose the American in me is showing at this point, but I am too tired from the week to care.
We get to the hotel and find that it is actually a golf resort, and a really nice one to boot. It is called Lakeview (not a translation, but its literal name) because it is on the edge of a large lake. There is a huge mountain and lots of beautiful near-tropical vegetation. The climate here is very much like the coastal part of California, but perhaps a little more tropical. Kunming is actually a resort area and I have come to find out that most of China vacation’s here. This was pretty clear as we crossed the city. There are hundreds of clubs, hotels, and shopping everywhere.
Kunming is also much more western than Beijing. Beijng has been the capital of China for centuries, and used to be known as Peking. In fact the Airport still bears the code (PEK). Kunming is apparently much more the child of the new China, with shining, clean apartment complexes, lots of green space, and very little to non-existent pollution. It was by far the most western place I saw in China. I could see myself staying here for vacation.
My room at the hotel is equally nice. It is very modern with a control panel only NASA could love. It takes me 10 minutes to figure out which switches to work to turn on lights other appliances. It overlooks a very well kept golf course and has that Asian dark wood paneling that looks very classy. It reminds me very much both in quality and look to the best places in Japan. I drop down into the bar and share some drinks with the other folks from the conference.
There are two other folks that bear mention, Michael and David. Michael is a doctor (anesthetist) and administrator of some considerable renown from Queensland, and David was a bioinformatics researcher from the same. We were bonded by a common language and outlook and got along famously. We tended to stay together on our excursions and by the end became quite good friends. All three of us had two boys at home (Michael also had a girl), and we swapped stories of family. They truly made the trip fun. Would that I could meet people like on travel like this more often.
We have one more day until the conference begins. Our host Yanchen arranged for us to take a ride out into the country to the stone forest. The stone forest is a colossal rock formation with groupings of pillar shaped rocks. We are told it is a two-hour drive out of the city. I look forward to seeing more of the country.
After taking a morning stroll around the surrounding area, Michael and I with a collection of other folks head out of the city (David has to stay behind and speak at a workshop). It takes a full hour to escape the city because of traffic and the sheer size of the place, and we head into the countryside.
The countryside here is quite different than outside Beijing. There is almost no unused space. Every valley has a highly populated village. Sometime these villages have 10-15 story apartments, sometimes they don’t. Nearly every inch of the earth bears the mark of human intervention. While not wholly unattractive, it is a little strange. Remembering the vast regions of untouched land in the US, I cannot wonder if this is what Colorado will look like in 50 years. I suppose one could look the central valley in California to get an answer.
Perhaps the darker side of this terraforming is that whole sides of mountains have been torn away and there exists little vegetation. To be honest, some of it looks like the strip mines I saw in Southern Ohio and West Virginia of my youth. The environmental impact of this is not clear to me, but unless they manage this better it seems like they may have real problems down the road.
We continue driving until we reach a medium sized city near that park. We stop at a large restaurant and collect around two large tables. As has been the group meal tradition throughout the trip, the employees slowly bring, dish by dish, all kinds of different foods. I try a little of everything and like almost everything I try. I bit the head off what appear to be a battered gutted fish and ate it. I am a very picky eater, so I declare this a personal victory. There is a sheep cheese dish that is absolutely out of this world. We eat and chat sociably, finish, and head out the door.
The bus takes us up a steep incline out of the city and we begin to see signs of the stone forest. Outcroppings are everywhere and the vegetation drops away. We finally turn into the park, get out of the bus, and proceed to renter The Throng. The park itself is extremely well done and the park offices and gates look and feel like the best national parks in the US. After our guide obtains tickets, we jump on a golf-cart bus and move down to the park itself.
The park opens to a very well groomed pond with pathways leading into the park. The effect of the stones is at times to resemble trees and at other to be archways or caves. The main event is a large collection rocks that you can climb in and out of. Our guide releases the group and Michael and I search around the formations. There are literally thousands of people here but it does not feel very cramped. We take lots of pictures and in the end meet the group.
Near the exit to the park is a collection of indigenous people with traditional garb playing traditional instruments. They men play the instruments and the women do a little dance. Some tourist Chinese knuckleheads jump in and ape the performers. I make a mental note about humanity—knuckleheads are everywhere. The youngest performer in the group is about 75.
That is another striking thing about China. Everyone works. It is not at all common to see somebody clearly approaching 90 years old sweeping the street at 5am. Is retirement even possible in China? I don’t know. They apparently have 100% employment, but many of them are low paying jobs.
We finish our tour of the rock forest and get back on the bus for the long drive home. Traffic is worse and it takes a very long time to get back.
So long it turns out that we don’t have time to stop and refresh before dinner. Yanchun gets us off the bus and to the buffet dinner. It turns out there is no beer or drinks. Michael, Michelle, and I have been dreaming of beer for at least three hours and find this horrifying.
Michael says something like “Fuck that” and grabs a waiter. He jams 100 yen into the hand of this bewildered man. He tells him to find some beer and bring it to us IMMMEDIATELY in a voice intoned with a level of authority that can only be gained by somebody has spent time in an operating room. The three of us grab some food and sit and wait for the beer to arrive.
An eternity later the waiter returns with a large box. I look on the side and with great disappointment note that it says “Budweiser”. I am a total beer snob, so I tend to drink only microbrews or beer I have made myself. Given the length of the day and the heat, my inner voice says no problem.
Michael reaches into the box and suddenly his face contorts. By the look of it, there must have been a dead animal in the box. Michelle and I exchange worried looks.
“Its warm”, says Michael. We all burst out laughing and we pour and quite frankly enjoy our warm “bud”. We power down our food and one and a half beers and Yanchun hustles us back out to the bus.
We are too see a performance by Yang Liping. She is a very famous dancer and choreographer in China whose movements portray different animals and plants. It is a very unique dance style that she invented many years ago. She is considered a national treasure and many people come to see her. All of the Chinese folks in our group know of Yang and seen her on television. They are visibly excited. Our host paid about $80 US for each of the 20 people attending, which is a huge sum in China.
We go across the city again and make it to the theater. It is very nice. The performance is actually a combination of interpretative, modern, and other dances from or inspired by the local indigenous peoples. There are actually five acts with perhaps about 60-80 dancers. There are drums and mating rituals and lots of primiative symbols and metaphors. It culminates with what appears to be a Tibetian dance of the whole cast while a blizzard of fake snow falls on the stage. It is quite a sight and very enjoyable.
Yang Liping has two numbers that display her unique style. To our great disappointment, a stand-in does both of these numbers for our performance. Yang shows up and sings for perhaps 45 seconds in a transparent move to allow everyone in the theater to say they saw her without actually requiring her to dance. I can see the faces of many of our Chinese companions and they crestfallen. It was a great show, but many feel cheated. I feel sorry for Yanchun because I think he feels responsible. I remind myself to repay his kindness somehow in the future.
It is now 10pm. After getting outside of the theater, I turn to Michael and say, “I need a drink more than any man in Asia”. When we get back to the hotel we start drinking seriously. Around midnight I wobble to bed.
April 12, 6:35am 2012, Beijing I am sitting here in the Delta club in Beijing awaiting my flight home by way of Tokyo and Detroit. I flew last night from Kunming to Beijing and stayed at the Hilton. I have a zillion Hilton points and they upgraded me to a suite without me asking. I am exhausted and homesick, but feeling like this trip was really worth it.
I got up at 3:30am this morning and mentally prepared myself for exiting China. Getting out of country is often much harder than getting in, and I had the expectation that China would be near the top of the list of the most painful places to leave (Israel by far being the worst, but that is another story altogether). I even checked my watch to measure the time and document the pain to come. Shockingly, the whole thing to twelve minutes, and seven of those were expended at the Delta counter. So here I sit waiting for my flight with 2.5 hours to go.
This brings me to an interesting point about China. In the US, we have a common narrative about how oppressed and controlled people in China are. I have found no evidence of this. The people and visitors appear to move about the country with less hassle than we get in the States. The middle class lives a lifestyle just below that in the US (minus the nice houses). The people in the cities have nice phones and laptops, dress in the latest trends, eat well (I was surprised by the number a obese people in China—this is going to be a problem in the future), and generally live the same kind of lifestyle most people live in the Western world.
But not everybody is getting in on the game. Everywhere you go, there is a vast army of people cleaning, building, and basically doing the menial jobs the Nuevo-rich don’t do. Talking informally to people here, the truth is that while the middle class is growing, most people in China have yet to enjoy the prosperity. The people in the bottom 75% (a guess) live on subsistence wages and serve the remaining 25%. This appears to be the secret of their economic success—they can pay somebody less than 10 dollars a day to do a job that would cost at least that an hour in the US or Europe. China is a force to be reckoned with, but I wonder how long this can be sustained. I would observe that the current arrangement is kinda what started the communist revolution in the first place.
More broadly, there are no visible signs of communism in the areas that I traveled. The experience here was very much like any place in the world. The society is fiercely capitalist with department stores, McDolands, gas stations and the like everywhere. The only times you really encounter the government is when in transit or at hotels. You never really lose the impression that you are being carefully tracked, monitored, and documented. However, the whole thing seems more like habit than a genuine effort to curtail or understand my efforts and motivations. Vast repositories of movements are clearly being assembled, but I suspect that this is an simply affectation of the past. I am not sure I could have just jumped in a cab and wandered around the capital unattended twenty years ago.
But China has real problems. You can’t really own property and the “party members” live outside the rules of society. The corruption is omnipresent and for many the game is rigged and unwinnable. If you live the in country or come from poor families, it is very, very difficult to climb out of lowest classes. There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle racism towards minorities. Pollution and over-use of China’s natural resources is reaching critical levels and the long-term environmental and health effects are yet unknown.
However, the fact that I can sit in Beijing drinking good coffee in a Delta club and write that last paragraph without fear is a testament to what China has become. This is an industrious place and there are many working very hard to fix the excesses of some. The Chinese are gracious and welcoming, and not at all unlike people I meet worldwide. I leave with a sense of China and its people I could not get any other way. I am glad I came.
What to make of China? A tough question. I like it here and the people and places were fantastic, but I suspect that I have been shielded from a good deal of the country’s ills. The industry is improving and academics becoming competitive. Yet, many of the cultural ticks that have long defined China’s national personality have to be overcome for it to join the league of nations with fair and open societies. I suspect that is their destiny, but the transition will take a long time.
Right now, however I am ready to go home. For now I follow the sun into the east …