Monthly Archives: July 2007

Beijing

We’re in Beijing, at a Hot Pot restaurant. The place is amazingly elaborate and, among other things, has computers in the waiting room to keep the young people occupied. The whole place is very snazzy and modern, and the sparkling-new Lenovo computers are no exception. I can’t access my website, which means that either it went down or it’s blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

Speaking of which, today we saw the Great Wall. If I had to use one adjective to describe it (other than “Great”) it would definitely be “crowded”. We went on an awful Chinese tour bus, which took us to a huge tourist trap with a genuine Alpine Slide to get tourists to and from the Wall, which runs along the high ridgeline. The wall is thousands of miles long, but all the tour bus operators deliver their load to the same spot, probably in return for a kickback on the admission. We only had an hour on the Wall, and we spent at least ten minutes of it trapped in an endless, high-pressure sea of tourists trying to wedge themselves through one of the doorways (the doorways are all extremely narrow for defensive reasons). The Wall is enormously, incomprehensibly long, particularly when seen in a mist that explains in one glance why classic Chinese watercolor always seems to fade into shadows. You’d think they could spread us out a little more.

We were the only white people on the Wall. That’s not entirely true; there was perhaps one other couple. Everyone else was Chinese, or at least genetically East Asian. More than one group of Chinese tourists asked us to stop and take pictures with them, all in pantomime of course. They seemed more excited to see white people than to be on the Biggest Thing Ever Made.

We had to wake up at 5 AM to catch the bus, and were not deposited home until after 5 PM. Given only an hour or so on the wall, I figured this was because it was a very long drive away. I was wrong; it was not much more than 2 hours. We also visited the Ming Tombs, a sort of Chinese Taj Mahal, but we spent only half an hour there, and it was along the route. The remainder of the time was spent at a handful of different tourist-trap gift shops, each presumably paying the tour bus operators per load. We spent more time at shops selling mass-produced scale models of the historical locations than at the locations themselves. It was a worthwhile introduction to the nature of business in China, but it was not a great way to spend a day. My Chinese friends were embarrassed at the impression I must be getting of their country, and we cancelled our tickets with this company to visit the Forbidden City tomorrow. We’ll do it on our own.

It’s a little bit out of order, but I should say what we did yesterday. We took an overnight train from Yangzhou to Beijing, arriving at 6:30 AM. The train was really very nice and very comfortable, even with 6 beds to a compartment, though I would have preferred fewer mosquitoes. We visited the Summer Palace and wandered around Beijing…. I have to go. We’re leaving.

Bye.

Yangzhou

The last time I wrote we were in Hong Kong, waiting to go out to dinner with my friend Anna. Dinner was amazing, at one of the most famous restaurants in Hong Kong, and afterward we rode out to Repulse bay to see the scene at night. The next morning we flew out, very early, to Shanghai.

We were met at the Shanghai airport by Fan Yen, my mother’s friend from my high school’s Chinese exchange program. After lunch, our first stop was the Shanghai television tower, famous for being the tallest building in Asia. Its observation deck is a famous tourist attraction. It was from here that we first witnessed the haze.

This country is seemingly covered in haze. The extent of Shanghai was impossible to determine, because the buildings faded into the haze. Since I arrived in the mainland, I have not seen the horizon, nor any stars or blue sky. The sky is gray all day, and the afternoon sun is dull and red. I do not know to what degree the haze is man-made, or how much better it might be in the winter, but I wonder if this is what London was like in the age of coal and steam.

The weather here is stiflingly, impossibly hot. I can hardly describe how hot it is, and how humid. There is no point in clotheslines, because your clothes will not dry, and it’s so hot that your clothes will be soaked as soon as you wear them.

In Shanghai we visited the museum, which had an impressive array of exhibits, especially one showing pottery from 3000+ years ago, with detailing that would make these pieces priceless if they were made yesterday. There was also an exhibit of Silk Road coins, including pristine coins from the ancient Greek city-states found in China.

At night we hung out on the esplanade, hounded by street-vendors and shrouded in the haze. The city absolutely glitters at night; one skyscraper becomes an enormous television screen, to be viewed from across the wide river.

We came next to Yangzhou, a smaller city to the north, and Fan Yen’s home town. Yangzhou is a factory town, and the nature of the factories reveals something interesting about Chinese organization. Yangzhou is the world capital of hotel accoutrements and plush toys. Every disposable toothbrush, individually wrapped soap, and single-use bottle of conditioner you have ever seen was probably made in one of the dozens of hotel-stuff factories in and around Yangzhou.

We spent our first full day in Yangzhou touring factories, thanks to the many connections of Fan Yen’s husband, a former newscaster. The first factory made all kinds of electrical cables, both telecom and power cables, in huge quantities. The office building was beautiful, with floor and walls made of marble, and a grand entranceway. The factory buildings were many identical sheet-metal boxes with open concrete floors. There were surprisingly few workers; most tasks were quite automated. The space was very open, with occasional huge impressive machines.

The next factory we saw makes Care Bears toys and black fuzzy slippers. Its entire output is shipped to Walmart. When we were there they were in a packing frenzy, filling 18-wheelers with boxes of slippers. This factory was closer to what I expected, with hundreds of workers filling row upon row of sewing machines in the Sewing Room, and many workers stuffing teddy-bear shells in the Stuffing Room. Children played outside, since their parents were working inside and they do not have daycare. Unexpectedly, all the factory’s rooms were air-conditioned, and the workers were very well-dressed; most wouldn’t have looked out of place walking around an upscale American shopping mall. Less surprisingly, they were almost exclusively women.

We’ve also visited gardens, lakes, archaeological sites, and countless other points of interest. I cannot remember all of it, and we are only one week in to a three-week trip. We are currently hanging out at Fan Yen’s impressive three-story apartment, before dinner with her mother and an overnight train to Beijing.

HK

I am writing from an internet cafe in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, a sort of electronics bazaar on the Kowloon Peninsula. But let’s go in order.

We took a plane from JFK in New York to the Hong Kong airport, about 16 hours nonstop. The plane’s route went over Greenland, the North Pole, and Siberia, and Airbus had thoughtfully included among the video channels a direct feed from a fairly good video camera attached to the bottom of the plane. We were in luck; there were few clouds for much of the trip. I saw the glaciers and mountains of Greenland, the fjords of its north coast, the icebergs in the Arctic Ocean, the North Polar ice cap, and the lakes of Siberia, all from 35,000 feet. I was enthralled.

We got to our Hotel late at night, and were quite amazed. The room is miniscule, though I couldn’t give you measurements. Literally the majority of the floorspace is occupied by the two beds, and there is no room to walk. Nonetheless, the design is fantastic. The room is astonishingly clean and cold, with tiles on all surfaces and gleaming steel bedframes. We have our own private bathroom, even smaller than the one in my Cambridge dormitory. This is all the more amazing for its location in a boiling hot high-rise slum, with a melange of foreign vendors selling all manner of food and trinkets from the grimy ground floor.

Yesterday, we saw seemingly all of Hong Kong in one day. We took a ferry to the main island, and then another to Lantau island, where we visited the largest Buddha in the world. We also went to the fishing village of Tai O (pronounced “Tai Wa”; blame Giles and Wade for the spelling). We took a boat ride to see the beautiful pink dolphins who live in these waters; at one point we could look in one direction to see the ultramodern skyline of central Hong Kong, and in the other to see the traditional fishermen’s homes of Tai O, their tin siding suspended over the water by rotting pilings. I will post pictures when I have a chance; it was beautiful.

We had an enormous lunch at an excellent local hole-in-the-wall with a friendly waiter/owner and a powerful, overweight shirtless chef.

After lunch we returned to the main island to follow a self-guided walking tour, starting with what is supposedly the longest escalator in the world. I was disappointed; it’s more like a long series of slightly inclined moving walkways. One of them was broken, however, and walking aroud it I quickly learned their importance: Hong Kong is definitely the steepest city I have ever visited, and quite possibly the most inclined major metropolis in the world.

From the top of the escalator we went to the “botanical and zoological park” (it was a zoo, on a steep incline). It was an excellent zoo, especially for being free and open to the public. After seeing the zoo, we navigated the 3D maze of Hong Kong streets to find the base of the Peak Tram, a funicular railway to one of the highest points on the island. The view of the city at sunset, sprawling across multiple islands and enclosing a busy seaport, was awe-inspiring.

We took a ferry back to Kowloon just in time to see the nightly light-show, in which lasers, spotlights, and various other colored lights are used to create a sort of mile-high graphic visualizer for a song played on the radio (unfortunately, the song was terrible).

At that point we were well and truly beat; it was 8 AM in New York, and jet lag was setting in.

Today we woke up and tried to think of what else we could do. Having hit the major tourist attraction in Hong Kong, we thought to cross into the mainland for a few hours of shopping in the Shenzhen. Unfortunately, after a 50-minute train ride, we learned that if we used our single-entry visas today, we could not use the tomorrow, so we turned around and took the train home.

Tonight we’re going to have dinner with my friend (and Chorallaries music director) Anna and her family. It’s nice to have friends everywhere.

Time Zones

It’s after 4 AM Saturday, a little under 12 hours until takeoff. It’s also mid-afternoon in Hong Kong, our first destination and 12 time zones away. This makes for a problem. To be on Hong Kong time, I should go to sleep around 8 AM, and sleep for 8-9 hours. We are leaving shortly before noon to drive to the airport, where we will have to check in and go through security and all this sort of stuff. This makes for, at minimum, a 3-hour period of mandatory awakeness precisely in the middle of the Hong Kong night.

I think my solution will be to take a 2-hour nap from 8-10 AM, and then sleep from 4 PM- 10 PM. On Hong Kong time, this is like the standard problem of taking a nap too late in the day, and then not being tired enough to go to sleep until the wee hours. Except rotated by 12 hours.

EDIT: I misconfigured my alarm clock and overslept, so I think I need a new plan.

Late

I made an effort to stay up late tonight, in order to push my schedule closer to Hong Kong, where I’ll be arriving on Sunday. After rehearsal I went out for Karaoke with a bunch of fellow castmembers (castmates? playmates?). Then I left for a midnight showing of “The Wizard of Oz”, with the soundtrack replaced by a loop of “The Dark Side of the Moon”. This combination is famous for synchronization, and many have suggested that the album was designed as a sort of alternate soundtrack for the movie. I was intrigued, but not terribly impressed; there were perhaps 5 or 6 points where the synchronization was truly amazing, separated by long stretches of nothing. I stayed through the whole thing anyway, just to stay up late, and then bought some earplugs for the plane.

Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my bicycle helmet along the way, and now I have no time to search for it.

Beach

Today I went to the birthday party of Jim, who runs the Biophysics department. It was an all day affair at Crane Beach, and I was one of only three Biophysics students who volunteered to go, all of us first-years. The beach was beautiful, but the water was too cold for swimming and there were vicious green flies everywhere. The beach is named after the Crane Estate, which is an absolutely incredible manor house in 19th-century English style, complete with endless manicured lawn and catacombs that fill the entire hill.

As yesterday, I smeared on the best sunblock I could find, in the largest quantities I could apply, wore a long-sleeved shirt all day, and I still feel burned. I think the only way I can avoid getting sunburned is by setting an alarm and completely reapplying my sunblock every hour on the hour.

Either that, or buy a hat.

EDIT: Or, I could wear a wetsuit, which would solve the sunburn problem and the cold water problem.

Wedding

I went home for a wedding over the weekend, the first I’d attended since my sister’s when I was in elementary school. The ceremony was Catholic, and included a Mass, which was also a new experience for me; I was curious, and I was not disappointed. If anyone’s not Jewish or Catholic and is getting married, you should invite me, ’cause those are the only two that I’ve seen so far.

I have rehearsal every night this week, and I’m leaving for China on Saturday. Tomorrow is an all-day departmental beach party. Today I went sailing and almost got sunburned straight through my zinc oxide sunblock. I’m not that white; maybe I’m not putting enough on.

Gripe

I can’t send e-mail, at least not to MIT people. I get some weird error about relaying being denied. I blame Harvard; their e-mail system has proven terrifyingly unreliable. The amazing thing is, it’s still only moderately worse than MIT’s. At MIT, the incoming mail servers would go down unexpectedly for a few hours every year, always exactly when you needed them.

Maybe I should just change the name of this weblog to Gripefest.

Ouch

While drying off after a shower, I accidentally punched myself in the face. Now my lower lip is slightly swollen. It’s not enough to be visible to anyone else; just enough that I can’t forget about it.

I am clumsy.