Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pictures post!

Sorry, I had some problems with my Great Firewall of China reach-around software, but now that I am more or less connected again, I can post pictures from the second part of my travels this fall. See below, and click through for the full gallery.

View out the train window on the way into Tibet

October is whitewash season in Tibet. Even the plants get a taste!

The 'rents in front of Potala Palace

Old palace in Shigatse

Yours truly by Yamdrok Tso

Monks setting up sand painting in Lhasa

Halloween crowds in Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong

Macao street scene

Fishing across from the casinos in Macao

Macao's most picturesque, but kind of old and seedy, casino

Conor enjoying our train ride to Guilin

Drying rice in northern Guangxi province

"Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China"
The power of positive thinking, in eastern Guizhou province

Impossible scenery in Wulingyuan in Hunan province

A viewing platform called "Frightened in the Height" in Wulingyuan

Sunrise in Wulingyuan

Morning in Dehang in western Hunan province

Contemplating the Chinese tourist hordes below outside (above) Dehang

The dirty, dirty ferry service across the Yangtze River in Wuhan

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beijing Air is Crazy Bad

A couple days ago, according to the United States Embassy, the pollution level in Beijing went beyond the semi-regular level of hazardous and hit the level of Crazy Bad. Crazy Bad is the level that is reached when the pollution level goes beyond the reader. I have attached a picture of when the pollution level was good and one from the day that the pollution level was Crazy Bad (even though the picture looks like it is in black in white, it is not). When I tried to take the pollution photo, the camera could not focus directly on anything in the pollution so I had to use the pink building as a focus point. But on the upside, that day the air was really moist, which was probably better for my lungs (usually the air is as dry as a desert, which is because the geniuses who constructed Beijing, built it in a desert).
At the end of the year I plan to write a post about looking at how many hazardous days I lived through this year, thats if I can figure out how to aggregate the data from the Beijing Air twitter feed. Or I might just use the official data from the Beijing government, anyway at some point I will do some type of analysis on how Beijing is killing me.  
Also attached is a couple of pictures from Thanksgiving and a link to pictures from my trip to Vietnam, the land of Ducs.
Also, I would like to thank my colleague, Hui Yan, for pointing out the meaning of the car bomb sign; it means a non-stinky tofu transportation zone.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chongqing is Gorges

Well, I'm finally back in Beijing where it's nice and cold, perfect weather for plugging away at grad school applications. The last few days of my trip were quite nice, and since I'm back home you actually get pictures for this post! I'll follow it up with pictures from the rest of my trip soon.

So we finally figured out that based on our scheduling and unwillingness to take a four-day Chinese tour boat, we were going to have to spend the night in Yichang, which turned out to be a pretty nice place. I think we were both expecting a grimy city but there is clearly a lot of money pouring into there because of the Three Gorges Dam. After arriving we found out that it really made the most sense to take the fast hydrofoil up the river to near Chongqing. After buying our tickets and finding a hotel room (which was pretty grimy), we hopped on a bus to take a look at the dam. It was pretty big.

Proof that Conor and I were actually traveling together, or at least were at the dam together

The next day saw us up and off to catch the hydrofoil from above the dam, where we were faced with heavy fog and were told we'd have to wait about two hours till the river was opened to traffic. But sure enough after more than a few games of cards the river opened and we had a spectacularly clear day. The boat took only five hours to run the river, and we had the viewing area pretty much to ourselves. I'm sure the tours are more relaxing but if all you want to do is see the gorges the hydrofoil is the way to go. The only catch is make sure you being earplugs! The viewing area was right over the engine compartment, which the boat staff pretty much left wide open. The boats were actually pretty funny. They look liked something a sea-based James Bond villain might drive around, and despite their speed they were pretty dirty and poorly maintained. In fact, we found little plates with some sort of Cyrillic language, suggesting they're second hand at best. Despite the high water, the gorges were quite impressive, though I imagine that before the dam they would have been almost Tiger Leaping Gorge spectacular. 

Fast boat!
The middle gorge

Water in the reservoir at the highest level

That night we rolled into Chongqing, one of those late night arrivals that are totally disorienting and mystifying about the place you're in. But the next day we popped out of the hostel to find what for me was one of the most unique urban environments in China. Packed onto a narrow hilly peninsula, Chongqing I think is best described as Hong Kong 35 years ago, transplanted to the dirty mainland. Especially where we stayed, the city is a warren of narrow alleys, stairways and dilapidated apartment buildings. It's also massive. One day we went out far west to find  music venue and where we got off was like a whole other major city. But I loved it there. It's somewhere that is incredibly enjoyable to walk around, which is more than I can say for pretty much any other Chinese city.

Streets in Chongqing

The Chongqing skyline, from the far end of a commuter cable car

So it was a pretty solid five weeks of travel, capped with a fun new city. Now that I'm back in Beijing it's time to put my head down and knock out these grad school applications, then figure out what the hell I'm going to do. In the meantime I've got a couple of small trips planned, one down to Shanghai and a couple of small day trips around Beijing, so look out for posts on those.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Counting down to my triumphant return to Beijing

Sorry it's been a while since I've rapped at ya, a little more than a week it seems. Conor and I have been on a wild trip through the back roads of rural central China, and only recently returned to the relative comfort (besides the cold) of big city life in Wuhan. Though the weather was rainy and cold, and the museums were closed because it was Monday, I rather enjoyed wandering around Wuhan. The place is remarkably modern, and it has a really unique feel, largely I think because it is split in two by the Yangtze River and because of it's concession-era past. For the former, the quickest way across the river is by ferry, which weaves among the huge barges carry quantities of who-knows-what up and down the Yangtze; in it's dirtiness and inefficiency, it's basically a mainland version of the Hong Kong Star Ferry. For the latter, the city, especially on the Hankou, or northern, side of the river, is riddled with European-style buildings from the early 20th century. It gives the city a cosmopolitan feel it perhaps doesn't really deserve.

The really fun parts of the trip, however, were in rural Guangxi, Guizhou and Hunan provinces, where we were before riding the expressway and later a new high-speed train (max 211 miles per hour) across Hunan and up into Hubei. Words won't give several places we went the credit they deserve, so you'll have to wait till I put up pictures. The first stop was in Chengyang, an area of several Dong minority villages in Guangxi centered on a really cool wooden bridge, called the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge. We spent a day wandering around the countryside, entirely avoiding the tour groups and a huge group of German students that had shown up in our guesthouse. Also, the food there was amazing, grown by the owner of the guesthouse himself, even the rice. Possibly the best meals I've ever had in China.

Next was a series of hops that linked up some long bus rides. First was a night in Zhaoxing in Guizhou, which was another Dong minority village, set in some larger mountains. From there, we managed the impossible and took a series of three buses over 12 hours to Fenghuang in Hunan province. Fenghuang was horrid, packed as full of Chinese tourists as Lijiang, but without any of the residual charm or beautiful scenery. Or like a Lijiang full of KTV clubs blasting music until midnight. Though city itself, with some old city walls and hanging over a river, was kinda cool, but every inch was full of tourists and so we high-tailed it out of there north to the Wulingyuan national park at Zhangjiajie.

Wulingyuan is a pretty incredible place, with natural scenery like nothing I've ever seen before. The park is basically a limestone plateau with a basin in the middle that has been eroded to leave these crazy spires of rock that rise hundreds of feet in the air. Words can't really describe it. Though there were lots of tourists we managed to pretty immediately slip off the tourist route and hike for hours through parts of the park without seeing a single other person. It seems that the place is so totally geared toward tour groups that anything off the main path the guides takes is slowly falling into disrepair. But luckily not the steel platforms bolted to sheer rock faces hundreds of feet over the valley floor that we ventured onto. Luckily those were still in decent shape.

From there we went to Dehang, a small village tucked away in some pretty spectacular karst peaks. Unfortunately our visit coincided with a festival held by an online club of outdoors enthusiasts, but outdoors enthusiasts in the Chinese style. This means that they were enthusiastic about walking on a paved path to China's tallest waterfall, playing Mahjong, getting wasted on Miao rice wine and sleeping in tents in the parking lot. Many of the attendees were also members of an SUV-drivers club called FBlife. According to one sticker on their heavily stickered and uselessly outfitted SUVs, the FB in FBlife stands for "Freebase," no joke. These people were largely assholes, loud and obnoxious and constantly shouting "hello" at us, especially considered that they had to be fairly wealthy to afford their Mitsubishi Pajeros and club memberships. But even with them around we managed some good exploring in the villages around.

So now it's heads down on my last week on this trip. We need to decide tonight how we're going to get up the Yangtze to Chongqing, because the idea of taking a three-night, still quite expensive Chinese tourist boat where we are the main attractions does not sound appealing. But we do still want to have a bit of an experience in the Three Gorges, besides cruising through them at high speed in a hydrofoil. We'll see. Then it's exploring Chongqing, a city I've wanted to see for a long while, before I probably fly back to Beijing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I'm still alive, Chinese Twitter clone is down

I can't access Zuosa.com, and so I just discovered my tweets for the last few days haven't been showing up. So nothing until that fixes itself. :( Longer blog post coming tomorrow.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Back on the mainland road

After a week and a half in Hong Kong, I'm finally back on the road in mainland China. Right now I'm in Guilin, killing time before I catch a bus north on to Sanjiang then hopefully on to Chenyang, which is close to the border with Guizhou. I won't write much about Guilin, because I think we covered it pretty well five years ago when Durrell and I came here for spring break. The only thing I'll say is that it is quite warm, shorts weather, warmer than it was in Hong Kong. Since it is November, and it was already snowing in Beijing this time last year, I fully expected it to be cold already, but there seems to be some sort of heat wave in effect, so at least for the next few days we have some good weather.

Hong Kong was quite nice. After my parents left I met up with my friend Conor, who is joining me for the next part of the trip. We stayed at an apartment that Conor's coworker's friend's wife's aunt or something owns, I could never quite remember the connection. The place was mostly unfurnished, except for a couple of small mattresses, had no hot water and was so far out in the New Territories that I was close enough to China to get cell phone reception from the 22nd floor of the building. But it was free accommodation in Hong Kong, which was pretty nice, and it was fun to see a part of Hong Kong that is totally local. In Hong Kong I basically did all the Hong Kong stuff I've done before, so I won't go into that here.

The one thing we did that was new to me was go to Macau, an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. Besides knowing that it is a former Portuguese colony and that there are a bunch of casinos, I knew little about the place and expected just a slightly less visited version of Hong Kong. But it is totally different. First of all, it's tiny, less than a million people and occupies a much smaller bit of land. Also, besides the casinos and some new residential areas, it has little new flashy development. There's nothing like the office towers of Central on Hong Kong Island on Macau. Basically, the whole place lacks the kind of energy that exists in Hong Kong. On the flip side, Macau does have a much more European feel, in terms of the style of buildings and the feel on the streets, some of which in the old town are actually cobblestones. Hopefully when I get to put some pictures up you'll see what I mean. Otherwise, the casinos are more or less what you'd see in Nevada, but at least in the ones I went in didn't really feel as big or as full of people (granted it was a Monday night). The one major difference is that baccarat is extremely popular. There were also a couple of other games that I didn't recognize, one of which seemed to consist of betting on rolls of dice.

Looking ahead, I probably won't have much of an opportunity to post over the next week, since we'll be in some pretty rural areas. We'll be hopping through Guizhou and Hunan, eventually ending up in Wuhan to catch a cruise up the river through the Three Gorges to Chongqing. In Wuhan definitely I'll be able to post again. So in the meantime watch the Twitter feed, which seems to be still working.