Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Great Wall

Wei arranged for a private car and driver to take me to Mutianyu today.  It's a section of the Great Wall that is only about 2 hours drive from Beijing, but not super-touristy or "reconstructed" like the Badaling section most tours go to.  I had been hoping for a clear day to get panoramas, but that hope was thwarted:
Today's air quality index.  At 300, you're advised to stay indoors with the air purifier turned on, or venture outdoors only with a respirator mask.
The visibility was near zero, so I was encouraged that by the time we got to Mutianyu it was drizzling.  Waiting in line to buy tickets, I met Elliott from San Francisco, who worked with an LED artist (Jim Campbell, the one whose 3D LED sculpture hung in the SFMOMA lobby for awhile last year) and was here purchasing some weird piece of glass for another art work, and had the day off.  We decided to walk up to the wall access rather than take the optional cable car.  It was 86 flights of stairs to get up there.  By the time we reached the top, it was a thunderstorm, and would rain on and off, often violently, for the remainder of our 3 hour visit.

There really isn't anything small in China.  The Colosseum in Rome is impressive, but today we walked the equivalent of several Colossei worth of masonry, and it was a tiny fraction of the wall.  The chunk at Mutianyu consists of about 3 to 4 miles of accessible wall that you can walk along.  The wall follows mountain ridges and valley cuts, so there's a lot of up and down; my Fitbit registered 290 flights of stairs and over 17,500 steps.

This section dates from the 1360's; some reconstruction has been done to make it safe, but there's plenty of original wall here.  Here's the sense of it...

"For eat?" - the only bird I saw, except for a couple of ravens flying around.

Wei said the wall wasn't really made to keep the Mongols out, but to slow them down: their modus operandi was to storm into a region on horseback, plunder everything, and go home, and because they rode fast, they could travel light.  A wall thwarts this m.o. Whatever it was for, it was amazing, and more amazing still the presence of souvenir and beverage stands at nearly every watchtower.  How do they get the merchandise up there?  Do they schlep up there for work every day?  (It's a pretty serious walk.)

Since it was still raining at the end of our visit, we took the chairlift down rather than walking. Disappointingly, the alpine slide was closed for repairs, otherwise we could've coasted down on over a mile worth of stainless steel track.  If this were the US, the alpine slide would have been themed ("Storm down the mountain with the Mongol hordes").

All in all, an amazing visit.  While a clear sunny day would've provided better panoramas, the weather we had was very dramatic, and matches the pictures you see on postcards of mountains in China.  The mountains are very wooded and the wall looks almost surreal among them.  Visiting it should be on your life list.

I gave Elliott a ride back to Beijing since I had a private car anyway, and we went our separate ways, he back to his hostel (in the Guolu alley I wrote about yesterday!) and me to see the Temple of Heaven.  Again, everything's big in China: this is the temple where the emperor would pay homage to his ancestors and pray to the gods for a good harvest and good weather.  The circular temple building is impressive enough—it's held up by 28 timbers about 50 feet tall and a couple of feet in diameter, each cut from the trunk of a single tree.  (12 months of the year + 4 seasons + 12 hours in a day = 28.)  The buildings date from the 1420's, like the Forbidden City, and are a five-star UNESCO World Heritage Site, justifiably so.  I couldn't take very good photos since my iPhone camera lens was fogged from having sat in my wet pocket on the way down from the Wall, but here's the idea.

I thought it was funny that someone forgot to move the mouse pointer out of the way before clicking "Display On Jumbotron."

The Temple of Heaven is surrounded by an enormous park full of rows of hundreds and hundreds of junipers and conifers—one of the loveliest greenspaces in Beijing.  However, virtually all of its  pélouses are interdites.  Apparently the best time to stroll through the park is weekends and evenings, when people do ballroom dancing and practice Tai Chi there.

After the Temple I walked through a truly authentic hutong north of the Temple and south of Chongwenmen, and since pictures wouldn't do it justice, I shot four very short videos as I walked through.  I finally got the authentic hutong experience: a self-contained community with vibrant street life.  While not as affluent as other parts of Beijing, it was far more pleasant to walk around, and completely pedestrianized.

Last on the list was dinner.  Wei and I ate at Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, the restaurant where Peking Duck was invented.  (It had been at that location for nearly 600 years, but when Beijing was remodeled, it was torn down and a shopping mall put there instead; so the restaurant is now inside that mall.)

Technically, the original ("classic") Peking Duck is roasted in an oven, and Wei advised me that that version tends to come out a bit greasy.  So we ordered the "nouveau" version, which is what's served everywhere else in Beijing and probably everywhere outside China, in which the duck is roasted over a fire.  It's just as lean, but the skin is more crispy and it's not greasy at all, as most of the fat drips into the fire during cooking.

True to form, the duck arrived complete with head etc., and was carved up in front of us.  The bones and cartilage were promptly used to make stock, which was delivered to our table in time for an after-course.  No part of the duck is wasted.  (The menu also offered various duck viscera, but I wasn't interested.)  The duck dish was excellent—served mu shu style with roll-up pancakes, plum sauce and scallions.

I'll wrap up tomorrow with a post on general visitor tips for China.  It was a successful visit.  I'd return, but I'd do it in conjunction with Hong Kong and also try to get out into the mountains.

Quite an interesting event today.  I felt like a UN delegate, experiencing the event wearing headphones for simultaneous translation: all the talks except the two invited guests (myself and Howard Lurie of EdX) were in Chinese.  Most interesting of all was a panel discussion in the late afternoon: myself plus 3 Chinese-speaking panelists!  The moderator asked questions of them in Chinese and of me in English, with everyone wearing simultaneous-translation headsets.  The translators did a remarkable job. (I can't tell if their translations were correct, but they made sense.)
With Howard Lurie of EdX in front of the main (Stalinist-inspired) building of Tsinghua U.  The rest of the campus and most of the other buildings are much more attractive.

All the speakers except Howard and me spoke in Chinese, as you'd expect
I noticed during the panel that there is a skill associated with giving a distilled and somewhat concise answer to a question, versus rambling on and on and getting farther and farther off topic with no apparent topical destination or time limit.  I would say I have developed this skill to a much greater degree than my co-panelists, all of whom were fairly high-ranking academics at various Chinese universities.

After the official event I had an informal meeting with a few people in the Educational Technology Group here, with the help of one of Wei's students stepping in occasionally to translate (their English was OK but a bit weak).  What I learned was remarkable: these folks had built a system for online education that has been in use for over 15 years at over 400 Chinese universities, during which time over one million courses have been offered.  Yes, one million courses.  But for political reasons, Tsinghua University itself doesn't use this system, and the university is large enough that most people in other departments were largely unaware of this work.  We discussed collaborating on analyzing this gold mine of data.  I asked how they evaluated whether their system was any good; they replied that it had been used to deliver lots of courses over many years.  "No, but how do you evaluate the quality of the system itself?"  It was used in many more universities than its nearest competitor, a system built by a private company (Blackboard) that had coincidentally offered to acquire this team's product.  (They declined.)  "No, but how do you know the students are actually learning effectively?"  They said millions of students had graduated from these schools so they believed the system worked.  "But have you done any formal evaluation to compare it to other teaching methods or even to compare it to NOT using this system?"  No.  It was interesting how long it took to convey the concept of "evaluate"—I think it wasn't a language issue but a different way of looking at the world.

I had the best time talking over dinner with Wei and one of his graduate students.  (We had Mongolian hot pot, in which a bowl of boiling water with oil and spices is used to quickly cook paper-thin slices of meat and other stuff.)  Both had spent at least some time in the US, so we talked about life in China vs. the US a lot.  Hong Kong is still much freer than the mainland; in fact, people who can afford it go there to have babies delivered, because then the baby gets a Hong Kong passport, which opens more doors than a Chinese passport.  And those who can really afford it spend a month or two in the US and have the baby delivered there so it will be a natural citizen.  (These aren't welfare freeloaders: they pay everything in cash, $20k-$30k, including the hospital fees and apartment rental, and there are agencies that set everything up for a fee.)

Who has this kind of money?  In Beijing, lots of people.  People who could afford to gamble on Chinese stock in the 90s. People who own small businesses that did well.  People who have an ownership stake in an extractive resource industry such as coal mining.  Business people affiliated with multinationals.  Corrupt government officials and those on their grease payroll.

Wei pointed to a nondescript highrise next to my hotel where 1800-square-foot apartments were going for US $2 million, and the building was sold out.  The people living in the hutong I took photos of yesterday are sitting on gold mines: due to new preservation laws, those buildings can never be torn down, and no more will ever be built, but it's OK to repurpose the interiors (e.g. into restaurants or clubs) as long as the exterior remains.  Many of those families could pack up and leave anytime they wanted to and collect millions of US dollars selling their hutong dwellings to developers.

Tomorrow, the Great Wall...

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Un billón, indeed

Penguin and I had a pretty full sightseeing day—I think I logged over 16 miles, though my Fitbit turned over at midnight California time, which is about 3pm here.

(You can see placemarks on Google Maps for all the photos below, except the one right outside the hotel, on this map.)

The first thing we noticed on leaving the hotel was the smog.  Yesterday must have been an unusually nice day.  See that bright dot in the upper center?  That's the sun.  Think of the fog off of Armando and Tonia's back porch when you can barely see the BART station.  It's like that, only it's smog.  All day long.  It was in the 80s and humid, but you couldn't see the sun.

That's the sun, center of photo

We started the day by taking the subway, which is trivially easy to use, since signage and recorded announcements are in Mandarin and English, presumably to accommodate Olympic visitors.  It was as crowded at 8am on a Sunday as New York's is during rush hour....

Qian'men station, near Tian'anmen Square.  Note the Disney-like maze designed to accommodate super high passenger volume.

  We tried to start our visit at Tiananmen Square, and the first obstacle was navigating to it.  If you've been to Paris, think of the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe—6 lanes of nonstop traffic make it impossible to cross the street, so there is a maze of underground tunnels to get between the Arc de Triomphe and the sidewalks of the surrounding streets.  Now imagine a whole city laid out that way.  Beijing's main boulevards surrounding Tiananmen are from 6 to 16 lanes wide, and there are no crosswalks, just underground tunnels.  It's possibly the most pedestrian-hostile city center I've ever been to: when you emerge from the subway, there are fences all around the island of sidewalk you're on, and you must engage in a Kafkaesque search to find the one entrance to the underground passageway to get onto a different island.  This morning there was some sort of student performance going on, possibly for Children's Day, so the whole square was closed off.  (Tiananmen Square is over 100 acres, so that's a lot to close.)

We did get a photo of Mao's beaming face.  The washout on the photo is not my camera, that's how the air really looked.

We decided to return to Tiananmen later and go to the Forbidden City instead.  This is where the emperor and his court lived until the whole thing was opened up as a museum after the First Republic was established.  It's a monumental set of buildings, dating to the 1400s with parts built as late as the 1600s, enclosed in walls and an artificial moat, and it is indeed a city within a city.  It's now a museum complex that you could spend days seeing; we spent about 3 hours.  Some shots are below to give you the idea: lots of symmetry, very impressive traditional architecture.
Chairman Mao beaming over the Meridian Gate, main southern entrance to the Forbidden City

Inside the Meridian Gate, the Outer Court begins.  The Forbidden City is nearly a mile on each side so the interior scale is baffling, as with everything in Beijing.

Pélouse interdite

The Gate of Pure Harmony, one of the main ceremonial buildings.  The whole thing is laid out along a north-south access, in keeping with Feng Shui principles and making it easy to plan your visit.

Whoops!  Taking a tumble near the Nine Dragons Screen.  Dragons protect from evil spirits, and since in Chinese mythology such spirits conveniently only travel in straight lines, the occasional well-placed screen thwarts their passage into the Emperor's inner sanctum.  The handmade glazed-tile construction is quite impressive.

The Imperial Gardens at the north end of the F.C.  "Rockeries" feature prominently.  This is the first stand of trees I've seen since landing in Beijing.

We exited at the northern end and went across the street (i.e. under it) to a park whose hill was created from the excavation of some of the towers at the corners of the Forbidden City...
Background: Jingshan Park, whose artificial hill is made from the excavation required to build the Forbidden City and its surrounding moats.  All the dirt was, of course, moved manually.

We climbed the stairs —about 900 feet vertical—to the pavilion visible at the top of the hill.  The view would have been great if you could see more than half a mile in any direction.
From pavilion atop hill in Jingshan Park, with the Forbidden City in the background.  We are looking south, i.e. the large structure in the center is the northernmost gate of the FC.  We had entered from the south or Meridian gate, about 1 mile beyond and therefore barely visible in the smog.

We climbed down the stairs on the back of the hill and into a maze of hutongs, the little alleys that made up Beijing life before most of them were razed to make room for large boulevards and modern buildings.  The hutongs are fascinating: each set of alleys is a self contained community with houses, various shops, some as simple as a stove stuck in an alcove or a few shelves of assorted merchandise, and so on.  Wandering the hutongs was by far the most interesting part of my visit.

A line had formed outside one small opening that appeared to contain a table where dough was being rolled out and a couple of ovens where seeded rolls were being baked.  I stood in line with the locals and via hand gestures I was rewarded with half a dozen fresh-out-of-the-oven rolls for the equivalent of 50 cents.

We continued over to Behai Park, which has a nice waterfront along some artificial lakes that are very popular with the locals...

...and thence to the Luogu Alley "nouveau hutong", which is less traditional as it has gone upscale and is actually one of the few streets in Beijing that is pleasant to just walk along and observe the street life.  Penguin and I had a beer at a terrace overlooking the alley.  Well, mostly I had a beer.

Nom nom!  Fried insects and stinky tofu...it's hard to choose
Since it wouldn't be a trip to Beijing without really walking through Tiananmen Square, we found our way to a subway station to go back there.  The festivities were now over so we did get to walk the length of the square, and it is immense.  The buildings flanking it—the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People—are classic Stalinist mega-architecture.  Attractive they're not, but impressive for their scale, at least.

Penguin in front of the "Mao-soleum"

We had wanted to see the pickled corpse of Chairman Mao—as I call it, the Maosoleum—but for some reason it was not open this afternoon as it usually is.  So we contented ourselves with a stroll around the square—which is a little like taking a stroll around 100 football fields glued together, paved over, and teeming with people in uniforms; the State is everywhere, and you can't throw a dead cat without hitting someone in some kind of uniform—before the subway ride home.

Did I mention that every single subway station has airport-style luggage conveyor X-ray machines?  Despite the huge number of people who use the subway, just one machine per station entrance.

All in all, Beijing is a fascinating city to visit, but not, I must frankly admit, a particularly pleasant one.  People fight their way on and off the trains, to the front of lines, and everywhere else; children relieve themselves in public by peeing or pooping into the bushes or the curb, and if one is lucky, the parents will clean up after the child, doglike, so that you never know when you see skid marks if they are dog poop or baby poop—actually, they are always baby poop because in my 16+ miles of walking I saw hundreds of thousands of people but exactly one dog.  No quarter is given to pedestrians; traffic signals are mostly ignored, cars honk their way through intersections, bicycles and mopeds thread their way upstream, cross-stream, or more or less anywhere they want to go.  The air quality is so bad that the visibility was about half a mile today, and I get the sense today wasn't particularly bad by local standards since few people were wearing masks.

But it is the largest city in the largest and most populous country on earth, so it was worth seeing how people live here.  The hutongs were fascinating.  Wei said when he was growing up, all of Beijing was basically like that.  I'm not opposed to progress, and the non-modernized hutongs I walked through were definitely primitive, but you have to wonder about the tradeoff that's been made here.

Looking forward to getting outside the city a bit with a Great Wall visit on Tuesday.  Tomorrow is the event at Tsinghua University all day, so I'll report if anything interesting happens there...

Saturday, June 01, 2013

We're here, Beijing's pretty big, and I don't eat that part of the duck

[Note: photos take a really long time to upload, so I'll add them bit by bit as I go.]

Penguin and Armando made an uneventful 12-hour flight today—of course, all flights are uneventful if you're booked in BusinessFirst.  Check out what $7,000 buys you (Tsinghua University is picking up the tab, happily):
Nap time!

The flying cubicle.  If you include the airline bathroom, this isn't much smaller than the studio I rented in Paris a few weeks ago.

I was met at the airport by my recent PhD graduate and now junior faculty at Tsinghua, Wei Xu, who came to pick me up.  Despite my fears, the air quality is no worse than LA, although Wei said today was a particularly nice day—you could often see patches of blue sky—and winter is far worse, with days when you have to stay inside or wear a mask outdoors.  It was in the 80s but breezy, so not bad for walking around.  I did notice that although the smog wasn't so bad, in fact Tonia and I had much worse in Chiang Mai, there is noticeable particulate matter in the air—very fine grit—from all the construction as well as the dust storms that blow in from the north.  This is very noticeable and I wore sunglasses just to mitigate it.

The traffic here is horrific.  Imagine wide boulevards on the scale of Vegas or Florida; then pack them with New York traffic density, and combine with Thailand disregard for traffic signals.  Cars, bikes, motorized rickshaws, cargo tricycles, buses, and pedestrians all fight their way through or across intersections, using the "safety in numbers" heuristic—when enough people start to move, they start an avalanche.

I briefly saw Wei's office and then we rented me a bike so he could take me on a guided bike tour of the Tsinghua campus.  It is remarkably nice with lots of trees and little lakes; as I learned, this is because its grounds were formerly part of the Winter Palace for nobility, and much of the landscaping survived when Tsinghua was set up in 1911.  Because it was set up with American help—in a fit of pity, the Americans returned $10 million of the indemnity money China had paid to the US after the failed Boxer Rebellion, on the condition it be used to establish a university that would serve as the basis for Chinese-American foreign exchange programs—the original quad and earliest buildings around it (now nicely restored) look for all the world like the University of Illinois or any other midwestern campus.
Prof. Wei Xu and Travel Penguin.  Wei recently received a shipment from Amazon China, as you can see the box at right

Yay, we're going on a bike ride!   These one-speed "beater bikes" are ubiquitous in Beijing and rentals are common.  This cost 10 RMB for a couple of hours (RMB= renminbi, "people's money", and 6 RMB = 1 US$) 

It should say "no alarm".  I assume it means "no car alarms", rather than "no honking of horns", since the latter was common.  "Electric bicycles" refers to the electric scooters rented by Scoot, which are very common here and (says Wei) can be purchased for around 1000 RMB = under $200.  In background is the 4-story student cafeteria.

Main quad and original auditorium of Tsinghua.
For comparison, main quad of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This pond and surrounding landscaping are behind the office of the president of the University.  This was all part of the Summer Palace, so that office and these grounds used to be the private domain of royalty.

The scale of this place takes getting used to.  The dorms on campus are a set of five or six enormous high-rises and many more low-rises...here's a short panorama of the former and a shot of the latter:

The cafeteria is a four-story building that could be described as the world's largest food court.  Bicycles are everywhere on campus since most students can't afford cars.

After our campus tour we had a nice dinner, and I couldn't help photographing some of the pages in the beautifully-bound menu book.  Duck tongues?  Sea cucumber stew?  Pig's feet?  Goose liver?  Nom nom!  (We had fairly conventional salads, noodles, and kung pao chicken, which remarkably tastes the same as it does in the US.)  Have fun perusing these before you skip down...these are just a few of the delights I passed on:

Mmm, glad they're cooked 
Pan-fried goose liver

Upper right: a whole duck; lower right: just the tongues; lower left: pig tongue

"De-greased"pig's feet 
Iced jellyfish

Stewed sea cucumber

Frog fallopian tubes served in a papaya

Last on the evening agenda was wandering down to the bars and pubs district adjacent to the university campus.  It was fairly sterile—a lot like Singapore maybe, no character to speak of, but plenty of people were out and about.  We ran into a group that I thought was like Critical Mass, but Wei translated the banner and they're basically bicycling to promote green transportation.  Good for these kids!  (By the way, of the roughly ten thousand cyclists I saw today, these were the only ones wearing helmets or using bike lights after dark.)
Wei said they were riding about 10 miles to a famous nightclub district. One of the entry gates to Tsinghua University is in the background.

The two highlights of our walk: just after we crossed some train tracks at grade, the crossing gates came down and a train of at least 20 cars went by, including sleepers, a kitchen car, etc.  Wei said it was going to inner Mongolia.  I thought how interesting it might be to jump on and emerge in inner Mongolia 18 hours later, and I will stop at the main Beijing station during my sightseeing tomorrow to see if I can understand where the trains go.  Second was when we stopped at an upscale shopping mall so I could use the bathroom.  The shopping mall contained all the high-end Western luxury stores, an Apple store, and so on, and…immaculate bathrooms featuring squat toilets and no toilet paper.  No kidding.

So tomorrow when Penguin and I take off to see the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square and stuff (Wei graciously loaned us his Clipper-card-equivalent), I'll be sure to take toilet paper and hand wipes...

By the way, the Great Firewall of China actually blocks access to Google's blogger site, on which I'm writing this, as well as YouTube, Wikipedia, BBC News, any major site critical of China, any major site containing info about Tian'anmen Square or Tibet, and so on—that is, the kind of Internet freedom you take for granted.  (You can read about it on Wikipedia, if you're not in China.)  Like many technically adept Chinese, Wei runs a tunneling proxy offshore to trivially subvert this.  (Non-techies: it's a way to funnel your traffic through another server to obscure either the origin or destination of the traffic.  It requires technical know-how that a first-year CS student or smart high school student would possess, and costs a few dollars a month.  Tonia: it's how we got a discount on your dive mask by running the traffic through a server located in Mexico.)  Apparently the government is aware of this and doesn't crack down, which would be hard to do anyway for technical reasons, since tunnels can be set up anywhere in the world and torn down quickly, so it would be like playing whack-a-mole to try to keep them shut down.  People even sell tunneling setup services on eBay here, but the government relies on the fact that most people will just be too intimidated or too lazy to set it up—what Larry Lessig famously calls the Bovinity Principle—and will instead simply submit to widespread censorship.  It's worth noting that more people live under this government than any other on Earth.  It's also worth noting that acting according to the Bovinity Principle invites even more control to be exerted.  Although, to be fair, when a bunch of students in 1989 tried standing up for freedom overtly, they were rolled over by tanks, so maybe a tunnelling proxy is the way to go after all.

Off to bed, as I successfully made it til 10pm local time.  Photos and more narrative to come!