Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I did a search on the internet the other day for "Beijing Sailing." Well, as it turns out, there is no such thing as sailing (that I could find) in Beijing. There is, however, the Beijing Sailing Center, some 3 hours away on the coast. An organization called NLGX (for NanLuoGuXiang, 南锣鼓巷, http://www.nlgx.org/) recently sponsored an outing to this sailing center. Upon a little further investigation, I found that NLGX is devoted to, among other things, the preservation of the ancient HuTong's (胡同), or small alleys, that were once widespread in Beijing and are now being destroyed in the name of "progress," meaning large, disgusting, western style monstrosities. Anyway, I resolved to visit this NLGX, and in the process, discovered another charming part of Beijing: the HuTong's. The NanLuoGuXiang area is mostly converted into trendy little shops and bars, mainly catering to westerners, judging from the style and prevalence of English. So Angela and I went exploring and I found myself absolutely delighted. I would love to own one of these little places, though I am led to understand they are actually quite in demand and fairly expensive as a result.

This is the view into one of the many little alleys. Along many of these little spots could be observed people sitting, drinking beer, playing games, chatting, hanging out. It really looked like a wonderfully enjoyable place to live, though hot in the summer and cold in the winter to be sure.

A clandestine shot of Angela.

View down a side street.

The HuTongs are quite trendy nowadays. These people were filming or something.

This one is for my Dad. Chinese made, with an opposing twin-cylinder engine like a BMW. I saw a couple of these in the HuTong.

And now for my favorite pastime, photographing hilarious Chinese signs in English! The next two I got for obvious reasons. I have never seen anything like this in China, before. I guess that's a poppy in the lower left of this one?

Check out the little cartoon cop in this one. How are you supposed to take this seriously with the ridiculous caricature giving a thumbs up and the tongue sticking out? I laughed long and hard about this, I believe to the consternation of my companion.

Breath coffee? Yuck. I think I'll pass. Angela assured me it was a very nice name in Chinese.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


The title of this post is Chui Liu, or "drooping branches willow" which is the Chinese translation for the 柳树 (willow tree) we know as the weeping willow. My translation as the 哭树 or "crying tree" was pretty far off the mark in this case. Oh well. I have been getting pretty lazy with the Chinese since everyone around here speaks such good English so I'm trying to devote a little more energy to language study.

In the meantime, I have been visiting parks with my new blog muse, Angela. Unfortunately, she won't let me take her picture very often (I have no idea why because she's totally hot), but I managed to get this one off after a good amount of coaxing.

The viewscape of this park is dominated by the CCTV tower, which I found quite fun to photograph for some reason. It looked really amazing at night, the lights reflecting in the "deep pool" of the lake for which this park is named. Here are some other night sights from YuYuanTan park:

Another interesting feature was the small Metasequoia plantation I found near the main gate of the park.

Here are some photos from the Yuan Dynasty Wall Relics park. Apparently, they incorporated a river into the design of the city in order to more easily keep the barbarians out. It's now little more than a cement channel, but there is a nice park along side it and it is beautiful in the evening.

While there, I learned a beautiful saying:


"The dark night darkens my eyes." With dark eyes, I had a truly beautiful evening there I will never forget.

Lastly, my friend Jun Yang (of Joe McBride lab fame) took me out the other night for a guys only style session: meat and beer! We had a draft beer drinking contest while brainstorming ways to get rich and eating spicy bar-b-que lamb on sticks. Good Times!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hou Hai 2

Last night, I made a new friend. Her English name is Angela and her Chinese name is 乔彧, QiaoYu, which means beautiful, intelligent sister, who's good at writing (actually it's more complicated than that, but that's my way of remembering ;). Guess where we went? That's right, my favorite spot: Hou Hai! We rented a duck shaped boat and paddled around while I furiously photographed every other boat out there. As usual, everyone seemed to be having a great time. Here are some images of the revelry:

Afterwards, we sat at a nice bar, drank expensive beers, and learned about Chinese. On of the most interesting language tidbits was in regard to the word 帆船, fan chuan, meaning "sail boat." What I found intriguing about this word was, as Angela explained, the first character means "sail," referring to the shape of the full batten Chinese sails that resemble the things you might hold in your hand and unfold to "fan" your face on a hot day. Amateur etymology at it's best. That's what I love about Chinese, all the curious connections. Another one that I was really into was the Chinese word for pirate, 海盗, hai dao, meaning "sea thief." I like that! (Not the thieving of course. Unless it's in relation to the 4 Yuan DVD's you can purchase at various roadside stands and freeway overpasses.)

Angela is terrific. Among her many wonderful attributes, she is the first card carrying communist I ever met. As you can imagine, this revelation caused me to completely rethink my opinion of this exemplary social institution and fine political party! Am I smitten?

This is the the ONLY way to study Chinese: a dictionary, a smart and beautiful girl at your side, and cool TsingTao beer at your chin.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

公寓, 北京图书大厦

Well, lots of new and exciting things on this end. First, Professor Gong hooked me up with an apartment so his place wouldn't be too crowded after his sons arrived. It's sweet! It has occurred to me that the only place I have ever had my own apartment is in China. Beijing and Nanjing are also the largest cities in which I have lived. Lots of excitement. Anyway, the apartment is sort of studio-like. This is the view from the entrance:


The first actual bed I've slept on this time around. Luxury!

Views from my window. The buildings across the street are vacant, still under construction. Note the gate to my building. Everything, EVERYTHING, is gated here and there is invariably some sort of security officer manning the gate.

Living room:



Not bad, eh? I could get used to this.

Next up, my adventure to downtown Beijing. As part of my immersion program, I made the decision to take public transportation to a large bookstore near Tian-An-en (天安门, or "day of peace gate", a pronunciation and meaning of which I was ignorant until yesterday) square. My first discovery was there there is a special Olympic (NOT "Special Olympics." It's not a short bus ;) bus line that goes from right outside my apartment all the way to Tian-An-Men. It costs one yuan, about 15 cents. At Chang An Jie, (Long Peace Street, on which Tian-An-Men is located), I got this photo:

Everyone else was getting photos of Chairman Mao, but I thought his paranoid legacy to the people of China was interesting: all these cameras. They ain't for monitoring traffic, that's for sure. They aren't even pointed at the road. Speaking of which, security has just had a major increase around here. I'm questioned every time I want to get into the institute and forced to fill out a little card with my name, number and where I'm going. It's good character writing practice, but sheesh. What's the point? It's like the security at airports, it does nothing except harass people for no reason. Sunday was also the first day of the system whereby odd numbered license plates can drive on odd days and even plates on even days. If it were up to me, this would be instituted in the US as a permanent law.

Anyway, once I got to the bookstore (the name of which is roughly translated as massive book building), I found it to be the largest, most crowded book Babylon I have ever been to. What chaos! I found my way to the dictionaries and "learning Chinese" section and went wild for over an hour in there. I was quite relieved to get back on to the street and buy a cold drink. After that, I tried my hand at navigating the subway system. No problem. For 2 Yuan, (30 cents) you can go anywhere in the city. It's fast, efficient and easy. BART seems fantastically overpriced and fucked up in comparison.

So, the public transportation system I found to be quite well developed and easy to navigate. The addition of Pinyin to the signs really makes a big difference. This is one of the ways that I find China to be advanced over the US. Another excellent practice that I believe should be implemented everywhere in the US: you have to buy the bags you use at the grocery store. It's not much, but why the hell don't they do that in the US? Instead they triple bag your shit for no obvious reason. It's backwards, in my opinion, and a good example of unchecked, runaway consumption.

Second-to-lastly, a couple notable quotes from the State run English media that I noticed on TV last night. (Can you see how this is in direct reaction the Western media?): "Qing Dao was chosen as a sailing venue due to its status as a first rate tourist destination and its clean water quality." Ha, ha, ha, ha! And this: "Chinese peacekeeping engineers [not a typo] reached three hundred and fifteen [315] in Darfur." Wow, just in the nick of time, eh guys? I wonder how many they had while the Sudanese govt. militias were running around with machetes and chopping people's arms off? Anyway, it's so transparent, I don't know why they keep it up.

Lastly (for real this time), here is a view of the moon over the Olympic tower. It's really amazing. The lights on this tower are incredible and the other day I was treated to the loudest fireworks display I have ever heard. The Chinese don't skimp on explosions! It merely stoked my anticipation of the actual event! According to one of my Chinese friends, this tower will have a massive flame shooting out of it for the entirety of the Olympics, burning some thousands of gallons of gas in the process. I say, what better use of gas? As they say in China when cheering on competitors, 中国加油, "Zhong Guo jia you!" (China add gas). I'm not kidding!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bejing Ren 2

Here are just a few more day in the life sort of photos that I've been collecting. When I got up this morning, I found some soldiers in the courtyard of the apartment complex practicing their walking. Two by two they would march around, with their boss yelling various criticisms as they strutted around, arms and legs in sync. I got this one photo off before the boss came over and waved me away. Not sure why you're not supposed to be taking photos of the walking practice, but I guess the lao wai laughing and snapping pictures was a little much for this serious endeavor.

Here are a couple of my closest friends from the institute. Chen Shao Qing is my favorite. Isn't she cute?

Wang Lei is sort of a jolly joker. He's like the archetypal chubby kid. Everyone teases him for being fat, but I told him he was skinny by American standards (which is true!)

Lastly, here is a picture Wang Lei's girlfriend gave me of the mystical, mysterious "wild part" of the great wall. The part where you can go and sleep. After I saw the photos, I knew I had to go. It looks like something out of Lord of the Rings to me. I want to stay in one of those guard towers, build a fire at night to ward off the wraiths, tell ghost stories and drink beer. Tell me that doesn't sound fun!

Thursday, July 17, 2008


All right, I know how much everyone like photos, so I snapped a few more recently to show a little slice of Beijing life.

The first one is of a bar with the ridiculous name: "Liky Bar." Sounds like my kind of place! I love these translations, which are an endless source of amusement for me here.

This one is Miss Gao Ang. She's a reporter for the Beijing Times. Let me tell you the story of how we met. When I was standing in line at SFO, waiting to check in, a large group of Chinese guys weaseled in front of me. I was furious, but much too tired to protest. So they barged all their bags in front of me and I just waited. Anyway, I noticed that among them was a cute girl and I said to myself, "Nick," I said, "she's OK. She's cute and I'd like to meet her. I wonder what she's like?" Anyway, I soon forgot the whole thing between the baggage and airport scene. Soon enough, I found myself walking down the plank to the airplane (飞机, or "flying machine" in Chinese, one of my favorite words) then looking for my seat. As I parked my ass for the 12 hour trip, I lamented the fact that every single damn time I take a flight, I get stuck next to the fat guy. I let out a small, silent prayer: God, please let it be different this one time. And guess who it was: the cute girl from the line, Gao Ang! (Thank you, God!) Recently, she took me to an uber cool restaurant, which she claimed was owned by a Chinese pop star. Very cool.

Next up: Bo Yang. Bo Yang is an EECS major from Berkeley (Go Bears). He's here for the summer working on wireless sensor networks. He's one of the lucky ones who speaks both Chinese and English perfectly, having been born in China and raised in Canada. As a result, he has become the translator-in-chief around here. The rest of the kids love hearing us argue about translations, Americana, etc. Anyway, today, he had to get this sheet of aluminum painted or coated in some way, so when he informed me of his mission to a Chinese hardware store, I jumped at the opportunity to go along. On our way, we found all kinds of great stuff.

These soldiers/policemen/rent-a-cops are stationed everywhere with these umbrellas. They are very, very good at standing stock still for hours on end. I have no idea what else they do. But I can tell you this: despite the fact that they will instantly start staring straight ahead if you express even the slightest interest in them, they are always watching...

A motor with "diesel" written on it. My mom informed me that when I was a mere baby, upon the opening of the hood of our car by my father, I busted out with, "Mo-mo!" 'Nuff said.

Finally, we go to the "hardware store" which consisted of these two characters in front of a storage compartment like storefront with piles and piles of power tools in it. Beer bottles everywhere. I think I could be happy with that life. Am I a simpleton?

This lady was next door managing a business of... coating of metals in some way? You'd have to ask Bo Yang. All I know is that the guy he needed to talk to wasn't there. So what did she advise? Come back at 10:30 at night! Ha, ha! OK!

Lastly, here is a Beijing bike shop. It is a pile of tools pulled from this dude's cart and spread out under an overpass of the highway. Why oh why can we not do this in the US? Wouldn't life be so much easier? No surprise that three thousand years of civilization has made some things so much better and more logical.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Well, so much for the one a day postings. I've been pretty wrapped up in work. You know, publish or perish, right? Also, I have been reading a book called "The Alienist" which inspired the title of this post and seems appropriate, given my status here.

Life is up and down. I have definitely been looking at this trip in a new light, after the initial excitement died down. It sucks to see characters everywhere that I know I have learned and forgotten. I'm kicking myself for not studying Chinese harder. I'm an alien here. People stare. I don't think it is even analogous to the position of minorities in the US, who, to be sure, are the brunt of all sorts of prejudices and bigotry, as a result suffering in a much more tangible way. No, in a place like China, there is certainly a degree of prejudice, but it is of a more benign variety. I occasionally get charged more for things, but unless it's really significant (which only happened to me once, several years ago, and will NOT happen again), it's more work for me to argue than to pay an extra fifty cents or whatever. But I admit the curiosity is somehow oppressive. People watch me eat. People watch me do all kinds of things. Sometimes, I catch them whispering, pointing, or laughing. I can feel it happening. If I'm irritable, I stare back until they are shamed into looking away. I frequently practice my Chinese in situations where a group of people forms to listen to me struggle, bursting out laughing at my pathetic attempts at communication. I am generally able to laugh these things off, but after a while, it becomes exhausting.

My attempts at making friends are not going well. I've already been dumped twice and I've only been here a couple weeks!! It's hard for me to convey intelligence or really anything about my personality when I have the vocabulary of a three year old and the manners of a buffoon. Things are different here in so many ways I still don't understand. I think I loose face on a fairly regular basis. Although, come to think of it, that's not so different from my life in the US ;)

There is no sailing, surfing, biking, or any of the other "recreational" (ahem) activities I enjoy in the US. Which was, of course, the idea: no distractions. Just do my work, practice Chinese, and that's pretty much it. But once you start down that path, you look longingly back down the way you came, back at the fork in the road, now receding into the distance and wonder, "What if I *hadn't* taken the road less traveled?" Ah well. Too late for that. Now it's time to seize life by the horns. This is all about me confronting my fears. Ideas like trying to make my way to the wild part of the great wall (where it is rumored you can sleep on the ruins, with no one around), or taking a train to Nanjing, I am ashamed to say, are terrifying propositions. Which means I must make a supreme effort to accomplish these things, or things like them. Living here is like skiing off a cliff. You can't think before you go. You have to just aim at the precipice, hope for the best... and jump.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Peking Opera

I first became interested in the Peking Opera when watching the Chinese New Year TV spectacular that happens every year. It's hard to describe what it is, but I'm guessing you know what I'm talking about. People say funny things in high pitched voices, have crazy elaborate costumes on, and sometimes do martial arts or acrobatic style dancing and tricks. These shenanigans are hilariously punctuated by these Chinese instruments that I don't know the name of but sound kind of like cymbals on LSD, violins on crack, and that dude on Telegraph that plays a saw. Anyway, I recently read this in "Foreign Babes in Beijing" by Rachel Dewoskin: "Television acting [in China] is the love child of the studied, exaggerated movements and vocals of the Peking Opera, and the melodrama of socialist theater." That's when I decided I had to experience it close up.

Michelle is a drama major, so I figured she would be into it as well. I asked her and she agreed to look into it. She found the ChaoYang theater troupe (Michelle: translation?) which is quite convenient to us. We went last night, springing for the good seats, which were worth every 分 (fen, penny). What a show!! There was a little of everything, and I found myself laughing, gasping, sighing and genuinely enjoying every second. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the musicians, who sat in the front row, playing to the actors. They were a real mix of people, young and old, guys and one lady, who were casually talking and drinking tea before the show started. It really seemed as if this was a crew of old friends who were doing this more for fun than any other reason. They seemed to be enjoying the show as much as we were. Another high point was the little kid who kept peeking out from the curtain behind the stage. Each time he appeared, one of the musicians would furiously gesture him away and he would disappear behind the curtain. Michelle later told me that at those times, the musician would nervously glance back at us to make sure we weren't pissed off or anything. I never even noticed since I was too busy giggling and laughing.

The guys were incredible athletes and dancers. They did a lot of the gymnastic style flips, looking at any moment as if they would go careening off the postage stamp sized stage and into the seats, but they stomped every single landing. There was one incredible guy who did a lot of stick twirling, throwing, juggling and the like. I remarked to Michelle that it's a good thing I didn't have one of those sticks at home, because I would surely injure myself trying to imitate that guy's crazy moves. (As I write this, I am making a mental note to find one of those sticks!) There was only one girl. Her voice was *amazing*. She had some vocal cords, let me tell you. I never really believed it would be possible to break glass with a human voice, but she inspired me to revise my opinion of that idea.

Anyway, it was really, really cool. I didn't take any pictures because I wasn't sure of the etiquette of that in the tiny theater, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Either that, or come to Beijing and see one for yourself!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Culture Shock

This is just a jumbled recap of the past few days. First off, conference Babylon. The ISPRS is not like any other conference I have been to in that everything seems too crowded. I'm not sure why, if it's the facility, the heat, or just simply too many people. I had to give a poster presentation. We were crammed into this crappy alley of sweaty academics, networking, snapping photos, BS'ing each other about software, remote sensing, publishing, etc. Babylon:

Next up, the Olympic park at night. What a scene. It seems there are people milling around day and night, monitoring the construction. It kind of reminds me of the Seinfeld joke about how construction sites attract rubbernecking guys. Well, there are lots of rubberneckers (me included)! I can't even imagine what this place is going to look like when the games start. Anyway, it's very beautiful at night. The massive TV's are going all the time. The aquatics center is lit with from within in blue and red. It's quite a sight.

Lastly, the silliness of it all. I saw this shirt in a store and had to snap a photo. What the?

I see all kinds of stuff like this. Do we parade around in shirts with Chinese gibberish on them? I don't even know. The other day I saw a guy with a purple T-shirt and a green "US Army" patch in the style you'd see on fatigues. I wanted to take him aside and say "No, no, no!" I don't know what the military obsession is, but there seems to be a lot of that. You'd think they could hire at least one American to proof-read all the clothes, but then it would be no fun for me!

Stay tuned for details on my night at the Peking Opera with gorgeous Michelle Lee!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hou Hai

As promised, here is the tale of 后海 (hou hai, literally "back sea") which is a lake surrounded by bars and clubs in Beijing. The excursion was masterminded by Angie Lee, of Berkeley forestry club fame, who invited me to party with her posse for the evening. This was a very welcome development, not only because I really like Angie, but also because she is totally dialed in to the scene around here. Sure enough, she led us to what can only be considered the Shangri-La of Beijing nightlife.

We started at a hot pot restaurant, where we enjoyed the delicious flavor of all manner of delectable delicacies dipped in boiling, spicy broth. Mmmm. Here's the crew.

They are all super cool Hong Kong kids, fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. A great bunch of folks. Aren't they awesome? To my delight, Angie, her sister Michelle, her friend Natalie (妞,"babes") and I climbed into a cab to continue the adventure. Nick, you're really pimping tonight, they remarked, How does it feel? It feels great.

Next stop: Hou Hai. This place is like a cross between the ancient city of LiJiang and Bourbon Street. It is lined with charming, intimate bars, thumping clubs, karaoke and all sorts of curious little spots. I was taken at once. We gazed out onto the lake, lights reflecting off the water in a dazzling show of sparkling color, lanterns and temples lit with blue and red.

The air was festive with laughter and drinking. We wandered about, wondering what to do, each place seeming better than the last. I think it was Michelle's idea that we rent a boat. Of course, I didn't need much convincing. Boat? With beers? Just me and three hot girls? Had I died and ascended to the seventh level of heaven? Short answer: yes I had.

So we rented a pedal powered paddle boat shaped like a giant duck, bought bottles of beer and a lantern, loaded ourselves in and we were off!

I don't think I have words to describe the nirvana I attained during this excursion. I had powder day perma-grin (skiers: you know what I mean). We paddled around, looked at the temple, said 你们好 (Nimen Hao! Hello!) to the other boats, laughed, drank, and made merry in our little floating duck. At first, I thought we were the only ones heckling the other boats. Then another guy with a bunch of babes in his boat buzzed by, happily yelling something in what sounded like Arabic. 什么? (Shen me? What?) All the other boats were laughing, it was great. Someone yelled, "We're all Chinese people!" or something of that nature. It was quite fun.

Anyway, it was definitely the high point of my trip so far. My faith was restored in Beijing, I made some wonderful friends, and discovered my new favorite spot. Then next day, I told Peng Gong about it. Tough life, he said. Indeed.