Friday, August 29, 2008


Yesterday, I gave a little presentation for the students here about some data mining and image segmentation software. Afterwards, Chen Xiao and Li DanDan took the Gong group out to lunch. It was buffet style and a tasty mix of Chinese and Western food. The trouble started when we realized that part of the buffet included serve yourself draft beer. Of course, this being a celebration of sorts, we started drinking. At some point, Chen ShaoQing told me of a Chinese tradition, drink one beer to everyone, then drink another beer for every person in attendance, making a toast to that person, then drink a final beer to everyone. There were twenty people there. Not wanting to break with tradition, I eventually acquiesced, though I found a small glass to use, so I wouldn't throw up in the restaurant. Long story short, I drank twenty two times, plus a couple full mugs before, plus one full mug, chug-a-lugged, when I toasted Lao Guo, who insisted that I drink the entire thing. After the Lao Guo mug, I almost went down. They had to help me back to my seat and everyone told me to rest for a minute. I made a big show of being super sketchy and about to pass out, then sprang out of my seat, James Brown style, grabbed another mug, and kept toasting. It made quite a sensation. Before long, we were all roaring with laughter and the waiter had to come over and tell us to be quiet and everything. It was a big success.

Chen ShaoQing taught me this proverb, in keeping with the spirit of things:


"When you come across a very good friend, 1000 glasses of liquor are too few."

Monday, August 25, 2008

野长城 2

What follows is my account of the finding of the wild Great Wall of China. This is a very special place of power and lives in my mind along with the most mystical spots I have ever been. It is one of the seven wonders of the world. The adventure began when my friend Ying Qing quietly knocked on the door to my office. She then told me that her friend the tour guide (who I had met on the evening of the opening ceremony at Peng Gong's house and is totally gorgeous) was going to the wild part of the great wall and was inviting me to come. My heart skipped a couple beats, and, upon my recovery, told her I wasn't sure but would contact her friend and find out more. On my way home, I decided I was going, no matter what. I called the lovely Miss Zhang Bei (张蓓) and she said meet tomorrow at the subway station, wear "sport" shoes and bring food and water. The next morning, we were on our way. We took a taxi to the subway, the subway to the bus station, a bus to the country, and then rented a mini-van to take us to a small village near the wall, where we would stay at a farmer's house. When we got there, the enchantment began. It was a very tiny village, the likes of which I had never before seen. Old stone houses, animals, gardens, and courtyards, all surrounded by fields and mountains. I had somehow stumbled into the real life set of Lord of the Rings. Over the next couple days, this analogy would prove more and more apt.

The "farmer's house" was not what I had imagined. It was actually more of a "guest house," or even hotel. It was quite plush given our location, with nice little rooms adorned by beautiful photos of the Great Wall covered in snow, TV's, comfy beds, and a communal shower room with solar hot water. They had a wonderful little courtyard, a big kitchen with which they would prepare a sumptuous dinner for us, cold beer from an earthen cellar, and home made bai jiu (白酒, literally "white liquor," the Chinese fire water that has fueled many a drunken escapade in the past. I had sworn off it until I got a taste of the farmer's home brew. I wound up buying two bottles of it and taking it with me...)

Some scenes from the village:

In the background are our rooms. In the foreground, you can see a tank of fish that they kept, one of which we ate for dinner!

And we're off! Scenes from day one:

The first day was pretty easy. I carried a walking stick that looked like a wizard's staff. Two old men I encountered along the way asked me where I had gotten it (a man in the village loaned it to me), declaring it to be a special "lion's head stick." We found the wall, had a picnic, then then climbed up and started exploring. It's hard to describe how amazing this place is. It is magical views, crumbling staircases, haunted watchtowers, dark paths through dank shrubbery, sheer cliffs, and stone roads built high in the sky, all mixed together. Around each turn is something new and even more fascinating. They maintained a network of intervisible signal towers on distant peaks, using dried wolf dung to start bonfires in order to send messages along the wall (sound familiar?). Little did I know that the relative ease with which we tackled the first section would lull us into a false sense of security with regard to the trials that awaited us on the second day...

That night, we enjoyed being at the village. We talked with a photographer who lived in this little place, making his living off imagery of the wall (he showed us his very impressive collection), ate, drank and made merry. Later, Bei and I would lie on the roof and stare at the stars. It was my first experience of this kind in China, being out in nature, and it made a big impression on me. I fell in love.

Photographers on the roof, getting shots of the wall in the fading sunlight.

Dinner time. When you order a chicken, you get the WHOLE chicken.

We drank bai jiu made in these jars...

Stored in this cellar:

And dispensed from these taps, which emerged from a garden behind the dinner table.

Is she hot or what?

The next day, we set off for good from our little home, bound for the Eastern section of the wall. Our day got off to an interesting start when the guy who liked my lions head staff the previous day tried to charge us to use the ladder we used for free the day before. Two yuan each (about 30 cents). But, deciding that we could not pay the man, based on principle, we climbed up a little wall instead of using his stupid ladder (he was not pleased). And up we went. Our destination: the highest watchtower on the wall, at about 1300 meters. Right away, it was steep and sketchy. This was no cakewalk and there were plenty of you-fall-you-die places. A foreigner was killed there in the previous year. Strangely, the Chinese seemed much less concerned than I, frequently posing for photos in the places I felt should be quickly navigated in order to get out of danger. In one spot, I saw a guy (from another group) nearly slip off a 100 foot cliff when he casually stepped to the sandy brink to have his photo taken. It didn't seem to bother him in the slightest. I felt sure that I was going to witness a grisly plunge onto rocks, but it never happened.

Day two found us surrounded by cliffs:

This is where I expected to see someone plunge to their death at any minute. People seemed completely oblivious to the precipice inches away as they snapped photo after photo.

The first part of day two, already covered. You can see the village where we stayed in the background, far below.

This is the part where Lily thought we should think of something to say to each other, before we died:

In the first really dangerous part, we were confronted with a section that required a bit of bouldering to navigate a cliff around which the wall had been built. Before we went up, Lily, Bei's cousin, suggested that in case we die, we should all think of something nice to say to each other, before the end. We all laughed, a little nervously. The most dangerous part, I thought, was a rusty metal ladder that had been arranged over a 50 footer. The bottom anchors of the ladder had pulled out of the rock and were dangling over thin air. The top of the ladder had broken as a result of the bottom coming out, and had been repaired with bailing wire. Furthermore, it was necessary to bust a couple moves over the cliff just to get a foot on the bottom rung. I was gripped with fear. I went up the ladder as quickly as possible, my heart thumping. To my utter and complete horror, my companions were stopping on the ladder for pictures: one foot on, one foot off, "look Ma, no hands!" etc. When we finally moved on, I was not without a considerable sense of relief.

The infamous ladder. You can just make out the bottom anchors, dangling over the cliff.

For me, it was get up and off that ladder as soon as possible.

For Bei, no problem! Check out the bailing wire:

We finally made it to the watch tower, where we had a picnic. At this point, we were getting a wee bit low on water, and I was a little concerned, because it was hot, sunny and I was damn thirsty, already not drinking as much as I would have liked. To my astonishment, some old guy had carried coolers up to this tower filled with ice cream and beer which he was selling to the hikers!! A beer never tasted so good.

Picnic in the guard tower:

At this point, we had done the hardest part of the wall, but the worst was not behind us. I was pretty hurting and was looking forward to getting off the mountain and buying a cold drink. Ahead could be seen the cable car that would take us quickly down to a fleet of mini-vans waiting to carry us away to food, beer and comfort. Alas, it was not to be. We encountered a place with a dirt trail bearing off to a cliff infested area on our right, into uncharted territory. A brief conversation ensued, followed by a couple phone calls. I was informed that we were going to take the trail, in order to avoid buying tickets for the section of wall near the cable car. Supposedly, this trail would somehow lead around the ticket gate and back to the wall. Personally, I was in favor of staying on the wall and buying the tickets. After descending to the point where impassable cliffs blocked the route back to the wall, it was readily apparent that we were not going in the right direction for the cable car and were in fact getting deeper and deeper into the steeps. I cast my vote to go back up the trail, back to the wall. Another conversation in Chinese, and more phone calls. I was informed that we would continue down the trail: so be it. I was resigned to my fate. Oh! had I only stated my case a little stronger. The trail quickly became a hellish nightmare of muddy cliffs. In some sections, some good samaritan had lashed sticks together along the edge of the trail in a sort of rudimentary railing attached to rotting roots. This was our only security from tumbling over the edge into thorns and boulders far below. It was not fun. And we had no idea where we would end up. Everyone was hurting and thirsty. I was filthy dirty, from head to foot, and soaked in sweat. Not a single photo was taken on that trail!! When we finally got to the bottom, we found ourselves in a small town dominated by massive fish tanks built into a river, and fish restaurants. It was like Shangri-La. There was a sign saying that foreigners were not allowed on the trail because it was too dangerous. Why couldn't they have put that sign on the TOP of the trail?

The fish tank town:

And that was that. I had to save the top of the wall camp out for next time. It was definitely the best thing I have ever done in China. Better than all my previous trips combined. I made a promise to return to this place, and I eagerly look forward to my next visit. But the best part of trip was meeting Bei:

Saturday, August 23, 2008


"Green grass never looked so good, I fell in love today"

(more to come on my epic journey to the wild Great Wall...)

奥林匹克 2-自行车

I finally made it to the Olympics! My friend from SuZhou, JunQiang came to Beijing with two tickets to see BMX!

This is probably the one sport that I really was excited about, because the crazy jumps and crashes make for great spectating, because I like biking, and because this is the first time that BMX was in the Olympics. So I was pretty stoked to go see this one. We got up early, traveled to the venue in the South West part of Beijing, got breakfast, and began our Olympic escapade. I knew this would be a great day when I found these two characters outside the venue, getting ready to go in. Yes, they are drinking beers at 8 AM. My kind of crowd!

Inside, it was a complete circus. Not an annoying one, but quite a scene. The course itself looked quite promising. As usual, the Chinese went all out to put on the correct image for the cameras.

We took our seats and enjoyed the competition. A good time was being had by all and there was definitely an air of festivity and leisure.

The competition itself was really amazing and over way too soon. Unfortunately, it was only the semis, but Americans were, of course, dominating. I got no good shots of the action for a couple reasons. Mainly, I got all set up on the first run, aimed my camera at the right spot, was eagerly staring at the viewfinder trying to get that perfect shot, and wound up missing the best crashes of the whole day. It was also really hard to time the shutter to the riders. This is the best I got:

After that, I really stopped taking photos since I didn't want to miss anything. Instead, I took photos of the cheerleaders who came out between heats. (And I wasn't the only one!) By this time, I had a nice buzz going and much to the amusement of the other spectators, enjoyed yelling random things in English at the cheerleaders, who didn't seem to mind the attention.

I saw this festive dude on TV later that same day:

Thus concludes my Beijing 2008 Olympics experience. I was there!!

Saturday, August 16, 2008


This post is about my trip to HeiLongJiang (黑龙江, "black dragon river") province in North East China. I have never been anywhere like this, even the other rural places in China I have visited. The ostensible purpose of our trip was to visit wetlands, an increasingly rare ecosystem that is being replaced by agriculture and development. According to our host, Jiu Laoshi, approximately 80% of Chinese wetlands have been destroyed in the past 50 years, severely impacting the habitat of migratory species such as the Asian Crane. Our mission was to visit the remaining vestiges of this imperiled ecosystem. We flew into 佳木斯, a northern coal mining town. Right away, I knew this was uncharted territory. Skirting the north of the town as we instantly departed by tour bus for an area near the Russian border, I was struck by industrial flavor and otherwise dumpy nature of the surroundings (I later saw a much more modern and entertaining part of 佳木斯, complete with bars, stores, restaurants, hotels, etc). This was no picturesque country village as I had seen in Hunan province. It looked more like the small villages I had seen in Baja, Mexico: trashy, rundown and poor, but not without a peculiar charm.

On our first day, we encountered 兴凯湖, a largish lake.

Skirting the edge of this lake, we made our way to our first destination, a demilitarized area bordering Russia. As we passed through a gate with multiple signs in Chinese, Peng Gong informed me: "You have now entered an area prohibited for foreigners!" Great. "Will that be a problem?" I asked. "I hope not," was the non-reassuring response. A short time later, the bus became stuck in the mud at an army checkpoint. I was told not to get off the bus. I decided it was best if I temporarily hide, as it became apparent that some soldiers were being summoned to help dig the bus out. I quickly drew the curtains, put sunglasses on, and lowered myself in the seat, whilst maintaining a lookout through the cracks. I heard some official sounding Chinese, some marching, shoveling and then the bus roared into life and got underway again. As we retraced our route on the muddy road, I breathed a sigh of relief. Peng said it was probably a good thing I hid, as they were able to avoid some potentially unpleasant explaining.

Our first night was spent in a sketchy hotel with no soap and a foul stench in the communal bathroom. Peng Gong’s son Edward and I made a night time trip to a little shop in the remote village to get soap, shampoo and 花露水 (HuaLuShui, or literally “flower dew”), a pleasantly scented bug repellent for which I have developed an odd fondness. Scenes from the town where we spent our first night:

View from the hotel room window:

The next day we were on the road again. This time, we actually saw some wetlands. Wow. It was so cool. I saw an owl and cranes galore!! It was like being on a safari. A tour guide, all dressed in camo, came on our bus and guided us through the wetland. He was interested in me. Upon learning I was American, he asked if I was rich. I told him, no, I wasn’t. We stopped at some cages where we could check out some cranes up close. They were afraid. Some swans were in there with them for some reason. As I took photos, one of them “aggressed” me as Peng said. It was fun. Next stop: another wetland! Great views of wetland, birds on the wing.

Professors with agriculture in the background:

Gate to the first wetland:

An "agressing" swan:

A captive crane (it's BIG):

On safari:

Gong Laoshi and wetland in the background:

The trip was mostly driving. I was possibly entertained more than anyone else and slept little compared to my companions. I was very surprised to find the vegetation and landscape quite similar to New England. There were times when, if I hadn’t known otherwise, I could have though we were passing through a rural or agricultural area of Maine. Of course, much of the agriculture was once wetland. Engineers were charged with draining this ecosystem, bringing it into production, then pumping groundwater to feed the farms. It’s all rice, watermelon, and other crops, now. I was also very dismayed at the level of development in these remote areas. There are houses literally made of mud, with roofs of grass. There is no running water (maybe a hand operated pump outside), no showers, no internet. Dirt roads, maybe electricity if you’re lucky. So obviously the commies have put the $43 Billion spent in Beijing for the Olympics to good use. It sure did these poor people living in dirt houses lots of good. I’m sure their national pride is just swelling with joy right now. I saw a foreigner on TV the other day saying, “People who would criticize China should come to China. China is this beautiful park [indicating part of the Olympic complex].” Indeed. What a jackass. This is also China: