Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shenzhen and Hong Kong

Last weekend I went down to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. I went down there for two reasons: 1. to visit some friends and 2. to re-enter the country per my visa requirements.  Even though I have a 1 year visa right now, it only allows me to stay in China for 60 days at a time, so the time had come to exit and re-enter the country. It is hard to believe that I have been in China two months now, probably because I am still trying to get used to things. My friend Amy lives in Shenzhen, which is just across the border from Hong Kong, so I decided to visit her for a day or two, then we'd both go across the border to Hong Kong to see my friend Derek who was in Hong Kong for a work conference.
When I arrived in Shenzhen, I realized I had been blindsided by one of flaws in the Chinese cell phone industry.  Almost all of the cell phones in China are prepaid, but there is no notification or anything sent when the funds are low.  Then, when the credit runs out, you are unable to send or receive calls or texts from other people.  So normally the way you figure out you need to buy new credit is that you are met with an eerie radio silence and start thinking you're a pretty unpopular person when you receive no calls or texts.  Finally, you'll try to send someone a text and come to the realization that nothing is going through.  
Both times I've ran out of credit were times when I was trying to meet someone, so it's been a major inconvenience.  After the first time I ran out of credit, though, I bought two new credit recharges so that the next time I ran out of credit I would be prepared.  What I didn't count on, however, was that I wouldn't be able to load the credit from a different city than where I bought it.  So when I tried to reload the credit in Shenzhen, it wouldn't work.  At first I was pretty worried, because I didn't know exactly where I needed to go to meet Amy.  Luckily, though, I had brought my laptop with me and the airport had free wireless.  So I got online and through some instant messaging and the use of Skype to call both Derek and Amy, I figured out where I needed to go and made it there ok.  The whole experience made me wonder how people ever lived without cell phones and technology when they were trying to meet up at home or especially in foreign countries.  Seems impossible.
My time in Shenzhen was mostly just spent relaxing, eating, and going out.  Shenzhen is mostly a commercial city so there aren't a lot of tourist sites, but it was pretty fun to just relax for a couple days there.  Shenzhen was a very large city and much cleaner than I had remembered it being last summer when we went through the city on our way to Hong Kong.  Since I didn't do a lot of tourist stuff in Shenzhen, I didn't take many pictures of the city, so here's a picture I took from the window of Amy's apartment:
View of Shenzhen
On Saturday we crossed the border into Hong Kong.  Since Amy and I had both already done a lot of the touristy stuff in Hong Kong, we decided to go to a beach and relax until the evening when we were meeting up with some more friends.  The beach was very beautiful and it was great to go swimming in the ocean.  The only bad part was that the water was pretty dirty and had a lot of garbage and plastic bags floating around near the shore.  One of the fun things they had were some big floating platforms 100 meters or so from the shore.  People would swim out to the platforms to jump off them and other general horseplay.  I had to take part and show American dominance in the form of a short guy doing backflips.  All in all I would have to say that it was pretty successful.
View Driving to the Beach
Beach at Sunset
This Guy is Pretty Jacked
Beach at Sunset
Hong Kong was a very nice break from normal life in China.  It was great to be able to speak English to people on the streets and enjoy the more Westernized way of life there.  The general level of cleanliness of the restaurants, streets, bathrooms, stores, etc. was also higher than what I am getting used to here in Hangzhou.  Sometimes these types of observations don't really strike you until you see it firsthand and realize what you've been missing.  
I didn't do that much site seeing in Hong Kong either, since I was only there a day or so.  I was able to eat some Dim Sum and hit up the nightlife at Lan Kwai Fong, though.  Overall, it was great to be able to meet up with some friends from college and enjoy a brief relapse into English speaking lifestyle.
Saito, Amy, and Wes
Lan Kwai Fong
View of Hong Kong Bay
View of Clouds on Flight Back to Hangzhou
Here is a link to more pictures on picasa:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Huangshan (Yellow Mountain)

After a little break from writing on the blog, I finally have something new and interesting to write about. This past week I went on an overnight trip to Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, with a two British guys my school here in Hangzhou. Huangshan is one of China's most famous sites and is often the mountain used for traditional Chinese paintings of mountain landscapes. It is very impressive to see in person and looks a lot different than most of the other mountains I have seen in my life. One of my initial observations about Huangshan was just how developed it is for such a rugged mountain. There are stone steps and paths covering all of the trails, with shops intermittently spaced along the trail to buy water, food, etc. What's more, there are trams to carry people up to the top and hotels to stay the night. At first I was daunted by the amount of effort required to make all the paths and build the hotels, until I realized I was in the country that built the Great Wall. For our trip, we planned to travel to Huangshan on the first day, hike up to the top and stay at one of the hotels overnight near the top of the mountain. The next day we would wake up early for the sunrise, which is one of the main drawing points of Huangshan. We started off around midday the first day and took a bus from Hangzhou to Huangshan. On the bus, we were able to experience one of the interesting things about long haul bus travel in China. Since our bus was not initially full, the bus driver and his assistant would stop and pick up random people along the way to fill up the bus and make a few extra bucks. Normally, the people would get dropped off pretty close to the normal route the bus should take, but we definitely did a bit of backtracking and it added some time to our 4 hour bus ride, which was supposed to take 3 hours. Another interesting part of the bus ride, at least to me, was that we got to see some rural farmland along the way. I'm not sure how farmland is across all of China, but the parts that we saw offered some clear distinctions between what I am used to seeing as farmland in the US. A lot of differences were things I already knew about, but just knowing something from reading about it doesn't necessarily allow you to grasp the realities that result from the situation. For example, I know there is still a huge population of rural farmers in China and that the farming is more communal in nature, but I didn't realize the reality of how small each farmer's plot would be, how many people would be working on the farms, and how intermixed small cities would be with the farmland. Also, while knowing Chinese farmers still use traditional farming techniques, I was still surprised to see animals instead of machines being used to plow the land and the farmers doing a lot of the work by hand. Contrast that with farmland in the US, which seems to have been largely consolidated into large tracks of land since most of the farm work is done with machines or is automated in some way. I think the lasting impression for me will be that farms in China seem to be full-fledged communities, whereas the image in my mind of a US farm is solitary farmer riding a tractor with the land stretching as far as the eye can see in the distance. Who knows, this may be a pretty amateur observation, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless. Once we finally arrived near Huangshan mountain, it took us awhile to figure out exactly where we needed to go to start our hike. After talking to a few people, we found that the best route was to hike up the eastern side since it was a bit shorter, then hike down the western side. However, once we decided what we would do, it was already getting a little late. We still wanted to make it up the mountain that night, though, so that we could see the sunrise the next morning. So we bought some flashlights (or torches as the two British guys I was with called them) and figured we'd hike in the dark if we had to.
Village Near Huangshan
Village with Huangshan in the Distance
Huangshan Ticket Office
The hike up was very steep and was long staircase after long staircase. At first we were all taking two steps at a time and making quick progress, but after a half hour of that, we all burned up our initial energy reservoirs and had to do one step at a time with more frequent breaks. We started around 6:00 pm, but after an hour, we were soon hiking in the dark. The flashlights really saved us and it ended up not being too bad hiking in the dark. We made it to the top in around two hours, even though most people said it would take about three hours. We did get lost a little bit at the top trying to find our hotel due to the confusing maps, but we finally made it. We ate a nice meal at our hotel's restaurant, then went to sleep so we could wake up at 5 am the next morning.
Hiking Up Huangshan
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a thick fog had settled in overnight and that there was some off and on rain. We figured that since we had already woken up at 5, we might as well hike up to the "Bright Peak" where everyone went to watch the sun come up. After waiting around for an hour or so without any noticeable sunlight, we headed back down to our hotel area feeling a little disappointed.
The Sun Coming Up, Oh Wait...
After looking at the map and thinking about our options, we decided to start heading down the mountain and see a few other peaks and sites along the way. We did get lucky a few times on our way down when the fog would clear up and we could see the sheer cliffs of Huangshan.
James, Nathan, and Wes
Trees, Cliffs, and Fog Stone Stairs This Disgustingly Sweaty Individual Apparently Attended Northwestern Huangshan View in Fog
One of the sites we went to was the "Fairy Bridge". It was really cool and we got lucky because the fog cleared up somewhat right as we were getting there. It was about an hour roundtrip or so, but we were all glad we went there as it was one of the better views we had. For those naysayers, the hike was a lot more difficult and manly than the name might suggest.
Wes at Fairy Bridge
View from Fairy Bridge View from Fairy Bridge Close Up of Man Made Stone Structure
As we hiked down a bit further, the fog cleared up enough to be able to get a better view of the mountain. One of the cooler peaks we saw was one called "Celestial Capital Peak". There was a long stairway up, but since we had already gone up and down several peaks that day with poor visibility at the top of the peaks, not to mention that our legs were getting pretty tired at that point, we decided to go around the peak and keep heading down the mountain.
View Near Celestial Capital Peak Wes near Celestial Capital Peak Huangshan Long Stairway Up Celestial Capital Peak (In Middle of Picture) Wes, Nathan, and James
We kept making our way down the mountain and were getting pretty tired towards the end. By our estimation, we hiked at least 20km (13 miles) that day, and probably more due to the roundabout path we took hiking down the mountain. At first I was feeling pretty manly from the hard hiking we had done, that is, until I saw the Chinese workers who were carrying huge loads of food, drinks, and other supplies up the mountain. One of them was even carrying half of a slaughtered pig (without any covering of any kind I should mention), which is no doubt the most sanitary method of bringing raw meat up the mountain. They were carrying the loads not with soft padded backpacks, but with hard bamboo poles cut in half that rested on one shoulder with another bamboo pole over the opposite shoulder to provide a counter balance. One of the workers said his pack was 80kg (~176 pounds). That is unbelievable to me that they were able to carry that much weight up such steep stairs. It looked extremely difficult, but I swear they were only sweating about as much as I was and I was walking downhill.
Huangshan View
Huangshan View
Chinese Worker Carrying Load
Overall, the trip worked out pretty well. Despite the fog we had in the morning, we were still able to see some awesome views. Sometimes the fog might have even added an extra effect to the views that would make it better than normal. The hiking was pretty difficult, though, and after two days of hiking, my legs were really sore and I've been hobbling around like an old man since I got back. Huangshan was a very beautiful mountain and I would like to come back at some point when I knew the weather was going to be better so I could get clear views of the mountains and also see the sunrise. So if anyone is looking to come visit me in China and do some hiking (Dad, I'm looking at you), I think Huangshan would be a great option. Here is the link to the picasa gallery for more pictures:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008 (Part 3 of 3)

Since I had decided to stay an extra day in Beijing, I had another full day on Sunday to do some tourist stuff and also attend track and field at the Bird's Nest.  Since I had been to Beijing the previous summer, I had already seen most of the main tourist attractions, such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and of course the Great Wall.  So Derek and I were trying to think of somewhere to go during the day and decided going to the "Old Summer Palace".  The Old Summer Palace had originally been a residence for the emperor during the summer, but was destroyed by western troops during the opium wars in the mid-1800s.  The original ruins from when the Old Summer Palace was destroyed are still there today, as well as several beautiful lakes and gardens.
Willows at Old Summer Palace
Lake at Old Summer Palace
Old Summer Palace Maze
Ruins at Old Summer Palace
Ruins at Old Summer Palace
Wes and Derek
After the Old Summer Palace, we relaxed for a little while until it was time to head to the Bird's Nest for Track and Field.  We had to leave an hour or two early before the event, because it seemed impossible to get to any of the main Olympic venues in any sort of a timely manner.  I forgot to mention it much in other posts, but since some of the roads in Beijing had been closed down for the Olympics and some new roads had opened up from newly completed construction, the cab drivers often did not know how to get to the Olympic venues.  Even if the cab drivers knew the general area of the stadium, there often weren't any good drop off points.  Whether this was by design in an effort to reduce clutter and traffic near the stadium and also encourage use of public transportation, or whether it was just bad planning, I'm not sure.  Either way, it was frustrating when you could see the stadium in the distance, but had to circle around several times to find an area within walking distance to get dropped off.  I was just happy to be with people who spoke Chinese or it could have potentially been much worse.
Transportation logistics aside, we finally arrived at the Bird's Nest and started making our way towards the stadium.  To be honest, when I had seen the Bird's Nest on tv, I thought it looked cool, but it didn't really blow me away.  When I saw it in real life, though, seeing how large it was and also seeing it at night with the lights on, I was really impressed.
Bird's Nest
Wes at Derek at Bird's Nest
Bird's Nest with Lights
The inside of the Bird's Nest is also really impressive.  The place is huge, with a capacity of 91,000.  We were on the lower part of the third tier and even though the place was so big, I still felt we could see the action pretty well.  We sat on the side of the stadium where the finish line was at and also had a great view of the Olympic flame.
The Best Looking Guy in Section 505
The Olympic Flame
Inside Bird's Nest Stadium
Just a Few People Here
When we first arrived, there were some qualifying races going on, but what I liked watching the most was the hammer throw.  It was pretty amazing to see how far these guys could throw the hammer (still not 100% sure what a hammer is).  The whole routine of them first rocking side to side to get a little momentum, then transitioning into a full on spin, and finally letting the hammer go was pretty cool to see.  I think the only other exposure to the hammer throw I had was back on my original Nintendo NES Track and Field game, which I remember being very difficult and involving some rapid action on the control pad that would give blisters to the most callused of NES players.  If real hammer throw is as hard as that, my hat goes off to them.  They also had these remote controlled cars the officials would put the hammer in after a throw and would drive them back to where the athletes were throwing.  I'm not sure why the cars had spoilers, but I'm not complaining either.
Hammer Throw Rocket Car
There were medal ceremonies going on quite often while we were there.  Even though the Men's 100M was the previous night, they had the medal ceremony the night I was there.  So we got to see Usain Bolt getting his gold medal, which was pretty cool.
Fastest Man in the World
Another even that night was a qualifying round for the Men's High Jump.  From a distance, high jump wasn't too exciting.  Maybe if it were the gold medal round it would be better, but that night it was just iterations of guys jumping .05 meters higher each time to weed out the weaker jumpers.  There were also a few qualifying runs for the Men's 1500m, which is just less than a mile. I just couldn't believe the pace these guys were able to maintain.  Back when I ran track, if I ran 400m in 52-55 seconds, that would be considered good, but these guys ran their 400m splits as fast, or faster, than that.  And it was just a qualifying round.  The women's triple jump gold medal round was held the night we were there as well.  It seemed to last forever, but it was fun to watch and I believe the woman who won gold also broke the world record.
One cool event we were able to see was the women's steeple chase.  I'm not sure how this sport ever formed, but it's basically like long distance hurdles, but one of the hurdles requires the runners to jump into water.  I'm not sure how these athletes train for running with soggy shoes, but I personally would want no part of it.  It was fun to watch and two Russian women got first and second, proving the soviets still dominate in at least one sport.
A "Normal" Steeple
The Water Steeple
The main event of the night was the Women's 100m.  Jamaican women got Gold, Silver, and Bronze.  It was pretty exciting to watch.  Unfortunately for this event, as well as many others, I took a video, which I've had trouble getting to work on this blog.  So I only have a picture of the victory lap.
Women's 100m Winner
The very last event of the night was the Men's 10000m.  This race lasted much longer than any other races we had seen that night and it was impressive to see the pace these guys were able to run.  A common theme in this race, and most other races we saw, was that no Americans were in sight for gold, silver, or bronze.  I'm not sure what happened to USA track and field, but we sure didn't seem to be doing very well, at least in the events that I saw.
Men's 10000m
So this completes my time at the Olympics and I would have to say that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  It was great to be able to see so many events and be part of such an international community.  I'm not sure how the media coverage was outside of the US, but my impression of how China handled the Olympics was positive, despite a few fraudulent fireworks and birth certificates, and was always treated very kindly.  In my opinion, if there wasn't at least one fraudulent occurrence in the Olympics, it wouldn't truly be China, as it is the land of bootlegged DVDs, electronics, clothing, and pretty much any other product.  I thought all the Olympic venues were very modern and aesthetically pleasing.  Even Beijing seemed much cleaner and less chaotic than I remembered a year ago, so China definitely put their best face forward for the Olympics.  I would have to imagine China's leaders are pretty happy with the way things went, both in athletics and organizationally.  I'm curious if things will change in China now that the Olympics are over: if the building will continue at the same pace, if the efforts to improve the cities and the environment that started with Olympic preparation will continue, China's relations with other countries, and so on.  Only time will tell.
Bird's Nest at Night
Water Cube
Water Cube and Bird's Nest
As always, if you want to see more pictures, check out the Picasa gallery: