Monday, March 31, 2008

2nd Round of Pics from Xi'an and the Gansu Province


2008 Olympic Site Displaying “PROGRESS”

BEIJING, CHINA - If you want to measure a city’s readiness for a monumental event by spelling the word “progress,” it might be spelled P-R-O-G-R in Beijing. Or, more appropriately, you could probably spell O-L-Y-M-P. As Summer Olympic anticipation spreads from the South (Major Countdown Clock at Tiananmen Square) to the North (Olympic Village) of Beijing, the city readies itself for the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of tourists during the Games, set to open on August 8th.

As I recently walked the streets of Beijing during the end of China’s most festive and important holiday, the Chinese New Year, it was easy to spot signs of development. The subway system, which is undergoing transformation at this moment, functioned very smoothly. There was also ongoing construction throughout the city, most notably around the Olympic Village.

Beijing is often described by tourists as “dirty” and this is an image that the city is clearly looking to dispel. The streets are as pristine as a major urban city can get. And they did not “get” that way by mistake. In this regard, the city’s current approach might be best embodied by a city sanitation worker I saw one frigid day.

Despite the wind and ten-degree cold, in true Chinese fashion, he was on his bike. He used a long stick to pick up a piece of trash as he crossed a busy intersection and calmly continued his route. He’s doing his part to clean up the small stuff and city officials have their plan for the bigger issues, like air pollution and smog.

Rumors abound that the government may attempt to control the weather in the weeks leading up to the Games. Supposedly, their plan involves shooting fireworks with rock salt into the sky. The iodide in the rock salt causes a chemical reaction in the clouds and forces rain, which cleans the streets and reduces smog. Of course, this is all for not if the stadiums and other facilities are not ready.

The unfinished construction at the Olympic Village was a bit unsettling. And this is likely the reason for recent stories that the city is behind in its preparations. The box office, which surely cannot be the finished product, looks like something a high school team might use for its game-day sales.

Bulldozers and construction cranes, scattered bricks along with piles of dirt, are commonly and randomly found around the Village next to nearly-completed visions of what is to be. The stadiums and facilities appear to be near completion, but the areas surrounding these places are raw and unfinished.

Beijing National Stadium (capacity: 91,000), the mainstay of the village, is nearly completed. It will host the opening ceremony and act as the main track and field stadium, among other events. Its nickname is similar to that of the late “Vet” on autumn Sundays as it is also nicknamed “The Bird’s Nest.” This is not because of the football team that plays there, but its peculiar, ornate webbed construction pattern. At first glance, it appears to be to home to an enormous bird or spider. But upon closer view, the venue reveals itself to be a magnificent structure, catching the eye with its cocoon-like architecture and silvery grandness.

The subway is in a similar transition state as that of the Olympic Village. While the line numbers are a bit confusing (1, 2, 5, 10, and 13), the pieces that are in working order look wonderful, and I found getting around being very inexpensive (2 RMB = $0.28!) and efficient. The works in progress range from minor (ticket counters) to more important (two lines are under construction, one of which connects all lines to the airport).

In many other cities, there may be a sense of panic at the sight of the work that needs to be done, but if there is one thing that the Chinese are used to, it is accomplishing tasks quickly. For the last 30 years, China has grown more rapidly than any other country on the planet, at a clip of almost 10% per year. They have looked rapid expansion in the face and asked for more. Now, it’s become a way of life.

So, in many ways, this is an ideal place to have a formidable construction and development task ahead. Not only has the economy been growing like gangbusters, but there is only one political party. And if the Communist Party wants something done, there is no such thing as red tape or political wrangling. From speaking with a local resident, the motto seems to be, “If it can be dreamt, planned and approved by the Communist Party, it will get done.”

As one might expect, I did not see any negative media attention regarding the Olympics on any Chinese media. Instead, the English language CCTV (China Central Television) regales its viewers with stories of volunteers embracing the Olympics and the positive impacts the Olympics are having on women. While these stories likely hold truth, there is no counterbalance talking about the construction and pollution concerns.

The saturation continues when you travel on the subway. As is the case in many cities, each subway car has several television monitors, as do the underground platforms. These monitors are very useful in keeping travelers notified of when the next train will arrive. But in between postings, the monitors act as Olympic tutorials, displaying the rules and regulations for various events such as trampoline, table tennis, boxing, and floor gymnastics. I found some of the pieces to be informative (I had no idea there was a trampoline event), but, on the whole, it’s overkill. “All Olympics, all the time” with the media at the helm seems to be the Communist Party’s tact to distract the public away from privileges we take for granted like freedom of the press, religion, and speech.

And who controls the media? Another local resident told me, “The (Communist) Party finds its lighting rod every few years, when it has to drum up support and distract the public from more controversial issues. Before, it was the (1999) bombing of the embassy in Kosovo, and now it’s the Olympics.”

China’s approach to these Games may be unorthodox, but the job will get done. How it gets done, what happens in the meantime and your perception of it, will dictate how you spell PROGRESS this coming August.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Easter Letter to my Family from Northwest China

Bren, Bern, Dad, Mom,

Happy Easter!

The trip is going well. I was sick for the first few days, but am back on track now. On Tuesday, I did not want to leave Shanghai because of stomach cramps and a rash. But I was hoping I'd get better and it worked out. We flew to Xi'an and spent two days there. Aside from seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors, which were amazing, I barely left the hotel room because the cramps turned into diarrhea. The only good thing about this was it distracted me from the rash. I took Cipro and watched three movies in the hotel room - Casino Royale, In the Valley of Elah, and Lord of War.

On Thursday, we flew from Xi'an to Lanzhou (one hour). Xi'an is in the middle of the country, Lanzhou is further west. On Thursday night, we checked out a couple local restaurants. The locals stare at us a lot more than in Shanghai. Pretty much every time we're in public, people blatantly stare, like their entire head follows where we go. Or today, we were walking down a back alley and this guy was nodding to his buddies that we were coming. They also get a much bigger kick when you speak Chinese to them. Part of it is because they don't expect it and part of it probably because it sounds ridiculous, like a Chinese person speaking English after four months.

Friday, we checked out the Huang He (Yellow River), one of the biggest rivers in China and it knifes through Lanzhou. It is peanut butter-colored and made me miss the Schuylkill. We also rode a cable car across it and up the side of a mountain. Pretty cool. Aside from that, there isn't much to do in Lanzhou, (it's an average town by Chinese standards with about 3 million residents), so we left that night on a 14 hour train ride northwest to Dunhuang. We booked "soft sleeper" seats (four beds in a room) and got lucky as we had no roommates. The trip went by very fast - we watched the scenery, played cards and read for the first four hours. Then popped Advil PM and the next thing I knew we were in Dunhuang (Saturday am).

In the morning, we saw ancient Buddhist artwork, which has been stored in caves alongside a mountain since it was made 1,400 years ago. It was incredible, the detail of the wall paintings and the colors of the various buddhas, one which was 75 feet tall! Couldn't take pics, but it didn't bother me much.

Last night (Saturday pm), we took the train from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, about a 4-hour trip. We played Rummy along the way and taught two train conductors how to play. They were very entertained and one played a couple rounds with us. Good times. Today, we checked out a section of the Great Wall and Jiayuguan fort, which is only 700 years old and was used to guard the city back in the day.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Getting ready for a trip

Rachel arrived in one piece on Saturday afternoon. I met her at the airport around 3pm. Like Matt's visit, the first thing we did was ride the 260mph Maglev train into the city before jumping on the subway to our place. Yesterday, I finished my last day at Kai En (more on that later) while Rachel showed herself around the city and hung out with my new bud Melissa. I grabbed dinner with them last night and offered to pay Melissa for her babysitting services, but she would not take the money, saying that Rachel did not cry or pout when it was time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

Tomorrow, Rachel and I are heading to Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, as well as Gansu province. There, we hope to check-out a few towns such as Lanzhou, Xiahe, and Jiayuguan (has sections of the Great Wall). This is my first trip into the real China so needless to say I'm pretty stoked about it!

Keep it real.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Crowds at Yu Garden

This is the scene from Chinese New Year Day when we were visiting Yu Garden (in South Shanghai) with Matt. Lots of people everywhere is an understatement.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Yesterday, I went to Starbucks for the 50th time since I’ve been here and was greeted by the usual smells of chocolate and coffee beans. I glance off to the left and notice something else familiar: a couple sitting on one of those small couches. She is sitting on his lap. I study at the café for a couple hours and upon leaving, I notice the couple is still there. This is not uncommon in Shanghai.

In fact, it is common place. A lot of newlyweds live with the son’s parents while they’re saving to buy a home. Talk about killing the mood. So, for this reason and probably a few others, the affection spills into the streets more so than in the States. Subways, restaurants, street corners, name it. In addition to construction dust, love is in the air here. And wouldn't it have to be? I mean, how else do you get your population to 1.3 billion?

Monday, March 10, 2008


Well, I finally saw it. I knew one of these days it would happen. And, Saturday, as I was walking home from Best Buy with Melissa, we saw a chicken get killed. It was at the market about a block from my house. I’ve been astonished with how they handle the chickens here, selling them live and in the open. If "guaranteed fresh" is your thing, come to Shanghai.

So, we’re walking down the market street and a guy wants to buy a chicken. The shop owner, a woman in her 40s, pulls the chickens out one-by-one and weighs them. This is not done out in the open, but it isn't exactly hidden either. They flap around quite a bit as they’re jostled from the cage. But when they’re placed on the scale, they barely move. Meanwhile, I’m thinking – “This is your chance to get away, chief. Just fly out of here!” But oddly, they just lay there.

The owner weighs a couple chickens until the guy decides. You can guess what happened next. Yep. She pulls the chicken’s head back, slits its throat, and puts it in a 15-gallon bucket with a lid. The bucket begins flapping around. I wish I could tell you more, but we split about a minute later. This probably goes down as one of the more morbid, bizarre scenes I've witnessed in my time here.