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James Mulcahy :: Blog

October 03, 2010


On June 18th, my friend and guide Wu Xiao Hui (Tracy) and I explored the Summer Palace, just to the north and west of Tsinghua University in Beijing.   At first I thought we were exploring “Old Summer Palace”, but it turns out that the Old Summer Palace is just outside the west gate of Tsinghua. 


We took the Beijing subway to get there, and Tracy met me at the Wudaokou station to make sure I did not get lost.  This was my very first trip on the subway system, and in fact, any subway anywhere.  I had never even seen a subway before!  We got on the #13 train (yellow line) and headed south where we switched to the #10 at Zhichunlu station.  From there we headed west for two more stops to Haidian Huangzhuang station.  Finally, we transferred to the #4 (green line) which took us north and west to the Beigongmen station (which literally means “North Palace Gate of the Summer Palace”).  The ride was maybe 30 minutes and cost only 2 yuan, or about 30 cents (including unlimited transfers).  This would have easily been a 40 or 50-dollar cab ride back home.




Once we arrived, I was astonished at the size of the place.  While not even close to the massiveness of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace requires a lot of walking and step-climbing.  The day was hot and hazy (more than 100 degrees F), and I was glad we brought water, and that there were plenty of vendors selling more.





Summer Palace dates back to 1750, and was once a summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi.  It is also called Yihe Yuan.  Once called “the Garden of Clear Ripples”, it is now called “Gardens of Nurtured Harmony”.  Of prominence here is the very large man-made Kunming Lake.  Tracy told me that the earth dug up to create the lake was piled up to create what is now the giant Longevity Hill, almost 200 feet in height.


Just over the bridge and inside the complex was a very tranquil canal and a lot of little shops.  One shop sold kites (kite-flying is quite popular there), including one that reminded me of our university mascot at Florida Atlantic University (the Owls).







Another shop had traditional “costumes” you could dress up in and have pictures taken.  I did not have the guts to do so, since I don’t even look a little bit Chinese, but we did see a very cute little girl that looked absolutely darling in one.




After browsing around the shops, we started making our way to the lake and Longevity Hill for the long climb up.  Along the way I snapped some pictures of people, landscaping, and some areas with interesting stone formations, a nice change from the downtown Beijing scenery I normally saw daily.







There were a lot of statues and artifacts of stone and metal along the way, including the Qilin statue made of bronze. 





As we climbed, we saw many temples and halls.  The Sea of Wisdom Temple, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, The Tower of Buddhist Incense, the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, the Hall of Virtuous Splendor and the Hall of Benevolence were some of the ones we explored.  In some cases, photography was not allowed, but I took as many pictures as I could.  Here are some of the ones that came out ok.  I was using a simple digital camera and my cell phone, so the quality isn’t as fantastic as the subject matter.  Some temples had rooms closed off to the public to protect the artifacts inside, including some of the places where the Empress lived.







On our way up, we came across a stage called the Grand Stage (Daxi Lou) and were just in time to see two performances.  The first consisted of young local women dancing to traditional music, and the second was a silent acting/dancing show that was truly fun to see.  One character was dressed in black, the other in white (symbolizing good and bad), and they acted out a part where they were trying to fight but could only do so by sensing where each other was, as the scene was taking place in total darkness.  The crowd loved it, and so did Tracy and I.







When we got to the top of Longevity Hill, the sky was hazy, so the pictures of the lake from above were not as clear as I hoped.  But you could still see all the boats on the lake and the Seventeen-Arch bridge in the distance.




The temples were constructed on one side of the hill, but the other side was mostly green and natural with stone paths down the back side of the hill.  We rested a bit before hiking back down the hill to go take a boat ride.  We even saw baby ducks, which seemed completely out of place here!






Descending the hill, one could see just how expansive the construction was.  It was beautiful!  The place was filled with people, and I wondered how the scenery must look during the winter.  Beijing gets snow during the winter and I could just imagine how much different it would look, and how much more dangerous it would be to navigate up and down the hill.







Walking down the Long Corridor, I heard traditional Chinese music for the first time.  Most of the music I heard in China was actually Western music, especially dance music, so this was a nice departure from that.




We continued to make our way around the lake and finally made it to the Seventeen-Arch bridge.  What a nice piece of construction!  After crossing the bridge, we found the place where we could take a boat ride back across the lake toward the entrance.  The water looked very tempting and cool (and green!).  It was nice to relax for a bit as we motored across the lake.







Arriving at the other side, the first thing you notice was a large stone boat that was actually not a boat but a permanent fixture, made of marble. 




By now, we were quite weary of the walking.  We were not the only ones that were wilting in the heat as we headed for the exit.  Umbrellas were everywhere to provide shade from the sun.  At home, umbrellas means rain, but I now have grown accustomed to seeing them used by men and women alike, and in all sizes and colors.   After the end of an exhausting day, it was time to go home and rest until the next adventure!  




Once outside of the Summer Palace, we were tired and hungry.  Tracy suggested stir-fry, but did not “have confidence in my ability to adapt to it”, so we went instead to a mall downtown and ate Chinese food at a nice restaurant whose name escapes me now.  We finished the evening with a movie in a theater that look just like any movie theater you would see in the United States.  We even saw an American movie, “Shanghai” with John Cusack.  Of course it was dubbed in Chinese, but I was able to follow along because it was also subtitled in both English and Mandarin.



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September 14, 2010


After visiting Tian’anmen Square, it was time to explore The forbidden City, located in the very middle of Beijing.  The city is now a museum but was once an imperial palace, dating back to the Ming Dynasty more than six centuries ago.  After purchasing our tickets, we spent several hours covering about half of the nearly 180 acres.  It was quite a warm day (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit), and we stopped often to rest and drink water.  This gave my friend Wu Xiao Hui a lot of opportunities to quiz each other on everything from professions in our respective countries to relationship dynamics.







There were a lot of architectural details to see, as well as the contents of many halls, temples, and shrines.  This is definitely a place you need to visit many times to earn a good appreciation for.







The Forbidden City is huge – in fact, it is the largest palace complex in the world.  In some areas, it was reminiscent of Tian’anmen Square, which is located across the street.  There were areas of wide open spaces in the Outer and Inner courts before you got to the complexes of halls and stages and palace buildings in the Back Palace.  Some of the temples are Taoist, some are Buddhist, and in my ignorance I was having a hard time distinguishing between them.  I certainly have much to learn to properly appreciate this place.






One of the things that has attracted me to places like the Forbidden City is the old architecture, especially areas that are not completely restored.  Just standing on stone and imagining the feet of others walking over it centuries is an experience for me, coming from an area whose history dates back less than a century.  Even seeing the age of walls that had not been retouched in recent times were interesting to me.




In many of the indoor halls, the items and sometimes entire rooms were protected from the public with glass.  Some outdoor areas were protected from the public as well, with iron gates or doors that were taped or padlocked shut.







Most of the halls had plaques or signs that described the history of that particular hall.  Much restoration of the Forbidden City has been done in recent years, in anticipation of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.  In some pictures you can see an area at the bottom that is covered with black tape.  Behind the tape is engraved “Made possible by American Express”.




Trees!  I was amazed at the apparent age of some of the trees.  Some had to be centuries old, and were all gnarled and twisted this way and that.  In some places, the tree branches were supported with metal or wooden poles to prevent them from breaking off.






In one area of the city were halls that contained artifacts from major periods since the earliest 1400s.  Some of my favorites included collections of jade sculptures and jewelry. 




Even the scenery outside was fantastic. There were interesting rock formations, courtyards and plant life between the complex of halls, and soon I was getting more and more lost.  Fortunately, my guide knew where we going because I was no longer paying attention to where we were, but more at what I was seeing.






Another interesting place in the Forbidden City was the site of the Well of Concubine Zhen, where the concubine had been thrown to her death.  In fact, there was more than one well that contained a body in the Forbidden City!  I cannot even imagine that being a form of punishment these days.





When I return to China, Forbidden City is near the top of my list of places to revisit.  Perhaps when the weather is cooler and I can spend a full day or two exploring it.  The detail is fantastic, and the authentic ancient Chinese beauty is worth the exploration.


I think this is definitely a "must see" place for anyone that visits Beijing.


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September 13, 2010


One of my local friends and I visited Tian’anmen Square on July 26th.  This was the only place I was a little apprehensive about visiting. 




Many may remember the tragedy associated with this landmark twenty-one years ago (1989).  After the death of Hu Yaobang, nearly 100,000 people descended upon Tian’anmen Square to mourn.  Hu Yaobang was a retired and controversial official that was known for his views on the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and China’s role in Tibet.  Many students participated in demonstrations and protests after his death and for several weeks.  Many were killed by government troops during this time.  Being a student myself was enough to give me pause.




Try searching for “Tian’anmen” on the internet from inside China and you would see that any websites on the subject are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China”.  I had to wait until I returned to the U.S. to do additional research on the event.  Even today, this event is not mentioned in any school curriculums, discussed by the media, and is generally not a topic that should be spoken of aloud in public.  My friend told me that its one of this things best not discussed, and the rest of our conversations while in the square were about other topics.  Today was perhaps the only time during my stay in Beijing that I was very sensitive to where I was and how decidedly different the rights, rules, and expectations were compared to those at home.




Tracy and I walked around the large square and took some photos.  It was much larger than I imagined.  There were hundreds of people around, both foreign and Chinese.  Student groups (field trip!) were arranged in formation in some places. It was also where I saw the largest military/police presence during my entire stay in the country.  I am not sure whether it was for symbolic or security purposes.  From what I have heard, every year additional troops arrive to make sure no one comes to the square to protest or commemorate the events of April through June of 1989.  Apparently the square is well-lit and quite impressive at night, but I did not have the good fortune to visit again before my time in China was done. 



My friend works at a bank, so our conversation included a comparison of the banking industries in China and the United States.  We traded actual currency and talked about the design and security features, denominations, and things like that - all of this while standing in the middle of the famed Tian’anmen Square. It was a rather odd feeling, but my host did not seem concerned. 


When I asked about the troops that were stationed around the square, our conversation turned to military service.  This is when I learned that in some ways, China and the U.S. are similar with respect to military obligations of the population.  As in the U.S., all men 18 and over are required to register and be prepared to be called to service.  But just like the U.S., there has been no need for an actual draft because volunteers more than fill the military’s needs.   When I asked about women in the military, I found it is quite different between the two countries.  In China, women can join the military as young as age 14!  However, they are also limited to serve only in certain areas of specialty. 


The architecture surrounding the square was more “official-looking” compared to the Summer Palace and other places we visited this summer.  The square itself is the largest of its kind in the world, and is nearly 600 years old.  I am not sure I have ever even seen a city square like this, not even a smaller version.  In South Florida, we have “circles” but not “squares” – and our circles are full of buildings or parks in the middle, not empty and flat like Tian’anmen.




After a while, we decided to go explore The Forbidden City which was located literally across the street.  I will blog about that another time!



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July 12, 2010

During the middle of the week this past week, we took a break as a group and visited The Great Wall of China.  It certainly would have disappointing to visit the country and not at least see the Great Wall.  You are definitely cheating yourself if you don’t check out at least this one historic place. There are over 5,000 miles associated with this fortification, some areas dating back more than 2,500 years!


Did I say visit?  I meant climb, scale, hike, slip and flirt with death!  We went as a group of 8 (including all of the PIRE students, our first outing as a complete group), and travelled for about 3-4 hours to an area north-ish of Beijing.  There was a brief stop along the way, but it was quite a long trip just to get to the site.  It included highway driving at first, but then turned into countryside driving, some dirt roads past bridges that were being constructed, and spiraling up and down the edges of mountains on roads barely able to fit on vehicle, let along oncoming traffic (there was none!).  I cannot even imagine taking this drive in rain or wintry weather.




Where we ended up turned out to not to be the part of the Wall that most tourists visit, but a far more rural out-of-the-way portion that was not restored at all.  We were able to see the true age of the wall and guard towers instead of restored sections that cater to tourists.  Witnessing the raw nature of this un-restored area of the wall, I think, gives one a much better understanding of just how many people and how much effort and time had to go into constructing one of the great wonders of the medieval ages. No souvenir stands, no museums, no vendors, no restaurants no crowds. In fact, it was just the two van-loads of us (one was full of students from Australia, I think) and we were dropped off at a clearing in a very rural area.








From there, we hiked up a steep trail through the woods and after about twenty minutes or so caught our first glimpse of the Great Wall.  By then we were over 3,000 feet up in the mountains.  The day was gray and cool, which was fantastic as it turned out.  The hike up the trail was grueling enough, but what was to come was even more challenging and would have been a lot more so had the sun been out and temperatures in the 100s like the previous week.




We chose a direction and started walking.  Michael and Berto looked like they had done this sort of thing before, so they were well ahead of the rest of us.  Then I and Ohannes (from FAU) were the next two behind them.  The rest of the group were a little further behind and eventually caught up, although only the first four of us managed to make it all the way up to the tower we were headed for.  You can see from the pictures why it was so difficult.  Some sections were not directly passable, and we found ourselves climbing up trails to the side of the wall, or long the outside face of the wall itself.  I am still not sure whether we were on the China side or the Inner Mongolia Side.



(Our goal was the tower at the top of the mountain peak in the distance, above) 



Reaching the top was incredible, and I am glad I persisted.  It was a little difficult with my backpack full of water, and I did the last stretch without the backpack for fear of losing my balance and falling off.  There were places that it took a thrown rock a good 7 seconds before hitting the tree-line on the mountainside below, and I did not particularly want to take that plunge myself J








Finally at the tower we hiked/climbed to, the view was fantastic.  You could see for miles and miles.  It felt nearly like standing on top of the world. I know there are much higher places on this planet, but coming from a flat area a mere 8 feet above sea level (South Florida), this was quite a vantage point for me.  I certainly had never done anything like this before and even today my body is still reminding me of this detail.











It was interesting to me that there were no animals around to speak of.  I expected to see some sort of wildlife, but there were not even many birds around at this height.  There were, however, some giant flies that seemed to like us.  A bumble bee, and a few lizards.  But that was about it, other than us.  It was quiet, it was powerful, and it is something I would like to do again.


[You do not have permission to access this file]   


Hope you enjoy the pictures.  They still do not do justice to just how high up we were, and just how difficult it was to get there.  But every one of us will remember this!




Keywords: beijing, great-wall-of-china, sight-seeing

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July 06, 2010

Last weekend, I went to a place called Houhai with my friend Wu Xiao Hui.  It is a giant lake ringed by about 100 shops, bars and restaurants.  The place reminded me in some ways of the Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas/Riverfront and Palm Beach’s Clematis Street areas.  Mostly foot traffic, but when you saw vehicles they were either rickshaws or very nice cars (like BMWs and a Jaguar or Mercedes or two). 


It was quite a nice stroll on a very hot day (around 100 degrees F) and we ducked into several of the little shops to cool off and look and around.  At one point, we escaped the heat by going into a fast food place (Yoshinoya), finding a spot upstairs and sipping cold drinks until we could find our legs again.  As a side note, one of the things I will need to re-adapt to when I get back home is restaurants that are on only one floor.  Here, most places I have been to have multiple floors, including a 4-story McDonald’s, a 3-story KFC and a 2-story Pizza Hut.


As the afternoon wore on, we walked around the entire lake, scouting out our dinner spot for later and people-watching and chatting about many different things, especially differences and similarities between America and China.  Wu Xiao Hui even convinced me to try a dish from a vendor that she said even some Chinese people won’t eat because of the smell.  Perhaps I was able to handle only because my head was still stuffy from being sick.  The vendor dipped cubes of something into a fryer for a few seconds, transferred them to a bowl and then ladled three different liquids over them.  I recognized the peppers in the last liquid, so I knew some spiciness was coming.

A blurry picture of what I was bravely sampling:  

…and it wasn’t bad!  At first it tasted very much like some sort of white-fish.  I did not dare ask what I was eating until I was done.  When I finished and asked “OK what is it that I just tried and liked?” it turned out that the translation was not straightforward.  The best description from the translated Chinese term was “stinky tofu bean” (chòu dòufu).   I still cannot attest to its stinkiness, but it was certainly tasty.  I would try it again, if given the opportunity.  I think this was my experience with tofu, and am curious as to whether all tofu tastes this way.  I think I have some more experimenting to do.


As we looped back around the lake looking for our dinner spot, we saw a lot of men swimming in the lake.  Having seen (and smelled) what was being washed into the lake earlier, and the color of the water, I don’t know if I would swim in it myself.  The men I saw must have super immune systems.  Although I must admit I have been swimming in the Intra-coastal Waterway back home and its brackish water is not a very healthy place to be.  Here, I definitely will not take the chance.  I have already spent a week being sick and would hate to waste any more of my time here holed up in the flat.

A side street with little shops selling artwork, etc:    

One had a white parrot in the window:  

A couple of the bars we passed:    

Finally we found a place to dine.  My friend still does not trust my ability to adapt to stir fry, so we chose a place that was a little more Western.  While I say “Western”, I only mean that there some were things on the menu that I recognized.  I had “Thailand Pineapple Rice”, which was served in an actual pineapple, as well as some salad and prawns (mmMMm prawns).  Wu Xiao Hui had “Japanese-style BBQ Eel”, which also came with rice and watermelon.  Side note: watermelon is quite popular here, even more than at home!  Another note: apparently it is common in China to eat the entire shrimp/prawn, tail and all.  I think my days of trying to coax the meat out of the tail shell (and often failing) are over!


The sun went down and night arrived as we ate, and lights all around the lake came on.  It was quite colorful and I can see why so many people frequent the place, including the local population.  Some lighting came from traditional-style hanging lanterns, while other areas like ours were lit by white and purple Christmas-like lights in the trees along the railings next to the water, along with candles on the tables.


One strange thing I did notice during dinner was the bar across the walkway and behind us.  There was a live band playing inside, there were bartenders, and everything was lit up – but the doors were closed and there were no people inside.  In fact, there were people outside pressed up against the glass that were watching and listening.  It would have been nice if the doors had been open so everyone could more clearly here the music, especially since I recognized some of it (Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, if you can believe it!).  When we asked, we found out that you had to pay to go inside, and it seems people on this day just generally did not want to pay.  Very odd, but it still added some music, albeit muffled, to the experience.


(A picture from the internet, which I am including because I recognize where we dined.  Just to the left of the bright blue lights, left of center.)

In all it was a very nice afternoon and evening and I would like to visit this place again before I leave, if possible.  I even managed to navigate the subway to Houhai (Gulou Dajie exit) and back (Wodaokou) without getting on the wrong line or going in the wrong direction.  This had been the first time I negotiated the subway alone since my arrival in Beijing, and it involved changing trains about halfway through the thirty-minute trip.  Of course, I have never even seen a subway before coming to China, so there was a high probability of me making a mistake.  I just knew I would mess up and loop around the city or end up somewhere completely lost.  Fortunately I had a good map of all 9 subway lines and the subway read the exit information aloud in both Chinese and English.  Another month here and I could see myself exploring the city without getting lost.  I wish I had another month instead of just three more weeks!


I am definitely looking forward to our next outing.  This week, I shall visit The Great Wall with my PIRE roommates.  I am very much looking forward to this, and will post another entry later in the week with some new pictures.  From what I understand, we are not going to the regular touristy area, but one that requires us to hike a couple of hours.  I have already started to freeze some water bottles in preparation.  The temperature has been 95 to 105 degrees (F) all week and it is expected to be another hot one when we go hiking. 


I have found that my Nike Air sneakers were made for both walking and dancing, so now let’s see if they were made for hiking…





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July 04, 2010



This past week, the students in my lab and Dr. Cao went to a place near Xiangshan Mountain, west of Beijing.  Xiangshan means “Fragrant Mountain” and is about a 30-minute taxicab ride from the Tsinghua University campus.  We piled into 3 cabs and headed to this place that became my first visit outside the main part of the city.  It is indeed a fragrant area!  Flowers and fruit everywhere and away from the hectic masses of people in the city.


I am not exactly sure what the place we were at was called (it was labeled in Chinese), but it was one of the popular fruit-picking areas for locals.  We had the place mostly to ourselves on this day, however.  The long tree-lined entrance was flanked on either side by orchards with cherries, peaches and what looked like apricots that were still too green to pick.  The interesting thing is that all of the trees were very low to the ground.  Some had main branches a mere meter or two above the soil.


We spent the first half hour or so creeping about under the peach trees, eating some and collecting the rest.  At least I think they were peaches.  They smelled like them and tasted like them, but they were flatter in shape, and you peeled off the skin before eating them. 


A little ways up the road was a covered area where we could see people packing cherries and peaches into boxes, apparently for sale in the city.  Here we washed our hands and ate some of the fruit we had picked and relaxed a little before proceeding down the road.


Eventually we continued down a road to an area that had a pond full of very dark green water with a deck area that crossed over it, containing chairs and tables that I found out later were for card-playing and relaxing.  From what I gather, the pond sometimes has fish in it that you can catch and then cook and eat.  This was reminiscent of my childhood in the rural area of middle Georgia in the U.S., where my family and I would fish for dinner from a large pond behind our house.  Alas!  There were no fish in the pond this day.  There, was, however, a rabbit in a cage.  I found by trial and error that this rabbit has a ticklish spot.


Next to the deck area was a large wood building that smelled like it had been only recently constructed.  Inside were individual rooms that looked like little meeting or gaming rooms, and one large open area filled with tables and chairs and a vaulted ceiling.  Here is where we would have lunch later.


At first we waited outside on the deck, and I watched the others play cards – I didn’t know the rules to the games that were being played, but was very interested in learning.   One group was playing a card game called Sanguosha, which I could not really follow because all of the cards were in Chinese.  I was interested in more about the game, however, since they told me that a student at Tsinghua University was involved in its invention.


From a little extra research I have found that the game is set during the period of the Three Kingdoms in China, and is a Dungeons & Dragons role-playing type of game with rules formed from a combination of Mafia and Bang! (another card game popular in China).   I would like to learn more about this game, but I will have to also learn more Chinese in order to properly play it.


A second group was a playing a game called “tuo la ji” (or “tractor”), which is similar to the game of Hearts.  It is played with two teams of two players, using two decks of regular playing cards.  It took me a while of watching, but I finally started getting the hang of the game.  Card playing is quite popular here, and the history of some of the games stretches back more than 1,200 years.  At home in South Florida, I am more accustomed to seeing people playing dominos (especially among the Cuban population) and Texas Hold ‘Em. 


After an hour or so of cards, we were summoned for lunch and it was wonderful.  The format was more traditional, with everyone seated around a table that had a round, elevated glass-top rotating about the center.  Every few minutes, the servers would bring out another dish and place on the table and over the next hour everyone would have a chance to sample each of the dishes (there were about 15 of us, and at least that many different dishes). 


The food ranged from fresh cucumbers and small green tomatoes to a giant butterflied fish (head and all) simmering in a special pan, to a plate with bean sprouts and some spicy meat strips to dishes containing food that I did not recognize at all.  There have been times that I still did not know what I had eaten even after sampling it.  Such has been my experience with this type of dining so far in China.  I like most of what I have tried, but cannot keep track of what I have tried and liked.  In some cases, I am sure I would rather not know J.  In others, I would like to know so I can look for similar foods in America.  


When I return to the U.S., I intend to seek out “real” Chinese restaurants to repeat this experience, and to continue to hone my skill in using kuàizi (chopsticks).  This has been a an interesting journey as well.  I practiced eating with chopsticks before I came to China, and thought I was doing fairly well… and was mistaken.  I found that I had not practiced with slippery food.  I certainly didn’t practice with food in motion (rotating by me).  Or slippery food rotating by me.  So far, my technique has included keeping a fork nearby just in case I have to resort to stabbing my target before it is too far away to retrieve.


After lunch, the rest of the afternoon was spent outside playing more cards until it was time to go home.  In all, we were there around seven hours.  I really think universities back home should do things like this to build camaraderie among student groups and classes.  Remember how exciting it was as a child in elementary or middle school to hear “field trip”?  That is exactly what this feels like.  At the university back home, you are lucky if you ever know all the students in your class or lab by name, let alone go out on such enjoyable excursions with them like we did here.


Once it was time to go home, we had a bit of a dilemma.  We were no longer in the city, so you could not simply flag down a taxi.  Dr. Cao loaded up his personal car with several of the students and dropped two off on the way back to the campus, where they then hailed taxis and came back to retrieve the remaining five of us.  By the time we arrived back to the lab, it was time to leave for the day.


This was another of the nice unique experiences I have enjoyed here in Beijing, and will remember this for quite some time upon my return to my home country, perhaps forever.



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July 03, 2010

I finally gave in and went to the hospital on campus.  Back home, going to the hospital often meant that you were either close to death, just broke a limb, or did not have health insurance.  If you were merely sick, you would make an appointment with a doctor's office or clinic and go there instead.
That is not how it works here in China.  Neither do our insurance cards, by the way :)  Going to the hospital combines the doctor's office experience and hospital experience into one.  Although I must say, a lot more efficiently.  I was in and out of the hospital in one hour and 53 RMB later.
When you first arrive, you pay 4 RMB (about 57 cents US) and get a ticket with a number and a room on it.  You sit in a waiting area in front of a board that lists all the current patient numbers in the queue and what number is being serviced at the moment, and how many people are ahead of you.   It is not very different from going to the bank!
Once it is your turn, you go to the designated room and talk to a nurse.  In this case, I had Fan Zhang with me and he did the translating.  The nurse starts filling out a personal record booklet, and gives you a piece of paper to go get blood work done.  You walk back to the original cashier, pay another 20 RMB and then to a window where they prick your finger, siphon off a little blood in a pipette and then tell you to wait.
Magically, only 15 minutes go by before an entire blood panel has been completed.  In this U.S. this could take days and hundreds of dollars of billings to your insurance company.  Here it took minutes and less than 3 dollars US.  Next stop, back to the original nurse, who checks out the results and prescribes some medicine.
I took my prescription back to the same cashier (a 3rd trip) and after 29 RMB, received herbal tea and Tylenol Cold & Flu, along with the directions to sleep more, drink more, avoid spicy foods and smoking.  
Out the door I go... with that written personal record!  Except for the actual cash transactions and blood work, everything else is written in that booklet and it is yours to keep/protect.  This was interesting to me since it is in the very area of my research, "electronic health records" and the transportable nature of the data.   
My new Chinese medical records:     
Here I just experienced great efficiency, and security (since I am in possession of my own records), without there being a single computer involved!  The booklet says to "bring this record to all visits to clinics and hospitals in Beijing".  It becomes your medical history, and it is up to you to keep it safe, like your driver's license, money or other valuable information.  Interesting!  Of course if you lose this booklet, your history has to start all over again, so there is that one shortcoming.  But on the other hand there is a lot of positive things to say about how the Chinese medical system works.  Efficient service, well-organized, portable records and no over-charging of insurance companies by middle-man doctors.
In any case, I am still alive and on the mend although it seemed strange to go to a hospital for an otherwise non-serious illness, and to be prescribed medicines that I could have picked up over-the-counter at Walgreens if I were at home.
A little tea to remove the "fire from my lungs" and good old Tylenol Cold & Flu!   
Now if I could just unclog my ears....

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June 30, 2010

The Air...
I have been to many places in Beijing that prove how beautiful the city is.  However, sometimes you can't really see the beauty properly, because of the smog.  For example, looking out from our 12th floor balcony I know there are mountains in the horizon, but I have seen their shadowy outlines only twice in three weeks.  It is a pity since I have been looking forward to seeing them, coming from a tropical area with no big hills, let alone mountains.  I hope to get the stunning looks I have anticipated when we visit The Great Wall.
(The view from our 12th story flat in Beijing - there are mountains out there!)
You don't really see the sun much here either, and you tend to forget the sky is actually blue.  Sometimes you can look right at the setting sun, which appears like a molten red ball hanging in the sky like a lone ornament.  I am definitely not accustomed to this.  At home, gray usually means rain.  Solid gray with no cloud definition usually means lots of rain.  I live near Miami where the sky is almost always a beautiful blue until the afternoon storms set in with billowy white, blue and purple clouds.   The sun is usually so bright at home that that everyone has sunglasses, and backup sunglasses, and backup backup sunglasses, and very dark tint on their car windows to help with the sunglasses.  Toto, we're not in Florida anymore.
Sunset at Tsinghua University, Beijing (left) and Sunset over the Everglades in Sunrise/Fort Lauderdale, Florida (right)
The shock, of course, comes from relocating from a tropical, ocean-side area of 6 million (if you count Miami, Fort Lauderdale AND Palm Beach) to a city that has at least 22 million residents, according to China National Radio in February of this year.  Some locals that I have asked put the number closer to 30 million since the tally doesn't include students such as myself.  All of the people, the factories, the vehicles and the geographical location of the city contribute to the air pollution problem that everyone who lives here must get accustomed to.  
A study during and after the Olympic Games in 2008 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that while the air quality improved temporarily during the Games, there were still some troubling statistics.  "Courser particulate matter, PM 10, exceed levels the World Health Organization considers safe about 81 percent of the time, while the smaller particulate pollution PM 2.5, which can cause more serious health consequences, exceeded WHO guidelines 100 percent of the time". (The Straits Times, Singapore, June 20th 2009)  My lungs can attest to this!  I have actually considered wearing one of the mouth-and-nose masks I see some locals wear while walking or bicycling around, but don't want to be more noticeable than I already am, or appear that I am sick and should be avoided.
The Water...
Water is another issue here.  Three years ago, Beijing became the first city to pass all the tests required to claim that the water supply is "potable", but there is still the problem of 50-60 year old pipes that can contaminate the water on the way to the consumer.  Therefore, even the residents advise the boiling and filtering of tap water before drinking it.  Some say you should not even brush your teeth with it!  The "Travel China Guide" suggests sticking to bottled water unless you know the water you are ingesting has been boiled.
Fortunately, bottled water is sold in massive quantities everywhere.  In grocery stores, book stores, on the streets, at sightseeing spots... everywhere! As I type this I have a 4-liter bottle of "Nongfu Spring" bottled water within easy reach down by my right foot.  In fact, I shall take a short break to chug another mug of it.  Ahhhh.  Those reading this that know me really well know that I am going to come back a changed person.  I have never been a water person, and always preferred sweet, cold, carbonated drinks.  I have already ingested more bottled water in the last three weeks than I have in the last three years, without exaggeration.  I could probably say five years and still not be exaggerating.  
China is teaching me many things, including how to eat and drink healthier (although that sounds a little strange given the topic of this posting, and what I am about to finish with).  I hope my water-drinking, vegetable-eating habits I pick up here translate to a lifelong pattern back home, instead of reverting back to pizza, burgers, and colas :)
The Rite of Passage...?
I do not know how the other PIRE students in other countries are faring in this area, but we are definitely changing from one status to another as a group.  While it is not a ceremony nor challenge that we are tackling with open eyes and willing hearts, we are definitely advancing through a rite of passage that inducts some of us "newbies" into living abroad for more than a week-long vacation.
Almost every single one of us is currently ill!
No one has had to go to the hospital as of yet, but there has definitely been some suffering.  We may be causing a small spike in sales of tissue paper and bottled water (to replace what we are sweating out) in the neighborhood.  Only three of us have been ill enough to not leave bed for days, but five of us have missed at least one day of work/research.
Michael was the first to catch "the bug".  I think I was the second and Berto was struck down right behind me.  I didn't leave my sleeping area for more than 2 days and tried to hibernate twenty-four hours each of those two.   Have you ever seen the movie "Alien"?  Imagine what that must feel like, a little alien inside your body trying to get out, and kicking everything hard along the way.  Your kidneys, bowels, stomach, maybe even liver (not sure where it is to confirm that it, too, is hurting) are sore to the point where you do not even want to move, sneeze, cough or laugh.  Mix in the respiratory distress and the inability to breath properly, along with raw nasal passages, raw sinuses, wheezing lungs and splitting headaches... and you have the oh-this-is-not-fun-at-all result.
Fortunately, everything seems to work itself out after a while with a lot of sleep (in intervals of a few minutes because the Alien kicks fairly often), a lot of water and a lot of patience.  Hopefully this turns us all into to Supermen immune-system wise.  Friends of mine that have traveled abroad tell me this is fairly typical when you relocate for more than a couple of weeks to an entirely different climate.  I for one am glad I brought some pain medicine, some antibiotics and stocked up on water.  Also I am thankful for having 6 roommates (did I just type that?) to make sure I am alive now and then.
Well Berto just arose from the dead, so he must be on the mend as well.  The others that are coughing and sneezing will hopefully only experience those symptoms and not the more debilitating ones the remainder of us have been enjoying lately.
Here's hoping that tomorrow is a healthier and happier day for all.   Beijing has a lot to offer us, but we cannot enjoy it from our beds!

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June 27, 2010

Now in my third week at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I am starting to get comfortable with everything from the living arrangements to the weather, the sheer size of the area and of course the most important part – the research work I am doing at the university.


The first week or so, I mostly just followed everyone else around.  While I come from an area with a decently large population (5.8 million people in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area), the people are no where near as concentrated as it is here in Beijing (which contains 20 to 30 million people depending who you ask).  Now that I have my bearings, a bicycle, some maps, and a local friend (Wu Xiao Hui), I am starting to worry less about getting lost or creamed by oncoming traffic.  Note to self:  Here the pedestrian does not necessarily have the right away, unless you are crossing the street within a big throng of pedestrians!


Since my last blog I have done quite a bit of exploring, some with my PIRE flatmates.  I went to the Beijing Zoo & Aquarium with Rodney, Anna, Berto and Bayoan.  It was a long hot day, and we did not get to see everything before we started to run out of daylight and energy.  If time permits, I would like to go again on a cooler day, or earlier in the morning when the animals are a little more animated instead of trying to avoid the heat. 


Most of the creatures in the zoo and the aquarium I have seen before, whether in zoos or in the wild (after all, I live right next to wild alligators, pythons, ibises and flamingos in Florida), but there were a few I had never seen before (like the pandas).  That made the visit well worth it.  The dolphin and sea lion show was well done.  Sort of like the Miami Seaquarium and Sea World in Orlando, but with an Asian flavor of course.  As soon as I typed that, I recalled hearing “Amazing Grace” during the show… in English, no less!  That choice of music was a bit surprising, and completely out of context with the show.  But I suppose it is not so different than the nightclub near our flat that plays dance music I recognize from 10-15 years ago. 


My new friend Xiao Hui has been a great help in teaching me how to negotiate the subway to places like the Summer Palace, Tian’anmen Square, and Forbidden City.  She is a wonderful person and very patient with me.  It seems that I stop every few seconds to take another picture, or to ask how to say something properly.  Last night we saw the movie “Shanghai” with John Cusack in a theater that was in a giant mall near central Bejing. The movie had been dubbed in Chinese and then subtitled in both Chinese and English.  I am sure I would learn Chinese faster if I could see a lot more movies like that! 


I have learned a lot more about China and the Chinese culture from Xiao Hui and we are nearly continuously comparing notes on the similarities and differences between our cultures.  We will probably explore places together every weekend until it is time to leave, but neither of us can really spare the time during the week.  The PIRE trip is shorter than originally planned for my group, and she works full-time at a bank, so both of us are pressed for time or worn out until the weekend.


Bicycles… sometimes you get a good one (everyone else in our group) and sometimes you don’t (mine).  Part of my weekly blog update may be the parts I’ve replaced since the last blog.  I finally got one, and thought I picked out a decent one for a good price.  But now I’ve had a flat tire, things coming loose, a seat post collapse, a pedal breaking off and more recently the other pedal breaking off.  I think before the trip is over I will know the bike repair guy near us well enough to join his family for dinner J  In my backpack I carry around tools that I purchased at the local market for emergency repairs.  Good thing I still remember how to repair bicycles from my childhood.

 Rebuilding my bicycle, one day, one piece at a time...

T-shirts… I love reading t-shirts.  Just like in America, where we buy t-shirts with lettering from other languages that we don’t actually understand, they do they same here… maybe even moreso.  Some are easily recognizable, like the sports-related ones… NYY is a popular baseball cap, for example.  So are basketball shirts.  I’ve seen a lot of Air Jordan t-shirts here and from what I understand.  But I have also seen some that are funny translations “Cast your gaze on the chic with the and slim silhouette”, “Always wear white and clean”, “Okay on New York cast your eyes”.  In general, I notice that many signs and t-shirts are positive or inspirational slogans, perhaps more frequently than in the States.  “Inspiration comes of working. Imagination is more important than intelligence.”


More updates later in the week!  I will also go back and add in some of the 700+ pictures I have taken so far.




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June 17, 2010


I am typing this entry from the lab at Tsinghua University.  We still do not have internet at our flat off-campus, so it is difficult to "stay connected" to the outside world.  I cannot help but to think about how spoiled I am at home with an always-on high-speed internet connection where ever I am at.  Anyway, inside the lab, I have to use a special browser called Sougou to get to sites outside of China (like this PIRE site).  Google Chrome, IE, Firefox, etc are unable to connect.  This of course makes things a bit more difficult, since I am unaccustomed to the browser and much of it is in Chinese or little square boxes from my laptop being as yet unable to render traditional Chinese characters in certain places.


Research work!  The project I am working on is a bit of a moving target at the moment.  What I thought I was going to work on before I got here is definitely not what I am going to be doing.  I won't say I wasted several weeks familiarizing myself with Android and programming on mobile devices, but I sort of wish I had that time back and spent it learning Mandarin or pinyin instead.  The task I was introduced to on my second day here at the lab is also no longer what I will be working on.  Now I am onto another project that really exposes how little I know about Linux and Virtual Machines and IBM's Tivoli product.  I am definitely a programmer/software engineer type of person, and I really do look forward to getting some actual coding done before I leave.  But in the meantime I still enjoy the challenge of learning things completely different from my previous skillsets.  Leaving Tsinghua more well-rounded technically is as important to me as leaving with more cultural and "worldly" experience.  Since I am not sure how much detail is appropriate as to the actual work product itself, I will not go into further detail at this time.

Experiences!  At least I can type a bit about the overall experience here thus far.  Living with a bunch of roommates (6) is a major shock to me, but surprisingly quite enjoyable.  I am sure it makes most of us a little more comfortable being in this new environment.  Perhaps I shall have to recruit more roommates upon my return to Florida, just to feel normal.  In fact, I have also been wondering about what habits, expressions and mindsets I will bring back with me, and whether any will be permanent.  There are definitely some things I like about the Chinese people and how they treat each other and students such as myself.  I say "thank you" a lot more than I do at home (that might be because I only know how to say two things in Chinese), but I wonder if I will catch myself saying "xie xie nin" back in the States instead of the English words.  It is already becoming habit. 


Food!  There is a wonderful bakery right near our flat that caters to my sweet tooth, even when I don't know exactly what I am eating.  Some things I am wary to try, but other things look just like something I would eat at home.  Not to say I don't experiment a little, because I do.  One morning I had this pastry that looked like it was a sweet pastry with melted cheese on top.  I certainly did not expect the egg in the middle, nor the texture of it (as if it had been whipped almost to pudding consistency before or during cooking).  Today I ate what I thought were cute little pancakes, attracted mostly by the Garfield (the cat) logo on the front and the fact that it looked like something predictable, taste-wise.  Well, it looked like a pancake, but tasted more like cake, and had something sweet in the middle which I am guessing is fruit (fig, maybe?).  In any case, I was smiling on my walk to campus as I ate it, so all was good.


More about food!  For days that I am not feeling adventurous, I have located a McDonald's, 3 pizza places and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Last night I saw Subway, so I may try that as well.   When I eat on campus, though, it's all more traditional Chinese food.  I tend toward the things with less green components, so it makes my choices easier.  Last night I think I had some sort of meat and squash, but cannot be sure.  It was excellent though!  And of course some Coca Cola to accompany it.  There are a lot of places to eat on campus, but I have only been to two so far.  I surely need to explore more. 


Transportation!  A bike.  Now I know why there are so many.  You really do need one around here!  I don't have one yet, but it is high on my list of things to acquire this weekend, if not today.  I walk what I am guessing is several miles a day, and while the exercise is good, I find it hard to cool down after (there really is not any air conditioning as we are used to it in America, so I am usually overheating like a typical spoiled south Florida resident :)   Speaking of transportation... I have not taken the subway yet, but shall this weekend I think.  So far I can still say I have never seen or been on a subway in my life.  Of course that is typical for South Florida residents -- we don't even have basements (well, if you do, you have a swimming pool since we're about 8 feet above sea level).


Entertainment!  So far all I have experienced is what has been in the immediate area.  People-watching, walking among the sidewalk vendors (it turns into a bit of a flea market at night) and slowly widening the circle of my comfort zone.  I am afraid of getting lost, and in a city that some say has about 30 million people, I'd be easily missed if I did.  But I have been to a great night club twice since my arrival and discovered that I actually do know how to dance (sort of).  I can already say I have danced more in two trips than in my entire life to date.  It is incredibly comforting to recognize the music, of course.  Last night I heard Madonna, and Jay-Z, but also some South Florida artists (Flo Rida and PitBull). 


Exploration! I hope we get our internet fixed this weekend, but perhaps I will be too busy to notice that it is still missing.  My tentative plans are to visit either the Summer Palace or Forbidden Gardens with a new local friend on Saturday, where I will take a lot of pictures.  My new friend (wu xiao hui, or "Tracy") studies International Finance at another university in the area and I am looking forward to chatting with her about her studies and what kind of things she learns in that discipline.  We have an International Business program at home, but I am not sure if it is the same thing.  She definitely knows more English than I do Mandarin, so it should be a fun time without me consulting my little phrasebook every other minute and mangling my pronunciation.  Maybe I should bring Berto (from UNCC) along as a translator since he is the only one of our group that actually had Chinese language coursework prior to our arrival here.


OK, signing off for now to dive back into my work.  Hope anyone that takes the time to read this enjoys my rambling.  If you don't, you probably should at least feel fortunate... I only write about 1/10th of what comes to mind.  Those reading this that know me are probably smiling and nodding their heads right about now...


Yǐhòu wǒ huì xiě gèng duō!

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