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Rodney Owens :: Blog

July 25, 2010

I've never really been around trains much, so here is a strange train crossing I've become facinated with.  They have these gates that come out to keep people from just walking onto the train tracks and a REALLY REALLY LOUD and annoying buzzing noise.  You can hear chinese announcements when the gates are first deployed.


Keywords: trains culture

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July 14, 2010

Here's a day in my life.  Enjoy!

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July 12, 2010


You just about need a cell phone to call your Chinese adviser and the people who are going to fix your Internet Connection. Everyone in your group also needs one because sometimes people want to travel with different people at different times and it's dangerous (especially for women or at night) to travel alone, so you need one to call different members of your group with to negotiate rendezvous points. My friends here are all getting ripped off when buying SIM cards, so I'll explain the best way of doing it here:


Have a friend in China (who is obviously Chinese) buy for you a China Mobile, M-zone SIM card with the "Free Incoming Calls" service activated at least a MONTH in advance of arriving. This will cost you about $20 US and will last you (if you don't call out much) the entire trip. My friends here are paying anywhere from 120 RMB to 300 RMB just to get the SIM card, and they are running out of minutes very quickly. In order to do this though, you need to first bring a Quad-Band, unlocked

cellphone. Buying a cellphone here is a VERY bad idea. Your cell phone company can unlock your cell phone for you. Before I left, my Grandma renewed her AT&T contract and let me have her old Quad-Band phone to use here. Sorry, but Verizon and Sprint cellphones are worthless here (except maybe as a flashlight/calculator/rock).


A list of things I would have wanted to know before going to China:


  1. Name Brands may be owned by a different company here. I'll leave it to the travel to discover which.


  1. Chinese food is very cheap. It's cheaper than in America.


  1. American food is about the same price or slightly higher (unless it's imported, then it's very expensive).


  1. American food, if not imported, tastes MUCH better than in America. IE: McDonald's pancakes = delicious


  1. Pepsi is advertised heavily here, as apposed to Coca Cola. A 2.5 Liter of Pepsi costs 3.99 RMB.


  1. Buying Milk is an adventure in and of itself.


  1. Your toilet paper options (and I mean more options than just brand name and softness ;) are MUCH greater here.


  1. If your electronic device does not have a grounding plug, and if it says “INPUT: 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz” then you will not need any kind of adapter or converter. The wall outlets here have two plugs, one on top of the other like in the US, but the top one is a US, 2-prong plug and the bottom one is a grounded Chinese plug. If your device says “INPUT: 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz,” but is a grounded device, you need an adapter. If it does not say ““INPUT: 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz,” then you need a converter. Wait to buy an adapter until your in China, they are cheap here. Buy a converter in the US, if you need one.


  1. Pain killers like Tylenol and Aspirin are prescription only. An Asthma inhaler is over-the counter. I still haven't figured this one out.


  1. It is best to bring your passport around with you at all times. It is illegal to copy your passport in the US, and most places here won't accept a copy of other forms of ID. Just keep it in a safe place, and make sure you can feel it 24/7 when your in a crowd.


  2. Bring a lot of cash with you when you arrive. Keep it safe. Do not convert it at the airport, go to China Construction Bank to have it converted. They do not charge a fee.


  3. Pack towels and rags before you arrive.


  4. Super-super-walmart = Lotus Supercenter. Go to Lotus.


  5. Either there is no sales tax, or it's built into all prices. IE: What you see on the price tag is EXACTLY what you pay.


  6. If you run short on money, which you'll quickly do if you pay 2 rent shares (and thus theoretically, give the grant a discount on rent), then don't panic. Just make sure you bring your Debit card and tell the bank you'll be using it in china before you go. Use either Bank of America and go to a China Construction Bank ATM, or, if you hated Bank of America like me because of all their outrageous fees, then (I use Wachovia) go to Lotus to buy as much stuff as possible, and run your debit card as credit (credit is not the yellow button, it's the green button on the pin pad). If you use credit, you're charged like a 1-2% fee, but that's lower than 7% tax in North Carolina. Do NOT go to an ATM and do NOT use debit.


  7. If you have cash available, buy food from small shops (not street vendors) that specialize in one thing. It is cheaper than in Lotus, and usually tastes better.


  8. The solar time and the working time are NOT the same in Beijing.


Keywords: weekly report Beijing things should know China

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June 29, 2010

June 27th

Anna, Bayoan and I went to the Summer Palace today. James had already gone, so he gave us some tips that turned out to be very helpful later. We took the subway, even though the guidebook told us to take the subway AND a bus. I'm still not sure why. Once we left the subway these guys approached us, trying to get us to purchase a ride to the Summer Palace on their rickshaw (the kind with a bicycle in the front). He kept saying "hello" to get our attention. He was very persistent, and followed us for a really long time.

Unfortunately, we turned the wrong way when we left the subway. Asking for directions was...interesting. I called someone and  they told me how to ask for directions in Chinese, because just pointing at a picture of the Summer Palace got us some negative reactions. I think they thought we were trying to sell them tickets or a tour or something. It wasn't hard to understand their reaction once we got there. At the entrance there were all sorts of people trying to sell us stuff- guided tours, audio guides, pamplets, souveniers. There were a lot of people begging too, more than we'd seen anywhere else. I guess they're hoping the tourists are more likely to give them money.
The Palace was large, and we did a lot of walking. We went in several galleries that displayed artifacts, many of which were very old. There were bronze statues, porcelin vases, pieces of carved Jade and coral, and several works made of glass. The dates ranged from around 600 BC to the 1800's. There was a lot to look at, and I'm pretty sure we didn't get to see everything.

The show at the Garden of Virtue and Harmony was really cool to watch. James had already shown Anna part of it, since he had a video of it, and she helped explain it a little. There were two actors, one dressed in white (the good guy) and the other dressed in black (the bad guy). The idea was that they were in a room, completely pitch black and couldn't see each other. So they were trying to fight without being able to see. Some parts were funny, like when they both picked up the table without realizing their enemy was on the other end.

The view along the water was really nice. There were a lot of lily pads near the edge, of course, and there were lots of paddle boats out on the water. There were some larger boats, too, that took people from one side of the water to the other. From the side near the entrance we could clearly see what they called "The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha."


 It was the thing we were most anxious to see, since James had told us about it. It was very high, and we had to climb A LOT of steps. But it was worth it. The view was amazing from the top, and the statue of Buddha was definitely a site to behold. The signs clearly expressed that pictures weren't allowed, but most people were taking pictures anyway. I guess it's a rule they can't really enforce?


It was easy to get turned around, and we were really glad we paid the extra 10 to get a map. Some places looked very much like other places, and there weren't a lot of signs in some areas. There were some places we couldn't go- they were blocked off, the doors were locked, or there just wasn't a path. I would reccomend to anyone who wants to go that they buy the 60 dollar all inclusive ticket that allows you to go everywhere (unless NO ONE can go there), otherwise it's pretty boring and a waste of time.

Keywords: summer palace tour Buddha Kunming Lake Beijing

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June 22, 2010

June 20th

We went to the zoo and the aquarium today. Alberto, James and Bayoan went with us. It was very hot even in the morning when we left, which was about 9:30. We took the subway, but we didn't have to go very far. The place where we stopped, where the zoo was, was very crowded. There were lots of businesses, many of them we recognized. There was a Lens Crafters, a Baskin Robbins, a huge McDonald's that had three floors, and Subway.

There was a large crowd waiting to get tickets into the zoo. It was not very expensive- only 20 rmb. There were lots of families with small children, of course. Lots of little stands sold souvenirs, bottles of water, ice cream, hot dogs (sausage, didn't taste very good), chicken, and large balloons for the kids. The biggest attraction was the Panda house, which cost an extra 5 rmb that you paid when you went into the zoo (it's only 15 rmb if you skip it). We only saw four pandas. Most of them were sleepy or sleeping, like all the animals in the zoo. It was just too hot for any of them to be active. A lot of places were selling stuffed pandas. They were very cute, but we didn't buy one. There were sections in the zoo for certain areas of the world. We didn't look at the American animals, since it would've been a waste of time. We did notice they had some chickens and a “gray squirrel” in some cages, and we thought that was pretty funny.

Before we left we stopped by the Australian animals and saw a few kangaroos (only one of them was hopping around) and some strange birds (one of which was obviously an ostrich). Before that we were visiting the aquarium, which is supposedly the largest inland aquarium in the world. They had a lot of fish, a lot of large fish, but not as much variety as I would have thought. It was a lot of fun to look at everything, and before we left we went into this indoor stadium and saw a show where dolphins and sea lions performed tricks for the audience. It was amazing to see. We couldn't understand what the people were saying, so we missed a lot of the humor, but we were still able to appreciate the dolphins leaping in the air and the sea lions balancing a ball on their nose and clapping. They even had a little girl from the audience come on stage (she was brought there on a inflatable raft pulled by a dolphin) and shake hands with one of the dolphins.

The first stop we made in the zoo was at a pond where there were lots of birds flying free. You could feed and watch and take pictures of them. Some looked like swans and ducks, and we saw one pelican. There was one very large bird which, thankfully, kept it's distance. They were very comfortable with people and would swim very close, hoping to get a morsel to eat. I noticed most people did not get very excited, even the children. They seemed to be calmly enjoying watching the animals.

One pond was filled with lily pads and was so crowded that some had to grow taller than the water level to get sun. There was supposed to be an alligator along the banks of one stream but for some reason he was a no show. They had several buildings for you to go inside and look at animals. They had one for birds, some of which were very large, tropical and scary looking. Many of these cages had an inside section as well as an outside part, and it just depended on the time of the day or the mood of the animal as to which  it would be in. They also had a reptile and amphibian house, which lots of snakes and lizards and large toads and salamanders. There was a large variety of turtles as well, including one with a very long neck that I'd only seen in books before.

They monkeys were fun to watch. The chimps were swinging around having fun, some others were hunched up in the shade, the Capuchin monkeys were stuffing their cute faces with fruit. Some people were not very nice to the animals or understanding of their need for sleep in the sweltering heat. They beat on the cages repeatedly, frightening and distressing the animals. It wasn't kids doing it much, either, it was mostly older men. We also saw lots of very tired and cranky children bawling their eyes out. Most of the parents were very patient and understanding, handing them ice cream and juice, letting them sleep in their laps when they could. One lady was very mean, and shouted at her little girl. It was very awkward.

It was hard to get good pictures because it was either too bright or too dark or the animals were moving too fast or not moving at all. We were all very tired, but stopped and McDonald's and Baskin Robbins on the way home and that improved our spirits, especially since the lady taking our order spoke a little bit of English and Alberto went home early, so he wasn't there to help us. It was a good trip, though and I think most of us had some fun.
On the trip back on the subway there was a race to get to the few seats on the car, and I managed to snag one at the same time another guy did. Then Anna and another girl got on the subway, and we both gave them our seats (apparently the other girl was his girlfriend) and we stood up. We both looked at each other and laughed, because we'd done the same thing. It's sort of nice to know some things are not bond by culture.



Keywords: animals, aquarium, zoo

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June 18, 2010

June 8-11, 2010

We arrived in Beijing at about 2:30 today (the 8th), which was strange because when we left it was Monday. The plan ride seemed to take longer than 14 hours, and by the end we were all absolutely miserable. I got really air sick, so I didn't eat two of the meals they offered us. They showed a lot of movies on the plane, some of which we couldn't understand because they were dubbed in Chinese. The process of going through security in Charlotte, Washington DC and Beijing went a lot smoother than we thought it would. The only snag came when we were trying to find another student who had flown separately, and we were worried he'd missed his flight. Everything was fine, though, and the PIRE representative had a bus to take us to where we were supposed to stay. The apartment is nice, even if it's not the sort of place we're used to. The air conditioners work a little too well. We are on the twelve floor, which is strange for me.

Our first meal here was a giant 18 inch pizza. It was a struggle to try and order. Alberto did the best he could acting as our translator and spokesperson. But they were very nice and one random lady helped when we were paying because she was fluent in English and Chinese. Everyone we speak to is very nice and they try really hard to understand what we are saying. Sometimes they laugh a little, but never in a mean way.

The sellers in the street are not supposed to be there, so they only sell at night and the sidewalk is filled with them, and people buying from them. It is chaos. In the morning, they are all gone and people sweep away the trash left behind by them.

The cars honk their horns A LOT for various reasons, and it kind of bothered us. It will have to be something we get used to. When we went out we had to be careful because the cars seem to come from unexpected directions and the traffic signals can be hard to predict and understand. We have to watch for people on bikes and mopeds, too, because there are so many of them. The university has rows and rows of bikes parked along the sidewalk because most of them ride their bikes to school. I've never seen so many bikes in my life.

The food is strange, but good. Our first day at the University we were treated to lunch by one of the Professors. She was very obliging, and her English was very good. She told us she got her doctorate in America (Iowa, I believe) so that explained a lot. Everyone ordered one thing they thought they would like to eat, so we ended up with a table full of food. We had dumplings, with meat and vegetables, fried and steamed, rice, celery and nut salad, fish drenched in sweet and sour sauce, some sort of spicy chicken (which was still on the bone, sort of like chicken wings in America). We ate with chopsticks, which was a bit of a challenge for some of us who had never used them. Michael and Alberto were fairly deft with them, and the rest of us caught on fairly quickly. We dropped some food, but it was alright as it gave us a good laugh.

My Bedroom

 My Bedroom


Views from our Bedroom 


Alberto eating both American and Chinese food


Our Washing Machine controls (What does this stuff say?)

Jet lag is bad:

June 12

We were suppose to work today at Tsinghua, but I am the only one who didn't bring a laptop from home to use at work, so I asked Dr. Yang (the professor I see the most often) if I could use a computer. They don't have very many computers left that belong to the college AND work, so they gave me the best they had and I'm grateful for that. The optical drive doesn't work and I think there's something wrong with the motherboard cause it keep freezing while it's running. I'll work on it.

Our favorite place to go is the Lotus center, which sells a lot of the things we need, the prices are good, I can use my credit card, and it's right across the street. We can get food, personal hygiene products, cleaning supplies- even scissors and shower shoes. Their food selection is fascinating, if a little disturbing. The main delicacy is sea slugs and sea cucumbers, which cost thousands of dollars (hundreds in US terms). They have whole fish for sale, and there are mounds of raw meat and seafood just sitting out for you to scoop up. None of us got any of it. You could also buy a whole dried chicken, chicken's feet, and a fish head wrapped in plastic. They had sushi, too, but it looked several days old. The market isn't that loud, but on the third floor there are ladies with microphones shouting out the daily specials, which are wrapped neatly in plastic. Those who are interested simply hold out their hands, and the ladies pass a package to them. There are women everywhere just waiting to assist you in selecting something. They are very eager to show you which is the best bargain. It's nice of them, but not what I'm used to . Alberto was quick to try and teach us how to say “no want.”

June 14

There are several things that make living here unpleasant and strange to us. The air is filthy and stinks. The roads are disgusting, with trash and unknown liquids spilled everywhere. There are a lot of people around us all the time. Even in the middle of the night we here a lot of noises from the street. Sometimes we here people screaming in the middle of the night. It's very unnerving. We have to be careful not to drink the water, and avoid water and ice in restaurants. Even the elevator in our building, which will shut on you if you're not careful, is something to get used to.

There are also good things of course. People here are very pleasant for the most part, the food is good, and the cost of living is very reasonable. There is plenty to learn, and enough things to keep us all occupied most of the time.  Alberto, Michael and I went out walking until we couldn't walk anymore (west entrance of Tsinghua), so we figured we REALLY needed to buy bikes.  We managed to get 3 bikes and U bolts for a total of 700 RMB's.  It is so much easier to get around now.  We don't spend an hour walking across campus to the cafateria anymore and the breeze helps keep us cool in > 90 F temperatures.

Today was the first day of some “Dragon Day” holiday. I don't know anything about it. I just know I'm getting very frustrated trying to get this computer to work.

June 16

Today, Anna and I took the Subway to Di Tan Park. It was an excuse to get familiar with the subway system and also get a look at one of the many parks in Beijing. Fortunately, each stop on the subway route was well labeled, and announcements were read in English as well, so it wasn't as confusing as we'd feared. It took a very long time to find our way there, since there was a bit of confusion when we were transferring from the orange line to the blue line, and some more confusion when we tried to leave the subway. Fortunately we had our translation book with us, and were able to point to what we were asking. After we left the subway there was a little more confusion about where to enter the park, but someone (who said he was French, he had a French accent) who speaks English helped us by showing us which entrance was the park. He also warned us about merchants who would try to rip us off.

The park was very nice. We saw lots of birds, including pigeons. There was a wide variety of flowers, many of which we easily recognized (lilies, begonias, roses) and some we did not. It was very quiet. There were a lot of benches for people to rest, and most people were actually sitting instead of walking around. You had to pay to go into the temple, so we decided not to go in. We might go back again later.


At the Park:

Anna at the park:

Me at the park:

More "at the park:"

Endless crop of flowers:


It was very hot (about 100 in the afternoon) so we were exhausted by the time we got back. It hasn't been that hot yet since we've been here. It cooled off in the evening when it rained.

McDonald's (we've been eating there a lot) is undergoing renovations, but fortunately we have found several places we like to eat, so it's not too terrible.

June 18

Alberto and I finally have a working solution to my office computer problems. First, we downclocked the CPU down to 800MHz. Next, we installed Windows XP with a flash drive installer. Then, we installed a Windows XP virtual machine on Alberto's macbook pro. Finally, I installed VNC on the virtual machine, so my work computer is now a virtual machine running on Alberto's laptop which I connect to with the desktop Tsinghua lent me. Problem solved!

Keywords: Weekly-Report; International Experience; Site Seeing; Lab/Workplace Environment

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