Category Archives: Travel

Stuff I didn’t know about Saudi Arabia (KAUST Solar Future Symposium)

Zooming into the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Zooming into the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

I’ve spent the past week in Saudi Arabia at the Solar Future 2015 Symposium, an annual conference on the basic science, devices, and systems of solar energy, hosted by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). KAUST is one of the world’s newest universities. It was established in 2009, but its massive endowment—$20B today, a small step from Harvard/Yale/Stanford-land—has accelerated its progress toward its stated goal of becoming a global “destination for scientific and technological education and research” and its unstated goal of becoming a gushing geyser of Nature and Science papers.

Nestled in the welcoming desert of western Saudi Arabia, KAUST is modeled after Caltech, which is a small technical school in the welcoming desert of the western U.S. It even borrowed Caltech’s president in 2013.

KAUST only offers graduate education (900 master’s and PhD students today). Notably, 70% of its students are international (4% from the U.S.). Even more notably, 37% are women. All this in a country where alcohol is forbidden (for some reason, grape juice without preservatives is in high demand…); books and movies are censored (KAUST has the only movie theater in the entire country); and women can’t travel without a male chaperone, drive a car, try on clothes while shopping, or even interact with single men. That said, KAUST is far more liberal than the rest of the country, so much so that entry and exit must be controlled by 2 stages of security checkpoints—lest some un-abaya-ed female driver wander off campus and confuse the hell out of the Mutaween (religious police). KAUST is the very definition of a campus community: Everyone in the community lives and eats and works and plays on campus—there’s simply nothing else around except desert.

Would you care for some non-alcoholic grape drink?

Care for some non-alcoholic grape drink?

Of all the things I observed in Saudi Arabia—admittedly not much besides KAUST—I was most impressed and dismayed by the campus itself, which seems to be a collection of ultra-modern facilities with no one around to use them. Everything is new and shiny, from the rec center to the research labs to the central walkway (“the Spine”) to the campus library. Yet the whole place feels deserted; even at noon on a Tuesday, our tiny conference delegation far outnumbered the few KAUST community members in sight.

The research facilities are incredibly lavish; it’s almost as if the funding flows straight out of the Arabian desert. I can’t think of a single piece of equipment for nanoscale fabrication and characterization that they DIDN’T have. Here’s a quick snapshot of the shared labs at KAUST and the Solar & Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center (SPERC):

  • Visualization facility with 3-D interactive and immersive displays
  • Nanoscale imaging facility with 7 TEMs (including 5 Titans!) and 7 SEMs (including 4 FIBs)
  • Nanofab facility with class 100 cleanrooms
  • SPERC
    • 6 Dimatix inkjet printers
    • 4 ellipsometers
    • 30 gloveboxes in one room, with integrated spin-coaters, e-beam evaporators, thermal evaporators, sputtering systems, and myriad characterization tools
    • Many, many laser labs

Take my word for it: These capabilities are enough to make materials and device researchers drool all over their bunny suits (and this is only what I saw in person!).

Hella gloveboxes.

Hella gloveboxes.

The symposium itself was fascinating, with talks by academics and industryfolk on the full spectrum of topics relevant to solar energy, from the photophysics of bulk heterojunctions to the newest developments in crystalline silicon, from power electronics to energy storage. It was a small single-track conference (similar to a Gordon conference)—meaning there was only one talk, poster session, or event happening at once, and everyone stayed together the whole time, including at every meal. I really like this type of conference: It leads to more continuity, in the form of deeper conversations that bleed over from hour to hour and from day to day.

Among the many topics of the week, I had interesting chats about silicon feedstock and material scaling limits with Bruno Ceccaroli, whether quantum dot solar cells have a future with Victor Klimov (Los Alamos), solar’s role in combatting climate change with Greg Wilson (NREL), why fracture energy matters for solar cells with Reinhold Dauskardt (Stanford), and the future potential of perovskites with pretty much everyone, including my esteemed friends and colleagues at MIT (Sam Stranks) and at Stanford (Tomas Leijtens and Nick Rolston).

All in all, I’d call it a successful trip—especially since Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue tourist visas, which means I probably won’t get another opportunity to visit unless I take a job delivering new TEMs to KAUST.

I’ll leave you with a few selfies.

KAUST's Hoover Tower

KAUST’s Hoover Tower

The Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque

Caught in C60

Caught in C60

With Sam, Nick, and Tomas

With Sam, Nick, and Tomas

Selfie with Sam.

Selfie with Sam.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Milano e Torino

I just got back from a 10-day trip to northern Italy, a combination of work and play. The work part was for a research workshop with Eni, a gigantic company you’ve probably never heard of unless you have a thing for 6-legged dogs.

Eni and its six-legged dog.

The 6 legs represent the 4 wheels of a car and the 2 legs of its driver.

As a token of goodwill and everlasting funding (haha NOT), Eni shipped us a human-sized stuffed dog-dragon-thing.

As a token of goodwill and everlasting research funding (haha NOT), Eni shipped us a human-sized stuffed dog-dragon-thing. It has many uses, including taking up office space and scaring undergrads.

Eni is the Italian national oil and gas company, known by some as “the state within the state” for its outsized influence in Italian politics. The company is trying to reinvent itself as an “energy company,” drilling for crude oil in North Africa with one hand while funding solar research internally and at MIT with the other.

It’s a tough balancing act. Oil supermajors (Exhibit 1: Exxon) aren’t particularly well known for believing in human-caused climate change, much less supporting a wholesale shift away from their hydrocarbon lifeblood***. It’s not clear to me whether their support of renewable energy research is merely a good PR move or reflects a genuine desire to save us all (OR perhaps just a hedge in case the world actually decides to do something about climate change). The real answer is probably (d) all of the above.

***Although it’s noteworthy (but not altogether surprising) that a few small oil companies—BP, Shell, Eni, Total, and Statoil—recently urged the U.N. to place a price on carbon.

In any case, Eni seems to be taking one small step in the right direction. During our visit to Eni’s headquarters in San Donato (just south of Milan), CTO Roberto Casula at least used all the right words in talking about climate change: that we need to start the low-carbon transition today, that an investment in renewables is an investment in the future, that Eni needs to become not just an oil company but an energy company, etc. And Eni has its own team of 20 researchers working on solar cells. They do great work on polymer PV, but I can’t help but laugh/cry when an “energy” company with 85,000 employees dedicates just 0.02% of its workforce to developing a key part of the future energy system. Maybe I’m too sentimental.

After the workshop in San Donato, I did some solo traveling, visiting the World Expo in Milan and posing as an Italian in Turin (~1.5 hours west of Milan by train) with Francesca, an MIT friend and colleague who grew up there and was kind enough to show me around her hometown and introduce me to sambuca.

Here are a few highlights from the trip:

With MIT colleagues in San Donato.

With MIT colleagues in San Donato

Duomo di Milano. Right at the center of Milan, the Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and far too ornate to comprehend.

Duomo di Milano. Right at the center of Milan, the Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and far too ornate to comprehend.

At the Duomo with Vladimir and Pat Doyle.  (Selfie photo credit: Vladimir Bulović)

At the Duomo with Vladimir and Pat Doyle. (Selfie photo credit: Vladimir Bulović)

Papa Francesco visited Torino while I was there. Unfortunately I missed his call...

Papa Francesco visited Torino while I was there. Unfortunately I missed his call…

Running at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy’s oldest technical university.

Oddly enough, Turin is the home of one of the biggest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Here's the Gallery of the Kings at the Egizio Museo di Torino.

Oddly enough, Turin is the home of one of the biggest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Here’s the Gallery of the Kings at the Egizio Museo di Torino.

Focaccia at Perino Vesco. Don't miss this bakery in Torino.

Focaccia at Perino Vesco. Don’t miss this bakery in Torino.

Taking a ride in the Turin Eye, the world's largest tethered hot-air balloon.

Taking a ride in the Turin Eye, the world’s largest tethered hot-air balloon.

TIL 1 kilogram of apricots = ~25 apricots. Clearly I didn't know what a kilogram was. I wanted a snack; I got a stomachache.

TIL 1 kilogram of apricots = ~25 apricots. Clearly I didn’t know what a kilogram was. I wanted a snack; I got a stomachache.

Sardinian cuisine with Francesca and friends, captured in full Polaroid glory.

Sardinian cuisine with Francesca and friends, captured in full Polaroid glory.

Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy and sworn enemy of its Torino counterpart.

Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy and sworn enemy of its Torino counterpart.

Navigli: Ancient canals and home of Milanese nightlife.

Navigli: Ancient canals and home of Milanese nightlife.

The Brera Gallery is a very cool art museum in the heart of Milan.

The Brera Gallery is a very cool art museum in the heart of Milan.

The Kiss (Hayez 1859)

The Kiss (Hayez 1859). So Italian.

Kicking it at the World Expo. The theme was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life", aka FOOD!

Kicking it at the World Expo. The theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, aka FOOD!

Main street of the Expo.

Main street of the Expo.

Food.

Food.

20,000 LEDs form a room-sized floor display in the China pavilion.

20,000 LEDs form a room-sized floor display in the China pavilion.

With Francesca at the China pavilion.

With Francesca at the China pavilion.

Nutella restaurant? Count me in.

Nutella restaurant? Count me in.

Vertical farm at the Israel pavilion.

Vertical farm at the Israel pavilion.

Aquaponics = Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) + Hydroponics (growing plants in water). The fish poop, bacteria break down the poop into nitrates, and the plants use the nitrates as fertilizer. Unfortunately you still have to feed the fish.

Aquaponics = Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) + Hydroponics (growing plants in water). The fish poop, bacteria break down the poop into nitrates, and the plants use the nitrates as fertilizer. Unfortunately you still have to feed the fish.

What is this thing, and why is it here?

What is this thing, and why is it here?

The UK beehive pavilion. The pavilion is connected to an actual beehive in Nottingham: In the pavilion, speakers and LEDs generate noise to reflect the real-time activity of bees in the actual hive.

The UK beehive pavilion. The pavilion is connected to an actual beehive in Nottingham: In the pavilion, speakers and LEDs generate noise to reflect the real-time activity of bees in the actual hive.

Good ole USA.

Good ole USA.

Supermarket of the Future: This was very cool. It's an operational supermarket with a bunch of high-tech stuff. Point at food and the screens above show you the nutritional information, price, etc. Robot arms pick up and package fruit. And after you check out, you get to carry your grocery bags around the Expo all day. Yay!

Supermarket of the Future: This was very cool. It’s an operational supermarket with a bunch of high-tech stuff. Point at food and the screens above show you the nutritional information, price, etc. Robot arms pick up and package fruit. And after you check out, you get to carry your grocery bags around the Expo all day. Yay!

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Things They Carried: All aboard the Carnival Paradise

Last weekend’s Caribbean cruise with my brother and friends left me with some lessons in packing, a boatload (ha ha) of memories, and a few supremely entertaining photos.

For Future Me and anyone else planning and packing for a cruise, here’s a list of items you won’t remember to bring but might turn out to be critical (by some hedonistic criteria):

  • Water and drinks – Only lemonade and iced tea are provided. If you want anything to drink besides ship tap water without paying exorbitant fees, bring it with you.
  • Alcohol – Ditto. Carnival allows each person to bring one bottle of wine onto the ship; everything else is confiscated UNLESS you’re sneaky. Contact Robin Tan for tips on how to be sneaky.
  • Cash – Always good to have. Especially if you like to gamble. (Please gamble responsibly.)
  • Point-and-shoot camera – Cell phones don’t work on a ship for ordinary people on ordinary budgets, so there’s no reason to carry one around. Bring a dedicated camera for higher-quality memories.
  • Walkie-talkies – How else are you going to coordinate that 19th group outing to the 24-hour pizza buffet on Lido deck?
  • Games – There’s always time for games. Too much time.
  • Speakers – Just in case you want to listen to something besides that old dude singing karaoke.
  • Gym clothes – You’ll need to work out hard to power through that fourth appetizer at dinner.
On to the photos: The best of the bunch are simply too awesome for public consumption and will be left to the imagination out of respect for the subjects’ careers and dignity, but here are a few solid runners-up.
This guy is cooler than you.

This guy is cooler than you.

This guy just thinks he is.

This guy just thinks he is.

Sometimes you lose money at the casino. Sometimes Carlina wins $1000 in cold, hard cash.

Sometimes you lose money at the casino. Sometimes Carlina wins $1000 in cold, hard cash.

Beka and Robin only won $200. Weak.

Beka and Robin only won $200. Weak.

Offloading ourselves in Cozumel.

Offloading ourselves in Cozumel.

Candid shot.

Candid shot.

Looking for a sunken ship during the Amazing Race in Cozumel.

Looking for a sunken ship during the Amazing Race in Cozumel.

We win!

We win!

Gold medals!

Gold medals!

At the beach.

At the beach.

The first in a series of pool escapades.

The first in a series of pool escapades.

Human totem pole, AKA Double Chicken.

Human totem pole, AKA Double Chicken.

Human pyramid. Why are the girls always on top?

Human pyramid. Why are the girls always on top?

Again.

Again.

Last hurrah in Cozumel.

Last hurrah in Cozumel.

Edible happiness at breakfast.

Edible happiness at breakfast.

Birthdays happen at sea too. Happy 24th and 25th, Carlina and Justin!

Birthdays happen at sea too. Happy 24th and 25th, Carlina and Justin!

The boys.

The boys.

The Duke girls.

The Duke girls.

On a post-cruise diet in Tampa.

On a post-cruise diet in Tampa. Thanks John and Robin!

Team pic: Carlina, me, Robin, Neal, Justin, Dave, Beka, Nancy. Thanks for a ridiculously awesome weekend!

Team pic: Carlina, me, Robin, Neal, Justin, Dave, Beka, and Nancy. Thanks for a ridiculously awesome weekend!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

200 miles in pictures: Reach the Beach 2013

A couple weeks ago, I ran the Reach the Beach Relay, a 200-mile footrace across Massachusetts. I’d never met anyone on my team before 9AM that Friday morning, when we gathered across from the Stata Center on Vassar St. at MIT to pile into two Dodge Grand Caravans and make our way into the wilderness beyond Greater Boston. A trunk already packed high with Nutri-Grain bars, fruit snacks, and Gatorade was further burdened by my duffel bag packed with running shoes and bananas.

I was enlisted for this drama by my labmate Christina, who knew a team of MIT chemists (“12 Angry Scientists”) looking for a happy engineer to fill out their roster. I had no idea what I was getting into, but signed up on a whim months ago, then promptly forgot about it in favor of working on my masters thesis. The morning of the race, I turned in my completed SM thesis to the EECS department and clambered into Van 2 carefree.

What it takes to feed 12 scientists for a day.

What it takes to feed 12 scientists for a day.

Twelve team members all accounted for, we headed to Wachusett Ski Resort in central Massachusetts, where we were subjected to a team picture and a quick orientation (“Wear reflective gear at night. Don’t stop in the middle of the road. Recycle. Drink beer—but not too much. Please do not answer ‘nature’s call’ on private or town property.”). The race would be broken into 36 legs of up to 9 miles each—3 legs per person—with a slap bracelet serving as a progressively sweatier relay baton to be passed (slapped?) from runner to runner at the transition areas. Each 6-person van would roll through their full lineup—around 4 hours of running—before handing off the baton to the next van, then rinse and repeat. We would run through the night, through forest and farmland, along highways and dirt roads, until we smelled seawater at the Atlantic coast.
Ski resort in winter, relay race start in summer.

Wachusett Mountain: Ski resort in winter, relay race start in summer.

Slap bracelet baton.

Slap bracelet baton.

Van 2 reporting for duty.

Van 2 reporting for duty.

Faster teams are assigned a later start time so that all the teams end at around the same time, making for a more dramatic finish. It turns out angry scientists = fast runners: we were one of the last teams to get going, 5 hours after the first team started their voyage. At 1PM, our lead-off runner Dan lined up at the start line at the base of Mt. Wachusett. The chair lifts are there for a reason—that reason apparently does not apply to runners. Dan’s 2.8-mile leg was a black diamond trail run in reverse, with 1.7 miles up the mountainside and abundant cursing. But back in Van 2, we had 4 hours to kill before our first leg—we cheered on our Van 1 teammates during their runs by blasting high-quality music like Call Me Maybe and Taylor Swift with the windows down, then stopped for a lunch of turkey sandwiches at a roadside convenience store in the middle of nowhere.
RTB starting line.

RTB starting line.

By 5PM, we were getting antsy in Van 2. After getting all pumped up to start the race, repressing the adrenaline for hours took more self-control than I could muster. So I gave up and took a nap:
Pre-run nap at Assumption College in Worcester.

Pre-run nap at Assumption College in Worcester.

8th in the Angry Scientist rotation, I woke up to grab the baton from #7 Jen and run my first leg, 7.53 miles from Worcester to Boylston. I knew I went out way too fast but couldn’t help it—it was one of the first hot days of the year, I’d been sitting in front of a computer writing a thesis for the past month, and a mile in I was panting like an overexcited puppy. Smooth. Luckily there was no one around to see me self-destruct—my teammates helped with some drive-by dance music—and after 52 minutes of contemplative misery, I rolled into transition area 9 under my own power.

Apparently my preparation was lacking; I’ve run a few marathons (26.2 miles) and half-marathons (13.1) over the years, so I was ready for a calm 7.5- or 8-minute-per-mile pace. Although my total distance here (~22 miles) was similar to a marathon, it was split up into three frantic 6-8 mile races, so I felt compelled to run hard from the get-go rather than pacing comfortably and running to finish. Getting used to the pace was the second-hardest part of this race. The hardest was timing: When to eat, when to drink, when to sleep, when to stretch, when to get warmed up, and—most importantly—when to take a seat on a nearby toilet. No joke. Coordinating alimentary intake and inevitable emission over 24 hours of running is an engineering task far beyond my abilities. Our team captain Kit solved the problem in finest MIT fashion: He simply contracted food poisoning, so that everything he ate came right back up—no need to digest. Brilliant.

Slapping on the baton for my first leg.

Slapping on the baton for my first leg.

A botched hand-off. Sorry Andrew!

A botched hand-off. Sorry Andrew!

#9 Andrew booking it down the home stretch.

#9 Andrew booking it down the home stretch.

Van 2: Jen, Kurt, Stephen, and Yifeng, relaxed and ready.

Van 2: Jen, Kurt, Stephen, and Yifeng, relaxed and ready.

The rest of the race passed by in a blur of sleepless zombie running, insane cheering, dance music, and sweat. We ran over the proverbial river and through the woods and all through the night—creeping up in our van and whispering soft nothings at our runners instead of shouting encouragement—with a brief recess at a local hotel.
Stopping for a late-night dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.

Stopping for a late-night dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.

And... back to running, nighttime edition.

And… back to running, nighttime edition.

The next morning, we finally saw a proper hand-off, 160 miles in.

The next morning, 160 miles in, we finally saw a proper hand-off.

Why is Santa Claus here? Not impressed.

Why is Santa Claus here? Not impressed.

The brothers Horning, celebrating something.

The brothers Horning, celebrating their awesome color coordination.

Thanks to our late start and relative speediness, we passed progressively more competing teams as the race dragged on (I passed ~20 people in 3 legs, and was passed once myself, by an old guy who left me in the dust with his relentless uphill pace). Of particular intrigue was a team named GURL Boston All-Stars, composed of all guys. They were a mystery, and they were fast. At the last transition area, after 192 miles and 24 hours of running, the anchor for GURL Boston stepped into the hand-off zone wearing a short leopard print dress and carrying a clutch purse. Turns out GURL = Gay Urban Running League. As we passed their anchor—the guy had to be running sub-6:30 pace—our van started blasting It’s Raining Men (complete coincidence, of course) with the windows open. He pranced and blew kisses and mimed his thanks, hands to his heart, still running at top speed. What a team.
Damn, GURL.

Damn, GURL.

Our van pulled into Horseneck Beach in southern Massachusetts around 1:30PM on Saturday, with our intrepid driver and final runner Yifeng in hot pursuit. 12 Angry Scientists joined in for the last 100 meters of the race, crossing the finish line after more than 25 hours in transit. We were met with medals and Boloco burritos, and drove back to Boston in delirium.

Reach the Beach 2013 exceeded all my expectations for a relay race. Running for and with a team is infinitely more fun than running alone: you can cover a lot more distance, you get to travel with a built-in fan base, and there’s always someone around to feed you. This particular race was an incredible opportunity to get out of Boston and explore the New England countryside in all its glory: I’ve now used Porta-Potties all across Massachusetts. Who’s in for next year?

The beach, reached.

The beach, reached.

The whole team at the finish: Scientists do it better.

The whole team at the finish: Scientists do it better.

RTB 2013 by the numbers:
  • PB&J sandwiches consumed: 4
  • Nutri-Grain bars consumed: 5
  • Bottles of water emptied: 11
  • Changes of clothes: 4
  • Number of Porta-Potties visited: 9
  • Hours of sleep: 2.5
  • Number of Taylor Swift songs: Too many to count
  • Total distance covered: 200 miles (22.47 for me)
  • Total time: 25:07:39 (2:39:12)
  • Average mile pace: 7:33 (7:05)
  • Ranking: 11th of 147 overall, 4th of 15 in Mens Open division

The photos in this post were taken by me, Andrew, Jen, and Monica. Thanks!

Tagged , , , , ,

A New Way to Fly

Have you ever spent an hour or two (or five?) looking for a flight home or back to school?

Look no further. I just found out about a new web start-up (launched this week) that helps you find the perfect flight without the hassle of Orbitz or Expedia. It’s called Hipmunk, it’s been getting rave reviews from CNN and a bunch of other media outlets, and it’s got the cutest company logo I’ve ever seen.

See?

Hipmunk collects flight information from Orbitz.com and presents it to you in a super-clean interface: Available flights are arranged in an intuitive day scheduler-style array (similar to a Gantt chart), and you can choose to sort them by price, duration, departure/arrival time, or “agony,” which the co-founder Adam Goldstein describes as…

“… a combined function of price, duration, and number of stops––basically the total agony you’ll experience in your butt and your savings.”

The Hipmunk flight search interface.

Once you find the perfect flight, you hit the “Select” button, and Hipmunk directs you to Orbitz to finish the purchase. So you get the innovative search features of Hipmunk and the trustworthy booking system of Orbitz, in a single easy-to-use package… What’s not to like?

-Joel

Tagged , , , , , ,

10 Reasons to Visit China (AKA Stuff I Bought)

After my earlier post about some of the less savory aspects of life in the world’s most populous country, I think I owe it to my Chinese friends to balance the scales by writing a (literally) uncensored post about China’s better half. Now if only they had access to the Internet… Anyway, here goes.

Note: In including Taiwan’s finest in this list, I have no intention of making any sort of political statement about Taiwan’s sovereignty or the current state of Cross-Strait relations.

1. Chinese bakeries and bread – I don’t mean to hate on American bakeries, but 4 dollars for a tiny pastry? You gotta be kidding me. Chinese bakeries are like the land of the Lotus Eaters, only slightly less narcotic: The moment you walk into a Chinese bakery, a blanket of divine scent envelops you, and you never, ever want to leave. And that’s before you’ve even tasted the bread. During my 3-month stay in China, I never managed to escape a bakery with less than 2 pounds of bread, and it never failed to disappear within 24 hours.

Feeding the hungry beasts (AKA Big Brother and Robin)

2. Efficient public transportation – With a population of 1,324,655,000 (as of 2008), China has had a pretty good reason to develop an efficient, high-capacity public transportation network. In my opinion, it’s a little too good: Beijing’s 2¥ (equivalent to 29 cents US) subway, which took us from the 4th Ring to the heart of Beijing faster than any car, probably holds several world records for human close-packing, a game that I don’t particularly enjoy. On the older Lines 1 and 2, anytime from 8AM to 10PM, you can consider yourself lucky if you’re touching fewer than 4 people at once. For a quarter a ride though, I can’t complain.

Shanghai's 270mph Transrapid maglev train is pretty cool too...

3. Boba (pearl milk tea, or 珍珠奶茶) that actually tastes good – And not just good, amazing. I’ve never been a big fan of boba, but then again, I’d also never tried Taiwanese boba before. Food typically tastes better in its country of origin, and boba is no exception. The milk is delicious—I’m lactose-intolerant, and I still couldn’t resist drinking it—and the palm sugar tapioca pearls are bigger, chewier, and simply better than the best California has to offer…

The best boba in the world: Taiwan's 青蛙撞奶 ("Frog hits the milk")

4. Cheap stuff – As a tribute to Inception, here’s a list-within-a-list of things I bought in China that were so-cheap-they-should-be-illegal-…-oh-wait-they-probably-are-illegal…

1.)  Tailored suit (made from scratch in 18 hours!): $88
2.)  4 tailored dress shirts: $59
3.)  A billion DVDs: See number 6
4.)  Dinner at a fancy restaurant: $5
5.)  2 pounds of sweet rolls: $1
6.)  Train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai: $100
7.)  Subway rides across Beijing: $0.29
8.)  North Face jacket: $33
9.)  Chinese prostitute: Priceless

Just kidding.

5. Street food – If you’re willing to risk your stomach lining, there’s cheap, delicious food to be had on every street in China’s major cities. And in reality, it’s not actually all that risky: as far as I know, no one in the Stanford group ever got sick from eating street food. Some of our favorites included roasted yams, sweet buns, pineapple skewers, haw skewers (bingtanghulu), and peanuts.

Bingtanghulu: Haw fruit on a stick, coated in sugar

6. Movies that come out on DVD the day after they open in theaters

Fact 1: Today is August 2, 2010.

Fact 2: Ironman 2 comes out on DVD on September 28, 2010.

Fact 3: I own Ironman 2 on DVD.

Interesting…

7. Night markets – Taiwan’s night markets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. A massive conglomeration of food stands, street vendors, arcades, and random shops, you could spend days browsing around and still not see (or taste!) everything. Most famous among them is the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. The best strategy of attack is to starve yourself for 2 days before hitting up Shilin.

Shilin Night Market's "XXL Crispy Chicken": A big slab of fried chicken

Mianmianbing: Super-fine shaved ice covered in sweet red beans and condensed milk. It's heaven on Earth.

8. Baozi (steamed buns) – During every quarter of the Stanford Program in Beijing, students gravitate to the Songlin baozi restaurant on campus. It’s such a simple concept—meat, veggies, or sweet custard in a steamed bun—but baozi have the addictive potency of crack cocaine. I couldn’t help visiting Songlin at least 4 times a week during my stay at PKU.

Fried shengjian baozi in Shanghai.

9. Hot springs (and other beautiful scenery) – A picture’s worth… well, at least a few words.

The Stone Forest in Yunnan Province

Taiwan's legendary Sun Moon Lake. Chinese kids grow up reading stories about this place, so when they visit Taiwan, they all want to go to Sun Moon Lake.

Me, Robin, and Neal on the Great Wall

10. New friends – It amazes me how close our group of 14 Stanford students grew in just a few weeks and how quickly and easily we became friends with our Chinese classmates at Peking University. In sharing stories and comparing life experiences, we each learned about the other’s culture and discovered that we weren’t so different after all, that the college student’s experience is (somewhat) universal: A mutual understanding seems to arise when you talk to any undergrad about all-nighters and finals, papers and GERs. Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t often meet people who were truly international, and I now realize that my 3 months of living and learning in China actually gave me more insight into my own life and my own (American) culture than into the Chinese culture that I was immersed in.

Stanford Shaolin in Pingyao. After summer internships and independent travel in China, my classmates are slowly drifting back to the US. Welcome back, guys!

Note: In case you didn’t notice, the previous paragraph was an attempt to stuff as many clichés as possible into a single paragraph. I think I succeeded.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

P.S. Number 11 on the list would have been “New takes on old things,” for example…

Taiwanese spork.

The definition of "fruit"

Viagra (This is actually some sort of candy...)

Tall buildings (Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world; the tallest is in Dubai, of course)

T-shirts

English (This is a sign for a bathroom)

Self-service restaurants (This one made us catch our own fish for lunch)

Definition of "edible"

Birds' nests

Toilets

Trash cans

Palm Drive (This is at National Taiwan University; compare this with Stanford's Palm Drive)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Things You Won’t Miss Until They’re Gone

There are some things in life you simply don’t notice until they’re not there.

Take toilet paper, for example. After 3 months of living and traveling in China, I’ve become a outspoken advocate—OK, maybe not that outspoken—of toilet paper in public restrooms, because it simply wasn’t there. Even when you don’t need it, it’s comforting to know that your ass is covered (pun intended), that you can waltz into the nearest restroom and grab a few squares of 2-ply just in case you spill some soymilk on yourself or realize that the street food you ate really doesn’t want to stay in your stomach.

On a related note, you can’t just walk into a public restroom in China. If you’re in a part of town where you look around and see more foreigners than you can count on one hand, there’s about a 65% chance that a trip to the toilet will cost you 1¥ RMB, paid in cash to the little old man sitting outside the restroom door. Sure, with a $1 to 6.8¥ exchange rate, it’s a drop in the bucket, but it still pains the Patrick Henry in me just a little to be taxed without representation for an act that stray dogs on the streets of Beijing perform free of charge, anywhere, to their hearts’ content. At least I don’t have to worry about getting eaten. Fair’s fair.

And they're not even that great…

Here are 10 things that you don’t fully appreciate until they disappear from your life, derived from my recent travels (travails?) in China:

1. Toilet paper – Enough said.

1A. Free restrooms

2. Personal space – As necessitated by their country’s 9-digit population count, Chinese people are quite comfortable living, eating, and working in extremely close quarters with complete strangers. I am not. We Americans like our “personal space,” the couple-foot-radius bubble of open air around us that gives us the sensation of independence and safety, and we defend it with suspicious stares and reflexive backpedaling. In China, such strategies are hopeless. Say you’re at a market in Beijing, and the shopkeeper gets a bit too close for comfort. You could back away, but your Pyrrhic escape wouldn’t be worth the energy, because two things would surely happen the moment you took a step back: 1) You’d run into 2 other strangers, and 2) The shopkeeper would pursue you. Leaving you in a circle of 3 random Chinese people. Fantastic.

2.1. Silence – Every once in a while, you just want the world to leave you alone. In Beijing, that’s the cue for someone nearby to make a thunderous choking sound and spit. I think it’s a Pavlovian response to excessive silence.

3. Clean water – When you have to use waterless hand sanitizer after you wash your hands under the faucet, you know you’re in China.

4. Breathable air – As the home of over 20 million people, Beijing has a little problem: Its air cannot sustain human life. Even after the government pulled a large proportion of the city’s cars off the road, the situation is hopeless. Running outdoors is out of the question. One of my friends tried it and immediately got sick. And the particulates in the air are so small that you can never escape them, even indoors: I would wake up in my bed each morning blanketed in a fine layer of dust that had settled overnight. After one week in Beijing, I couldn’t tell if my lungs were still alive, not until we went on an excursion to the Great Wall and I found myself marveling at my ability to take full breaths.

4+. The Sun – The pollution has a way of blotting out the sun. I felt like a dinosaur awaiting the Great Extinction.

5. Grass – As a son of the Midwest and its sprawling farmland, I’m pretty fond of grass. It’s great for relaxing, running, playing soccer, wrestling with your siblings… Too bad people in China don’t really do any of those things. (To find out why, see #2, #4, the 2010 World Cup, and the One-Child Policy, respectively)

6. Guns and Obesity – China has neither.

The real 6. Non-oily food – It seems all the food in China—at least for us commoners—is stir-fried or deep-fried. Can’t I just have a salad? Oh wait, lettuce is 95% water and washed in water, and water in China is poisonous… Darn.

7. Facebook – Sometimes you just want to Poke someone. But, oh no… You can’t. Because you’re in China. And the CCP took away the Internet.

7-and-3/4. Did I mention that the government censors texts too?

Chinese censors work a lot like this…

8. Democracy – Because it’s good to be free.

9. English – Even though I speak Mandarin somewhat fluently, my reading skills aren’t quite up to primary school standards. I never realized how exhausting everyday life can be, when even reading a restaurant menu requires intense concentration and a bilingual dictionary.

10. Family and friends – I missed you all. A lot.

The takeaway lesson? If you’re in China, always go to the bathroom before you leave home. If you’re traveling to China in the near future, practice holding it in, starting now.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

The Spring 2010 BOSP Beijing group at our graduation. Thanks for an awesome quarter, guys!

On our trip to Taiwan, I saw my grandparents and a bunch of relatives for the first time in more than a decade. Here's a "family picture" with my brother, me, and my parents' wedding picture in the background.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An Ohio Yankee at Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo

I’m graduating tomorrow! From the BOSP Beijing study abroad program, that is. With the last finals and final papers of junior year turned in, I’m now officially a senior at Stanford.

In other news, my mom, my brother, and a friend are somewhere over the Pacific Ocean at this moment, on their way to Beijing to travel with me for the next 2 weeks. Except for the part where I speak Mandarin on par with a Chinese toddler, I’m basically a Beijing native at this point, so from now until Sunday, I’ll be showing Mom and Co. around Beijing and its many visual and gustatory attractions. We’ll then fly to Taipei, Taiwan, where I’ll get to see my grandparents and other relatives for the first time in over a decade. Then it’s back to the mainland, Shanghai and Hangzhou, for a few final days in the Orient, before we return to the US and life goes on…

I’ll be back in the US on June 23 and back at Stanford (living in Crothers) for research on June 28 (2 days before I turn 21!), but with everything that’s going on in my life (i.e., packing, eating, shopping, more packing), I don’t have enough time to write a full post right now. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from the last couple weeks of my Beijing adventure, including a trip to Shanghai and the 2010 World Expo…

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo Mascot. With a blue "toothpaste thing" in the background. (They call him Haibao)

Mai, Me, Adriana, and Lili at the Tunisia Pavilion

Kelsey and the home of Messi

The US Pavilion. Surrounded, of course, by Chinese people trying to get in.

Half of our group (Chris, Kelsey, Lili, Adriana, Mai, Bill)

The other half (Dominik, Tarun, Amanda, Marty, Lianna)

Mexico, Stanford-style. (Photo courtesy of our resident photographer, Lianna)

People hopping fences to get INTO Mexico? Really?

Meet my friend, Frida Kahlo.

Usain, you're such a poser.

Romania's Greenopolis Pavilion

Reppin' Stanford.

Lunch at the Africa Pavilion: Ostrich wraps

Inside the Africa Pavilion. I don't understand...

The UK Pavilion. The shimmering effect comes from 60,000 transparent plastic rods that act like fiber-optic filaments in drawing light into the pavilion.

Marty, Me, and Adriana, playing in Australia

The host country China's spectacular pavilion, the only one that will be left standing after the Expo ends in October.

Taiwan and a Taiwanese.

Vietnam and a Vietnamese.

Burma and a... Chinese?

UFO? Nope, just the World Expo Performing Arts Center.

The Saudi Arabia Pavilion. Basically a gigantic lit-up bowl with palm trees on top. And a 4-hour wait to get in.

Nanxiang Xiaolongbao: The most famous steamed dumplings (baozi) in the world. No joke. They were invented here in Shanghai. The baozi are magically filled with soup, so you drink the soup with the straw before eating the rest.

On the Bund, looking over the Huangpu River to Pudong. Shanghai's iconic skyline is in the background.

The Shanghai skyline at night.

Stone Age weights. For real men only. (Let's go pump some... stone?)

Aww, how cute.

Even cuter.

Not quite as cute.

Ditto.

And we have a winner! The kitten in a box in a Shanghai alley was by far the cutest thing we saw all weekend.

An American-style diner in the French Concession was holding a contest: Eat a 1-kilogram burger in 10 minutes, and you don't have to pay for it. We convinced my roommate Bill to take on the challenge. At left is a normal-sized burger for comparison. Notice how the monster burger is bigger than Bill's head.

Chowing down.

Success!

Over 2 pounds of meat and bread (plus fries!) in 9 minutes. What a trooper. (I just noticed that I'm in the background of the Polaroid. Success.)

The Wall of Champions.

Me, Mai, Adriana, and Kelsey. Halfway up Xiangshan (Fragrant Mountain), on the outskirts of Beijing.

The girls, all looking amazingly happy for a candid shot.

Halfway up the mountain.

At the top of Xiangshan. Check out the view of Beijing in the background.

You just can't get away from those pandas. Sure, they're cute, but this is ridiculous... 🙂

Thanks for reading! Check back in 2 weeks for more new and exciting content. 🙂

-Joel

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to China

Unless you want to be human-trafficked or see your face on the evening news, hitchhiking is one game you really shouldn’t play. Especially in China. Especially in southern China. Especially in the mountains of Yunnan Province.

But there we were last Sunday, lost in southern China, in the mountains of Yunnan Province. What choice did we have?

That particular adventure began peacefully, innocently, with a taxi ride from Peking University to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was the Chinese May Day holiday weekend, and the eight of us––7 students from Stanford, 1 from Peking University––had planned a 5-day expedition to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan. A 3-hour Hainan Airlines flight later, we were breathing in the clean (!) air of Yunnan and facing the imminent danger of having our body parts sold by a predatory swarm of strangers offering us cheap rides to our hotel in unmarked, windowless vans. We declined politely and took legit taxis to our home-away-from-home-away-from-home, the 4-star Kunming Jin Jiang Hotel. Granted, that’s 4 “Chinese stars,” as my roommate put it––1 for a bed, 1 for a TV, 1 for a working toilet, and 1 more for a shower––but even with 8 people stuffed into 2 rooms, we were living the good life.

Friday

Having banned early morning activity for the weekend, we set off at noon the next day in a rented bus with hired driver, in search of a real Chinese adventure. Our first stop: Jiuxiang Scenic Area (the equivalent of a state park in the US), 2 hours southeast of Kunming. On the way, we got a glimpse of the “real” China: sun-browned farmers knee-deep in rice paddies, a bevy of sad-looking oxen, and, in a representative juxtaposition of rich and poor, lavish country clubs with 18-hole courses right next to crumbling peasant abodes.

Jiuxiang Scenic Area

Chris, Me, Adriana, Lili, and Marty outside the caves of Jiuxiang

Still water.

I'm not quite sure what was going on here...

Jiuxiang is arranged as a linear passage, leading visitors through dazzling caves and spectacular gorges, and although the views alone were worth the trip, I was most impressed by the preferred mode of transportation back to the entrance…

Horses!

Buck-wild on a bucking bronco. Or something like that.

My horse couldn't hold it in, and Adriana couldn't help taking a picture.

Who knew horses could climb stairs?

Adriana, Marty, and Lili

That 20-minute ride on a Yunnan farmer’s horse––and a friendly chat with the farmer himself––was one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. Upon reaching the entrance of the park, we proceeded to spend tourist-worthy amounts of money on dried fruit, fresh fruit, and souvenirs.

Back in the bus, our questionable young driver was stewing in discontent. Hoping to shirk half a day’s paid work and get home before sunset, he lied to our faces, saying that we were out of time, that our next planned destination, the Stone Forest (Shilin), closed daily at 5PM. We insisted on going anyway.

The Stone Forest, which covers a vast area extending beyond our field of view, turned out to be a climber’s paradise. Rocks of all sizes sprout out of the ground in clusters, with hidden crevices, weathered cracks, and natural handholds aiding our efforts to scale them. Our late evening arrival meant the park was completely devoid of tourists, and we did our best Spiderman impressions in clinging to sheer rock faces and posing for sensationalistic photos. And from our vantage point atop the tallest stone cluster in the park, we had the opportunity to watch the sun set over the rock-dotted horizon. Beautiful.

Entering the Stone Forest

Stanford students can fly. Briefly.

King(s) of the Hill.

Sitting Stanford ducks: Marty, Bill, Me, Adriana, Lili, Chris, Bella, Beatrice.

Climbing is way harder than it looks...

Success.

Adriana did me one better.

As did Lili.

Meanwhile, snoozing alone in the bus, our driver had reached a tipping point. When he realized that his contracting manager (basically his pimp) had signed him up for the extra drive to Shilin for a meager 200¥, he exploded. We feared for our lives, as the crazy kid floored the gas pedal and started passing cars left and right. At 80 miles per hour. On a 2-lane mountain road. We made the 2.5-hour trip back to Kunming in 1 hour, but by the time we reached our hotel, none of us ever wanted to see a bus again.

Saturday

Saturday was a day for relaxing. After a massive Western-style breakfast––our first since coming to China––at the hotel’s 20th floor “revolving” (it didn’t revolve) restaurant, we explored downtown Kunming, wandering through a crowded but charming city park, a minority food and music festival, and various roadside shops. With the evening approaching, we took a cab over to Dianchi (Dian Lake) and watched the sun set over the Western Mountains (Xishan)––yet another unforgettable view.

Public dating boards: Find your true love, by age, hometown, and major (?!?)

Adriana admiring the lily pads.

Chinese civil disobedience: Uncensored (proxied) web access at an internet bar

Stanford + Chinese minority girl

I hate getting inattentive advice.

Outside the Yunnan Minority Village... Check out Xishan in the background.

Many horses were ridden on this trip.

Bella, Marty, and Adriana. Looking mighty gangsta there, Marty.

Beautiful sunset over Dian Lake and the Western Mountains

That evening, we were all tired, but we decided that we couldn’t leave Yunnan without experiencing a night out on the town. The concierge recommended checking out the Kundu Night Market. The party didn’t start ’til we walked in, and when one club started blasting Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” just as we walked in, we knew we were in the right place. Brash Americans the lot of us, we had no shame taking over the stage at each venue––the moment we got on, everyone else got off––and, there in the middle of downtown Kunming, we danced the night away.

Clubbing in Kunming. I love the picture of the little girl in the background.

Sunday

It was supposed to be a day of rest.

With grand plans of climbing the Western Mountains, we set off for the park gate around noon on Sunday. A navigational debacle ensued, with half the group ending up on the wrong side of the largest lake in Yunnan, and the rest of us baked in the sun for an hour waiting for our lost companions. Once we were all together, a gondola whisked us over Dianchi and halfway up the mountain.

Repping Stanford AND Peking University.

Climbing Xishan was like trying to wear out a Stairmaster. The stone steps seemed to never end, and when we reached a summit of sorts––so what if it wasn’t the actual mountain peak––we declared victory and celebrated with a picnic of eggs, Chinese bread, and jackfruit chips.

Nice umbrella, Bill.

Kunming from ahigh. (Xishan summit)

A quick downhill walk and a rocky bus ride later, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain, with no transportation and no idea where to find transportation. Our Holy Grail was the hot springs district of Anning, a small town 30 kilometers away, but how would we get there? We started to walk, hugging the shoulder of the mountain road and winding our way through shabby little towns before realizing that we had no chance in hell of finding our way alone.

After finding out that taxi companies in Yunnan do not, in fact, dispatch drivers, we set off on a wild goose chase, taking a series of rickety, peasant-filled buses and ending up in the middle of some sort of city, which we were first told was close to Anning, then were told was as far from Anning as it was humanly possible to be. With each passing moment, hitchhiking was becoming more and more attractive an option.

We were saved by a couple brave men, Kunming taxi drivers willing to ferry us through the mountains to our destination for a reasonable fee. We arrived at the Jinfang Shenlin Wenquan Resort––it was truly a resort––around 8PM,  paid 128¥ RMB per person, and hightailed it out back to the springs. Each spring was like a big hot tub, minus the bubbles and the grime, and several were flavored: milk, rose, various Chinese fruits/vegetables. Befitting the theme of our trip, every time our group entered a spring, the incumbent Chinese family immediately departed. We didn’t mind. After our trying day, it took 4 hours of physical and spiritual cleansing before we were ready to part from the heavenly warmth of those hot springs. The experience was worth every penny and every wrinkled finger and toe.

Ready to hit the hot springs.

Hot milk. Mmmm...

Me and Chris.

Rose-flavored hot spring. 🙂

All in all, one of the most exciting weekends of my life.

-Joel

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beijing: More Than We Bargained For

Stanford in Beijing at T–– Square

On our first Friday (no classes!), we rolled out as a crew for a day trip to the must-see tourist sites in Beijing proper: T–– (I’m trying to avoid the censors…) Square and the Forbidden City. We first took a Beida bus to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition, where Shen Laoshi attempted to convey to us the spirit of the re-imagining––the rebirth––of the city of Beijing on a massive scale, in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The massive model of Beijing was spectacular, and as a map-lover, I was particularly thrilled. After an IMAX-style 3-D plunge into the history of Beijing, stomachs were growling left and right, and we headed straight for a feast of Peking duck and all sorts of Chinese dishes at a classy restaurant south of the Forbidden City. Fully satiated, we stumbled out the door and into a hutong, the traditional Chinese neighborhood arrangement, consisting of roads lined with fully-connected adjoining houses. We managed to ramble our way onto the store-lined central (north-south) axis of Beijing, just south of T––, and finally bypassed security to reach the famed Square.

The largest public square in the world, T–– Square is at once monumentally oppressive and grandly liberating; if you could decouple the physical location from its grim history, you would find yourself in a spectacular venue, perfectly fit for kite-flying or photo-taking. The gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the gate to the Forbidden City, however, quickly quashes any possibility of that, a constant reminder of the atrocities once perpetrated on the spot where tourists now pose smiling for pictures to email home, and evidence that the Chinese Communist Party endures today. Our tour of the Forbidden City blurs in my mind as an exceedingly long and vaguely interesting history lesson, taught by an eager Shen Laoshi. One memorable observation was that just 100 years ago, the imperial palace that we were touring was still occupied by a Qing Dynasty emperor and empress, as well as up to the oddly-specific official limit of 72 concubines.

A close-up of everybody's favorite chairman.

The emperor, of course, needs his star-rated toilet. I wasn't impressed.

After sneaking out the back door of the Forbidden City in the tradition of the last emperor of China, we decided to climb Jingshan (“Coal Mountain”), the manmade hill made of the dirt removed to form the moat of the Forbidden City. It was truly a magnificent view, and we did our best tourist impression by taking as many photos as humanly possible.

On the summit of Coal Mountain. The Forbidden City is in the background.

On Saturday, April 3rd, I met up with my aunt’s friend’s son, Luo Zhuo Kai, AKA Roger. He’s a 4th year med student at Beida, which means he lives off campus near a hospital where he’s interning. Here in China, aspiring doctors start med school immediately after high school, so Roger is only one year older than I. He took me to Lush, an expat bar overlooking the Wudaokou subway station, for a tasty American lunch. Roger grew up in Taipei, then after his mandatory military service came to Beida. He’s something of a cultural anomaly, a young Taiwanese guy in Beijing who just broke up with his 30-year-old girlfriend because she was ready to get married and he wasn’t. After promising Roger that we would get together again during my stay in Beijing, I met up with the Stanford kids at the subway station for our first trip to Silk Street, the legendary tourist market where hordes of Westerners are the norm and bargaining is essential.

The subway station opens up directly into the basement of the Silk Street building, providing easy access to all in need of fake designer clothes and awkward exchanges with aggressive saleswomen. There’s certainly an art to bargaining, and the road to mastery is littered with overpriced regret––usually in the form of tacky t-shirts––good intentions lost in translation, and premature “walk-aways.” I experienced the first on a grand scale when I attempted to purchase a North Face (North Fake?) jacket from a couple young female vendors. Initial asking price: 600¥ RMB. I instinctively reacted with an open-mouthed facade of disbelief, and so commenced the haggling game. It was a verbal sparring match, both the vendor and I bobbing and weaving, looking for a weak spot to jab in our desired price. After a few landed punches, I managed to pull off the “walk-away” maneuver successfully: I turned my back and started to walk away, and like clockwork, my adversary chased me down, grabbed my elbow, and agreed to my final price with an air of magnanimity. I handed over the cash––a quarter of what I would have paid in the US––and in return was handed a comfy new North Face jacket. In hindsight, the entire deal was more dance than dispute, both parties sharing a tacit understanding that the initial asking price was far above the jacket’s value and my initial counteroffer far below. We played the game simply to determine where in that range the final price would rest––and to have a little fun in the process. No China experience is complete without a trip to Silk Street or one of the countless other markets strewn throughout China’s major cities. Who would have imagined arguing over a price tag could have such grand cultural implications?

During our second week here in Beijing, things started to settle down. We realized that to venture into the heart of Beijing every single evening of the week would require a monumental and ultimately unsustainable effort––indeed, we were all so exhausted from our first such week that the subsequent 4-day Chinese Memorial Day weekend was fully devoted to recovery. I’ve developed a weekday day-to-day routine of such simplicity that I could not even imagine living this life back at Stanford, or anywhere else in the real world: Wake up between 9 and 10AM, Skype with friends and family and do some EE research, eat lunch with my fellow Stanford or Beida students, attend Chinese class from 1:30-2:30PM, go to the gym to run or lift, grab dinner with the Stanford crew, and spend the evening watching a movie and hanging out in the student lounge.

A pleasant deviation from the schedule came up that Wednesday, when we began our weekly Stanford-organized cooking classes hosted by local families. Kelsey, Beatrice, and I were assigned to the nicest old man in the world and his equally-nice wife, and upon arriving at their tiny apartment, we were showered with oranges and tea and chocolate. We rolled up our sleeves and learned how to make dumplings and a variety of other Chinese dishes: tomatoes and egg, a pork and squash dish, and Chinese-style potatoes. Turns out Chinese cooking is very simple: Just stir-fry everything. Once our meticulously stir-fried dishes were ready, we stuffed ourselves until we 走不动了 (couldn’t walk anymore), recovered with some after-dinner tea, and waddled back to Shaoyuan.

The next evening, we had a pizza and movie night (Raise the Red Lantern) with some Yale students, and after the movie, we all decided to go clubbing in Sanlitun, THE expat nightlife district. If you’ve ever seen a ridiculously glitzy club scene in a movie and wondered where in the world such an actual club exists, I now have the answer: It’s in Beijing. And it’s called Vics. Or Latte. Or Mix. Whatever. The evening was a blur of neon lights, rows of DJs spinning simultaneously, and rocking out on stage with the Stanford crew, eardrums bursting from the deep bass that seemed to emanate from the floors, the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.

The next day, no one had the energy to party hard again, so we went out exploring on foot, wandering through Tsinghua University’s massive campus. Known as the “MIT of China”––which means it’s without a doubt the second-best engineering school in the country 🙂 ––Tsinghua has an overwhelmingly male student population and a campus overflowing with Western architecture. Many Tsinghua landmarks would fit right in on the campus of any university in the US. We ended the evening in Wudaokou with a tasty Japanese dinner and a brief detour to a roadside peanut stand and the Golden Phoenix Bakery. Side note: If I could live anywhere, I’d choose to spend the rest of my days in a Chinese bakery.

Tsinghua University: The "MIT of China." Check out my new North Face jacket.

Our 8AM departure for the Great Wall on Saturday, April 10, was a rude awakening. The bus ride from Beida to the Mutianyu section of the Wall took nearly 2 hours, and everyone passed out for the duration of the trip. We awoke to the sight of mountain peaks and the winding, awe-inspiring stone wall that stands as the protector of China past and the pride of China present. The first thing I noticed was that I could breathe again, for the first time in weeks: We had left the flatlands and the pollution of Beijing behind, and all that remained was clean, fresh mountain air. A quick chair lift ride later, we were clambering up the steps of the wall itself, with legs and lungs burning and cameras at the ready.

Marty, Lianna, Me, and Adriana. We told Marty, "No gangster signs," but he was too gangster to listen.

Can you read the Chinese characters far off in the distance? "Loyalty to Chairman Mao"

Conquering the Great Wall.

From seeing pictures of the Great Wall and watching Mulan, I imagined the trail at the top would be a smooth, continuous surface––not so. The stone steps ranged from door jam-sized ledges to countertop-height plateaus, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a common soldier, burdened with sword and shield, could possibly make it to his post in time to keep the invading Mongol horsemen at bay. After taking hundreds and hundreds of group and individual photos, we finally made our way back to the top of the chair lift, where we found ourselves with just one option for transportation down the mountainside: toboggans. Plastic toboggans on a sheet metal track, to be specific. As I careened down the sheer rock face, a park official yelled out, “发疯了!”––which translates to “You’ve gone crazy!”

Look, Ma, I found the horizon!

We were happy because we could breathe at last.

Stanford students: Too weary to walk, but still smiling.

My new ride: The preferred form of downhill transportation in China.

And the fun didn’t stop there. We broke for lunch at an open-air restaurant in the mountains, and were met at the door by a young Chinese man holding several huge nets and bamboo fishing poles. It seemed he wanted us to catch our own lunch. Our gracious host then ushered us over to a nearby pond and left us to our own devices. I’ve always found that food tastes better if you’ve worked for it, but it soon became apparent that unless we changed tack soon, we weren’t going to have any food to taste. After half an hour of unsuccessful man (Stanford student?) vs. fish action––I maintain that “survival of the fittest” worked against us, for the remaining fish were those that had already evaded capture by bumbling humans countless times––the Beida program director, whom we have affectionately dubbed “The Godfather,” swooped in and netted three of the slippery beasts in quick succession, and we had our lunch. The return trip to Beida passed by in that tranquil, post-exertion state of euphoria, and so ended the second week of our Beijing adventure.

Working for our food.


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,