Tag Archives: Tourism

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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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

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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.


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