Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

华山 – Mount Hua, Part 2

Posted: August 11, 2011 in Climbing, Life, Travel
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In certain areas, the staircases are actually quite dangerous. Only wide enough for single file hiking, iron chains stood as railings for the steepest sections. Some of the steps were only 6 inches wide, promising a quick fall to the bottom if someone up above slipped. The steepest sections felt more like climbing a ladder, where the incline increased to 70 degrees, where the previous person’s head would be pushing upwards against your butt. Zero stopping allowed.

The old staircase on the right speaks to a much more difficult climb

This older lady didn't make it all the way to top, but enjoyed the hike anyway

Around 12:30 am, I arrived at 北峰 (North Summit), slightly ahead of schedule. And it was a mad house. The cable car arrives at this summit, and there are two hostels situated in the area as well. As such, it becomes a natural staging area for people to continue towards the 东峰 (East Summit) to watch the sunrise. People eating late-night dinners, people yelling loudly to find friends they lost along the way, people napping on the granite benches everywhere, the scene was one of total chaos. Figuring that I would wait out the crowds slowly making their way up, I sat down on a bench and slept. Feeling cold, I sat up after an hour to put on a sweatshirt. The moment I sat up, someone lay down right beside me, taking my sleeping spot. I glared a thousand daggers at her, but she had already shut her eyes, pretending that I wasn’t there. I did my best to get some rest sitting upright, pretending that it was as comfortable as lying down. By 3 am, most of the crowds had already left to continue upwards, and I finally started my own journey towards the top.

I slept like this guy until someone took my spot

At 5 am, I reached the 金琐关 (Golden Locks), the intersection from which you head off to either the Western, Eastern, or Southern summits. Along the chain railings lining the path, there are thousands of golden-colored brass padlocks attached, each with a long red ribbon. The locks and ribbons are inscribed with blessings; the belief is that if the padlocks and ribbons are left on the top of 华山, the blessings will come true. The fact that you can buy them on the summit doesn’t make a difference. At 20 RMB (3.50 USD) for the smallest padlock up to 100 RMB (17 USD) for the largest, the vendors are obviously doing a roaring business.

金琐关 - Golden Locks

Heading towards the 东峰 (East Summit), the fringes of the crowd gathered there began to come into view. Hundreds of tourists had begun to stumble out of their hotel dorm rooms, or had joined me in the long crawl from the base nearly 3000 feet below. People were jostling for the best position at which to see the sun rise, while trying to avoid being blocked by the sea of black-haired heads. Rather than join the fray, I came to the conclusion that the best way to see the summit at sunrise is actually to stand below the summit. That way, I can take pictures of both the sun rising and the 东峰 as the morning glow hits the granite walls. I meandered back down to the 金琐关, where nearly no one was.

I sat down on the steps, looked out to the east, and stared in awe as the sky changed its colors from a deep pink, glowing orange, fiery red, and finally to a beautiful blue. Latecomers continued to hustle towards the proper summit, oblivious to the show that was happening along the horizon. At that moment, I forgot the hunger in my stomach, the thirst in my throat, and all the troubles that I encountered along the way. The majesty of God’s creation will always leave me breathless. I took as many pictures as I could, trying to cement the memory, though photographs will never do the experience justice.

东峰 - Eastern Summit

Sunrise over the horizon

A glow of color

After a good hour, I began to head back down, anxious to continue avoiding the crowds. I needn’t have worried, nearly all of them lined up to take the cable car down, leaving me to hike down in peace. I later heard that the line stretched back in the hundreds, with many people waiting over an hour to spend 80 RMB (14.50 USD) for the quick ride down.

Somehow hiked that ridge on the left with 500 other people

The hike down was much easier than going up, and was actually quite pleasant. I passed many people sleeping off the trail, collapsed on the ground, too tired to make it up to the summit the previous night. The sounds of the cicada was deafening, and spoke to the life that the mountain held. I enjoyed all the views that weren’t available in the dark, and looked in awe at the sheer staircases that looked so much steeper in the light.

Too tired to continue

Cicada - the most obnoxioius insect ever

华山 is made of the most incredible granite; golden medium-sized crystals had perfect texture, and just begged to be climbed. Some of the boulders that I passed on the hike down rivaled the Cacodemon boulder of Squamish in size, and boasted features unique as those found in Hueco Tanks. The cracks in the mountainside held obvious lines up towards the summit, even though they were quite dirty with vegetation. 杨老师 of the 西安 rock climbing gym said he’s climbed the mountain in a 6-day push before, and that the rock is really stellar. Unfortunately, the Chinese seem to be more interested in developing money-making hotels and selling Red Bull than investing in the natural resources right under their feet. I would love to make a multi-pitch ascent of 华山 some day, but imagining reaching the summit after 6 days only to be greeted by a tourist fresh out of his hotel room left a sour taste in my mouth. As such, next to zero development has been done on the mountain, other than the one multi-pitch route to the top, and a smattering of shorter lines.

Perfect granite

Oh really? I didn't know there was stone here

Dragon dike

On the way down, I passed a few temples and abandoned homes, speaking to the Taoists that used to frequent the mountain in search of enlightenment. I also saw these porters, carrying loads of watermelon, Red Bull, and other foodstuffs and souvenirs up the trail. Speaking to an older gentleman who must have been at least 60 years old, I learned that they each earn 60 RMB a day, working for 8 hours. The accessibility to 华山 stems from the back-breaking work that these men endure every day.

Ancient homes

These men carry goods all day

While this man cleans up garbage

Finally reaching the base of the mountain at 8:30 am, I looked back up at the summit, and marveled at the fact that I had thought it was a good idea to go up and down 3000 feet in just 7 hours of hiking. But the beauty and majesty of 华山demanded it. Even with all its quirks and misgivings, the adultery it suffers at the hands of tourists, and the broken backs of men who made it the way it is today, 华山 stands with pride. When society crumbles, hotels fall into disrepair, and vendors abandon their wares, the mountain will remain the same. I hope some day that 华山 can return to its natural state: wild and free. Only then can it have peace, the same peace that I found on its summit.

Cooling off after the hike

Back at the trailhead

He who climbs 华山 will forever have peace

Note: Once again, all photos and more can be found on my Flickr stream.

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Language Lessons

Posted: August 7, 2011 in Life, Travel
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My Chinese has been getting a lot of exercise. Coming to 西安, my speaking command of the language was somewhat adequate, though much could be improved with my reading and writing. Having to practice every second of the day has helped my fluency in Mandarin; hopefully it will be a noticeable difference to my Chinese speaking friends and family when I return home.

Ordering food in a restaurant has never been that difficult, you simply point at the pretty picture, and say “I want this”. At Dairy Queen, I can never remember the words for vanilla soft-serve, so I always just go to the counter and ask for “the ice cream that costs 7 RMB”. That usually gets my point across. The local drinks than I enjoy – 酸梅汤 (plum juice), 蓝马课 (Landmark, a fermented pineapple soda), and 白开水 (room temperature water, not the boiling hot water that Chinese normally drink) have all made their way into my regular vocabulary, and I’m normally able to get what I want.

Taking the bus is a little trickier. Each bus stop has a name, and the signboard at each stop lists the various destinations that a certain route will take you in tabular form. Even with a map in hand, the names can be very cryptic. The same street can have multiple names, depending on whether it’s north, within, or south of the old city wall. I’ve learned to read the names of all the stops that I frequent, though many times it’s been easier just to ask for help from a local.

I’d say that I probably understand about 80-85% of the Mandarin that’s being spoken around me. However, there’s always that 15-20% that I just don’t quite pick up, whether it’s vocabulary that I’m not familiar with, or the distinct northwestern accent that people have here, as opposed to the southern accented Mandarin that I grew up with. The funny thing is, if I approach someone, tell them I’m an American and speak only in English, they’re usually more than happy to help me. Foreigners are exciting, and helping one discover China seems to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of them. However, if I converse with them in Chinese, when they say something I don’t understand I’ll have to stop them and ask them to explain what they mean. At this point, they just look at me like an idiot, trying to understand how someone can reach 21 years of age without a working knowledge of the language that I supposedly grew up with.

Other times, people take meeting me as an opportunity to practice their own English. Most of the time it’s taxi drivers. Over my previous two weeks, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers about everything from weather and food in China, to philosophy and the education system in the USA. I once had a driver hand me a pen and paper, asking my to transcribe the words he told me into English, so that he could practice them when he got home. We got through “mid-Autumn festival”, “girlfriend”, and “break-up”. Apparently he was planning something, I’m glad I could help.

Fairer Weather

Posted: August 1, 2011 in Life, Travel
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My accessibility to reliable Internet has been on the fritz lately, I apologize.

Rain has decided to make a timely appearance to Xi’an, and I cannot be more grateful. An overnight shower brought the daytime temperatures down by a full 15 degrees, making venturing outside a lot more bearable. Having made a lot of new friends in the past few days, we made plans to take advantage of the cooler weather and go play some sports.

陕西师范大学老校区 translates directly as Shaanxi Teacher’s University, yet somehow is traditionally translated to Shaanxi Normal University. This archaic term for a training school for teachers is still preserved in China, but is hardly used elsewhere in the world. About two miles from the apartment where I am staying, its outdoor recreational facilities are open to the public to use. From soccer fields to basketball courts to swimming pools, just about anything (minus a climbing wall) is available.

乒乓, or Ping Pong, is an everyman’s sport in China; you’ll be more likely to find a myriad of ping pong tables than tennis courts in any athletic facility. The tables are cast out of concrete for durability, and metal beams are used in place of a net. Just bring your own ball and paddle, and you’re ready to play! At this school, nearly 30 tables were set up side-by-side, and every one was occupied. On a Saturday afternoon, we had to wait about 15 minutes before one opened up for our use. People take their ping pong very seriously here, yells of excitement are not uncommon.

Ping Pong Tables

On this trip, I brought along with me a few Frisbees *ahem* Discraft Ultrastars. Though none of my friends had ever thrown a disc before, either they’re really adept at learning new skills, or I’m just a really good teacher. We had enough numbers for some 4 on 4 Ultimate, and it wasn’t long before we had a nice friendly scrimmage going. A lot of them really took to it, and kids watching from the sidelines joined in too. Unfortunately we were competing for field space with a soccer tournament going on, so next time we’ll have to show up a little earlier to snipe the turf.

A prevalent problem in the United States is that youth are becoming more and more lethargic, becoming less inclined to participate in outdoor activities. Programs such as the Boy Scouts, the NFL’s Play 60 Kids, and even Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Outside” campaign are designed to get people active and playing games, leading to a healthier population. This issue is beginning to come to light in China as well, as kids become more involved in video games, TV, and endless studying. I hope that by organizing twice-a-week Ultimate scrimmages for the rest of my time out here, I can get people excited about this fun activity, and maybe have it become a passion for them. I’ve already promised to leave some of my discs.

Underground Eatery

Of course, any afternoon of hard work cannot go without the reward of a good meal. 6 RMB (90 cents) for a plate of fried rice, plus another 6 RMB for ice-cream afterwards. I think I like it here.

Fried Noodles are available too

Not a straw dispenser, a chopstick dispenser

Dinner with friends

White chocolate cake sometimes come with cherries on top. But I certainly never expected cherry tomatoes. There are some things about China that I will never understand.

Tomato Chocolate Cake

The cake reminded me of something from my childhood. As kids, my brothers and I were told the story of 畫蛇添足, in English: painting legs on a snake. As the story goes, there was once a painting competition between a group of friends to see who would win the last bowl of wine. Each was to paint a snake as fast as possible. One of the boys finished much faster than everyone else, and thought to himself “wow, they’re all taking forever. I have plenty of time, I’ll add some legs on my snake too!” When another person claimed he had finished fastest, the young boy exclaimed “No, I was first! I’ve even had time to paint legs on my snake!”. At this point, all the others laughed and reminded him that snakes didn’t have legs, and the young boy left without the wine.

No wine for him

The tomatoes on top of the cake seems like an overachieving attempt to make the cake seem more “Western”, to appease the clientèle looking for a more foreign experience in an American coffee shop. Yet when I come to such a store, I laugh at the idea of having tomatoes on chocolate cake.

While they certainly overdo some things, no one will ever claim that the Chinese don’t have the ability to make things large and grandiose (example: the $100 million Opening Ceremony at the 2008 Olympics). Just a few blocks north of the apartment I’m staying at is the 大唐不夜城 (Tang Dynasty Nightless Mall), an outdoor complex a mile long, with plazas and shopping centers around every corner. In a constant state of expansion for the past few years, it won’t be long before this completion results in the largest economic sector in interior China. With countless offices being built and huge companies moving in, I’m inclined to believe my friend when he claims that “in 10 years, the economic performance of companies in the world will be judged by their performance on this street”. Look into the sky, and sky-scraping cranes litter the horizon.

The Emperor Arriving

The Empress and her Consort

No climbing!?

Xi'an Concert Hall

In addition to all the buildings being put in, the Chinese have taken the time to recreate history as well. Xi’an is the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty, the city itself dating back over 3,000 years. In the mall, monuments and statues have been erected to commemorate the greatness of Chinese history. Sculptures and murals depict imperial life during the 7th century, with countless displays to the wonder of ancient China.

Visiting Tourists

Pillars telling stories of the Tang Dynasty

During the night, a blend of ancient culture and modern technology brings a light show to life, showing even greater examples of why China is the best country in the world. In the parade grounds in front of the 大雁塔 (Wild Goose Pagoda) on the north end of the mall, music is put on, and the elderly practice their ballroom dancing. As vendors sell ice-cream and cold drinks, little kids run around on roller blades, and older men and women dance the Viennese Waltz until well past 11 pm.

Vienesse Waltz with the Pagoda in the background

This happens every evening. The vibrant life that this city has to offer exhibits the amazing revival that is happening right now in the middle of China, you would be sore to miss it.

大唐不夜城 Welcomes You

Note: All the photos that have been posted can be found on my Flickr stream, feel free to share while giving proper credit.

Gas and Electricty

Posted: July 27, 2011 in Life, Travel
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I’m currently staying at an apartment of a friend while he is out of town, so I’ve had to figure out a lot of things on my own. The utilities were close to running out when I got here, it’s been quite an adventure to get things settled. Electricity is managed by the apartment complex, not by a utility company. To get power to the apartment, you have to take this mag-stripe card to the manager’s office, top it up with cash, and then insert it into a reader attached to the electricity meter in your apartment. Instead of sending you a bill every month for how much electricity you’ve used, you have to keep track of how much you’re using as you go along, otherwise it might just cut out on you. Not too much trouble if you’re simply watching TV, but the electrically powered water heater might be missed when taking a shower.

Utility Card Reader

Getting natural gas to power the stove functions in a similar fashion, with a card-reader sitting on the wall above the stove in the kitchen. However, gas isn’t managed by the apartment. Through much broken Chinese with a few English words thrown in here and there, I figured that to top up the gas card, you have to walk down the street about a mile, make two right turns, and go to a store titled (loose translation) “Utility General Store”. For 50 RMB (about 8 dollars), I bought 24 cubic meters of natural gas, enough to facilitate a family of four’s cooking for 2 months. My friend will probably find it useful, this is akin to me filling up his beer-fridge.

There aren’t any dumpsters around here to throw your garbage in, either. After watching the locals for a few days, it turns out that garbage simply goes in a plastic bag outside the front door of the building. Someone comes by to pick it up eventually.

In the days prior to getting gas at the apartment, I’ve been cooking with only electricity. Soft-boiled eggs are made in the electric kettle, and toast is prepared in the toaster oven. Sausages can be thinly sliced and heated up in the oven as well, and the hot water from the electric kettle is used to blanch my vegetables.

Electric Eggs

All Electric Meal

The alternative to cooking is to walk down to the corner market, and buy 包子 (Bao-zi, meat filled rolls) for 6 cents each. I had ten for breakfast yesterday. Going out to dinner is equally cheap, 羊肉泡沫 (Mutton stew with noodles) was $3 last night. With endless options to explore, it may be a while before I even turn on the stove.

Bao Zi, the Breakfast of Champions

Dinner for $3, what's not to like?

Railway to the West

Posted: July 26, 2011 in Life, Travel
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It would seem that the last great expansion of American railroads commenced on the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, in 1869. The East and West had been joined, and the nation could now be traversed by the all-mighty locomotive. Taking the train anywhere in the USA now has a nostalgic sense to it; boarding an Amtrak tends to be more of a novelty now, than a commonly used mode of transportation.

北京西站 - Beijing West Train Station

Railways are everything in China. Walking into 北京西站 (Beijing West train station), I was entrenched into one of the most chaotic sea of people I have ever witnessed. Occupying a building as large as any airport I have been to, Beijing West has 12 platforms, each of which services a train every hour. There’s continuously a desperate rush of people trying to make their train on time, running all the way across the station. Which is actually even more chaotic than it sounds: there’s a distinct lack of enough seating in Beijing West, so people just sit down on the floor in the middle of the waiting room. As such, running across the station typically involves a cross between ski-slalom and running the hurdles.

Inside of Beijing West

Waiting for his train

Showing up two hours early to make sure I didn’t miss my own train, I found myself just sitting in the middle of the floor as well. On a well placed plastic bag, not on the floor directly. In addition to lacking seating, Beijing West is also lacking in garbage cans. Janitors continuously walk the halls; to dispose of their trash, people simply throw it on the ground in front of the oncoming janitor. The same goes for spitting sunflower seeds and used Kleenex. This is one of the few times that I will pass judgment on someone else’s style of life: it’s disgusting, please stop.

Train Platform

Train Interior

Life on the train can be much more luxurious. 14 cars long, with three different types of berths, the train can easily seat hundreds of people. Some tickets are just for a seat, others are for the “hard berth”, triple-decked bunk-beds arranged in rows along an entire car. I found myself in the “soft berth”, the plushest of them all. A comfortable mattress with a pillow and comforter awaited me on the upper bunk in my cabin, which I shared with three other people (each soft berth cabin has two sets of bunk-beds). A small table sat in the center of the room, complete with fake flowers and an electric kettle. Air-conditioned and with a TV for entertainment, I was more than comfortable. I didn’t even have to put down a plastic bag. In fact, quite the opposite: each passenger is provided with a pair of slippers, such that you can wander around without the burden of wearing shoes.

My Bunk

Soft Berth Cabin

Complimentory!

The hallways of the train have seats that fold out by the windows, so that you can gaze at the passing scenery. Attendants push carts by with food, drink, and even magazines for entertainment. I was told there was a restaurant car somewhere down the line too, though I didn’t wander past the cars adjacent to mine.

Window Seat

My cabin-mates (a businessman and his wife, and another businessman) were curious as to why a young American would be traveling via train on his own: when I told them I am here to learn about the Motherland, they were more than happy to help me give my Chinese an exercise. Pretending to be asleep yielded me my rest for that night.

It took me 12 hours to get from Beijing to Xi’an, a journey of roughly 600 miles. Probably the most comfortable 12 hours that I’ve ever spent in transit, I’d pick a Chinese train ride over a plane trip any day. Yet Chinese rail is still developing: there is a high-speed train travels between Beijing and Shanghai in merely 5 hours; that technology is being spread throughout the country. Traveling at 210 miles per hour, this train leaves anything we have in the USA in the dust. Imagine going from Seattle to San Francisco in 5 hours, with the option to lay down on a bed.

Though I could do without the sunflower seeds.

Hello, China

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Life
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I will be in China for six weeks.

It’s important for anyone to learn how to fly. Some people learn to do this when very young, others figure it out in college. There are even those who spend their entire lives without even trying to spread their wings. But that moment, that moment when you take flight, when you feel the wind through your hair, the sun on your face, and you open your eyes to realize that you are part of something meaningful: that is a moment that we should all live for.

My journey to China will be one of discovery. Though I used to live in Beijing, it’s been many years since I’ve returned, and the country will undoubtedly feel entirely foreign to me. I’ll see new things, meet new people, maybe even run into some old friends. I’m sure there will be times when I will be unsure of where I’m going, and question whether the path I’m taking is foolish. But that’s part of the joy of this trip; I’m going as a blank slate. Tabula rasa, as the philosopher would say. Somewhere along the way, I hope I’ll find where I’m really supposed to go.

And then I will soar.

April 1

Posted: April 1, 2011 in Academia, Life
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This is what BioE Seniors do when graduation is imminent.

Over 9000

Can’t wait to be done with school.

Making Rice – The Asian Way!

Posted: March 25, 2011 in Life
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I just got a new video camera, a Sony HDR-CX110. Unfortunately, Windows Movie Maker doesn’t let you create videos in high-definition, even though the raw footage was recorded in 1080p. Any recommendations for an HD-compatible video editing software that’s relatively cheap and/or free would be greatly appreciated!

More ground breaking footage is on the way!

Expectations

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Life
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I started this year with many expectations. I expected the upcoming climbing season to be a lot of fun, I expected to stay strong, I expected to graduate, and I expected to have a plan for the coming Fall. Expectations can be exciting, but they’re also very scary. What if I injured myself? Would that ruin my entire summer? What if I failed out of school? What if I couldn’t get into graduate school? Life is challenging because we don’t know how anything is actually going to turn out.

The first part of the year has been a resounding success. Climbing has been fun. Even though I’ve only been able to climb less than once a week due to school, I still feel strong. The Northwest Collegiate Climbing Comp series has been going on in full force, and I’ve gone to the comps at both Western Washington University and here at the UW. Didn’t place in either of them, but they were both exciting experiences, especially when I rooted for my friends in finals.

Me

WWU Comp 2011

In two weeks I’m going back to God’s little rock playground, Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. I’m feeling strong as ever, and can’t wait to have a good time. Arguably the best part of the trip will be the chance to see old friends, Nick is coming back in town. Nick took me on my first “real” (meaning more than 5.5) multipitch trad climb, and I’m super excited to climb with him again.

School on the other hand, has been proving to be quite a challenge for me. After a not-so-good application to graduate school, I was worried about my prospects of getting in. At the same time, it was getting more and more difficult to stay motivated in my coursework, as I was starting to get disillusioned with academia and my ability to stay in it for another 2 years. However, my plans changed.

College is a place for education, and it’s important that students come in with a sense of direction. Rather than just taking only general education classes for four years, students have to declare a field of interest, and study hard to get a degree in that field. However, college is also a place for soul-searching. The best laid plans coming into school might change, as four years of university education often change a person. I was initially extremely resistant to this change, and wanted to follow the written-in-stone plan of going to graduate school, acquiring a Masters or a PhD, and going on to be a research scientist, doctor, whatever. But things in my life seemed to point me away from it, and I finally allowed God to point me in the direction that he wanted me to go.

I’m looking for work right now. Applying for jobs, doing interviews, the whole deal. And this Fall, it’s beginning to look like I might be moving away from beloved Washington. Climbing, school, jobs, I’m finally starting to grow up.

I certainly didn’t expect that.