秦始皇 (Qin Shi Huang) was the first emperor of a unified China. Beginning in 221 BC, he governed the Seven Warring States of China as a single nation, began construction on the Great Wall, and started the first nation-wide road building project. He also outlawed and burned books, and buried opposing scholars alive to ensure the stability of his empire.

The Mausoleum

Perhaps one of his most famous contributions to history is his mausoleum, housing the Terracotta Army. With over 8,000 soldiers and 520 horses, this ceramic military force was meant to guard his passing into the afterlife. Constructed with the lives of over 700,000 workers, the Army now stands as a testament to the greatness and power of the first Chinese emperor. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s something that must be seen for those traveling into inland China.

Out of the many public museums and attractions that I’ve visited in China, the Terracotta Army is one that they’ve done correctly. Lines form in an orderly fashion to purchase tickets into the museum compound, and a continuous stream of trolleys bring you from the main entrance to the actual buildings. Tickets are 110 RMB (17 USD) a piece, though a US driver’s license can pass for a student ID under a cursory inspection, dropping the price to 50 RMB. An English-speaking tour guide for our group of 4 cost another 100 RMB, a bargain for two and a half hours of interesting information.

Pit 1, the main attraction

The main mausoleum site holds three pits about 5-7 meters deep, each with varying amounts of terracotta figures. Pit 1 holds the largest army, with 10 rows of soldiers stretching over 100 meters long. All the soldiers have been painstakingly reconstructed from thousands of fragments; such archaeological endeavors continue today. The soldiers are divided by rank (which can be identified by their hairstyles), as well as their positions. Archers, cavalry, and foot soldiers all stare up from the pit with lifeless eyes, ready at any moment to serve the emperor. The weapons they hold are also a testament to Chinese technology: swords were excavated with chromium plating 10 microns thick, holding their edge rust-free for over 2000 years.

Third Pit Entrance

Among the pits of soldiers, the graves of the workers have also been found. The slave labor used to construct the army were all buried alive upon completion of the project, speaking to the arrogance and ruthlessness of the Qin Emperor.

Countless soldiers

Though people line up nicely, that doesn’t mean that they don’t push. Even on a Monday morning, massive crowds of people inched their way through the exhibits, easily outnumbering the figurines they were gazing at. I can only imagine what it’s like during the weekend, as thousands more pour through the gates.

Less crowded than the visitors

If the A Night at the Museum franchise were to make a third sequel, they should do it here.

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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.

北京 – Welcome to Beijing

Posted: July 24, 2011 in Travel
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Beijing is huge. Unabashedly, unrelentingly huge. With a population approaching 20 million people, it’s hard to imagine that this never ending sea of roads, buildings, and cars can even be qualified as a city. Technically, it’s a municipality, split into 14 different urban and suburban districts plus 2 rural counties. Under direct administration by the national government, Beijing acts as the political hub of everything that happens in China.

With the emergence of the Chinese middle-class, the economic buying power of the people is becoming massive. With such a large population, one can only imagine the number of cars in the city as people spend their new-found money to hit the streets. To solve the problem of overcrowding, the city has enacted a curious solution: depending on the last digit of your license plate, you are only permitted to drive on certain days of the month. Each car is guaranteed at least one day off per week; during the Olympics, each car was guaranteed to be off for at least three days. Yet with the constantly growing population, the streets are still crowded as ever. As such, there is an unending amount of construction going on, as roads are expanded and new highways are built. Look any which way and you will see evidence of this urban growth.

Qian Men Shopping District

With the help of former Chinese teacher (from when I lived in Beijing from ‘95-’97), I got the grand tour of the capital city. One of my main goals for my trip to China has been to practice my Chinese, and it’s definitely been getting a workout. Trying not to embarrass myself too much in front of my teacher, I would secretly pull out my dictionary when she wasn’t looking, and pretend to know the phrases that I simply couldn’t remember.

Western Gate, Tian An Men

All the sights in Beijing have grandiose names. 天安门 (Tian An Men Square) literally translates as “Gateway to Heavenly Peace”. The upscale hotel right across the street from the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium is called 七星酒店, translating to Seven Star Hotel, because it’s simply too good to be rated only five stars. And if you’re going to build it in China, you might as well build it huge. The city seems to be littered with huge concrete parade grounds, whether it be Tian An Men Square, or the grounds between the Birds Nest and The Bubble (Swimming Stadium). As big as a parking lot in Disneyland, these parade grounds were filled with tourists from outside the city; a few foreigners, but mostly Chinese.

Tian An Men Square

Bird's Nest

Beijing National Aquatics Center (Bubble Building)

Parade Field in front of Olympic Stadium

新疆 (Xinjiang) is an area in China that is currently undergoing political strife. Not originally part of the country, it was absorbed into China in 1949, though the governance of the area has been in dispute for centuries. However, the Chinese government has a handle on the issue, and demonstrated so by signs and banners in Tian An Men proclaiming that “Xinjiang is a wonderful place”. Not a whisper of any issue was to be found.

Western commercialization has also permeated itself into the very depths of Chinese culture. 故宫(Gu Gong), better known as the Forbidden City, still remains as a popular tourist attraction today. The former Imperial Palace during the Ming to Qing Dynasty, it exists as a symbol of Chinese imperial prowess. There’s a Starbucks inside; the walls now. Note: the location closed in 2007. McDonalds and a 24-hour KFC are right around the corner. I’ve even seen a Dairy Queen and Papa Murphy’s – you could easily live here and never eat a bite of Chinese food. Which is a dumb idea, since Chinese food is so obviously better.

Traditional restaurants still thrive in some places

Tradition is still steeped within the city, though. Walk into any park in the early mornings, and you’ll find scores of elderly folk practicing tai-chi, or even wushu with swords. I came across one lady with a large brush, writing calligraphy on the sidewalk with water.

Water Calligraphy

Beijing is a city too big to explore in just a single day. With its urban sprawl, most of its citizens probably haven’t seen all it has to offer, either. It’s massive, beautiful, and alive with the buzz of never ending excitement. It’s a testament to the Chinese work-ethic that such a city even exists. Beijing is a lovely place to visit, and everyone should. But as I stood within the city, I yearned for the clean air, green trees, and simple mountains of the Pacific Northwest. 95 Degrees and 50% humidity may have had something to do with it.

The appropriate way to cool off

Thanks to 迟老师 for the corrections.

Internet at my current accommodations are non-existent, I have to walk about a mile to get to a coffee shop and hijack their WiFi. Yes, it is in fact a Starbucks. I could be sitting at any corner in Seattle right now, except for the fact that the clientèle is completely Asian. Actually, scratch that, I could still be in Seattle.

After a day touring Beijing, I took the overnight train to Xi’an, the Ancient Capital of China during the Tang dynasty. This is my second day here now, and I’m beginning to get settled in. But more about these two cities later. Right now I want to introduce you to my new step-by-step guide, “How To Not Get Killed While Crossing The Street (or: Look Both Ways Even When Crossing A One-Way Street)”. This is the text-only guide, the photo-supplement will be uploaded at a later date.

Step 1: Find a street you would like to cross.

Invariably, this will be an 16-lane street. What I mean by this is that even though lines on the street clearly separate 8 equally spaced sections for vehicles to motor through, drivers need to account for the CDLC (Chinese Driving Lanes Coefficient). The CDLC starts at 1 during 1-4 am, then increases once morning hours commence. The coefficient saturates at 2, when it is no longer physically possible to fit more cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds, stray cats, stray dogs, loose children, and feral chickens into the width of tarmac. Multiply by the number of lanes actually present, and you’ll have the number of cars that can fit abreast in the road.

Step 2: Step off the curb onto the shoulder, and look both ways.

Just looking from the sidewalk is useless, as every other Chinese pedestrian will also step into the street, preventing you from seeing anything other than a sea of black hair. The more you lean precariously forward into the street, the more you’ll be able to make like an Olympic sprinter once you see a glimpse of empty road that is wide enough for one (and only one) person.

NOTE: Make sure you’re looking for somewhere without a crosswalk. The black and white delineations are read as lane dividers to Chinese drivers, and the opportunity to fit 20+ cars in a single stretch of road causes them to accelerate.

NOTENOTE:  Look both ways even when crossing a one-way street. Directionality of roads has no meaning to motorcycles and bicyclists.

Step 3: Make sure there are no buses.

This step is imperative. The standard method for a bus in Xi’an to pick up and drop passengers on and off is to put on the clutch while at cruising speed, and allow the coasting bus to slow down on its own. Then, veer towards the curb, open the door, and allow (push) passengers to hop on and off when the bus’ speed is below 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour, since we are in Rome). Since you’re already in the street, the bus will think you’re a passenger wanting to get on, and intentionally steer towards you. No need to worry about taxis: they don’t stop for anyone unless you stand in front of them in the middle of the road.

Step 4: Take a deep breath. A DEEP breath.

This increases your visibility. As the majority of the Chinese population is extremely skinny, breathing in will widen your body enough that you could possibly be two Chinese people. Drivers are less likely to hit two people crossing the street than they are to hit a single bachelor (like me).

Step 5: Walk at an extremely disjointed and erratic pace.

This part is exactly like the game Frogger. Except there are no logs that are safe for you to stand on. Don’t be afraid to go backwards as well, sometimes this is necessary to facilitate general forward movement.

Step 6: Lower your head and push when you reach the other side.

The other side of the street has an equally large wall of people trying to cross the street the other way. Push hard, and don’t be ashamed. If you don’t, someone behind you will gladly take your place, shoving you back into the street. Make sure your head is lowered, so that umbrellas don’t poke you in the eye.

NOTE: Umbrellas are open at all times of day, regardless of weather or heat. I think it’s a genetic predisposition.

Step 7: Buy a lottery ticket.

Self-explanatory.

Now that I’ve covered pedestrianism, stay tuned for the next installment governing public transit. And maybe the weather, too.

Transit to Beijing

Posted: July 20, 2011 in Travel
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My first plane on my trip to China was not a Boeing 747, 777, Airbus A320, or any other plane that you’d expect to make the cross-Pacific journey. Instead, it was an EMB-125 Brasilia. A 30 seater.

EMB-125 Brasilia

Due to the wonders of frequent flyer miles (thanks, Dad), my ticket to Beijing was heavily discounted. However, instead of a direct flight, I was routed to China via Portland and San Francisco. I don’t really recall much of the first two flights, being that they were both around an hour each. The flight attendant was kind of cute, I suppose, though I’m sure she noticed the pool of drool on my shirt as I passed out the moment I sat down.

SEA - POR

Safety First!

The flight from San Francisco to Beijing was a much more appropriate 747-400, capable of making the 13 hour trip. Though airlines are packing their passengers like sardines to save money, I was pleasantly surprised to get onto a plane that was only about 60% full. In an aisle seat, the seat next to me was unoccupied, allowing me to stretch my legs a bit, as well as use the FULL arm rest.

SFO - PEK

I slept for most of that flight as well, waking up for meals and to watch a movie. My row-buddy occupying the window seat didn’t get up once the entire 13 hours, she slept through one of the meals as well. Airplane travel really can’t get much easier than that.

The airport in Beijing is arguably one of the most modern airports I have ever traveled to, even compared to Narita, Singapore, and O’Hare. In classic over-the-top fashion, the entire city of Beijing was retrofitted to accommodate the 2008 Olympics, with the airport making the first impression. Customs and immigration went smoothly, and finding my way to the taxi depot was no trouble at all.

Beijing International Airport

There, I was met by a friend and contact who helped me find my way to my hotel for the night. Once dropped off at the hotel, I hung out for about an hour, taking some time to settle in and wind down. Though missing amenities typically found in western hotels (such as a mini-fridge, and a telephone allowing me to make calls out of the hotel), things such as toothbrushes and slippers were greatly appreciated.

Ibis Hotel - Beijing

Already 7 pm, I meandered outside a bit trying to find some food to eat. My command of the Chinese language is reasonable, but I was still apprehensive about trying to do too much on my own. Too intimidated to walk into a sit-down restaurant, I went to a 7-11 for dinner, buying some buns and a soybean milk drink. I got some road-site skewers of meat too. The meal cost me 8.95 RMB, approximately $1.30 USD.

Here in China, cash is king. The 7-11 didn’t even have a credit card machine, so I would have been hard pressed to buy anything if I didn’t come prepared with some of the local currency. Even the hotel requested a 500 RMB cash deposit for incidentals. Banks are easy enough to find, so if you need to get some more paper money, don’t worry. I wonder if I will even take my debit/credit card out this entire trip.

So now, I have a day to explore Beijing. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet up with another long-ago friend to show me around town a little. Tonight, I’ll be headed to Xi’an, and the rest of my adventure.

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.