Beijing was…

Very real. For all the reasons why Shanghai felt easy and comfortable, Beijing did not. And in the last few days talking to expats here in Yunnan (mostly Teach for China fellows) they similarly describe Shanghai as an escape from real China. Back to Beijing. From the traffic to the smog to the small “hutong” side streets teeming with people, Beijing had a bustle that has been lacking in most places we’d come across. I can definitely understand why city people find comfort there.

We packed a lot into our first three days.

Tienanmen Square was pretty wild. It’s the most bland public space we’d seen and it’s just impossible to internalize all the historic events that have passed through that space. I’ve read that there are frequently small protests that tourists – by the thousands – are never even aware of because the police scoop people up so quickly. I was keeping my eye out but didn’t see anything aside from the ordinary masses of Chinese tourists following flag flying guides.

Throughout the Forbidden City we heard about how this that and the other were all built according the Feng Shui. The more I heard, the harder it was to take seriously. The one that really got me thinking was the obsession with bats. Apparently the Mandarin word for bat sounds much like the word for happiness, so bats are built into the images and ornate designs on walls, floors, and even a car logo. It started to sound like a set of superstitions that were granted legitimacy just by having a name. On the other, I was left wondering whether tour guides in DC tell all sorts of stories about the symbols built into our nation’s capital.

The next day we did the Summer Palace. Henry, our fantastic guide, had already introduced the Empress Dowager, Cixi, but it wasn’t until walking through the summer palace that I started to realize just how grand and, for lack of a better word, wasteful, the latter emperors really were. Not that that makes them exception as compared to European kings, or other dynastic families, but the amount of human energy that went into pleasing the royal family seems just silly. That being said, Cixi sounds like a formidable character and someone I’d like to read more about at some point.

We did a day at the Great Wall – one of the sections dubbed the “Wild Wall” for lack of renovations, handrails, and crowds. Absolutely as amazing as it’s ever been described.

We ate dinner at a Uyghur restaurant with Carrie’s friend, Alex. And then washed down great local food with some pretty decent pints from the Great Leap brew-pub. That probably summed up what is pretty neat about Beijing – that those worlds are less than a kilometer apart.

Along the way we made a brief stop at a very neat flea-market (maybe called the Ghost Market?), saw a hutong (traditional urban courtyard house) with and without extra families clogging up the courtyard, and had a couple great duck dinners – Beijing does duck damn well.


We’re currently visiting Mike’s friend who’s a Teach for China fellow in Pingchuan. We sat in on some fifth grade English classes today which were highly entertaining. Tomorrow we’re headed to Kunming and then I head back to Cambridge and Mike will continue on to Nepal.


Yangshou to Xi’an was quite the contrast. Both are tourist destinations, but for very different reasons.

The terracotta army was fascinating. Three pieces of the puzzle that surprised me:

1. When you see photos of the lines upon lines of soldiers, what’s often left out is that these clay statues occupy about the first 20 yards of an excavation pit the size of a football field. The number of soldiers is often put above 6,000, but I’d guess that only a few hundred are on display. The other 75% of the space is still largely unexcavated – and at the pace their moving it could be generations before they’re complete.

2. The emperor’s tomb has never officially been excavated. The whole point of this massive army was to guard him into the afterlife. The story we heard is that he also wished to be buried in a beautiful landscape, with rivers that shimmered and all the rest. Apparently those shimmering rivers were comprised of mercury and the actual tomb is a toxic dump. We also heard that the emperor may well have killed himself ingesting mercury pills. Crazy to think that the same guy that built us the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors poisoned himself by age 50.

3. Upon the emperor’s death there was a massive uprising and many statues were knocked over or damaged by fire. Fortunately it seems that none of these pissed off peasants wanted a life-sized clay soldier as a keepsake.

Lastly, again there was the issue of not quite understanding how much of the display had been reconstructed. All of the partially excavated statues we saw were in shambles – many broken into dozens of smaller pieces. At the back of the main pit is an active dig site and you can watch soldiers get reconstructed from the found fragments. To my untrained eye, the soldiers that they’ve reassembled look identical to those featured in the front of the pit. Again, I don’t know why, but I want to know what’s truly original and what’s an attempt to recreate the past.

I’ve been meaning to look for a good article on these statues – I’m sure there’s a debate among archaeologists over how best to preserve and display such relics. I think there’s a reason why you don’t see Greek statues with newly mounted arms on display in The Met.

The other highlight of Xi’an was the Muslim Street. Great string of vendors selling all sorts of nuts, dried fruits, fried everything, and noodles. We watched a guy slapping around some big noodles – I believe the name was Bien Bien Mien – which were as delicious as they were entertaining.


I’m behind. Since leaving Xi’an we spent four days in Beijing, then my parents and Carrie flew home and Mike and I flew south to Yunnan province. We did three days hiking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge and today we’re headed to Dali. Dali sounds like a backpackers paradise – with an American diner and all – which I’m very much ok with at this point.

Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guilin, Yangshou.

To no one’s surprise, I haven’t written as much as I had hoped.

Since leaving Shanghai we:

– Took a high-speed train to Hangzhou (2 hrs south-west)

The trains are everything they’re cracked up to be. Super smooth, fast as hell, and a beautiful way to see rural China at ~200+ kph. Hangzhou was incredibly beautiful and shockingly crowded. We caught it on a Sunday, which is apparently the worst, but the main “causeway” (very nice pedestrian walkway through the middle of the river) was packed with people. Felt a bit like Disneyland (a recurring theme when visiting touristy areas).

The crowds make clear what I’ve heard a couple times now: domestic tourism dwarfs international tourism. Maybe we were the only foreigners foolish enough to try West Lake on a Sunday, but in either case the domestic tourists outnumbered the foreigners that day, a whole lot to four.

– Moved on to Nanjing (2 hrs west) for two days

I was under the impression that most of the cities no longer had their traditional walls – that Xi’an was the exception in this regard. While portions of Nanjing’s wall are now gone, much of it still remains and it’s quite impressive. I had a mental image of something like a European castle wall (not that I really know what that would look like). Nanjing’s wall is monstrous. If I had to guess I’d say it’s still standing because these aren’t the type of walls you can just knock down. There’s a photo from after the Japanese bombed the wall and captured the city in 1937 – the pile of rubble and bricks was easily 30 feet tall. The only way these walls were ever going to come down is brick by brick.

Many of the tourist spots have been recently reconstructed. I have found myself never quite sure whether I’m looking at some ancient inscription or a recent and well-done reconstruction for our sake. For some reason I continued to get hung up on this. With the elevators through the park to the pagoda, Lion Hill is obvious enough that I could accept it as a reconstruction and move on, but other gardens and temples were less clear.

In Nanjing I started to piece together more of the 1911 – 1949 history. By this point I’ve heard a fair amount about the Opium Wars (~1842), the founding of the republic (1911), the Japanese & WWII (1937 ~ ’42), the end of the civil war (1949), the great leap forward (~1958), and the Cultural Revolution (1966 – ’76) . Also learned in some detail about the obscure Taiping Heavily Kingdom – centered around of Nanjing (1850 – ’64) – apparently the leader claimed to be the brother of Jesus. Oddly missing from this narrative is the Boxer Rebellion, one of the few bits of Chinese history I remember studying in school (although every detail escapes me).

Some of the public spaces that aren’t targeted at tourists are beautiful. Nanjing sits on a lake, and while the city wall often blocks a view of the water, it’s also allows one to stroll through the trees along the lake-shore and barely hear the sounds of the bustling city just over the wall. Out for a morning run I saw women doing the local version of jazzercise, people walking to work with briefcases, and plenty of old folks who seemed to be just out for a stroll. Really well done public space.

– Flew to Guilin (2 hrs south)

We’ve heard this town name pronounced about six different ways. We spent a night in town – another nice little city built right on a beautiful waterway. More nice public space surrounding the water. More blocks upon blocks of high-rise apartments going up on the edge of town.

It’s made me wonder who’s going to move into all these places. 7.5% economic growth is huge, but just looking at how much housing is being built makes me wonder where those future tenants are sleeping tonight. If they’re already in the area, what will come of the apartments they vacate? If they move into a city like Guilin, what will they do?

– Quickly moved on to Yangshou (1 hr south)

From what I understand, the region is semiautonomous from Beijing and they’ve become famous for high-quality duty-free pearls. So we made a “10 minute stop” (a joke of a term with my family) at the pearl museum. The tour guide gave us the 90 second crash course in pearls and then shucked a live sea-oyster and ripped a pearl right out of its flesh. That made it real in a hurry. It’s the third example I’ve seen of a museum that explains the “how” as well as the “what”. The Shanghai Museum (which is really well done) had an awesome explanation of the steps necessary to mine, smelt, mold, pour, and polish an ancient bronze – not something I can recall seeing in an American museum.

We then took a ride on the Li River in a “bamboo raft”. It’s neither made of bamboo (PVC piping painted to look like bamboo), nor really a raft (which is good, because we were headed up-river) but a beautiful ride nonetheless. I’ve been using my camera with the intention of figuring out the basics – my goal is to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. The river ride provided endless opportunities to try and fail to do better than that damn auto setting. As usual, eventually I put the camera down and just enjoyed the remainder of the ride.

In Yangshou we spent yesterday cruising around on bikes – inhaling truck fumes in the city and enjoying some great single track through the country. Mike and I shocked our guide by jumping in the river just beneath a small dam, and later we hiked up to Moon Hill and Mike was near tears to be there and not climbing (he hurt his shoulder – more on that later). Lunch at a “Farmer Restaurant” was some of the best, and least greasy, food we’ve had yet.

This morning I took a cooking class. It was great – I now know exactly how much oil I’ve been consuming with every dumpling and just how quickly I’ll set off the smoke alarm if I try any of this at home. But the food was good.


Those are some of the high-lights to date.

Tomorrow we fly north to Xi’an for two days before moving on to Beijing. It’s been a whirlwind but really nice and fascinating. I have to say I’d love a salad right about now, but at the expense of my health that can wait another two weeks.

If you’re still reading, I’m impressed. I wish I had posted each section as it happened, but here it is.

ps: sorry, I’ll have to do curated photos once I’m home – the VPN / WordPress situation is enough of a pain with just plain text.

Shanghai – Top 10

1.  On the flight over I learned that ~80% of new elevators are going into China at the moment.  The man to my right was a career Otis Elevator guy.  He described supply chains that seamlessly meld the formal and informal economy.  While their primary suppliers operate out of factories that would conform to any international norm, following the supply chain back just a few more steps has taken him to some interesting places.  Small shops that, judging by his description, would fit right in with the metal-workers on the side of the street in Uganda.  Also learned that shortest distance between Chicago and Shanghai traverses Alaska.

2.  I was prepared to be immediately overwhelmed.  While hardly a let down, I have been shocked by the lack of crowds.  There’s been nothing that feels like the rush of New York, the traffic of Nairobi, the crowds of Rome, the energy of Istanbul, or the madness of Kampala.  Multiple times I’ve looked at our guide and said, “soooo, where are all the people?”  She promised that to see The Bund (river front) on a national holiday is to know what a million people really feels like.  But even walking East Nanjing road (think of every bright-light post-card of Shanghai) on a Saturday night just didn’t feel that crowded.

3.  I know nothing about tea.  We haven’t done a proper sit-down in a tea house yet (the few we’ve seen looked like tourist traps), but a brief stop in a small shop  made me realize that my tea habits fly in the face of most of the Chinese tea traditions.  More on this later – definitely something I intend to explore in greater detail.
4.  Ok, I also know nothing about China in general.  I’ve realized that I might have known more about Kenya heading into my semester abroad than I did about China flying here a few days ago.  Not sure which course in high-school was supposed to cover the Opium Wars and 20th century Chinese history, but I seem to have missed these chapters entirely.  Shanghai was occupied by the British, French and US for 99 years?  I feel like I should have known that.  I’m slowly starting to piece together the narrative, and it’s fascinating in that in some ways it makes communism seem like a natural next step circa 1950.
5.  Match making in People’s Square.  There’s a photo that should be posted here, but that’s difficult at the moment, so just google it.  Over-eager parents show up every weekend with one-page spec sheets of their child and look for appropriate matches.  Apparently this just leads to first dates.  It’s like Tinder sans photos, and your parents doing the swiping.  According to Jean (our guide), if you lie about the looks of your offspring you’ll lose your reputation in the square.
6.  We stayed at the Marriott and I was surprised to discover that a number of expats live in their “Executive Apartments” on a long-term basis.  Super comfortable accommodations, and in a nice neighborhood (next to the Ferrari dealership, across from People’s Square) but the guy from Boeing has to leave the country every 90 days to renew his visa, and he’s been there for three years.
7.  Real estate is unlike anything we’ve dreamt of in Boston.  High-rises are getting thrown up at an incredible rate, and everything is sold-out before construction is complete.  We have since learned that most places are purchased as investments and remain empty for some time – which is why cities like Shanghai have limited the number of apartments any one individual can buy.  Regardless, a 900 square foot apartment in central Shanghai was listed at $1.5M.
8.  The proud use of “People’s”.  It’s bizarre to be in one of the world’s finance capitals of the world – watching sky scrapers get thrown up left and right – and be staying in “People’s Square,” read about the “People’s Supreme Court,” and the “People’s Liberation Army”.  I guess I had just assumed that with the moderation and opening of the economy there would have been an underlying acknowledgement that communism writ large had failed in China.  And as an extension that the red banners, the talk of “People’s” this and that, the explicit benefits of being a member of the Party, etc. would have fallen away.  Doesn’t seem to be the case.
9.  The fact that WordPress blogs are blocked here.  I had heard rumors of the “Great Chinese Firewall” but I guess I assumed it was a more fine-tuned instrument.  SkyWord, the platform my brother writes on, is blocked.  So is WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, and many more.  Better still, our guide openly discussed how easy it is to get a VPN to skirt the system.  Services like make it easy and brag about it openly on their sites.  Perhaps officials use it as well? Unclear why else they wouldn’t be blocked.
10.  Similarly, I’m still trying to gauge the political / personal perspectives of the young educated population here.  Jean, a Shanghai born, university educated, very sharp young woman seemed completely sincere when trying to explain that she and most Chinese believe that what the party decides truly is in the best interest of everyone.  And, as best as I could tell, she really believes that the four other parties are legitimate, and that this reflects the moderation of the government.  Again, still a long ways from understanding this situation.
PS: since starting this piece, we left Shanghai, spent a day in transit visiting Hangzhou, and arrived in Nanjing last night.
– Hangzhou was a beautifully scenic zoo – thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists (Google “west lake hangzhou crowds”)
– Today, in a full day of touring a city of 8 million, I saw two other foreigners –  pretty clear that any catering to foreign tourists is reserved for the major destinations.
– Thanks to a great recommendation by Claire Luby I’m most of the way through Oracle Bones, a piece of non-fiction full of lively characters and anecdotes that is helping me tie together regions, dynasties and themes.
– I am using my camera, but posting is a bit of a pain, will try to do soon.

My temporary blog

Hello world.

I’m in the midst of a couple exciting firsts – launching a personal website / blog and traveling to China – but I wasn’t able to complete the former before the latter snuck up on me.  So while my personal site is still a static dud, I’m going to be writing here for now.

If you follow along I’ll be sure to let you know when I make the move to my own site (hopefully in the next six weeks).

That site, for future reference, is   Welcome!


A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.