Monday, October 16, 2017

There's a moat around Beijing

This Wednesday marks the beginning of the 19th Party Plenum. Unless you are extremely familiar with China you're probably wondering, "what in the world is a Party Plenum?" I have spent years connected to China and was unfamiliar with the word, but not the idea behind it. Every five years the Communist Party has a big, secretive meeting where they decide who their leaders are going to be and unknown other things about China's future. When I lived in Baotou I would comment on how relaxed things were because Baotou was politically very far from Beijing (geographically it's not actually that far), but now I live IN Beijing. Events like the upcoming Plenum create for interesting situations.
It all started a few weeks ago. It was a regular evening and I am my colleagues were all in our respective homes watching Netflix and using other western media sites using our VPNs (as you are most likely aware China has the Golden Shield Project that most foreigners call the "Great Firewall." This prevents people in China from accessing about 70% of all outside websites including all Google products and western blog hosting platforms). All of the sudden most of our VPNs went out. We started chatting on WeChat and sharing which servers were still working. Prior to this, I had read an article that said China has to discover each of the VPN servers one-by-one and since it wouldn't be effective to cut the connection to a single server, they would wait until they had discovered a number of connections and then cut them all at the same time. This is, as was confirmed by our VPN provider, in fact, what they did. Our VPN provider worked hard and in about 24 hours or so had all of the servers reconnected.  According to articles I've read online, the government called for an extra layer of protection around Beijing which was deemed a fire moat. This so-called fire moat is a second firewall just around Beijing. This appears to have gone into effect last Friday. All of the sudden the servers went down. Based on messages from the VPN provider and my personal experience, it appears that China is currently constantly cutting connections and the VPN provider (I'm intentionally not stating which one I use) is restoring a few. They have informed users in China that they are working around the clock to maintain service and directed us to use one of only three servers.
Over the weekend, one of my colleagues sent us a message warning of long waits and complete screenings and pat downs to enter the subway. I only went into the main part of the city once (for church on Sunday) and didn't encounter any of this, but today's Beijinger (an English-language publication) showed pictures of security lines at subway stations taking up to 2 hours! Boy am I glad that I don't have to commute via public transportation!
Finally, today our administration sent us a WeChat message informing us that for the next several days (the actual number is unknown) any packages being sent from outside of Beijing will be stopped from entering the city. Thus, there really is a moat around Beijing.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A walk on the wild side

The most famous site in China is the Great Wall of China. As someone who has lived in China for over four years (total, not consecutively), I have of course been to the Great Wall. The most commonly visited section of the Great Wall is Badaling. This area is accessible by train and super easy to get to but tends to be incredibly crowded. (My mom and I went there in late June or early July and managed to find a section of the wall that had almost no one on it). Another slightly more difficult to access, but still very common section of the Great Wall is Mutianyu. I've been there before (although not in almost 15 years) and also to a place I can't remember the name of (it's been over 15 years since I was there), but it's where the wall comes out of the sea. Now each of these places is really neat and I highly recommend them, but they are highly reconstructed. 
Our first view of the Great Wall as we approached the top of
hills.
Yesterday, two of my co-workers C and K, and I went on a hike to Huanghuacheng which is a mostly wild section of the Great Wall. It was awesome. Matter of fact it was so awesome that we are already planning to do another hike in just over two weeks.
We went with a company called Beijing Hikers and I must admit I was a little nervous about using a tour group because I'm not really into the whole tour, stick together thing, but it turned out to not really be a problem. The way Beijing Hikers is set-up you can do the trip at your own pace. They have a lead guide who puts out red flags and a tail who collects them. You can be anywhere in between and the tail won't pass the last person so that you can go at your own pace.
Definitely not the typical trail found in China.
I'm not positive, but I think part of that is a really old, worn
down part of the wall.
 We drove to a section of the Great Wall that was about 2 hours northeast of the center of Beijing (which is about an hour's drive northeast of where we live) where they then provided us with plenty of water bottles and hiking poles. I almost didn't take a hiking pole, but I'm so glad I did. The hike began with about a 40-minute uphill hike to the wall (if you don't know, the Great Wall is built on the ridges of the mountains). One of the things I liked about this part of the hike was the fact that it was a real hike. Every other time I have been hiking in China it was on well-manicured paths with hundreds of people. This was a hike through the woods where you are pushing back the foliage and feel like you're out on your own (but there are other people nearby and the tail who will help you if you have a problem). Then we arrive at the wall. It was so cool! We were on a part of the wall that was built in the 1500s and hasn't been refurbished. I didn't realize how wild, wild was. The wall at places wasn't distinguishable as a wall (from on top) because there were so many trees and grasses growing on it. When then hiked a few miles to another part of the wall that was re-done in 2004. It still wasn't as "modernized" as sections like Badaling and Mutianyu, but it was definitely easier to hike on. We watched the sunset from the peak  (or nearly, we left a little before the sun finished setting) and then hiked down to the Shuichangcheng (水长城) section (note 长城 Changcheng means Great Wall in Chinese) where we had a well-deserved and delicious feast. While the uphill parts were steep and difficult, I almost think the downhill parts were the hardest. It was a challenging hike (Beijing Hikers ranks their hikes on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the hardest. This was a 3+. The distance was like a 2, but the hills were like a 4), but if you can physically do it, I would totally recommend it.







It was a gorgeous day, unfortunately, the day was smoggier
than most recent days. 




We hiked all of the wall (and more) that you can see in this
picture. It was definitely a lot of ups and downs.








There was a giant LED screen down in the valley. I saved you
the pictures, but we were taking pictures of it and trying to see
what they were watching (I could see it pretty well with my telephoto
lens, but I needed a tripod to hold it steady for the image to be clear). As
one of my friends pointed out, give us a screen anywhere and
that's what will hold our attention. Sad, but true.


水长城



At first I thought C and K were goofing off. Then I realized we
were all walking like this because it was so steep. 




Saturday, September 30, 2017

If you have to work on a Saturday...

Tomorrow, October 1st is National Day. This is when China celebrates the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Now, holidays in China are a little unusual, at least to an American like myself. The government dictates when the holidays are, and how long they are, but they also move the work days. By now you're probably confused so let me explain. For National Day the Chinese government gives the people three days but then moves the "weekend day" to create a five-day holiday. Usually, this means that people have to work two weekend days. These days might be both before the holiday or one before and one after (for example for National Day it's often the Saturday before and the Sunday after). This year the 1st is on a Sunday so the days off are the second, third and fourth. We should then have to make up the fifth and sixth, but there is another holiday that this year falls within this week. Mid-Autumn Festival (or sometimes known as Moon Festival) is Wednesday. Since the government gives the people one day for Mid-Autumn Festival only one day has to be made up and today was the day declared as the make-up day (each Winter the government releases a list of that year's holidays as well as make-up days).
If you have to work on a Saturday, today was about as good as it gets. School usually starts at 7:40 am. If I have a first period class (which I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays), I have to be there by 7:15/7:20. If I don't have a first period class, then I have to be there by 8:00 am. Today we had to meet in the parking lot at 8:50 am. We then took the whole school (which is only about 40 or so students) to a museum on the Japanese Aggression (the museum's word, not mine) in China. In case you didn't know Japan invaded China in the mid-1930s and weren't expelled until after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the subsequent ending of World War II. We left the museum around 11:15 and got back to school a little after noon. We were then dismissed for the holiday. Not a bad work day (especially considering I didn't have to do anything with the students at the museum we were free to explore on our own).
I'm sorry it's not very easy to read because it was at an angle. It is worth
making the effort to read though.

I've heard it say that history is what those who write the history books say it is. It was very interesting to see the history from a very different perspective than I usually see. One of my first observations was that nowhere in the museum did they ever call it World War II. The war within China was called, "The Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" and World War II was referred to as the "World Anti-Fascist War." Overall, I thought the coverage was much better balanced than I had expected, but there were a couple of interesting observations I made. At the beginning of the war, the Nationalist party (also known as the Kuomintang) were in charge of the Republic of China and the signs perpetually threw them under the bus blaming them for every advance the Japanese made (If you don't know anything about Chinese history, after the end of the last dynasty the Republic of China was founded with the Nationalist government in charge. After the Japanese were expelled from China a civil was ensued at eventually the communist party won and the Kuomintang or Nationalists fled to Taiwan where they call themselves the Republic of China, but the People's Republic of China calls them a province, albeit a rogue province). In the early parts of the war, the museum showed the Kuomintang (they never referred to them in this part of the museum as the Nationalist party) could do no right and the communist party was the great motivator and unifier. As the allies started to get involved the worked together with the Republic China's government (i.e. te Kuomintang), but the museum never calls them this as the tide changes and the Japanese are being defeated. In this part of the museum they almost always just say China. The communist party is never mentioned (because they weren't actually involved) and in one spot the Kuomintang is mentioned, but they are referred to as the Nationalist party (the only time in the entire museum the name Nationalist party is mentioned). This makes me wonder if there is a museum in Taiwan on this subject and if so, I think I'd love to see it to see the opposing viewpoint. I'm including a few pictures of some of the signs so that you can get a feel for the language.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well they covered the contributions of other countries, not just the Soviet Union, but also the Americans, Canadians, Australians, Britons and more. I also learned something I never knew before. Back in 1939, the Chinese took in Jewish refugees. I asked my boss about what happened to them (I want to research this more myself) and he told me that most of them moved to Israel after it was created (that makes sense), but a very small number actually stayed in China and have descendants who are Chinese citizens.




Note: the caption blames the Kuomintang.

I find the passport very interesting. It was clearly designed to be
for a man and wife, but this is for a woman and her
husband had his own passport, which was beside it on the wall.
The other thing I find interesting is if you can read German you can see
it's not even filled out correctly. Her birthdate is written beside
birthplace and her birthplace is beside birthdate (and I thought
it was bad that my first passport accidently said I was born in
Arkansas).

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The NHL comes to Beijing

Arriving at the arena
China is an emerging market. There is more and more wealth in China and it is this wealth that not only provides my job but also opens up unique opportunities. This past week the NHL came to China for the first time (something the NBA has done quite a bit). The Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings played a game in Shanghai on Thursday and another in Beijing on Saturday. I decided to go to the Beijing game and I'm glad I did.
Outside the venue, there was what I can describe only as a carnival. There were booths with different hockey-related games and plenty of displays for taking photos. I didn't know about any of this ahead of time and so I wasn't there with enough time to participate (although even if I had known, I doubt I would have cared).
Before the game
Inside the arena, there was a program with playing cards (both entirely in Chinese) and a rally towel on each seat. Of course, the towels weren't for one particular team since neither was truly the home team. The surprising thing for me though was the number of foreigners present. I expected a number would come back as early as the subway I realized there were a lot more than I expected. Matter of fact, there was a group of about 6 to my left and a group of about 8 in front of me, plus a lot more not far away as well as throughout the arena. Almost all the people around me were Canadian (although sitting directly beside was a woman from South Africa), but the surprising thing was how many people appeared to have traveled quite a distance to come to the game. Both groups of Canadians (who didn't know each other) had traveled from Hefei, which according to Siri is about 550 miles away as the crow flies. One thing I found highly amusing is that in a crowd of 12,479 (If I'm remembering the number correctly), I was within shouting distance of one of my co-workers.
Before the game, they demonstrated the rules in both Chinese
and English. 
One of the 3 groups of cheerleaders. Much of their
presentation was very different from "typical" Chinese
culture.

The game was an interesting mix of East meets West. First, because Chinese people are not very familiar with hockey, there was an explanation of the rules complete with demonstrations (and presented bilingually). The early demonstrations were done with some of the people taking care of the ice, while the latter ones were performed by the mascots.  Throughout the game, there were also explanations displayed (only in Chinese) on the jumbotron. While the NHL certainly brought a lot of people with them (even the Zamboni drivers were not Chinese), there were two or three groups of cheerleaders who performed in a style that was decidedly NOT Chinese, but then there was also a performance that was very traditional Chinese with a woman in a traditional minority dress (I missed the announcement which said which one) and traditional Chinese instruments. The coolest example though of East meets West was in the opening "ceremonies." The Chinese are really big on bombastic over-the-top displays and the opening definitely fell into that category. Among other things, a multimedia presentation was projected onto the ice that included not only pictures of some of the players, but also video and pictures of historic Beijing landmarks. My words cannot do justice so I'll let you enjoy a video of part of the spectacle. I do apologize though. I have a new camera and didn't know the details of how it works. I took stills during the filming of the video and this interrupts it a bit. Nonetheless, I think it is enjoyable and so I hope you enjoy not only the video but my pictures of the venue, presentation, and game. By the way, if you're curious the game was a nailbiter that the Kings won 4-3 in a shootout.
Projected on the ice.

The dragon was definitely not typical to an NHL game.

Here come the Kings.

Here come the Canucks.













Friday, May 26, 2017

The great surprise

This past weekend I set out on quite a journey. I left Beijing about 8 pm on Friday night and took the train overnight to Baotou. Usually when I travel by train I travel hard sleeper (硬卧) but this trip I decided to travel soft sleeper (软卧).
My compartment.  I had to bottom right bed.
 In the hard sleeper there are six berths to a section (three high on each side) and the section is open to the train car. In soft sleeper there are only four berths to a section (two high on each side) and the section is closed off. I decided to travel soft sleeper because the ticket wasn't very expensive, only CNY 263 or about USD 38) and my trip was only for the weekend and I needed to be able to survive work on Monday.
I arrived in Baotou about 7:15 in the morning and took the bus to the Baotou Medical College where my friends L and T both work and live. I showed up at L and T's front door at about 8:15 in the morning. T knew I was coming, but it was a birthday surprise for L. When I knocked on the door T had L stand in front of it with her eyes closed.
The soft sleeper car. You can see that each
compartment has a door and can close.
Then he opened the door and told her she could open her eyes. L was glad to see me, but not super surprised. She had learned that she was having her birthday party that day (it was supposed to be a surprise, but surprise parties are SO hard to keep a surprise) and T had to tell her and the kids to get dressed by 8 am on a Saturday morning. She didn't know it was me and thought it might be a couple of American friends who live in Baotou, but she told me she did have an idea it might be me.
Nonetheless, we had a fabulous time. T had pre-ordered this amazing feast at a local Hong Kong - style restaurant and was able to order New York style cheesecake (now I don't think it really tasted like New York style, but it was definitely cheesecake. A BIG improvement from what we could find back when I lived in Baotou).
After lunch we went back to T and L's along with a couple of other friends and the 5 of us plus T and L's two kids played Killer Bunnies and then had more cake. This time it was a chocolate cake I had brought from Beijing.
There is a coffee shop located within my school and each teacher gets a food allowance each month that is tied to our ID card. In the cafeteria breakfast is 5 yuan, lunch is 20 and dinner is 10. Thus, for every work day in a month we receive 35 yuan. I almost never eat dinner at school. Sometimes I don't eat breakfast and/or lunch. I was also out of school for two weeks because of my surgery. As a result I have a lot of
The wash area
money left on my card and at the end of the year we will lose any money left on there. Thus, I ordered a cake from the coffee shop and carried it all the way from Beijing to Baotou on the train. The cake was chocolate with a chocolate mousse filling and chocolate ganache on the top (it was the same cake M had gotten me for my birthday). It came with happy birthday candles (that actually spelled happy birthday this time) and an ice pack to keep it cold. It was 96 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course) in Beijing that day. The train was air conditioned, but not in the least bit surprising the ice pack completely melted before I made it to Baotou. The mousse also melted a bit and as a result the cake shifted, but when I got to T and L's we put it in the fridge and by the time we finished all our other celebrating the cake had re-solidified quite nicely.
On Sunday I got to see several of my Chinese friends living in Baotou before flying back to Beijing. It was really weird though, because I not only had dinner with L's (a different L) family, but then L #2 and I went to X's house and stayed until 9:30 pm. My flight didn't leave Baotou until 11:55 pm and arrived in Beijing a little after 1 in the morning. By the time I fought my way out of the airport (through the crowds) and wound my way to a taxi in the taxi stand and got home it was 10 minutes to 2 in the morning. I was shocked to see people outside my apartment complex eating barbecue. (basically in the pop up on the street type of restaurant/ street food.)
The western style toilet. Hard sleepers and hard seat
 (the only kind of seat on this type of train) do not have 
western style toilets. I actually do not prefer the western
 toilets because the bathrooms in China
 (and even more so on Chinese trains) can 
get really grimy and gross and there's nothing 
with which to clean the toilet seat.


On Monday, I was of course tired, but very happy because I had had such an awesome weekend and it was so much fun to reconnect with good friends (I got to see a total of 6 of my good friends while in Baotou for a total of about 40 hours).
A squatty potty

The fields of Inner Mongolia
Approaching Baotou
I made it to Baotou! Unfortunately, I had forgotten
my contact lens case. When I discovered this in route, I
ended up putting both lenses together in one corner of a plastic
bag (along with solution of course) and the buying a new
case in Baotou.
The two cheesecakes T bought. There was still an entire cake
uncut when I left their house on Sunday.
It shifted and cracked in transit from Beijing, but tasted great. 
The two cheesecakes T bought. There was still an entire cake
uncut when I left their house on Sunday.
This is at nearly 2 in the morning on a
Sunday night/Monday morning






The Baotou airport at 11 pm. I cheated a bit with this photo though.
I intentionally didn't show my gate. There actually is a good size
crowd there.