Posted by: schmivian | December 8, 2009

Hot Springs

Just to the north of Beijing’s city center and about 2500 meters underground lies a massive lake at a constant 40 degrees Celsius. Feeling like a bit of a trip to relieve all the stresses of city life, we cabbed it out to the Hua Qing Wenhua resort, one of several clustered above the lake. I am not quite sure what I expected, but irrationally, my imagination led me to hope for something like this:

Sadly, however, these hot springs in typical garish Beijing style were outfitted with purple and teal Christmas lights. And rather than bearded monkeys, they had concrete statues of pandas, penguins, alligators. . .More like this:

Still, a good soak in hot water felt amazing I’d do it again in a hot sec.

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Posted by: schmivian | November 16, 2009

Road Tripping

A mere 431 miles from Beijing lies a gateway into Mongolia, a country in which I spent a total of 4 bizarre hours before driving all the way back to Beijing. You know as they say, its the journey and not the destination.
We left Friday morning stocked with the makings of ham and cheese sandwiches. Ran into two completely full stop traffic jams on that first day, probably losing us a few hours, but gaining us so much in knowledge of chain smoking, “sui bian” peeing Chinese truck drivers.
We stop at a town on the way up. Check out the shopping scene. I have to say Chinese supermarkets have a leg up on US ones because instead of leaving out sample tastes of silly things like fruit and cheese, they leave out sample shots of “bai jiu” – a common Chinese 80-120 proof grain alcohol.
Approaching Eren Hot, the border town, we discover the region’s affinity for…dinosaur sculptures. In fact, at the entrance to Eren Hot is a massive gate made of two brontosauruses (sauri?), necks reaching across the road, and licking each others tongues. Apparently this is how they made out in the Jurassic.
In the morning, we discover that we are forbidden to drive this rented car out of the country. Fair enough, but still a minor setback. We ponder walking across the border, but after going through customs etc find out that there is a brisk trade in driving people back and forth across the border and easily find a Jeep to zip us over to the Mongolian border town.
Things about Mongolia, from my very limited experience. Being in Mongolia makes you feel like a baller, one US dollar is worth 1420 Mongolian Tögrögs. So you can go around saying things like “Hey man. I just dropped 20 G’s on lunch, NBD.” Mongolia is unbelievably sparsely populated especially in contrast to China. I think that in the few hours we were in town, we ran into everyone in town at least twice. Also at one in the afternoon, it appeared that everyone was drunk. Not hard to see why as, after lunch, we couldn’t really figure what else to do but stay warm in the restaurant and have several beers. We witnessed a street fight in which a short drunk man beaned a really huge drunk man in the head with a brick. We ran into the taller man later at the convenience store and he seemed quite happy despite the recent brawl and introduced himself to us. Also found out that Mongolian men do not shake hands with gloves on and it is really cool to have vicious wolf decals on your car, which should not actually be a car, but a rad Jeep.
On the way back we take some lesser traveled roads in search of some hot springs. The drive is incredible. The snow is completely untouched and incredibly dry so that it blows across the road and into drifts much as sand would. Unfortunately this leads to total white out at times and its slow going. After maybe 5 or 6 hours of driving we get to a town which supposedly has hot springs according to one map which in retrospect had no legend and was completely unreliable. We stop in for a late lunch and ask the waitress if there are hot springs nearby. She looks incredulous, “You came here to play? There is not one thing worth doing in this place!” The whole restaurant overhears and cracks up. I am reminded of a certain spring break conversation in Page, Arizona.
Defeated but not down, we cruise back to Beijing, playing games and slingshotting pebbles out the window. Thanks to the flat landscape get to see both ends of a rainbow, resembling a halo around the sun, and get home in time for a good nights sleep in my own bed. Sometimes it is amazing what you can fit into 60 hours.

Posted by: schmivian | November 9, 2009

Great Wall

So this weekend, a few friends and I are planning a trip to Mongolia Mongolia (the country, as opposed to Inner Mongolia the Chinese province). They have to leave the country for a ‘visa run’ and I decided to tag along for this little road trip. Part of the adventure plan (thus far) includes camping out in a Great Wall guard tower, so I remembered that I should post some of my Great Wall photos from earlier this year. This weekend will hopefully look like this, except 50 degrees colder; The tower will have 4 very very very cold people inside, a fire, and lots of rum and cider. In just a few months here, I’ve been to different sections of the Great Wall three times. And incredible as it is, I remember wishing that I had never seen pictures of the Great Wall before because as it turns out, it looks just like it does in the pictures. Soo…here’s to soiling that first Great Wall visit for the rest of you I guess. =)

Bonus! Who can spot the mating praying mantises (manti??).

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Posted by: schmivian | November 4, 2009

Snow day!

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the view from my window Sunday morning...just beside that tall building is my Chinese class

Brr! After a late Halloween night, I woke up noon-ish on Sunday to a full fluffy 4 inches or so of snow on the ground and plenty more drifting down. The rarity of snow in Beijing meant lots of Chinese folks were out on the streets making snowmen, having impromptu snowball fights and taking lots of whimsical pictures among the shrubbery. It was really a great feeling lazy snow day, reminding me of being back on the East Coast. But surprise, surprise, I soon found out that the snowstorm was completely artificial (so typical of China)!

Beijing has an office called the Weather Modification Office (WMO). They’re the same guys who brought you those glorious blue skies for the 2008 Summer Olympics and this years National Day parade. Their M.O.? Spraying (“seeding”) clouds with silver iodide to make water droplets collect and then fall as rain. This can be done in order to make the weather clear for a big event, clear particulate from the air if the pollution is super bad, or get some water back in the reservoirs. Northern China had been experiencing a drought since September exacerbating its already dire water situation so the decision was made to seed the clouds. Doses of silver iodide are shot into the air with special (enormous) cannons and dropped from planes. This is, however, not an exact science as an unexpectedly strong cold front caused the precipitation to come down as snow this time, causing travel delays and other unforeseen hassles.

Despite how weird weather modification sounds, countries all over the world have been known to seed clouds since the possibility was raised in the 40’s. Several US states have cloud seeding programs, mostly for research. But as we all know from grade school, just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t make it okay. Since, in China, different municipalities have independent weather modification bureaus, disputes have risen over Beijing ‘taking water away’ from neighboring areas. For instance, the majority of precipitation in this last snowfall will probably go to quenching the thirst of city dwellers, not irrigating farms in Shanxi or Shaanxi where it may have fallen ‘naturally.’ Should this technology become more accurate, we may be fighting our future water wars over who rules the skies as well as who owns the land. Even more depressing, it could ruin the magic of waking up to an completely unexpected snow day forever.

Posted by: schmivian | October 29, 2009

Hooray poop!

I went to a pretty interesting talk the other night about alternative energy in rural China. Turns out the Chinese government has been investing massive amounts of money (though by some counts still not enough) to bring fuel and electricity to rural areas. While most of the audience was there because they were interested in the environmental implications of these projects, it soon became clear that the primary aim of these projects has been social development, with rural economy and environment secondary issues. Basically 2 examples were covered: off-grid electrification (distributed renewable energy systems); and biogas digesters.

China has set specific targets for basically every citizen to be ‘electrified’ meaning they will have access to at least 50 kWh per person per year. Before we get too excited, you probably used over 10,000 kWh last year. “Distributed renewable energy systems” are put in place where the government was unable to extend the grid to a village or move people to already electrified areas.

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Shiwei PV/wind streetlamp

This means combination photovoltaic/wind systems like these ones I saw in Shiwei (except for households and not random street lamps) and mini-grids in the villages.  I thought it was pretty cool, but it is not without issues. Definitely a great project for social development, allowing extended hours of light and access to communication, but without any direct environmental benefit as some enviros in the room pointed out since they are not displacing any conventional energy use. Another professor pointed out that most of the intended users could not even afford electrical appliances in order to use the new electricity source, much less turn it into an income source. The current project will last until 2010 and Tibet is really the ‘final frontier’ for electrification given the difficult terrain so that’s where most of the money is going.

The second bit was about the miracle of poop, otherwise known as biogas digesters. 2008 saw 3 billion RMB of government money go to the installation of household biogas digesters in China’s ‘Green Stimulus’ package and the government has set a target, which they are near to reaching, of 40 million of these installed by 2010. While rural families previously spent hours a day collecting wood and coal (very dirty fuels – terrible indoor pollutant = health no no) for cooking, these digesters can provide a clean, reliable source of fuel directly to the kitchen and extremely potent, but not smelly, organic fertilizer to boot!

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from training.gpa.unep.org

See the picture if you’re confused, but basically you put organic matter (poop from you, and livestock, and food waste) in the in-tube. Through anaerobic digestion, cow dung bacteria convert the waste to Co2 and methane which goes out the out-tube to the kitchen and a secondary product, collects which is a more effective and longlasting fertilizer than anything Cargill could dream up. Plus, heat released from the digester can keep livestock warm (imagine the squatting man is a pig pen) if the pen is built directly over the digester. Sounds like a win-win eh? Well one hurdle is temperature. For sufficient digestion, the mechanism must be kept above 10 degrees celsius. And maintenance can be a pain because the slurry needs to be stirred regulary. But I say still, hooray poop!

Shaanxi Mothers Biogas Case Study

Posted by: schmivian | October 27, 2009

old king coal

As you may have heard amongst all this climate change brouhaha, China alone consumes 39% of the world’s coal and 70% of primary domestic energy demand is met by coal, making it both the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal. Despite such high rates of production, the industry is quite fragmented with literally tens of thousands of coal mines operating in China’s poorest provinces. These operations are poorly equipped to deal with safety standards for workers or environmental concerns. News bites about deadly mining accidents appear with frightening regularity. Moreover these mines tend to use ‘suboptimal’ (to put it nicely) extraction methods, wasting resources along the way.

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Par exemple, the roads in northeast Inner Mongolia were literally littered with huge hunks of coal which had fallen off of trucks like this one. In another picture, workers peek out from the bed of a work truck.

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A few years ago in 2006 the NDRC (China’s National Development and Reform Commission) started a move toward consolidating the industry into five or six large conglomerates, which would ostensibly make the industry easier to regulate from a labor and environmental standpoint as well as gain some efficiencies of scale. However this is a senstive issue since it would ultimately mean closing underperforming mines and a single small mining operation, however inefficient and unsafe, in many cases constitutes an entire villages livelihood. Never an easy choice, but lately policy makers are coming around to the third way; diversifying energy sources.

Posted by: schmivian | October 24, 2009

Inner Mongolia

This early October, China had a 11 day long national holiday. Since the all of the 1.3 billion people in the country have vacation at the same time, it’s typically a nightmareish travel situation so some friends and I took off for the way northeastern stretches of Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is the third largest province in China, buffering the Northern border against Mongolia and Russia. Like Tibet, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Ningxia, it is managed as an ‘autonomous region’ meaning the large ethnic minority groups in this region (in this case, the Mongols) have more legislative power. The area we were visiting was the supposed birthplace of Genghis Khan, whose grimace we saw on souvenirs and statues everywhere.

Day One: We get an early sart and take a 27 hour long train ride up to Hailaer. We congratulate ourselves on the wisdom of springing for the hard bunks, but failed to pack at least 7 boxes of instant noodles like the real Chinese do and eat in the overpriced dining car. We make friends with the folks in the neighboring bunks and pass the time reading, trying to teach people euchre and watching the signs of civilization dwindle out the window.

Day Two: We arrive around noon and its cold! So we eat an awesome pot of beef and potato stew; lamb soup dumplings. A cranky driver takes us out to the Jinzhanghan grasslands where we get a yurt to spend the night in. The grasslands are famous for their lush summertime green and most people in the train thought we were crazy for going out when it had all already turned fall brown, but I thought it was beautiful and the people delightfully sparse. Tonight is the official mid-autumn festival so alone in the grasslands we have a good old moon-watching and eat moon cake.

Day Three: The morning is spent playing with the local camels. Then we get a rideback to Hailar in time to catch the afternoon bus to Moerdaoga. Moerdaoga is a small town, and easy access point to the nearby national forests. Ironically, in this backwoods town, no one seems to care that we are foreigners. Unlike Beijing, there are no stares, rude questions, or shouts of ‘laowai!’ Everyone is just friendly and chill, and our room costs about $1.50 a night per person. I think of staying for a long time, and at these prices, it’s not unreasonable.

Day Four: We are taken out to Moerdaoga National Park and are dismayed to learn that Chinese national parks come at American prices (about 100 kuai a person). Not to be put off, we skip the official park and have the driver take up a ways up the road where we spend the afternoon bushwhacking – or wandering rather aimlessly through the woods. The woods are all tall thin birches, just turned golden. Underfoot is a carpet of lavender! Our tromping around releases their scent and after months of choking in Beijing, its heaven.

Day Five: We get a driver to take us to Shiwei a tiny village on the Erguna river which serves as the border with Russia. The town was recently featured on a CCTV travel special and while still very very small, is maybe a little too tourist-aggressive. The guesthouse we are staying at is run by a Russian-Chinese family. The matriarch is away, so we are taken care of by her daughter and her husband both barely older than us. The house is a one-story hall of rooms and there is a large front room for dinner. We find tonight that we are sharing it with about 12 rowdy Chinese Communist Party members from Hailaer having some sort of reunion. After much Gan Bei-ing (Dry your glass!! The Chinese call to chug) they start singing and dancing. One particularly large sweaty man takes an interest in my friend Sharone and asks her to dance. A few dances later, he mistakes me for the groups translator (which happens most everywhere) and drunkenly asks me to translate him propositioning her. Quite the evening.

Day Six: Part of this towns charm is having the locals accost you at every corner trying to get you to ride their horses. Usually this means you pay a lot of money and the horses owner leads you around town on a sad horse. But perhaps business was slow because we got a bunch of men to let us take their horses out of town on our own for a couple hours and go exploring. The hills really reminded me of home, save for the occaisional tin can car packed with Chinese
people hurtling down the dirt road. This evening, the inn owner has invited a friend of his over to take us back to Hailaer in the morning. They are apologetic about the other night and stuff us with lots of beer and food. We are the only people staying tonight and later in the evening the inn owner puts in this weird techno VCD which only has one song and sounds like the deep-voice guy from the Real McCoy and we have a bizzare 8 person dance party. I was
glad to find that light-switch raving is a truly universal phenomenon.

Day Seven: Back in Hailaer. The city is super colorful. Pastel walls and lit up trees, bridges, windmills?

Day Eight: We get a morning bus to Manzhouli, another Russian-Chinese border town, but this is a larger city where a lot of cross-border trade is done. We are totally taken aback getting off the bus because all the signs are in Russian. We get a car out to Hulun Nur, a massive freshwater lake out in the grasslands. The shallow lake is one of China’s largest by area. Being in the off-season, it felt like visiting an abandonded seaside resort. There is a weak strip of hotels and entertainments on what used to be the water’s edge. Due to damming on its tributaries and the sinking water table, the shoreline has receded by maybe 200 meters, leaving a large swath of marshy land dotted with beached boats. Spooky. Tonight we decide to try real Russian food – and don’t find much redeeming about it – except for the dessert. A mass of fried dough covered in hardened simple syrup. mmm.

Day Nine: The train back to Beijing takes about 33 hours. I estimate I sleep for 29 of them.

Posted by: schmivian | October 17, 2009

Un-clench!

the so called Great Firewall of China has thwarted me for the last month or so. my time here has been an unending struggle to find a reliable way around the censorship on facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs and pretty much anything fun on the internet. the security threat posed by these timeless procrastination methods can’t be worth all this trouble, so for gods sake China, unclench.

things that happened since :

China turned 60. Got to see my very first military parade in the street!

10 days in Inner Mongolia.

Moved to a new, more awesome apartment.

Started my internship at the Global Environmental Institute.

Ate. A lot.

More to come soon. hopefully!

Posted by: schmivian | September 3, 2009

the maobama

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Saw this in the bookstore and thought it was pretty neat. It’s got the full text of nine speeches in both mandarin and english and an accompanying MP3 CD.

Though, there’s not a little bit of irony in envisioning a classroom full of Chinese students dutifully reciting things like:

That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted — or at least, most of the time.” DNC 2004.

Once more, with feeling!

Posted by: schmivian | September 2, 2009

more about the butts.

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Investigative bloggers and travelers Stepho and Crank have already discussed in detail the curious butt-less baby pants phenomenon rampant in Beijing. Today on a walk around the Houhai area, I stumbled across some evidence that this practice has much deeper, more profound roots – in fact, it’s been deemed worthy of public commemoration in bronze.

We can draw a clue from this little exhibitionists hairstyle – the man-braid, also called a “queue”, was a hairstyle imposed by the Manchurians who invaded China in 1644, kicking off the Qing Dynasty. Any man who refused to wear his hair shaved and braided was executed on the spot. So men’s hairstyling really hit a rut here and continued this way right up until 1911’s Xinhai Revolution, after which queues virtually disappeared from the scene.

So, given the coexistence of butt-less pants and man-braids, now we know sightings of such breezy cheeks have been around for about 100 years at the very least!

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