Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Nanjing to Shanghai

We are on a train as I write this, from Nanjing to Shanghai. This also marks roughly halfway through our trip and in so many ways it feels like we have been here forever and other times it feels as if we just got here, especially as we prepare to pack and travel to the next destination.

Nanjing turned out to be a really great trip for a number of reasons. One was the fact that we didn’t have to think or use our brains for anything and were relieved of the previous stresses of finding our way around and getting taxis, buying train tickets, changing air tickets, ordering food, or even PAYING for food. It was quite a relief also because Luci and I were pretty fried by the time we got here, after hurtling barriers in Beijing and Xian.

Yushu Chen, my colleague who was at SDSU for one semester as a visiting scholar was our guiding angel for sure and helped us with mundane tasks like shipping boxes, getting around town, taxis, etc etc.

We got checked into a fairly swank hotel which ended up costing us a mere $38 a night – a whopping $19 per person. that was a coup. We also got picked up at the airport by Yushu and her University driver. We crashed pretty hard and on top of that Luci was getting sick so we needed the rest. The first day we went to the campus to have a tour – these people do not mess around – the forestry university really takes that subject seriously, especially in the scientific field: they showed us a wood library – literary a library with over 3000 species of wood samples, and they told us there were 1600 known species of trees in China alone. They also had an entire library of microscope slides with every tree cell and a lab with microscopes. Oh how could I FORGET, before we went on our tour we had to meet all the officials of the program – it was a bit unnerving we all sat at this large conference table, all men on one side and yushu, luci and I on the other, we made the usual pleasantries, card exchanges, gift giving, etc. and then we just sort of sat there, fidgeting, trying to make small talk, staring at our tea etc. finally it was time to do the tour. They also take ergonomic study seriously with a contraption that looked like a torture device designed by one of the professors, a woman, and they had computers in there to measure and devise the ergonomics based on measurements taken off this device. Then we went to the design room which was filled with projects by students, including drawings, paintings, CAD drawings, models etc. and another room was filled with student projects for the furniture courses. I have to add that they could use a bit of excitement in there, the projects looked like 3-D projects and the fact that they only have two weeks to do the construction doesn’t help either.

The woodshop there is a working Festool ad - they had the entire facility outfitted with Festool, with a tablesaw, jigsaw set up (the jigsaw is upside down under a table so I guess it was sort of a table jigsaw), the router table, etc. But then in the next room there are huge CNC machines - and it seems like a big jump from Festool to CNC with nothing inbetween.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Beijing Day Three

Today, Shi Jianmin, (one of the Beijing artists that is in the same show I am in "Inspired by China") came to pick us up and drove us around town. He makes this furniture that's almost calligraphic in form and gesture and most are made of made of steel chrome. Shi doesn't speak very much english but is a very friendly person and quite interesting. I most certainly appreciate his gesture and generosity. He lives in what he considered to be the "SoHo" of Beijing; his studio/loft which was quite amazing! He had a koi pond recessed in his floor, an open steel staircase that leads to their private living quarters upstairs. he and his wife lives in a converted loft/studio/showroom in a former factory building. Then he drove us to another artists' studio, Shao Fan - unfortunately Shao was in Hong Kong so I didn't get to see him but his sister showed us the living space/studio, oh my god these people must have tons of money. They have a brand new place in a sort of gated artists community outside of Beijing and it is HUGE - I'd be embarrassed to show my small studio to both these guys if they ever came to California.

We went to lunch in a very nice restaurant, the food was soooo good, and the restaurant was very modern and contemporary. it's fun to watch Shi eat peanuts with his chopsticks. I tried and they kept popping off. It is a luxury to eat when someone else orders for us.

We then went to a gallery area not too far from Shi's studio - one contemporary gallery reminded me of the old pop 70s art - large political figurines, parodying Mao - Mao in various poses and in garish colors. As luci reminded me, China lost several generations of artists in the revolution and so the art scene is just starting to wake up. the younger artists are producing the most provocative work - I have to say they are more bold than the artists and their work I have seen in Japan.

A few notes about the trip thus far:

the bed felt like several bales of hay and I swear that I have bruises from sleeping on it. However we are now staying at the Hyatt in Xian and boy am I loving it. 24 hour internet for the next few days too.

our taxi karma has been the absolute worst; mostly because of the location of the hotel but then when we flew into Xian, the cockroaches er I mean scammy taxi drivers descended upon us and I literally had to go into pitbull mode. I kept telling him to go away but then Luci would look at him and try to understand what he was staying and man I was getting pissed because its hard work to keep these guys at bay and then she undoes it. I can understand that but I think its cuz these guys are asian and back in the states most asians are pretty cool and so she feels like they are her brothers or something. Brothers my ass.

The women in general are nazis and run the show at all the businesses - most of the nicer hotel staff both here at Beijing and Xian have all been men and but the women are bitches. (except the taxi roaches and the gangs of men who have nothing to do) hate to sound like a male basher but it seems maybe it relates to the disproportionate ratio of men to women around here. And tonight Luci and I ate at this great dim sum place down the street from our hotel - and when the waitress found out we didn't speak chinese she sort of rolled her eyes.

The airport was a bit of a pain - we are both kicking ourselves for bringing too much shit. I can't help myself, but I have to admit that maybe bringing all that underwear was a mistake. the box of books doesn't help either but I can't unload this until I go to Nanjing and Shenzhen.

Someone asked me about the money - its very confusing and it is starting to feel like I am playing monopoly, "ok put a few hotels on my hutong for 500 yuan". lets see, 100 yuan is worth $12.50 US. and so a taxi tonight cost 6 Yuan, which amounts to 72 cents. but it gets complicated when something is say 6.3 yuan. then you get these baby ones called Mao, they are also called winky dinkies (my words) and they are 1/10th of a yuan.

okay so now I have to write my transcript for my lecture, I get this request from my hosts JUST THE OTHER DAY - hello, couldn't you have asked me a month ago????

Xian looks like a really fun town, sort of a miniaturized version of tokyo but munchkin size. lots of lights neon, and yes, asian people but the buildings are not tall. We will head to see the bajillion terracotta warriors tomorrow, I can't wait!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Beijing Day Two

Today's trip to the Great Wall was amazing, awesome and nearly killed me (just kidding). We hired a taxi with a couple of young med students from Calgary and went to the Ming Tombs and the Wall. The tombs were a little disappointing because it wasn't the part that I wanted to see, it was the underground vaults with the giant coffins. the coffins were interesting structurally because they were made of wood but other than that it was ho-hum.

Now the Wall, now that is another story. We went to one of the more out of the way portions of this wall - there are others that are more treacherous. I was told this one isn't bad but oh my god this one was pretty damned high and the steps were tough. with my knee being in pretty bad shape I had to be careful - some of the granite steps were about 18" high, that after about 15 mins, I decided to wimp out - turned back and took a cable car to the top and walk down the whole way (it turned out to be a very smart thing because even going down there were steep inclines UP and DOWN) High school kids who chose to go all the way up were having a hard time. so I probably avoided having to be taken down in a gurney by taking the cable car up.

We took a bajillion pictures but it was best to just be able to walk and peer over the landscape, which at the moment is very dreary and drab - matter of fact, the land around here is very parched and dry. kind of depressing, its a combination of being here in winter and a lack of maintenance of the surrounding areas. China could learn a lesson or two about monument maintenance and preservation from Japan.

It took about three hours to come down the wall - of course we were taking our sweet time. But it was really great to be on this thing and wonder at how they could have conceived of this, very monumental and psychological barrier. I wouldn't say the wall was very impenetrable (sp sorry), you could scale it easily. As Luci said it was more of a psychological barrier to indicate the isolationist culture of that time.

but the way the wall meanders around the mountain peaks is quite amazing and it really does look like dragon.

check out my pics on

On a more personal note I should be in much better shape when I get home.

We had a GREAT fish dinner last night the food here is very good, I love good chinese food and there isnt much of that in San Diego.

It seems that our biggest difficulty is the fact that our hotel, which is TERRIFIC, its cute, different, cozy and authentic, is located in a Hutong (old beijing neighborhood) but is HARD FOR TAXICABS to find. we end up getting dropped off 'near' where they think it is and then we wander for hours within a three block section of town (ok not hours but after scaling the Wall for three hours and being exhausted 20 minutes felt like hours). And while luci understands some chinese its hard for her. I can't entirely blame her.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

CHINA - Day One

Woo hoo am I OUT OF SHAPE. Luci and I went to the Forbidden City - an amazing, large place and we walked for a million miles. to think that we are going to the Great Wall tomorrow, I sure hope I don't die, either of exhaustion, or sheer embarrassment as little 80 year old ladies sprint to the top ahead of me.

Lying at the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City, called Gu Gong, in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now known as the Palace Museum, it is to the north of Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City is divided into two parts.

Until 1924 when the last emperor of China was driven from the Inner Court, fourteen emperors of the Ming dynasty and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty had reigned here. Having been the imperial palace for some five centuries, it houses numerous rare treasures and curiosities. There are some amazing rooms that have been recreated behind windows and of course the dragon walk is amazing and the ceramic mural of dragons is really cool. But even the vastness of the place with all its mazelike walls that seem to go on forever and ever. and the colors of the walls, the doors, the textures are so rich.

As we staggered out of the Forbidden City looking for a place to eat or a taxi stand we kept walking over vast spaces through seas of men (hardly any women) and kept walking and walking and walking and walking and we suddenly realized we were in Tiananmen Square, Red Square, and the place where Mao's picture is hung for all to see, mole and all.

About the men - its amazing that this place is not crime-ridden as it is teaming with testosterone laden gangs of men (the one child rule + favoritism for male children) - these gangs are total scammers with nothing better to do but leer, scam try to sell crap or all of the above.

After Day One we are alive and well and hopefully lost a pound or two. It did feel good to have all the exercise and Luci was a good coach. She also made sure I didn’t fall into any manholes or trip over any steps. god I am such a klutz. I tripped over a threshold last night and another today. My biggest problem is that I am too busy looking around and not watching where I am going.

Monday, March 06, 2006


We have arrived in Beijing and with no real problems except maybe getting scammed by a couple of smooth talking helpful chinese guys - they did help us out but we ended up paying too much for the taxi. Instead of $12 we ended up paying manhattan prices ($30) oh well. We were supposed to be picked up by the hotel staff and after looking around for about a half hour, some guy offered to help - at this point we realize that english is not spoken by many people, and this guy first of all offered to call the hotel for us on his cell phone which was actually helpful (despite his scammer status). We realized we were getting scammed but then it turns out that this guy was the only one who knew where this hotel was over the next few days we were in Beijing.

On the other hand with the scammers' help we got a phone card (luci did anyway) and to the hotel which is this amazing little place called the Lu Song Hotel in a very old part of Beijing.
the internet is 5 yuan per 10 mins here. The lobby is filled with wonderful chinese furnishings, and the outside of the place is very discreet. Because of its location, it was hard for most taxi drivers to find it, and we had some pretty trying times with that but I would recommend this place in a heartbeat.

The type of neighborhood we were in is called a "hutong", which is pretty much a maze of alleyways. very narrow and an unusual configuration of residences and businesses.

The word "hutong" originates from the word "hottog" which means "well" in Mongolian. Villagers dig out a well and inhabited there. Hutong means a lane or alley, in fact the passage formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard) where old Beijing residents live. Be care not to lost in it! It was recorded that in the Yuan a 36-meter-wide road was called a standard street, a 18-meter-wide one was a small street and a 9-meter-wide lane was named a hutong. In fact, Beijing's hutongs are inequable ranging from 40 centimeter to 10 meter in wide. The longest has more than 20 turns. Either in east-west or north-south, Beijing's hutongs varied as slant, half or "

blind hutongs" cul-de-sacs. The gray-tiled houses and deep alleys crossing with each other in identical appearance like a maze.

The flight just 'flew' by no pun intended - lucis doc gave her some ambien and man did that stuff work. We slept comfortably through the entire flight, and I feel fine.

Tomorrow we plan to go to the Forbidden City, oh we can't wait. anything with the word 'forbidden' seems so tantalizing.