Archive for June, 2010

Long Qing Xia 龙庆峡 Great Dragon Gorge

June 30, 2010 8 comments

龙庆峡 (Long Qing Xia in pinyin), Great Dragon Gorge in English, was our destination this past Sunday (6-27-10).  Long Qing Xia is located approximately 60 miles away from Beijing and is, as we learned, accessible via the bus system.  Throughout the week we researched the place and determined that it was a single day destination and then in a combination of my conversations with the front desk lady about taxis there and the existence of a van in Beijing that could take more than 4 of us at a time (this is a bizarre idea, apparently), Taylor, Sarah and Yun’s wrangling with the official site and other online information, and Yun’s Mandarin skillz we figured out how best to get there.

It was a series of three buses. From PKU’s west gate we took bus 118 to xi1 san1 qi2 where we got on bus 919 to yan2 qing4 nan2 cai4 yuan2 where we boarded bus 920 which finally arrived at long2 qing4 xia2 (that detail was for you, future UMPKU iREU students, as well as any other visitors to Beijing).  The buses went smoothly except for having to literally run to catch the 919 bus (if we’d missed it we just would have had to wait a few extra minutes), then nearly getting on the wrong version of the 919 bus.  It was pretty funny.  As our group of westerns ran to the bus everyone started shouting “bu2 yao4 na ge” (you don’t want that one) and “no, not that one!” because they could tell we didn’t totally know what was going on. Yun came to the rescue and figured out that one of the two was the express bus, which we wanted.  So it was fine. We managed to get seats and everything was alright. The buses were even a pleasant temperature.

2 hours and 40 minutes of bussing later we arrived at 龙庆峡 long qing xia. We considered renting some horses and riding those to the entrance of the park which was determined after some talking to be a relatively short walk.  This, combined with their general grubbiness and shadiness dissuaded us from the horses. (About 10 of these guys literally came jogging over to us the minute we stepped off the bus and followed us until it was clear that we were not coming back.)

Long qing xia is some sort of government-designated park area. It is a fairly tasteful tourist destination. It is formed by a dammed river that flows down between very abrupt mountains.  The first thing you do when entering the park is go to the top of the dam, but this is done in style.  The world’s longest series of escalators, housed inside a large dragon-shaped hallway which winds up to the top of the dam is the entrance to the park, and makes for a good introductory photo!

Snapping some photos before riding the dragon into Long Qing Xia

Veronica, Sarah, Lily, and Matt near the entrance to Long Qing Xia

The attractive dam at the entrance to Long Qing Xia. The dragon is on the right.

Upon ascending the dragon you can immediately hike up into the hills or take a boat up the river to a dock farther along.  We took the boat to get a look at some of the scenery and explore around the next dock where more things were located.  The whole area is very picturesque.  Steep slopes covered with trees make up the walls of the waterway and valleys between peaks are absolutely lush with greenery.  The area is a bit hazy and looks sort of like the smokey mountains in that regard.  The pictures will probably describe it better than I can.

A shot from within the gorge

Post-boating we set off walking to the “illusion pavilion.” We determined after about 5 minutes that it was much farther than we thought it was.  It was an invigorating (By invigorating I mean very hot. Despite being quite a bit cooler than Beijing the walking in direct sunlight up a mountain was quite warm, surprisingly enough) walk up a path made primarily of rough stairs formed from rock and cement that ended at a small pavilion with an impressive view of the gorge:

The view from the "Illusion Pavilion"

After our little hike we stopped for popsicles and proceeded on to the zip line and bungee jumping.  Most of us ended up going down the zip line and one did the bungee jumping, but most of us decided that that was pushing our trust in the Chinese facilities and the strength of our spines a bit too far.  The zip line was cool and watching people bungee jump while waiting for our person was funny. You could see them looking anxious and hesitating before finally asking to be pushed or falling off themselves.

Veronica prepares to go down the zipline, or "rapid descent" in Chinese-->English translation.

Following the excitement we wound down our stay in Long Qing Xia with some snacks and boating.  We rented rowboats and went up a small branch of the waterway.  The rowboats were typical wooden boats but the oars provided were clearly homemade.  They were relatively straight, relatively round handles attached with U-bolts to what I suspect was once a piece of wooden siding that was approximately the correct size for an oar blade.  The boats didn’t really have the leg room to be conducive for me to row, and none of us really had lots of rowing experience so we took the oars and paddled with them.  We had a very pleasant and scenic hour in the wonderfully shaded canyon.  I was interested to see the continuum of paddling skill that emerges every time I see a random group of people get in boats.  Basically it breaks down along the lines of more experience and more strength result in more skill. Just interesting… Anyway, here are some more pictures!

Me, Matt, and Lily paddling our boat at Long Qing Xia

The view from the bow while paddling at Long Qing Xia

After boating we began our journey back to the city as the park area closes at 5.  Conveniently enough it also was starting to rain around 5, but since we were leaving anyway we didn’t feel like we’d gotten rained out.  So after a dash to the bus stop (which really wasn’t necessary since it rained very politely) and another long bus ride we got back to Beijing.  The trip was a perfect length for a day trip and I highly recommend it to anyone spending some time in that area.

For dinner once we got back we returned to the place with the pineapple rice since we liked it the first time.  When we were ordering I decided that what the people near us were eating looked good so I went over and asked politely what they were eating. The guy I asked was really excited and said that my pronunciation was really good (Yun translated that bit) and then started asking me things.  At first I was uncertain but then I realized that I was understanding a lot of what he was saying.  He was asking what I was doing in China and where I was from, and things like that.  So, excited by the revelation in my comprehension I definitely said “American” and possibly said “I’m from America” (depending on how well I said it, haha).  I then said “I’m studying at 北大 (PKU)” to which he exclaimed that one of the women he was eating with was an alumnus of 北大. Anyway, I got the name of what he was having, we ordered it and it was delicious though quite spicy.  I had a great dinner with the bonus of feeling slightly like I’ve learned a modicum of Chinese so far to wrap up a great day.

ong Qing xia: we intended to leave at 7:15-7:20. Chanan got down at like 7:19 and we found out the bus route had changed from the plan the previous night and thus his friend wouldn’t have been able to meet us as planned. Luckily his friend was running late and was able to get in a cab and meet us at the west gate (西门) of PKU and get on the bus with us. 2 hours and 40 minutes and 3 busses later we were at long qing xia, the great dragon gorge. It’s a beautiful gorge formed by incredibly abrupt mountains. The waterway is formed by a series of dams and, of course, the mountains. The area has been made tastefully tourist-friendly. There’s a boat that takes you up the gorge a while then drops you at a dock from which you can go hike into the mountains (we climbed up one there were LOTS OF STAIRS), go up to bungee jump and Zip line (most of us Zip lined (which was fun but not as long or awesome as I’d hoped for. Many people had never done it before and it was a good intensity for them, though), Other chanan bungee jumped with no ill effect), we got a snack then went in row boats. We all ended up paddling our row boats with the home-made oars instead of rowing. It was really fun.  The scenery was amazing—nearly sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet, dappled with small trees clinging to their surfaces. Valleys between the mountains were overflowing with vegetation. We took the buses back (we had to stand on the longer of the trips because seats were full) and I went back to the place with the pineapple rice (the Dia restaurant). At dinner I went over and asked a guy what he was eating because it looked good. He shook my hand and complimented my pronunciation and asked where we were from, and if were American. I explained that we were students at bei da (and by that I mean I said “student” and then “bei da”. He said that the lady at their table was an alumnus of bei da and they offered the name of another delicious looking dish they had.  It was really pretty awesome they were so nice and I was able to understand the vast majority of what they were attempting to communicate, if not actually what they were saying. We discovered the existence of a few more restaurants down that-a-way for the future.

A great weekend

June 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I had an excellent weekend. Notable events included lots of talking with friends, playing some Mahjong, a thought for a design for my project, dinner at the fancy vegetarian place, and our Sunday trip to Long qing xia.

More complete blog posts are pending. For now I’m worn out and need to get some sleep. Rest assured that I’m living life to the fullest and all-together having a blast here in China.

New project!

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve officially decided that I’m going to switch over to working on the automation project. I’m incredibly excited. The grad student (possibly) that I’m working with is very open to creative solutions and loves discussing the problems involved with me and explaining them well. I feel like I know what’s going on somewhat and that I know what to start looking at. I’ll write more not now, but I’m really tired and need to go to bed. On that note my new grad student works at night and sleeps during the day, so I think I’m going to be waking up late and staying up late so I can overlap with him and be able to discuss things.

Bike acquisition, Project modification, Movie watchin’

June 24, 2010 4 comments

I woke up early and set off with my phrasebook full of useful bike-buying phrases in search of a bike. I walked to Tsinghua’s campus because I’d heard their bike shops were better than those on PKU. I came upon a man near some bikes and I asked him if he was selling bikes “你买自行车?” (ni3 mai4 zi4 xing2 che1).  He said that he didn’t sell bikes, but rented them out.  I said I wanted to buy a bike and asked how much that would be.  I whipped out my book of phrases and showed him my pain-stakingly written out requests which he understood immediately. I tried out one bike that was rickety and incredibly too small for me. I then tried out another, near-new bike that was only quite too small for me. I used more of my phrases to get the seat raised and ask if he’d be willing to buy the bike back when i didn’t need it anymore.  I determined that he would, and pay according to how beat up it was.  In short, I am now the proud owner of an essentially new bike tricked out with a bell, basket, lock, and rack. I paid 320, which is more than others have paid, but since it’s essentially new, and probably will be at the end of the summer, I’ll probably be able to sell it for a couple hundred at that point.  Alternatively I have a nice gift for someone who’ll be staying in China.

At the lab today Tan Yang introduced me to the guy who’s working on the automation process who I later learned is her husband.  He took me up by the lake on campus and we sat down on a bench and talked for a couple of hours about what he’s doing and what he’d want me to do. He has 2 main projects that he wants to move forward with.

Currently Tan Yang is running a large scale lifespan experiment using a scanning system that scans trays of worms and automatically counts how many are alive and dead. This system is very good but it still requires someone to be there day and night to move trays of worms onto and off of the scanner. He is trying to develop a system to automatically move those dishes so the station could be set up and then run for a month without further intervention. Needless to say this would be a huge step up in efficiency and much reduce the required manpower to carry on with this experiment.

Another project he wants to do something with is to develop a worm chip, similar to a DNA microarray or protein chip or other similar technologies (more on those some other day). Essentially it requires worms to be put on a microscope slide, separated by grid lines, and retained within specific regions of the slide (within a grid box). He also said the worms should be oriented the same way (all heads to the left, for example) which maybe makes the image processing go faster but seems incredibly difficult.

The projects seem really fun. I like that there’s a problem and it’s up to you to creatively come up with a solution. One downside is that he “works at night.” On further inquiry I learned that this means that he really goes to lab at about 9 pm and goes home and sleeps  at about 9 am.  I’m meeting with him tonight at 10pm to get autoCAD and LabVIEW, which I’ll be able to use for designing things and programming motors and stuff, respectively. I’m excited and looking forward to really getting started with this.

We got out of lab pretty early so I relaxed for a while and read a novel, which was a nice break.  I also got a pair of pingpong paddles which I put to use later with Taylor, Megan, and Sarah.  I’d been trying to figure out how to go see a movie for a while and finally had success.  Veronica got Susan to write down the names of Robin Hood, Toy story 3, and Shanghai in chinese so we could handle the movie schedule ourselves. We determined when Shanghai was playing and set off to go see it. We realized as we got close that we didn’t really know where the movie theater was (Megabox at Zhongguancun), but we found another theater nearby(Jinyi International Cinema) where we were looking on the lowest floor of a mall and went in and sure enough they were playing Shanghai at a similar time. We were very proud and liked the movie a lot (review possibly pending).

So June 23rd was a good day.

The Language Barrier

June 23, 2010 Leave a comment

In China people speak Chinese.  I do not speak Chinese. I speak phrases and disjointed words in Chinese, but my vocabulary is small and I am almost completely illiterate.  When I try to read things I hope for pictures, English translations, or some of the small number of characters that I recognize.  When I try to talk to people I rely on my minimal vocabulary, their patience and clear enunciation, and their knowledge of English (or Spanish, though this really hasn’t come up). The best case is when I’m going around with someone who can deal in both English and Chinese such as some of my American cohort or people from my lab, but even this has its pitfalls–you feel imposing to ask your unwitting translator everything you want to know and when you do ask you get a censored answer (Reality pre-filtered by the translator’s own analysis of the situation), or a distracted one. For example, sometimes I’ll ask someone what something says and my impromptu translator says “It’s not important.” This frustrates me because it doesn’t help me learn what the characters were or what the hell was going on on the sign.

I’ve encountered more situations lately where I’ve been without a translator in situations that clearly would benefit from some knowledge of Chinese. This morning a lady from the hotel in our hotel confronted me with a sheet of paper clearly asking my to fill things out. Ray and I had been asked to fill this sheet out before and he explained that we didn’t have to. I waved and spoke meaninglessly to her, mixing up the phrase “I don’t know” in chinese from bu4 zhi1 dao4 to bu4 dao1 zhi4. Essentially I had absolutely know way of conveying anything to her so I pointed in an attempt to convey “I’ll come back.” Ray came up as I was walking away and explained that we didn’t need to sign it, again.  (I still don’t know what that sheet was about. Ray didn’t tell me the first time or the second time, even after I asked. So it goes with translators.)

Another example: A girl came to our lab apparently asking to talk to somebody. She asked me something and I replied with a confused look and pointing at different people in the lab and trying to mumble “i don’t know” in chinese because I don’t know how to say “I don’t understand.” She eventually got it and went about her business, but episodes like this drive home the point that even though I can sort of order food I cannot speak Chinese.

I just said that I can “sort of order food.” By that I mean that I can recognize crucial characters on menus such as meat types, rice, noodles, some fruits, and assorted words like Red and black (usually referring to peppers and indicate a tasty/spicy dish).  While this is a good start I am still very intimidated and embarrassed when I go to get food at the cafeterias on campus. The cafeterias have some places where there are prepared dishes sitting out that you can point to and say Zhe4 ge4 这个(this one) and get what you want, but there are others where you can explain what you’d like them to put into a soup or dish and have them prepare it for you, and all the while there are a few people behind you waiting to get food of their own so I, at least, feel very pressured and just avoid those sorts of places (but some day I will order something there).  It’s just a disappointment every time I realize that I don’t know how to describe the foods these places are serving in English (I’d say something like put some of those vegetables in that sauce with some of this… pork (it’s usually pork) and hope for the best) and certainly don’t know it in Chinese and I’m basically guessing whenever I get food in the cafeterias.  Most of the time it turns out alright, though. I get food and it’s not too bad. Acquiring the food is just a bit embarrassing and disappointing.

The immediate reason I started writing this post is because I’d spent about an hour prior to this writing down phrases in Chinese, pinyin, and english relating to buying a bike because I’m sick of not having one and I’d like to be able to get one with a minimum of hand-waving. I’ve found that people are much more capable of reading my characters than they are of understanding my pronunciations (which are apparently not that bad once I know what I’m trying to say) so I wrote out several sentences and key words. “I’ll be in china until august 7 and want to rent or buy a bike.” “I want to try riding the bike. I want to know that it is a good size.” “this is loose” “This is too short” “Repair” “Oil” “Brakes.” I hope that with my thorough preparation this process will go smoothly and I will end up with a reasonably good bike. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow.

Science! An introduction to worms

June 22, 2010 8 comments

Though my blog thus far may have led you to believe otherwise, the NSF is not paying for us to be in China just to have an all-around good time. They also want us to do some science and gain some valuable research experience while we’re here. As such we all chose a few top picks for which lab we’d work in and depending on various factors were placed into one of those labs.  The lab I’m in is that of Dr. Zengyi Chang. I was interested in his work because his site and biography said that they studied proteins related to the aging process, a topic that I think is fairly interesting because I’d like to do my best to prevent aging.  Andrew Bernier is in the same lab as me this summer. Most of the students with our group have their own labs but Andrew and I and another pair, Taylor Carlson and Lester Sabo, are both in the same lab.

When Andrew and I first met Dr. Chang he asked a bit about the program and was very inviting but a bit disconcertingly unprepared in terms of what we would do.   He asked us what we wanted to do in the lab, we said we didn’t know what was going on in his lab and he proceeded to sit thinking for a few minutes. Eventually he called in one of his students and conferred with her. The decision was that we would help her, Anastasia Ngozi (who is from Nigeria, originally), with working on dauer formation in C. elegans.  And now, a brief introduction to C. elegans.

Caenorhabditis elegans is a species of roundworm.  It is a common, well-studied model organism.  It is harmless (as far as I am aware) to those working with it, it feeds on E. coli bacteria, another model organism that is easily cultured in the lab, the developmental fate of every cell in its body has been determined, it’s life-cycle is rapid (3 days from egg to reproducing adult under good conditions), it is a eukaryote so it is evolutionarily slightly similar to humans, and it grows to about 1mm in length, so it is visible to the naked eye.

I mentioned earlier that the lab is studying dauer formation, and to understand that statement I need to bring in a handy-dandy chart of the C. elegans life cycle.

The C. elegans life cycle
The normal life cycle for C. elegans takes about 3 days (for an egg to become a sexually mature adult worm).  The worms proceed through 4 larval stages which are characterized by different physiological markers before becoming adults.  They go through this normal life cycle when living in a place with plenty of food, enough space, at a nice temperature, and away from any chemical dangers.  In the face of unfavorable circumstances such as a lack of food, overcrowding, high temperature, or toxic environment developing worms have the capability to enter a dormant state called “dauer” from L1 instead of proceeding on to L2.  (Dauer is pronounced dow (as in dow chemical)-err (as in “err… what?”) and is simply the name for the dormant state of C. elegans.) If a worm enters dauer it stops pharyngeal pumping (it stops eating), forms plugs at both ends of its digestive tract (it’s not eating anyway, right?), and only moves if it needs to actively escape from danger (such as a scientist poking it with a platinum wire).
So I’m working with C. elegans for the next couple of months and I’ll do my best to keep you informed on the why’s what’s and how’s of the whole shebang.  Hopefully you’ll get to hear from some of my fellow Americans about what they’re researching too(I’ll try to force them to write guest posts).

Good lunch, Behai park, 包子 dinner, relaxed lab time

June 21, 2010 2 comments

I went for a run with Veronica in the morning and told her about Chanan’s plan to go to Long Qing Xia I heard about last night. We tried recruiting more people but for assorted reasons they weren’t really up for it. It got down to Chanan, veronica, me, Taylor, sarah, and Anya would go. Sarah and Anya had tickets for a ballet at 7, though, so they were going to leave earlier or we were all going to go back earlier.  I got down to the lobby ahead of them and began asking the front desk about logistics to make sure our plans were good.  The lady at the front desk was incredibly helpful and said that it would take 2.5 hours by car, and longer by bus. It eventually emerged that we could hire a car/driver to take us for 500 RMB round trip per car, which is fairly reasonable considering that allows us to spend the whole day there. We might look into getting a van to take a gaggle of us at once instead of 2 sedans. Maybe it would be more economical…  In any case there are plans in the works to do that next weekend, possibly. It sounds like a really interesting location with good scenery and good activities.

After that fell through we retreated to my room for a while to plot our next move. We decided to go to Beihai park, then to a tea house, then back to the hotel for possible swimming. We took the subway there and realized we were hungry so we wandered down a side street and found a really good restaurant.  It was a small place that wasn’t too expensive, the food was amazing, and the staff was really nice.  We struggled happily through the ordering process, notebooks full of useful characters spread across the table, wild gestures and slaughtered pronunciations blazing.  We had some delicious eggplant and fish and some less delicious tofu. Chanan’s friend Chanan (seriously, they were both named Chanan) who he met at temple this weekend met us there and spent the afternoon with us.

A group picture with our incredibly kind waitress

From the restaurant we went to Beihai park which, surprise surprise, was essentially another place the emperor built to party at.  It has a complex of buildings at the north side and a large lake with a central island and temple in the center. The whole place is attractively landscaped with willow trees and grass and rocks.  We rented 2 paddle boats and puttered around on the lake for an hour. The girls’ boat was apparently a dream to paddle while ours make grinding and clumping noises and really didn’t do a great job of moving us so we had a bit of a struggle.

Me at Beihai park. In the background are a series of pavillions in which people are dancing and singing.

The park was nice and afterward we moved on to the Tea house phase of our plan.  We’d heard good things about the Laoshe tea house, so we took a cab from Beihai to there (only 10 RMB! Taxis in China are inexpensive).  We got there and it was, indeed, very nice with a relaxed room where you could drink tea and be serenaded by Chinese musicians. Unfortunately a single cup of tea (unless the menu was translated poorly) was 5-11 dollars, which we felt to be a bit absurd.  As such we left for the hotel.

Sarah and Anya went to prepare for their ballet show, Chanan’s friend went home, and Veronica, Chanan, and I went and got dinner at “the dumpling place” as it has come to be known.  We can’t read anything so we just make up names for places. It usually has to do with the location, type of food, and color/style of decoration of the restaurant.  This is a bit of a misnomer though as they do not, as far as I could tell, actually have dumplings. They have steamed buns (Bao1zi包子) which are delicious.  It was very inexpensive. 22 kuai for 18 包子 which filled the three of us up nicely. On my way home from dinner I decided to stop by the lab to make sure my worms which I started growing the day before were doing well and just generally make sure my stuff was doing ok.  Everything looked great and I got to talk with some of the people in my lab. I tried asking for something in Chinese which set off a whole conversation trying to explain some stuff to me.  It seems like the lab is a fun place but they get their work done and save socializing for down time, which is probably for the best.