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Weekend travel

July 24, 2010 1 comment

I have much to tell you, dear readers, but I’ll break it up into multiple posts for coherence.

This past weekend me and 13 of my companions set off on a trip to Huhhot for Saturday night through Tuesday morning. Huhhot is the capital of Inner Mongolia, which is not a part of Mongolia but rather a province of China that borders Mongolia.  As we left Saturday evening we saw Anya, who was just returning from the hospital for the day.  She had been there getting some IVs and otherwise being looked after.   Due to her illness she was no longer going to go on the trip she had planned nearly single-handedly and she had told us before that while it was not finalized she was probably going home either Monday or Tuesday morning, which meant that we would not see her again as we arrived back in Beijing Tuesday morning.  We said our goodbyes and took some pictures and gave some hugs but had to head out to catch our train.

The train station was unreal.  I have never, ever, been in a place so crowded as that.  The best way to describe the people moving into the train station was “a crush.”  Seriously.  I took pictures and videos to prove it.

Beijing West's waiting room wasn't exactly what I pictured

We had soft sleeper tickets for our train voyage, which made the trip very pleasant.  (Dear future China Traveller: train tickets go on sale 10 days prior to the train’s departure, roughly.  Get there when they go on sale to be sure you get what you want.  On the way to Huhhot we were at the ticket counter (you can buy tickets on PKU’s campus) when the tickets went on sale and got 14 consecutive soft sleeper tickets. Since we were coming back 2 days after we left we had to go a second time to buy the return tickets. We got there about 30 minutes after these tickets went on sale and as a result got a slightly disjointed group of tickets: 2 full rooms of four, 1 room of 3, and I guess another room of 3…) Train tickets come in a variety of types. Depending on the train type there are Hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, soft sleepers, and deluxe soft sleepers.  Hard seats are like coach airplane seats, only the catch is that there aren’t as many seats as there are tickets, so it’s possible that you’ll be stuck standing for your train ride (as some of Andrew’s group was when they went to Mount Tai). I’m told that this is a horrific and traumatizing experience, and I believe it.  Soft seats are fairly nice seats I believe.  I don’t really know that much about them.  Hard sleepers are rooms with 6 cots in each, they are cushioned with a bamboo mat and there is no locking door on the room in which you’re sleeping.  Soft sleepers have 4 beds which are cushioned with a fair twin mattress, they are moderately air conditioned and have a locking door.  Deluxe soft sleepers are like a hotel room on a train I think.

The important thing is that we had soft sleepers, and it was a good time hanging out, talking, and playing games until we decided to get to sleep. Most people slept fairly well on the train but we suspect it really wasn’t the most restful of sleeps possibly due to the jostling of the train.

We arrived in Huhhot and were whisked conveniently to our hostel, the Anda guesthouse, by people from the guesthouse.  We settled in briefly and then set off on our “grassland tour.” This began with a harrowing 2 hour drive out to the grasslands.  Harrowing because the people of Huhhot laugh in the faces of both death and traffic police and all-together drive like every one of them had a backseat full of dying orphans who they needed desperately to get to a hospital.  The main thing that was distressing was passing.  My policy about passing other cars is to do so when you’re 100% confident that you will not be blindsided by a car coming around a corner or over a hill or anything like that. Inner Mongolian’s policy about passing is “go for it! We can totally fit three cars abreast on here!” and indeed they can. I even saw four cars abreast on the 2 lane road at times, because why else would there be shoulders than to allow incredibly reckless driving?  Our driver and others would consistently pass other vehicles on the two lane road as we went around hills on blind curves.  A few times cars would come whipping around head on toward us and only by both drivers cooperative effort, and the car being passed’s complacency, did we not crash.  Looking back I’m somewhat disappointed in myself for not firmly requesting the driver to acknowledge his mortality and try to not kill us all, but that wouldn’t have been nearly so interesting…

Drive safely

Apparently Inner Mongolia is aware of its wild and crazy drivers and installed this smashed up van as a deterrent. The sign reads something like "Don't drive like an idiot or your car will look like this."

So after our harrowing journey we arrived at this small outpost in the grasslands where there were a couple of yurts and a stone building that apparently had a kitchen in it.  We relaxed in the yurts and had a tasty lunch of lamb (when in a place near Mongolia…) and veggies and other good stuff.  After lunch we set off walking on the grasslands for a while. We went over to a nearby herd of cows and a dried up lake bed. It was nice to enjoy the fresh air and clear skies.  Following the stroll we went horseback riding which everyone enjoyed quite well, including those who were originally skeptical.  The primary complaints were sore butts from some and sore knees from those of us whose stirrups were far too short.  The horse were alright, but some didn’t seem to be the healthiest of beasts.

The lunch yurt

Relaxing in the lunch yurt

Riding horses on the (Inner) Mongolian grasslands

In the evening we had dinner at the hostel and explored the nearby streets.  There was a short mongolian singing and dancing put on randomly at the hostel which was sort of cool. We hung around the hostel and talked amongst ourselves as well as with some of the other guests about what to do the next day and all sorts of other things. We met an Irish couple and an English guy who had both been in Huhhot for a few days and had recommendations.  It was a fun night.

The following day we hit the city. We visited the 5 pagoda temple, which was a nice little place. We then walked up to the muslim part of the city in search of muslim-type souveniers and stuff but didn’t have great success.  After this we attempted to go to the Inner Mongolian museum which we heard rave reviews about and which was recently remodeled, but to our dismay it was closed (it’s closed every Monday, as of the time of this posting).  On the plus side it was very nice looking and was probably equally nice inside…  We split up after that because some… animosity and confusion was stewing throughout the day amongst our small group.  I headed back to the hostel and relaxed and played cards for a while.  Eventually, with directions from the hostel staff, Veronica, Tram (Veronica’s labmate who came on the trip with us), Chanan, and I went for a walk. We first visited a nearby park, which was pleasant and park-like. We then went to a market for some shopping, followed by dinner, followed by the train.

On our train ride back our tickets were more scattered and the first thing that happened when we got on was swapping.  Two guys traveling together were in different rooms and trying to get in the same room. One’s ticket was in the room with Veronica, Tram, and I, the other was in a room with Chanan, Lester, and a nice lady.  After much bustling and some wonderful translating from Ray it was determined that the nice lady would move to the room I was in, and the guy from our room would go to Chanan and Lester’s room.  Veronica, Tram, and I had a good time communicating with her, explaining why we were in China, that Veronica’s mom was Chinese but she lived in the US, that we’d never been to China before, and that we were 20/21 years old.  After that our vocabulary pretty much ran out and Ray came in and translated for/with us, and after a bit of that he just talked with her in Chinese while Veronica and I amused ourselves with drawing and talking and Tram retreated to her bed to read.

In the morning we learned that as we were arriving in Beijing Anya was boarding her flight to the states. Fortunately we had said our goodbyes before we had left.

Everyone dispersed either to shower at the hotel or straight to their labs and life returned to normal +1 interesting trip in our memories.

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Summer Days

July 8, 2010 1 comment

Each day I try to keep a fairly reasonable account of what happened so I’ll be able to remember this whole experience pretty well.  I often find myself writing in details and generally making these journal entries into blog-style posts.  So here are the journal/blog entries for the past several days, made more presentable than they would otherwise be.

7-2-2010

  • Woke up at 5 am (couldn’t sleep any more probably due to all the napping the past 2 days).
  • Went for a long run and ate breakfast at 7 am.
  • Dropped off laundry and went to lab.
  • Read stuff online for a while and determined that the internet in lab is really fast.
  • Planned out tests to do with cellulose and whatnot.
  • Picked up laundry and went to our group lunch.
  • After lunch I went to lab and carried out my tests.
  • Met/chatted with a couple of the undergrads in my lab.

I went back to the hotel and met up with Taylor.  We hung out In her room and watched V TV (it’s MTV in China and features both Chinese pop music as well as some American stuff) for a bit, played some apple-scrabble.  I was going to go bike around with Yun to take pictures but it was hot and I was getting tired (I woke up at 5, remember?).  So I hung out with Taylor.  We waited for Yun to come back before we ate dinner.  Anya showed up and eventually ate with us as well.  Nick and Matt came to dinner also.  We went to the blue place (bao zi) (so good).  After this we tried wrangling people together for soccer but more or less failed.  We did kick a soccer ball around a bit but not that much, we may have been yelled at to leave the field again. We left the field thinking that this was the case, in any case.  I then played some basketball with matt and Sarah, which was fun.  By this point my legs were/are really tired.  Now it’s bedtime.  I also managed to read a few pages of blue mars today.

7-3-2010: Woke up at 8:25 or so, ate breakfast, then went out shopping with Taylor, Sarah, Lily, Susan, and Veronica.  We went to a clothing area (visited 2 separate market buildings) near the zoo.  It was fun to give my commentary on clothes, provide my expert opinion as a male, and look at some guys clothes when it could be found.  Then we went to a more general market and got some trinket things.  We then headed back to the hotel and took a rest for an hour and a half.  I finished blue mars, took a short nap, got a blizzard from DQ and then had dinner at 5:30 at a restaurant near the courtyard.  I didn’t like it.  They made you pay for opening your chopsticks, but that was the only option (which isn’t a big deal, but it’s annoying).  They didn’t give us bowls for our soup except for when we asked and we had to ask a couple times to get spoons.  The chicken dish we got was weird.  We think it was chicken hearts?? Not sure…

So after that we went to wangfujing street.  We first went to the bookstore.  They had a big selection of dvds so I got Moon, Anya got Avatar.  Yun asked us to get her Fahrenheit 451 so I grabbed that for her, too.  We then headed to the snack street.  I ended up eating lots of sugary fruit and some grasshoppers.  The grasshoppers tasted like any little meat that was deliciously greasy due to being fried in grease.  I also got a satchel of candy from a candy store there.  I’ve liked what I’ve had pretty well so far.  We then headed back and watched the end of the world cup game.  Now sleep.

7-4-2010: In the morning Lily and some people went on a trip within Beijing with Lily’s lab. I chose to take it easy and hang around. I ended up hanging out with Veronica and blogging until I was recruited to go to Yuanmingyuan park (a ruined place where the emperor used to party (surprisingly enough)) which is supposed to be pretty nice (though it’s ruinous instead of being in good repair). We actually went on a tour of the pretty Tsinghua campus (led by Lily and Ray). It was Hot.  The campus was pretty. We returned home to get ready to go our dinner reservations at Bellagio’s (which is a Chinese restaurant… for some reason with an Italian name)

The meal ended up being 7-9 dollars (USD) today, depending on what sort of snazzy drink you got for yourself.  We should really try to relax about the price of meals, especially when going out to dinners like this.  We’re constantly fretting about the cost since it’s a fancy place, and it sort of poisons the time spent ordering and we might order one fewer dish since it might become “too expensive” but in reality it just slightly lessens the meal because you’re not quite satisfied.  I liked the food quite well, but I wasn’t really in the greatest of moods so it wasn’t my favorite dinner ever.  After dinner we went over to CarreFour and got some groceries. I was looking to get some cereal and milk and cookies. I decided against the cereal but I did get a bag of German oatmeal/rice puff stuff which I intend to eat with some of the yoghurt that I got (Have I mentioned that yoghurt is EVERYWHERE in china?). I also got some peanut butter Oreos (delicious), and some chips ahoy cookies.  I was surprised to find that the chips ahoy weren’t nearly as crumbly and not as jagged as US chips ahoy. They were more flat, smooth, and firm.

At night as people were getting to bed I got started talking to Sarah and Ray about my lab stuff and it became apparent that I was really frustrated by the whole situation.  I feel like the whole lab ignores me and doesn’t make an effort to talk to me.  Nobody in the lab introduced themselves to me, excepting a couple of undergrads, the grad student I was originally working with (Anasha) and the grad student I’m now working with (Yan Tang).  I need supplies and don’t know how to get them and don’t really feel comfortable talking to people to ask.  Sarah and Ray were full of good advice and I was glad I talked with them about it.  [Update: I feel much better about the lab situation now, post-lab meeting.]

7-5-2010: In the morning I worked on my powerpoint to show to the lab what I’m working on this summer (automating/speeding up the worm processing stuff) until 2. At 2 we had the lab meeting. I feel like my powerpoint went over well and that people in my lab were impressed by how thorough it was. Last night I was feeling really discouraged and felt like my lab didn’t care about me at all. They didn’t talk to me and mainly ignored me and I didn’t know how to get the materials I wanted to do things that I wanted to do (wire, basic tools).  I think by talking at the lab meeting they learned that I do sort of exist and have something to say.  I spread some bacteria on some plates and generally did a little worm wrangling and called it a day.  In the evening we ate at a cafeteria where you put what you want in a basket and they then cook it in a delicious sauce for you. It was really good, but really hot. Really hot was probably not the best choice as this was a record high temperature (106 Fahrenheit) for the day.  In the evening we chatted and figured out the transportation situation for going to Hohhot. We resolved that we’d get train tickets tomorrow morning for most people, and a couple people would get plane tickets.

7-6-2010: In the morning I went to get train tickets with Taylor and Frank’s help. You can buy them on campus, which is quite convenient. What was less convenient was that there were no sleeper tickets left for this Friday, when we wanted to leave. There were also no sleeper tickets for Thursday, or Saturday, or next Thursday, or next Friday… We did learn that the tickets for next Saturday go on sale tomorrow morning, so throughout the day we made sure everyone was ok with shifting the trip thusly and planned to get the tickets tomorrow morning.  Since I was planning to buy train tickets and didn’t I was walking around with many thousands of RMB, which was an odd feeling.

In lab today an undergrad in our lab, LinXuan, asked me to eat lunch with him, which was nice.  I was glad to have someone showing some interest in me AND manifesting that interest by communicating with me, rather than chatting about me in Chinese, which is the usual modus operandum.  I learned that he was in the science Olympiad in China and did well enough in it that he didn’t have to take the college entrance tests because he was automatically admitted!

I started my electrotaxis experiments in a rudimentary way as well.  I dug around the lab and found some electrodes which I plugged into an electrophoresis machine, I put some worms in a plate of salt water and stuck in the electrodes and turned that bad boy on (rudimentary, remember?).  To my dismay, a cloud of precipitate rapidly formed around the cathode.  We puzzled at this because the stuff in solution shouldn’t be forming precipitates.  As I was about to check whether the water we were using was contaminated Mr. Wang, a graduate student in our lab came over with an old electrophoresis box and pulled the platinum electrodes off of it and tied them around my electrodes. I now had platinum wires to use as electrodes! This solved the precipitate issue which I assume was the steel reacting with stuff in solution. I spent the next few hours trying to rig up my electrodes to a plate with worms on it, putting buffer on  top of the agar plate, and zapping worms in a buffer suspension. My conclusions from the day were: It seems like the worms sort of move toward the cathode, like they’re supposed to. I have more in the works for the future. In the evening I ate dinner with Sarah, which was nice. Afterward I taught Sarah and Taylor cribbage. We broke for a fruit party and watching Phantom of the Opera online.  Watermelon in China continues to be amazing.  Asian pears, or “papples” (pear-apples) as Taylor, and all of us, have taken to calling them are plentiful and we like them well enough.  Phantom of the Opera is hilarious with commentary from friends about how creepy the whole situation is in a sort of “I have candy, get in the van” sort of creepy.

7-7-2010: This morning I woke up and checked for a line at the train ticket place. It was clear so I went back and ate breakfast and returned to the ticket place with Ray. We had to return at 9 when the tickets we wanted to buy actually went on sale (we’d forgotten what time they did, exactly) .  [PRO TIP: Train tickets go on sale 10 days in advance of the departure. Get them when they first go on sale if you want to be confident in having seats you want (read: soft sleepers). This is for you, next year’s UM PKU REU students]  Tickets purchased we returned to the hotel to put them somewhere safe. I never really made it back out of the hotel…

I wanted to have a clear plan for what I was going to do before I went back in to lab. I didn’t succeed in making this plan until like, 5, and even now it’s not super-clear, but it’s at least translucent.  I spent the day instead reading about awesome things like zombifying parasites , and listening to NPR’s science Friday.  I cannot stress enough how much I love hearing about Cool Stuff that is in the world.  Lunch was tasty cafeteria food with Veronica, Chanan, and Megan who weren’t working because they were recovering from illness ( 😦 ), letting a reaction run, and the machine she’d be using is broken and her graduate student is working on a paper.  I had dinner with Anya and Veronica at the place where you throw stuff in a basket which they then cook (it’s still super delicious).  After dinner we went for a walk to a park nearby and talked and saw some crazy Chinese outdoor exercise equipment. THEN, played some docile basketball with Sarah and Taylor and Nick and Yun. THEN, we returned to Taylor, Sarah, and Yun’s room to watch the rest of Phantom of the Opera, which was pretty swell.

Life in China is crazy, not so much because it is in China, but because we are here together and we have become friends and we can constantly have a good time with each other.

A day (and four hours) of travelling

June 2, 2010 2 comments

I got on a bus in Ann Arbor at 8:38 am on Sunday May 30.  I got to my hotel in Beijing at 12:42 am on Monday May 31 after 28 hours and 4 minutes of traveling.  It was tiring.  I was awake for about 32 hours during the affair, though I did sleep a bit on the flights.  My lack of sleep was mainly by design. I figured that if I deprived myself of sleep on the flight I would be able to get to sleep when I arrived and sleep through the night.

Our flight took us to Minneapolis, Minnesota first.  That was fairly uneventful.  We were still fresh and had only endured one short flight at that point.

From Minneapolis we flew directly to Tokyo Narita Airport, Japan. This flight lasted about 12 hours and, as all flights that length do, felt like it lasted forever.  To pass the time I watched some movies that were shown, played some boggle, peered out the window on the emergency exit door at the back of the plane at some sweet Alaskan landscapes, chatted, and tried to read things (which inevitably led to just falling asleep briefly.) I estimate I slept a bit more than 30 minutes on this flight.

At 3 AM (EST) we arrived in Tokyo.  Tokyo felt like a caricature of Tokyo.  The shops in the airport were bristling with cute things, weird candies, and manga.  In addition to that, the toilet in the airport rest room had an option to heat or cool the seat as well as serve as a bidet.  Perhaps this was due to the airport stores selling touristy things and wasn’t really a representative sample of Japan as a whole.

At 6:34 am (EST) (6:34 pm China-time) we took off from Tokyo for Beijing.  On this flight we had personal screens that let us pick what movies to watch which was awesome.  I watched The Hurt Locker which I thought was a really really good movie.  After that we were in Beijing.

In Beijing we stumbled off the plane around 10:30 pm (China-Time)and got our luggage… almost.  One of Beatriz’s bags didn’t show up at first, but did after a bit. I never really heard that whole story.  Going through customs was no problem at all for two reasons: 1. We were like the only people in the baggage claim area since the rest of our flight moved on rapidly and apparently 10 pm is not high time to be flying in, and 2. The way customs works in China is that you either walk through an archway that says “nothing to declare” or go talk to someone if you have something to declare. I’m just somewhat confused about how this system is supposed to prevent anything like illegal drugs or other contraband items from coming in because obviously if you’re smuggling something you’ll go through the “nothing to declare” section and be home free.

We then got in a bus for what turned out to be about a 30 minute drive but which we thought would be far longer.  The first thing that struck me outside was how “foggy” it was.  I’m becoming increasingly sure that that “fog” is actually dense pollution combined with actual water vapor.  Visibility the past… 2 days has generally been several hundred meters, but it’s just like there’s constantly a light fog.  Many of us passed out on this bus ride to our hotel.  We are staying in 资源Hotel (Zi1 yuan2 [Update: bin guan]) I don’t remember the last two words. It means resource hotel.  It is located in the southwest corner of Peking university’s campus which is quite convenient.  I am rooming with Ruixiao (Ray) Zou who speaks fluent mandarin, which is also convenient. When we first went up to our room we noticed immediately that there were not 2 bedrooms, as we hoped there would be, and that the room reeked of smoke.  We have since moved to another room which is equivalent except that it does not smell like smoke.

I sent an email telling my family that all was well, took a shower, and flopped into bed.

So ended our “day” of travel and began our voyage in China.

P.S. I would like to note that we were fed a surprising amount of surprisingly good food on our flights.