Friday, May 25, 2007


So ends my first experience as a blogger....

It was more work than I bargained for, but a fun challenge to take on. I will leave this site up for a few more weeks and then save the entire file as a PDF, which I'll post to my main website. I may throw some more photos into the PDF as well. I took 1000 pictures, which is below the average number taken by our group. Some people took over 3,000!

A tip for anyone reading this.... the posts are chronological, so to get the most out of it, start at the "end" (Day 1) and work backwards. I think it's interesting to see how my perspectives and the group dynamics changed over time.

Comments are welcome, especially from other members of the group who are reading this after the fact!


It is 11:40 AM on Friday and I am sitting at my dining room table in Oakland looking out over a sunny, cool Bay Area. It is the second Friday morning I’ve had this week—crossing the international date line is weird that way.

The trip home was uneventful and easy. Six of us met in the hotel lobby at 8 AM. We shared a mini-van to the airport and were there by 9:15. Although our flight wasn’t until noon, the extra time was nice because it was a little unclear where we were going once we arrived at Beijing Airport. We didn’t have Dragon collecting our passports, herding us through security, expediting our ticket lines, and handing us our boarding passes.

Once on the plane, it was an easy (albeit long)11-hour journey home. We landed at SFO about 20 minutes early. Clearing customs was easy, luggage arrived promptly, Chris was there to greet me when I came through the international arrivals door, and I was home by 9:45 AM.

And so the trip is over. I can brush my teeth with tap water again. I can take a shower with my mouth open. I can see the sky. I can have a bagel for breakfast. I can have fettucini with pesto for dinner, and eat Cherry Garcia ice cream afterwards. I can cross the street without risking my life.

On the flight home, I reflected a lot on China (Beijing in particular), and the experience of traveling with other planners for 18 days. All in all, it was a terrific trip—very thought-provoking, exciting (even thrilling at times), and interesting. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I left Beijing feeling like the city is an enigma, though. I was looking at a map this morning and it hit me that Beijing is laid out exactly like Houston, with ring roads overlaid on an enormous grid of big arterial streets. Actually parts of the city feel like Houston too…only about 50 times more dense. The same huge glass office towers and wide avenues, designed for cars and not people, and vast contrasts in scale from one block to the next. I kind of expected that experience in Shanghai—the city is very “in your face” that way. The whole vibe in Shanghai is about being aggressive and making money.

I guess I was expecting Beijing to be more demure or classic, given the city’s dynastic past and Communist legacy. But it seemed every bit as capitalistic and development-obsessed as Shanghai. All of these cities are changing so quickly—it will be interesting to visit in the future and see how they evolve.

Here are some closing random thoughts about the trip

(1) Although we probably tried to do too much in 18 days, there’s not too much I would have skipped if I had to do it over again (short of extending the trip to 21 days to spend a few extra days in Shanghai and Beijing). Everyplace we went was different, and interesting in its own way.

(2) I would like to have spent more time meeting with local government planners and university professors, although that would only have been productive if the language barrier was bridged. So much is lost when you have to work through translators. I found myself wanting to sit down with the planning department in each city we visited to hear what was really going on. I also found myself wanting to make presentations to them about how we do planning in the US (in addition to hearing about how it’s done in China). That would be an interesting cultural exchange, if we could get past the translation issue.

(3) One of the most interesting parts of the trip was grasping the differences between the Western and Chinese thought process. I don’t really know how to articulate this, but there are some fundamental contrasts. This was most apparent with our various tour guides, but also with some of the planners. It was more than just towing the party line; there was a very linear and dogmatic way of thinking that was different from what we’re used to.

(4) Staying in the two and three star Chinese hotels was a drag at times, but in retrospect I am glad we did it. It made the experience much more authentic. There were a few times where I wished we were at the Westin or the Hyatt with all the American businessmen and western tourists, but it was pretty cool staying in places where we were the only American guests and no one spoke English. Not sure I’d ever get used to those hard beds though.

(5) Amazing food. No disappointments and some true culinary adventures. The cheap prices, giant beers, and amazing flavors were a real highlight of the trip.

(6) The most disturbing part of the trip for me was the bad air quality. The undrinkable water was also bad, but you kind of expect that; the air was another story entirely. I have never experienced anything quite like that.

(7) It was wonderful traveling with planners. It was the first time I didn’t feel like a total geek taking photos of things like crosswalks, curb cuts, and subway platforms.

(8) The big challenge in China seems to be the lack of enforcement, and corruption in the government. We heard it everywhere we went. The rules are there, but no one enforces them. Not sure what it will take to change that—other than showing the central government that enforcement can lead to higher profits. Which leads me to my next observation...

(9) China is the most capitalistic country on the planet. Kinda funny.

(10) The most interesting part of the trip was seeing first hand what happens when 500 million people pick up and move from the country to the city in the span of a few decades. It is fascinating to see a country going from rural to urban in the span of a single generation (it took us 100 years). It makes you wonder what will happen during the next generation.

(11) Why don’t we have a planning museum in the United States like the ones in Beijing and Shanghai!???? I vote for Chicago as the location. This is long overdue.

(12) I would love to work in China. Not sure I would want to live there, though. Hong Kong would be fun for a few years and would be the easiest place to live.

(13) I made new friends and acquaintances who I hope to stay in touch with.

(14) I missed Chris and Sierra and I am glad to be home.

In the end, the trip raised more questions than it answered. I consider that a sign of success. It will take awhile to absorb the entire experience. For all of us, it was a thought-provoking journey that appealed to our sense of adventure, curiosity, and love for cities. I am already planning my next trip.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Great Leap Forward

This morning seemed positively leisurely after the past few days of 7 AM starts. We didn’t have to meet in the lobby until 8 AM!

Our group made our way from the hotel to the Beijing subway; although the entrance was only a few hundred feet from the hotel, getting there required walking in the street, zigzagging across berms and tall curbs, and dodging traffic in a freeway cloverleaf (with crosswalks). It was rush hour and the subways were packed, but we only had to go a few stops.

We emerged from the subway in Tienammen Square. Dragon gave us an hour to do a self-guided tour, with an agreed upon meeting place at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The Square itself is pretty inhospitable—no trees or amenities, really—just a vast expanse of pavement ringed by very large, non-descript buildings. The ubiquitous poster of Chairman Mao hangs at the north end. The immediate comparison one makes is to the National Mall, which is much more beautiful, green, and gracious by comparison.

There were scads of tourists everywhere, most traveling in groups and following leaders with megaphones and “follow me” flags. The hawkers were relentless, chasing us with kites, t-shirts, hats, post-cards, and other assorted junk.

Once inside the Forbidden City (around 9:45 AM), we had a two-hour guided tour led by one of the “official” tour guides. Frankly, she seemed more interested in text messaging on her cell phone than telling us anything insightful. Like many of the other guides, her English was a little hard to follow and she spoke in a soft voice. The crowds were getting bigger, too, and it was starting to get warm. The sky was a yellowish brown color, which we were told was due to construction dust and sand blowing in from Mongolia (they like to blame bad things on Mongolia here!).

The Forbidden City was very imposing, but was not exactly what I was expecting. The architecture and detail is amazing, the scale is gigantic, and it is awe-inspiring to stand in the place where entry was limited to royalty, eunuchs, and concubines for 600 years. But the interior environment is pretty harsh, with one enormous paved plaza after another and no greenery (except in a small garden at the north end). We passed through ornate gate after ornate gate for almost a mile, finally emerging at the north end around Noon.

From there, we took taxis to a location a few miles north. A woman greeted us and we were paired off and put in pedicabs (they called them rickshaws). A driver pedaled through the narrow alleys (called “hutongs”) while we sat in the back seats like privileged imperialists. I didn’t really care for this experience, as this seemed like yet another packaged “tourist experience” designed to appeal to westerners, fulfill a cultural stereotype, and ultimately, to sell stuff. In this case, the pedicab ride ended in a cheesy tourist street, which the guide told us was the “best street in China” for bars and bargains. She looked out over this very polluted green lake and said “as you can see, people come here because it very beautiful.” Sad.

At around 2, the group dispersed. Bob and Charlotte and I took a taxi to the Beijing offices of the Dahlin Group, for a meeting that I had arranged before leaving the US. Dahlin is a large land planning and design firm in the Bay Area that established a Beijing office a few years ago. They now have 40 employees here. Getting to the office was an adventure, as all we had was a slip of paper with the address written in Chinese characters. When we got out of the cab, we had to ask about 5 different people before we found our way into the building.

We were warmly greeted and spent about 90 minutes meeting with the General Manager of the office and her assistant. The visit was a nice way to close our meeting with Chinese planning professionals, because it provided another perspective on how the growing wealth in China is changing development and consumer patterns. Dahlin is building a lot of very high end housing to meet the demand created by new money; homes that would fit in well in the Bay Area’s most exclusive neighborhoods. They are also starting to do new towns with a broader mix of housing types and land uses. It was fascinating to talk about the changes in consumer preferences and the Chinese land development system.

We were driven back to the hotel by a Dahlin staff person at around 4:30. At 5:30, our entire group met with the company that organized our trip to provide them with feedback on our experience. We went day by day, pointing out our highlights and lowlights and ways to improve the trip experience for the next group of planners (they arrive in Hong Kong tomorrow!). After about an hour, our entire group headed for the subway, going to a neighborhood a few stops away for our farewell dinner.

The celebratory dinner was a really nice occasion. We had peking duck and a million other dishes. Everything was delicious, but mostly we remarked how much we’d enjoyed getting to know each other and what a great experience this has been.

This will be my last entry before returning to the US tomorrow. My flight is at noon, but we’ve been advised to head to the airport at 8 AM. I will post some more post-trip reflections tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Beijing and the Great Wall Photos

Pics (top to bottom)
1: Barry in his native habitat (giant city model)
2: Lunch in Metianyu Schoolhouse
3: Group Shot on the Great Wall
4: Great Wall of China
5: Great Wall of China

The Great Wall

I went down to the hotel restaurant for the complimentary breakfast at around 7:30 AM. They had a huge assortment of western foods, including cereal, yogurt, fruit, eggs, croissants, and good coffee. By 8:00 AM, we were boarding the bus and beginning our trek to the Great Wall. There are different sections of the Wall open to visitors—apparently, most of the tourists go to a particular section about 45 miles outside the City. We were going to a more remote and less visited section about 60 miles away.

The weather was clearing up (though still overcast), and it was a nice drive out. We had a good chance to see Beijing and its suburbs. Just when you thought you'd reached the city's edge and were “out in the country”, you’d come upon yet another parade of 18-story apartment buildings or a textile factory or a nuclear power plant. During the last half hour of the drive, the scenery became hilly, and by the time we reached Mutianyu, we were actually in the mountains. After leaving the bus, we had to run through a gauntlet of aggressive hawkers selling everything from dried fruit to kitschy watches with Chairman Mao’s portrait. It is always a little distressing when you start to view fellow human beings as pigeons or annoying gnats to be shooed away, but that's really how it started to feel after about 300 feet of hearing "HELLO HELLO HELLO POSTCARD! T-SHIRT! WATCHES! COCA COLA! PANDA!". "

When we finally went through the turnstiles, we ascended a steep concrete path with hundreds of stairs winding through the forest up to the base of the wall. The path was crowded with Chinese, American, and European tourists. For those that didn’t want to hike up, there were two aerial tramways that also went up. The rise in elevation was probably less than a thousand feet, but it was a pretty steep ascent.

Once on the wall, we were able to hike a 2 mile restored section. The wall itself follows the ridge, rising and falling hundreds of feet along its course—lots of steps and steep sections, and occasional ramparts. Not surprisingly, in each rampart, there were vendors trying to sell us cokes, postcards, and even beer! It wasn’t too crowded and the foggy damp weather actually made for really pleasant walking and picture taking. While most of us hiked back down, a few people opted for an aluminum toboggan ride that took you to the bottom in a few minutes for about $8 US.

Once we were back on the bus, the itinerary became a little unclear. We ended up in a small village about a mile from the wall where two expatriate westerners greeted us. One (Steve) was the proprietor of a most unusual business enterprise in the village, and the other was his assistant. We were led into a farm-like building and served a delicious meal of noodles and various meats and condiments, still not sure where we were or what we were doing there. After lunch, Steve led us on a hike through the village and over a ridge to a compound of buildings that he owned and operated. He gave us a brief tour and then we headed back into the city.

Steve’s business (The Schoolhouse) is a little hard to describe--essentially, this guy moved from Berkeley to a small village in China 20 years ago to establish a corporate retreat center for Western corporations expanding into the Chinese market. He astutely chose a picturesque village at the base of the Great Wall as the site. In so doing so has given the town a shot in the arm and brought dozens of jobs to peasant farmers. His operation is expanding, and now includes a high-end art gallery and restaurant, several homes for rent, and other high-end second homes that are being sold to wealthy expats. He’s about to start a boutique hotel, which I’m sure will be written up in Conde Nast and probably end up transforming the simple village into Brad and Angelina's next secret getaway. Anyway, it was fascinating to hear his perspectives on China’s rapacious capitalism, business etiquette, and governance.

By the time we got back to Beijing it was almost 5:30. I had the evening free, as I had opted not to go to the Kung Fu performance. What I really wanted to do more than anything was dive into Beijing, as I felt like I had only experienced the city from the window of a bus on a 12-lane expressway.

I left the hotel and found the nearest subway (the entrance is actually underneath a freeway cloverleaf interchange!). I went three stops west to Ti’annamen Square. Since we’re doing the tourist stuff around the Square tomorrow, I headed the other direction into the narrow Hutongs (alleys) that characterize old Beijing. I walked all the way back to the hotel, about three miles, returning around 8 PM. It was a great walk, and I got a much better sense of the City. There are really two cities here, one developed on a monumental scale oriented toward cars, and another developed centuries ago on a fine-grained scale with one and two story buildings along narrow alleys. It was great to find the latter Beijing, and it was so nice to wander through the alleys and see how people actually live here. Well, some people, anyway.

Once I got back to the hotel, I had a nice dinner (Thai banquet) with Bob and Charlotte and then came back to the room. Hard to imagine the trip is now winding down.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Dumpling Rebellion

The rest of the train ride was quite nice—who would have thought there’d be a non-stop 11-hour express train from Xi’An to Beijing China?. We arrived early, at around 7 AM. I got six or seven hours of sleep en route, and enjoyed the rocking motion and rhythmic sound of the train. The Chinese inter-city train system seems far superior to the U.S., though of course that isn’t saying much. In any case, the ride was much nicer than I had imagined.

When we arrived in Beijing, all of us were tired and grungy and really desperate to check into the hotel and take showers. We spent an hour in rush hour traffic (to go about 6 miles) before arriving at the hotel. It was pouring rain outside, and about 30 degrees cooler than Xi’An. When we finally arrived it was 8:30, and our rooms were not yet ready. I think we would have been content to hang out in the coffee shop or lobby for a few hours until we could check-in, but we were informed (on the spot) that there had been a change in plans and we were due in the offices of a local urban design and planning consultancy at 10:00 AM. It was suggested that we go into the hotel bathroom and change our clothes, splash water on our faces, and make ourselves look presentable before hand.

I can only speak for myself, but that moment was probably the low point of the trip. No shower or shave for two days, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and carrying a 40-lb backpack after a night on a Chinese train, still feeling sticky and hot from a day of sightseeing and bike riding in 100 degree heat the day before, no real meal in almost 24 hours, and now learning I was on my way to a planning and design firm as a representative of my profession in a foreign country. Ugh. To top it off, the itinerary kept changing (I think this was partially due to the rain), and it was rumored they were replacing our walking tour of the Beijing hutons (courtyard dwellings) with a class on how to make dumplings.

At this point, a few people bailed and opted for sofas and comfy chairs in the lobby—the rest of us got back on the bus and pleaded with our tour guide Dragon to spare us any more dumplings. Dragon was most accommodating, and told us that after the meeting with the consultants we could come back to the hotel and check in. He has been extremely responsive and helpful throughout this entire trip--a really great guide.

As it turned out, the meeting with the consultants was really interesting. They did an excellent powerpoint on architecture and urban planning in China and fielded our questions for about an hour. We apologized profusely for our bedraggled appearance, and they were very nice about it. They even brought us bottles of water. As it turned out, they were all American educated and had decided to return to China to practice. Their work was really cutting edge, beautiful, and organic and was unlike anything we’d actually seen in our travels around China. The cultural differences and "Chinese" approach to design was pretty interesting to hear about. Probably the most telling point was when Jean Lin asked if the urban growth policy emphasis in Beijing was to grow “inward” or to grow “outward.” The lead speaker replied, “it is to grow forward.”

We returned to the hotel around noon and finally checked in. After a shower and clean clothes, I felt 100 percent better. I had a whole two hours to kick back and relax (I actually unpacked!)

At 2:30 we reconvened in the lobby and headed to one of the big universities in Beijing. We were scheduled to meet with an urban planning professor at 3:30. While en route, Dragon received a call on his cell phone informing us that the professor had been in a car accident and was being taken to the hospital. With our meeting cancelled, we did an about face and asked the bus to take us to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition. This is similar to the wonderful Planning Museum in Shanghai, with an enormous model of the sprawling city that takes up about an acre of floor space. We were able to spend an hour there, perusing the exhibits until they kicked us out at 5 PM.

After getting back on the bus, Dragon took us to an excellent Northern Chinese restaurant where we had a nice meal (only one plate of dumplings--whew). From dinner, we walked a few blocks in the pouring rain to a theater where we saw a Beijing opera performance. I had a different image in my head—like we were going to the Met, or the Paris Opera. As it turns out, Beijing opera is a form of theatrical performance, like Kabuki theater in Japan. The actors are dressed in elaborate Ancient Chinese costumes with frightening make-up. A concubine sings in a nasal high pitched voice for about 45 minutes (Dragon told us to be prepared for the sound of “screaming cats”), culminating in her suicide. Then, men dressed as soldiers (and turtles and monkeys) come out and do various acrobatic dances (with fans and swords) for half an hour.

It was an entertaining and colorful performance, although the whir of the cappuccino maker at the bar a few feet away from our table reminded is this was first and foremost a concoction to entertain Western tourists.

Back on the hotel room now, enjoying a relatively quiet evening.

First impressions of Beijing…wow, totally different than what I was expecting. I had images of a grand capital city like Washington, but it’s much more like Los Angeles. There are immense 12-lane boulevards spaced about every quarter-mile, lined with self-contained superblocks of high rise office and residential towers. It’s very LeCorbusier—very pedestrian unfriendly. The worst traffic I have ever seen in my life, bar none. More reflections tomorrow, right now its 12:15 AM and I want to go to sleep.

Xi'An Photos

From top:

1) Ming Warriors march city planners up the Xi'An City Wall

2) Soft sleeper train car (Xi'An to Beijing, 11 hours)

3) Terra Cotta Warriors

4) Terra Cotta Warriors

5) Xi'An Grand Mosque

6) Xi'An Bell Tower (built in the 14th Century, now in the center of an 8-lane roundabout with a shopping mall behind it)

7) Planners riding bikes on the Xi'An Wall