Friday, May 25, 2007

Afterword

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!

Home

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




































Monday, May 21, 2007

If it's Tuesday, this must be Beijing

I’m writing this on the overnight train from Xi’An to Beijing. Will send it tomorrow after we arrive.

At this point, the trip is starting to feel more like an endurance challenge than an urban planning tour. People are tired, a few are sick, and the non-stop pace of the travel is definitely taking its toll. Still, everyone is in good spirits and we continue to be fascinated and energized by the experience of being here (barely).

We checked out of the hotel at 7:50 this morning and boarded a bus for the Terra Cotta Warriors. It was an hour's drive from Xi’An. Again, the countryside looked ravaged by bad development, industry, and mining—but the most noticeable thing was the terrible air quality. Brown skies and visibility of less than a mile the entire way, and the smell of incinerator smoke in the air. We got to our destination at around 9 AM.

The Warriors complex had a theme park atmosphere, with massive parking lots, huge billboards, souvenir stands, and a 40’ tall replica of a Chi dynasty warrior. After going through two sets of turn-styles, you follow Disney-like walkways to a grand-looking plaza lined by enormous pavillions. We were greeted by a guide and given an overview of the warriors and the history of the Chi dynasty (circa 221 BC). The first pavilion was pretty ho-hum, and contained miniature bronze chariots and horses.

The second pavilion was amazing. It resembled a blimp hangar but several times larger. Elevated walkways went around the perimeter, enclosing an enormous pit where the warrior statues had been excavated. The sight of 6,000 life-size clay warriors more than two millennia old (on the very site where they’d been excavated) was remarkable. The experience was diminished a little bit by the hordes of tourists snapping photos, the soft-spoken guide who was reciting her script by memory (with very little English beyond that), the relentless emphasis on the gift shop and souvenir purchases, and the fact that people were just plain tired and hot.

By 12:30, we were back on the bus and headed back for Xi’An. It was very hot and smoggy, and we had no hotel rooms to chill out. After we arrived n town, some of us went out for lunch at the dumpling place near our hotel. No English language menus, but the restaurant had roving waitresses with pushcarts so we were able to just point to the items we wanted.

No rest for the weary—the next event started at 1:40. We had to load our suitcases on to the bus, then head to a bicycle rental place at the South Gate of the City Wall. About half of us rented bicycles and did a 90-minute ride on the top of the City Wall. The wall is 38 feet high 45 feet wide, and 10 miles long. It was originally built many centuries ago and has recently been restored as a tourist attraction. The wall forms a perfect rectangle, with a moat along the perimeter. Xi’An itself has a rectangular street grid, which is pretty astonishing when you contemplate that the streets were laid more than 600 years ago.


Riding on the wall was loads of fun. We were the only ones up there and had the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, it was 95 degrees, brown skies, and lots of grit and dust in the air. No bike lanes—you just sort of bounced along over round cobblestone bricks, going up and down ramps when you reached a city gate. We stopped a few times for water, but mostly just rode on and on, looking out over the city below and the marveling at the brown-colored sooty air.

After the bike ride, we had a whopping 90 minutes of down time before we needed to assemble again for the night train--however, no hotel room or place to crash. I walked around the shopping area, bought some groceries for the train ride, and found a hotel with a public bathroom where I washed up a bit. I was desperate for a shower, but no such luck (for me or any of us).

We were back on the bus by 6:45, headed for the train station. The bus dropped us off several blocks from the station, so we had to carry our bags the rest of the way, being chased by street vendors with dolleys offering to carry our things. The train station was pandemonium, but we made our way through security and into the waiting area.

We boarded the train at around 7:45, with some confusion about seating assignments. The train is a soft-sleeper, which means you're in a tiny compartment with two pairs of bunk beds. Most of our group is sharing compartments with one another, but Hugh Graham and I are in a compartment with a Chinese husband-wife couple who speak no English. They are sitting next to me as I type this, probably talking about what an odd thing it is that I’m on my laptop.

The train is kind of fun, though. If it had a shower I’d be a happy camper.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Xi'An

At 5:00 AM this morning, 17 bleary-eyed travelers were roused by “morning calls” for our flight to Xi’An. We assembled in the lobby around 5:30 AM, where the hotel had prepared an unappetizing breakfast consisting of boiled eggs and a cold pork bun. We were on the bus before 6 AM, arriving at the brand new Nanjing Airport about a half-hour later.

The flight to Xi’An was easy and uneventful. Xi’An is about 1000 miles west of Nanjing at has a population of 6 million. It is one of the oldest cities in China and the home of thousands of archaeological sites, along with important pagodas and other places of great historic significance. It is best known by Westerners as being the site of the Terra Cotta Warriors, which we’ll be visiting tomorrow.

Initial impressions of the City as we were driving in from the airport were not good. The air was brown, the landscape flat and dusty, and the development pretty bleak. The City has a lot of heavy industry (big manufacturing plants with tall smokestacks, riverbanks that have been decimated by sand and gravel mining, and power plants). On the drive in from the airport, we passed through wheat fields and several small villages that had a third-world quality, with a lot of garbage and crumbling buildings. Once we got inside the ancient city walls, things improved quite a bit, and the city had that boomtown look that we’ve seen now in most Chinese cities. Skyscrapers, big construction sites, enormous wide boulevards, tons of traffic, and lots of street activity.

Unfortunately, tonight’s hotel is below par, with smoky rooms that seem more suited for rent-by-the-hour than by the day. On the other hand, there’s an entertaining mix of items in the in-room toiletries bin, including packets of male and female “sexual enhancement” lotions and potions (10 Yuen each).

After checking in (around noon), we headed aacross the street to a restaurant specializing in local Shanxi cuisine. This was very entertaining. We were seated at round tables, each given an empty bowl, and brought a platter of doughy disks that had the consistency of bagels. Watching other tables and patrons, we understood that each diner was supposed to take a dough disk and shred it into miniscule pieces, creating a pile of “bagel crumbs” in their soup bowl. The waitress then collects the bowls and ladles mutton and gravy on the bread, returning it as a stew. Each of us had our bowls rejected several times by the waitress because our bread morsels weren’t small enough. We realized that the bread ripping was a social activity, like playing cards or doing a jigsaw puzzle. You sit around with your friends shredding bread for half an hour and then have a meal.

I was seated with Jim and Barbara Kautz at a table we shared with three business men. They got a big kick out of our food preparation confusion and tried to help us along. No English, of course. Lots of smiles, and they even shared their beer with us.

At 1:30, about half the group went off to see the Big Goose Pagoda (good reviews from those who went). The rest of us used the time to explore the City on our own. It was 96 degrees with hazy sunshine, so the underground pedestrian malls came in handy.

I set out for the Muslim Quarter, an ancient part of the City close to the hotel. I wandered down narrow streets lined with tiny shops and street carts, passing residents with skullcaps and chadors. Eventually I came to the Great Mosque, which I think may be the largest mosque in China. I paid the admission and spent about 15 minutes inside. After I exited, I continued toward the Bell and Drum Towers (two large pagodas in the city center). The character of the neighborhood changed immediately, with scads of French and German tourists and a “souvenir bazaar” ambience. I did a quick tour of the Drum Tower and then headed toward the main shopping district.

The amazing thing is that just one block away from the labyrinth of ancient alleys and pushcarts there are gigantic department stores, with perfume counters for miles, flat screen TVs, Nike sneakers, and high-end clothing. The poor Bell Tower—the city’s most famous landmark—sits in the middle of an enormous roundabout and the only way to get to it is through an underground shopping mall. I walked several blocks through the shopping district, passing Emporio Armani, Dior, Calvin Klein, and three Starbucks coffees, and then did an about face and returned to the hotel.

At 4:45, we were ushered into minivans and taken to a dinner theater to see the Tang Dynasty Dumpling Dinner Show. This is a Disney-style Chinese variety show showcasing traditional Tang costumes, dancing, and singing. It was a little hokey, but entertaining. The sets were spectacular. Following the show, we were led into an adjoining dining room where we sampled 20 different varieties of Chinese dumplings. It was a very filling meal, and the food was excellent.

We returned to the hotel at 7:30 and had a short 20 minute break before our next event—a tea ceremony with a “local expert” in tourism and urban design. The expert turned out to be an Australian travel agent living in Xi’An, but she was very knowledgeable and a pleasure to talk with. She told us a bit about how the City is developing, how the tourism industry is influencing its growth, and how tourism among Chinese residents has exploded as the country has prospered. One of the intriguing things was her description of the government’s desire to tear down the Muslim Quarter and replace it with modern superblock development. It seems they are only just now realizing that people go there for the historic, ethnic character. It was a great conversation, set in a spectacular a 400-year old restored Ming Dynasty estate in the Moslem Quarter. And the tea wasn’t bad either.

It is 10:30 and I’ve just returned from that event. Right now, the streets are even more packed with people (mostly Chinese tourists) and street vendors then they were at sunset. It is still very hot outside.

This is going to be my last entry until Tuesday. Tomorrow night, we are checking out at 7:45 AM, driving an hour to see the Warriors (Terra Cotta, not Golden State), driving back to town to rent bicycles for a ride on the restored City wall, doing more walking tours, and then boarding a train for Beijing at 6:30 PM! When we arrive in Beijing on Tuesday morning, we immediately start our next event.

I am not particularly looking forward to a 13-hour overnighter on a Chinese train, especially after a full day of hiking and biking in 100 degree heat. But hey, I’m sure I’ll have some good stories to tell!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nanjing

What a difference a blue sky makes.

I’ve just come back to my room after a wonderful long (6 or 7 mile) walk across the City of Nanjing. This is a terrific place, prosperous and full of energy and life. The walk was a bit of an adventure, as I only had a very rough street map with no English on it (just Chinese characters). I think I’ve invented a new sport called “urban orienteering”— navigating a city using the angles of the streets, the direction of the sun, and the location of rivers, canals, and landmarks. Nanjing is the perfect city for playing this game. The dry, sunny 80 degree weather and blue skies certainly helped.

The day began leisurely. Breakfast in the hotel was pretty awful—you ask for coffee and get a glass of hot water and packet of Nescafe instant. The meal consists of a rice gruel pronounced “Con-jhee” accompanied by different Chinese condiments (pickled ginger, green beans, etc.). At 10 AM, we met in the lobby and were met by a tour guide named “Ya-Ya” (a sophomore at Nanjing Univeristy). This girl had overdosed on happy pills—she was like a character (or caricature) from a movie. If she was any more perky I think her head would have exploded. After we boarded the bus, she sang a Chinese song to us and told us a little about Nanjing. The bus made its way across the City into a vast and very beautiful park called Purple Mountain. Lovely cedar trees, grassy lawns, forests, and flowering plum trees. Lots of cool looking attractions and tour buses everywhere.

After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the Mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen. This is an extraordinary and imposing monument that sits high on a hill overlooking the City. You approach it via very wide stairs that go on and on forever, sort of like Sacre Coeur in Paris but about five times higher. The mausoleum structure is very grand and impressive, surrounded by formal gardens and sitting/reflecting areas. From the top, you get a nice view out over the city and the surrounding park. There’s some historical information on Sun Yat Sen and the construction of the monument. The place was absolutely mobbed, and we were told that Chinese tourists view the site as a sort of national shrine.

Our group re-assembled at the base of the monument after about 90 minutes, got back on the bus and returned to the City. We made a short stop at the ancient City wall and canal, disembarked to take photos, and then continued back to the pedestrian area where we’re staying. We had a group lunch at a “dumpling” fast food place, which was pretty good. The afternoon was “free time.”

I chose to go walking, heading into the labyrinth of alleys and narrow streets near the hotel, with my sights set on the Central Business District. After about an hour, I came to a very wide boulevard which I managed to locate on my Chinese map. I followed it a few blocks and came to a subway station. The subway just opened a few months ago and is so new that the stations still have “new car smell.” After two stops, I got off and went up to the street. I was in a really busy downtown shopping district with a huge underground mall, tons of department stores, skyscrapers, and a gigantic urban plaza with thousands of people strolling, laughing, shopping, and having fun. The atmosphere reminded me of Times Square—very different than what I was expecting. Then again, Nanjing does have five million people, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

It’s hard to contemplate the horrors that happened in this city just 70 years ago when it was invaded by the Japanese. More than 300,000 people were slaughtered (the “Rape of Nanjing”) and the City was occupied by a brutal regime for several years. It’s also hard to envision that Nanjing is 5,000 years old. There are ancient ruins in various places around the City, and so much more we won’t get to see during our short visit.

I actually found a Starbucks Coffee on my walk—right in the center of the city. No one spoke English, but I managed to get my coffee fix. When I walked out the door, much to my surprise I saw a second Starbucks on the other side of the street. Run! It’s coming!

I walked for several more miles, and then headed back in the direction I came from. One thing I observed is that I was the only Caucasian person for virtually the entire walk, and I did get a fair number of stares. People seemed very curious and friendly, and I never sensed any hostility or discomfort.

It is now 7:20 PM on Saturday evening. The streets outside are just packed with people and I can hear live music and singing from my hotel room. I am going to get some dinner (I don’t know where everyone else is) and probably make it an early night.

Tomorrow morning our flight to Xi’An is at 8 AM, and we’ve been told to meet in the lobby at 5:45 AM. UGH.

Nanjing



GROUP SHOT AT THE SUN YAT SEN MAUSOLEUM, NANJING


Friday, May 18, 2007

Lost In Translation

This morning (Friday), about half the group went on a very fast trip to the Suzhou Silk Museum (from 8:30-9:30 AM); the other half started the day at a more leisurely pace. The hotel served a “western style” buffet breakfast that included coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, croissants, and a big platter of cold French fries.

At 10 AM, we all reconnoitered in the lobby and boarded our chartered bus for the train station. The bus is standard size, but the streets leading to the hotel were so narrow that people actually had to pull back their store awnings and umbrellas to let us pass through. We made our way back through the construction zone on foot, eventually arriving in the boarding area at the railway station. Shortly after 11, an announcement was made (in Chinese) and hundreds of people began rushing out of the waiting room and on to the platform. We followed the flow. Dragon informed us that the train paused to let passengers off and on for exactly two minutes, which meant all 17 of us (and our luggage) had to move quickly.

After we boarded, the bullet train sailed along to Nanjing, a distance of about 150 miles. The trip took just 90 minutes. It was interesting to watch the scenery flash by along the way—we went through three cities with populations of two million people or more, and I had never heard of any of them. Most of the route was lined with tract after tract of six-story walk up apartment buildings, all arranged like sideways dominos. There was construction and new development everywhere---mostly mid-rise and high-rise housing with occasional big industrial parks in between.

We arrived in Nanjing at around 12:30 and made our way to our bus. The railway station was more like an airport, set on the shores of an attractive lake with a view across to the City skyline. From that vantage point, Nanjing looked much more like an American city than Shanghai or Suzhow. We drove across town to our hotel, which is located in a “pedestrian-only” quarter of the City. I always thought “pedestrian only” meant cars were prohibited, but apparently here it just means the cars drive on the sidewalks and honk so you move out of the way. Buses, however, stay on the perimeter.

The hotel is nice—probably the best place we’ve stayed so far, although the standards and amenities are still several notches below Western hotels. The staff is kind of surly, but I think that’s just because they don’t understand our questions.

At 2:30, we headed off to the Planning Institute of Jiangsu Province, which is the state planning organization for this region of China. The province is 40,000 square miles (about the size of Virginia) and has 75 million residents. Basically, just picture five Los Angeles Metro areas lined up end-to-end. The Planning Institute has a wide range of responsibilities, including doing long-range planning for many of the cities without the resources to do their own plans.

The planners escorted us into a big conference room with cups of tea and platters of bananas and lychees on the table. It was clear we were “special” guests, as there were about 10 staff members in the room, including one who took photos of us almost continuously for three hours. Several senior staff people were present, including the Director. He welcomed us in the local Mandarin dialect (Dragon translated), and then introduced the speakers. For the next couple of hours, we heard presentations from two staff members and two professors. Only the first presentation was in English—Dragon translated the remainder. However, he is a professional tour guide and not an urban planning translator, so much of the content may have been lost in translation.

The first speaker was the most cogent, describing how planning was done in Jiangsu and giving us some statistics and data on the province. The second speaker highlighted one particular project, which involved connecting two central business districts a few miles apart with a 300-foot wide grand boulevard with fancy stores and high rise towers. The third speaker was from the Public Works Department and gave us a presentation on drainage, all in Chinese (including the powerpoint slides). The final speaker was a professor who talked about how principles of New Urbanism were being applied in the planning of Chinese cities. Again, the language barrier made the presentation difficult, though the concept was intriguing and important.

When we finally got to the Q&A it was already 6 PM. At this point, everyone was pretty tired and a little frustrated that we couldn’t have a more meaningful dialogue. We went on for another half hour, with us responding to their questions about how changes in the Chinese land ownership system would impact planning, and them responding (sort of) to our questions about small business protection, campus planning, growth management, and other topics. We came away with the sense that they could benefit enormously from our collective wisdom and experience, but not without very sophisticated translators and a lot more time and preparation.

We were on our own for dinner tonight. Different groups paired up and went to various places here on the block where the hotel is located.

In driving around Nanjing today, it seems like a very nice city with a high quality of life. The City looks pretty prosperous and some of the architecture is not bad. The historical stuff all looks great. There are several universities, many ancient landmarks, several canals and rivers, and beautiful tree-lined streets with block after block of low-scale apartments with small shops on the ground floor. God help them when Walmart arrives.

Suzhou Photos

CLICK TO ENLARGE
From top to bottom:
(1) Presentation by Suzhou Parks and Planning Departments
(2) Ancient City Wall in Suzhou
(3) Scene from the Garden for Lingering
(4) Uighur (Central Asian) Feast












Suzhou

I’ll be posting this the day after I write it, since we don’t have internet access in tonight’s hotel. I thought about trying an Internet Café, but my phrase book doesn’t include the translation for “may I insert my flash drive in your USB port.” Saying that in Mandarin might get some interesting looks, or might land me in jail.

This morning (Thursday), we assembled in the lobby at 8:30 and were taken by bus to the Shanghai train station. This is a huge Stalinesque building fronting a plaza full of buses, bicycles, cars, motorcycles, trucks, and people with suitcases—all jostling to get through. We carried our luggage to the boarding area and took a 10:20 AM express train to Suzhou. The train speed is 130 MPH, so the trip only took about 40 minutes—a nice, comfortable ride.

Once off the train, we made our way to our shuttle bus through a massive construction zone. Lots of people, lots of confusion, and lots of construction. We boarded the bus and were delivered to the ChangMen hotel, another 15 minutes away. The hotel is inside a gated compound and appears to be a business conference center. It’s a very nice setting with a lake, gardens, and much nicer rooms and amenities than the place in Shanghai. After checking into our rooms, we walked over to the hotel restaurant and had a huge group meal. Cost was about $2.50 US for a smorgasbord of Chinese dishes and cokes.

We got back on the bus and headed to the “Garden for Lingering,” one of the main tourist attractions in Suzhou. The city is known for its ancient gardens, several of which are designated World Heritage sites. At the first garden, we were ushered into a large conference room where we were seated in comfortable chairs at coffee tables set with tea and trays of tomatoes and bananas. We had a very informative presentation on city planning and park planning from senior staff members from the Parks Department and the Construction Bureau. They gave us some good background information on Suzhou, which has a population of about 6 million people (2 million in the central city) and talked about their plans to accommodate another 6 million people in the coming decades.

At least, there seemed to be a greater sensitivity to history and the effects of growth on the existing city. They talked about the importance of parks and gardens, and setting aside land for open space as the city grew. That awareness seemed to be missing in Shanghai, and it was nice to hear the planners acknowledge it here. We bombarded the speakers with questions for over an hour, again anxious to learn how they approach planning in this country.

After the meeting we walked nextdoor to the gardens and spent about an hour doing a self-guided tour. The gardens were originally developed hundreds of years ago and had what we would consider “classic” Chinese features (bonsai trees, lakes, rock sculptures, and a maze of pathways and passages.) We continued from this site (by bus) to the Garden of the Nets, another Classic Chinese landscape. The garden was over 900 years old. Suzhou itself is over 2500 years old and is located on an ancient canal that connected the ocean to Beijing. Portions of the old city wall are still intact.

By 6 PM we returned to our hotel for a 45 minute break. At 7, we were back on the bus again, this time driving to the boat terminus to take a river cruise. This provided another vantage point from which to see the city. From the water, Suzhou has a very Venetian quality, with a “grand canal” and lots of narrow side canals lined with crumbling medieval buildings. It’s astounding to think this place is just 50 miles from Shanghai.

It was already dark out, so many of the shoreline buildings were illuminated with Chinese lanterns and twinkling lights. There were restaurants and cafes along the shore, and in some places pedestrian promenades. Unfortunately, the water was filthy and smelled pretty bad; but still, you got the idea that this was an elegant and special place.

Eventually the boat pulled up to a landing and we disembarked onto a quay. We walked a block or so through a busy pedestrian-only shopping area, arriving at a Muslim restaurant featuring cuisine from Xinjiang province (far Western China). We were led upstairs into a private dining room where women in burkha-like outfits were setting the table. The dinner was a feast that would have made Genghis Khan proud—plate upon plate upon plate of unusual Central Asian dishes. Many of the dishes were made with mutton, but they were nicely seasoned and very tasty. Two of our group (Franco and Jean) were celebrating their birthdays so we even had cake and singing of “Happy Birthday” in Mandarin. A few of us capped the evening with a drink at the hotel bar before calling it a night.

Suzhou seems like a much nicer and more livable city than Shanghai. It is not as prosperous, but the scale seems just about right, and it appears to function pretty well. One wonders, though, if it is only a matter of time before it is gobbled up and becomes “West Shanghai.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shanghai Images

CLICK ANY PIC TO ENLARGE

Top left: Scale model of Shanghai at the Planning Museum
Bottom right: View of Pudong at dusk
Center: Pearl Tower in the Smog
Top right: Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
Bottom left: Another funny traffic sign


















Better City, Better Life

This was “Shanghai Immersion Day” for our group. I am still trying to absorb everything I saw and learned; as a city planner it was pretty profound. There’s no way I can capture it all in a blog entry. There’s just not enough time.

Our group convened in the lobby at 8:30 AM. We divided into groups of four and took taxis from the hotel to a Starbucks Coffee in an area called Xintiandi, about a 10 minute ride. There, the principal of a local planning and design consulting firm met us, leading us back to her office for an excellent powerpoint presentation followed by a walking tour. Again, the scale of the firm’s projects was overwhelming—68-story buildings, thousands of units of housing, entire new cities, etc.

She told us about the 10-acre park across the street from where we were sitting, complete with man-made lake and underground parking. In two weeks time, the site had been cleared of hundreds of 90 year old apartments and developed as a park. We asked how they possibly could get things done so quickly. She replied matter-of-factly, “well, we have a labor force of 800 million people, and the crews work 24 hours a day.” There’s not much you can say after that.

Their project was really well done—they preserved several blocks of traditional Shanghai “Lilong” housing (townhouses developed on narrow alleys), relocating the families and converting the space into ground floor restaurants and bars, with high-end office space above. The scale was very human and comfortable. However, all around us, there were bulldozers knocking down similar blocks of housing and replacing them with mega-towers. This was the first of many disturbing things we observed about Shanghai today—there seems to be a disregard for the social fabric of communities and a “tear it down and make it bigger” attitude that pervades everything. In Central Shanghai, it’s pretty clear they are knocking down all the working class housing and moving the residents out to new towns (with no transit) 30 miles away. As they tear down the old, they build Park Avenue style luxury condos in their place.

From Xiantandi, we took a shuttle bus to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition. This was a peak life experience for me. Planning geek that I am, I got goose bumps when I saw the building, and was practically hyperventilating by the time I got to the museum’s piece-de-resistance—a scale model of the entire City of Shanghai (showing every structure in the city) that was about 200 feet x 200 feet. This is the largest museum in the world devoted to city planning, and it was spectacular. The entire fifth floor was the Comprehensive Plan for Shanghai, presented in beautiful and extravagant displays with video, computer simulation, maps, renderings, and thematic exhibits. The Plan’s moniker—“Better City, Better Life.”

Walking through this museum, one can’t help but be convinced that China will eclipse the US in a few years time, at least economically and technologically. The country seems unstoppable and the US feels stuck in the mud by comparison. I felt a strange mix of envy and horror at some of the exhibits; envy at the scale of what they’re doing, and horror at the social and environmental cost. Again, there appears to be little regard for people; they are just cleared out of the way and warehoused in these new cities while the economic engine chugs on.

The irony is that despite Shanghai’s emergence as the 21st Century New York, its water is undrinkable, its air is unbreathable, and its traffic is unbearable. In other words, the city is fundamentally unlivable.

At 1 PM, a group us were taken from the museum to the Pudong district, where we had lunch and went to the top of the Jin Mao Tower (4th tallest building in the world). The visibility was poor because of the smog and dust, but you could see that this particular part of the City was being developed as a bunch of signature skyscrapers rather than a “community” per se. I peeled off from the group at 2 PM and went for a walk in Pudong to check it out. It is about the most pedestrian-unfriendly place I have ever been, with 16-lane roads, walls and gates everywhere, and no signs to tell you how to get from point A to point B. Even the digital “countdowns” (telling you how many seconds till the light changes) are positioned on the traffic lights (for the cars) rather than the crosswalks (for pedestrians).

I spent over an hour trying to figure out how to cross the river. There is supposedly a pedestrian tunnel but I never found it. I did manage to find a bunch of American businesses (Hooters, Starbucks, etc.), and lots of wide sidewalks with blank walls at the base of the 70-story buildings lining the streets. It was a text book case of what not to do when designing a city, and I was delighted to have so much "Don't Do This" subject matter for future presentations.

I gave up looking for the tunnel and got on the subway. Everything was in Chinese, but I at least managed to buy a ticket and figure out which train to board.

I disembarked near the Bund, walked down to People’s Square and then veered south into the French Concession. The road was filled with hawkers (selling watches and wallets) and I was even propositioned by two girls who told me “Your English is very good, will you come with us for tea?” Apparently, this is the standard Shanghai hustle.

The air quality kept getting worse, I think because I was passing enormous construction sites and there was dust blowing everywhere. I did manage to find a very nice shopping street called Hualhi Road, which I walked for about two miles. I got on the subway again, but by this time it was rush hour and the train was so crowded I couldn’t exit at my station. I rode a few extra stations and then walked back to the hotel, getting there at 6:30. I think I walked about seven miles altogether.

At 7 PM, the entire group reconvened and went via subway to a theater a few stops away. We saw a performance by Chinese acrobats. It was pretty good, particularly the last number where five guys in Elvis costumes rode around on motorcycles inside a clear sphere called “the Ball of Death”. Other spectacles included a contortionist who turned herself into a chandelier, and a kid who threw ceramic pickle jars 30 feet in the air and caught them on his neck.

I had a late dinner with Charlotte, Bob, and Anne. It was 10 PM and most of the places near the hotel were closed. We followed some young girls up an elevator and ended up in a local hot pot place. No one spoke English, and we took a wild chance on the menu. Everyone was laughing at what we ordered. We figured out why when a covered dish arrived at our table and we lifted the lid. Inside were dozens of live, squirming river shrimp—one of which jumped out on the table. We had a good laugh, and managed to make some reasonable soup with the other ingredients (all vegetables!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shanghai

The city planning portion of the trip has officially resumed.

We assembled in the lobby of our hotel in Yangshuo at 6:30 AM, had breakfast and boarded our shuttle bus a little after 7:00. The flight from Guilin Airport wasn’t until 11:20, which gave us time to go on a driving tour of Guilin. Our itinerary promised us we would see “new urbanist” projects, but in fact, all we really did was drive around the city, drawing our own observations. One of the young girls from our hotel came along on the bus to narrate, but she had stage fright and could not speak. The bus driver gave it a shot, informing us that Guilin had one major street that ran through it. Coming from an intercity tour bus driver, that was kind of funny.

Maybe you had to be there.

Dragon then narrated, telling us that Guilin was a “tiny city” of one million people. It was clearly prosperous and had a very nice feel to it. Beautiful tree-lined boulevards, pagodas, lakes, mid-rise buildings that were very nice in scale and proportion, and pleasant riverfront promenades. The best part was driving along the river at 9:30 in the morning and seeing hundreds of people taking part in dancing classes/ exercises. There were fan dancers, ballroom dancers, and even line dancers strutting their stuff along the main promenade; everyone looked very fit and happy. As we approached the airport, we passed some interesting looking subdivisions with three-story townhouses and California-style single family homes. A sign of things to come?

We did the usual airport check-in routine, boarded our plane, and left for Shanghai. Interestingly, about two-thirds of the passengers on the plane were Americans or Europeans.

We landed in Shanghai at 1:30, collected our luggage, and then searched for our shuttle bus into town. Finally found it, and made our way into the City center. It was maybe 15 miles, but took almost 90 minutes, as traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way. First impressions of Shanghai were not particularly positive, though pretty much what I was expecting. The City goes on and on and on, is very dense, and is full of really garish brassy buildings with spaceship-like rooftops. The air is brownish gray, the traffic is terrible, and everything is under construction. The city is greener than I expected, though, and in some ways is maybe more prosperous. Driving in from the airport, there was no evidence of any poverty or “slums” and everything is pretty well kept and maintained. Just big.

After some frustrating gridlock on local streets, we arrived at our hotel at 3:30. We were a little nervous at first, because the place looks a bit ratty on the outside. It’s actually okay but it’s in serious need of a facelift.

At 4 PM, we convened in a meeting room and were greeted by two planning consultants (Ann and Tim) from the local office of AJ+C, a planning firm based in Sydney. They did a wonderful 90 minute powerpoint presentation on planning in Shanghai, and fielded a lot of questions from our group. I really think we were starved for the kind of information they presented, including data and “basics” about how city planning is done here. It helped that they were westerners, so there were no translation issues. They were also very engaging, and their presentation was well structured. They were able to put Shanghai’s spectacular growth in perspective, and explain what it meant to be a planner in a city that will add four million people in the next 8 years. So many superlatives---tallest building, largest port, nine new towns of 300,000 people each, 17 new subway lines in 3 years, biggest construction project in the world, etc—it is pretty overwhelming.

Ann and Tim then took us on a walking tour of Central Shanghai, highlighting the Nanjing Road shopping district, and the waterfront promenade known as The Bund. Many of the buildings date from the 1920s and 30s and were designed by American architects. There was a similar ambiance to Hong Kong, but it felt a bit more out of control, more hawkers, more crazy drivers, and generally a higher level of chaos. The best part of The Bund was looking east to PuDong, the new quarter of the City that was rice paddies just 20 years ago. It’s now a gigantic city filled with iconic buildings straight out of The Jetsons.

We went up to the roof deck of a classic old Bund building recently re-designed by Michael Graves. There, we had glasses of wine, watched the traffic crawl by on the Bund and the river, and continued talking about planning in Shanghai with our hosts. As it got dark, the neon lights of PuDong came on, making for a great backdrop to a discussion about the future of world cities.

At around 8:00, we bade farewell to our hosts and walked to a nearby restaurant called Uncle Albert’s. It was a big fancy looking place in the basement of a high-rise office building. We had a pretty good meal and retired to the hotel. Not sure how others feel, but I am exhausted.

More lectures and walking tours tomorrow. It's a shame we dont have more time in Shanghai. From a planning perspective it is probably the most interesting place in the world at this point in history, and I think we'd need at least three days here to appreciate all that's going on. Reason to come back, I guess!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Images of Yangshuo

CLICK ON ANY PHOTO TO MAKE IT GI-NORMOUS










LiJiang River Cruise







Balloon ride over Yangshuo-- not for the fainthearted




























Barry, Barbara, Franco, Hugh, Ed, and Canadian traveler on top of Moon Hill


Erin and Jean on a bamboo raft

Cooking School (I actually made this stuff!)






Rollin' on the River

Now it’s Monday. It is 10:00 PM and I feel like I’ve experienced two days worth of activities since last night.

We assembled in the hotel lobby at 7 AM, our bicycles all lined up and ready to go. We pedaled several miles out of town, joining the frey of early morning traffic and going on progressively smaller roads until we were deep in the countryside. After about an hour, we got to a river, where we paired off and put our bicycles on bamboo rafts. Each raft had two small chairs (for us) and was operated by a boatman who used a long wooden pole to push the boat downriver. There were even a few little waterfalls along the way, where entrepreneurial villagers took your photo (whether you wanted them to or not), ran over to their color printers, printed out the image, and then chased you from the riverbank trying to sell it to you.

After an hour of floating, we came ashore, retrieved our bikes, and rode another 10 minutes to a place called the Moon Hill Café. We were chased by aggressive bicycle hawkers selling postcards and wooden trinkets….it was comical and sad at the same time. By the time we arrived it was 9:30 AM and we had breakfast (I had a Moon Pancake, which was an omelette with bits of pork and red peppers).

After breakfast, five of us decided to climb Moon Hill, a limestone karst with a huge crescent moon carved (by nature) out of the center. It was a steep ascent up stairs and then a dirt/rock path to the summit—maybe 1,000 feet (vertical) above the rice paddies. The most enjoyable part of the hike was not the view, but the personal valets that accompanied us to the top. Our first reaction was “Oh no, more pesky hawkers trying to sell us post cards.” But these women were very sweet. Five of them appeared out of nowhere, one standing beside each of us as we began the hike. They each carried a cooler packed with sodas and a wooden fan, which they used to fan us as we walked.

I hate to admit it, but the fanning was nice. It was already about 85 degrees—hazy sunshine, as always.

These women spoke just enough English to charm us, and had smiles so big it was hard to send them away. Fellow traveler Barbara and I pulled out our phrasebooks and practiced asking them simple questions (“what is your name?” “how many children do you have?” “have you ever been to Hong Kong”?). They giggled at our Chinese pronunciations, correcting us and asking us simple questions back in English (“How many days will you be in China? ...followed by counting every number up to 18). It turned out these were the same women who cooked and served the Minority Dinner on Saturday night.

When we got to the first vista point, we bought cokes from them and bade them farewell. We continued on to the summit, in a hand-over-hand climb on the limestone rocks. Beautiful view at the top, of course. When we descended, the same women were waiting for us at the halfway point, and they escorted us back down, fanning us the entire way. We bought more cokes from them and said goodbye. The illusion was shattered a bit when one of their cell phones went off but it was still fun. Once down, we rode our bikes back into town and had a few hours of downtime before the next activity.

At 4 PM, we convened in the lobby and then boarded two mini-vans once again. We headed way out into the country (about 45 minutes) to a boat landing on the Liyang River. After a long wait, we boarded another flatbed motorized boat and began sailing down the river through the karsts. Again, unparalleled scenery that resembled something out of a Dr. Seuss book, with stranged twisted mountains towering high over the river, groves of bamboo along the shoreline, and ancient boats and rafts floating beside us. Each curve brought a new vista—evoking memories of every classic Chinese painting, decorative screen, and calligraphy drawing I have ever seen. We took turns sitting on the bow of the boat, taking hundreds of photos and feeling very spoiled--and lucky.

The boat cruise went until about 6:45 PM, just in time for a picture perfect sunset. We took the buses back to Yangshuo, and then went out for a group dinner at a nearby restaurant. We dined outdoors, on a little alley beside a bridge. Another sublime moment as our group was serenaded by a trio of musicians playing traditional Chinese music throughout dinner.

I think I have overdosed on scenery. Tomorrow we go to Shanghai, back to the city planning itinerary and away from Shangri-La.

"Beer tastes so much better after a near death experience"

I am going to lose all credibility after those of you back home read this entry, because what I’m about to describe sounds more like “extreme adventure travel” than a city planning business trip. Just keep in mind that Yangshuo was put on our itinerary for the weekend so we could have a relaxing “country” experience in between our city visits.

I can already hear the collective “Yeah, right” coming from friends and family.

Yesterday (Sunday) morning started with breakfast at the café down the street. We convened in the lobby at 9:30 AM and boarded a bus out to the countryside. Even at 9:30 on a Sunday, the streets were packed with bicycles and motorbikes, stores were open and there were people everywhere. Being a passenger here is wild—the streets are jammed with people, motorbikes, and bicycles, and the occasional car/bus driver honks continuously to warn people to move over. The buses feel like they could collapse into a million pieces at any moment. Half the vehicles on the street appear to be powered by lawn mower engines, and they are usually piled high with bamboo, rice, and all kinds of weird cargo.

We drove about 10 minutes down twisting country roads, passing rice paddies, assorted farm animals, and interesting looking houses and apartments, finally arriving at a place called the “Outside Inn.” After getting off the bus, we walked down a path to a building with two open-air classrooms equipped with individual cooking stations (a gas burner, wok, and chopping block) for each member of our group. We split into two groups and took our positions. In the next three hours, we would become gourmet Chinese chefs.

The class was great, and the setting unbeatable. We learned how to make eggplant with oyster sauce, pumpkin blossom stuffed with pork and spring onions, chicken with cashew nuts, beerfish in red and green peppers, and green vegetables with garlic. When we were through, we sat on a veranda and ate our creations, looking out over the rice paddies. It was sublime, and the food wasn’t bad either.

We had a few hours of downtime after lunch. I used the time to get some work done. Really, I did! (There’s that “yeah, right” again)

At 4:00, 11 of us set out for an “unscheduled” itinerary item—a hot air balloon ride through the karsts. I had been pushing the idea, suggesting that as planners we had a natural desire to see the landscape from the air. It was a little pricey, but hey—how often does an opportunity like this come along?

Little did we know what awaited. This was no Napa Valley champagne balloon ride.

We were crammed into two tiny vans and driven out to a rice field at the base of the karsts a few miles from town. The balloons were already inflated, and there were men in orange jumpsuits jumping up and down to keep them on the ground (I guess that's why they call them jumpsuits). The whole operation looked completely “fly-by-night” (no pun intended).

There was no orientation, safety talk, or signing of liability waivers—they just rushed us quickly through the rice paddy, split us into three groups and shouted at us (in Chinese) to climb into the balloon baskets. I ended up in a balloon with Juan, a “driver”, and a “trainee” The four of us could barely fit in the basket—I think it measured 3 feet on each side. You could feel your head being scorched from the hot air flames overhead. In a few chaotic seconds, we were all in our baskets, and one by one began to ascend.

The ascent was pretty terrifying. The basket only was about waist high, and Juan and I were gripping the support poles for dear life. I think we rose about 2,000 feet in 2 minutes, and immediately started drifting toward the karsts. A few minutes later we were up at 3,500 feet, and the landscape below looked like an aerial photo. Rivers snaking everywhere, villages dotting the countryside, and otherworldly forest-covered limestone formations in every direction. It was hazy but sunny, and there was just enough of a breeze to carry us downwind. There was this unnerving beeping noise that would get faster and slower as we rose and fell, and an occasional and deafening ROAR when they released hot air into the balloon.

We paid for an hour, but the total ride was more like 90 minutes. It became pretty clear as we descended that there was no organized landing spot; you just sort of came down where you came down, and then walked to the nearest road to be picked up. However, there weren’t a whole lot of options, since 99 percent of the countryside consists of either flooded rice paddies or vertical limestone rock formations. The other one percent, by the way, consists of high voltage power lines, which was where we headed. What, me worry?

The three balloons landed about a mile apart, and probably 10 miles away from where we started. Juan and I landed on a freeway roadbed still under construction. The moment we touched down, little children from the nearby village ran over and surrounded us, wanting to look at the photos we’d taken on our digital cameras. It was quite a sight. Another balloon landed in the center of a small village in a scene straight out of the Wizard of Oz. The third balloon came down in the forest, after a near miss with the limestone wall.

We were driven back to the hotel (a story in itself) and arrived around 6:30. The hotel had set up a long table out front, and we were seated for our next event—a “meet and greet” with the Yangshuo city planner. It was basically a one-hour Q&A session. We asked a question, Dragon translated, the planner responded, and Dragon translated again. It was hard to know where to begin with the questions, since we don’t have a basic understanding of how planning is done in China. But there were a few moments where we knew we were getting through, like the smile on his face when we asked about "citizen participation."

At 7:30, yet another activity—cormorant fishing. This was probably the silliest and most obviously staged of the Yangshuo activities. We were led down to the waterfront (with flashlights). There, we boarded a flat bed boat and chugged down the river. A man on a bamboo raft floated parallel to the boat, pushing his raft with a bamboo pole. Meanwhile about a dozen cormorants (diving ducks) swam in front of his raft, dipping under the water and coming up with fish in their gullets. Every now and then the boatman would pick up the cormorant, stick his fingers down its throat, and pull the fish out. It was pretty weird, but heck I got a good photo of me with a cormorant on my arm at the end. What was that about bird flu?

A few of us went out for dinner afterwards. We sat at picnic tables on a narrow lane, had an assortment of Chinese dishes at the table, and drank a few beers. Fellow traveler Erin, who had been on the balloon that almost hit the limestone karst, remarked “beer tastes so much better after a near death experience.”

I wonder what the Chinese translation for that is?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Minority Dinner

Last night, we gathered in the lobby at 7 PM to go to a “minority dinner.” This consisted of getting on a mini-bus and driving about 10 minutes out of town to a small village where the residents were mostly Zhong (as opposed to Han). It was a little unclear where we were (was it an actual village or a tourist attraction?).

The surrounding limestone karst scenery was jaw-drop beautiful. We were ushered down a narrow street for about 500 feet, in between small one-story buildings (houses, I guess?). At that point, we entered a small building with a concrete floor and two very low tables with kindergarten-size foot stools arranged in a circle around each one. We were seated and brought bowls of peanut tea; this consisted of soup bowls with something resembling peanut brittle floating on top. There were three very cute puppies in the room, which was wonderful, though I got worried when they disappeared for awhile right after the food was served.

We were seated, and then brought different dishes by the hosts throughout the evening. The food was OK, a lot of it was pretty odd (roasted peanuts, some sort of green vegetable in a purple sauce, chicken with lots of bones in it, etc.). There was a big poster of Chairman Mao on the wall. Dragon explained the significance of the minority dinner to us—which is basically that ethnic minorities live harmoniously with the majority, in part due to the legacy of communism.

After dinner we made our way back to the hotel. It was around 9 PM. A bunch of us parked ourselves at an outdoor table in front of the hotel and had a few beers. Others went off exploring, and others went to bed I think. The street outside the hotel was quite lively, with lots of people strolling and passing by---really nice ambiance.

PS: The puppies reappeared before dinner was through!

Yangshuo Images



Here's the view from the end of the street where our hotel is located (click to enlarge):









And here's the hotel atrium (click to enlarge):

Yangshuo

Incredibly enough, I am getting a great wireless signal here in the Morning Sun Hotel, in Yangshuo, China, so I can write to my heart’s content.

Yesterday went off pretty much as I described in my last entry. It was a long day, using virtually every mode of transportation imaginable. The much-anticipated arrival into mainland China was pretty cool. Shenzhen Airport had an instantly different feel than Hong Kong. There was a collective “Toto-we’re-not-in-Kowloon-anymore” moment as soon as we saw the serious-looking soldiers with machine guns guarding the ATM machine. After a short flight (about 300 miles) to Guilin, we gathered our bags and headed into the steamy humid night to find our shuttle bus. Nighttime at Guilin Airport was quite a sight, with neon palm trees everywhere.

We arrived at our hotel at 11:15 PM and trudged up to our rooms. Arriving so late was a little surreal, as the Morning Sun Hotel is unusual by Western standards. Looking at the roadsides as we drove into town was pretty interesting—though it was late, there were still a lot of people out walking around, riding on motorbikes, getting haircuts playing cards, sitting around and smoking, etc.

The hotel has about 30 rooms and is really more like a country inn or a B&B in its ambiance. All the rooms opening onto an open air atrium (sort of like an Escher drawing) with lots of stairways and beautiful and intricate wooden lattices. The room is basic but comfortable; hard beds, a clean bathroom, and a TV that gets 120 channels—all in Chinese. I watched a little bit of TV when I got into the room. It was some sort of kung fu program, I think, except all the actors were in monkey costumes and it was set in an ancient dynasty. Actually a lot of the TV channels seem to feature medieval kung fu warriors.

This morning, I got up at 6 AM. I think my adrenaline level is pretty high on this trip, so when I wake up early I have a hard time falling back to sleep. Although it was raining pretty hard, the view was beautiful. There is a pond below the hotel and a 500-foot tall limestone karst right on the other side. I went down to the lobby around 8 AM and ran into one of my fellow travelers. We went up the street and had some breakfast (banana crepes, eggs, coffee, and toast for about $3 US), watching people walk by in the rain. There is a Southeast Asian quality to this place which is very relaxing; people are very gentle and sweet, always smiling, and are friendly even when they don’t understand a word you’re saying.

At 10 AM, we gathered in the lobby for to begin our bicycle tour. However, because of the rain, Dragon rearranged the schedule and we did a tai chi class instead. The class was comical in an I-Love-Lucy sort of way, with all of us trying to follow the moves of the tai chi master by looking in a mirror at the front of the room. Fortunately, we were all equally clumsy (my apologies to those in the group reading this 2 weeks from now)! It was nice to watch the tai chi master do it the proper way.

We had a great lunch at the hotel restaurant, though I was disappointed that the local specialty (bamboo rat) was nowhere to be seen. Following lunch, there was a walking tour of Yansghuo. This brings me up to now. The rain has finally stopped, though its still cloudy and drizzly. We have the rest of the afternoon free and are meeting at 7 PM to travel to a nearby “minority village”, where we are going to be having dinner with the local people. Should be interesting.

Yangshuo is a beautiful place and the limestone karst formations are really amazing. One does get the sense that we are seeing a little tiny “bubble” of the place that has evolved for the convenience of Western tourists. There is a slightly staged quality to the activities, lots of cappuccino bars and internet cafes with names like "Mickey Mao's", peasants posing for photos, and plenty of desperate looking people selling picture books and trinkets to the Americans and Europeans on the street.

But really, you only have to walk a block off the main drag to experience the real thing.






Thursday, May 10, 2007

Buy digital!

I’m going to write today’s entry “in advance” since I won’t have easy email access this weekend.


We have the morning and early afternoon “free” and have all been encouraged to go out and "buy digital!”. Sadly, I don’t think a 42” flat screen will fit in my backpack (sorry, Chris) so I am using this time to catch up on some work. Its hot, humid and overcast outside.

Our instructions are to meet in the hotel lobby at 2:30 PM. We will walk 15 minutes to the Ferry Terminal. Then we board a boat to Shenzhen, which is an hour ride. Not sure when we go through Customs, but apparently they have given us lots of extra time in case complications arise. After we disembark the ferry, we take a bus to Shenzhen Airport, another 15 minutes. Our flight is not until 8 PM, so I guess we will have down time in the airport. We are flying to Guilin, also about an hour’s trip.

When we get off the plane, we are supposed to collect our things and then get on another bus (a chartered one, this time). That will take us to Yangshuo, another 90 minutes away. We are supposed to get to our hotel at 11 PM tonight.

Yes, Mom, it does sound like the Amazing Race, except without the million dollar prize at the end. And with 17 planners, the arguments are mostly about who gets the window seat and who gets to hold the map!

Land of the 50-story Lotus Blossom

Another very full, very interesting day.

The group met in the hotel lobby at 6:45 AM. After a very quick breakfast, we walked to the subway and traveled several stations to Sheung Wan. We made our way through another vertical shopping mall to the Macau ferry (everything was closed, since it was still only 7:30 AM). We actually had to clear customs and immigration, since Macau is another “semi-autonomous” region, with its own currency, government, etc. The country is tiny—only about 10 square miles—but has a really interesting history. We boarded an 8 AM hydrofoil, and sailed across the South China Sea, observing the scenery along the shoreline (beautiful islands, rugged mountains, but terrible air quality—really thick brownish gray smog, like L.A. on a bad day).

Arriving in the City was exciting, as the boat passed under a new bridge and along a waterfront with Las-Vegas style buildings, including a giant volcano, a 1000-foot space needle, and a 50-story building shaped like an enormous lotus blossom.

After disembarking, we cleared customs again and entered Macau. We took a local bus into the historic center, which is known for Portuguese colonial buildings dating back to the 1500s. The architecture was really charming, and reminded me of Mexico or Puerto Rico---bright colors, beautiful wooden windows, ornamental iron railings, ceramic tiles—as well as really interesting pavement patterns, fountains, and artwork. We spent several hours walking through the historic district—parts were “pedestrian only” and other parts had motorbikes and cars racing through, honking at people to get out of their way. As the morning went on, the streets got busier and by noon it was really lively and crowded.

We visited several historic churches, each with its own story. A few had small museums, with historic religious artwork and objects. Lots of photo opportunities, particularly when you could align these crumbling apartments with laundry hanging everywhere with the enormous lotus blossom skyscraper that was being built in the background. The walk took us up some very steep streets to a historic fort and museum, with amazing lookouts over the City. Macau is not as prosperous as Hong Kong, but it doesn’t seem to have abject poverty either. Mostly just modest, sort of rundown looking apartment buildings, with lots of interesting stuff happening on the ground floor of each building---including auto repair shops.

Our walk took us to the site of a historic church built in the 1500s and burned in 1835. All that’s left is the façade of one wall—the rest is just rubble and historic markers. The place was really popular, tourists everywhere, many visiting from Indonesia and the Philippines. From this point, we walked several miles on twisting streets until we came to a Buddhist temple. We had a short visit there and then had a great lunch at a Macaonese restaurant. Some of the highlights were cod balls, oxtails, and African chicken.

After lunch, we boarded another City bus and went down to the Casino district. We didn’t actually go into the casinos, but instead headed to a new development along the waterfront called Fisherman’s Wharf. Strangely enough, this is an Orlando-esque entertainment complex, with buildings that are meant to replicate places like Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Amsterdam, Miami Beach, and New Orleans. It was an odd contrast to the craziness and authenticity of the old city a few blocks away. We were also the only people there! We did enjoy some good ice cream, and got some great photos. I asked the guy at the information desk what was inside the giant volcano (I think it must be a roller coaster or a theater or something), but all he could say was “Lava.” I think that was the only English word he’d been taught.

We went back to the ferry terminal around 5 and caught the 6 PM boat back to Hong Kong (same deal with clearing customs and immigration). By the time we got to the hotel it was 7:30. I went back out to get some food, and instead found myself on a street where hawkers in front of every storefront were trying to lure me in for a massage. As nice as that sounded, I don’t think it was the kind of massage I was looking for! And I was hungry and tired. I grabbed a snack inside a huge mall (with a mere 700 stores) called Ocean Centre, and headed back to the room to write this.

It’s funny traveling with planners—I think we share a common gene in our DNA. We all reach for our cameras at the same time, take photos of the same things (like the Macaonese dog toilets), and love riding public transportation. I think we could walk through these cities forever.

Some photos from today's trip are in the post below, called "MacWow"