How China dealt with the COVID19 Delta variant

About one month ago, the COVID-19 delta variant escaped from Nanjing airport into the wild. Apparently, the cleaning crew of an airplane from Russia didn’t handle the security procedures correctly and got infected.  This highly contagious variant spread around like wildfire to Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Yangzhou, Wuhan and even a resort town in southern china. Eventually it penetrated 17 provinces and 50 cities.

One month later there is almost no domestic infestation of the Delta variant left. There are still some infections in the border areas, but those are not related to the Nanjing escape and well contained.  So how did China do this?

A big part of it is the action that the national and regional governments took, but that’s not the only thing. The people themselves were panicked too and as a result very cautious. For example, when I got stuck with a * behind the Beijing location on my travel code, hotels cancelled my reservations and a private family where I was going to have a local dinner didn’t feel comfortable hosting me anymore. I’ve seen similar things in Beijing. When Beijing was in COVID-19 war-mode, the subway, malls, and restaurants were much less crowded. Clearly folks were staying home. With facemask you saw the same. A month ago, folks were getting lax with face masks, when the war-mode went into effect everyone immediately abided to the face mask rule, even when just walking on the street.

If you notice carefully, everyone is wearing face masks.

Of course, the most impactful were the official measures. Beijing reinstated temperature entrance checks everywhere: subway, work, malls, hotels, restaurants, etc. It also enforced location tracking. Everywhere you go you have to scan a QR code identifying where you have been. You need to do this when you enter a taxi or a Didi, when you enter your work, when you enter a mall, and even when you enter a restaurant in that mall. There is no exception. To leave and enter Beijing you need to have a COVID-19 test, even if your health and travel codes are green.

Can you spot all al the QR health codes in these pictures? You are required the scan these so you can be traced in case you’ve been in contact with COVID-19.

For some restaurants in Beijing, especially the ones frequented by foreigners, you now have to show your vaccination status before you are allowed to enter. If you got your vaccine in China, it shows up in your health code but for those who have been vaccinated overseas it is not entirely clear how this works. I haven’t tried any of these restaurants yet since they put that rule into effect. I will have a go this weekend because I’m kind curious how they handle foreign vaccination cards.

Other provinces, like Yunnan, enforced a no out-of-state tourist guideline during this out break. This happened while I was there and I was allowed to continue until I too was hit with the dreaded * on my travel code for Beijing. Does this mean you are completely stuck? No, but it does mean you need to get a COVID-19 test ASAP in order to continue.  I’ve heard that some provinces require you to take a COVID-19 test every two days until the star disappears from your travel code (locations are only kept for the last 14-days). Of course, these rules vary per region and per company. For example, my apartment complex warned me that if I had a * behind any other city name than Beijing, then I could no longer stay there per their company policy.

Of course, once they detect a COVID-19 case the measures are draconian. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with this, but if someone gets diagnosed on your block, the entire block is immediately quarantined. Folks who have been indirectly exposed, need to self-quarantine and report themselves. Not that you have much choice, your health code immediately goes yellow, and you can’t get anywhere anymore.

So how many cases did we have in Beijing? For one day we have 6 new cases in a single day, but most of the time the people infected were 2, 1 or 0 per day. These are case counts, not percentages as someone from the US asked me during a call. On a city population of 25 million  that is insignificant, but as I said before: Folks in China do understand the power of exponentials and they try to squash any outbreak as soon as they can and as hard as they can.

Beijing’s daily case count. This is the first statistic that I check in the morning.

On Monday August 23rd, Beijing declared itself COVID-19 free and it dropped the * behind its name on the travel code. That means I’m a free man again and I can travel around the country. I have to be careful and avoid contaminated places because then I risk getting stuck again. For example, Shanghai is still considered a high-risk place and it has a * behind its name so for the time being I will not be travelling to Shanghai.

No more * behind 北京 on my travel code.

Some Chinese folks feel that the local government is too heavy handed and should be more relaxed about it. My perspective is a little bit different, especially after having lived through the COVID-19 mess in the USA, which is on the other end of the spectrum of how to deal with COVID-19. I kind of prefer the Chinese way. It’s a brief inconvenience but the pay off is that things are back to normal quickly.

Let’s hope there isn’t a new flare up anytime soon …

An unexpected ending: Shaxi, Weishan Dali, and back to Kunming

On Friday morning 4am I woke up in Shangri-La and I did what I typically do, check my health and travel codes and take screen shots of them. Sometimes the internet is slow or the systems are overloaded during the day so its good to have back up copies of them. If you don’t have green health/travel codes then you are stuck and cannot go anywhere.

Unfortunately, my travel code at 4am showed the dreaded star behind Beijing. While this doesn’t mean you are infected (the travel code even says so in Chinese), you are effectively persona non-grata at this point. Nobody wants you in their hotel anymore and what’s more, random road checkpoints can send you back to where you came from. I forwarded a screenshot to Yuwen, who was no doubt still deep asleep at that time, and I went back to sleep as well. That is, I tried to but too many scenarios were running through my head. Should I stay in the hotel I was currently in until Beijing was purged from my travel list (only the regions from the last 14 days are recorded, so this was an extra 5 days), should I ask my colleagues to pack up my apartment in Beijing and send it to me in Kunming, prematurely ending my Chinese adventure, or just ignore all of it?

I got the dreaded * on my travel code behind Beijing, indicating its a mid- to high=risk area. Can you spot it?

At breakfast, Yuwen (my tour guide) decided that we should continue the trip as we had originally planned and we went to our next destination: Potala palace, or at least the Shangri-La version of it. When we arrived at the entrance of Potala palace it became clear that I wasn’t going to get in. The * behind Beijing, despite my health code being green, was too high risk. Instead I was told to get a COVID test before I could enter. We argued but they wouldn’t budge. So, off we went to get a test. We tried various hospitals but none of the places could get us results before 8pm that evening. On top of that, our hotel for that evening at Lugu lake canceled our reservations because Yunnan had just shutdown all new tourist travel.

A last view of Shangri-La and its Potala palace. I never got to visit it because of the * on my travel code.

This meant we had to reset our plans. Our sightseeing was over and we needed to plan how to get back. Rather than staying in Shangri-La we decided to head closer to Dali where our driver had many connections. So a new plan was formed, we would visit Shaxi old town instead for that evening and then get a COVID test in Dali the first thing tomorrow (Saturday). With that test result I could go places as well as fulfill the requirement to board my flight to Beijing on Sunday.

Of course, this left Friday. The driver ensured me he knew people in Shaxi so getting a hotel wouldn’t be a problem. I remembered that there was a road checkpoint between Dali and Lijiang on the way over that checked for health codes but I decided not to ask about that. I didn’t want to get folks to become more worried.

On our way we went. The driver followed the old Burma road that the Americans constructed in the 2nd world war to provide supply lines to airports and military bases around Dali. I also suspect that he took this small country side road rather than the nearby highway to evade checkpoints. I think we spent a good 5-6 hours in the car to reach Shaxi and then we hit a road checkpoint. Fortunately, we were behind a dumb truck and we were waved through. Yuwen has been referring to me during this trip as lucky 老外 (laowai, foreigner) and that time I certainly did get lucky.

The next stop was the hotel. I was told to show my travel code from the previous day, which I dutifully take pictures of every morning, without the star. I was also advised to show it quickly so that they wouldn’t notice that the arrow wasn’t pulsating like it does in the app. When we arrived all the attention was on Yuwen, who was very nervous. They checked her health codes, checked travel codes, etc. This is where I lucked out the second time. They never asked me. They took me to my hotel room, initially assuming that Yuwen and I shared a room, but Yuwen quickly corrected that, and that was it. For the next 30 minutes I was expecting the hotel owners to recognize their mistake and ask for my codes too but nothing happened. Lucky 老外 indeed!

That afternoon Yuwen and I then visited Shaxi old town. Perhaps it was the relief that everything was over now, but Shaxi was by far the best old town we visited. Shaxi is a small town with many of its characteristic buildings and most important it is not overdeveloped or touristy. What also helped was that we ran into the proprietor of Peter’s kitchen. Peter serves draft beer, which I like, and we struck up a conversation. He runs a small western style food restaurant and small B&B in Shaxi. He decided to get into a new line of business after his import-export business in Beijing got to a virtual stand still during COVID. He is originally from Canada, and he lived in Europe and Costa Rica where he also ran a restaurant. Peter was very friendly, talkative and even showed us to his favorite local restaurant in town despite the fact that he had his own business to run. I love these chance encounters and I especially love people that keep reinventing themselves and take life in their stride.

Impressions from Shaxi. A wild mushroom market, street scenes, Peter’s Kitchen and Shaxi’s famous bridge.

After a wonderful dinner, it was a great recommendation, we headed back to our hotel for a good night sleep. The next morning we left early to drive to Dali’s hospital to get me COVID test. We were told that there was a long line at the hospital and that we had to prepare for a wait. Nothing was further from the truth. Because of the * behind Beijing on my travel code I was considered high risk. I was not allowed to set a single foot in the hospital. Instead I was directed to a separate section for high risk patients, which fortunately didn’t have a line at all. After they took the test, a simple throat swap, I was free to go and I would get the results of the test between 4-6pm. It was a bit bizarre than on the one hand I’m super high risk, yet I’m free to move around.

The hospital in Dali, which I wasn’t allowed to enter until I had a negative COVID19 test result.

We took advantage of this hiatus to visit Weishan, another lightly developed old town near Dali. The highlight of this town was a private museum of a local caravan leader. It was an old traditional building and the owners had collected many old artifacts from local lives and the trade caravans.

Impressions from Weishan old town. At the top of scenes from daily life. A butcher and handmade noodle shop. At the bottom are views from the private museum.

Around 4pm we headed back to Dali to get the test results. By then I had figured out how to check in with a wechat miniapp (the trick was that my western names were all concatenated without spaces) and around 5pm it showed I was negative. We still headed for the hospital for a paper copy with a stamp. You can’t have enough official documents with stamps in China. This time around I was no longer considered a high risk patient and I was able to visit the hospital and print the test result.

To add insult to injury, when we checked into our Dali old town hotel, I had to remind the checkin staff of my COVID test results. Only then did they look at it. After all the effort we went through to get it, I wanted to make sure folks examined it 🙂

The next day we travelled to Kunming by high speed train. This time I was able to show my health codes, travel codes and COVID test so everything was fine. A few days before I’d gotten a notification that my flight was cancelled and we rebooked it to a later time. This gave us some time to have lunch, explore the big lake in Kunming, see its sleeping beauty and drink 30-year old Pu’er tea in a place nearby. It was a wonderful wrap up of a spectacular vacation.

Kunming’s sleeping beauty followed by a traditional tea ceremony.

That afternoon Yuwen dropped me off at the airport. The check-in process was easy because we had everything they asked for. The flight itself however was seriously delayed because of weather problems. When I arrived in Beijing we landed with lightening all around us. That was quite scary. We also had to deplane on the tarmac. Not sure why, its a very modern large airport. Still, we had to wait for over an hour for the thunderstorms to subside. Once they did we could get off the plane. I had never been to this new airport before, it’s far south from Beijing, at least an hours ride from my appartment. What really surprised me is that I could walk out of the airport without showing my travel code, my health code or my COVID test. It was only when I got to my DiDi (Uber) where they told me to scan a tracker QR code that I realized things were different in Beijing now it was under a COVID watch ….

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Balagezong, and Shangri-La

The next few days were a long travel days. The distance as the crow flies is not too far, but Yunnan’s mountainous terrain with its many hairpin turns slowed us down a lot.  The trip from Baisha to Tiger leaping gorge (虎跳峡) was about 2:30 hours, followed by another 3:30 hours to Balagezong (巴拉格宗) which is best described as Yunnan’s grand canyon. From Balagezong it was another 2:30 hours to Shangri-la (香格里拉), so we had lots of car time.

Our first stop on this part of the journey was Tiger leaping gorge. Tiger leaping gorge is a narrow canyon where the main tributary to the mighty Yangze river (长江), the Jinsha river (金沙江), forces itself through a narrow fissure. It’s an overwhelming spectacle with a torrent of water coming through the canyon. In the middle there is a boulder and according to the legend a tiger used that to jump over the gorge. That’s highly unlikely though.

Jinsha river view.

The road to tiger leaping gorge is, in places, cut into the rock face with sheer drops on the side. At the visitor center, about 500 meters above the gorge is my guess, there are two options to go down into the canyon. One is by foot, another is by escalator. We decided, in the interest of preserving our energy, to walk down and take the escalators back up. With almost 83F (~28c) and the sun beating on our head that was a wise move. At the bottom of the canyon there is a boardwalk that goes right by the gorge itself. It offers a spectacular view of the fast-flowing river next to it.  It is surprising that you can walk only a few meters away from a raging torrent of water.

Jingsha (or Yangtze) River is a raging torrent while its water is busy finding a way through this Canyon.

After our visit to Tiger leaping gorge we headed for Balagezong. Balagezong is a park based around a deep canyon on the Tibetan plateau. You enter by car at the canyon floor and follow the river. After the park entrance the road starts to meander up into the mountains. Our hotel was in the middle of the park, perched just below a Tibetan temple complex. We arrived quite late, after 7pm, and were immediately ushered into the dining hall to have dinner. The dinner was just general Chinese food, unfortunately nothing specific to the region. I wanted to sample some of the local alcohol but Yuwen (my guide) strongly discouraged that because of the high altitude.

Welcome to Balagezhong. Our hotel is right behind the temple.

The next morning I got an early phone call from Yuwen urging me to look outside the window. We both had separate rooms but we looked out over the same patch of forest. When I looked outside I stared straight at an adult male monkey that was grooming himself and who was probably waiting for hand outs from the hotel guests. It was a gorgeous and unexpected sight.

In the morning I was welcomed by this male monkey.

After breakfast we took the guided tour-bus from the hotel up the mountain to a Tibetan place place of worship called Gezong holy mountain. After many hairpin corners we crossed a mountain pass and reached the plateau’s summit. The top of one of the mountains looks, with some imagination, like a natural pagoda and its considered a sacred place. Its part of a set of peaks that includes Balagezong snow mountain, which at 5545 meters is the highest peak in Shangri-La. These mountain peaks are flanked by 40 stupa’s which are covered in prayer flags with Tibetan script on them.

On the way down we were dropped off at a scenic site with a great overview of the river that was working its way through the canyon below. The site also included a zip line over a deep canyon, but that was not for me. I can’t stand heights when I’m support by only a thin wire. Closed cable carts are already a challenge, let alone dangling in a flimsy harness on a wire hurdling over a canyon. No thanks!

Majestic canyon views.

We then continued to visit a restored Tibetan village. After that we had a quick look at another sight, the hand of Buddha, a large tree which has a small set of roots that look like a hand embedded in the rock, afterwards we travelled to Shangri-La. Another 2.5 hour ride.

In Shangri-La we stayed in a relatively modern hotel about 1.5km outside the old city. We walked to the old city to get some miles in. With all the walking over the last few days we had not met our move goals that day yet.

Shangri-La after dark.

Shangri-La old town was a surprisingly nice place. It too was burned down recently after a major fire (2014) and fully restored. I was surprised about the number of westerners I saw walking around. Not just young couples, but also families with kids. I suspect these folks were all living in China already because otherwise its hard to get here. Probably because of these foreigners, Shangri-La had a decent share of pubs and local microbreweries which I obviously had to sample. After a nice local dinner we visited the temple complex that was downtown near its central square.

Impressions from our hike in modern and old Shangri-La.

So far we had stuck to our original plan and COVID, while a threat, had not impacted our trip. The next day everything would be different.

Lijiang, Yulong and Baisha

Around this time, I got the news that Beijing was going into COVID war mode. Although still low, in the single digits, the delta cases kept increasing and as I stated earlier, if there is one thing the Chinese understand, it’s the power of exponentials. War mode in this case meant that tracking was in full effect again as well as temperature measurements at all building entrances. There was also a strong advice not to leave Beijing or its province, but since I was already in Yunnan, I decided to enjoy my vacation.

Next on our travel route was Lijiang old town (丽江古城), a UNESCO heritage site. Lijiang is an old Naxi people town dating back more than 2000 years and its old buildings and water works are among its most prominent features.  The city feels a bit like Venice with its bridges and many fast-flowing streams that have been neatly arranged into different functions: drinking water, washing water and sewage. The city was largely flattened by an earthquake in 1996 but it has been beautifully restored.

Street scenes from Lijiang.

The most beautiful part of Lijiang was the Mu Family Mansion. It’s a large complex that starts at the bottom of a hill in the middle of the city and follows the contours up the hill. The Mu family ruled over Lijiang and its surroundings and the complex is a mixture of official buildings (meeting halls, library), temples of various religions and personal living space. The Mu family focused on trade and was closely associated with the emperor. The city never had any city walls and apparently that wasn’t necessary because the Mu rulers kept good relationships with everyone. However, the fact that Lijiang is surrounded by high mountains on all sides with only a few river valleys in-between probably had something to do with it as well.

The gorgeous Mu Family Mansion.

Despite the beauty of the city, it wasn’t my favorite part of the trip. Over the years Lijiang has turned into a party/hookup town with many overcrowded and loud live-music bars catering to a younger clientele. I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that this may not be the most effective way to deal with an active pandemic.

At night Lijiang turns into a party/hookup town.

The next morning we had a trip planned to Yulong snow mountain (玉龙雪山) or better known by its English name: Jade Dragon snow mountain. We took a cable cart up the mountain and there we climbed up to the top to see its glacier and its jagged peaks at 4576m. It’s a good thing we started early because soon the clouds set in and covered the summit obscuring it’s views.

Yulong’s majestic mountain peaks and glacier.

Yulong is part of a national park which includes a large theatre area where they performed a Naxi culture play. While they provided an English explanation, sort of, the nuances escaped me but the larger story was something like this: The men went on long caravan rides to trade goods, the women stayed home and did all the hard work, when the men came home they got drunk first with their friends, after which the women collected their inebriated men. In typical Chinese fashion, the play was big (well over 150 actors is my guess, and many horses) and very loud. 

The Naxi culture festival. Like most things in China big and over the top.

The next stop was a beautiful turquoise glacier run off lake at the bottom of Yulong mountain. It provided a stunning backdrop with lush green forests and snowy peaks in the distance. Consequently, it was a popular place for wedding pictures. I’ve never seen that many prospective couples together. I’m using this word prospective, because apparently the custom in China is to take the wedding pictures before the wedding so you can use it in your invitation.

The glacier runoff created a beautiful set of lakes at the bottom of Yulong mountain.

Of all the towns we had visited so far, the best was our next stop in Baisha old town (白沙古城). Baisha was on the Tea horse trading route as well as the ancient southern silk trading route. Baisha was known for its silk embroidery, a skill that’s still being practiced in the city today. The city also hosts a sizable temple complex with gorgeous Buddhist murals, although most of it was under reconstruction when we visited the site.

Scenes from Baisha Old Town (including collecting the trash), a copper smith’s house and its temple complex.

One of the reasons I liked Baisha so much, was because of the Naxi people’s torch festival that coincided with our visit that day. While the original festival was cancelled because of COVID risks, the local people held their own in small gatherings around the town. It felt much more genuine and intimate to see locals dance and light their torches. I was told that the origin of the torch festival was to chase away the dragons before harvest, but after searching the web, I learned that it’s celebrated by other minority groups as well for different purposes, including match making.

Subdued Naxi torch festival celebrations.

Dali and Xizhou

Originally, I was planning to write a blog entry every day during my trip around northern Yunnan, but it turned out that my days were so full of activities and new impressions that I was exhausted by the time I retreated to my hotel room. The last thing I had inspiration for was to write a blog entry. So that’s why I’m writing them after the fact.

I’m beginning to write these next few entries while I’m flying back to Beijing in the middle of a renewed COVID scare here in China. What started out as a hand full of cases in Nanjing and 2 cases in Beijing on the day I left by train, has now grown into full COVID scare and China has gone into full pandemic control mode. Northern Yunnan has had zero cases so far, but Beijing hasn’t and that caused some unexpected changes to my trip but more about that in a future blog entry. Overall, this was a wonderful trip with great memories about places and sceneries that are unlike anything I’ve seen before. I can highly recommend Yunnan to anyone who is interested in history, culture and nature. I also want to do a shout out to my good friend, my Chinese teacher and my tour guide Fu Yuwen who did an amazing job putting this trip together, guiding me through it, and dealing with the obstacles caused by COVID. Yuwen was full of surprises. Unbeknownst to me, she was actually a fully licensed tour guide, an examination she had passed for fun two years ago, and this was the first time she used it. I could not have been in better hands.

Continuing from my previous blog, after a full day in Kunming we took the highspeed train to Dali new town (大理新镇) in the evening where we were greeted by our driver who would drive us around for the rest of the week. We were staying in Dali old town (大理古城), which is about a 40 minutes’ drive away from the train station. When we finally arrived at the hotel around 11pm I was exhausted and wanted only one thing: go to sleep which I promptly did.

Dali old town lies at the base of the Tibetan Plateau and is surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, including the Cangshan mountain (苍山), and sits on the shore of Erhai lake (洱海). Dali sits at a central point in the tea trading routes to India and Tibet and that’s how it historically accumulated its wealth. It’s also known for its high-quality wood working and its marble that is quarried from the nearby mountain ranges. Dali is in the Bai people region, one of the 56 minorities in China, and the houses in the town are typically painted white with beautiful decorations and beautiful wood carved doors. Dali was the capital of the Buddhist Nanzhao kingdom (738-902AD) and some of its landmarks stem from that period.

Market stalls in Dali old town.

The day following our arrival, we had two activities on our schedule: climb Cangshan mountain and visit Dali’s three pagodas. Climbing Changshan mountain (4km straight up) was a bit ambitious to my taste, although Yuwen had done it with a friend in 3.5 hours she said, so we took Asia’s longest cable car to get up there. Along the way we saw a wonderful panorama of Dali, Erhai lake, sharp mountain ridges and very distinctive wind-swept vegetation. At the top there was a 2.5-mile hiking trail taking you through beautiful vistas, and apparently at the right time of the year, very distinctive flowers.

On top of Cangshan mountain you can see Erhai Lake, unique vegetation and a small artificial horse washing pond at the top.

Dali’s three pagodas are part of the sprawling Chongsheng temple complex, and they were built during the Nanzhao kingdom. According to a legend, the three pagodas were built to deter the dragons in the region who were responsible for causing natural disasters. If you look carefully you can see that they lean, kind of like China’s version of the tower of Pisa.

The three pagodas (front and back view) and one of the temples behind it..

As you probably remember from one of my previous blog posting, my favorite go-to app for finding restaurants is Dianping (大众点评). It’s like a Chinese Yelp, and while I can’t read the reviews, I typically go by the food pictures and the restaurant’s rating. In this case I saw a highly rated (4.9 out of 5) nearby hotpot restaurant.  They served the local delicacy, wild mushrooms. Apparently, these mushrooms are poisonous when raw and they need to be cooked for at least 20 minutes. When they dropped the mushrooms into the boiling broth at our table, they also set a 20-minute timer. After 20 minutes they added another 5 minutes because it wasn’t ready yet. This didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence, but I tried it, it was delicious, and I clearly survived the ordeal to write this blog.

Five kinds of wild mushrooms hotpot.

The second day in Dali was going to be easy according to Yuwen and it consisted of a stroll through Dali old town itself, a visit to Xizhou old town (喜洲古城), and in the evening we would stay at a hotel near Erhai lake. This easy day turned out to be the day we did the most of steps on our trip: ~23K.

Dali old town was a key trading city on the ancient tea horse road (茶马古道) with routes leading from Yunnan into India and Tibet. It’s a city built with typical Bai architecture houses. These are square houses with a courtyard in the middle, living/animal/storage space on the three sides and a white sunlight reflection wall on the fourth side. The houses are mostly painted white, with decorative figures near the roof line, and the doors are made from beautifully carved wooden panels. The city itself is laid out in a grid like manner with defensive gates on each side, which I suspect reflects its military background.

A Bai architecture element: a sun light reflection wall.

Inside the city there are gorgeous temples, including a Confucius temple (大理文庙) and a Wu, or Guan Di, temple (关帝庙). The Confucius temple was beautifully restored and well worth a visit. The Wu temple was in the middle of its restoration, but its front courtyard was accessible. Yuwen used it to explain to me the original meaning of the word 八卦 (bāguà). These are the eight symbols used in Taoism to represent the fundamental principles of reality. The word also has a modern meaning: gossip, which Yuwen appreciated less, especially when I used it to make the driver laugh.

Confucius temple in Dali old town.

In the afternoon we visited Xizhou old town (喜洲古城). It too was an important stop on the tea horse road and goes back to ~600 AD. There, we visited the Yan family courtyard (严家大院), a beautifully restored compound that is a great example of high Bai architecture. It’s also a strange combination of old and new. The first four courtyards were classical Bai architecture, but in the back of the compound there was a western style building that even included a bomb shelter from the 2nd world war. I guess this is a good example of the struggle Chinese had in the 1920-1940’s on how to integrate the modern with the classical.

The Yan family courtyard combining literally. the modern and classical.

We tried to visit other old Bai buildings in town but for one reason or another they were all closed. We did find some Belgium style craft beer along the way, the first I found in Yunnan, which I obviously had to sample. Yunwen insisted we also visited the Linden Centre. That’s a traditional Bai compound restored by an American couple from Chicago which they then turned into a luxury hotel. Unfortunately, they didn’t let us into to the building because we weren’t guests.

Entrance to the Linden Centre.

That night we stayed in a modern hotel overlooking Erhai lake in Shuanglang (双廊镇). Shuanglang is a picturesque town built on the side of a cliff with small paths leading up and down the hill that are too small to fit cars. We had dinner in a local restaurant, which I found, you guessed it, with Dianping.

Gorgeous view of Erhai Lake from the hotel.

Kunming and Shilin

My arrival in昆明 (Kunming) by highspeed train, with only a 24-minutes delay, was effectively flawless. My travel guide / Chinese teacher / friend, Yuwen, was waiting for me and ready to go to dinner and drop me off at the hotel afterwards. She invited the travel agency organizer along so we could finish up some last-minute travel arrangements, which included actually paying for the upcoming trip with, you guessed it, an app (in this case Alipay). The dinner place Yuwen selected was a traditional Yunnan style restaurant that served a soup-like noodle dish called 过桥米线 (Guò qiáo mǐxiàn). It consisted of 15 individual ingredients (meat, vegetables, mushrooms) that were served in something that resembled a bento box and those ingredients were all dropped into a hot bowl with rice noodles and chicken soup. I guess they really wanted to show that everything in the bowl was fresh. It was delicious and a very warm welcome to Yunnan and Kunming.

Yunnan style dinner: 过桥米线

The hotel for that night, Green Lake hotel, was in downtown Kunming near a small city lake called 翠湖 (green lake). After breakfast I met up with Yuwen and we went for a stroll around the lake, which was filled with blooming lotus flowers.  The lake is the oldest part of Kunming and it’s surrounded by old buildings, including Yunnan’s military academy where some of the early communist leaders received their training.

Green lake in Kunming and its nearby military academy.

Our driver picked us up at noon to take us to 石林 (Shílín) Stone Forest, about a 1:30 hour drive from Kunming. Shilin is one of the best representations of Yunnan Karst’s landscape. It was formed 270 million years ago when it was part of a large sea that over time receded and the landscape eroded. Its also a great example of how Chinese love to see shapes and stories in these limestone rock formations. For example, 阿诗玛 (Ashima) is a famous rock pillar that represents a Yi-girl and her local head wear. There is also a legend associated with this pillar. Ashima was a beautiful Yi girl born in this area. When she fell in love and was forbidden to marry her suitor, she turned into a stone pillar.

Impressions from stone forest. The last picture is the famous Ashima.

After an exhausting afternoon, it was over 80F (27c), humid and the sun was beating on our heads, we had dinner in a very popular roadside restaurant that served local chicken soup, dumplings with sticky rice and meat, and a bitter tasting type of squash. Yuwen grew up with this kind of squash and loved it. For me it was an acquired taste.

After dinner, we headed for the train station to take the bullet train to Dali, our next destination. This was a little bit more eventful because of an afternoon rainstorm that caught up with us and we hadn’t booked the train tickets ourselves. This isn’t a problem for Chinese people because they use their ID card to get into the train station, but it wasn’t clear I could do that too on my passport. It turned out that I can run through everything too with just my passport (this is a major change from previous years). As a passport holder, I have to go through the manual check points/check-in counter but as long as my passport number corresponds to the number on the ticket everything is fine.

Getting to Yunnan the slow way

This is going to be a first of a series of blog entries about my vacation in 云南 (Yunnan). When I decided to go to China, the whole China team was encouraging me to go on vacation and see different parts of the country. That sounds great but you don’t really get to do that when you are busy at work and building your social network. With almost 3 months into a 4.5-month stint, I decided to follow their advice and take a week off to see Yunnan.

Why Yunnan? It’s one of the most scenic areas of China. Yunnan one of the most southern provinces, bordering on Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Of the 56 ethnic minorities in China, 26 of them live in Yunnan. So, it’s a very diverse province. It also happens to be that my Chinese teacher lives in Kunming and she volunteered to be my travel guide and translator for this trip.  This was very generous of her, she even had to take a week off, so I insisted that I compensate her for it and pay all her expenses because I didn’t want to take advantage of her. Besides, everyone at work told me that it was a very good idea to travel together with a local.

The trip itself will take me from Kunming, to Dali, to Lijiang and eventually to Shangrila. Along the way we see different ethnic minorities, enjoy their food and culture, and see spectacular nature. My tour guide has spent hours working with a local travel operator to prepare this trip so I’m looking forward to it.

I didn’t leave everything to my tour guide and her travel operator. I decided to take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kunming. This is an almost 11hr trip that starts at 8am and gets into Kunming around 7pm. Everyone asked me why I didn’t take a plane. It’s faster and cheaper. While that’s true, and I’m taking a plane when I return, I wanted to experience the changing Chinese landscape when going from North to South rather that flying over it.

I used the 12306 app to book my high-speed train ride and like last time I got a business class seat. This is the most luxurious level and it’s a small compartment with at most 4 other passengers. I got a chair by myself, which as I discovered can not only go into a full sleeping position, but it can also turn so you are straight in front of the Window. That’s basically what I did for the full 11 hours, I put on an audio book and watched the changing Chinese landscape roll by.

The journey started at 5am for me. After a shower I got a DiDi to Beijing West train station. My train left at 8am, but I figured I’d show up early because as a foreigner everything is a bit more complicated. These precautions were all unnecessary. With the QR code from the app I could quickly run through all the checkpoints, I didn’t even have to show my passport even though I had it visibly on me. They preferred I scanned the code in the app because it was quicker. Unlike last time, when I exchanged the online QR code for a paper version because that’s what I was used to, they ensured me that wasn’t necessary. That too turned out to be the case, I just needed to scan my QR code at the platform gate to get in. Of course, with all this efficiency I did have almost 2 hours to kill in the VIP lounge. Next time I can show up much later.

Beijing west train station.

The days before the trip I carefully monitored the weather and the train schedules. ZhengZhou, a city on the train route, was inundated by heavy rain the weekend before. Tragic videos of people drowning in stranded subway cars that got stuck in flooded tunnels were all over the news. Much to my surprise the highspeed train was running although it was incredibly hard to figure out which trains were cancelled, and which were not. This surprised me. For a country where everything is high tech it was the hardest thing to figure this out. Even for Chinese people. Eventually a friend sent me the following Baidu query (北京西站7月28日停运列车) that I used everyday, with the appropriate date inserted, to understand what was going on.

The highspeed train and the cabin I was in. I had the bottom left chair.

The train left on time and ran like clockwork at ~298km/h until we hit Zhengzhou. There the train understandably slowed down and we drove through still emerged villages. This delayed us by 15-minutes and at the end of the trip we had a 24-minutes delay, which in my opinion is pretty good on an almost 11-hours ride.

Zhengzhou was hit very hard by the bad weather the weekend before.

The trip itself was uneventful. I left a rainy Beijing and the weather cleared, ironically around Zhengzhou. From that point on it was clear and around Wuhan (of COVID fame) the sun came out. It was also around Wuhan that the landscape changed. Before that it was flat farmland and factories. Around Wuhan it became hillier and by the time we hit Hunan these were steep and jagged mountain peaks. From Hunan on the train also encountered many tunnels. Not too surprising with all the mountains but it made the scenery viewing more challenging.

After Wuhan the landscape started changing.

Halfway through the train ride, I got an update from thebeijinger.com that discussed the two new COVID cases in Beijing and how it has everything on edge. Also, the cases in Nanjing and surrounding areas is getting everyone worried. Thebeijinger.com suggested to cancel all unnecessary travel but at that point it was too late. I was on my way already so I may as well enjoy it.

I’m glad I stuck to my guns and did the train ride. It’s a gorgeous trip and you get to see parts of China that you typically flyover. I can highly recommend doing this, if you have the time.

Beijing Bikini

Any visitor to Beijing during the summertime, especially someone who likes to explore the downtown Hutong neighborhoods, will quickly get familiar with the concept of a Beijing bikini. A Beijing bikini is the name for typically middle-aged men that roll up their t-shirt and let it rest on the ledge of their beer bellies so they can cool off. This is related to the belief in ancient Chinese medicine that it is good to air out the hot energy 气 (qì) and to bring the qì back into balance. This in turn goes back to the Chinese 陰陽 (yīnyáng) belief that everything needs to be in harmony.

A couple leisurely strolling in a Beijing Hutong while dressed in a fashionable Beijing Bikini.

As you can imagine, freely aired beer bellies are a somewhat unsightly view and when more and more foreigners started posting pictures of this on social media sites the Chinese government, worried about its image, decided to clamp down on it. As far as I can tell they haven’t been very successful at stopping this practice. I still run into it all the time and it doesn’t offend me at all. In fact, it makes me smile every time I see it, and knowing that the government has failed to stop it makes me laugh even more. It’s a form of harmless civil disobedience that’s also very quintessential Chinese.

Some companies have taken the term Beijing Bikini as a badge of honor and included it in their product branding. 京A (Jing-A), one of my favorite microbreweries here in Beijing, has named a summer beer after it: The Beijing Bikini watermelon wheat. A refreshing beer for hot summer days. Enjoy!

The Jing-A brewery menu from their new CBD branch proudly shows the Beijing Bikini watermelon wheat beer.

Rainy Season

Did you know Beijing had a rainy season between mid-July and mid-August? I didn’t and it was quite a surprise to me. I associate summers with high temperatures and sunny weather, not high temperatures and a constant down poor. This results in high humidity, and it makes any kind of outdoor activity a draining experience (quite literally) where you must make sure you stay well hydrated.

This season apparently started early this year and it is especially fierce with lots of rain. I got emails from the Beijing US embassy that bad weather was expected and that I should try to avoid it. In case you are wondering how the US embassy knows I’m in China, I registered with them on their web page. It’s a service they provide for US citizens in case you need help or need to be contacted by the home front. I’ve been told that the US embassies are the best in helping their citizens when they get stuck, much better than any other country. So, registering seemed like a prudent thing to do and hopefully I don’t have to take advantage of it.

It wasn’t the only notification I got. My China Mobile carrier also sent me a courtesy message that bad weather was expected and that I shouldn’t go camping in the mountains. China Mobile (and I assume other Chinese carriers) regularly send out these service messages. Anywhere from reminding folks not to set off fireworks in Beijing during certain festivals, to be on the lookout of computer fraud, and to bad weather messages. This is somewhat comparable to the US where you’ll get an occasional Amber alert or a flood warning (at least in Texas) although in China these warning messages seem to cover a broader range of topics.

Of course, I blissfully ignored all these warnings and a friend and myself went to visit the Ming tombs on Sunday, a trip I had planned weeks ago. Actually, we weren’t that stupid, the bad weather wasn’t supposed to hit until later that afternoon/evening, so we took our chances and decided to head back early and get dinner in Beijing to avoid getting stuck.

Entrance to the Ding Ling tomb.

The Ming tombs are the 13 mausoleums built by the Ming dynasty emperors. The construction started around 1420 by emperor Yongle, that is the same emperor who started building the forbidden city. The tombs are located about 26 miles (42km) north of Beijing in a valley surrounded by mountains and forests. Of the 13 tomb sites, only 5 are open to the public and because of the inclement weather forecast we decided to visit only the two main ones. We started with the Ding Ling mausoleum and then visited the Chang Ling mausoleum. The later mausoleum was built by emperor Yongle.

There is no real convenient way to use public transportation to get to the Ming tombs. The subway doesn’t go that far, and busses are too inconvenient. In addition, the tombs are stretched out over a large area with lots of space between them. Instead of using public transport, I opted for renting a DiDi Premier for 10 hours. It was curious that I couldn’t order a multi-hour rental using the DiDi app (see my previous blog) while it was in the English language mode. When I changed it to the Chinese language setting a lot more options appeared, including renting a car for 10 hours. During the trip itself it was good that I had a Chinese speaking friend with me because even though I had booked the car for 10 hours, I still had to enter every stop into the app separately. Presumably for tracking purposes.

The Ding Ling tomb was by far the most impressive one. It was excavated in the 1950’s and you can enter the underground tombs as well as visit the mausoleum grounds. The tomb itself is surrounded by a circular stone wall that reminded me of the Great Wall.  The mausoleum also has two exhibition halls where they show either the original or replicas of the artefacts that they found during the excavations. This includes wooden soldiers to protect the emperor (kinda like mini-terracotta soldiers), silks, golden crowns, peacock feather crowns, jewelry, etc.

The Ding Ling courtyard. Do you notice how deserted the place is by Chinese standards?
A golden crown is on display in one of the exhibition halls.
Deep underground is the actual tomb. The large casket is for the emperor, the two smaller ones are for the empresses.
There are also three thrones underground. One for the emperor and the two empresses.
There is a circular wall around the tomb itself. My friend is in the picture. It’s always helpful to bring a native speaker along.

The second tomb, Chang Ling, was a short car ride away from the previous tomb. It was not excavated (or not accessible for the public) but I found its grounds more impressive than the Ding Ling tomb. The site wasn’t very large, and it took us only 45 minutes, including the large central hall with artefacts, to visit the site.

The entrance to the Chang Ling tomb.
A statue of emperor Yongle himself. No wonder these caskets were humongous.
The temple/pagoda in front of the, presumably underground, tomb.
This tomb had a large open courtyard with old pine trees.

I noticed that it was exceptionally quiet at the two sites. It isn’t clear to me whether these sites are less popular or whether it was because of all the bad weather warnings that there were so few visitors. Probably a combination of both. In any event, we got to visit a very tranquil and by Chinese standards almost empty tourist spot.

That evening the weather did set in but by that time I had dropped off my friend at her home and I was already at my own apartment. The next day I decided to work from home, after the US 2021 winter storm I pay a lot more attention to these warnings, but that wasn’t really necessary. It was raining consistently but not overwhelmingly. Around 2pm the rain had subsided, and I decided to visit the Ming era Beijing city walls that are just southeast of my apartment. I was fed up with being cooped up inside. Halfway through my walk the rain started again with a vengeance. By the time I got home late Monday afternoon I was soaked but I still managed to capture some gorgeous pictures of the restored walls.

Impressions of the southwest Ming era city walls in Beijng.
Impressions of the southwest Ming era city walls in Beijng.
Impressions of the southwest Ming era city walls in Beijng.
The southwest Ming era watch tower. At this point the flood gates had fully openend.

Feedback from a Chinese citizen

I want to do something different with this entry and make it more like a guest blog. A friend of mine, Yungang Bao, provided me with extensive feedback that further illustrate some of the points I was making in my previous blog post. It’s interesting to read his Chinese perspective and therefore I copied his feedback verbatim below. He gave me permission to share his write up in this blog, but before I do that, I want to provide some context.

Yungang Bao is a Chinese scientist and professor at China Academy of Science’s Institute of Computing Technology (ICT). He got his Ph.D. from ICT, and he did a postdoc from 2010-2012 at Princeton University, one of the most prestigious Ivy league research schools in the USA. He is one of those Chinese people that is highly educated, smart and eager to learn and make a difference. His write up below shows some of the disillusionment in the West/USA that he and people like him have experienced over the last few years. He details how he and his peers almost idolized the USA in their youth and then overtime, and especially during the last half decade, realized that the USA isn’t the ideal society it likes to portray itself as. His write up also shows that he and his peers don’t consider China to be an ideal place either but that it is worth improving and that’s what he and his peers are doing.

Yungang and myself after dinner on top of the Olympic towers in Beijing.

It’s this can-do attitude that led me to pack my own bags and move from Europe to the USA almost 25 years ago and I’m now seeing that same spirit and excitement here in China. People want to improve themselves and their country. That’s one of the reasons why I find China and the development it goes through so fascinating. However, don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud USA citizen and I love the opportunities the USA has provided to me. I would never want to exchange that for another country, but I also understand that Yungang feels the same way about his country, both the good and the bad, and that he wants to make it a better place.

Here is his verbatim write up. Notice his intention to make this a sequel.

Thank you for sharing your observations and insights. Your blog is perhaps one of the most objective sources in English media describing what happened and is happening in China.  I’d like to share my observation and experience in the last two decades. These will be a series of stories.

(1) The battle of social media

I understand that most western people recognize China as an evil country under the dictatorship of the evil CCP party (actually the official name is CPC, the Communist Party of China),  because they perceive China through only western media rather than living in China or even visiting China. So it is kind of fun to read answers on Quora about some topics such as how foreigners have changed the way they think about China after visiting.

In fact, most of Chinese people were also deeply influenced by western media. This influence has lasted for three decades since the early 1980s and didn’t fade until the 2010s.  When I was in high school, one of the most popular things was to buy a powerful radio to listen VOA. When I just entered Nanjing University (NJU) in 1999, I found that a lot of classmates started to prepare going aboard by learning TOEFL and GRE. When I graduated from NJU in 2003, probably one fourth of my classmates left China.

Since the early 2000s, social media started booming in China and a lot of knowledgeable people published their opinions on the Internet.  This group of people were called public intellectual (公知), who either used to study abroad or were doing research on the west system including politics, economy, law and society etc. They wrote articles on blogs, expressed opinions on social media, got interviewed on TV,  and were very influential. Their key ideas were very straightforward that China was far way behind the west countries so whatever China do is wrong and whatever the west countries do is right, resulting in a very popular perspective in China at that time that the US is the ultimate goal for China’s future, just like the lighthouse in the dark sea.

The situation got changed around 2010 because of the Internet. Arab Spring swept countries in the Mid-East one by one, with the goal of pursuing a democracy country under the instructions of the US and its allies. However, the results were not as good as expected, instead, full of wars, disasters, tragedy and refugee. There was a flame in Wang-fu-jing (just near your hotel) where the US Ambassador Huntsman was captured by a video.  https://www.ksl.com/article/14496704/video-showing-huntsman-near-protest-in-china-stirs-controversy

There was a short dialogue. A Chinese man said, “Hey, Mr. Ambassador, what are you doing here?” Mr. Huntsman replied in Mandarin, “I’m just here to look around.” “You want to see China in chaos?” The man asked. Mr. Huntsman replied “No“,  “I don’t expect to see that.

 few months later, on a president-elect debate, Mr. Huntsman said: “We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China. They’re called the young people. They’re called the internet generation. There are 500 million internet users in China. And 80 million bloggers. And they are bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-LodoUppuA ) “Take China down“, well, this was the real thought of Mr. Huntsman.

Thank to the Internet, these two videos were wildly circulated in China’s social media. Many young people realized that they were just like tools used by politicians of other countries. Then there were evidences that many  public intellectuals on social media were support by foreign funding.

President Trump further accelerated the awakening process by breaking the dream of the ideal US society deliberately described by the public intellectuals.  The trade war, Hong Kong issues, Xingjiang issues, discrimination on Chinese in the US, comparisons of dealing with COVID-19, “I can’t breath” and the BLM movement, comparisons of rescuing victims in falling buildings and so forth….. Many Chinese people felt that they were deceived over the past decades. More and more facts show that the US is not a good example of future society.

On one hand, many Chinese people felt that they were deceived over the past decades. Although the Great Fire Wall (GFW) blocks most Chinese people from accessing the information outside China, there are still tens of millions of people who are generally well educated are able to cross the GFW. Many of them read news written in both English and Chinese and compared what described in western media and what really happened in China. They found that there are tremendous disinformation and bias in western media. To most Chinese people, western media is no longer trusted.

On the other hand, Chinese people, especially the young people, got a more mature perspective on the world —  every country has its own problems which can only be solved by its own people.  Chinese young people started to look back into the history of China and found that there are many valuable philosophy, wisdom, practical experience as well as sacrifice and lessons in the 100-year history of CPC. They started reading Mao’s books, the sales volume of which surges seven times from 2015 to 2020. 

To conclude the results of the battles of social media, Chinese people recognize hypocrisy of some western media and become more and more confident. 

It is worth noting that during the past four decades, no matter how China lagged behind the west countries, there were always a number of people insisting on the philosophy — getting our own job done well. In particular, top leaders of CPC held the belief that “development is the absolute principle” proposed by Deng Xiaoping. So China actually doesn’t care about socialism or capitalism. Once an approach is beneficial for development,  no matter which country it was first proposed, no matter what time it used to be adopted,  China is willing to try (I’ll describe how China tries new approaches in future sections). There are two famous quotations by Deng Xiaoping: 1) Black cat or white cat, if it can catch mice, it’s a good cat; 2) Cross the River by Feeling the Stones. China, under the leadership of CPC,  probably  is one of the most down-to-earth countries all over the world.

To be continued…