It is November 2022 and as I’m sitting in my quarantine hotel in Shanghai preparing for another visit to China, and by popular demand write another blog, I realized that I never finished the blog from last year. That was in part because that last one and half month got very busy with visiting friends, giving talks at universities while I was still in Beijing, an excursion to Qinghai and then a few final days in Shanghai before flying back to the USA. Between saying goodbye to friends, whom I wasn’t sure when I would see them again, and my family who were eager for me to come back it was an emotional roller coaster where I didn’t want to spend time keeping up my blog.
The last few weeks in Beijing consisted of many dinners with friends and two talks at Chinese universities. In both cases I talked about modern datacenters and the open research problems we need to solve. This was a version of a talk I had given internally to Microsoft Research although there too it only contained public information because of the large number of interns that attended my talk. I did that deliberately to make sure I was in the clear from an US export control perspective, something you have to be aware of as a US citizen who is working on leading edge technology.
The talk at Xinhua university was well attended but was fraught with COVID concerns. For one reason or another I wasn’t allowed onto the campus because I didn’t have the right COVID vaccination credentials. Instead my talk was held in a building just north of the campus. For my talk at ICT there were no COVID concerns, and I was allowed into the building and mingle with the students and their professor and my friend Yungang Bao. In the afternoon Yungang and his students took me through their opensource RiscV processor (XiangShan) that they are building, and I was quite impressed with how quickly they were learning.
RiscV has been all the rage in China. With China slowly loosing access to high end silicon technology because of US sanctions they are determined to stand up their own capabilities. Since RiscV is an open technology, albeit an immature one, it’s a very attractive starting point for academic teams and companies in China. They are quickly developing an elaborate ecosystem around it. From open synthesis tools to compilers, operating systems, and the rest of the software stack.
One of the things I did in early August, was to extend my stay by a few weeks until October 1st. However, I missed the fact that this included a week-long mid-autumn holiday (中秋节) in September. I used this opportunity to visit Qinghai (青海), a land locked province in western China. I picked that destination because it’s a place I had never been to before, so I got to see something new, and it had zero COVID cases at that time. I didn’t want to deal with the COVID concerns I had to deal with in Yunnan.
Qinghai borders on Tibet and most of the landscape is equally wind swept interspersed with salt lakes and deserts. It also had a place that reminded me of Utah with beautiful canyons and bright yellow/red colored sandstone rock formations. The Tibetan influence is quite noticeable with Tibetan writings and Buddhist monasteries all over the place. Qinghai has one main city, Xining (西宁), which was on the silk trade route but not much remains of that. Nowadays it is a modern metropolis like most large cities in China.
Xining does have a gorgeous Thanka museum. A Thanka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on silk or cotton, typically depicting some religious scene. Similarly, one of the largest active Buddhist temple complexes is Kumbum located in the Huangzhong (湟中区) district near Xining which is well worth a visit.
I’m glad I visited Qinghai because it was something different and off the beaten path. It showed me the non-urban side of China, all the way from a tier-4 city to literally mud-house dwellings in the middle of nowhere. I’ll refrain from posting the rural “bathroom” pictures which were nothing more than slits above a compost heap.
After Qinghai I flew back to Shanghai. Here I spent the last few days meeting with friends, investors, and on the last day I took one more iconic picture of the Pudong night skyline while I wandered across the Bund wondering when I would return to China and what state it would be in.