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 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. 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.

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.” ( ) “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…

100-year Anniversary of the Communist Party

July 1st was the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC). It was a major event and then again it wasn’t. Let me explain. The whole city was reminded of the upcoming anniversary about a week before the event. Posters were all over the subway stations and 100-year signs were mounted all across the city. There was even a big sign in front my office building in Haidian. Interestingly, while folks were aware of the July 1st celebration well in advance, nobody I talked to seemed to know what the plan for the festivities were until about a week before the event. It was a closely held secret. Even when the information was released it was partial and sparse.

Despite the fact that this was a big event, the 100-year anniversary wasn’t an inclusive celebration. At least not in the way I would have expected it to be. I would have expected this to be a day off for everyone with many organized festivities at a national level as well as a local level, something like the 4th of July in the US or Kings’ Day in the Netherlands, but it wasn’t. It was for the communist upper echelon only as far as I could tell and for everyone else it was a regular workday. Some places, like in my apartment complex, the personnel were watching the live coverage on TV in the morning but that was it. 

TV coverage of the Tiananmen Square celebrations. My apartment is one block over to the right.

The event itself was well rehearsed and the security measures were draconian. Everything around Tiananmen square was locked down. Streets, stores, restaurants, malls, etc. were all closed. I had seen how bad it got during last week’s rehearsal so I decided to work from home this day because I couldn’t get a taxi to come to my hotel because the roads were blocked or get to the nearby subway station on Chang’an Avenue.

The event started with patriotic sing-a-longs (so I assumed).

Thursday’s event started around 7am with a Tiananmen Square filled with people singing patriotic and communist songs, at least that’s what I assumed. My Chinese isn’t that good yet. Around 8am I was expecting the fly-over, like they did two weeks before, and they didn’t disappoint. A helicopter formation flew by spelling out 100 and they were followed by formations of China’s latest J-20 fighters to demonstrate their military and industrial strength. The newspapers made a point of explaining that they showed 20 jet fighters operational where a few months before they had only shown 1.

The helicopter and J-20 jet fighters fly over at the start of president Xi’s speech.

I knew that at 8am President Xi would give his speech. That schedule detail was in the previous day’s newspaper, but that was the only schedule detail I knew. From the news reports after President Xi’s speech, I gathered that it was about the contributions of communism to the country. How they elevated the population out of poverty and made huge technological and military advances. It also contained a warning to the West (really the US) not to mess with China and how Taiwan was and would always remain a part of greater China. All of these were common themes.

This marked the end of the fly over.

China has every reason to be proud. The social and technological transformation it has gone through over the last 30-years is nothing short of miraculous. Many folks see this as vindication for the abuse by the Western powers and Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The opium wars followed by Japanese imperialism have made a lasting impression on the psyche of the Chinese people and they are determined to never let this happen again. I think that in part also explains their desire for self-reliance. They cannot depend on anyone but themselves and the West still reinforces that sentiment as illustrated by China’s recent space lab successes. The reason, according to the people here, that China developed its own space lab technology, 天宫 (Tiāngōng), is because the US didn’t allow China to participate in the international space station programs and so they had to do it themselves.

The perception of the US here is that it’s a dwindling superpower that is desperately trying to hold on to its powers but is rapidly losing out. I’ve repeatedly heard the analogy that the US is a spoiled kid that doesn’t want to share its marbles at the school playground. The fact that the US is trying to attack China on all fronts is only making folks here more determined and more patriotic: Xinjiang, Hongkong, COVID19, trade wars, the lack of freedom of speech, or the more recently Daines’ resolution to condemn the CPC are all seen as coordinated attacks by the US to try to control China and to keep it down.

None of it is very effective as far as I can tell. Xinjiang is a non-issue for most of the Han Chinese people (the majority of the Chinese population). The fact that Xinjiang cotton has been boycotted is joked about and it is used as an example of how powerless the West is. I have yet to run into a Hongkonger who disagrees with the Hong Kong security laws (HSL). I run into many of them, they are the Chinese who best speak English and they are in high demand, and they all view the unrests in Hong Kong as a bunch of rebellious teenagers that are spoiling it for the rest of them. They actually welcome the stability HSL brings. This is quite different from the view we get in the western media. The resurgence of the accusation that COVID19 is manufactured is also seen as an attempt by the US to cover up its own failures in handling the pandemic. I could go on, but the gist is that none of the issues that the western media is focused on really matters to the folks here, except for one.

Access to non-Chinese media is craved by people, or at least the educated people I hang out with. The Chinese firewall is universally disliked and worked around. There is a strong desire to be informed and see what the rest of the world is doing and thinking. Folks have friends and family in the US and Europe, and they are frustrated they can’t go to Facebook or Instagram to keep up with them. As a US citizen it’s easy to see this as Chinese people want freedom of speech and equate that to a desire for democracy but I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s more about access to and the free flow of information, what political system is behind that is less relevant. If the US really wanted to drive change in China, then this is the area I would focus on because there is broad support for it already. All the other issues, no matter how distressing they may be, simply do not play here.

Wangfujing is typically one of the busiest shopping streets in Beijing. It was deserted by Chinese standards and there was heavily police presence.

Continuing along this theme. I’ve been doing round tables with the interns at Microsoft Research (there are about 300 of them) and most of them still want to study abroad, especially in the US. That said, their parents are getting more worried about them, and I had to answer questions in my round tables about COVID19 infection rates and personal safety in the US. I realize that the Microsoft interns are a self-selecting group, but as long as the bright students still want to come to the US to study not all is lost. We have to worry if this stops, because in my opinion an US education is still the best way to guarantee an ongoing life-long dialogue between our two nations. 

Will the CPC ever fall apart like it did in Russia? That’s hard to say. The circumstances are very different and the CPC has shown an amazing agility to transform in very fundamental ways. It moved from a central planned economy, that failed disastrously, to effectively embracing a lightly regulated form of capitalism. The later has brought a lot of prosperity to the Chinese people, especially to the folks in big cities. As long as that continues, I don’t think the CPC has much to fear. 

A Weekend Excursion: 古北水镇

Like a true local, I haven’t done much sightseeing yet. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, but that changed this weekend. I’ve been trying to catch up with a friend of mine in Beijing for almost a month and we hadn’t managed to do so. He probably felt guilty about that because this week he WeChatted me that he had to go to a corporate retreat this weekend and whether I wanted to come along. That way we could catch up during the 2+ hour ride to the resort and while at the resort I would join him and his team for dinner but otherwise I would be on my own with my own hotel room while they had their gathering.

The resort was in 古北水镇 (gǔběi shuǐ zhèn) a restored city in the shadow of the Great Wall. 古北水镇 means ancient north water town and that’s exactly what it was. It’s kind of like a small rural Venice and it was the garrison town for the north gate of the road leading into Beijing. Today it’s a busy tourist and very picturesque city.

My friend picked me up with a few of his colleagues from my apartment and we first went to an authentic and very good 包子 restaurant near the Bell and Drum Towers. 包子 (bāo zi) are small steamed bread/dumplings with a savory or sweet filling. This particular place was apparently visited by the current US president, Biden, years before and my friend’s colleagues insisted I saw those pictures whether I wanted to or not. This was in contrast with the place itself, I didn’t see any memorabilia. They clearly didn’t care. The place was very busy and frequented by people of all ranks. I saw someone who looked like a government official, pensioners, tourists, parents, etc. The ordering process was also very hectic and I heard the waiters shout 快了(quick) many times. I was glad others were doing the ordering for me. 

Getting brunch at a very popular 包子 place.

Like most Chinese, they order way more food than I could handle even though I had skipped breakfast. The food, the buns and a cup of gelatinous organ soup, was all very good and typical common fair. In China, like most other parts of the world, they use every piece of protein they can get, and they aren’t afraid to eat liver, tripe and other interesting pieces of the animal.

Too much food as usual. Organ soup, tripe and 16 包子.

After brunch we had an uneventful trip to 古北水镇. Around Beijing the area is mostly flat and filled with industry and office buildings. Eventually the scenery changed, and we got into the mountains. The mountains around Beijing are sharp and jagged which probably means they are, geologically speaking, relatively young. It does make them very distinct and recognizable. 

The hotel in 古北水镇 was large and very modern. Despite the fact that the signs were in English, no one seemed to understand English so I had to get by with my pigeon Chinese and the help from my friend. After checking in, my friend and his colleagues went off to their meetings and I started to explore the town. 

古北水镇 is a collection of small villages that are all built in the traditional Qing dynasty (1644-1911) style architecture and have been rebuilt/restored beautifully. Apparently, a developer took over the place a little more than 10 years ago and turned it into an historical amusement park.  You have to pay a fee to get into the park. In my case that was included in the hotel package. Once you are through the gate, which uses facial recognition, you are greeted by a collection of small islands that are all connected by typical Chinese foot bridges. Some of the individual islands have city walls and ramparts while others have houses that go all the way to the water line. Inside the houses are small stores, restaurants and even a distillery that produces the local wine.

A view from one of the villages in 古北水镇 and you can see the Great Wall on the top of the rim.
Some villages have their own walls and ramparts.
Bridges are connecting the various islands.
They produce their local wine that is left outside to ferment.

At the end of the village there is a cable cart that goes up to the great wall. This is the Simatai section of the great wall. Unlike the other great wall sections that are publicly accessible, here they focused on reinforcing the wall while leaving the original look and feel intact. During my afternoon walk through the village I was too exhausted to go up to the wall. It was hot and I noticed I got a mild sun burn. However, after dinner the whole group decided to go up for the night view and I joined them. This is the only section of the Great Wall that’s open at night and the visit was quite spectacular. We took the cable cart up the mountain, followed by an up and down mile long (approx.) hike along the rim with gorgeous views of the hazy valley below.

A view of the Great Wall following the rim of the mountains.

At the end of the hike, we ended up on top of the wall. I’ve been to the Great Wall before but this one felt more authentic. It had uneven footsteps that were more difficult to navigate because it was dark, and the steps are clearly not built for large European feet. Still, it’s well worth the experience and I can highly recommend it.

On top of the Great Wall at night.

Before the evening wall climb, I had dinner with my friend and his colleagues. Chinese dinners are always a sight to behold and so are the Chinese restaurants that cater to them. The restaurants typically have a common area and many side rooms of varying sizes that can accommodate groups and provide you with privacy. Each room has a single large round dinner table with a lazy Susan on top. The larger rooms (ours) even have their own toilet(s) and seating area where folks gather until dinner starts. 

We are getting ready for a Chinese dinner.

Dinner starts with appetizers that are placed on the lazy Susan, which in this case rotated by itself. The effect is that every dish passed by every dinner guest, and you grab what you like. Sometimes you are given two pairs of chopsticks, one for taking food, one for eating, but in this case, we were only given one pair for both functions. I prefer that because it’s quite a hassle changing chopsticks all the time, especially when the alcohol starts flowing and you forget the etiquette.

Alcohol tends to flow royally during these kinds of Chinese dinners. Especially 白酒 (bái jiǔ) which is a strong liquor (35-60%) and it’s distilled from fermented sorghum. The good ones have a nice floral taste while the cheaper stuff tastes like cleaning fluid (in my opinion). 

At this party it was no different. When the other dinner guests came walking in, they unpacked the 白酒 they brought for the occasion. They had brought different kinds, a Beijing brand whose name I forgot, the famous Moutai and then a government brand that was very special. They started off with the cheaper stuff and progressed to the better stuff as the night grew longer.

A very special government 白酒. Not quite sure what that meant but it was good.

There is a fascinating toasting culture in China. 白酒 is served in small glasses that fit about the size of a thimble worth of liquid. You don’t really drink it alone, you always toast with others. Either with the whole team or with individuals. The evening typically starts off with a group toast by the most senior person at the table. In this case my friend, who had joined the company about 2 months before as the SVP of sales, started with the group toast. Then it became a free for all where every 5 minutes or so someone or a group of people would stand up and toast someone else at the table. My friend received the brunt of it because everyone wanted to introduce themselves. I got a decent amount of toasts too because I was sitting next to my friend and everyone wanted to test the 老外 (lǎo wài) for his drinking ability. Fortunately, I can hold my liquor and I stood my ground.

On the topic of toasting, there is a fascinating ritual where your status is conveyed in the way you touch someone’s glass. If you are toasting with someone who is senior to you, or you want to show your respect, then the rim of your glass has to touch the middle of their glass. If you are of equal social standing, then the two rims touch. If you are senior tot them then they have to touch the middle of your glass. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that feuds or even wars broke out over incorrect toast etiquette.

The dinner and toasts last for about 2-3 hours. All the while food is served. After the appetizer you typically get soup, followed by more and more lavish dishes, until fruit arrives. That is the last dish and a signal that the dinner is over. At that point the head of the table makes one final toast and then everyone departs.

Daily life

After almost a month I have found my daily routine. In the mornings, I get up around 6am, have breakfast at 6:30am and I’ll start my US calls from 7-11am and then head for the Microsoft Research office in Haidian, Beijing. If I have a late office start like this, then I tend to grab a DiDi at 11am because its faster and traffic isn’t too bad at that time. If I don’t have a 7-8am call, then I grab the subway (line 1 and 4) at 7am to the office. During rush hour nothing beats the subway. It’s packed but it is still the fastest and most reliable way to get from A to B. In the afternoon I typically take the subway home although if I must be in another part of town then DiDi is a more convenient mode of transportation.

The subway is fully packed. Face masks are mandatory and guards in the train make sure you wear them properly.

During every US conference call I’ve had during these last few weeks, the first question on people’s lips is: How is the COVID19 situation in China? Well, it is basically none existent. There is no COVID19 in Beijing or most of China. There are some outbreaks in southern China, largely brought in by overseas shipping crews, but as soon as those are detected the Chinese government clamps down on them in full force. I’ve seen photos of folks with blankets and pillows queuing up for their quarantine facilities. They don’t take half measures. You must give the Chinese government credit, they do understand the power exponentials.

Talking about the Chinese government, the 100-year anniversary of the China Communist Party (CCP) is coming up on July 1st. There are posters and signs across the city to remind folks of this. There are also a lot of festivities planned around the forbidden city, but only for the folks that are invited. None of the regular Beijingers are invited, nor are they aware of the exact plans that day and much to my surprise it isn’t even a national holiday.

These and similar signs are all over the city, reminding folks of the upcoming 100-year anniversary.
Regular advertisements in the subway have been replaced too.

I’ve decided to take July 1st off and use one of my Well Being Days. I’m not sure this is a global concept inside Microsoft, but I’m taking one anyway because the situation around my Beijing apartment will be a madhouse. I’ve already seen the practice flyovers of military fighter jets last weekend and this morning they were putting up the fences just behind my apartment to block off the streets. They are closing off most of the area around the forbidden city and it’s no longer the police who are guarding the street corners but it’s the military. I’m expecting a full military parade that I remember from the old communist Moskou May 1st celebration news reals, but no one can tell me exactly what the plan or schedule is.

I’m pretty sure though that if I go out my apartment on July 1st, I better take my passport with me so that I don’t cause another incident.

It nice to be able to grab dinner/drinks with colleagues after a working day is done.