Letters Home

When I began to travel, my mother got into the habit of forwarding my emails out to a group of friends and family. When I spent four months in Beijing, the list grew and grew. Below are all the emails I sent out to the list, as well as a few personal letters to my family. Feel free to read through them…it may bring you one step closed to understanding what that strange place is like.

Sent: Monday, September 09, 2002 3:12 AM
Subject: where do I even begin?

Hello all!

So I’m back in China. Last few days have been pretty crazy. Being alone is definitely more challenging than coming over here with a program…there is no bilingual contact person to lean on. It’s okay though…everything seems to be working out.

I met a few other students on the flight over, and split a taxi to Haidian (northwest corner of Beijing, where all the universities are). I crashed for the night at Qinghua University, then came over to Beijing Language and Culture University (my school) and tried to get a room. My original plan was to find a room for a few nights and look for an
apartment…but the folks here wouldn’t give me a room for less than 3 months. So I checked things out and decided to go with the foreign student housing.

So I definitely am not living in the lap of luxury, but it’s quite comfortable for $3/day. Keep in mind that Chinese students live in 4-6 person rooms and entire campuses share bathhouses. I have a decent sized double room on the 12th floor of the foreign student dorm. The floor has a balcony on either end (mostly for drying clothes…we’ve got a washer but no dryer) and a shared bathroom. No kitchen, but the dining hall is half a block away, quite cheap, and has plenty of
options…various regional chinese food. I have a Korean roommate who doesn’t speak much english at all, but he’s a friendly fellow (very willing to lend a hand with whatever needs to be done) and we communicate quite well in Chinese. In fact, I don’t think there is a single other english speaker on the floor…there are a few in the building, but it seems that mostly everyone is korean, japanese, or european.

So Chinese has been the language of choice…this letter is perhaps the longest consecutive thought I’ve had in english since arrival. Everything I learned this past year has come in handy already…but I feel like I know just enough chinese to get myself in trouble. Last time it was easy…”I don’t speak chinese…I don’t understand…” and so forth. Now I -can- speak the language, but only a tiny bit. I’m able to get a whole lot more done on my own (get food, negotiate housing, give directions, change money, simple conversation, answer the phone, etc) but it is wonderfully frustrating because I just don’t know enough yet.

Classes start sometime soon…I’m not too sure when actually. I have a placement test on Thursday, then class begins I presume. We’ve got a week off in October for National Day, which is a holiday celebrating the birthday of the Chinese Communist Party. I’m sure I’ll take full advantage of that…I have half a mind to go west into the desert and see what’s happening out there.

Eating well….I’ve been tagging along with my roommate for the last couple of meals. The student dining hall makes things easy…pretty much point and pay (though nothing there costs more than a dollar…most dishes are $.50).

I registered this morning…what a chaotic scene that was! Hours of waiting in line for various functions…actually registering, paying, getting a receipt, checking into student housing, picking up my ID…and all of this was in Chinese. I really need to start class and brush up, because I feel like I am stretching my current language skills to the outer limit.

So now things calm down for a day or two. I have a place to live, I can feed myself, I have local money, and a pretty good sense of what is in the area. I still need to get a haircut, buy a towel and some clothing, along with some groceries and school supplies. I called my friend Han Wei (who tutored me last summer) and made plans to get together sometime
this week. Kinda odd traveling halfway around the world and calling up a local friend. I have met a whole bunch of people here…but as yet things have been a bit too chaotic to work on making friends with people. Also, not too many folks here speak english, so that makes life a bit more interesting as well.

Haven’t had a chance to get out to the climbing areas yet…though I have definitely looked into it. There is supposed to be a gear store immediately north of this university, but none of the locals know of it. I’ll have to search a bit harder. My roommate has never climbed, but is pretty interested…I had him tying figure 8s yesterday afternoon. I should try to get in touch with the Bei-Da mountaineering association…they are supposed to be pretty good climbers.

Well, that should be quite enough for now…feel free to pass this along to whoever may be interested!

Take care,

9/9/02 3:26 AM Hello family!

I just did a big brain dump into that other email…so you can read through that and get a sense for how things are going here.

So I am in room 12010 (12th floor, room 10) of building #2 at Beijing Language and Culture University. The address for the university is 15 Xueyuan Road, Beijing, China. I’m not sure what postal codes are required…but I’ll look into it and see if there is an address you can send mail to.

I also have a telephone, but I’m not sure what the number is. I’ll work on that one as well.

As far as coming over to visit….if you are up for it, come on over! Just let me know what you are planning beforehand so I can work things out on my end. I’d offer to put you up, but you definitely would not want to live in my building :) Trust me. I don’t mind it at all, but I have seriously low expectations.

In any event, it’s only going to cost me about $320, so that works out pretty well.

Anyhow, I have to get going…talk to you later!

9/12/02 10:52 PM Finally

So getting onto the internet in Beijing has become exceedingly difficult. The internet cafe’s have all closed, and no one really knows when they will open up again. There is only one computer lab on campus, and it has the strangest hours and a perpetual hour-long wait…

Hence the lack of communication from my end.

So anyhow, what have I been up to for the past few days…

Nothing terribly exciting, I’m afraid. This trip is really quite different from the last time I visited China. Last summer was a tourist trip…cramming as much into a couple of weeks as possible. This is the opposite; I’ve yet to hit a single tourist sight. Basically, I’ve been getting myself totally settled in. I found a whole bunch of shops near campus, you know, fruit stands, general store type places, and random stuff like pants and refridgerators. Also hit a few bigger markets with my roommate and his girlfriend. So I’ve got some food, a towel, and just about all the basic essentials.

I am hoping to buy a bike today…the weather has been terrific (excepting a day or two of rain)….very cool and clear. From my balcony you can see Xi Shan (the western mountains) just outside the city. They are within biking distance, and harbor a load of climbing. I can’t wait to check that out.

There is a trip to the Great Wall tommorrow…free to students. I’d rather go check out the Xi Shan on my own, but I think I’ll go for the social aspect. I really haven’t been speaking much english here. I’ve only had two or three lengthy english conversations since arriving. Learning lots of chinese though.

I had my placement exam yesterday…they threw about 20 foreigners who indicated about the same level of language competence in a room and started questioning us in Chinese. “Where are you from? How long have you studied Chinese? What’s your name? Do you have any idea what I’m saying?”

So based on about a half hour of question and answer, the put us in preliminary classes. I’m in level B, which means I know just enough to get by. Level A is for rank beginners. They made it pretty clear that if we need to switch classes, it won’t be a problem. I start class on monday, so I don’t really know how that will work out. They made it pretty clear that if we need to switch classes, it won’t be a problem.

What else…oh yeah! My phone number is 8230-1396. I am not too sure what the country code is, but if you want to call me it shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you do call, you’ll get a “wei?” rather than a hello….if my roommate answers, be patient. His english isn’t quite good enough to converse, but he’ll try. If you tell him who you are, he will likely understand and give me the message.

That’s all for today…later everyone!

9/16/02 3:41 AM A Bike
So I went out and bought myself a bike. My roommate and I and a Korean friend of ours went out on Friday afternoon and found the best deal we could…120 yuan each for a pair of new bikes, each with two locks. That’s about $15 each.

So now I’m mobile again….getting around on foot is frustrating here. Beijing is pretty big. Saturday morning I went out by myself on a little ride to explore the area. So picture this: Riding along the side of a pretty large road, three lanes in either direction. Tall street lights stretch as far into the distance as you can see. There is a bike lane about 12 ft wide on either side, though the taxis and buses think nothing of swooping through to pick someone up or pass a slow car in the vehicle lanes. The painted lines on the road don’t really mean much…Beijing drivers manage to pack 4-5 lanes of moving traffic onto a 3 lane road. Nearly all the cars are little red taxis…the rest are mostly buses and Beijing Jeeps. Hondas and volkswagons show up every now and then too. The bike lane itself is pretty interesting. Most of the traffic consists of poorer Chinese workers carting massive loads of bricks, waste plastic, bottles, trash, coal, or some such stuff around on flatbed tricycles. Chinese in business suits cruise along on their way to or from work. Twenty-something couples ride along, the girl riding sidesaddle on the bike rack over the rear tire, maybe holding an umbrella for shade. Traffic signals don’t mean much, especially to the pedestrians and bikes….a red light may as well be a yield sign.

So I got terrifically lost, actually rode farther north than my map shows. I blame the map…I was riding on a street that the map said didn’t exist. I should know better than to go by a year-old map in Beijing. I made it back home with the help of a few people on the street, one of whom actually rode along with me back to a spot I knew. Only took three or four hours, altogether!

So after lunch, my roommate and I jumped back on the bikes and headed to Bei-Da. I had my climbing shoes in my pack, but their wall was closed. I met a member of their mountaineering club there, though, and he said they will all be there on Wednesday afternoon to climb and that I should come back then. I’ll be there.

So we also went out to the little gear store I found last summer…more to meet the people there than to buy anything. Their selection of climbing gear was weak…a single rope (that had been hanging there for who knows how long), one harness, and a single carabiner. However, the folks there are all interested in climbing and know some of the local places. (They hike near the cliffs…) I hung out for an hour or two, talking about outdoor pursuits in general and (I think) making tentative plans to go hike and maybe climb in one of the nearby scenic spots.

That evening a bunch of us went out to a karaoke place…I’ve never done that before, but it was fun. They give you a private room, so you’re not singing to an entire bar. It was funny to say the least.

We ended up staying out pretty late, so sunday was a slow day. I got a haircut complete with a head massage, for a buck twenty…not too shabby.

I started classes this morning. I’m not too impressed by the program as yet. Everything is in Chinese, so the class is a little bit hard to follow, and the books don’t seem to be very well organized. We’ll see how things progress…I’m hoping I’m just unused to the format. I’m definitely getting near total immersion. Each email definitely contains more english than I’ve spoken since the last one.

Anyhow, that’s about all. Catch you later!

9/23/02 4:37 AM Weekly Update

Howdy from sunny Beijing!

Life is good over here, nevermind the everpresent dust, dirt, grime….suicidal taxi drivers, computers that crash every time you almost finish an email, and the fact that I haven’t so much as seen a western toilet in almost three weeks. I ate a snickers bar yesterday…I’ll be okay for a while.

I’ll probably continue checking my email on Mondays…and the computer lab is becoming more and more troublesome…so I may not be able to say too much. The computers crash regularly :)

So I left off having just started class. Class is going really well. The pace is crazy fast…I have three classes (speaking, listening, and a general class for grammar and whatnot) and we learn about 30 new words in each every week. So we’re getting upwards of a hundred new characters each week, and they expect us to know them immediately after they are introduced. The texts are mostly in characters….two of the three lack pinyin except for the vocabularly list at the beginning of each chapter. It’s okay though…I am becoming very very comfortable conversing in Chinese. With the help of my good friend the dictionary, I’ve been able to have in depth conversations about all kinds of stuff with my roommate and friends here.

Finally got out and did some climbing! I went to Bei-Da and met some of the outdoors club members there. We did some bouldering on their wall, then ate at the cafeteria. Next weekend, they are going out to one of the spots in my book and I’m going along. Should be interesting. Also, on Saturday, my roommate and I loaded up our bikes and rode out to Cliff 309, about an hour northwest of our campus. Not exactly in the countryside, and not quite natural, but it was good to get out and touch rock. The place is an old quarry, and in their infinite wisdom the chinese decided that bolting holds to the rock and creating an elaborate yet somewhat terrifying system of rusty bolts and anchors up top would enhance the climbing. As I understand it, the place I’m going next week is a bit more natural.

On sunday I again braved the bike lane, this time along with my roommate and a friend of ours. We rode to Tian an men, about an hour south east of our campus. It was an interesting trip…there was a big meeting going on in the Square with all kinds of bigwigs, so we couldn’t actually get onto the square….but we walked around and saw a bit of downtown Beijing. I definitely do better on my own…I think I am more adventurous than the the folks I’ve been hanging around with here. Still had a good time and survived the beijing bike lanes once again.

What else….I really can’t think of too much else to talk about. Send me emails and let me know what’s going on in the states!!


9/26/02 4:01 AM keyi pa ma??
Hello again!

I’m slowly picking up Chinese climbing commands. There seems to be some confusion as to what language is best…some people use English, others use Chinese…some use a combination…I’ll have to decide on some standard for the folks I end up climbing with.

So let’s see…class continues to fly by at light speed….though I am picking the language up really quickly as well.

So I haven’t really done anything too exciting since Monday…rather getting into a routine here. I am getting a little bit tired of my roommate being a constant companion; I’m used to traveling somewhat independently. It is just understood here that everything is shared, though…for example, if he comes home from the store with bananas, anyone who happens to be in the room gets one. No question…that’s just the way it works. But yesterday, I needed to get out on my own, so I grabbed the bike and rode downtown to a gear store. Quite my kind of place…they have a full selection of climbing gadgets and a staff that climbs pretty much every weekend. My chinese has come along to the point that I can just about carry on conversation, so I talked with the folks there for a while and got the name and number of a local fellow who is looking for a climbing partner. I might go to one of the local spots with him for a few days over the October 1st holiday (October 1st is the birthday of the Chinese Communist Party….so it’s pretty much the equivalent of our 4th of July). I have 7 days off, so I want to get out of the city.

Also, stopped by Bei-Da on my way home (after cruising about the west side of Beijing for a few hours) and met a whole load of their climbers. Finalized my plans for the weekend, too….I’m heading to Balcony Mountain with about 90 chinese students to hike and climb for two days. It sounds somewhat like the Chinese equivalent of the POC Seneca trip, but I don’t really know yet. None of the students here know how to lead…in fact, no one at all knows how to trad lead. But they are all willing to learn and from the looks of it, they won’t have any problem following me. My biggest concern is what to eat….I can’t live for two days on peanut butter sandwiches and apples.

In other news, I am learning to read and write Korean now as well. The bulk of my friends here are Korean, mostly from Seoul…so they have been teaching me words here and there. Not quite as hard as chinese…the characters are phonetic. I’m not really interested in learning the language, though. Just messing around.

Oh! I found out the most exciting news in class yesterday! You are all going to think this is the most obvious thing in the world: The trees here change color in October! We were talking about the seasons in class yesterday and the text talked about going to one of the nearby parks to see the red leaves in the fall. I’ve never seen anything but green leaves here…of course it’s deciduous but it just never occurred to me that the leaves here would change. It’s pretty comforting….I just can’t picture what the hills around here will look like with red leaves….

Also, I found out that there is some hiking nearby (within the realm of public transportation) that hits some pretty decent peaks…2500m, so about 7500ft….apparently they have already been getting snow up there. So I might be able to get a little practice in for an mid-winter adirondack adventure. I’ll let you know how that goes.

I’m about out of news…so I’ll wrap it up. Catch you all later!


Sent: Friday, October 04, 2002 2:34 AM
Subject: an outsider’s guide to beijing cuisine

Hello all!

Things are going as well as ever here…plenty of fun stuff to report. So I’ve got a lot of catching up to do here….in this email I’ll recount how I ended up singing communist party songs in front of 120 of the country’s brightest students, finally got some fantastic trad climbing in, happened into working with a brand new local guide service, and at long last, what on earth have I been eating.

Ok…so I’ll start with last weekend. This week I am on vacation for the Chinese National Day, the birthday of the communist party. We are off for 7 days, so we had class over the weekend to make up for it. I wasn’t about to skip out on the chance to climb with the Shan Ying Shi (English name is Peking University Mountaineering Association, the translation of their chinese name is Mountain Eagles). So on saturday morning I headed to bei-da campus and met up
with the climbing team and headed out to Balcony Mountain. We went by public bus….reached the park and hiked in a ways. Ate lunch (more on that later) and headed for the cliffs. The climbs are all short, but interesting and it was really cool to get out on the rock with some really good climbers. They all climb better than I do….and are definitely as interested as I am in the sport. They just lack technical skills….they have no experience leading yet. I had my trad rack, so I paired up with Zhang Rui, who is probably their best climber (and most proficient english speaker) and explored
some new routes. Nothing hard, but it was fun to get out on lead again. Anyhow, after we finished climbing we headed back down the mountain to meet the rest of the group.

The “rest of the group” consisted of about 110 Bei-Da students…most of whom had never been out hiking or climing before. I was already friends with the people running the trip, so the group pretty much accepted that I was an OK fellow. At about 7pm they started a big introduction party….basically had everyone sit in a big circle, then one by one students would get up and introduce themselves. Sometimes a group from the same province would get up together, and from time to time they broke for a few minutes to play games… Anyhow, the chinese have this habit of requesting a
performance when someone introduces themselves in front of a group…a song or trick or something. So anyhow, about halfway through the evening one of my friends heads out and introduces herself. Upon finishing her introduction, I hear her announce that “Tonight, we have a foreign friend here…” and calls me out into the circle. So I leap out into the midst of the crowd and fumble through who I am and where I’m from in my halting chinese. Is it enough? Of course not….”a song! a song!”

So I think for a minute…they won’t know any of the english songs I know, and what could be better than a foreigner singing the praises of Mao Ze Dong. So I led about 120 of the best students in China in a painful rendition of “East is Red”….but I think they ate it up.

So I’ve paid my dues….I think they pretty much consider me a member now.

Ok. After the trip to Balcony Mountain, I made plans with a few members of the climbing team to head to Bai-He (White River) to get some climbing in. What an experience…we left on Wednesday morning, five of us, and headed to the north part of Beijing District (Beijing is it’s own province, similar to DC but much bigger). We went by bus and taxi,
in a flurry of transfers and negotiations that I can only dream of being able to do myself. Anyhow, we ended up at the place, one of the most beautiful places I have been in China. Tall jagged mountains shoot up all around, with more exposed rock than any place in the northeast part of the States. Ancient broken down sections of the Great Wall follow the most precipitous ridgelines, with two or three hundred foot drops on one side and dense vegetation and steep slopes on the other. In the midst of it, Bai He runs through a deep canyon, with climbable cliffs on either side. We spent two days doing one and two pitch sport and trad climbs in the canyon….the area has huge huge potential though…I only wish I had more experience and an aid rack here.

It helps though that Zhang Rui owns a set of forged friends (cams) and wired nuts…I didn’t bring cams over, but together we have a really decent rack. He is a really solid climber, topropes 5.11-12, and learns quickly….when he seconds a trad pitch he takes every piece out then places it again, examining the possible options. It was an interesting trip…we stayed in a local village, something of a guesthouse. It was a traditional style open courtyard with rooms around the outside. The family that lives there cooked breakfast and dinner for us…cream of wheat for breakfast! More on
the food later though. So anyhow, the total cost of the trip was 65 rmb per person (the bei-da folks insist that we split everything equally, down to the last yuan. Makes it tough to show appreciation!) Transportation for the three hour trip, lodging, food, all less than $10 for two days. Unbelievable.

So it turns out that Zhang Rui has just started a climbing andhiking guide company here. He has worked with the Chinese outward bound organization, but they cater only to businesses. So he has all sorts of ideas in mind, and owns a load of equipment as well. I think there is huge potential here…I haven’t met a chinese person who wouldn’t like to try climbing, but lacks the equipment. So I couldn’t be luckier…we are going to work together for the next month or two and try to get him going strong. Should be interesting, to say the least.

Finally, at long last, the food guide!

So I have been eating much better than the last trip I took to China…mostly because I have settled into one place and every day working to find the easiest and best ways to fill my stomach. The first week or two I ate mostly at the student cafeteria, where you can get pretty much any kind of food you want for a dollar or less, and the quality isn’t bad. The fried rice is quite good, and hase been my staple for lunch. Noodle dishes are more like soups here, but still quite good. And they even have more western style dishes like chicken and broccoli….even fried chicken breast with honey mustard sauce! So the first week or two weren’t very interesting. I started eating with my roommate and korean friends more and more, though…and that was certainly different. The basic Korean meal is a big bowl of steamed rice with a dish of kimchi (a spicy pickled cabbage dish) on one side and this stringy orangish stuff on theother side. The stringy orangish stuff is pretty tasty, so I didn’t bother to ask what it was. Other common additions are tuna, seaweed leaves to wrap the rice in, and even canned ham pops up from time to time. So the other day I finally asked what the stringy orangish
stuff is: Pickled squid. Yummy!

Now that I have been spending time with chinese students, I have all kinds of new food experiences to report. Climbing food is pretty straightforward, though odd stuff pops up from time to time. The staple is bread and crackers, with various vacuum packed sausages to go with it. Also, I found some loose granola, nuts, and dried fruit. This trip, however, one of my friends opened his pack at lunchtime and pulled out a chicken. Already cooked…so we chopped the thing up and had chicken for lunch! Apples also are handy. I think my digestive system has become quite used to the food here and the local bugs, because I haven’t had any real problems…yet. Going to restaurants with my student-friends is always an experience. We went out for a basic dinner the other night after climbing at the Bei-Da gym. The meal was pretty good…egg soup, eggplant (chinese eggplant dishes are delicious…I understand that it is the most important veggie in chinese diets), sliced fruit, some beef dishes, snap peas and such fare. The highlight? Certainly the most interesting dish that evening, at least….Zhang Rui points to a plate of whitish gelatinous looking stuff and says to try it. Some
part of a duck. OK, so I pop one of the things into my mouth….it was definitely a salty duck foot. I got it down, but I won’t be eating another one of those for a while. To my relief, however, two or three of the other folks eating with us were somewhat turned off by the flavor as well.

After the Balcony Mountain trip, we went out to a local hotpot restaurant. I ate hotpot last summer in Chongqing, but I was there with my American traveling companion and didn’t really know how to go about a hot-pot dinner. Enjoyed it nonetheless, but it didn’t compare to last weeks feast! We ate Beijing style hotpot…which isn’t nearly as spicy as it’s Sichuan counterpart. So a hotpot meal works like this: you all sit around a big round table, with a steaming pot of spicy broth boiling away in the middle of the table. Each person gets a little bowl of sauce (we had a sesame paste…though there are other options I think), a tiny little plate to eat of of, and a bowl of rice. The servers first bring out cloves
of sweet pickled garlic, which you eat first. Then comes the main fare…big platters of thinly sliced raw beef, tiny mushrooms withthree inch stalks, frozen dumplings, thin and thick transparent noodles, slabs of doufu, various greens, and whatever else you might like in your hotpot. Everyone dives in, tossing various ingredients into the boiling sauce. After a minute or two, you fish around and pull out a mouthful of whatever you find…perhaps some beef, or a chopstick-load of noodles, or if you are lucky you may even snag a dumpling. The meal goes on and on, with the servers replacing empty platters with fresh full ones. The meal is often accompanied by big glasses of the local brew, Yanjing Beer…with frequent toasts. In China, is is respectful to keep your glass lower than the other people when toasting…so friends and equals often fight to lower their glass, tapping the table or even going to the floor if necessary. So after everyone has eaten far more than their fill, you stay and pick at the remaining tidbits in the sauce….all in all quite a satisfying evening.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of food shopping…the local fruit is good though not as sweet as in America. I eat a load of
bananas…two a day at least, and have been putting away apples and cantaloupe as well. The youghurt is pretty good as well…so I think I’ll start adding that to the breakfast selections. Lately I’ve been putting away peanut buttter and jelly or honey sandwiches for breakfast…but it leaves me hungry. There is a local muslim restaurant that bakes absolutely delicious bread….though I think it is the cause of the rampant heartburn that has been killing me for the last week. Also, I found a huge supermarket, the chinese equivalent of Sam’s Club, that has a fair selection of western food…so the other night I put together a makeshift spaghetti dinner on my roommate’s hotplate. Only problem is lack of real sauce….pure tomato paste with a bit of olive oil and pepper doesn’t quite work…and with the utter and complete lack of italian spices
in this city I don’t know what to do. Can’t put curry powder in spaghetti.

Whew…that was quite a lot. I should get going now. I finally found an internet cafe that, though somewhat expensive, is by far the most convenient option around. I think it may be illegal, because they don’t advertise and the building is unmarked, but they’re open 24 hours/day, the computers are modern and fast, and they bring you coffee on the house. Life is good.

Take care!

10/14/02 5:43 AM
Quick food update…not to be outdone by the Pitt in China 2002 folks, I headed downtown to the snack street, where you can buy all sorts of skewered edibles, and ate a scorpion. Yeah, the little poisonous things. I’m still alive! Also, ate a chicken foot last night….more to be polite than anything. I didn’t like it much. Finally, I had lunch today at the China Burger’s House. (The chinese equivalent of mcdonalds.) Interesting….not all that bad, actually. A buck fifty for a big mac, fries, drink, and chocolate sundae.

When I was at the snack street, I got pulled into a typical chinese tourist trap….someone approaches you (in my case it was two younger chinese) and start to talk to you in english. After a few minutes, it comes out that they are art students and would like to show you their “studio”. This happened to me before, in Chongqing….and the paintings were exactly the same this time. But I didn’t really mind…the “students” were honestly friendly and I didn’t really have enough money on my to buy anything anyhow. (I figured if I could leave the place with anything for 100 kuai, it would be a good deal). Anyhow, I didn’t end up buying anything but I did talk with the students for an hour or two. In the course of conversation, I mentioned that my favorite character is “yuan”, which conveys a sense of fate or chance that causes things to work out well for a person. You can say someone “has a lot of yuan” and it means that things always seem to work out in the most interesting ways for him or her. So they decided to write a “yuan” calligraphy for me, for no charge. I’ll hold onto it for a long time.

Anyhow, zhen qiao! (what a coincidence!) I was meeting a friend of mine on Friday at the east gate of Bei-Da, on my way to Phoenix Mountain to climb for the weekend, when I heard a somewhat familiar voice…”Phil?” It was Charlene….my chinese teacher from last summer! I didn’t know if I would ever see her again. Yuan? I am going to try to get together with her and talk a bit about this research paper….she is/was the leader of the Party at Bei-da, so her take on things is sure to be interesting.

Anyhow, I’m gonna go…I want to write a bit of a story about my climbing adventure this weekend and I’m getting a bit worn out…

Take care!

*** The next email I sent home was a climbing trip report from Phoenix Mountain (Feng Huang Ling), in early October. The text of the report, which is a few pages long, can be found on my Outdoorsing – Trip Reports page. ***

10/29/02 5:22 PM (just to family…)
First and foremost, a classmate of mine put his photos online:


There are three things you really need to take a look at. First, the arriving section has a picture of our textbook…”crazy translation.” Priceless…a bit of less than PC english translation from the unit on seeing the doctor. Second, the “big night out” section has a bunch of pictures from our dinner with the teachers. Tian Laoshi is my general class teacher. He started teaching chinese to foreigners in 1949 after graduating from Bei-Da. We have a WHOLE LOT of respect for him, but his mannerisms are downright hysterical. Finally, the last section (from the muslim restaurant) has another good picture of funky translations…check out the menu. How many fry the baked sheeps waist’s would you like to order?

Let’s see….I’ve hit upon a crazy plan to go to Hong Kong and make a fortune before coming home. Just kidding…I read a story in one of the books I brought over here of a poor peasant in Shenzhen (immediately across the border from Hong Kong, in China). The fellow sold the rights to his rice paddy to an american company back in the 80s. When the time came to pay up, the place had exploded into a huge industrial center. The peasant approached the author of the book, asking for advice on how to invest $200 million US dollars. Ain’t that something?

Also, something interesting: Hong Kong has facilitated all sorts of trade for the past century…acting as an intermediate market for stuff coming into and out of China. It made trade possible between China and Taiwan…but most interestingly, during the Korean War, the US purchased a large quantity of tungsten from Hong Kong to use in the construction of tanks. The tanks build using that tungsten were the same ones used to fight the Chinese in Korea. Where did the tungsten originally come from? China. Curious….it seems that economics is more and more taking the front seat over political differences. At least in China, that’s the case.

I would kinda like to go to Hong Kong…the visa thing is a hassle though. It’s technically leaving China. I’ll work on it though.

Finally, I went out to dinner with my friends here tonight (partly the reason this message is so rushed). Anyhow, we got to talking about when I am going home. I found it interesting…they pretty much take it for granted that I’ll be back over here. They didn’t ask me if I would come back, but instead asked when I would be back.

I think I will come back….three months isn’t nearly long enough to get a useful grasp of the language.

Anyhow, internet lab is closed…gotta go.


11/4/02 9:13 AM It’s been a while

It’s been a while since I’ve written a decent update on life in Beijing, so I’ll do my best to fill you all in. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately…so this may devolve into rambling political commentary, but I’ll hold off as long as I can…

This past weekend, I had planned to go climbing in Shidu, a gorge to the southwest of Beijing with huge rock faces (500m in places) and beautiful scenery. The place is pretty much undeveloped as a climbing spot, meaning that next to no one climbs there…so our plans were to take it really easy and just see what we could do without getting in over our heads. Unfortunately, the planning ran a bit late and my friend came down with a really bad cold, so we’re holding out until next weekend.

So instead, I spent Friday and Saturday hanging around the dorm. I had hoped to catch up on my studying as well as get out to Xiang Shan (Fragrant Hills) park…get a bit of exercise and see the red leaves for which the place is famous. Instead, I ended up hanging around Beijing, talking politics with a Chinese friend, and reading books. The conversation was fascinating…but I promised to hold off on the political stuff for a bit.

Sunday I was tired of being cooped up, so I got up nice and early (10am) and headed for the new subway station in Wu Dao Kou, ten minutes walking from my dorm. The subway is great, now that they’ve extended the line out to Haidian. Used to be that getting downtown was a two or three hour affair by bus, or a $5 taxi ride…now 5 kuai and 45 minutes will get you just about anywhere in the city. Anyhow, half an hour later I was walking down a small street in northeast Beijing past countless incense vendors, headed to the Yong He Gong….the largest and supposedly most interesting Lamasery in Beijing.

So a Lamasery is basically a Buddhist temple, a place where monks (lamas) can learn the monastic life. This temple managed to survive the Cultural Revolution, quite a feat as most of the cultural or religious places in china were destroyed (Just about anything “old” or “counterrevolutionary” was ransacked and destroyed by the country’s youth between ’66 and ’76.) The place is really quite neat…elements of buddhism from all parts of china in a series of halls, each a bit larger than the one before it. In front of each hall are a few pads and a large incense burner…people line up to burn incense while kneeling and bowing at the pads, then they place the burning incense in the ashes of the burner. The whole place smells of incense, wafting about in the wind. Each hall is different, but all contain huge buddhas, all representing different things. (I don’t understand Buddhism quite well enough to go into more detail.) In one hall, there is a 23m Buddha, apparently carved out of a single tree…it is spectacular.

However, don’t expect all this religious freedom to come without a healthy dose of idealogy. In the last hall of the temple, there is a small room devoted to the particular relationship between Beijing and Tibet, dating back to the 1600s. Apparently, back in the Qin dynasty the Tibetans and the Chinese were quite close, and often sent gifts back and forth. According to one display, the relationship seems to have continued quite nicely to the present. In a classic bit of revisionist history, the display showed a picture of Mao and other CCP founders with the (puppet?) government of Tibet in 1951 (none looking very happy), with a paragraph or two explaining how the Chinese were well received in Tibet following the founding of the CCP, and how the Tibetan people were happy to have reestablished close ties with Beijing. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

So afterwards, I rambled around Beijing, eventually ending up in Tiananmen square, meeting all sorts of folks on the course of my three or four hour stroll. The most interesting, by far, were the two Tibetan monks that I met just outside the Lamasery. Picture two ruddy faced bald Tibetans, mid 30s, standing in the bike lane in Beijing amidst cars and buses and construction everywhere, wearing the plain brown robes of a Buddhist monk. It would have been infinitely more interesting a meeting if we had a common language…but their self-taught english (while far better than my Tibetan) was just enough to establish that they had just arrived in Beijing from Lhasa and were headed out to see the town. However, they weren’t too sure how to get around…I wish I had a picture of these two fellows. If they weren’t so self-confident, I would have felt bad for them, standing on the corner, one scratching his head, trying to decipher the totally foreign characters on the bus route sign. I couldn’t help them much

The rest of the adventure was, well, pretty boring. I stopped in a noodle place for lunch, then finished my trek just in time to see the flag lowering ceremony in Tiananmen. Then I hopped the subway back home and crashed for the night.

So now onto the political stuff. I just finished reading two books, “The Rise of China” and “The Coming Collapse of China”. Published in 1993 and 2001, respectively…and definitely representing opposite points of view, though both somewhat extreme. Anyhow, armed thus with a much better understanding of the current economic and political situation in China, I’ve been taking conversation with friends here a bit further than I had in the past. I’m not really expressing my own views at all….just trying to see what my friends here think about things.

The friend I spent saturday morning talking politics with is as left wing as you can be at 17. Her grandfather was a member of the Red Army and fought in the Korean War. Both of her parents are loyal members of the Gong Chan Dang (better known in the western world as the Communist Party). She herself is a member of the Communist Youth League…and has plans to work in government, though she’s not there yet.

We covered the gamut of issues. Taiwan is definitely part of China, as is Tibet. No questions there…she was ready with dates and names establishing an irrefutable Chinese claim to these slightly wayward provinces. The Falun Gong are a terrible influence on society and Li Hongzhi (their leader, currently residing in New York, NY) is about on par with the devil. Why the Americans don’t arrest and imprison him, she simply doesn’t understand. (She originally didn’t know where he was, but it’s pretty readily available information, at least in the west.) Reform is good, but is has to be slow and cautious….wouldn’t want to go against “makesi zhuyi” (Marxism, if you couldn’t make that out). Many of her comments reflect ideas I’ve read and heard expressed elsewhere…in the state media, by other Chinese students, or sardonically quoted in “The Coming Collapse”.

All of that was fun conversation…but the one topic that really got my attention was the events of 1989 in Tian An Men Square. As westerners, I think everyone reading this has a pretty good idea what went on on June 3rd and 4th here in Beijing. However, at the time, state media made every effort not to let news of the events leak out to the rest of the country. They were foiled by some degree by fax machines and later, Western media. However, as late as 1996 the Chinese defence minister was quoted as saying that “not a single protestor lost their life in Tiananmen Square.” But there are people that to this day don’t know what went on back then. Case in point, my little Red friend. I asked her what she knew about the events…

Seeing as she was 4 years old at the time, her knowledge was handed down from friends and parents. Those days aren’t often discussed here…basically, all she knew is that a whole lot of people were in Tian an men and were not happy. After a while, they went home.

I was somewhat incredulous…but not nearly so much so as she was when I told her what the westen world watched on television back then. I still find it unbelievable that someone as politically “aware” as my friend here would know so little about the event that most Westerners base their entire opinion of this country on. I suppose it is possible for history to repeat itself…especially if nobody knows what went wrong in the past.

Anyway…China is now preparing for the 16th meeting of the National People’s Congress, which promises to be an interesting event in the evolution of this country. Most of the congress will be stepping down, and the time has come for the top three, Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng to step down as well. It may be the first peaceful transfer of power in the country…but that remains to be seen. I have trouble believing that Jiang will move on without a bit of a power struggle. The fellow that may replace him, Hu Jin Tao, will usher in a new generation of leaders…but I fear that his ideology is much the same as the previous administration and very little will change here.

Anyhow, I hope I didn’t bore too many of you with that. Chinese politics may not be the most exciting thing in the world…but here, with the future of this country hanging in the balance, it’s an exciting show to watch.

If only I could get some decent english news!

Take it easy everyone,

11/8/02 10:59 AM Hotel Rooms and Dogs

Hello family!

I’ve gotta make this kinda quick, because I spent all my internet time chatting with Matt Belfoure in Pittsburgh….but anyhow, this first paragraph is for you…the rest is for the group. Don’t send it out yet though…I ran out of time so I’ll send more on sunday or monday. I reserved a hotel room for you…actually two rooms. Right now, you have a really really nice room with a big bed, kitchenette, bathroom, and even a tiny little washer. Only fits two, though….so I also reserved a single room that I believe is right across the hall. I got a bit of a discount and may be able to go lower, but it’s still pretty expensive, $70 or so per night. Now, I think the better option would be to get a bigger double room, which would have two twin beds and room to add a bed….but I figured I would err on the side of caution. We can change the reservation…double rooms are easy to come by (and only about $40/night) but the nice apartment style rooms are fewer. So we’ll work it out when you get here. Also, don’t worry about bringing any toiletries for me…they have plenty of those over here.

Okay…couple of interesting happenings lately. First, I taught English last night, as I have been doing on Thursday nights. I teach at a small school about 45m from my dorm by bike. I took my new jacket along, in a stuff sack strapped to my backpack….just in case it was really cold on my way home at 9pm.

Anyhow, on my way home, I realized that my jacket was no longer strapped to my pack. I kinda flipped out for a second, then spun around and rode back to the school as quickly as I could, looking for the jacket along the side of the road. Didn’t find it. So I got to the school’s main gate, locked. Called the attendant over, and explained my situation….he let me into the compound.

The classroom was also locked, so I asked the night attendant in the building to open the door for me. I wasn’t speaking very clearly…I was a bit nervous that I had just lost my brand new winter coat. He told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to open the door for me and that he couldn’t help me because he couldn’t speak English.

So I took a breath and explained myself in a bit clearer language. I guess he realized that I was intent on getting my jacket, but he still wasn’t ready to open the door for me. “I don’t unlock the classrooms for anyone off the street,” he told me. So I told him I would give him my name and number, and if there was a problem he would know who I was. “Bu xing.” No way. “Aya! Wei shenma?” I asked him why…if I wrote my name in English, he wouldn’t be able to read it. So I said no problem…I’ll write it in chinese characters. Well that changed everything. I wrote my name for him in the building logbook, and a line noting that I came to pick up a personal object, and he became my best friend. I guess he wasn’t willing to help me, until he saw that I could work with him in his language. Really interesting.

Ahh! They are closing the lab on me. More to come later on.

11/10/02 8:46 AM picking up where I left off

So anyhow, that story about nearly losing my coat was probably a bit incoherent..I was rushing to finish before the lab closed. The whole affair was pretty interesting to me because of how quickly the guy’s attitude changed when he found that I could speak a bit of chinese and even write some characters. It was the first time I needed to write anything in chinese here….except of course for my homework. Got me thinking that I really must study characters…spoken language alone isn’t enough.

Friday night was interesting. I hung out with my friends at Bei-Da for a while, then we went out to dinner. Any guesses what was on the menu?

Fido hot-pot. Yes, I ate dog. A big steaming bowl of dog. Not too sure what kind of dog, but it must have been pretty big to feed five of us. My Korean roommate tells me that eating dog is really good for your health…makes you strong. I don’t know about that. To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind the taste at all…it was pretty good and tender…and I was only a bit wierded out by the fact that I was eating man’s best friend. That was two days ago, though, and I’m none the worse for it. So I probably won’t go out of my way to eat dog again, but I guess I won’t starve if we have a famine in the states, eh? :)

So on to Saturday’s climbing competition! Yes, I participated in a climbing competition. No, I am not turning into a sport climber. Any climbing is better than no climbing though, and I’m not quite ready to go and solo unclimbed routes in China. So I’m resigned to hanging around Bei-Da and pulling on plastic. Maybe it’ll make me a bit stronger, in any event.

So the competition was divided into three groups: C (beginner) B (average) and A (climbing team members). My friends are all in the “A” group, so they pretty much insisted that I climb with them, even though I obviously don’t climb nearly as well as they do. The designated climb for the “A” group was pretty sick…about 3m up to a small roof, then up about 6m further on a slightly overhanging wall…finally arriving at a dead horizontal roof easy 2m long. The climb ends with about 2m of relatively easy vertical climbing, but only two of the 6 “A” climbers even got through the big roof. I made it to the start of the big roof before taking a really nice fall, lifting my belayer off his feet. I guess I tied for last place in the group, though no one was too concerned about winning or losing. It was a fun day, though I’m definitely not a competition climber. Give my 3 or 4 pitches of 5.6 hand crack and I’m happy.

Fittingly enough, I went back to Bei-Da today to give a talk on trad climbing to the climbing team members. I’ve never given a talk in a foreign language before…but I’m pretty comfortable talking about climbing regardless of the language. So we talked about the difference in ethics between Europe and the states, why sport climbing is evil and trad is the only way to climb, how to place pro and build anchors. Zhang Rui helped me a good bit, elaborating on my halting chinese. It can be really frustrating trying to express yourself in a foreign language. A good experience though.

Time flies. I’ve already been here for more than two months. I know my way around Haidian, I don’t fear the bus system (except when I’m on a bike, of course), I’ve definitely become accustomed to to food…and I don’t know how it’s gonna be to come back home. Not just the fact that for the price of a burger in the states you could get a room for the night and three meals here, but everything is different. Using English slang and being understood, not being stared at on the street, watching CNN, driving a car…I think the adjustment to coming back home might just be harder than coming over here. We’ll see how it goes.

The one thing I won’t miss about Beijing is the winter weather. More precisely, the winter smog. Beijing seems to follow a very predictable pattern after late September or October: it slowly stops raining, entirely. Then the wind picks up. It howls…screaming dry wind coming down from Siberia…blows the clouds right out of Beijing, and slams shut the the balcony doors in our dorm. It’ll blow for a day and a night, maybe two days…then stops. For twelve hours, the city is beautiful…sunny, warm, calm. On Friday, Beijing was beautiful…the wind had just subsided, the windows of the balcony door were laying in shattered pieces on the balcony, and it was warm and sunny. Yesterday, the haze began to creep back. By sunset the sun was fully obscured, a vague red blob on the horizon. This morning, it looked like it was snowing outside…but no, the smog was simply so thick I couldn’t see anything. We’ve settled into the worst smog I’ve seen yet. The air smells of dust and when you blow your nose, it comes out black.

The good news is that Beijing knows there is a problem. The bad news is that they aren’t quite ready to put aside development and protect the environment. Take heart though, because by 2008 Beijing will surely be a model city…clean and smog-free. At the expense of the rest of the country, perhaps…but what counts is what the foreigners who come for the Olympics see, right?

Anyhow, I’ll get going now. Nothing much in store for this week…more studying, more new words and hundreds of new characters, teaching English on Thursday.

What’s new back in the States?

Later all!

11/15/02 4:28 AM (just to my Mom)

Oh! A few names for you to practice:
First, a primer on tones.
1- high tone….kinda like singing a high note.
2- rising tone…low to high, kinda like a question in English. “What?”
3- low tone….grunt it out really low.
4- falling tone…high to low. When we list stuff in english….the last thing in the list takes this tone. “I’ve got a dog, a cat, a fish, a monkey, and a horse.” The horse falls in tone…otherwise the sentence sounds unfinished..that’s kinda like fourth tone in chinese.

Fu Yong (Bob) – My roommate..don’t worry about tones for him.

Zhang1 Rui4 – Bei-Da climber, good friend
Qiu1 Ye4 – His girlfriend.

Bai2 Cheng2 Tai4 – Another climbing friend, guy.
Yang2 Qing1 Hua2 – Short Bei-Da climber from southern china, guy.

Ye4 Ran2 Bing1 – Shan Ying She member, girl.

That should be enough for now. Anyhow, I’ve gotta run…going out to dinner in an hour and I haven’t showered today. The dorm usually doesn’t have hot water in the mornings :)


12/11/02 6:05 AM
Hello everyone!
This is it, the last email I’ll be sending from across the Pacific for a while. I guess I’ve been a bit apathetic about sending out emails for the past couple of weeks. Life here became somewhat routine though…the little things that used to be really interesting are everyday occurences now. If you want a fresh take on China, talk to my parents or sister. They definitely had their share of interesting experiences during their week here in Beijing. Check out the pictures, www.talon.net/magistro/

I finished classes last week and have been wrapping up my life in Beijing for the past few days. I actually leave the country the day after tommorrow…not looking forward to that. Before you all take offense, it’s not that I don’t miss everyone in the States or don’t want to come home. I feel like I live in two entirely different worlds. Coming back to the West is going to be a bit difficult. When you go to a new place, everything is different and exciting. No chance to feel homesick, miss your friends, get screwed up by the time change. Coming home however, is a different story. Regardless, it should be really nice to come home, use western toilets, forks, english, and see everyone again.

I can’t sum up my experience over here in a single email…it would take days of looking at pictures, telling stories, and maybe even require a visit to China to even begin to understand the life I live here. I can say though that I think I’ve changed a bit over the last three months. I’m thinking more practically about my future than ever before, I have DEFINITELY expanded my comfort zone in terms of food, personal space, daily luxuries like a soft bed and clean air, not to mention getting a pretty solid grasp on Chinese.

Would I recommend coming to China? Probably. I don’t know what the future of this place will be…if you read the China Daily (state-run english newspaper), then the future looks brighter and brighter every day. A lot of foreigners come to China and absolutely fall in love with the country…and have no idea why. Ask anyone at this university why they are studying Chinese and the immediate answer will be “well, I’m not too sure.” It’s interesting, becoming more and more important, but an MBA will probably get you farther than fluency in English and Chinese alone. So yeah, if you have a chance to come over here, do it…but know that you might leave a different person. I’ll probably be here, if you need a tour guide.

Anyhow, thanks for all the attention…it’s been fun hearing from friends and family from all over the place while living over here. I’ll probably won’t be checking my email for a couple of days, maybe a week or more…but if you have any thoughts, questions, comments, concerns, or just want to say hi, feel free to send me an email.

Suiran wo feichang shangxin likai zhongguo, danshi hui meiguo kan nimen jiaren he pengyou yiding hui hen kaixin. Zai jian!

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