Places


I’d heard the pollution in China was intense. The entire global media establishment was writing stories about it shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the nothing I read even came close to describing the real deal. My first day in China, I sat in the window seat on a flight from Beijing to Xi’an. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the smog was so thick that five minutes after takeoff I couldn’t see the ground. I didn’t see blue sky for the first 12 days, until a major thunderstorm cleared out the air for while.

The air actually feels icky on really bad days. After an afternoon walking around sweating in the heat, I felt like I had grainy coal particles coating my skin. Some days the smog is so thick it could be a traffic hazard. Visibility drops to maybe 150 meters. Past that, all you see is gray. I cannot imagine having to breath the stuff every day for a lifetime.

Seeing firsthand how bad the air is in China makes me laugh at the feeble climate change initiatives being considered in the US. If we really want to cut carbon emissions in a meaningful way, we’re going to need cold fusion or something similar. Cap and trade just isn’ t going to cut it for a country with a population of 1.6 billion and GDP growth rates topping 8% a year. I’m pretty convinced it’s time to start investing in levees.

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056While a week in Xi’an and another in Beijing hardly makes me an expert on traveling in the People’s Republic of China, I think it puts me a step ahead of most people. My time in China was a hell of a lot of fun, but it would have been better if I’d known a few important things beforehand:

1. Be prepared to bargain: as a general rule, price tags are just opening offers. That goes for souvenir shops, obviously, but also for bars, restaurants, clothing shops, and pretty much everywhere else. As a general rule, the higher the ration of westerners toChinese in a particular spot, the more inflated the initial asking price. In Beijing’s silk market, for example, a pair of knock-off Ray-bans will fetch an opening offer of between 400-500 RMB . You shouldn’t pay more than 60 or so. In touristy spots, your offer should probably be less than 10% of the asking price. The vendor will probably act insulted and knock 5% off the price. Then you say something like “well, we’re not going to be able to work anything out” and walk off. They’ll chase after you if you’re even in the ballpark.

2. There is no such thing as “original art” in China: On at least three different occasions, I was hustled into “art studios” where folks tried to sell me original works by struggling local artists. The three studios had completely identical prints. Some of them are very beautiful but unless you watch some one paint it, it’s probably a reproduction.

3. Use your hotel/hostel’s bathroom: You don’t want to be wandering around the hutongs looking for a public restroom. Even if you find one, you won’t want to use it. The only places you’ll find toilet seats are at your hotel, the airport, and maybe some upscale restaurants (like Pizza Hut!). Same goes for toilet paper.

4. Carry a map and a business card from the hotel: If you’re looking to explore at all, you will probably get lost. Most of the street signs have pinyin translations, but the sounds aren’t familiar so they’re very difficult to memorize. For example, it’s pretty tough to keep a word like “dongjiaominxiang” rattling around in your brain, especially after a night of knocking back 25 centTsingtaos . And even if you could, you probably couldn’t say it with an understandable accent anyway. But if you have a map and a business card, you can get acabby to drive you home despite the language barrier.

5. Worry about getting scammed, not getting mugged: I have yet to hear a story from any westerner I met in China about being the victim of violent crime. The police apparently just won’t tolerate it. If you’re walking down a dark alley by yourself, fear not! It’s far more likely your cab driver overcharged you than some one will rob you at knife point.

6. Fast food in China is even grosser than fast food in the US: McDonald’s and KFC are easy to find, but not worth eating. If you’re desperate for some familiar food (and you probably will be), scope out a Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut is, inexplicably, five star dining in China. It’s also very affordable. For non-pizza alternatives, look around the popular touristy bar districts. I found a place in theSanlitun district of Beijing with a Mexican theme. I had a delicious qeusadilla.

7. Stash a bottle of fresh water in your room: after a long night of too much fun at various bars, I stumbled into the hostel only to discover all the local markets were boarded up and there was nary a bottle of clean water to be found. Tap water is undrinkable, so I got to spend a long night with a parched mouth staring at a spinning ceiling. Big mistake.

8. Avoid fresh veggies and fresh fruit: after a week of eating salty, vinegary Chinese food, you will probably be pretty tempted to buy dirt cheap produce from a local open-air stand. Don’t. Or if you do, wash it thoroughly with boiled water. Otherwise,diarrhea is virtually guaranteed. The only way to be 100% safe with local produce is stick to things you can peel yourself, like oranges,lichee, dragon fruit, etc…

But despite the warnings above, I have to say that my time in China was remarkably easy. I don’t speak a word of Chinese and before this trip I’d never left the United States, but I got around just fine. I highly recommend it.

The problem with the internet is that it’s too big. You know there’s tons of cool stuff out there, but it can be damn near impossible to find anything interesting unless you already know what you’re looking for. That’s why, on the recommendation of my friendly neighbors, I’ve started Stumbling around the internet.

StumbleUpon is one of those web apps that I’ve heard about and seen little clicky-buttons for all over the place, but never really checked out. I’m incredibly glad I did. Basically, you tell StumbleUpon what kind of web content interests you and it gives you a nifty toolbar with three important buttons: the stumble button, which whisks you away to a new page (kinda like the random article button on wikipedia), the “i like it” button, and the “i don’t like it” button. The last two let you tweak your preferences much like Pandora lets you tweak your music preferences.

But the proof is in the pudding. In 20 minutes of Stumbling, here’s some of the cool stuff I’ve found:

I never would have found any of these without stumbling because I never would have thought to look for them. Well worth checking out…but a WARNING: this will suck time away very rapidly and very sneakily.

I spend way too much time on the internet looking for something good to read/watch/listen to instead of actually reading/watching/listening. To save you, loyal reader, from this tragic fate, I like to post links to cool sites I stumble upon while wandering the series of tubes.

First, even though the election is over, fivethirtyeight.com remains an essential once-a-week stop for even the slightly dedicated politics junkie. They were VERY accurate in assessing the ’08 election, but considering their focus was largly polling numbers and predictions I bet many readers have dropped off. That’s a mistake. Aside from predicting which senate races are likely to be competitive in 2010, the writers also post interesting political strategy tips for the GOP. I probably just like it for the smirk.

Second is a new find, overthinkingit.com, a hyperintellectual blog loaded with tons of high quality multimedia content. I’m partial to the philosophical analysis of The Dark Knight, but they get more play from this excellent video:

Front row, third from the left:

The President of the United States

The President of the United States

Presidential FAIL.

Click that for wonderful things.

I went out in the backyard today and played on my old hoop. I always kept the basket low, a standard height subsidy for white high school basketball players around the country. I spend hours out there by myself, perfecting my free throw and imaging hitting big shots for Coach K. I scraped myself dozens of times on the gravel alley next to the court, which was a skating rink if you played in the rain. The other scrubs from the team and I would play for hours after school, throwing the ball down and imagining ourselves with more talent than we had. The rim has held up despite years of kids hanging mercilessly from it.

The court hasn’t faired as well. It’s almost a decade old now and the years show. The surface of the concrete has been warn down in spots by the tires of my fathers truck, leaving behind a few patches of loose gravel. When the City decided to pave our alley they decided the court stuck out into public property. They converted the offending two feet of concrete into a steep ramp connecting the road to the court. It works for parking, but for anyone wanting to shoot around it’s a broken ankle factory.

But still, it’s my home court. What’s avoiding a little slope to a kid who used to pick gravel out of his bleeding legs after playing in freezing rain? Sometimes I feel completely removed from my 14-year-old self. That kid had no idea who I’d be, and I care barely remember who he was. But shooting hoops on the old court this afternoon brought me back to those days. I reconnected with the kid who assigned himself wind springs and assigned himself five more three-pointers before coming in for dinner. I even imagined hitting the big shot in the finals again. It dropped through the net, swish, and I headed inside for dinner.

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