Sunday, December 15, 2013

China: Great Wall

As I foreshadowed back in August, I finally bring you photos from the Great Wall.  The Chinese have a saying, "不到长城非好汉" (bú dào cháng chéng fēi hǎo hàn): He who has never been to the Great Wall is not truly a man. 

Some facts: The Great Wall (长城, cháng chéng) stretches nearly 6,000 miles.  It was built and rebuilt over about 2,000 years, from as early as the 7th century BC in the Warring States Period through the Ming Dynasty (1600s AD).  It runs east-to-west along the historical northern border of China, serving as a barrier against the northern barbarians (ultimately unsuccessfully), as well as a way to control trade along the Silk Road and immigration across the border.

Today, the Great Wall is in mixed condition.  Some areas have been rebuilt yet again, not for any protective reason but to commercialize for tourists.  Roughly thirty percent is said to be in ruins; nearly fifty percent -- and growing -- has disappeared entirely.  Some stones are lost by attrition, as Chairman Mao encouraged farmers to use stones from the Wall as building material.  Others are lost to the elements, due to erosion by sand and collapse from rain.

It is impressive to climb the steps, stand upon the Wall, and look out to see it snaking through the mountains, watch towers appearing regularly along the ridge.  It is even more impressive to consider the conditions under which it was built -- purely by manpower, without any of the machinery we'd consider essential today.  The Great Wall continues to hold the title of the world's largest manmade object.

The Mutianyu (慕田峪) section of the Wall has gained some modern concessions for the hordes of tourists.  Rather than climb all the steps to the top, people can opt to ride the chairlift.  On the way down, there's a toboggan slide (note: speed of descent depends heavily on the people in front of you.  One Chinese grandmother brought us all to a crawl).

I hope that someday we make it to Shanhaiguan, the eastern terminus of the Great Wall, where the Wall literally runs into the sea.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pollution (again)

I thought I was being slightly apocalyptic in my last post about pollution.  I mean, usually Shanghai's pollution levels aren't so bad.  "It's not nearly as bad as Beijing!" say the Shanghai residents, reassuring ourselves that while the air here isn't great, it certainly could be worse.

Unfortunately the pollution gods seem to have taken it as a challenge.   PM2.5 AQI levels climbed and climbed across the east coast of China, covering the cities in a gray shroud of smog.  The AQI levels in Shanghai crossed 500 for the first time in recorded history, to a level literally off the charts.

Not ok.  
Pollution levels are color-coded by hazard level.  
That's showing over a day and a half at the highest level.

Related: China's suffocating blanket of smog even visible from space

Monday, December 2, 2013


Adding to the list of things I never knew I was taking for granted: Clean air. 

Growing up, I'd look outside on days like this and think about fog and low-lying clouds and decreased visibility.  Now, in China, I look out into the haze and reflexively check for the pollution levels.  PM2.5, PM10, SO2, NO2, carbon monoxide, ozone.  The numbers are recorded at multiple stations in every city, and tracked by nearly every smartphone.  They spur the sale of masks and air purifiers as people seek to create their own little bubbles of safety.  They keep children indoors and send expats from the country.  On particularly bad days, those who boldly venture out unmasked come home with burning eyes and sore throats.  And yet may locals eschew the masks because, well, they've become accustomed to this.  It's the new normal.


PM2.5 (pronounced "PM èr diǎn wǔ" in Mandarin), the most worrying pollution figure, refers to fine particles in the air which are less than 2.5 microns in diameter.  It's is a daily topic of conversation here.  These particles are readily inhalable and are small enough to lodge in your alveoli, the small subunits of your lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged with each breath.  From there, any soluble pollutants can pass into your bloodstream; insoluble particles remain in the alveoli, causing inflammation.  Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 has been linked to a number of health conditions, including the rapid rise in lung cancer cases in Beijing (the staggering number of smokers also plays a role there). 

Lest I scare off potential visitors, I should say that life in Shanghai is usually quite comfortable, and the air is usually quite breathable.  In my nearly-one-year experience, these pollution levels are uncharacteristic for us.  (I make no such claims about Beijing.  Generally, pollution in northern China is significantly worse than southern China.)  For any big polluters, though, the ones back in America pumping crap into the air and the water and the soil because they don't believe it'll make a difference in their lifetime, I invite them to spend some time in Northern China.  See what it's like to live in a place where you worry with every breath, where water free of bacteria and heavy metals comes only in bottles, where there's no way to know whether your perfectly normal-looking fruits and vegetables were grown in contaminated soil.  That's what's coming here if they don't turn things around.  It could happen there too.

Summer in Beijing

Where does the pollution come from?  Why are China's problems so much worse than anywhere else? (with some exceptions.  New Dehli, for example, is sometimes worse than Beijing.)  While I don't claim to be an expert, rapid industrialization is largely to blame.  Pollution levels climb as a result of combustion in power plants, cars, and, if you pay attention to the Chinese government crack-downs, barbeques.  According to stats from Greenpeace, 70% of China's power comes from coal; in 2009, it burned as much coal as the rest of the world combined.  On the roads, China's emission standards for gasoline are significantly lower than America's, which means the millions of cars in its mega-cities (23 million people in Shanghai alone) drive dirtier.  There's market pressure from the SOEs (state-owned enterprises) involved in trucking and transport to keep gasoline standards low.  Geography also plays a role in some areas, including Beijing.  Beijing sits in a bowl, surrounded by mountains on three sides, and is susceptible to sandstorms from the Gobi Desert. 

Some argue that every industrialized nation had the chance to grow fast and dirty before cleaning up its act (see: peppered moth evolution in Industrial Revolution England), and that this is China's turn.

At what cost?

I think the next decade could bring big changes in China's environmental policies.  The people are demanding it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

China: Beijing - Tourist Edition II

Whoops.  I forgot I had these posts on Beijing queued up.  In my defense, I've been acclimating to life as the only foreigner in my lab.  Yay science!  

To read more about Beijing's tourist highlights, see:

Part 1: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
Part 2: Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven
Part 3: Great Wall

Temple of Heaven (天坛)

Life has conditioned me to think of buildings when I hear the word "temple".  The lofty Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the mismatched towers of Chartes Cathedral in France, the domed St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  The Dome of the Rock, the historical Second Temple, Angkor Wat.  

As often happens in China, my expectations were confounded.  While the Temple of Heaven does contain a few buildings, most of its 2.73 square kilometer area (1.05 square miles) is parkland.  

天坛 (tiān tán) is better translated as "Altar of Heaven" (天 = heaven, sky; 坛 = altar).  (坛 is also used for raised flower bed, circle [i.e. the literature circle], and forum)  It was originally constructed in the early 1400s, concurrent with the Forbidden City, as a place for the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors to offer prayers to heaven for a good harvest.  It is considered to be a Taoist (aka Daoist, depending on how you romanize the Chinese character "道", "path, way") temple.  

The design of the Temple of Heaven is steeped in symbolism representing the relationship between heaven and earth and the special role played by the emperor in that relationship.  In ancient China, the emperor was considered to be the son of heaven, administering to earthly matters on behalf of heavenly authority.  There are three groups of buildings in the Temple of Heaven: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (completely wooden, no nails); the Imperial Vault of Heaven; and the Circular Mound Altar (empty circular platform).  All of the buildings have blue roof tiles, representing heaven.

Summer Palace (颐和园)

Just pictures for now.

Friday, August 23, 2013

China: Beijing - Tourist Edition I

大家好! After two months in Beijing, I'm finally back in Shanghai -- and very glad to be home.  Beijing is not one of my favorite places to live (to put it lightly, post on that coming soon).  From a tourist perspective, however, Beijing is a dream.

Brought to you in parts, lest I overload you with too many photos at once.
Part 1: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
Part 2: Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven
Part 3: Great Wall

Beijing (北京 - "northern capital") is a city of bucket list-worthy attractions: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, the hutongs, and, just outside Beijing, the Great Wall.  Beijing is a mix of old and new.  It is the current political and cultural center of China, the seat from which the Chinese Communist party dictates today, and was the seat of power for Chinese emperors long before.  (It's easy to forget: the last of the Chinese emperors fell in 1912... during the lifetime of some of Beijing's oldest living residents.)  Beijing's importance as a city and sometime-capital significantly predates the unification of China in 221 BC.  Paleolithic Homo sapiens lived in the caves about 27,000 to 10,000 years ago; Homo erectus roamed the area hundreds of thousands of years before that.  

While China can be difficult for the non-Chinese speaking foreigner to navigate, Beijing is (relatively) not.  The city's transportation system and tourist attractions were overhauled before the 2008 Olympics; the subway is modern, cheap (2 RMB, about US$0.33, to anywhere in the city), and bilingual.  The major tourist sites are well-equipped to handle multinational crowds (especially English-speaking ones).  Still, the majority of tourists who visit Beijing each year are 外地人 -- Chinese visitors from other parts of the country.   Considering how large the population of China is, that's not such a surprise!  

Forbidden City (故宫)

The Forbidden City, the center around which ancient Beijing was arranged (continuing through today: the central north-south axis of the Forbidden City remains the central axis of Beijing; the Forbidden City is the center point of the Beijing ring roads), was the Chinese imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties.  Built from 1406-1420, the complex is said to contain 9,999 rooms and covers 720,000 m2 (0.28 square miles).  A 52 meter-wide moat rings the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City lacks the overwhelming glitz of the Grand Palace of Bangkok.  The interior features large, open, treeless squares (lest an assassin hide in the shade) ringed by largely uniform buildings bearing golden roofs and red walls.  Subtle details such as the statuettes on the ridges of the roofs mark the status of the buildings.  The sheer size of the Forbidden City is overwhelming; it is best taken in from above, from nearby Jingshan Park.  

The only trees in the Forbidden City are found in the Imperial Garden, located at the northern end of the complex.

Life in the Forbidden City was governed by strict regal protocol.  To quote Lonely Planet, "In former ages the price for uninvited admission was instant execution; these days 40 RMB will do."  Entrance to the Forbidden City was regulated through four gates, one on each side (today, public access is available through two: the north and south gates).  The Meridian Gate, the southern and largest gate, has five arched gateways.  The central opening was reserved strictly for the emperor -- the empress could join him only on her wedding day.  A restoration of the emperor's wedding chamber is on display in the Forbidden City.  

The symbol for "double happiness" on the emperor's wedding bedspread 

Modern upgrades to the Forbidden City have introduced amenities as "4-star rated" toilets, as well as curiosities such as ancient Chinese halls, now under communist control, "made possible by the American Express Company".

Jingshan Park (景山公园)

The Forbidden City is capped by Jingshan Park to the north and Tiananmen Square to the south.  The 150-foot artificial hill at Jingshan Park was constructed using soil excavated from the moats of the Imperial Palace.  It fulfills the principles of Feng Shui, which say that it is favorable to build a residence to the south of a nearby hill, keeping the evil spirits (and cold winds) from the north at bay.  In Beijing, no such hill existed to the north of the Forbidden City.  Now, one does.

Views from atop the hill at Jingshan Park:

Tiananmen Square (天安门广场)

Walk out the Meridian gate (午门) of the Forbidden City and continue south through the Duanmen (端门) and Tiananmen (天安门) gates, and you'll reach the vast, flat expanse of Tiananmen Square.  "Tian'anmen" literally means "Gate of Heavenly Peace", but most Westerners' association with Tiananmen is anything but peaceful. 

Tiananmen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world, with 440,000 m(109 acres) of flat gray paving stones.  The outside is ringed by white perimeter fences, with entrances controlled by security screenings.  The military presence is meant to be highly noticeable: tall lampposts are fitted with security cameras.  Actions are monitored by uniformed and plain clothes policemen, ready to jump on anyone who dares to protest.  Despite the overbearing, authoritarian atmosphere, the Square swarms with people.

Tiananmen Square is flanked by the Great Hall of the People on the west side and the National Museum of China on the east side.  Mao Zedong's mausoleum sits at the south end.  A constant, yet quick-moving line of people wishing to pay their respects to Comrade Mao snakes out into the Square.  The Monument of the People's Heroes rises from the center of the Square, contrasting its flatness.  

Monument of the People's Heroes

Line to enter Chairman Mao's mausoleum 

Having explored the attractions at the very heart of Beijing, we moved outward to explore the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, and then further to the Great Wall, the barrier which separated China from the northern "barbarians".