Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Beijing Zoo

Over the fall holiday, esther and i went to the Beijing Zoo and Aquarium. I generally like zoo's and being an avid diver, my love for aquariums has grown over the years. Chicago has the Shedd Aquariums, one of the top in the world. Meanwhile, my dad has been volunteering at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for, i dunno, 12 years? 15 years? A long time. I've been so many times i couldn't even fathom a count.

People are divided on the ethical dilemma of zoos, capturing animals from the wild, caging them, and putting them on display. I too am conflicted, but there are some positives of course. There are injured animals who simply would not survive in the wild. There are endangered species being bred and released. There are obvious benefits to educating kids (and adults) about the beauty in the world, and that that the world is worth taking care of.

Clearly, animals in zoos need to be properly cared for, allowed to interact with each other if they are social, protected from being traumatized by the park visitors. Unfortunately, i fear that the Beijing Zoo misses the mark.

I apologize for the upcoming rant, but i need to get this out. I don't know what it is about the Chinese. Sometimes i feel like they just lack common sense or empathy or the ability to act with decent judgement. I know that's harsh and a massive generalization, but the people going to the Beijing Zoo didn't do the rest of the population any favors. A few of the atrocities i saw:
  • Parents allowing their kids to feed zebras leaves, sticks and candy, directly in front of " No Feeding" signs. This is actually really dangerous and stupid. I'm sure a wild zebra would have no problem taking off a child's hand with that candy bar.
  • Children climbing on an aquarium exhibit and posing for their parents to take a picture... directly in front of "No Photos No Climbing" signs. (yeah, i technically broke the rules with my photo, but i didn't use flash and was standing way back from the exhibit.)
  • A few grown women pounding with their fists on the glass of a Gorilla exhibit. The Gorilla in question had his face pressed against the glass already but was unphased. I assume this means it was already numb to this behavior by now.
  • People throwing food or garbage into the monkey cages, despite the clearly placed "No Feeding" signs. In their defense, there weren't any "No Littering" signs.

If my dad witnessed this at Brookfield Zoo, he would immediately reprimand the person or contact the authorities and have them thrown out, depending on the severity. However, i never saw any guards or zookeepers looking out for the animals' well-being. At the zebra exhibit, i stood next to one of the signs and asked a parent to "help me read this, because my Chinese isn't so good." She was much more interested in my ability to speak Chinese than what the sign said.

Humph. That poor gorilla. Ok, rant complete.

The Zoo actually had a pretty good assortment of animals. The monkey areas are an obvious delight, what with their climbing, antics, and general peoplefulness. Other highlights were the elephants, tigers, and giant pandas.

The aquarium's best exhibit was probably the jellyfish. Freakin' awesome stuff, and they allowed pictures. They also had a massive coral life tank with all the awesome fish i'm used to diving with, which was neat, but nothing compared to actual diving. The jellyfish win.

In conclusion, c'mon people! Quit acting like spoiled children and grow up!


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Late Fall Wall Camping

During the China's national holiday, the first week of October, esther came to Beijing to visit. It's a great time to be in Beijiing, because so many people leave. True, people travel all over the place during the holiday, but many more leave the city than come to it. This is because there are vastly more people who have moved here to work that return home for the holidays, than people who come for vacation. The result is, in general less people.

Plus, Beijing always seeds the clouds to make it rain a few days before the holiday, which clears away the pollution for a week or so.

One day, about ten of us went up to Jiankou, the part of the wall i go for camping. The weather was typical of late fall, with cool afternoons and potentially cold evenings. Only esther and i decided to brave actual camping, while the rest stayed at a small inn at the village below. For us, camping turned out to be a magnificent choice.

It was the first time i went camping that we had the tower to ourselves. After hiking around, we built a 3-hour fire, made Annie's Mac and Cheese, drank wine, had hot cocoa with rum, and enjoyed absolute peace and infinite stars. It was not nearly as cold as i anticipated. We didn't use any of the extra blankets or sleeping bags we brought, and i don't think i ever wore all the clothes i had.

We woke up for the sunrise, enjoyed oatmeal and english tea for breakfast, and listened to the early morning sounds of the wall.

We hiked a bit more and made our way over to the sky stairs before heading back down to the village to meet the others.

On our way back to Beijing, we stopped to play CS, which is very popular up there. CS stands for Counter Strike, basically outdoor laser tag. You get a vest and helmet with light sensors on it and a laser gun. Your vest tells you when you've been hit by vibrating violently for a few seconds, and it tells you when you've hit someone else by vibrating pleasantly for a second. The whole thing is fairly realistic. We played outdoors in a valley with natural cover like trees and bushes, as well as bailed hay and barracks. The valley had hills and cliffs on two sides, and offered a great spot to sniper the enemy as they entered the game. One team enters first and sets up a position. Two minutes later, the enemy enters the field and advances.

I remember diving out of the way, rolling, jumping around unfamiliar terrain, sprinting up the side of a mountain, providing cover fire for my advancing comrades, and feeling the rush of adrenaline when i got hit. Yeah, we got into it.

We ended the trip at a spa, boasting a few dozen different hot tubs. Each one had a special name, like Green Tea, Red Wine, Lavender, and Mint. If you thought about it hard enough, you could maybe smell the fragrance indicated, but the water was certainly dyed to be the color of it. That was weird. Also weird, the pool with fish that eat the dead skin off your feet.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

September Sabbatical

The month of September was both amazing and largely uneventful. My September needs no photos to describe it and offers few insights into Chinese life (except for meeting Esther's parents). I didn't do much out of the ordinary. Conversely, i did ordinary things, everyday. Many of my days went like this:
  • Wake up at the reasonable hour of 8:30.
  • Have a simple breakfast or cereal or smoothie, plus coffee.
  • Go to the gym.
  • Have lunch.
  • Work for a few hours in the afternoon from a nice coffee shop or comfortable restaurant.
  • Meet some friends to toss a frisbee in the afternoon, lay in my hammock in the park, or enjoy a beer with a book.
  • Have dinner.
  • Do nighttime stuff.
September is unquestionably the nicest month in Beijing, due to the mild weather and more frequent rainfall, resulting in plentiful "blue sky days". I decided to take the entire month off work as a 1-month sabbatical. As a side project, i spent many days working on US/Grant's Quality Manual, and was able to make wonderful progress on it.

I also spent the second week in Hangzhou visiting esther. We both technically had some work, so we didn't do all the touristy things Hangzhou has to offer. But that was fine, we spent time entertaining each other. We played pool, walked or biked the city, played frisbee, ate good food, and smiled a lot. We went jogging in the morning by the canal. I met a few of her friends and had dinner at her parents house. I even taught her dad how to throw a frisbee.

Meeting the esther-rents was surprisingly easy. They speak not a word of English, but are very nice people, although pretty shy. They seemed to regard me with careful interest: careful to not seem too interested, but interested enough to not ignore me completely. I later learned this was a conscious decision. They were friendly, but treated me as though i were just another person.

Here's a picture of esther from long ago. Awww!

Their house in Xiaoshan, which is technically part of Hangzhou, but it's not near the city center. It's is also home to the nearest airport, the same one that closed for two hours in July 2010 because of aliens. See this and also this over here. So, yeah. Their house is a massive 4 and a half floor detached dwelling, with 5 bathrooms, 12 bedrooms, a finished basement, and an unfinished top floor. Her parents live there alone. Apparently, this is just what people do. All the neighbors have similar houses that could comfortably accommodate four individual families, while only actually using 30%. They could probably rent the top two floors out to, like, two whole families of aliens.

One day in Hangzhou, Esther and i attended the weekly frisbee game and a film crew came out to record everyone. A TV station from Hong Kong is endeavouring to produce a travel show chronicling each province in China. Their plan is to sell it worldwide (possibly to BBC or Nat Geo) and they were in Hangzhou working on Zhejiang province. They somehow found out about the Ultimate Frisbee scene and came to check it out. After the game, they bought us beer and interviewed four of us in a local bar. The producer was pretty pleased with what she got, and we'll probably have a five minute slot in the episode, whenever it comes out.

Esther and i also went to the tea fields one day and walked around. That was the extent of our tourism. It was a completely wonderful trip.

Back in Beijing, my days were normal, relaxing, and very productive. I never lost my motivation and i always seemed to get things done. I probably would have blogged some, but i was without computer for three weeks.

One day, i got to play tour guide for the Sales Manager of US/Grant and his friend, who were both visiting. Taking advantage of the perfect weather, i took Wayne and Yulia to Jingshan park, Hou Hai, Nanlouguxiang (and Great Leap Brewery), and finally Sanlitun SOHO. We walked, took cabs, and even took a bus. We got lost in hutongs, we drank delicious beer, and we ate scorpions. It was a perfect day with good friends. I rarely do these kind of semi-touristy things on my own, so it was nice to have a reason.

And today is October 1st, the first day of the fall holiday, so i get another week off. But i also get esther. She'll be here for 9 days.

I could get used to this.


P.S. It's been a while since i've seen a more terribly dressed person than this (note the flesh-colored panty-hose socks):

... or a dog as cluelessly happy as this one.