Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Amazing weekend in Chengdu

This past weekend was our sponsored long-weekend trip. Every other year the students have gone to Shanghai, but we decided to go somewhere different as Shanghai is supposedly just another big city. Our first choice would have been Kashgar in the far west Xinjiang province, but the flight costs and violent protests in Urumqi put the kabosh on going there. Our final decision was to go to Chengdu in the Sichuan province in south central China.

Our flight from Dalian left at 8, and with a layover in Xi'an, we landed in Chengdu at about noon. We took a cab to the hotel, and set out on foot to explore the city. We walked down to the river that ran through the city. It wasn't the cleanest looking river but the scenery wasn't too bad. We tried for an hour or two (and more than a few miles of walking) to find Jin Li Street. We walked up and down Jin Li Road before talking to a travel agency that informed us that they are 2 very separate entities. We also found out that it is almost impossible to hail a cab in Chengdu. Eventually we did and got to Jin Li Street. It was fairly touristy but had some interesting shops and restaurants. The highlight was probably the Blizzards from Dairy Queen haha. After another struggle to get a cab, we went back downtown and saw the Mao Ze Dong statue, which was nothing special as we have one on campus in Dalian. Getting back to our hotel was another adventure, but we eventually made it with the help of a few friendly locals. We met the Beijing guys in the lobby, and then went to bed because we had an early wake-up on Saturday.

That morning we met our tour guide for the 2-day tour to the Giant Buddha in Leshan and Mt. Emei. Our tour guide, Michelle, was 23 and a college graduate. Her dad was a businessman so she had traveled all over the world including the U.S. We have found that the English of anyone who actually traveled to the west was exponentially better than those who hadn't. There were no communication issues with Michelle at all; she even got most of the jokes we made. The 7 of us had our own private van with plenty of room. After a 2 hour drive south, we got on a boat outside of Leshan. The boat traveled downstream for a few minutes and all of sudden you look to the left and there is a 71 meter tall Buddha carved into the cliff. It was absolutely stunning. The level of detail was fairly high, especially considering it was carved more than 1200 years ago. After taking many pictures, the boat took us back upstream and we got off and went to actually climb up the cliffs. There were a ton of tourists so we barely got a chance to see it from the top, but there lots of other smaller carvings that we got to see. There was a Buddhist temple on top where they were burning lots of incense and people prayed. We ate a plain Chinese lunch, but the tour guide did give me a nickname: Dà Pí Jiŭ. I'll let you guys figure out the translation!

After driving to Emeishan (a little town at the base of Mt. Emei) we checked into our hotel. The tour booked us at a fairly nice but touristy hotel. They had a weird little rope course and playground there that we spent a decent while playing on. They had a high ropes course and some lower course stuff too. My favorite was the treadmill that consisted of a bed of rollers and a handle to hold onto. I did a little run on it before I decided I was likely to hurt myself. Michelle took us to a local restaurant where we sampled some traditional Sichuan food. We knew that it was spicy, and we asked her to order us some good spicy dishes. There was one dish that absolutely burned my mouth. It was good but I had to run to the fridge to get a pepsi to cool the fire in my mouth. Michelle just laughed at me and ate bite after bite of it keeping a straight face. After dinner, we took a cab into "downtown" Emeishan to do a little karaoke. The selection of songs was fairly weak, but there were some inspiring performances. We tried to get people to come in off the street to join us but had no luck.

The next morning we took a bus to Mt. Emei. They make you take a bus up the mountain, so switched to a bus for the journey up. The road up the mountain was narrow and winding, and the bus driver was less than cautious. Quick side story: we have decided that all of China falls within the "Tyson Zone" (named after Mike Tyson) where nothing that we see really shocks us at all). As a lady spent 45 min puking out the bus window and no one even asked her if she was ok, we just said "Tyson Zone" and went on with our lives. We did the same as our bus driver spilled gasoline all over the ground while filling up and smoking a cigarette. We got off the bus and walked up a path to the cable car station. Along the path, there were wild monkeys that sit on the edge of a cliff as tourists throw them food. I saw monkeys eating bags of popcorn, opening wrapped candy, and munching ears of corn on a stick. Michelle told us that there is monkey who smokes cigarettes that is not in captivity somewhere because he presents a negative image. Tyson Zone. The line for the cable car was about 90 mins long. Everybody just pushes and pushes. I had a little kid pushing my back for about 45 min at their parents urging. At the end of the first line, the security guard counts people to let through. As soon as you are counted, you RAN up the next set of stairs to another door. You wait there anxiously and rush to get on cable car as soon as they open the doors. I saw old ladies shoving kids and men being wedged between benches by people fighting to get the cable car. I really wish I had a video to show the chaos. The view from the cable car was pretty spectacular but nothing compared to the one from the top.

Once we reached the top of Mount Emei the view was absolutely spectacular. You could see for miles and miles and were above the clouds so the valleys below looks like cloud seas. There was another mountain about a mile away that was even higher, but the train to the mountain was destroyed in the earthquake last year and they haven’t finished building the new one. I’m gonna use that as my excuse to go back to the Sichuan province. When I get the pictures up you will really be able to tell how awesome the view was from the top of the mountain. Adding to the views was the fact that the mountain is one of four holy Buddhist mountains in China. There is a temple on top of the mountain, dating back a long time, but was rebuilt in the last 10 years. We got a rare sunny day on Mount Emei. We ended up getting sun burnt because none of us realized how sunny it really was on top of the mountain.

After about an hour on top of the mountain, we headed back down which was much less fun than the trip up. The monkeys were gone. Michelle bought us all bead necklaces. We asked her what they were, and she told us they were love necklaces. I asked her if that meant she loved us…and she said no lol.

The bus ride down the mountain was quite intense. I was sitting in the raised back row, and I could see every turn as we came to it. We were going way too fast for these turns, but obviously didn’t go off a cliff. It was still pretty scary.

A quick aside…one of the guys from Beijing, Matt, is about 6 foot 3. He was wearing an old-school Patrick Ewing jersey. There was a guy on the mountain who asked if he was a famous player, to which we answered that he was a college star who would enter the draft next year. The guy scoured the area to find a pen so he could get Matt’s autograph. It was pretty funny, and then he ran onto our bus and took a picture with Matt before we left. Later at the hotel, when we checking our bags in on Monday, a concierge asked Nick if he would like to check his bag with the famous basketball star. Matt had a Chris Paul jersey on Monday, and apparently the concierge thought he was CP3 when he checked his bags.

On the way back to Chengdu, we asked Michelle if there were any good clubs in that we could visit that night. She told us that one of her friend worked at a club and she would take us there that night. We got dinner in a restaurant row across from the club, and then met Michelle and went in. We ordered a few drinks, and as is custom, we were invited to dance on stage. There was some very interesting dancing going on in this club, and I’m gonna leave it at that. All of the grad students at DUT told us how Chengdu had the most beautiful girls in China. They were pretty attractive and good style. One other guy in my group, who shall remain nameless, was taken aback by almost every girl he saw in the club. I left around 1, and got some beers from a street vendor with Matt and Tyler. We talked about how our experiences were different being in Dalian and Beijing. We realized that there was a lot of stuff we wanted to do in Beijing before we go home. We will only have 1 day there on our way back home, but we should be able to hit the big stuff.

Monday started with lunch at a random restaurant with no English. Through pointing at tables next to us and using our phrasebooks, we managed to order some pretty good dishes and it was one of the better meals I’ve had lately. After another interesting taxi adventure, we got to the Giant Panda research base outside of Chengdu. Overall it was a pretty big disappointment. There are supposedly 60 pandas there, but we only saw about 8. And all but one were in tiny cages. The red pandas were out and were pretty cool. If only they were real pandas and not glorified raccoons.

Us Dalian kids caught a taxi back to the airport, where I spotted a KFC. We ordered huge meals because we were all craving some America. Our flight home left Chengdu at 8 and was to land in Dalian at 11:40 with a stop in Jinan. The flight to Jinan was uneventful, expect for the lady carrying a big plant sitting between Felipe and I. After a quick layover, we headed for Dalian. About halfway through the flight Nick gets my attention. I had been listening to music and playing games on my ipod. It turns out that the captain announced there were storms in Dalian and we would be going to Tianjin instead…

After circling Tianjin for a while we finally landed around 12:30. We sat on the tarmac for 90 min while they told us we would be leaving when the storms cleared. No other information was passed to us. Around 2:00, they made us get on a bus and travel about 15 min to the terminal to wait. We were fairly enthusiastic at this point because the whole situation was pretty funny, but that soon faded when we realzed there was no food or drink and we would have to sleep on benches. We did meet a guy who just graduated from Hopkins, visited home in Chengdu, and then was heading back for a job at MIT. He had actually heard of UMBC which is rare haha.
Around 3:30 there was a message that our Hopkins friend translated for us saying we were next in line to fly out. As we got back on the bus, there were livid passengers yelling at airport people demanding food and drink, and also demanding compensation for their troubles. They didn’t handle the situation perfectly. It would have been nice to get more information about what was going on and maybe some water, but overall it wasn’t too bad and I felt certainly didn’t warrant causing the scene that this dude did.

The flight left at 4, landed at 5 and we got back to DUT around 6 AM. All of us pretty much passed out and went to work late. Overall it was one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever been on. I would recommend visiting the Sichuan province if you ever go to China. If you can only visit two cities, I would suggest Beijing to see the classic stuff, and Sichuan to get another view of the country.

Back at DUT, I have finished my simulations and am in the process of analyzing my results. I don’t have much to conclude. I realized that the work I did could have been done by a grad student in just a few days. All 5 of us in Dalian are seeing the inadequacies in our lab. There are a few instances of bad scientific methods and flawed results that are still assumed to be good. The professor in charge of our group doesn’t seem to be all there when it comes to supervising us or the grad students. I am trying to get the best conclusion I possibly can, and somehow figure out how to write a decent final report and give a good presentation. We have 2 more weeks of work left. On Friday the 31st we give our final presentations. Saturday morning we will fly back to Beijing and head back to Ottawa on the 2nd.

We are trying to figure out we want to spend our last couple weekends in Dalian. We each have a lot of shopping left to do, and there are a couple sites in the city left to see. Sara’s mom is visiting for the week/weekend. It does seem to be a little bit crowded in our apartment, but she did bring a lot of American candy which is delicious!

I am starting to get a little sick of eating Chinese food all the time. I have noticed that our America night trips to Subway, KFC, etc. are getting more frequent. The things that I miss the most from home are good spaghetti, cold milk, pizza and cereal. Those will probably be the things I eat as soon as we get back to the US.

The next 2 ½ weeks should be pretty low-key. We’ve finished the most exciting stuff already, and now I think we are all itching to finish our research and come back home.

One last thing…(I’m impressed that you’ve read all this stuff lol). There were some terrible protests in Urumqi last week between the Uyghers and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang Autonomous area. At least 150 Han were killed, and thousands of Uyghers have been arrested. Since all the news comes from state media, there are probably many more deaths of Uyghers that were not reported. Due to all this, Facebook has been added to the Great Firewall of China. (In addition to Youtube and blogsites…(I have a proxy that at least allows me to post stuff here)). I have seen people writing on my wall through email, but I have no way to answer. I have yet to find a reliable way to get around the firewall and use Facebook. I am working on it, but the easiest way to contact me is through email at

Hope all in well in Maryland and the states…I can’t wait to come home and see everyone!!!

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