I went to southern Gansu with a tour group (and my dad) at the beginning of August. For those unaware, Gansu is a province located in the western part of China. Southern Gansu is mountainous and is perhaps analogous to Wyoming or Utah in the US. This analogy holds weakly for human as well as physical geography, as both the US Mountain West and Gansu have lots of religious minorities (LDS/Mormons in the US Mountain West, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in Gansu).

The first stop was Lanzhou, which is the capital of Gansu. Lanzhou is famous for having the Yellow River pass through it. The below-pictured bridge over the river was named after the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen. The bridge was built ca. 1919 by the Germans and was guaranteed at the time to last 100 years. We’ll soon see if it makes it the distance:


Lanzhou also has a famous sculpture of mother and child:

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After leaving Lanzhou, we spent a day in the area near the municipality Lingxia. We visited the former home of a Republican-era Chinese Muslim warlord:

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Later that day we went to a Tibetan monastery and village near Lingxia. The monastery had sculptures made out of furry ox (similar to a cow) butter:

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The village was poor:

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The town we stayed in that night had a weird sculpture in its town plaza:

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The next day we spent some time in the mountains. We went to a high marsh called “flower lake”:

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We visited another Tibetan monastery:

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The following day we visited some rivers. Below is a photo of the headwaters of a tributary to the Yangtze river:

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We also visited a famous bend of the Yellow river. The scenic point had an escalator to the top.

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The following day we went to so-called Chinese Grand Canyon. It looked nothing at all like the American Grand Canyon:

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On the last day we went to yet another Tibetan Buddhist monastery:

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We also stopped by a county nature museum, which was much bigger than I expected. The museum seemed to be focused on dinosaurs and large grazing mammals:

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The museum had a nice note on the geologic time scale:

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All evidence indicates that at least one person in western China is aware of Creationism:

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Thanks to a lucky connection and an extremely nice friend, I was able to go (for free!) to the Shanghai Disneyland on a test day in May, which was before the park officially opened.

Disneyland has its own subway stop:

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As in the US, Disneyland in Shanghai can be crowded:

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There is a magic castle:

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The Tron ride in Tomorrowland was great:

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The Alice in Wonderland maze had features built at eye level for little kids (this is probably true of other parts of the park, too):

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There was a Seven Dwarves mining roller coaster:

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The Shanghai Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride, quite different from the one in LA as I remember it, was fantastic:

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It rained in the later part of the day, but the park still worked fine and looked great:

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I went to Japan in June. I spent a day in Kyoto, a day in Tokyo, a few days in Matsumoto, and a day in Nagoya. Overall I give the Japan trip three and a half Yelp stars.

Kyoto is famous for having lots of shrines and for having the Philosopher’s Path, pictured here:

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Tokyo had some odd cultural things:

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Tokyo also has a revisionist war museum at the site of the war criminal shrine:

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I went hiking at Mt Yakedake near Matsumoto:

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One part of the Mt Yakedake hike involved climbing ladders, some of which didn’t seem so safe:

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Matsumoto has an old castle:

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The best thing about Nagoya is that it has the Toyota museum. This museum has two parts. Toyota was originally a loom company:

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Toyota started making cars later on:

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The car part of the museum has a garden of motive power:

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Longmen Grottoes

On the way back from Xi’an, I stopped by Luoyang, which is the home of the Longmen Grottoes. The Longmen Grottoes are famous Buddhist stone carvings. It was a very impressive site. Five Yelp stars.

A “grotto” (shi2 ku1 石窟) is evidently a recessed carving:

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There were lots of grottoes:

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Some of the carved idols were very big:

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Others were smaller:

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Some of the carvings exhibited signs of damage:

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As I walked around, I kept thinking that it would have been great to bring along a real geologist to help interpret the rocks:

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I went to Xi’an in June. This was a great place. Four and a half Yelp stars.

Below is a photo of the traditional Xi’an fast food meal, consisting of liang2 pi2 凉皮 (rice noodle salad, left), and rou4 jia2 mo2 肉夹馍 (pulled pork sandwich, center) and with the drink bing1 feng1 冰峰 (orange soda, right).

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Xi’an has a drum tower and a bell tower, both of which are famous:

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The city has a Muslim food district:

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A restored old city wall:

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A forest of steles:

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The terra cotta army is also near Xi’an:

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Near the terra cotta army is the masoleum of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first tyrant-emperor. It turns out that there’s not much to see:

2016-06-12 15.27.05.

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New Zealand

I went to New Zealand in early April. Overall I’d give trip four Yelp stars. In the interest of brevity, this post will consist of only a few photos.

Peter Jackson et al. built the sets for the Hobbit movies to last:

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This hot lake near Rotorua changes colors depending on the pH of the water:

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Some of the forest/jungle on the northern island of New Zealand looks like it could be in Jurassic Park:

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The best strategy to deal with weather on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is to get lucky:

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This brand of toilet paper appears to have been named by a chemical engineer:

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Expats and interesting people

Much has been written about expats of various kinds over the years. I don’t have enough experience to assess critically this broad body of writing, so I won’t address it, but I do want to share a little bit about the expats, broadly defined, that I’ve met.

I want to highlight one clear benefit from spending time around expats, both Western expats in China and Chinese who have been expats in other countries, which is that they’re often very interesting. Assuming that the people I’ve met are basically telling the truth about their pasts (a big assumption, since I tend to be overly trusting, credulous even), the English-speaking and/or tolerant-of-bad-Mandarin crowd in Beijing is collectively the most interesting group of people I’ve ever met, by a very wide margin. This post lists a few of my disjointed recollections.

  1. One of my Chinese colleagues speaks very good English because he worked for a Chinese company in Iran, where the common language was not Farsi or Chinese, but English. He said that there was a big diplomatic kerfuffle between Iran and China when he was there over some stupid thing — I forget what but it felt similar to the kinds of things that get media talking heads worked up in the US and China — that made it really unsafe for Chinese people in Iran for a couple weeks. Also, he never got used to the food — “everything they eat is meat.”
  2. Another of my Chinese colleagues worked in Libya for a Chinese company. Apparently bread in Libya used to be really cheap in part because it was subsidized by the government, back when Libya had a functioning government. You could buy a whole week’s worth of food for a few dollars.
  3. Yet another of my Chinese colleagues worked on climate change stuff in Antarctica!
  4. Another Chinese colleague comes from an agricultural background. She is a second daughter in the one-child policy era, and didn’t have household registration until middle school. One of her cousins, son of farmers with the build of a football lineman, is a wedding photographer. Not expats, I suppose, but interesting people nonetheless.
  5. A final Chinese colleague spent a lot of time in Mexico and had interesting things to say about Chinese vs Mexican cultural norms regarding work.
  6. A Chinese friend was a high school participant in one of the Beijing anti-Japan protests of 10 years ago or so. According to him, it was actually a soccer riot in response to perceived unfair refereeing. His dad got really mad at him for being part of the riot. Also according to him, a similar anti-Hong Kong soccer riot had occurred about 10 years prior (which I can’t remember if he also also participated in), also in response to perceived unfair refereeing.
  7. I had a conversation with an Irish guy at a bar who claimed to be a tour organizer for trips to North Korea. A friend of a friend (who was also present, as was our mutual friend) confirmed that she had traveled on one of the Irish guy’s trips. Notable items from this conversation: 1) it’s not uncommon for Americans and other westerners to go on trips to North Korea; 2) James Franco’s and Seth Rogen’s movie The Interview is actually a very accurate representation of what going to North Korea is like; and 3) one of the Irish guy’s tour people was arrested in North Korea (sentenced for a long jail term, and cause of an international incident) for doing something along the lines of breaking into a staff-only area of the hotel and stealing a propaganda banner.
  8. I’ve chatted with a bunch of people involved in various aspects of the Chinese movie business. The Chinese movie market is super interesting.
  9. I’ve met several African and Central Asian students studying for graduate degrees in China. The presence of these students here in Beijing is probably related in some way to Chinese influence in those parts of the world.
  10. Many young people from western countries seem to spend a few years in China and then head off to other places. These folks often have fun stories to tell.
  11. I met an American teaching at one of the Beijing universities who is the son of Foreign Service Officers. Notable thoughts from this guy: 1) embassies sometimes provide internships for FSO children; 2) unfriendly host countries sometimes screw with people living in diplomatic residences by going through their stuff (I’m reminded of the scenes in Amelie in which she torments the grocery store owner who is mean to his employee); 3) FSO kids statistically have a lot of problems like drug abuse.
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Neighborhood Market

About 1,000 feet from my apartment building is an open-air market that is open in the morning. It’s a bit like a farmers’ market, though, as in American farmers’ markets, most of the stalls aren’t actually operated by actual farmers. The stall operators are mostly resellers.

One interesting trait of the market near my apartment is that the stalls offer a pretty heterogeneous assortment of items. For example, one can buy pots and pans right next to a vegetable stand, pop a few over stalls over to get some salted eggs, and then walk 30 feet to buy some live oysters. (The fish and meat are in a separate part of the market from the fruits, veggies, and household goods.) I suppose it’s a bit like going to a normal supermarket, except you pay for items as you pick them up. Below are some photos of a guy selling LED light bulbs next to some fruit and vegetable stands:

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The fruits and vegetables available at the market vary by season. Right now, we’re starting to see stone fruit and some tropical fruit. It’s pretty common to see people selling pre-skinned pineapples all over the place, and the market is no exception. Notice the tool the guy in the left photo is using to remove the pineapple eyes:

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I bought some tiny mangoes:

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I also bought some purple mangosteens. This was my first time trying this fruit!

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The outside part of the peel of a purple mangosteen is hard, but once you break the shell the rest of the peel is pretty easy to get through. It’s a little spongy. The fruit inside has the texture of banana if banana were juicy. The flavor is very sweet and a little sour, perhaps a bit like lychee fruit, or lemon-lime soda.


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Second Artillery Corps plastic surgery

The Second Artillery Corps, which controls China’s ballistic missiles, apparently operates a hospital that provides plastic surgery services. Maybe this is the equivalent of a VA hospital? I took the below photo near the campus of Beijing Normal University.

2016-03-27 second artillery corps general hospital plastic surgery

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I went to Shanghai two weekends ago for an alumni event and also to see a friend who lives there (who is also an alumnus).  I was there for only a weekend, which isn’t nearly enough time to see the whole city, but I do have a few items to share.


Elevated walkway

I begin with a map of the financial district, which is where the alumni event was held and is also where I stayed:

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Notice the red path that terminates in a ring near the center of the picture. This is an elevated walkway. Below is a photo of the walkway’s ring from the side:

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The area around the walkway is apparently something of a tourist attraction, as evidenced by the hundreds of tourists strolling around. I myself walked along the walkway and took photos from it. Below are two such photos taken on a sunny Saturday and a hazy Sunday:

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Some distinct features of the above photos are the orange umbrellas situated on the elevated walkway. These umbrellas mark stands that sell photos:

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Careful observers may notice that some of the photos I took have a sci-fi rocket ship in the background. I’ll discuss the rocket ship in a later post.


Alumni event

The alumni event itself was fine. The speakers were interesting, there were lots of chances to chat, and the food was good. Aside from meeting a bunch of people and seeing my friend there, I also ran into one of the members of my company’s board of directors. We had a nice conversation and went to a breakout session together. (From this I could perhaps tell a story about social capital, but I won’t do that here.)

I didn’t take very many photos at the alumni event, but I did take this one photo of a loquat:

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For those unfamiliar, loquat is a Chinese fruit that isn’t common in the US. Loquat has similar taste and texture to peach. Compared to peaches, loquats are generally a little less sweet, are smaller, and have a higher pit-to-flesh ratio. A loquat pit, by the way, consists of several seeds:

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The above photo shows the remains of the first loquat I’d eaten in about 15 years.

My parents’ old house had a loquat tree that I remember eating fruit from. The fruit from my parents’ tree was a little different from the loquats that I ate at the alumni event, though. Just as peaches come in fuzzy and non-fuzzy varieties (non-fuzzy peaches being called nectarines), loquats can be fuzzy or non-fuzzy as well. My parents’ tree gave fuzzy fruit, while the loquats at the alumni event were non-fuzzy (loquat nectarines, I guess).

As an aside, when I first started eating loquats at the event, I ate the skins, but then some other folks at the event told me that you’re not supposed to eat the skin, so I stopped. I don’t remember if I ate the skin of the loquats from my parents’ tree.



I went with my friend to a hip area of the city and visited a speakeasy-style bar whose schtick was that it had a barbershop store front. I asked for a hair cut, but the guy said that they only cut hair during the day. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

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There was a hidden lever in the back that opened up a door to the bar part. (Notice the English in the photo. Hip areas of Chinese cities tend to have a lot of English.)

The bar itself was much the same as the speakeasy-style bars I’d been to in the US. The idea of a US-style speakeasy in Shanghai is a little funny because Shanghai wasn’t really involved in Prohibition. Al Capone was thousands of miles away, and China’s temperance movement died out thousands of years ago. My friend suggested that this bar might instead be hearkening back to sketchy bars in the Warlord Era, but I have my doubts.



I participated in a mixer the day after the main alumni event. I won’t go into the (not super-interesting) details, but I will summarize a some of my main impressions in listicle form. These impressions refer both to the main alumni event and also to the mixer. You won’t believe what weird things happened at this cocktail party in Shanghai!

  • Shanghai is a financial city. The great majority of the people I met worked in finance or related areas. Private equity and consulting were very popular career choices. It was a little weird to be, in most conversations, the person with by far the most technical background, since I was on the squishier end of things in my department in grad school.
  • I interacted with a very different demographic of ethnic Chinese people than I’m used to interacting with.
    • Most of the people that I met had not studied science or engineering. This is perhaps consistent with the first bullet point.
    • Most attendees, even considering only middle-aged and older people, didn’t have a PhD. Most of the ones who did have a PhD actually lived in the US and were visiting Shanghai for business.
    • I’ve seen people joke that America is run by lawyers and financiers, while China is run by engineers. That may have been the case in the recent past, but going by what I saw at the alumni event, this is not likely to continue into the future. Assuming that China’s future leaders will be drawn from young people like the ones I met at the alumni event and mixer, China’s elite will look quite similar to America’s in 20 years’ time.
    • My years-long campaign to improve my schmoozing abilities appears to have had some effect, but I still need more practice to be able to really work a room.
  • I had a very interesting conversation with a Freudian (!) psychotherapist. She said that psychotherapy is growing in popularity in China, which is consistent with an Evan Osnos article that I read some time ago. She said that Rogerian/Postmodern/Humanist approaches were most popular, but was a little dismissive of them, saying that these approaches were popular mostly because of low cost (she described them as cookie-cutter and very easy/cheap to do), not because of effectiveness. She also said that cognitive-behavioral therapy (in her view, moderately effective and moderately costly) was second in popularity after R/P/H, and that Freudian therapy (in her view, the most effective but most resource-intensive of the three main psychotherapeutic approaches) was gaining traction among patients who could afford it.



I also visited the Bund, which is a waterfront district that was built under foreign influence and has history going back to the pre-republican period. The Bund is a major Shanghai tourist attraction, and in this way it is perhaps analogous to San Francisco’s Pier 39 or New York’s Battery Park. Among other things, it provides nice views of the city skyline:

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Taken in total, the visit was worthwhile. Because two days wasn’t enough time to explore, I’ll probably go again at some point.

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