Two and a half trips: Xiangshan, Inner Mongolia, Qingdao

This post concerns two big trips and one small trip that I took in the past month or so: Xiangshan on a Sunday in mid October, Qingdao two weekends ago, and Inner Mongolia this past weekend.

I haven’t been good about updating this blog. Writing takes a lot of effort, and I find writing about myself to be a little self-absorbed. Consequently, I have written and likely will continue to write less often than weekly. On the other hand, I provide below a really long post, so the words-per-week ratio probably doesn’t look too bad.


0.5. Xiangshan

Xiangshan (“Fragrant Mountain”) is hiking area with lots of trees on the outskirts of Beijing. It’s about two hours away from the city center via city bus.

My visit in mid-October coincided with the beginning of the “Fall Festival,” which celebrates changing leaf colors. It turned out that the colors weren’t quite changing yet, and most of the leaves were still green, with a few turning slightly yellow. The lack of warm leaf colors didn’t prevent lots of other people from going to the park — it was perhaps about as crowded as Disneyland. Also, the park was decorated with fall-themed colors, and lots of red ribbons had been placed in the trees to create the appearance of fall colors in a kind of hyperreal landscape-art-deco. If Nature won’t give us fall colors in October, Man will make fall colors in October! And it worked to some extent — the ribbons fooled me and some of my fellow hike-mates into thinking “Hey, look over there, some leaves over there are red!” more than once. Going along with the theme of Man’s conquest of nature, the entire path was paved — that is, there were stair steps at least six feet wide made of cut stone all the way from the “trailhead” to the top of the mountain, along multiple parallel paths. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have any photos from the trip (hence the half trip; also, this was only a day trip).


1.5. Qingdao

Qingdao (“Green Island”), mostly famous outside China for the beer Tsingtao (spelled differently because of the old Romanization system), is a port city southeast of Beijing. By train, the distance is about 800 km, though it’s shorter as the bird flies. The train ride took about 4.5 hours (it was a very fast train). I went there with the North China section of the Society of Petroleum Engineers for a site visit to a big manufacturing plant owned by COOEC (a big Chinese oilfield equipment company partially owned by CNOOC and the Chinese government) and a geological field trip to Laoshan (an igneous formation, which may seem a little weird for SPE, but such is life).

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The Qingdao train station.

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The railroad has its own broadsheet newspaper.

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I bought some buns on the train. They were awful (very shrimpy in a bad way). Also, I had a problem in which I didn’t chew enough and I got a lump of bun stuck in my throat that made me feel like I was choking until I threw up. Fortunately, the train provided a vomit bag, and I was able to throw up in a highly controlled and hopefully-not-gross-to-my-neighbor fashion.

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On Saturday we picked up some student SPE members at the China University of Petroleum Huadong campus.

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We ate lunch on Saturday at a CUPH cafeteria. The food was like what Panda Express serves, but not as warm.

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The COOEC visit started off with a corny marketing video (in English), followed by a tour of the plant.

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The COOEC plant had lots of heavy equipment.

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The plant also had lots of stacks of metal beams.

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The plant was located at the seaside because COOEC builds offshore oil platforms. The haze seen here is a combination of fog and pollution.

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After the COOEC visit, we attended an SPE career development event for students at CUPH. It was interesting to see the amount of influence that the West has on Chinese business practices. On an unrelated note, the hallways in this building were unlit and unheated, and the windows were left open. Because of this, walking around inside after the end of the session was really unpleasant.

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Our hotel was right next to the CUPH campus. Above is a picture of the CUPH campus at night. From what I could tell, the campus was organized as a bunch of buildings around a big central open space.

The field trip was pretty interesting, too. The guide was Prof Lu Hongbo, who teaches geology at CUPH. Basically, we hiked up a mountain (the path was paved with steps, as at Xiangshan), and Prof Lu stopped a few times along the way to narrate things to us. Par for the course for amateur geological field trips. My geological Chinese listening skills aren’t so great so I didn’t get everything he said, but basically the mountain is a granite formation that has had some glaciations in its history. (For the earth scientifically unaware, this is pretty common.)

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In order to get into the park we took a park bus. Because of problems with ride theft, getting on the bus was a very high security affair. They took our (electronic) fingerprints and associated them with our encoded bus passes. Above, one of my tripmates gets his finger scanned at the turnstile.

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I’m not sure if this is Laoshan in the background, but this is basically what it looked like.

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The entire hiking path was paved. The stone appeared to be locally sourced granite. What’s harder: hauling a rock cutting machine up a mountain, or hauling cut rocks up a mountain?

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“This rock over here is really big and is right in the way of our path. Can I just put the steps around it?”

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“Ugh, I don’t want to cut down this tree just because it’s in the way.”

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“If I angle my arm just the right way like thus, I look like I’m doing the robot dance.”

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Lichens are a big deal because they die (gray color) if air pollution levels get too high. The professor probably talked about lichen for 30 minutes.

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These gray-green lichens are alive. We didn’t see any newly born lichens (yellow) on the trip.

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According to the professor, this cave was the site of a catastrophic drainage of a large body of water through a little hole in the top of the cave. (Once upon a time, there was a body of water sitting on top of a granite formation. Slowly, a cavity formed inside the granite formation. The cavity grew up and up until one day the top of the cavity reached the bottom of the body of water, resulting in a little hole being poked in the roof of the cavity. After that, the whole body of water gushed through the hole into the empty cavity below and down, down, down.)

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There is probably a great geological explanation for the formation seen above.

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Even the bottled water on the field trip was earth scientific. I, for one, love spring water flavored by silicic acid strontium salt.

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They really like to put statues like these at the entrances to hiking parks like the Longshan park. Xiangshan also had a couple statues at its entrance.

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Terrace farming in Qingdao.

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This pier is famous in its own right, and also for being on the logo of the Tsingtao beer bottle.


2.5. Inner Mongolia

Inner Mongolia lies about 500 km west of Beijing. (Note that the present-day country of Mongolia used to be a part of China called Outer Mongolia during imperial times. “Inner” and “outer” were defined relative to the Chinese capital.) I took a sleeper train to Hohhot (the capital of Inner Mongolia) with a Beijing acquaintance (I guess I would say friend now that we’ve spent a couple days together). Based on the weather report for Hohhot, I made the mistake of bringing my faux-down Uniqlo jacket instead of my ski jacket. Our tour group spent Saturday in a grassland at 4,500 feet, and there it was about 10 degrees colder than in Hohhot. Not only was I cold and miserable all day, I’m also sick now in part because of this poor decision )=.

Anyway, overall the trip was a lot of fun. We took a two-day guided tour. On Saturday we stayed with an Inner Mongolian family in the grassland, rode Inner Mongolian horses, shot Inner Mongolian arrows at an Inner Mongolian bean bag, and slept in a quasi-traditional Inner Mongolian yurt. On Sunday we went to the desert, where we rode camels and sledded on sand dunes.

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Above is the inside of our tour van. In it were two Brits, an Australian, two Americans, a Dutch person, and an Inner Mongolian tour guide.

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Quasi-traditional Inner Mongolian yurts to the left, pile of discarded beer bottles in the middle, and stark Inner Mongolian landscape all around. Also pictured: nature’s toilet, used by all guests, both animal and human. No shovel required.

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The quasi-traditional Inner Mongolian yurt was big enough to hold more than six people.

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The yurt came with a lot of blankets.

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The Inner Mongolian family lived in the house pictured above, not in a yurt.

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They have cows in Inner Mongolia.

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The family appeared to have made their own adobe bricks.

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According to the horse guide, Inner Mongolian horses are small so they can run long distances.

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This horse was one of the bigger ones.

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The Inner Mongolian family’s house did not have running water. They used a well instead.

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Xi Jinping appears to be quite popular.

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We rode camels in the Inner Mongolian desert on Sunday.

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They have sheep (goats? rams? in Chinese it’s all the same character, I think…) in Inner Mongolia, too. The desert is kind of a desolate place.

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The camels would kneel to let us on and off.

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The camels had two humps.

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There was a creepy theme park in the desert. (The theme park is only used during the peak season, which is summer and early fall.)

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We went sledding on the sand dunes. The sand had a high coefficient of friction so it was pretty slow sledding.

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Near the creepy theme park, there were tires scattered creepily around.


On foreign travelers 

It was interesting to meet the foreign travelers. One of the Brits taught English in China and had lived in Xi’an for upwards of three years. The other Brit was an electrician and was taking an extended vacation. The Australian was taking a monthlong vacation. The Dutch person and the not-me American were graduate students in the US and the Netherlands doing research in China. The Brits and the Australian gave off a kind of lackadaisical vibe toward life that reminded me of some of the folks I met in the Berkeley co-ops.


On nature and hiking

Based upon my experiences at Xiangshan and Laoshan, it seems to me that Chinese attitudes toward nature hikes may be a little different than American attitudes. It would never occur to me to pave the entire way up a mountain hike.

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