Biang2 biang2 noodles

Northern Chinese food uses many wheat-based items, particularly bread and noodles. Probably close to half of my meals here have involved noodles in one way or another.

The most interesting noodle dish I’ve eaten here so far is something called “biang2 biang2” noodles. This dish comes from Shaanxi Province, which is where Xi’an, the ancient capital city and site of the terra cotta army, is. The dish uses a special kind of hand-pulled noodle known as a biangbiang noodle. The biangbiang noodle is like a common Chinese hand-pulled or knife-cut noodle, but is much wider and perhaps somewhat thicker.

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The above photos show different versions of the dish from two Shaanxi restaurants that I’ve been to in Beijing. The one on the left is from a restaurant near my office, and the one on the right is from a restaurant in Wangfujing (of New Practical Chinese Reader fame). The Wangfujing version was better.

A fun thing about the dish is the character “biang2.” The character is written as follows:


As can be seen above, the character is very complex. It’s not very common — in fact, it’s not in the standard computer/keyboard dictionary, so it’s hard to type — and has no meaning other than as a name for the noodle. I actually first ordered the dish because I thought the character was great fun. But, fortunately for me, it turns out that it’s really a great dish. I like the chewiness of the noodles.

The catchphrase of the Shaanxi restaurant near my office is “Xi’an famous snacks,” which is very close to the name of a prominent New York City restaurant chain, “Xi’an famous foods,” which was started by a Xi’an native. The terms differ by only one character (“snack” is “small food”). Below is a dish receipt number sign for the Shaanxi restaurant near my office that shows the catchphrase:

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Notice that the cartoon character on the sign is eating biangbiang noodles.

The next time I’m in New York City, I’ll try to try the biangbiang noodles from Xi’an Famous Foods. The New York restaurant’s menu is pretty similar to that of the restaurant near my office, and I’d be interested to see if the food is similarly similar.

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Photographs of round things

Below are some photos of round things in China.

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Chinese lamb hamburgers (肉夾饃, rou4 jia2 mo2, literally “meat clamp bun”) are a popular savory northern Chinese food item. I like how this one looks like a flying saucer. I want to believe!

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Candied haw fruit on a stick (冰糖葫蘆, bing1 tang2 hu2 lu, literally “rock candy bottle gourd”) is a popular sweet northern Chinese food item. The top two photos have the haw fruit stuffed with glutinous rice. The bottom two photos have the haw fruit stuffed with walnut.

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They served big grapes at the company Christmas party.

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Dragon fruit (火龍果, huo3 long2 guo3, literally “fire dragon fruit”) tastes like watermelon. The one shown above has red flesh. The more common kind has gray flesh.

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The neighborhood market has a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, including apples as shown above. It was very cold the day I took this photo, so the peddlers covered all their merchandise with blankets to prevent damage.

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The outdoor spiral staircase shown above, for a pedestrian overpass near where I live, has very shallow steps. The pitch is perhaps three inches.

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The Workers’ Gymnasium (工人體育館, gong1 ren2 ti3 yu4 guan3) is a circular (viewed from above) building. Care should be taken that it not be confused with the Workers’ Stadium (工人體育場, gong1 ren2 ti3 yu4 chang3) across the street, which is oblong and bigger.

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In front of the north entrance of the Workers’ Gymnasium was a guy training a bird!

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My company doesn’t have running water inside the office, as the bathroom is in a common area shared among several companies, but it does have lots of water coolers like the one shown above. Nestle is a popular brand of water cooler water. Note the disposal bin at the foot of the water cooler: tea is popular here.

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Cultural note on words

I haven’t posted much lately, mostly because of laziness. Fortunately, I’ve encountered a great word that describes perfectly my situation: 懶癌 (lan3 ai2). This is a recently-created Chinese word that combines the characters for “lazy” 懶 (lan3) and “cancer” 癌 (ai2). The whole word, literally “laziness cancer,” means a complete lack of willpower to do things — “so lazy I could die.” The word is, I think, inspired by the insidious nature of laziness — just as unmanaged cancer can beget more cancer (metastasis), so can unmanaged laziness beget greater laziness (I dunno, The Dude, maybe?). Like many other new words, 懶癌 originated in the Chinese Internet and has a kind of sarcastic tongue-in-cheek feel to it. In this way, new words from the Chinese Internet bear a family resemblance to memes from Reddit.

In other news, I played badminton for the first time in my life with a coworker last week and again today. In conversation with some of the other players, I learned a bunch of interesting things about Chinese culture, which I’ve mostly forgotten already. But the things that stick with me are that (1) the Chinese Internet is a source of many new words and (2) different regions of China have different ways of playing rock-paper-scissors.

Regarding the new words thing, 懶癌 is an example of a new Chinese Internet word. Another one is 悲催 (bei1 cui1), which means something along the lines of “out of luck” and is somewhat analogous to the “fail” meme. The Chinese dictionary people are working actively to keep up with new Chinese Internet words, in an analogous development to the OED trying to keep up with English Internet words.

As for rock-paper-scissors, in China there are apparently many different phrases that go along with rock-paper-scissors. The Standard Mandarin words of invocation are “scissors, rock, cloth” (it sounds better in Mandarin), and you display your choice simultaneously with saying “cloth.” Different regions of China have their own local words, which often have nothing to do with scissors, rock, or cloth. Unfortunately, I can’t remember any specific examples. As with many other things, there is an analogy to the Chinese rock-paper-scissors phenomenon in English: We, too, have a few different words of invocation — “Rochambeau,” “rock, paper, scissors,” “rock, paper, scissors, shoot,” “one, two, three,” “one, two, three, shoot” — but so far as I know these words aren’t really regional.

Perhaps this greater diversity in rock-paper-scissors words in China has to do with the Asian origins of the game. According to the Wikipedia article, Americans weren’t generally familiar with the game as late as the 1930s (there’s an article in the New York Times from the 1932 describing the rules of rock-paper-scissors and its play in Japan in such a way that indicates that ordinary New Yorkers weren’t familiar with the game), while it appears to have been well-known in China for centuries or millennia. Maybe hundreds of years from now each part of America will have its own local words of enactment for the game. All this leads me to a crucial question — how did Americans make any decisions at all in a pre-rock-paper-scissors world?

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The local climate is quite dry in the winter. All season long, the skin on my hands has been rough and peeling, and my lips have cracked more than once. It has snowed maybe two times in the last three months.

Those who know me well know that I like to make art that combines my loves of fruit, transport phenomena, and goofing off. For many years, I have routinely dessicated apples and other fruits on my desk at work. I continue to purse this hobby in Beijing, and I do think that the dry air helps.

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Utopia and local state corporatism

Gilbert and Sullivan made their names by mocking the absurdities of British life in the late 19th century. Some of these absurdities have persisted into the present day, which lends a surprising sense of currency to certain parts of G&S plays. In this post, I discuss one connection between the G&S play Utopia and modern China. The thread that ties Utopia and China together is the notion of corporations.


Utopia, Ltd.

Arguably the worst play that came out of the partnership of G&S was Utopia, Limited; or The Flowers of Progress (paraphrasing Greg Anderson: “Some people ask me why there is a second act to Utopia, since at the end of the first act it seems like all the conflicts are resolved, to which I reply, why is there a first act to Utopia?”), but for my purpose here artistic merit isn’t important. The plot of Utopia is pretty convoluted, but basically it concerns a Hawai’i-like kingdom deciding to adopt British customs whole hog. As part of adopting British customs, everything on the island becomes its own corporation — the government, individual people, etc. — and float shares on the stock market. (A side note: William Rehnquist was apparently a big fan of G&S. I wonder what Judge Rehnquist would’ve thought of his court’s decision in the Citizens United decision, which found that corporations are people and so have the same free speech rights as real human people.)


Chinese local state corporatism

In 1992, Jean Oi (a political scientist) wrote a famous paper about an interesting pattern of state-led development in the then decade-old Chinese economic reform era. China has a long history of state-led development that goes back way before the communists took power, but historically most of this state-led development was organized by top leaders in the central state. (This pattern of central-state-led development is pretty common, and is the case in the Civilization / Alpha Centauri video game series. In some of the games, you can choose between centrally planned and free market economics.) Oi observed a phenomenon in the early reform era in which development was led by lower levels of government, not the central government.

In this pattern, local officials would decide on a business for their municipality to specialize in, and then organize local citizens to run that business — produce goods, find customers, distribute goods, etc. Oi named this phenomenon “local state corporatism” because local governments were acting like profit-seeking companies. In Oi’s words: “Local officials act as the equivalent of a board of directors and sometimes more directly as the chief executive officers. At the helm of this corporate-like organization is the Communist Party secretary.” Actual patterns of local government behavior have evolved over time, but it remains the case that local governments in China are often heavily involved in organizing economic activities in ways that would be unusual in the US.


Wall Street Journal story

OK, so in local state corporatism, government acts like a company, and in Utopia, government legally becomes a company. The parallels between Utopia and Chinese local state corporatism are interesting. But it gets better!

The Wall Street Journal‘s end-year retrospective on Chinese economic reforms included the following sentence: “The two most indebted parts of the Chinese economy are companies and regional governments, and both could benefit from a fresh channel to raise cash via the stock market.” This probably refers to potential stock market listings of companies that are owned (fully or partially) by local governments. If the companies can raise money through the stock market, then they don’t have to take on as many loans. Also, maybe regional governments can sell parts of their stakes in the companies to help pay off debts. However, the above direct quotation reads naturally as indicating that regional governments want to sell shares in themselves on the stock market. If that second reading were to come to pass, then we will have gotten to Utopia in a very literal sense: Governments become corporations with shares traded on the stock market.

(As much as I would like this to happen for the entertainment value, what this really means is that a minor error slipped by the WSJ copy editor.)

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Terrorist threats and the police

There was some kind of terrorist threat against foreigners in the Sanlitun area (which has a high concentration of foreigners) over Christmas. My apartment also happens to be on the outskirts of Sanlitun. Here’s a screenshot of a US State Department warning that was forwarded through expat circles:state dept.

In response, government authorities stepped up police presence around Sanlitun:uniqlo police soho police.

So far, nothing bad has happened, and I have every confidence that nothing will. But so as to emphasize not giving in to the bad guys, I made special visits to a few places that I like in central Sanlitun.

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Cigarette warning labels; air pollution part 2

Cigarette warning labels

Cigarette warning labels here are text only:

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The text on the right translates (roughly) to “Smoking is harmful to health. Quitting smoking can reduce health risks.”

It’s interesting to compare the state of Chinese cigarette warnings with cigarette warnings in other parts of the world. The dry, clinical Chinese warnings have about the same level of urgency (salience?) as the old (current) American cigarette warnings. This is much less than what some European countries do with graphical cigarette warnings. The US FDA was going to roll these out a few years back, but the new warnings got stuck in court:

I’ve got no clue if the Chinese government has any plans to start putting in place tougher cigarette warnings. Certainly lots of people smoke here, so doing so might be a good idea.


Air pollution part 2

One nice thing about off-the-scale air pollution days is that the sun takes on a nice orange glow. It’s like an all-day sunset!

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Maybe there’s a tradeoff between lung cancer and skin cancer?

Another nice thing about air pollution is that heavy smog makes laser pointers a lot more fun:

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A word about posting frequency

I’ve been posting more frequently recently than I’d been previously. This is because I plan to send out the second e-mail circular in the next few days and I want to build up a stock of content on this blog for people to read. What remains to be seen is whether people will find this stock actually worth reading…

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Chinese Taipei

I went to Taipei on a business trip December 13-15. This was my first visit to Taiwan ever, even though my parents grew up there. Aside from going to a bunch of meetings, I had the chance to do a few touristy things, which are the topic of this post.


Government attractions

I visited some major government-related sites. Below is a photo of the Republic of China Presidential Building:

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The Presidential Building sits kitty corner to my mom’s high school:

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Very close to the Presidential Building (and my mom’s high school) is a memorial to Chiang Kai-Shek that was built after he died. Chiang was the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and was the head of the internationally recognized Republic of China government for a long and momentous period of time, which included winning the war against Japan and losing the Chinese Civil War. Both of my grandfathers were in Chiang’s army, which is why my parents grew up on Taiwan.

Among other things, the memorial included a really big plaza named Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Square. When the other party came to power in Taiwan, they renamed the plaza Liberty Square (Chiang Kai-Shek is something of a controversial figure). Below are some photos of the plaza:

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The centerpiece of the memorial is the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, which is notable for not being renamed during the other party’s time in power:

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One thing that isn’t clear from the above photos is that there were hundreds of Japanese students visiting the memorial when I was there. Chiang spent 15 years fighting Imperial Japan after Imperial Japan invaded Mainland China before and during the second World War. I wonder what the Japanese students, during their visit, were learning about Chiang.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a bronze sculpture of Chiang. The design of this sculpture clearly was influenced by the design of a famous marble sculpture of a dead American president.

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However, I don’t recall Marble President Lincoln having a military guard around him in the way that Bronze President Chiang does:

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Chiang rode around in a big black Cadillac:

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Another thing that was inside the building was an art museum. Unfortunately I didn’t do a good job with my camera so the photos came out blurry, but the art inside was really interesting. The KMT had a Leninist party-state structure for a long time, in part because the USSR supported the KMT during its early days. From the looks of the KMT political art, organizational practices weren’t the only things that the KMT adopted from the USSR:

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The photos above are KMT propaganda drawn in essentially a Socialist Realist style. Socialist Realism was the dominant artistic style in the USSR and other communist countries.

The KMT had a complex but close relationship with United States for a long time (and actually, it still does today, though these days the KMT is not organized along Leninist lines and is much more of a “normal” Western-style political party), and this closeness was reflected in its political art:

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I want to emphasize just how weird it is to see pro-KMT (anti-communist) art drawn in a style popularized by the communists.

There was also this cool portrait of Chiang Kai-Shek drawn using the words of Sun Yat-Sen’s will. (Sun Yat-Sen was the founder of the KMT and had been Chiang’s mentor, though Chiang’s China ended up looking quite different from what Sun had dreamed.)

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On a lighter note, the middle of the memorial plaza featured a giant tent set up to promote some kind of activity related to Disney’s Frozen. This would be like putting a big Frozen tent right in front of the Lincoln Memorial (or, well, maybe the Andrew Jackson Memorial if there was one).

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Taipei 101

The tallest building in Taipei (and, for a time, the world) is a 101-story tower called Taipei 101. Funny how the name worked out, eh? Taipei is maybe 40 stories taller than any other building in the vicinity. Here’s a photo of it from the base:

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To get to the top, we bought tickets and took the world’s fastest passenger elevator. My ears popped repeatedly on the way up and on the way down. I wonder if the elevator operators (who go for dozens of rides every day) develop otolaryngological problems from the constant ear popping.

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With reference to the red English lettering top center in the photo above, the jury is still out on whether this particular journey changed my life.

My camera work was a total failure when I got to the top so I don’t have any non-blurry photos of the view from the top. But it was nice. However, I do have some good photos of the big hanging metal ball (“tuned mass damper”) inside the tower. Aside from being really fun as a tourist attraction, the metal ball also serves some kind of structural stability purpose (for wind storms and earthquakes).

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Note: The ball is not made of solid gold. It is made of base metal and is spray painted a gold color.

Inside or near Taipei 101 was a really big shopping mall featuring an extremely fake Christmas tree:

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Taipei has a chain of bookstores called “eslite.” One eslite location, which I visited, is near Taipei 101. One distinguishing feature of eslite is that their escalators look like they could be in a scene in Inception:

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Arts district

I visited the Taipei arts district, which is analogous to Beijing’s 798 district. Like 798, the Taipei arts district is built on the grounds of an old industrial site, in this case an old cigarette factory:

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No smoking was allowed in the arts district.

Somehow I don’t have any good photos of the inside of the arts district. But I do have an acceptable photo from the park surrounding the district:

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The organizers of the district tried to keep some of the stuff from the old cigarette factory on display. Bean counters used cruder implements back in the day:

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In the same area, a stadium-like building was under construction:

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The fence around the stadium-like building tried to be environmentally friendly:

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But construction was on hold, perhaps because of popular resistance:

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Raohe Night Market

Another thing that Taipei is famous for is night markets. These are agglomerations of small stands selling food and knickknacks that open up at night.

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The stands here were somewhat more fire-safe than were the petty peddler stands in Siem Reap:

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Raohe Night Market had some very literal signs:

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I tried a new fruit. It looked like a cross between an apple and a pear, and had a texture that was very light (in the sense of low density) and somewhat apple-like. The taste was like a bit like starfruit.

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I also ate a hot dog that used rice instead of bread for a bun:

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Highly recommended.



One of the biggest banks in Taiwan is literally named Mega Bank. Here’s a photo of the Mega Bank branch at Taipei Taoyuan airport:

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Scooters are a very popular form of transportation, so much so that many parking garages had lots of spaces specially allotted to scooter parking. Below are some photos of disabled-accessible scooter parking spaces:

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Google is essentially not present in Mainland China because of a big dispute in 2010, but Google is very much present in Taipei:

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Taipei hosted a marathon, which I didn’t participate in:

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Siem Reap

Another post not about China, but at least it’s about a place in Asia. This is mission creep happening in real time: The scope of this blog is changing and has changed from “Charles’s activities in China” to “Charles’s activities.” This is the stuff of project management nightmares.

I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia in early December to run in a half marathon. For those unfamiliar with Cambodian geography (including me before going there), Siem Reap is the home of Angkor Wat (of World Wonder fame in the video game Civilization). Siem Reap is in the GMT +7 time zone, which is unfortunate given the name of this blog.


Traveling to Siem Reap

I ate at the McDonalds at Beijing Airport before flying (I usually eat junk food when travelling). They had a featured item of Thai pulled chicken on black-colored bread, which is a marketing gimmick that uses squid ink (I think) to color the buns. Maybe it’s the fast-food analogue to squid ink pasta. The sandwich wasn’t very good:

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I had a stopover at Kunming airport in Yunnan (a mountainous province in southern China that is famous for having lots of ethnic minorities). One of my grandmothers grew up in Kunming, or at least spent a lot of time there. The airport was very nice:

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Based on the view from the airport entrance, Kunming looks like a place worth visiting:

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As can be seen in the photo above right, the airport had a heavy security presence. I suspect this had something to do with the terrorist attack in Kunming a couple years ago (a group of baddies armed with big knives went through the train station and killed like 30 people).

The airport also had a display of scorpions (lobsters?) and scorpion-infused liquor next to the customs entrance:

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Minor observations about Siem Reap

Anyway, onto Siem Reap proper. First, a brief discussion about transportation. The main way other than walking that tourists get around is via tuk-tuk (where the “u” is pronounced “oo”). A tuk-tuk is a rickshaw pulled by a motorcycle. Here’s a shot from riding inside a tuk-tuk:

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The way you refuel a tuk-tuk is that you pull up to a roadside stand and the person who runs the stand will fill your tank from a liquor bottle filled with gasoline:

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Speaking of transportation, the folks at Stanford Public Safety would probably be nervous wrecks during a visit to Siem Reap:

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Next, a word about petty peddlers. There was a huge market area with hundreds of stands selling everything: vegetables, fish, sandals, fake brand clothes, etc. One of my friends lost his luggage so we visited some of the clothes stands. I bought a wide-brimmed twine hat to use in the race and in general tourism. The market clearly was not up to the fire code:

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The ruins

The main things to see there were ruins associated with the old Angkor/Khmer empire, including the famous Angkor Wat complex. Anyway, here are some outdoor photos of the Angkor Wat complex:

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Some indoor photos:

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The area has something like 200 different ruins, many of which are as grand as Angkor Wat. The various buildings had different roles and were constructed over the span of hundreds of years. Some buildings were governmental, and others were religious (devoted to various Hindu deities, and also Buddhist ones). Apparently there were a lot of Hindus in Cambodia way back when. According to the tuk-tuk driver, the local people are descended from Indian men and Chinese women.

Anyway, we visited what felt like 20 different ruins, and I have no idea of how to tell them apart from each other. I imagine that, in much the same way, 1,000 years from now, casual tourists at the ruins of Washington, DC won’t be able to tell apart the ruins of the Supreme Court, White House, Capitol, National Cathedral, Smithsonian, etc., either. Instead of trying to describe anything, I’ll just post photos and make snarky comments. Overall, it felt a lot like I was on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. (Actually, they filmed parts of one of the Tomb Raider movies at Angkor Wat. Angelina Jolie was here!)

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One of the ruins was in the middle of a lake/pond:

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There was a building that looked like a Catholic-style chapel. Maybe it was built during the French colonial period?

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The ancient Cambodians liked to make animal sculptures:

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There were many unrestored and partially restored ruins. Note that the ruins are quite old, as can be seen by the big trees growing amidst them.

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An example of restoration work:

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There was this cool gate thing that the road went through. The race path went through this so I got to run through it.

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There were lots of faces built into walls:

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The ancient Cambodians liked to have very steep staircases. These were very difficult to climb, especially on the way down, after running a half marathon.

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The water

Aside from visiting ruins, we also took a boat ride (and got cheated by the boat pilot). Some photos on the water:

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Some people lived and worked on stationary barges.

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At least one of the barges was at least partially solar-powered

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The race

As for the race itself, it started at 6 a.m. (actually more like 6:20), and all combined (half marathon, 10K, wheelchair race, and some others) there were about 8,000 participants. The half marathon path took us around the Angkor Wat complex, which was fun. Because Siem Reap is near the equator and not at high elevation, it was warm even in December — the low right before dawn was typically about 70 F, and the high in mid afternoon was in the 90s. Also, perhaps because Siem Reap is not too far from the coast, it was humid — perhaps 90% relative humidity. On race day, it was maybe 75-80 F at race start and maybe 90 F at the finish, and about 90% relative humidity. This heat and moisture level might have contributed to the relatively slow race times.

The starting line was very crowded:

2015-12-06 05.52.39.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos during the race, nor of the finish. But finish I did! I placed reasonably well, 315 out of 1400 or so in the men’s division (as well I should, seeing as I, a late 20s male, am at the demographic peak for running). Interestingly, if I ran my 21K pace in the 10K race, I would’ve placed something like 130 out of 1200.


Last thoughts

Siem Reap was definitely worth visiting. The ruins were very impressive (in my book, on a similar level to the Roman Colosseum), the weather was pleasant if a bit warm, and (not discussed in this post) the town itself had good food, low prices, etc. The competition in the half marathon wasn’t too strong, which could be a positive or a negative depending on the participant (I, for one, seek extrinsic rewards so weak competition is a big plus to me). Finally, riding tuk-tuks is a lot of fun!

2015-12-09 08.44.36

2015-12-09 08.43.11


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Targeted web ads

Now that I have my location on Facebook listed as Beijing, I get interesting targeted web ads:


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