Construction in Beijing

It is hard to recognize this place after one year. Building construction view from Yizhuang Line (Video, 1min 38 sec)

The Chinese New Year took place here a few days ago. Along with getting woken up by firecrackers at 6:00AM, there was a lot to see at night. I tried to take a video of some. Beijing Chinese New Year Fireworks (Video, 1min 35 sec)

Firework in Chinese is called yànhuǒ (焰火), literally “smoke flower.” Firecrackers is  called  biānpào (鞭炮) or “exploding weapon.”

Guangdong Province, China 2011

In February 2011, I spent a day in the city of Guangzhou on my way to find someplace warm. I haven’t been to this city in a couple years, so I was curious to see what had changed. The city was host to the 2010 Asian Games and it had a large building boom in anticipation. I first noticed that instead of taking a bus from the airport, I could take a new subway line directly into downtown.

I spent my time walking around Zhujiang New Town, a new downtown development. The owner of the hostel I stayed at mentioned they are trying to make something like Manhattan, NYC here. I could see they were building it from the ground up with new subway lines at the bottom, a park above that, flanked on both sides with new sky scrapers. I later saw a one building, the Pearl River Tower, on a TV documentary for being a very energy efficient building, including wind turbines in the middle.

 

On the other side of the river is the iconic Canton Tower. It is one of the tallest free standing structures in the world. In March of 2008, I wrote in my blog that I saw a model of Guangzhou in a museum and couldn’t believe a tower that was twice as tall as everything else in the city. One of the interesting things about China is fantasy does turn into reality.

I also stumbled on one of the largest malls in China, The Grandview Mall (aka Zhengjia Plaza). The top floor has an unlicensed Indiana Jones ride.

After Guangzhou, I took the train to Shenzhen. Too bad I was a little too early, because a pair of world class high-speed rail stations and a new high-speed line between the cities was not finished yet. This new line includes a tunnel under the Pearl River, rated at 350km/h, the only tunnel rated at such a speed in the world. Eventually, there will high speed service all the way to Hong Kong. A few months after my visit the Shenzhen metro system tripled in size too.

In Shenzhen, I met Andy (the Beijing art student) since his family lives here. Since it was still the week of Chinese New Year, his family went out for Guangdong style hot pot and I was invited. It isn’t spicy like Sichuan style but everything else is similar.

I also had a chance to see the electronics market in Shenzhen. Unfortunately, most of it was closed because of the holiday. Andy and I did take a day trip to Hong Kong however.

Hong Kong was the first place in Asia I ever visited (June 2007), but I haven’t returned until now. The border crossing was interesting because it was done by subway and walking. The subway stops at the border and then I walked on a bridge over a river which was the border between China and Hong Kong. On the other side, I got in another train and look it the rest of the way. Hong Kong didn’t seem as crazy as I remember it the first time. I think I’m more used to everything now, so there wasn’t any culture shock.

Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong are all racing to build and I noticed all three have recently completed buildings that are in the top 10 tallest in the world:

But that’s not enough. There are plenty more similar sized buildings that have started construction in China.

College Visit

The China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing is considered the number one art school in the country. Last April, I had a chance to see an experimental art exhibition at its museum.

I learned some of the students now use micro controllers like the Ardunio with their projects now. For example, using sensors to make something interactive. Also they are using programming languages like Processing or visual programming languages like Max/MSP/Jitter.

I also had an opportunity to see a real dormitory. The room is roughly 10 feet by 20 feet. Six students live in this space with a bed on top, desk on the bottom filled with books, peanut shells, and empty cans. I noticed a few buckets on the floor where clothes are washed and socks hung on the radiator. Maybe not the most comfortable space, but I learned it is dirt cheap.

Traffic

On December 30, 2010 at 2:00PM, the gates were pulled open to the public for the first time to five new subway lines in Beijing, China. At any given time, there are about 11 subway lines under construction in Beijing. Every year some phase of these lines are added to the system, growing into the 5th busiest system in the world. As a side note, it is basically the same story in Shanghai, with over 10 lines under construction, already the longest metro system in the world and ranked 4th in number of passengers.

A Beijing Subway station on a Saturday afternoon.

Beijing is world famous for its traffic jams. Now whenever I see a traffic jam in Detroit, I don’t complain. Beijing subways are boarded over 5 million times per day. To cover the rest of the city there are around 20,000 buses that try to squeeze  as many people on board as possible.

To me, it is interesting to see this challenge and see how they are engineering solutions. Still, it seems no matter how fast roads and subway lines are built, they are filled to capacity nearly immediately.

Chinese New Year 2011

In February, I was in Beijing for my first Chinese New Year festival. Previously, I’ve tried to stay out of the country during this time because I’ve heard how hard it could be to travel during that time. However, the major cities are actually fairly empty during this time as a side effect. I was able to spend the new year’s eve with a Beijing family.

Chinese New Year marks the first day of the new lunar calendar. I was also in Beijing for the January 1st solar new year, but there were no celebrations at all, including no countdown on TV at midnight. On the moment of the new year on January 1st, the president comes on TV with his suit and tie and has a speech saying it will be a good year.

Beijing 2011 Chinese New Year DinnerOf course there was a lot of food. This included not only eating food, but cooking food. Everyone was involved with making jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) by putting some filling into a wrapper and later they would be boiled.

The other event is the special new year’s TV entertainment, like choreographed singing and dancing, or comedy sketches (that I’ll never be able to understand). On a side note, HDTV has been rolling out quickly this year. I was able to witness one apartment block get the upgrade. On a scheduled date and time, everyone brings their old cable boxes out and swaps it with a new HD cable box. A pretty fast upgrade. HDTVs are common here and now the decoder boxes are too, but I’ve been to a number of houses and every HD box I’ve seen has been connected to the HDTV with an old composite cable reverting back to SD quality.

Fireworks are another big tradition during this festival. You can buy cakes of fireworks and strings of firecrackers here, including strings of M-80s. I witnessed a couple strings of M-80s and those were pretty scary since they were flying pretty far in every direction.

On new year’s eve, there are explosions heard almost all day, but the climax is at midnight. Sometimes there is a designated area to fire them, so maybe each family will buy a cake and bring it there and add to the chaos. I was checking my watch and I think for 15 minutes I heard the constant sound of strings of firecrackers firing. And then there are people lighting fountains and cakes at the same time. No remote firing here, just walk into the kill zone and use a lighter. As it got closer to midnight, the crowd standing in their winter coats backed away more and more.

Father and daughter take cover from blast.

The problem is the bursts of these fireworks is often less than the height of buildings in the cities. This creates some nice echos, but I’ve witnessed myself some sparks hitting the sides of buildings. If a window is open, that causes some problems, like in the city of Shenyang during this same night burned a building. And two years ago in Beijing, the same thing happened. You could say this makes China an exciting place. With the lack of safety, you never know what is going to happen.

Egypt to USA

When my time was up in Cairo, Egypt, I had a Turkish Airlines flight to heading back to the US with a stop in Istanbul, Turkey. It was going to be another all night ordeal. I left for the airport around 8:00PM. My first flight left at 3:00AM to Istanbul, so I spent most of my time sitting on the cold floor. My flight was from the new Terminal 3 which just opened earlier in 2009.

Upon arrival in Istanbul, I noticed I couldn’t just follow the crowd into the airport. But since my next flight was going to a certain security paranoid country, I had to get an extra interview and security check. I think in total, there were three places where I was questioned about my travels before going to the US.

Turkish Airlines was pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised when there was a power outlet at my seat. Although this was not the last leg of my trip. This airplane was going to Chicago, not Detroit. In my attempt to save some money I found it was cheaper to fly to Chicago and then take a train back home.

I couldn’t just walk through customs and enter the country when I arrived in Chicago. Instead, I was treated like a terrorist and got a search of my bags and was questioned again! I was also questioned about everything I was bringing into the country and they wanted to see it. I only bought a camera lens, a hard drive case, and some clothes for my whole time, but apparently that makes me suspicious with a one-way ticket. However, a few days later, a real terrorist did fly to Detroit with a one-way ticket as well. But I still don’t think it is any excuse for the one country that treats me the worst in the world is my home country.

I rushed out of the airport to get on the subway to make it to the train station. Just about everyone is able to get a seat in the subway, something I wasn’t used to. Then I had to walk outside in the freezing air without proper clothes for a couple blocks to get to the train station.

I got on the Amtrak train from Chicago to Pontiac, Michigan. After pulling out of the station, we stopped. For nearly an hour just waited. I wasn’t too surprised because I’ve taken this train before. The six hour ride turned into about eight hours. At least I had my PC and an electrical outlet. But I was sure getting tired, being this the second night with little to no sleep.

It was end of the line, Pontiac, Michigan at around 3:00AM. I was the only passenger to get off at this stop. There is no train station here, just a parking lot. I had no winter coat and it was windy and below freezing temperatures and my ride home was no where to be found. There was another car in the parking lot, I asked if I could borrow their phone, but they said no.

After about 15 minutes, I think I saw my uncle’s truck drive by. But it seemed he missed the parking lot and it was so dark he didn’t see me by the road. He looped around and finally arrived. For a while there I thought I would have to wonder the streets of Pontiac in the middle of the night looking for help.

I finally made it home around 3:30 in the morning and found it not much warmer inside my house. I had to adjust all the furnace vents and turn up the temperature to make it bearable. At least I was home after five months around the world.

Cairo, Egypt

Foreigners are not allowed to buy train tickets at the ticket counter for some reason. I don’t know why, it is the only place in the world I can think of that has this rule. An alternative is to just board the train and buy the ticket on board, so that’s what I tried. The downside is you aren’t guaranteed a seat but I didn’t have much choice. The train got pretty crowed and I was kicked out of any seat I found soon after. I found behind the last row of seats was a little bit of room. There was a steel pipe that came out of the floor and ran horizontal and I could sit on that. Later more people squeezed onto my non-seat. I spent the time alternating between standing and squatting down on this pipe, one of the most terrible experiences I’ve had on a train.

After this 10 hours of torture, I exited the Cairo Station and made my way to a hotel. The buildings were about 80 years old, an elevator with no inside door which was a little scary, and the ceilings of the rooms were very tall. But overall, not too bad. I got a private room, free wi-fi, and free breakfast.

I visited the Egyptian Museum (no photos allowed) which was huge and tiring. Another day I made the trip to the Giza Plateau. It actually took two days. The first day I couldn’t find the bus, so I gave up. You had to stand in the correct spot in the middle of a highway and wave the bus down. In addition, you have to read the Arabic numbers on all the buses. I did write them down on a piece of paper so I could figure it out.

At the Giza Plateau I realized I forgot my water bottle. I also didn’t have enough cash to buy water plus take the bus back, so I had to skip water this day in the desert. I walked and walked until I found the entrance and behind the wall I could see the Great Sphinx and behind that I could see the three most famous Pyramids in the world.

I spent a few hours walking around the Sphinx and Pyramids, dodging requests for camel rides. Turning around you can see all of Cairo and behind the pyramids there was sand as far as you can see. After a few hours I had the chance to go inside the Great Pyramid. They only let a few hundred people inside each day, so I thought there would be a long line. But there wasn’t much of a line for tickets. I’ve read about the inside of this pyramid a long time ago and it was good to finally experience it for myself. (photos)

Luxor, Egypt

I arrived in Egypt after 3:00 in the morning. I was the only westerner on the flight. I was hoping I could share a taxi at least, but I wasn’t that lucky. Everyone else was going to private cars and taxis outside the airport. I was considering walking the 6km to town, but I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. I finally had to agree to some taxi driver but he dropped me off at the edge of town for the price I paid (while picking up another passenger for free). I had to spend the next couple hours walking through the city of Luxor trying to find a room.

I had some maps on my computer and a street name of where I could find a guest house, but the maps weren’t totally accurate. I did finally find it by just walking down every street in the area and then sat outside and ate some of the donuts I bought in Dubai while I waited for someone to wake up inside.

Luckily, they did have a room available (I don’t think it was exactly clean though). On the board in the lobby I saw they will help you get a Student ID Card because that will cut the admission prices in half. I thought this would be my best chance to get one ever since my wallet was stolen a couple years ago. They took me to an agency and I paid for one but they said I would have to wait a day to get it. In the mean time, I purchased a tour to the Valley of the Kings and some other sites on the west bank of the Nile.

The following day I took the tour which was OK, but still no Student ID. After another day, I went to the Temple of Karnak. No student ID again. They said it would take another week, so they gave me my money back and I planned to get on the train to Cairo.

(photos)

Dubai, UAE

I had a 31 hour layover in Dubai on the way from India to Egypt. Even I arrived, the sun was setting. I decided ahead of time I’d spend the night in the Dubai airport, but I didn’t arrive at this airport. After many hours of research, I figured out how to take the bus from the small Sharjah airport to Dubai. I found something to eat on the way, a shawarma, which is a chicken sandwich. I headed to the newest airport terminal that opened in 2008 and found out they had free wireless internet there. Pretty nice. According to Wikipedia, Terminal 3 has the largest floor space of any building in the world. So I sat on a chair all night long and didn’t really sleep.

In the morning time, I took the new metro system that opened in September 2009. The stations were some of the nicest looking I’ve seen in the world. I had to wait all day for my plane, so I went to the Dubai City Centre mall. I tried to find a place to leave my bag, but they wouldn’t let me, so I left. Back on the metro, I went to the Mall of the Emirates. On the way, the metro passed Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. At the mall, I was able to drop off my bag at Carrefour supermarket and buy some donuts and bread there. This mall is famous for having an indoor ski slope. After a few hours, I went on the metro again to the end of the line, past Internet City, and past all of the new construction, which rivals the construction boom in China.

Before going to the airport, I had a hamburger since those were not easy to find in the past month. It has been a nice change using some transportation here that doesn’t break your back or allows you to breathe.

The sun was setting again, so I made it back to the Sharjah airport, which was must more crowded. I sat on the floor and waited for my flight. Unfortunately, it was delayed to the early morning hours. It looked like I would have another night without a bed. (photos)

Orissa, India

The Puri Express train was pretty good. It had some electricity near my berth so I could use my computer. Puri is a small town near the ocean and it was a little quieter and relaxed than some of the other places I’ve been to. I could only stay one night since I had another train ticket for the following day. There was one place I wanted to visit: The Sun Temple in Konark. It was an impressive sight. I talked to one family who was also visited. The father said he worked in Texas before but now he works in India. He says the company he works for does the billing software for AT&T landline customers. I didn’t know all of that was done in India! (photos)

It was back to Puri to walk around a bit until my train had to leave. I tried an Internet Cafe here, but they kept quoting a different price before and after I use the service. I didn’t pay the higher price, but these things get on my nerves and they happen often.

It was a long train ride (20 hours) to Nagpur in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but again not so bad because there was electricity on board. I could tell Nagpur was a little more modern because they had a road bridge that went over the railroad tracks. It was a little tricky to find the hotel I was looking for since Google Maps was giving me the wrong information and my guidebook and no map at all. But I found it anyway without any help. I just had to spend one night here and then get my fight out of India. The next day I had to take my last autorickshaw, thankfully, to the airport to leave. The customs officials at the airport gave me a hard time and asked me tons of questions because they never heard of the border city I arrived at from Nepal. They didn’t trust the stamp that said “India” on it in my passport. I did finally make it out of India on Air Arabia destined for the UAE.