Jason’s Journal

June 10th, 2012

My Trip to China

Click here for pictures

Day 1

Going to China was probably my most anticipated event during the summer– and also my most feared. I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of life, I want to try as many things as possible even if at first they don’t seem like they would be enjoyable. China is definitely a new experience, but even before I went I knew that it would be a rough country for an American to visit– not many know enough English to really communicate, the food is MUCH more intimidating than “take-out Chinese”, and being a red haired giant I get a lot of stares.

The day started at 5AM– I had gone to bed the day before at 3AM so I would be able to pass out for as much of the plane ride as possible, so 5AM was especially brutal. I met up with the other undergrad (also John) in the ALB airport and we flew United to O’Hare airport. Once at O’Hare we had a 3 hour layover before the non-stop flight to Beijing– we spent that time talking and I got to know a bit about John outside of our research, he’s a pretty cool kid.

The flight to China was 13.5 hours long– if I wasn’t sleeping for 8 of those hours it would have been unbearable. They started off the flight by passing out several forms for us to fill out for the Chinese government. There was one form that basically asked where we were staying during our stay that you split in two for an “arrival card” which you present when you get off the plane and a “departure card” which helps expedite your trip back home. The other form was directly related to swine flu and quarantine– it asked questions like “how do we contact you in the next 7 days,” “how do we contact someone close to you in the next 7 days,” “which of the following symptoms have you experienced in the past 12 hours,” etc.

The plane was a Boeing 777 so there were 9 chairs per row and who knows how many rows– every chair had a little TV on the back of it which could show a TV station or a status map. The TV stations were on 50ish channels with 9 being in English– they played movies on 6 channels and TV shows on the other 3, the programming would loop after the longest program finished. They were playing the new XMEN movie (Wolverine or whatever) and I wanted to watch that but it was, unfortunately, the only channel with garbled sound. I ended up watching “Adventureland” (a comedy about a guy that works at a carnival) and some other “3-ghosts” story about a womanizer (similar to a scrooge story), neither one particularly impressed me. The status map was really cool though– it would cycle through our elevation, ground speed, head/tail wind, miles traveled, position on a globe, etc. I had always thought we would be travelling over the pacific but what we actually did was go north through Alaska and Siberia and then down into China– I guess that is the most efficient route.

At first we were worried about finding our group of people when we landed in Beijing. We had printed out some Mandarin address card to give to a taxi driver should we land and be unable to find anyone, but I have little faith in things I can’t understand myself. Thankfully though, we ran into Brian Yanny on our flight out of O’Hare– he’s a colleague of Professor Newberg’s and has done this trip a few times.

The Beijing airport is a massive airport modeled after feudal palaces (I think– it’s majestic entrance was lined with those red pillars you see in kung fu movies), we passed through 3 or 4 checkpoints each manned by a different set of uniforms and tests. At one point we had our temperature taken by an infrared gun to determine if we had a fever, at another we got our passports stamped, others we just got watched as we walked through. Most all of the employees were wearing the facemasks to protect against germs or whatnot. Once we made it through customs and into China proper I traded in 80$ for about 500 Yuan (it was a 1 to 6.6 exchange rate)– the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is footing our bill since we are basically diplomats, but I wanted to be buying things other than food and taxi rides to be sure.

We got picked up by Xu Yan (a graduate student who visited the US to work under Professor Newberg for most of the summer) and driven over to the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) which is a portion of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Something interesting to note is how much effort the Chinese government puts into making Beijing beautiful– the highways were all lined with trees and flowers and sometimes trellises to block your view of the city and even when you exited the highway there was a tremendous amount of landscaping. It is really unfortunate that there is such a terrible haze– I don’t think you can even get a picture of the Beijing Skyline the haze is so bad, it is like a permanently foggy day here (apparently it was nice the day we flew in since it was a no-work Sunday… apparently). The cars were pretty much the same– a lot of VW and Audis that I noticed, as well as some unknown makes. There was a lack of 18-wheelers and a plethora of little electric mopeds (apparently you can get a moped here for 300$– they sell for 3000$ overseas because there is little to no competition in the market outside of China). Also, uniforms were a lot more noticeable– everyone working had a uniform of some sort; the landscapers were obvious in their bright orange jumpsuits, the store clerks in the airport were a little less obvious, I wouldn’t have noticed them unless I had seen three girls all dressed in the exact same stylish rainbow skirt getup.

At the NOAC we were led to the “guest house” which is basically a little hotel on campus. Thankfully it had an air conditioner (it is very hot and very humid in the Beijing area) and some high speed internet and international power plugs. We spent some time relaxing and then set out to dinner.

Dinner was amazing. Perhaps I should rephrase– there was no single dish served that I could take a huge mouthful of without hurling, but the experience was great. What happens is only one person gets a menu and they order for the table– I’m not sure if this is the general practice, we were in a little VIP room whether that was because of our status or the size of our party (by this time we had met up with most all of the American scientists), I’m not sure. Professor Newberg was in charge and she ordered: duck (whole duck cut into slices with the bones still in it, delicious), chicken (similar to the duck, I was lucky to get a piece without bones and it was great), a steak and beans dish (not comment worthy, something you actually could get at a take-out place), steamed fish (again, whole with bones and delicious), pork fat (or fat pork, I’m not sure– as far as I could tell it was grilled fat, I found it repulsive), 2 Fungus dishes (one was a very thin rubbery mushroom that I enjoyed, one was thick and too soft for my palette), a squid-vegetable mix (I enjoyed this a lot), a peanut dish (did not taste like peanuts at all– perhaps they were pickled?), a cabbage-vegetable mix (I took a heaping amount of this since I was having a rough time with the meats), some weird fried chicken cartilage (this is what put me off the meat– it looked like little balls of fried meat so I took like 5– the first one was cartilage and caught me by surprise, I thought I just got a bad piece… 4 mouthfuls of cartilage later I realized it was no mistake). The dishes are brought out as soon as they are made and served immediately– we sat at a round table which was 70% covered by a turntable, as dishes were served the table was rotated and everyone took a what they wanted. Meanwhile the waiter (an attractive little Chinese girl) bustles around refilling glasses, replacing dirtied plates, putting half finished dishes on smaller plates to make room for new food, etc. It was the best service I’ve ever had, but awkward for everyone I think (we are not used to surrendering our plates and she was not used to having people be so defensive of their dishes– she didn’t speak a word of English either so a lot of pantomiming was going on).

After that we went back to the guest house and got some bags to go shopping with– the stores are amazingly cheap. The average drink price is 3 Yuan (50 cents) so I stocked up on some sweet beverages (Corn Juice! should be really exciting) and pastries (about 6 Yuan per) for our road trip to Chengde tomorrow (sightseeing). I really want to spend an evening just going down a line of shops and stocking up on general goods– that sounds more exciting to me than visiting some tourist shop, probably much cheaper as well.

Then we went back to the Guest house and passed out. I crashed really hard, even though I got 8 hours of sleep on the airplane, it was less than restful, more of a way to pass the time and by now it was 8AM back in EST time.

Day 2

We woke up and went downstairs to the guest house “bar” which is basically a dining room. We enjoyed a breakfast of pastries, fruits, exotic juices (strawberry) and cheese. Supposedly cheese is not a common thing here in China– Northern Europeans developed a tolerance to lactose since it was essential to their survival in the winters, but Asian peoples have no such tolerance. I personally am thankful for that since cheese is delicious. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Chinese pastries are slightly different from American pastries– there is less flaky crust and icing and more mushy sweetness to the bread. It’s kind of sticky and sweet– I don’t really like it too much, but it works.

After breakfast we met up with Licai, the Chinese scientist who organized the trip on the China side. He came with a tour bus which we all crammed into and began our trip out to the Chengde province. I have a lot of things to say about that bus and none of them are nice. First of all the headspace– the thing will easily accommodate a 6 foot person standing up, but only if they stand up in their seat, the aisle has a pronounced dip for air fans and speakers which necessitates a stoop when you try to move anywhere, also, no matter how much I stoop to exit the bus, I always, ALWAYS, hit my head on the door. Secondly, the chairs are made for 5-foot tall people, even with perfect posture I cannot get my knees behind the seat in front of me, I always have to adopt this awkward position with slanted legs or knees in the aisle or anything-but-comfortable. Thirdly, 50% of the seats are broken so that if you lean back the whole seat leans back into the person behind you– the other 50% are broken so they don’t recline at all. This leads to a horrendous fiasco with me getting crushed every time the bus hits a bump which, unfortunately happens about 200 times a second.

That leads me to the Chinese roads. The highways are plenty fine, nice, paved, 2-3 lanes each way, helpful signs like “Don’t fall asleep” and “Buckle up– it’s not really the law since your tour bus has no seatbelts” and what have you. Once you exit the highway though it all goes downhill. The roads are terribly bumpy and almost always 1 lane each direction, but usually there are 3-4 cars abreast and nearly always some insane moped trying to finagle his way through those 3-4 cars. The usual advice they give to people visiting China is to not watch the road– but hey, I’m in China, I’m going to see as much as I can while I’m here.

Once you exit Beijing proper the decorative landscaping gives way to farmlands. They aren’t farms in the American sense since they don’t have very much mechanized operation here. It is very common to see lines of fruit trees and in the space between the trees lines of corn. Since they have no tractors, they use all the space they have rather than worrying about how to get monstrous machines through the fields. There is also a tremendous amount of what I suspect to be greenhouse frames– there are the metal bar lattices with corn growing up between they, I assume that in winter they will cover the frames with plastic or something and grow inside during the cold. Also, once you enter the little townships you will see family stands all along the road with the women selling fruits and vegetables and whatever else there is to sell– it’s not one or two every once in a while, it’s full roads lined with vendors.

A view of the great wall, a rest stop, lunch, and a few near collisions later we arrived at our first destination: The Emperor’s summer palace (not to be confused with the Emperor’s Beijing Summer Palace– on a side note the “Jing” in Beijing stands for capital, before it became the capital it was called Peking). The summer palace is a collection of islands on a large lake, and the main mode of transport is pleasant boat trips across the water from decorative building to decorative building. To enter the Summer Palace one needs to first pass through 9 gates– in between each gate is a small courtyard usually filled with trees, or ornate pathways or what have you (And nowadays little exhibits off to the side detailing the famous arts and customs of the time such as clock making and screen making– decorative 3D pictures). Apparently the emperor used to make a 1.5 month voyage to the summer palace in quiet years; he was carried in a small house by 100 men and would stop to hunt tigers, bears and wolves along the way.

We walked in through the 9 gates led by a Chinese tour guide who rambled on and on and on in Chinese, she showed us some nice posters and informational plaques (also in Chinese) which did no more than she to impress the extravagance of the place to me. Instead I just checked things out with my eyes and got accosted by vendors every time I looked lost. Pretty much every vendor had the same wares of fans, spinning toys, kites, and silks– I wanted to stop and browse around for goodies, but apparently we were behind schedule and we got hustled through the whole ordeal fairly quickly.

Once we got through the gates we came to a boat dock on the lake and we were ferried to the first stop. To be honest almost all of the stops were the same to me– a rocky island with stone carved stairs up to some regal looking pavilion or tower that had a fantastic view over lily gardens and the lake. Pretty, but a bit repetitive and not at all made for hustling. We made a few stops by boat, then took a little tram over to a couple of other sites including a hot-spring fed river (perhaps the reason for the location?) and a reverse waterwheel (took work to pump water as opposed to water power to do work).

Afterwards we took a short trip over to a Tibetan temple– I particularly enjoyed this stop. There were numerous incense pyres and people selling incense– I gathered that one would purchase incense, make some sort of prayer over it as you lit it, and then let it burn in these pits. These pits sometimes had so much incense in them that there would be visible flames– it smelled really nice. There was also an abundance of red candles, usually near these incense fires. This was a legitimate temple housing monks supported by donations and the government– so there were a lot of things you couldn’t take pictures of, mostly the monks and the statues. The statues were amazingly ornate and adorned, different buildings within the temple grounds held different characters– the most majestic of which being the thousand eye Buddha.

The thousand eye Buddha stands 37.5 meters tall and is flanked by two praying Chinese men who stand about half as high. The three are housed by a building whose sole purpose is to protect the thousand eye Buddha– the building tapers to the top so that you need to get right up to the Buddha’s feet to see his head, the affect being to make the Buddha even more impressive since you have to gaze skyward to see him. He has maybe ten arms on each side, and each arm has an eye in the palm (supposedly to represent 45 eyes each– plus the two on his face makes about 1000) — each hand holds some different object. I really wish I could have gotten a picture, but the room is filled with monks and visitors in prayer, and I think it’s somewhat blasphemous to photograph their deity.

After the statue there was very little left to impress at the temple– I did however photograph 12 paintings which supposedly chronograph the Buddha’s life. They were gorgeous pictures with Chinese (or Tibetan?) captions at the bottom– I couldn’t decipher them but maybe you can. To exit we went down a path between buildings populated yet again with vendors, and (I guess) monks in training, or residents of the temple who aren’t monks maybe– little girls doing gymnastics, a young boy juggling, and a few older women running their hands along these resonating bowls (as they rubbed their hands on the outside, the water in the bowls would start to tremble and splash about). Afterwards we ate dinner at the temple and they served us a sort of rice wine– it was 38% alcohol but it went down smoothly like a cognac, very unique.

We left the temple and began our arduous ascent to Xing Long Station– the site where the Chinese Government houses many of their telescopes. It’s actually a pretty poor site; low elevation, poor weather conditions (very foggy in summer and sandstorms at some other times of the year), and light pollution from nearby cities all make it more difficult to observe. Most all of the Americans were falling asleep on the bus as soon as it got dark, and I took a few short naps as well– once we got to the curving mountain roads however, the driver was constantly honking the horn making sleep difficult. I don’t remember much of interest as it was dark out– but I recall at one point we passed a random fire in the middle of the road. No clue what was going on, don’t ask don’t tell I guess.

Once we reached the observatory we were shown to our rooms (the observatory has dormitory style living for the Astronomers that live there). Before going to sleep, John, Heidi, Maggie (Heidi’s daughter), Brian and I went for a “night walk” around the site. We saw the telescopes and saw the bubbles of light pollution from the nearby cities and got a feel for the layout of the site before going to sleep.

Day 3

We woke up to an impressively impenetrable fog– everything was shrouded in a thick mist. This is unfortunate because it meant that we wouldn’t be able to open the dome to the LAMOST telescope for fear that the moisture would damage it. However, it did make an early morning walk very enjoyable. The telescope grounds actually have 5 or 6 telescopes, nothing near as massive as LAMOST, but still enough to occupy a fair amount of scientists. The telescopes are basically connected through a little forest by concrete pathways so the morning mist made it fairy-tale like to explore. An interesting thing to note is that even here on the top of the mountain at this science station we could find small corn fields– they really waste no space when it comes to agriculture here.

We had the first traditional Chinese breakfast (or at least I assumed it was traditional) at the on-site cafeteria. Again we sat at the rotating table and they put a variety of rice breads out– some were steamed, many had fillings of some sort a couple had toppings. Then they filled the table with a variety of tiny dishes, mostly pickled vegetables of unknown varieties that were to be used as toppings for your rice bread (I presume, I was copying the Chinese lady next to me but apparently she is Mongolian and not Chinese so maybe she did things differently). A couple familiar dishes were available too like hard boiled eggs and wonton soup (for breakfast? Sure, I guess).

After breakfast we began our tour of the Telescope. The telescope consists of two main buildings, one for each of the two mirrors. Mirror A is the mirror which collects the light from the stars– it sits in a dome structure with huge lattices on the sides. The dome will split in half and slide over to the lattices leaving the mirror exposed to the sky, then mirror A can aim about by rotating and tilting. Once light hits Mirror A, it is reflected to mirror B, which sits at the very top/end of the large tube like structure. Mirror B is stationary and, no matter where Mirror A is pointing, it always directs light to the detector. The detector is the real strength of the LAMOST telescope– most telescopes have a large CCD Camera for a detector (basically just a camera, CCD stands for charge coupled device). A CCD camera is capable of determining flux and flux alone– the more photons that hit a specific cell of a CCD, the brighter that object is in the sky– we can get a little more information by putting color filters in front of the CCD so we can determine the flux in different colors (an indication of temperature), this is called “poor-man’s spectroscopy”.

LAMOST of the other hand is capable of performing real spectroscopy. Instead of having a CCD camera that determines flux per unit area– LAMOST has a grid of 4000 optical fibers that have space between them, but are movable in small areas. What this basically means is that LAMOST cannot be used to take pictures of an area of sky (that’s not entirely true, LAMOST has 5 CCD cameras mixed in with the fibers, but they are so small that trying to map the sky with them would be silly– a normal detector would have a large CCD that records everything the telescope collects). These fibers travel to a lower level of the telescope that houses 16 spectroscopes– a spectroscope is basically a very small slit. What happens is that the fibers are lined up stars at the detecting ends and with these tiny slits at the emitting ends so that the light from an individual star is sent through this tiny slit. The tiny slit then (by diffraction) splits the dot of light into a line of lines like this IIIIIIIIIIII where each line corresponds to a wavelength– the thicker lines mean more of the light is of that wavelength while thin lines indicate very little light is at that wavelength. What this allows you to do is determine the chemical composition of a star which in turn tells you a tremendous amount of information.

So, in short, the LAMOST telescope is not attempting to find new objects. It is taking a catalogue of known object positions, aiming individual fibers at these positions, and determining the chemical composition of those stars. This has never been done on the scale of 4000 fibers per exposure. Usually you have to aim them 1 fiber at a time– and the best attempt was a 600 fiber attempt where fibers were glued into large metal plates at the desired positions (each plate needed to have holes drilled in exact locations and then have fibers glued in 1 by 1– a tedious and inefficient task). LAMOST has a tremendous amount of fibers which are dynamic in their positioning– so they can just scream through a massive amount of stars and determine the chemical composition of them very quickly. This is huge. (Sorry if this is confusing, but it is very exciting)

After touring the telescope we had a joint meeting with Chinese and American Scientists– they discussed many things about how the tests of telescope equipment should progress. Apparently the current Chinese plan of action has many tests being run one after the other and we are trying to make it so some tests can be run in parallel. These are all calibration tests; LAMOST is not yet collecting massive amounts of data. I won’t bore you with this as it is significantly less exciting than the telescope itself. It is worth noting that time is of the essence when we talk about the LAMOST telescope because the site is quickly becoming polluted with light from neighboring cities– the biggest threats being Beijing and Xing Long. As these cities grow, they spew light of unknown chemical composition into the sky which can give false readings of stars.

Later on we had another joint meeting of scientists and programmers (the scientists are American and Chinese, the programmers are all Chinese). They discussed their program of how to optimize fiber usage– the program they had created would have finished 90% of the available sky in 10 years (from 2000 to 2009, using real weather data to simulate sky availability– and other constraints such as star priority and whatnot). I really enjoyed the presentation of that program since I think optimization is fun, but that’s just me.

It is important to note that the biggest hurdle for this project was noticeable here. The programmers speak poor English. When things got complicated the meeting quickly turned into the Chinese people discussing things loudly in Chinese and the American people discussing things loudly in English. As Professor Newberg says “It’s like oil and Water”. Tomorrow we are going to begin our conference (presentations of current science interspersed with meetings about the direction of LAMOST) and throughout the conference we are going to have activities designed to mix the Chinese and American scientists with each other and build ties or whatnot (things like sports or pool or ping-pong, what-have-you).

After this meeting we had another bone-harrowing ride to Beijing where we collected breakfast supplies, had another fancy dinner, and went to sleep.

Day 4

Today was the first day of the presentation portion of the conference. The building next door to the guest house had a conference room reserved for us Astronomers. We started off with introductions. Five minutes prior to the public introductions we introduced ourselves to the person next to us and then they would introduce us to the group. I met a guy named Wang Jian Ling (not sure which of those names is his name, which is his family name or which I should call him) — he was a graduate student working on galaxy morphology classification.

After the introductions we heard some talks about current research in astrophysics and the importance of LAMOST before being brought lunch. This is about where the food started to get to me. I’m all for trying new things and whatnot, I’ve been making a point to eat some of every dish on the table at mealtimes, but to be honest it comes to a point when it stops being a novelty and starts being mouthful after mouthful of dissatisfaction. The Chinese food in general is some sort of meat mixed with some sort of vegetable and soaked in some sort of sauce– at any given meal there are 5-6 different dishes like this and then a few vegetable only dishes and a few meat only dishes which usually lack a sauce or have a less pronounced sauce. The thing is, mixing 5 or 6 of these different sauces (each excessively powerful on your palette) and 5 or 6 of these different meats (not meats as in steak and chicken tenderloins, meats as in tripe, pork fat and cartilage chunks) makes the meals lack themes and directions. So every meal tastes the same, and none of the meals particularly appeal to someone foreign to the food– it would be better I think to be weaned onto it as it were, but that isn’t really an option here (unless I grab a taxi and go to a pizza hut or something silly). Another thing, the beer here is all light beer– I think that describes the Chinese meals in general, they have flavor, but they aren’t satisfying. So yeah, as soon as I get back to New York I’m going to eat a monstrous meal of steak and potatoes at the local “76 Diner” and then pick up a buffalo chicken pizza on the way home.

After lunch we had a bit of a break so a few of us decided to walk over to the Olympic Village– apparently the Government is going to leave the village up and plant a bunch of grass in the parking lots to turn it into a public park (this was apparently promised to the people of Beijing a while ago). We saw the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube and whatnot, but apparently they are much nicer to see at night when they are all lit up– hopefully I can make it back there sometime when it’s dark. Luckily I found a gift shop here where they were charging more than 8 Yuan for things (I had picked up 400 Yuan on my entry to China and have, as of yet, spent about 50) and I picked up some trinkets for the family.

When we returned from the break, we did some “speed dating” the concept is that every American scientist will spend some time with every Chinese scientist and get to know a bit about them and their work. They split us into Professors and Students (students including Ph.D.s and post-docs) — this made the Professor’s room almost equal at the expense of John and I (accompanied by Maggie who, being 13, isn’t much use in conversation with a roomful of strangers talking about astrophysics) being in a room with a dozen Chinese students. It was alright though since 3 of the students (Liu Chao, Xu Yan and ???) were students that had visited Professor Newberg in the past and worked with us. We abandoned the idea of pairing up and rotating, since it would basically just be John and I moving around, and instead sat at a large conference table and chatted. We started off with some introductions to our work and tried to have conversation on it– but that quickly tired since no one is really experienced enough to talk about someone else’s field (at least I felt that way about us undergrads). The table quickly degraded to all the Peking University kids talking to each other in Chinese and John and I chatting to Liu Chau, Xan Yu and a guy named Zhang. Near the end I drew a map of the USA and pointed out RPI and Florida and then passed around a piece of paper so people could draw china and point out where they were from. Turns out a lot of them are from a place called Tian Jin which is south of Beijing, another big city I suppose.

We returned to the conference room to hear some more talks, then adjourned to go to dinner. Tonight we went to, what I suppose, was a nice restaurant (as opposed to the on school dining). I honestly have no idea what to base the quality on though since, at every restaurant, we have silk tablecloth and napkins, fine china, and a waitress constantly serving dishes and filling cups– the food may be frustrating but the service is always great. This restaurant was “nice enough to have private upstairs rooms” according to the guy I sat next to, American-born Peking University Professor Eric Peng. I learned a lot about china from the discussion at dinner with Eric Peng, being American-born his English is perfect and he is able to point out a lot of the differences in culture. It was quite pleasant.

After dinner we had a “beer-party” where we all retired to the guest house bar, had some drinks and mingled. John and I helped Jordan Raddick out with an interview by telling him our thoughts on science and physics and astrophysics. Then we joined the party and talked to Liu Chao and Licai for a while until they had to leave (they live a half hour away apparently). That was also a nice discussion where I learned about what the kids do for fun around here (Karaoke is big apparently) and they suggested some things to see and do (The Beijing Opera is apparently a very nice musical / costumed interpretation of ancient Chinese stories– and the Forbidden City is a must see before we leave Beijing, a 20-minute cab ride away). In turn I tried to explain fraternities to them, a concept they found absurd– which is perhaps insightful.

Anyways, after our discussion left the party began to die down. I took a short walk around the campus and then turned in myself.

Day 5

There really wasn’t much to mention today, it was mostly talks and discussions similar to those described above. Today was (hopefully) the worst day of the trip. Something at that fancy restaurant definitely disagreed with me (I think I’m going to blame the tripe, it was delicious and I probably ate too much haha) — I was drinking water and eating rice all day until dinner (something interesting to note, twice now at dinner Licai has ordered for us a “BIG FISH HEAD,” which is exactly as it sounds. It must always be shouted and is always finished).

In the evening we had a “sports option” planned. The options were basketball, swimming, or game room– only 2 people signed up for basketball and swimming; and, as it turns out, those 2 people had signed up for every option. We ended up going down to the games room which had some workout equipment, a pool table and 3 ping pong tables. The other John and I were quickly engaged by two of the Chinese students in a match. They were much better than we (which isn’t too hard since I didn’t even know all the rules before they explained them to me) — I think they were deliberately holding back so as to not make us feel bad. We quickly stopped playing America vs. China games and started playing with mixed teams which ended up being much more equal.

There was also a social option, but no one was really around so that didn’t go much of anywhere– Sebastian, John, Licai and I sat and chatted for a while, but it was nowhere near as enthused as the last social event. We quickly turned in and I fell asleep pretty early.

Day 6

Today we worked in groups to help share our expertise with the Chinese planning teams. The other John and I helped out a girl named Xin Yu to get spectra from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey database. Rather, the other John showed both Xin Yu and I how to get information from the database– I hadn’t ever done that before, but now I have that useful skill. We also set her up with a program John wrote to use that data to extract spectra of the stars (a measure of how much light comes from a star in varying wavelengths– this information can be used to determine the chemical composition of the star which helps answer a LOT of questions).

Some of the other groups that I missed out on were: planning the survey strategy for the LAMOST telescope (what sections of the sky should have higher priority according to what time of the year it is, how bright the night is, what sections have already been surveyed, etc.), and designing tests to determine what the telescope is capable of (how far off to the side it can aim before the images get noisy or distorted, how precise the measurements are, etc.). I would have liked to go to the survey strategy meeting but I was busy for the whole time working with John to get Xin Yu set up to use the SDSS database properly.

Near noon they brought us some more Chinese food (of which I ate only the rice) and 300 Yuan (45$) for “living expenses”. I’m not sure what living expenses we had since we were housed by the National Astronomical Observatories of China, and our meals were all paid for by the same people– but hey, I’ll take the money anyways. At this point I had a large amount of Yuan (500 ish?) that would lose a bunch of money when I got back to the states, so I was a bit eager to go shopping. The only place I had visited where I could buy souvenirs or whatnot had been the gift shop at the Olympic village– that was great and all but I really wanted to get some more things.

Professor Newberg took us to the Pearl Market after we finished working (about 2PM). This entailed a 20 minute trek to the subway station and about a 45 minute ride on various trains to get to the part of the city where the Pearl Market is. I really enjoyed the subway system and, if I lived in Beijing, it would be my primary mode of transport. It costs 2 Yuan (30 cents) to get a ticket which lets you into the system– they have a bag scanning security stop before you enter– and once you go down you can ride any number of trains before you exit. I’m not sure if that how normal subway work or not– but with 30 cents and an hour and a half of transit time, you can get pretty much anywhere in the city you want to go. You have to return the ticket on exit (they are plastic cards) but I went ahead and splurged the 30 cents to buy a ticket as a souvenir– they are nice plastic cards as I said, and have a map of the system on the back, not a bad buy.

I’m pretty sure the Pearl Market is world famous– if I’m not mistaken it’s the market Andrew Calder (A guy on Chris’ rock climbing team) suggested I visit during my trip. I suppose back in the day they sold mostly pearls, but nowadays there are only 3 floors devoted to these aquatic treasures, the other three are watches/electronics, clothing/shoes/silks, trinkets/gemstones (on floors 1,2 and 3 respectively). The key thing to know when you go to the Pearl Market is that they are trying to scam you, and if they can sell you something counterfeit, they will– it is essential to be able to turn away from someone if you feel like you’re getting a poor deal. Simultaneously though, it is essential to realize that 50 Yuan is less than 10$– and even if you are getting a poor deal it’s far better than what you will get in America.

So, before we visited the Pearl Market, we warmed up in “TOY SHOP” across the street– a less aggressive version of the Pearl Market. As the name suggests they have primarily toys, although the upper levels have some sweet souvenirs. I got a scroll made of bamboo (I think?) with a roaring tiger on the front for my friend Wunyin (here at RPI) — I pointed at the scroll and the lady pulls out her trusty calculator and types “180” into it. I have no idea how much this thing is worth– that’s the vendor’s main strength– but I had been given two tips: 1) (From Andrew) you should start the bidding at 1/10 whatever the vendor’s first offer is and 2) (from Professor Newberg) your end goal for a “good” deal is 1/4 the original offer, and for an “alright” deal is 1/3 the original offer. In general you can get things for 1/4 to 1/3 their price in the States, so if you can estimate a value on the item, you should shoot for that. Anyways, I discovered my most powerful weapon in this shop– walking away. I put in 20 and she just kind of laughed and said “toolow, toolow” and then typed 150 in. I had decided that I really didn’t want the Tiger Scroll at this point so I tried to walk out and she started laughing again and said “sirsir” and grabbed my arm and handed me the calculator– I kind of smiled and put in 30, half an attempt to make her angry so she would forget about it. She laughed again and typed in 100, and kind of narrowed her eyes a bit– this is when the bidding got real for her I guess. This is when I discovered my greatest strength with these vendors: I tried to walk out and, without typing another number in I had her down to 80, then 70. I typed in 35 and she dropped to 50. I typed in 40 and she typed in 45 (the last one, they always try to get you 5-10 Yuan higher) — I tried to walk out again but she stopped me and said “your price”. I was the proud new owner of a 6$ Tiger Scroll and a set of bartering skills.

Also in the TOY SHOP, I got a small statue of Chairman Mao for 30-50 Yuan. I think I’m going to send it to Bobby since I’m sure he would appreciate such a nice paperweight– but I may have to reconsider since I’m not sure how his Navy friends would react to such a novelty (“YOU HAVE COMMUNIST SYMPATHIES, BOY?”). We made a couple of other stops as well but nothing really interesting jumped out at me. We inspected a set of silk and not silk goods made to look exactly the same (the switcheroo is a common trick here I hear haha).

Then we proceeded to the Pearl Market proper– the vendors here are much more aggressive for your business and are far more notorious for ripping people off. The famous story I’ve heard is the Rolex scam– according to Tim Beers (an astronomer), almost everyone that goes to the Pearl Market buys a fake Rolex that stops working by the time they get on the airplane home. The first floor is, like I said, mainly watches and electronics– as you walk through people are yelling at you “hey you, wanna buy a watch?” “You need a watch man, look at this, real Rolex!” “You want a flash drive? 800 gb!” (No joke– this one table had a table covered in flash drives with various colored stickers on the front labeled 80gb, 120gb, etc. up to 800gb– I obviously didn’t buy any of these), “cashmere? Real cashmere! Silk? Need a silk scarf?”, “BOSE! BOSE!” (headphones)… etc. Considering the nature of this place I decided immediately to stick to non-mechanical things– I don’t mind perhaps getting ripped off moneywise, but I want to make sure that what I buy isn’t going to break immediately (like everyone’s Rolexes haha). On the first floor however, I did notice something I wanted to buy– stamps that you can get your name engraved into. It’s a big thing in China, having your stamp that you use in place of your signature.

I didn’t buy anything on the first floor– mostly because of how insecure all the purchases are. It turns out to have been a good idea since there are a lot of repeated goods on the other floors and the higher up the floor, the less customers, the cheaper the price. The second floor was clothing– this was the one time I got completely suckered (well– it remains to be seen if I got suckered). I was strolling through the floor avoiding eye contact (the only way to keep the wolves off) when I heard a girl shout “Hey you have red hair!” I turn, look at my accoster, and say “Yeah! I got red hair!” During this exchange I was grabbed from behind by some other girl who says “Hey you! I like your hair! I want to be your friend, want to buy a shirt?” I spend a little time checking out the T’s before saying “nah, I don’t want any of these”– to which she responded with her other wares “You need some Nike? Some Adidas?” “Nah, Nah”, “Need a belt? Belt with big buckle?” “Nah, I got one, thanks”. “Jacket? North Face Jacket?” “Nah nah, I don’t need any– North Face?” And I was hooked. She pulls out this North Face Jacket and another guy comes over and starts showing me all the features “Look, Look removable fleece!”, “Gore-Tex!”, “Take out the fleece, rain jacket!” I’m in a peculiar position because I’m in the market for a new ski jacket and I’m going to have to buy one anyways, so I was willing to risk a purchase. The bidding begins: “Normally, I see American and I start with this” 2500 (ridiculous, that’s 400$) “But I see you and I want to be your friend so I give you this” 1200. I laugh a bit and back away “No, no thanks, I don’t think I have enough” “Please please, put a price, I want to be your friend, I can give you good price”. 150 “No no! That’s too low! This is North Face, you know North Face” 900. “Look, I really don’t have that much, I can’t get it, sorry.” “Please, put a price, what do you have?” 200. “C’MON! That’s all you have? What about this” 700. “I don’t have that! Here’s what I have” 400 (I really had about 600). “Ugh, that’s all. I don’t know, I don’t know how about..?” 600. “No, sorry” “How about…” 550. “No, sorry” “How about…” 500. “I don’t have it! sorry!” “Okay okay okay! your price” 400. “No no, I said I HAVE 400– I don’t want to spend 400, I have this whole store to shop in still!” “Oh no, no, no, okay…” 350. “I’ll pay this” 300. “Ohh, c’mon! That’s all?” 340. “No, I can’t” 300. “Okay” 300. So here I am with a hopefully waterproof, possibly counterfeit, North Face Jacket for 45$… We will know if it’s counterfeit when it rains I suppose. If it turns out to be legit with waterproof– then it’s a very nice Jacket.

The other bidding went similarly and I ended up with 2 teacups for 50 Yuan (9$)– they are nice China teacups (at least I assume that they are considered China– they are porcelain if not actual “China”). I gave one to Tian the other Chinese kid in my Fraternity and kept one for myself. They have a few interesting innovations in China about their teacups since they all drink loose-leaf tea. They all have covers that keep the tea warm for a while if you aren’t drinking it, and almost all of them have these built in strainers. The one I got Tian was covered in pretty generic Chinese designs and had a small section of the inside separated from the rest by a perforated divider– so you put the tea in, pour hot water over it, the tea will sink once it steeps, and since you drink out of the other portion of the cup, the leaves will be strained out. The one I got myself is more straightforward, its a 3 piece cup painted yellow with a golden dragon rampant across it– it has the cup, the cover I mentioned, and a basic strainer that goes between the two (much like a pasta pot) that you remove when it’s done steeping.

I also got a set of spiked wooden Baoding balls (I used a cool trick to get this cheap where i just pulled all the money out of my 1 Yuan / 5 Yuan pocket and acted like it was all I had, I kept different monies in different pockets just for this reason). Baoding balls are the two balls that you rotate in your hands for exercise and supposedly interact with acupuncture points– in general you find them metal, painted, and with chimes inside that ring when the two strike. I’m not a fan of chimes myself, and had never seen such a manly spiked set so I picked them up for about 3$.

I picked up one of the stamps I mentioned earlier as well and had it emblazoned with a “V” rather than my full name. On second thought I think I might have preferred a “JJV” but hey, this is good enough for 50 Yuan (9$). Now I can stamp all my official schoolwork and it doubles as a wax press for fashionable letters. It was a plain V with a plain circle around it when I got it, so I spruced it up a bit with a wood burner when I got home– now it’s fairly exciting.

After spending about 3 hours in the Pearl Market, we departed– there were a few things I wouldn’t have minded picking up but I was running out of Yuan and needed to save enough for entry into the Forbidden Palace tomorrow. They had some cricket cages which were really nice, and would make a pretty good conversation starter if I had one in my room– I decided against that purchase though since I couldn’t see myself going out to catch crickets. They had some sweet “antique” drinking horns that also would have made a good conversation starter at parties– but I decided against that since they were fairly expensive and a bit dirty / rusty since they were “antiques” (I’m pretty sure there were no legitimate antiques there), and besides, I can get nicer ones in America. There were also some pretty sick chess sets floating around– but unfortunately I don’t play enough chess to justify buying another set (I have a decent wooden one in my room, and an extremely nice one back in Florida). The other John bought mostly souvenirs for friends and family– almost all jewelry– as far as I could tell he didn’t get anything for himself. Professor Newberg didn’t get anything (I don’t think at least)– but she got her daughter a bunch of clothes and a pair of shoes (nothing really Chinese I don’t think).

Anyways, I departed feeling pleased with myself, and that’s all that really matters at a place like that. It was about as expensive as an amusement park, but I came away with souvenirs and stories, and, in my opinion, it was much more fun than Disney. If I ever go back to Beijing I will make a specific point to visit the Pearl Market. We got back to the Olympic grounds subway station around 7 or 8 (it was dark) and we walked over to the bakery to pick up breakfast for the next day. Then we stopped at a “western catering” restaurant called, as far as I could tell “Notting Hill.” I ordered a sausage and potato platter with tomato juice– I can tell you it was the most satisfying meal of the whole trip. After eating random Chinese foods for a week, mashed potatoes really hit the spot, and the sausage was alright as well. The tomato juice was a bit of a surprise, but I should have expected it– to the Chinese, fruit juice means “fruit put in blender and then glass”– so I ended up with a glassful of tomato puree.

We headed back to the guest house with plans to wake up at 7 so we would have time to go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city the next day. I had wanted to go to the Olympic park at night to get pictures of the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube all lit up– but I was too tired and hit the hay instead.

Day 7

We woke up bright and early on Saturday intending to take the subway over to the Tiananmen stop so we could visit the square and tour the Forbidden City. We ate a hurried breakfast and John and I rushed out with Maggie (Professor Newberg’s daughter) in tow– Professor Newberg stayed behind to finish up the latest paper she’s been writing. We made it to the subways, made a few transfers, got on the Tiananmen line and… drat it if BOTH the East and West Tiananmen stops were closed. Unbeknownst to us there was some sort of event taking place at the palace that closed the doors to visitors.

We got off at one of the nearest stops anyways in hopes of walking to the square– we came out in the middle of a very up-class metropolitan district. There were 5 story tall advertisements, posh clothing stores, historical iron statues and sculpture, huge glass buildings etc. Similar to Times Square, I suppose. Anyways we made a guess as to which way the palace was and began trotting off toward some old fashioned Chinese architecture in the distance. About two blocks outside what I presume was the palace, the district suddenly became very low class (I’m not sure why, I think there may have been a building height requirement in the periphery of the Palace walls, so none of the huge businesses wanted to set up there). And one block outside there were police cars, soldiers sitting in circles, and a tour bus (yes, a tour bus) with every seat occupied by green uniformed soldiers. We saw a gat into the wall and we naturally assumed that this was the palace so we went up to it and tried to get in. We were informed that this gate was the “Exit, goround” by a scruffy looking guard. Well, we looked both ways to see walls extending forever in either direction and quickly abandoned the “goround” bit since it was nearing 1o.3o and our ride to the airport would be picking us up from the guest house around 1.oo (It’s an hour and a half back to the guest house).

Disappointed, we turned around and went back through the metropolitan section of the city toward the subway. I stopped at a tea shop and picked up two containers full of loose-leaf tea (I had to have SOMETHING to put in my fancy teacup, I got what I assumed was green and what I assumed was black– the two cheapest in the store. The one I thought was black is apparently a flower tea of some sort though.) for 50 Yuan– now I was down to 0 Yuan, I had no intention of getting scammed by the exchange rate back to dollars at the Airport. John for some unknown reason saved about 200 Yuan and exchanged it back for 25$– he lost like 30% of his investment in Chinese money, and even more in goods since everything is so cheap here. We made it back to the Guest house in safety and rode to the airport. On the way Professor Newberg gave me her whole coin collection (she hates the things and I had mentioned that I collect coins) and 70 Yuan in reimbursement for some pastries I had bought earlier in the week. I was pleased and didn’t exchange them for US currency, opting instead to keep them as souvenirs.

The plane ride was abhorrently long, but the movie options were better than those on the way to China so I was decently entertained. Customs went rather well– I declared my teas as “incoming plants / food” and was worried they would take it away, but they were fine with it and let me keep it. Three hours of layover and a short plane ride later I was standing in Albany waiting for my luggage, an hour after that I was back at school and I walked into a full blown 21st birthday party for Chris, another Fraternity member. It’s now Wednesday and I’m pretty much completely over the jetlag and working my way back into the school schedule.


  1. Dad
    September 7th, 2009 at 21:46 | #1

    What a great experience for Jason. I viewed the pictures and read most of the comments (all of the first 5 days and some of 6 and 7).

    We just got back from boating over the weekend so I’m tired and will finish reading about the day 6 and 7 later.


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