Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guanxi Guanxi Guanxi

Luck was on my side today.

For starters, every time I entered a building... it started to rain. And every time I stepped outside again--it stopped. (I know, aren't I special. The gods must be on my side-- it is the final day of the good luck Torch Festival right now, after all.)

But more importantly: today was the day I made use of my guanxi (connections, connections, connections)-- and met with the head of The Nature Conservancy here in Lijiang. They have programs in alternative energy, national park preservation, animal-life conservation, etc. To be honest, my "meeting" was really just a random "dropping-in," and I totally lucked out. Despite my email to the office's head last week, I had heard no word or invitation for a meeting. Luckily, though, I had made friends with the student volunteers who work there; Yana, Sue, and Andy assured me he'd be in the office and I could just stop by. (They also all study environmental science/engineering. As Lijiang residents, they volunteer at TNC's Nature Center over the summer.)

Despite my unannounced arrival, however, the TNC staff was overwhelmingly helpful. Part of me thinks it was my 1/2 Asianness that got me in the door. The head's first words to me were, "Are you part Chinese?" To my nod, he tipped his head back in affirmative laughter: "I knew it." Perhaps this broke the ice? (Or, maybe it was because I came bearing gifts from the guanxi who recommended me in the first place.)

[OTHER GUANXI SIDENOTE SHOUT OUTS: Prof. Fitzpatrick, thank you for writing me that introduction letter, and Mom, thanks for translating it. C. Hayden, merci for the suggestion of namecards, and Xiao, thanks for making the call!]

Out of utter generosity, the head recommended I speak to a friend of his... a Naxi woman who designs water systems in Lijiang. Perfection! Furthermore, he spent perhaps 30 minutes searching for the number of Yang Fuquan, a professor of Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences & eloquent spokesman of Naxi Culture. 20 phone calls later--I'm serious--he found it! I am humbly grateful for the veritable "in the door-ness" this guanxi now gives me.

Other news of note... I was invited to a project presentation meeting at Green Watershed, an organization that works in the Lijiang area to promote water rights among local communities. UNFORTUNATELY (or perhaps fortunately?) I had already made plans to trek the Tiger Leaping Gorge-- one of the deepest gorges in the world (or so says my quick, sneaky reference of Wikipedia.) Naxi live throughout this gorge, which acts as the Tupperware container (freeze it, melt it, step on it... it endures all seasons) of Lijiang's Jinsha River, tributary to the Yangtze. I hear it's gorgeous (see google images for yourself), and I'm excited to see the other forms of gushing water that call this area home. (And perfect place to learn about the significance of water to the Naxi people.) Sadly, though, the Chinese government is trying to build 8 dams in this area, so who knows what will happen to it in the upcoming years. The need for water always seems to come joined at the hip with damming, relocating, flooding...

Living in Lijiang has certainly been an eye-opening experience. I've experienced so many "worlds" in this tiny little place. Life of my "host" sister who left her family's farm this summer to work at my inn. Life of my Chinese friends vacationing in Lijiang while Beijing's construction ban is in effect. Life of my Chinese student friends volunteering while on vacation from university. Life of the various foreign travelers who clump together in backpacker inns and enjoy in the traveling lifestyle. It is really interesting to be here. In fact, it's strange too; weird to become familiar with both the Chinese culture of tourism and the Naxi culture of, well, indigenous awesome-ness. I really do want to become friends with the sweet old Naxi women that walk through these streets everyday, but the whole idea of tourism prevents that somehow (and also possibly because many of them don't even speak Mandarin.) Comparing it to my time in Cameroon, for example, there was none of this tourism business. I was seen more in a "Development/ Peace Corps" context, where people were more eager to welcome me in & help me out. I think people feel it's weird that I would even want to get to know them & their culture. Some of the Chinese tourists here are so sassy to the people that work here, yelling at them for being slow, incompetent. Not everyone is like this, of course, but I certainly witness such a scene everyday. So, why would these people that travel around and hike and drink and buy wares care about a super old, intoxicating culture? It just adds to the dynamic that is Lijiang, I guess.

Friday, July 25, 2008

If only I understood more Chinese!

On Lijiang TV, the words "Yu long shui" or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Water (whose glaciers supply Lijiang) caught my attention. Faces of worried men (and one woman)--maybe Lijiang's Water Authority?--surveyed a severely low-looking lake. The word wenti (problem) popped up over and over again. Looks like the water problem of Lijiang is becoming a reality. If only my Chinese was good enough to actually fully understand the report! That's been my biggest complaint these days.

As the Olympics get closer...

Check out these 2 links to see what's going on in Beijing as they get ready:

1. Blog of BBC's Beijing Reporter, James Reynolds

2. "China's Olympic Nightmare" by Elizabeth Economy & Adam Segal (Foreign Affairs July/Aug 08)

Lijiang Rains & Reads

Today, the rains of Lijiang began. Despite my 6 years living in Seattle, I am unaccustomed to it—and so spent most of the day inside, reading. Here is an excerpt from my latest read on Lijiang--

In 1955, Peter Goullart of Russia wrote his book Forgotten Kingdom reflecting his experiences while living in Lijiang. Highlighting a time over 50 years ago, this book serves as an English account (through a foreigner's eyes of course) of what Lijiang was like before the effects of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and everything else we see today. He noted this:

It was probably the only marketplace in the whole of China which was thoroughly washed every day, but this was done with the help of nature. Early in the morning the sluices of the canal which flanked the hill and was, therefore, slightly higher than other streams flowing through the city, were opened and about a foot of water was allowed to rush through the place for an hour or so. All rubbish was swept away by the water into a lower stream of the Likiang River at the other end of the market.

Likiang was covered by a network of these swiftly running streams which flowed at the backs of houses and, with the bridges, created an illusion of a miniature Venice. They were shallow and too swift for any navigation and, anyway, there were no boats in Likiang, but they served the town well, providing fresh water for all purposes. The streets of Likiang were paved with stone slabs or stone bricks and were scrupulously clean. Sweeping was frequent and thorough and the refuse was swept into the streams, which also received the rubbish from the houses. One might think that these streams and canals would get clogged and polluted in no time, but the water rushed unceasingly, crystal clear, and nothing but pebbles were seen on the bottom. The force of the current was so great that all and everything was immediately swept down the stream out of the town. It was only further down the valley, where the current became slow and opaque, that one noticed how unclean the river was. Whilst the people were indifferent to the dumping of rubbish into the water in the city, they were careful about upper reaches of the river and tried to prevent pollution by all available means. This was not difficult as the river originated in a beautiful park, a quarter of a mile away, at the foot of the Elephant Mountain — a name derived from its resemblance to a sleeping elephant. Here, out of the mouths of subterranean caverns, rushed sweet, ice-cold water from the glaciers of the Snow Range.

If only I could get myself to wake up early enough to see if they still do this!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Small Success!

This afternoon, I met up with Lily, who runs the ecotourism company Northwest Yunnan Ecotourism Association. When my family came here last year, when I first discovered Lijiang, Lily helped arrange our stay. (The pictures you see of a homestay were from last year—we stayed with Lily’s wonderful Naxi family.) With Lily was Laure, a French student interning at her company. Another foreigner staying for several months, instead of the 3 days most people spend! Laure gave me ideas of where to stay for cheap at Naxi-owned Guesthouses just on the skirts of Old Town, and provided offerings to practice my French (ahhh, in addition to my Chinese!)

Lily and I discussed what I was trying to do, so she could ask around trying to make connections for me. She added that while she herself was Naxi, she did not know too much about water's signficance to Dongba (Naxi religion). Still, even without this understanding, she knew how important it was to the Naxi in protecting their water's source. (I'm curious--How much does holding significance and actually working to preserve it--like I didn’t see at Black Dragon Pool, overlap?) So nice, Lily explained to me where Qingxi Reservoir was (remember my earlier wonderings?) Apparently, most of the snow to Lijiang comes from the Snow Mountain (Yulong Mountain’s Glaciers) to the Reservoir, then to Black Dragon Pool, then finally to the canals and pipes of Lijiang. “It’s a very bad thing," Lily said. "If the snow melts, Lijiang will be in danger." Again, I’ll have to make clear in my mind how much of Lijiang's water comes from an aquifer along Elephant Mountain (as my reading has told me), and how much is snowmelt from Yulong Mountain’s 18,000-ft high peaks. Oh how the difference in the hydrologic balance matters! (And as it were, the engineer in me shines forth.)

Black Dragon Pool-- THIS is Lijiang's life force?

My visit to Black Dragon Pool, about a mile north of Lijiang Gu Cheng, was quite eye-opening, and befuddling. In my Lijiang, Hello! tourbook (written for an English audience then translated to Chinese, so that it serves as a language “textbook”—and apparently the proceeds goes to the local Naxi school) it states, “In many areas of this tranquil park, the water is so clear that it provokes the question, 'Wow was this just created?'” What? Definitely not as serene as it was made out to be. Trash, algae, pipes instead of majestic springs… where was the beautiful source of flowing Lijiang life I had pictured?

I entered through the southern gate, and traced my way upstream. The pond was now a park, for Lijiang Ren & Tourists to relax and frolic. I am in no way experienced to determine what is “allowed” in a lake providing water to a municipality—but I was confused as to how this was OK. There was trash littering the banks, though luckily the little bits thrown in were strained out by workers. Weeds proliferated the bottom, creating swarms of brown mesh. Soapy suds layered some sections of the lake. And, finally, black, chunky, algae-like fixtures coated various entrances. On the other hand, grits and strainers can be sporadically found filtering larger particles, and I think that weir-like structures, in addition to managing the flow, do some sort of cleansing of their own. I am interested to learn how all these factors affect the actual water supply.

Past the main Black Dragon Pool is the “Northern Expansion,” a man-made addition (unlike the historic Naxi revered pond) to compensate for the additional tourists. (There is also, I believe, the Qingxi Reservoir to cope with tourist demands… I must find out where this is, and how it fits in. Likewise, I know that Rockwell Automation helped implement a water supply addition a couple years ago. Where is this?) Instead of the pool emanating from a bubbling primary springs, however... it flowed into the Northern Expansion from, you guessed it, a large pipe. Hopefully I’ll make friends who can show me where this pipe—in my eyes a phony “Creator” of Lijiang—actually draws its water.

Utterly intrigued, I tried to follow signs to the “Sacrifice Area of Dongba.” What did this mean? And, more importantly, where was it? I could find no such place. Instead of one commemorative Area, however, I found little pockets of worship. Along the lake, in blips here and there concealed by willow trees, lay burned incense, charred red bits of paper, and prayer flags. A statue of Buddha every now and then tells me these are mostly Buddhism-related—but why so close to the lake, in the “area” specified as Dongba Sacrifice Ground? Another thing to find out.

Returning from my Sacrifice Area hunt, I made my way up Elephant Hill to see the view of Lijiang Old & New Town. It’s amazing how big this New Town is (see upper picture)—and to think: none of this was here until 1950, and it has since then multiplied over and over. For reference, the Old Town is in the dip to the left of the small Lion Hill (the short one with the temple on it, see lower picture).

My last (and best!) stop in the Park was the Dongba Cultural Center, which houses a collection of Dongba artifacts, shrines, temples, and living-breathing Dongba culture. A Dongba Lao Shi (Teacher, Master) lives here, fluent in Dongba language & writing, knower of all-things Dongba religion and culture. After he finished writing some “blessings” for a group of Danish tourists, I asked him (well with Louis’s help, his wonderfully helpful student who acted as a translator) about the meaning of water in Dongba wen-hua (culture). Success! My first little bit of Naxi cultural info. According to the Lao Shi (and, well, Louis) 30% of China’s Naxi population lives in Sichuan Province, near Tibet. The other 70% lives in Lijiang. According to the Naxi people, the Jinsha River (tributary to the Yangtze River) is the Naxi’s Mother. The River in Lao Shi’s village in Sichuan is the Naxi’s Father. The Water Spirit is named Shu—which I thought was the general God of Nature. I asked Louis: “so the same God of the Water is the same God of the Wind?” He laughed at me—apparently they are different Shus. I’ll need to learn more! In February, March, and April, the Naxi worship the Water Spirit. Likewise, in times of Flood or Drought, they also ask the Water Spirit to protect them. Furthermore, the Dongba Lao Shi made a huge effort to add, the Naxi ritually use water to wash away their bad spirits. (Hmmm, much like in Islam? How much of Islam came over through Central Asia to the Naxi through the southern Silk Road and other trade routes?)

After today, I now fundamentally realize how well the Naxi are at adapting. Within the Dongba Cultural Center, signs of Taosim and Tibetan Buddhism abound. The entrance itself has various images of Buddhist Bodhisattvas, prayer flags and Tibetan writing accompany shrines to the Wind God, and Taoist yin and yang signs adorn cloths covering the walls of various structures. My favorite find was a large, metal dragon. Both the curious and knowledgeable enter its steadfastly-opened mouth to find a Tibetan Buddhist wonderland: shrines, symbols, statues, burning incense—all Buddhist, and all in the Dongba Center. Knowing now how malleable the Naxi culture is, I wonder how much of their built landscape (my beautiful canals) are a product of a historic interchange of knowledge, materials, ideas, and ingenuity. Is the water system really Naxi? Or, were the Naxi just a medium for multiple historical traditions converging into one?

Finally, I have to add, I’m a walking contradiction: my interests are currently not 100% in tune with my actions. In the spirit of a true collegiate American, I can only work in a café—my laptop as my aid. (I need an electrical outlet and a caffeine boost—this is my excuse.) I’ve made two separate Lijiang cafés home (each with one of my favorite Yunnan teas), and while I once prided myself on the fact that not only foreigners frequented their tables but many Chinese tourists did as well (it’s true!)—I have since realized that they’re all Han (not Naxi) owned. My money (though to be honest, I think their stuff is reasonably priced) is going to the Han entrepreneurs--entrepreneurs who have moved in, forcing many Naxi out… Naxi who have rented out their homes or sold their property as this tourism balloons. I guess there’s no way around it—the selling-out system is the way it is, and the way it will continue to be as Lijiang tries to sustain the tourism that brought me here in the first place. Nonetheless, I still feel kind of guilty about it. It’s settled then—a compromise! I am going start looking for some Naxi-owed cafes. And a homestay must happen, soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I take that back-- I spy with my little eye 30 White-dudes-with-Chinese-women (in just 4 days)! Don't get me wrong, I'm kind of thrilled. Way back when, when my parents were doing this sort of thing (vacationing as young interracial lovebirds), the tally would have been 1 couple in several months!

Progress Made?

Well. When I last wrote—I was “master planning” my way through the first couple days—getting comfortable, etc etc etc. To be honest, much has been the same. I’m trying to make sense of my time here, and that includes time “alone”—I’ve never been this much on my own with my own schedule and without friends or family to back me up. It’s both daunting and liberating at the same time.

The past two days have been plotting, plotting, plotting. I reorganized my “Plan of Attack” (for those of you who know me well—could I do anything else??) and: A) identified what I want to ask of my contacts, B) scheduled meetings, C) continued to read my resources (check out the huge list to the right!), and D) brainstormed ways I can most creatively gather information. In addition to this scheming, I’ve been discovering more of the Old Town as well. Remember how I said that the Gu Cheng (Old Town) was just an ancient, Disney-like mall? How wrong I was! Winding through the streets, I stumbled across the Naxi market, full of veggies, pig heads (see to the right!), seafood, bamboo maggots, laughing, shouting, grunting. I even walked past a fight between two older Naxi women, where one of the cute little ladies—with the meanest glare I’ve ever seen coming from such a small, tiny thing—threw her cabbage at the other! Oh the onlookers roared in excitement! So too, did I stumble across a "3-pit well" where people are still using it in the 'first drink, then wash vegetables, then do laundry' fashion they've been doing for hundreds of years (see pictures). Despite this excitement though, after the first couple days I started to feel overwhelmed and suffocated by the tourist groups galore. So, stepping into the New Town, I tried to find a new place that I could call “home.” No such luck. New Town is quite gaudy—large signs, even more tourist groups, little character. After an hour or two I retreated to my cobblestoned paradise, and signed up for another 7 days at my hotel!

That’s another thing—my hotel room. While I’m technically living at an inn with my own room, I’ve definitely started to call the family that runs this courtyard-styled inn my own. Well—that might be idealistic thinking. I hope to soon at least. I’ve become friends with the 20 year-old girl working here: my Meimei (little sister) is very sweet. We chat, teach other Chinese/English, and watch Chinese soap operas! I have yet to really know why she’s working in Lijiang during the summer, and what it’s like, but I hope I will learn this as I get to know her better over time.

In addition to Meimei, I made another Chinese friend: Xiaodong. He helped me find a taxi on my first day, and treated me to drinks on the raucous bar street the other night. The bar was quite the experience. Huge, loud, with green and red lights sizzling against the black interior. Here was where all the tourists had come to play--and not for cheap. A bottle of Budweiser cost (gasp!) $7 US Dollars! Dancing, smoking, shouting, karaoke-ing…this “rocking” scene seemed so different from the peaceful, historical setting it chose to call home. (You can see why the tourism designation is such a paradox, huh?) And man, has Lijiang made a paradoxical name for itself. When I asked my new friend Xiaodong why he chose to vacation in Lijiang, he said ‘because of the nightlife and girls.’ Interesting. Who would have thought that here, in the beauty of Yunnan, so touted for its rich "biodiversity and indigenous cultures," that would be the drawing factor?

Something else I found out: Xiaodong works construction in Beijing—and with the Olympics, his work is too “dirty” and “loud” (his words) that its been postponed until after. So, this summer during the Au yun hui (Olympics), he gets a 10-week vacation! Pretty sweet if you ask me, though there is no compensation for this long time without pay. I asked if that made him angry. His answer: ‘Why? The Olympics are doing good things for our country, and I love my country.’ (Please keep in mind that this was all strictly in Chinese, using the aid of my dictionary for every other word!) I’ll be interested to see if even more tourists populate the area as the Olympics strike and people flee the soon-to-be-chaotic Beijing.

Sooo that was a lot of personal life. In terms of water supply, I’ve started my first traces of the infrastructure. I plan to do a personal map (both a traditional one and then one thru pictures) of how the ancient system works. I’ll trace each of the 3 branches individually—seeing how it cuts through the town, and how the town itself accesses each lifeline. Once I have this personal understanding, hopefully I can compare it with the Lijiang Water Authorities’ Docs (oh I do hope I get a hold of them!). Stay tuned for that info coming soon!

Tallies (or, Numbers of Note)

. The number of full days I've been in China!

17. The number of Dongba characters for "water" (Naxi pictograph language)

27. The number of White-dude-Chinese-woman couples I've seen in 4 days! My goodness! Each are in varying degrees of "love": sometimes the girl does everything for the guy, sometimes the guy does everything for the girl. Some are very intimate, some are coldly distant. Some are older with kids, some seem like they're only 16! And, in only one --ONE-- of these couples did the man speak Chinese to the woman. Do I seem interested in the subject? I am! As a product of such a relationship, these milk-partnerships (Half & Half) have always fascinated me. But why, why, are they never Chinese-dude-White-woman?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

First Day in Lijiang-- Observations Begin!

For those of you who don’t know—I plan to do this “project” in 5 series—first, a week of “settling in” (my goodness the first week is almost over!), second, a week of observation, third, two weeks of technical review, and forth, two weeks of “cultural learning” (AKA ethnographic interviews. I’ve been instructed to avoid the terms “anthropological” or “ethnographical” to avoid any suspicion from the “Authorities”). Finally, a last week in Beijing will hopefully piece together these different parts, and set what I learn into a larger context of China’s development, tourism, and environmental changes. (What better time to learn of China’s development & tourism than the end of the Olympics?!)

This upcoming week marks Observation Week—where I’ll try to become familiar with the city and its dynamics, feel out who I should talk to for my technological and cultural inquiries, have meetings with my already-established contacts, find a homestay, and do some simple observations about the use of the system and its hydrological balance. Maybe even some visiting of the lakes and rivers in the area will be helpful (AKA fun)! I hear Tiger Leaping Gorge is fantastic. And Jade Dragon Mountain (at 18,000 feet) is breathtaking. And the First Bend of the Yangtze, where Kublai Khan crossed the river way-back-when using sheep-skin bags filled with air, sounds just plain sweet.

I spent the evening of my first night strolling about the Gu Cheng, people-watching, treat-tasting, handmade gifts-looking. In one store, I peaked into the back room to see a girl pumping water from a creaky metal hand pump. Looks like these hand pumps are as much a staple as the canals—and I wonder how long they’ve been in place. As it grew dark, I had to make sure not to fall into the canals; they’re all over the place, though I have yet to really “trace” them through the city. I noticed metals pipes zigzagging around as well, some within the canals themselves, others above the ground, trying to trip you as you walk along the uneven cobblestone paths. What was it that my professor was saying about above-ground pipes? Lack of efficiency? I’ll have to ask. There are pipes, too, coming straight out of restaurant kitchens and bathrooms right into the canal. Is there any sort of treatment? I’ll have to find out.

I discovered a trick that I’ll soon use in this week of observation. By sitting at the various bridges and dips along the canals—sneakily busying myself on my phone—I can unobtrusively discover how people use their water system, what inlets and outlets the canal provides, what are its flows, contaminants (OK the big ones), and other general points of use. At one point, I watched a woman wash rice by pouring it in a sack, dipping the sack in water, and kneading it to clean its contents. In addition to the phone-disguise observation trick, a touristy treat here can actually help me in my observations. At night, tourists float paper lotus flowers lit with candles down the canals—3 granted wishes makes the 5 kuai worth it I guess. By watching these floating lotus flowers, I can make crude measurements about the capacity—the flow—of these canals. Simple eye measurements of the canal depth and width, paired with its wetted perimeter (essentially how much water fills the canal) can also provide important information.

Hopefully, by knowing how the system works today, and by learning of the changes the Lijiang Water Authorities have made over the years (unfortunately, something that won’t be as easy to get access to), I can then make assumptions about how the canal system USED to function, even 700 years ago. For example, the canals act as settling tanks… perhaps the easiest and most economical way to get rid of particles (thank goodness gravity is free!). Over time, the particles settle to the bottom, producing sediment build up, decreasing the depth of the open channel, and changing the flow of the system. Thus, you can see how things change over the years. Sure sure, this is all still very crude—I’m still learning after all—and so I’m very thankful for my fall Independent Study with my professor to make sense of all of this. (And anyways, if I get my hands on official hydrological records—perhaps all of this won’t even matter!) We shall see.

Finally in Lijiang!

Lijiang is gorgeous. Despite a frenzied trip to the airport, my trip over was relatively hassle-free. Some women on the plane adopted me as their “Xiao Meimei” (Little Sister), giving me cucumbers (!!), stroking my arm, and trying to sell me beauty products. They were very kind.

For any of you who are interested in going to Lijiang, the China Eastern flight (about $350 one way from Beijing) makes an hour stopover in Kunming before heading to the destination. Once at the airport, you hop on a 15 kuai bus (a little over 2 dollars), then take a quick cab ride (5 kuai, under a dollar).

Lately, when I’ve been saying Lijiang, I’ve been referring to “The Old Town of Lijiang,” a cobblestoned tourist’s paradise adjacent to the larger town of modern Lijiang. (This New Town was really only developed starting in 1949). The Old Town (or Gu Cheng) is car-free, built against a hill and along the infamous water canals I’ve been so excited about. After a huge earthquake in 1996, UNESCO claimed the Old Town of Lijiang a World Heritage Site, and hence, its Disneyworld-like Charms have been attracting tourists for a decade (including me). The Old Town is essentially hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s so easy to see it as simply that—a mall of sorts set within an ancient landscape. But it’s that ancient landscape that is so important, and so at odds with the whole World Heritage Site System.

Takayoshi Yamamura, in his article Authenticity, ethnicity and social transformation at World Heritage Sites: tourism, retailing and cultural change in Lijiang, China quotes A.L. Martin, saying that "Many communities where World Heritage Sites are located run the risk of being unable to cope with the social and cultural repercussions of the dramatic increase in tourists resulting from being listed as a site." So so so true. It's a weird paradox the designation brings. Again, more on this later.

My favorite part about arriving in Lijiang was the bus ride over. Yunnan, the southwestern province of China where Lijiang is set, is simply gorgeous. Rolling green hills, lush from irrigation and rainfall, hide beneath low grey clouds. Plots of land, growing cabbage, corn, etc are beautifully arranged, often in a terraced formation. Sunflowers peak out everywhere. Obviously, what also caught my eye was the water infrastructure in place. Gutters along the side of the highway, adjacent to 60-degree concrete (I think?) walls buttressing the fields, reminded me of the roads in Cameroon, Central Africa---where ironically, all of this water interest started for me. (During my study abroad there, I was shocked at Cameroon’s lack of access to water, yet also confounded by China’s development projects there.) Along the road to Lijiang, gutters carry road runoff, pasture runoff, farmland runoff… I wonder where it all goes. Slowly, the gutters transformed into a larger river/canal structure. Huge pipes spilled water out into this water body, which at points was stagnant, at points was fast-flowing, at points was clear, at points was growing green algae and lilies, at points was rubbish-filled, at points was seemingly pure. I’m excited to soon know more about this multi-faced system, and hopefully these many wonderings will be answered!

Beijing: Calm or Chaotic?--I cannot decide.

My second day, I grabbed lunch with my friend Vicky. Five dishes later (I’m serious), I was asking her about all the preparations for the Olympics. ‘It’s so fast that even we, Beijing Ren, don’t know what’s going on!’

It’s true. In the last two months, they’ve put in automated machines in the di-tie (subway), implemented security checks, even changed subway exits. The automated machines are great—I particularly enjoy their English option—and yet despite 5 machines at a time free and in service, people still wait in line to buy their tickets from the ticket counter. It takes time to adjust, and Beijingers have had to do a lot of adjusting lately. The government has closed up rec areas and streets, accelerated drug crackdowns in bars and clubs, stopped giving out plastic bags COUNTRYWIDE (something the US should learn, and that Seattle is trying), require you to carry your ID with you for random checks, and even make you take a sip of your drink before taking it on the subway—to prevent explosives, perhaps? They’ve already restricted cars entering Beijing, so much so that grocery prices have gone up because not enough trucks with, say, vegetables can make it into the city. The car ban—where cars with even license plate numbers go on even days, etc to cut down on crowds and air pollution—begins on Monday (July 20). They’ve even stopped giving out visas to tourists because there are too many coming in August (phew, I’m glad I got mine!). And yet, to my foreign, unfamiliar eyes-- it seems ultra calm. People are as friendly as ever, the subway’s new expansion is amazing (Chicago el—you’ve got nothing on it!), and the Forbidden City felt half as busy as it usually does. Still, maybe this is just the calm before the “storm.” I really wish I could be here for 08/08/08, to see what all the commotion is about.

Environmental Pursuits in Beijing

My first day in Beijing, I tried to go to the China Environment and Sustainable Development Reference and Research Center (CESDRRC)—a great environment-focused library in the Sino-Japanese Environmental Protection Center. The library has a great selection of Chinese and English books, reports, newspapers etc—all related to China’s environment. I’m discovering just how many environment-focused NGOs there are in China (click here and here); I certainly plan to hit many of them up for my project. Most focus on environmental awareness, which is the first and best step in my mind to make some sort of countrywide change here. Last summer, for example, I went fishing with some friends at a lake near the Great Wall’s Mutianyu entrance. (I believe the lake is now hosting some events of the Olympic Games.) One of the friends, Beijing Ren (from Beijing), was commenting on how delighted he was to get out of the city and all its pollution. ‘It’s so nice to experience fresh air, nature, clean water!’ Just as he was finishing his Ode to the Lake, he took the last swig of his water… and threw the plastic bottle right in! Now, there’s definitely some sort of incongruency here. I really think it’s an awareness and urgency issue. And perhaps also here in China, a distribution issue. More on that later.

After failing at going to the CESDRRC library (sadly, it was closed), I met up with my old friend Ling—who I haven’t seen since my last day at the International School of Beijing, 11 years ago! She was doing well, interning at KFW, the German Bank for Development. She was working on their environmental branch—studying China’s progress in renewable energy, sustainable initiatives, etc. It’s funny how people develop the same interests… despite over 10 years of being apart. We strolled through the Gulou area, a little neighborhood of still preserved Hutongs beneath the Drum & Bell Tower. Hutongs are the little alleyways to Siheyuan homes, characteristic living since the Zhou Dynasty. These homes have rooms on all four sides, surrounding an open-air courtyard. Most often, the closely-clumped Siheyuan share a public restroom. Despite all the razing of Hutongs that the booming economy and the Olympics have brought, at least there are still some remaining!

After dinner, Ling suggested we go to Xihai Lake, just northwest of the glitzy Houhai Lakefront area, where grandpas and grandmas outnumber the bar-going younger crowd of Houhai. Don’t get me wrong, I like both scenes, but it was refreshing to see people enjoying the Lake as their rightful backyard as opposed to a nightlife destination. Despite this preaching, however, we did go to the one bar on Xihai Lake, named Club Obiwan, where the group Greening the Beige was hosting an event. Greening the Beige is a group of Beijingers (though seemingly mostly expats), interested in environmental issues. They host film screenings, lectures, and outings to provide an outlet for learning about environmental issues in China. Oddly enough, when Ling and I arrived they were showing the China's Green Beat series, created by a Northwestern Alum/ current Beijing Fulbrighter/ fellow engineer. I had seen his stuff from an email sent over the Engineers for a Sustainable World listserv, and my advisor at school had mentioned him to me. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around, so I couldn’t say hi. Small world though.

That night, I passed out from a busy, busy day. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese is slowly coming back! (And, if any of you are traveling to Beijing, check out The Beijinger for good info!)

Beijing Haze

Before making my way to Lijiang, I spent two days in Beijing. Perhaps it was more of an excuse to get settled in a familiar place before heading out to Lijiang (I lived in Beijing for 3 years as a kid). Nonetheless, it was a great entry into my time here.

I took Hainan airlines— nonstop from Seattle to Beijing! Simply luxurious. 30+ Chinese and American movies, a whole row to myself… What happened to the days as a kid, where you could only fly from San Francisco, wait for 3 hours, fly to Tokyo, have a 4 hour layover, then finally make your way to Beijing—only to be greeted by a chaotic airport? This time, it was straight and simple, pure calm. Despite arriving mid-afternoon on a Monday, we were the only flight (or so it seemed) in the airport. I didn’t make it to the airport’s new terminal, unfortunately. Just like the airport, the streets on my way to the hostel were eerily empty. Odd. The car ban in preparation for the Olympics isn’t even fully in effect yet. I finally made it to my hostel, the Peking International Youth Hostel (of Hostelling International). It was gorgeous, cheap, friendly, clean—I recommend it to any of you who travel to Beijing.

New Blog-- because of China's Firewall!

As wordpress (my original blog host) does not work in China, I have reverted to this new blog on blogger: www.infraculture.blogspot.com.