Thursday, July 10, 2008

Island Adventure

(pictures to follow, my internet connection is too slow to upload)

The Thailand trip was really cool. Ted and I went to Koh Phangnan, an island in the gulf of Thailand. It was a long bus ride and then boat ride down there, almost 15 hours of travel. The bus was older and was decorated with funny fabrics. It was half full, so we each had two seats to ourselves. They showed random movies, like Blade Runner, and a newer one called “Lucky Sleven”, which froze right at the end. Damn. The bus left in the evening, making one stop around midnight at a fluorescently lit oasis along the way. Every got out to use the bathroom and buy food. A series of transfers followed at dawn, first to a minivan, then to a big bus again, and then to a boat. We finally made it to the island around 11am.


We walked along the pier battling hotel offers from the locals. We headed up the main strip and began looking for scooters or motorcycles to rent.


We found a pair of enduro motorcycles for $5/day. We drove all over the island. We must have looked like degenerate gym teachers, Ted in his boxer brief underwear (he didn’t have a bathing suit) and me in my speedo-briefs bathing suit. Or maybe we looked more like nihilists from the big lebowski. We stayed in beach bungalows that cost about $12/night for a double with no a/c, just fans, which isn’t too bad. We stayed on a different beach each night.


We bought snorkels and masks from a tourist shop in town and rode out to a part of the island that the guidebook recommended for diving. There weren’t very many people there. We walked along the rocky island until we found a point that looked safe enough to jump in. The waves were small, but sill crashed against the big rocks. Ted went in first and I followed suit. It was a clean entry. Once we put our faces in the water and began swimming we realized we had literally jumped into a school of fish. They were about 6-8 inches long, with yellow stripes over a silvery-blue body. There were hundreds, all swimming in sync.


The reef was amazing. There was tons of live coral and many different kinds of fish, some of which I remember from snorkeling at Grand Cayman as kid. We spent about three hours out in the water before calling it quits. The sun was setting and it began to get chilly. At some point Ted kicked a piece of coral with the top of his foot. It wasn’t too bad, just a few layers of skin missing, but it bled a lot, especially when he got out of the water. It looked like someone had stabbed his foot. He put his sock on, which acted like a bandage, and was good to go.


We left the island on our fourth day. We took a ferry in the morning, and got on a bus in the afternoon, which brought us to Bangkok around 8:30p. I had a few hours before my flight, so we went to an outdoor bar that was set up in a gas station on the street. They put tables and chairs everywhere and decorated the gas pumps. The bar was projecting the Wimbledon tennis championship on a big screen. We sat there watching tennis drinking pina coladas for a couple hours. I caught a taxi and went to the airport and got on a plane to Beijing. I arrived around 7am.






Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The BASE program wrapped up last Friday with an exhibition of the work and 400 lamb chops grilled on our barbeque.

I flew out of Beijing and arrived in Bangkok last night. My plane sat at the gate for an hour before departure due to heavy rains. They served us dinner, which made it tollerable. I got into Bangkok around 1:30a. It always seems weird when I arrive in places late at night (it was the same when I first arrived in china a month ago) the place is seemingly more wild and mysterious because you can't see anything. You try to make out as much as you can flying down the freeway with a taxi driver you can't really communicate with. So many scenarios go through your head, but it always works out.

The taxi got me to my hostel fairly easily. I chose one in a very touristy part of town for better or worse. It's mostly young people from all over the world. There are lots of bars, restaurants, and street vendors. Everything is so cheap here it's kind of nice that there is so much of that "stuff" around. Cars and two-stroke motorcycles and scooters buzz all over the place.

Ted is meeting me here today. He flies in from Hong Kong due to a technicality with his flight back to the states and visa trouble in china.

It's been thunderstorming here today, but now it looks like the sun is coming out. It feels very tropical -the heat, the humiditity, the plants. The streets are narrow and a walk down any alley uncovers hidden stores and places to eat. My hostel has everything one could ask for, clean rooms, internet, restaurant, laundery, etc. I found a few vespa shops online that I'm going check out today.

I've already priced out buses and boats to nearby islands. About $20 and a full day of travel gets you to paradise. Ted and I tenatively talked about staying in Bangkok for a few days and then heading to the beaches for the remainder of our stay. I'm flying out of here on the 7th and will spend my last days in Beijing before heading back to the states on the 12th.

I'm off to find scooters...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Field Trip

Field Trip: Factory Tour


The whole BASE crew packed into two minivans this morning for a 7:15 departure. We were missing Andy, who remained asleep after two awakenings through his window, “Andy, Andy, Andy” silence, and then “Yeah?” I was wedged between a taxicab and his barred window, “Get up dude, the bus is about to leave….Are you up? Are you on your feet” I asked. He replied, “Yeah man, awhh, I’m up”, but unfortunately he never showed.


The first stop was the rock quarry. Beyond the gates were statues and sculptures lined in a row, although chaotic-looking. We walked around the main building into the yard where enormous chunks of granite and marble are stacked high. Workers were cutting, grinding, hammering, and drilling on various pieces. Matt Hope, the artist next door at BASE, showed us his latest piece, which was a huge sound resonance sculpture of granite. Multiple hunks of granite, carved to a perfect Boolean depression, formed this huge piece. There is a certain point where one can stand that makes any vocalization felt in the chest, as the sound waves form into constructive frequencies. Matt also had other pieces that were part of this project, like monolithic boulders drilled straight through, going from a very small diameter to a larger opening like a musical horn. We watched one of the workers try to drill through this thing with a hydraulic hammer dill powered by a diesel motor off to the side. I had to wear my earplugs to get close.

 [Matt Hope Profile]

Matt is a tall British guy with low-sloping shoulders and a serious face. His jeans are cut-off at the calf, kind of like capris, and he wears new balance running shoes and t-shirts. Matt speaks slowly with a thick accent, swearing often as he tells stories with his head tilted downward, staring up through his deep brow. Ninety percent of what comes out his mouth makes you laugh, maybe because he uses funny British vocabulary or he is just funny as hell. He looks young, like he could be a college student, but when he smiles the crows feet next to his eyes reveal his age.


After an hour in the rock yard we climbed back into the minivans and drove down a bumpy dirt road to the actual quarry. The road was lined with car-sized hunks of marble. We pulled up to some small offices and unloaded. The sun was shinning hard, and made it almost impossible to open your eyes. It was very uncomfortable. We walked to the edge of the quarry; a huge valley cut into a solid mountain with iridescent blue and green water at the bottom. A switchback road led the trucks down to the valley. We followed it for a while and discovered an opening in the stacked hunks of marble the workers had made. It was essentially a cave that stretched back as far the eye could see, similar to a mine tunnel. The opening literally blew cold are from its depths -natural air conditioning. Inside you could even see your breath. The outside air was probably in the 90’s and the cave shaft was earth temperature, 58 degrees, which was actually too cold to endure after five minutes, especially with sweat-soaked t-shirts.


We drove into the next town over and ate lunch at a “family” restaurant, one that Jason (our Chinese translator and project coordinator at BASE) and Matt Hope really like.


The next stop was Jason’s dad’s factory, a fiberglass port-a-potty company. It wasn’t very “factory-like”. The factory was made up of a few low pole barns integrated between several courtyard homes. The fumes were almost unbearable, and the workers wore cloth masks like doctors. The highlight of this visit was the puppies that roamed around his mother’s house.


Our last destination was a steel fabrication factory where Matt Hope has some other projects in the work. This factory was a large complex with many structures. It was built in 1975 by the government and remains a state-run steel facility today. The place looks a little decrepit, but it is still functional. Machines that look like dinosaurs are dotted throughout the warehouse spaces. The buildings smell warm with a thick scent of oil and metal.



Thursday, June 19, 2008

Flying Pigeon Factory Tour

Flying Pigeon Factory Tour


Ted and Jason and I arrived in Tianjin around 10:30a via train. We waited in line for about 10 minutes to get a cab. I called Mr. Wang, the flying pigeon sales guy, and handed the phone to the driver. She drove us down the highway for about 20 minutes and dropped us off at the gate of the factory. The outside of the building was dirty and aged. Mr. Wang, a short, middle-aged Chinese man with grey hair, greeted us at the door. He brought us upstairs to the conference room and served us hot tea. We fired questions at him about shipping, quality, options, etc. He took us into another room that had about 10 bikes on display. They wer

e all a little dusty and the tires were flat. He pumped a few of them up, and Ted and Jason and I tested them out on this weird walkway. It was a long room with translucent ceiling. Pathways were made using a 6 inch tall picket fence with plastic grass inside. The pathways wove in and out from one another, creating little picket fence islands where they had a few bikes on display. And of course dust covered everything.


Ted quickly found himself in an intense game of ping-pong at the end of the testing area. He battled against two older women, who were easily the best ping-pong players I’ve ever seen. I joined in the doubles game with one of them as my partner, playing against Ted and the other woman. It was out of control. It drew a small crowd and there was lots of laughter.


After a couple games we went back to the bikes and tried to wrap things up. I wanted Mr. Wang to assemble two samples for me based on the parts that I specified for pick up next week, but he became a little surely at the idea. I told him that I want to see the bikes I was going to order first, and that I’d pay for the samples, if I liked them and placed the order my money would be refunded, and if I walked I would take the two bikes with me. He agreed to this.


Mr. Wang took us downstairs to the factory. He was a little ashamed of it, and said that it is very old. He couldn’t understand why we liked the way it looked. Outside the building were mounds of rusty bike frames, fenders, and forks waiting to be processed inside. They looked better than the sculptures I’ve seen at some of the galleries in Beijing. The factory was humming with machines and flashing blue lights from all the welders. Mammoth looking machines lined the walkways where women used them to bend steel for the forks. The warehouse was dark and smelled like welding, and the air was thick and hazy.


We walked out the other end of the building and into another where they were assembling the bicycles in a ford-like fashion, each person responsible for one task. We wound our way to the back where young men were loading wheels into a pneumatic machine to lace the hubs and tighten the spoke ends. The building smelled offensively of rubber from the stacks of tires.


Mr. Wang took us into another building where the frame welds were being ground down in preparation for painting. The frames were then placed on hooks that carried them into the painting area like carcasses to be washed, primed, and then painted, all in a matter of a few minutes. On the other end women attached the decals to the frame tube and chain guard. The space was dark except for task lights near the workers. Walked out one of the doors and were in the parking lot.


Mr. Wang got his car, a very compact mini van. He ordered Ted to sit in the front, “big, big, very tall” in a thick accent. He took us to a restaurant for lunch. He ordered the food for us, which was an impressive spread. We made small talk, and also asked some more questions about the bikes. After we ate he drove the three of us to the train station. I gave him 800 RMB for the two sample bikes (a little over $100) and he hand wrote a cryptic note as a receipt. He dropped us off and we said our goodbyes. We waited in line after line, to buy the tickets, to enter the station, to enter the platform, and then once we got to Beijing the same thing, waiting in line to exit the platform, and to get a cab. But the trip was certainly worth it.


A few days later:


I’ve been gathering quotes for a 20’ container to be sent from Tianjin to Ann Arbor. It is looking like the deal will go down. So far it seems that the shipping charges are $4500 from China to my door in Ann Arbor. A container holds 143 bicycles, which are 75% assembled. Mr. Wang quoted me between $52-57 per bike depending on the options. 

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Village Trip 4

SNV Journal


Trip 4 [Saturday]


We arrived in the town outside of the village around 11a due to a late start and a few missed turns made by the driver. A lunch was scheduled at noon, so we decided to eat earlier instead of making two trips. The rain was light, but steady, and everything was soaked from the thunderstorms that swept through earlier.


After lunch we drove to the village. Ted and I set out to the forest accompanied by Bright Yang, a Beijing University of Technology student, who was ill prepared. We bought him an umbrella and some extra water for the hike. We started on the trail and climbed up to the tea shrine. Bright Yang said we should “be careful of snakes”. That was the red flag but Ted and I disregarded his funny comment. The shrine wasn’t very impressive –a smaller version of a Chinese house with a Buddha-type figure inside. There were many beer bottles strewn about in front of the little building. Next to the shrine is a 100 year-old tree, which was more interesting. It was severe and twisted looking, covered in moss, contrasting with the younger foliage.


We pressed on down the main trail looking for an offshoot that we noticed during our last trip. Bright Young asked if we had a map. We didn’t. We walked for 3km and Bright Yang said he was getting a little tired. I tried to explain to him that we didn’t need him to come with us (most of the BJUT students are sent as translators), but he didn’t seem to understand or was just stubborn. Ted and I found the side trail and we gave Bright Yang one last chance to turn around. “Bright Yang, your clothes and shoes will be very wet,” I explained. “We’re going up to the top of this mountain.” Unfortunately his English wasn’t good enough to really understand and he followed us, all the way up. The trail followed an old narrow creek bed. Halfway up the mountain the trail dead-ended into a rock wall. It was climbable, so we just kept going, in part because of Ted’s insatiable curiosity. Bright Yang looked a little perplexed but followed Ted’s lead. I watched every step he took thinking “oh shit, this kid is going to fall and break something, and we’re going to have to carry him back.” He made it, and we kept going.


The trail became very muddy in some parts, and Bright Yang slipped often, falling to his hands and knees. At one point the trail became very distinct and composed with flat rocks placed as steps leading up to a plateau. We reached the top and found another stone hut, circular in shape, with a small opening in the front, barely big enough to crawl through, and a small opening on the top like a chimney. Saplings and plants covered the structure revealing it’s age. We still don’t know what these are….and neither do the villagers we’ve talked to. We kept hiking and began to see light through the trees ahead of us signaling that we were almost at the top. We reached the rock peak, which gave us an impressive view of the surrounding mountains. It looked like a Chinese painting because the rain created low clouds, and the mountains off in the distance disappeared into the whiteness.


We turned around and began heading down to Bright Yang’s delight, which quickly became hardship as his flat-footed steps down the incline left him sitting down, again, and again. The seat of his pants was caked with mud, and the umbrella we bought him was haggard and dirty. The rock face came quick and Ted went first, and then guided Bright Yang’s feet from below, literally grabbing his foot and placing it on the rock. Despite all of his trouble, Bright Yang remained cheerful, although it may have been out of politeness.


We reached the bottom and started walking back down the main trail.


Back at the village the group was waiting for the driver to pick us up for dinner. We drove into the town, and ate another version of lunch for dinner. After our meal we drove back, and began setting up the movie to be projected on a screen Andy and the villagers had constructed out of timbers in one of the main streets.


The village was full of people and kids. The weekend population is much larger than what we have experienced during the week, making things seems less entropic. After about 20 minutes of shuffling around with equipment and extension cords we learned that the electricity was out for some reason. This was the first hill on our movie rollercoaster. Everyone seemed a little let down, but the crowd remained nonetheless. Then all of sudden the streetlights came on like a miracle. We were in business. One of the villagers ran the extension cord to a house, and the next hill presented itself –the female end of the American extension cord would not fit into the male end of the Chinese power strip. But the Villager quickly remedied the problem by modifying the terminals of the power strip with pliers. He bent the ground terminal completely off and twisted the remaining two to make the connection. We had power. The cloth screen was attached to the wood structure and the electronics were hooked up. We had a picture. Andy put in the DVD, but the picture came up scrambled, and there was no sound. Many attempts were made to clean off the DVD a puff of breath and a wipe of the shirt, but it did not improve. Another DVD player was brought out from someone’s home, but the disc still wouldn’t play. We didn’t have another DVD, and it seemed like the whole thing was a bust. Andy asked the village leader to bring one of his own movies, and he showed up a few minutes later with a Jackie Chan DVD from the early 90’s.


It probably worked out better this way because the kids in the audience were immediately captured by the action and laughed at the simple humor. The movie had some trouble with skipping, but we pushed through it’s hiccups, until about an hour into the film, after the crowd had thinned a little, a fatal skip occurred that the disc could not recover from, and the villagers naturally dispersed as if we had said show is over. It was a good turn out, and we were packed up and in the van by 10p.

(note: the top photo of the film screening was taken by Andy. He increased the exposure time on his digital camera, no photoshop effects were used) 


Sunday, June 8, 2008


Inside one of the village courtyard homes (actually a former communist party headquarters) they are underground storage bunkers to keep vegetables cool. I thought it was going to be more of an underground room when I decided to jump down there. My headlamp wasn't powerful enough to illuminate the space, so I took a picture with the flash on. The space is very low, crawling room only. The most interesting sight were all the toads...they seemed a little mutant and inbred (because once you go in you never can get out) I pulled a big one out to have a closer look. 

Socialist New Village_Journal Excerpt

Socialist New Village [Trip 2]




We arrived at the village around 9:30a. The village leader greeted us briefly, and carried on about his business. The rest of the group dispersed into the narrow streets to begin their work. Ted and I walked down to the trailhead at the base of the village, and were stopped by two guys with red armbands who were sitting along the concrete wall. We tried to explain to them that everything was okay through fragmented mandarin and hand gestures, but didn’t get anywhere until we called Heyu who quickly gained us access.


The topo map we brought only covered about 5 minutes of our journey along the trail, so I started making line drawing of our route. I photographed the view around each bend in the trail, making notes along the way. The trail was well defined for the first hour and half, showing traces of three and four wheel vehicle traffic. We saw at least a dozen pheasants, which alarmingly explode from the brush, making your heart jump each time.


The terrain along the trail is lush with vegetation, but not very forest-like. After an hour of walking we finally came to a cluster of pines about 8 meters tall –finally, we thought, we found the forest. The trail slowly faded from three bare paths to one, and clusters of pines and birch trees became more frequent.


We found what looked to be an old farmhouse. Most of the foundation walls were still standing, and there were the remnants of a stone grinding wheel. Across the path from the house was a steep slope formed by sheer rock that contained a pool of water of below.


We continued along the trail and it became more and more overgrown. We noticed that the single-path trail was following an old water channel –probably a stream that was enhanced by stacking stones along it’s bank to keep it from drifting. The trail became so overgrown that we had to crouch into a walking-squat while fighting through the branches with our arms. At times the brush was for

giving, especially in areas where the trees were taller and blocked the sun from the forest floor. We found the ruins of an old earth home that looked as though it was built into the side of the hill. The hill had eroded over time causing the whole structure to slump downward. The only trace of the opening was a 50cm space with the wooden header still stretching between the rock wall structure. Farther up the hill we found old rock retaining walls holding back the earth from terraced gardens. The trees that grew in the old garden and through the home were probably 40 years old.


Ted and I turned around after three hours of hiking.




We arrived in the village around 4pm after our hike. Leedia helped us translate a conversation with an older farmer about water. Apparently there is a well in a locked shed just outside the village. Each home is tapped into the main line, although some have direct access to the line through a well-like structure in the ground. I’m not sure if this is more advantageous or part of the necessary maintenance infrastructure. No one in the town has a private well. The old man said the well water is for drinking use only, and there is plenty of w

ater, although sometimes it is muddy and contains sediment. He said that rain waters the fields and the gardens, but I did see some homes water there gardens with city water. He said the crops in the field fail when there is not enough rain. In the village, rainwater runs off the roofs and the streets into the sewer. It is not collected anywhere.


We talked to another farmer, probably 50 years old, about irrigation. We asked him why the town below has irrigation and the village doesn’t. He said they have more water. There is a reservoir just down the road from the village, but they don’t have the money to buy the equipment to pump it up to their fields for irrigation. He also said that sometimes it rains too much, and other times not enough.


Night Life


We went to the next town over for dinner at the house where we were staying. The woman served beef ribs, hard-boiled duck eggs, peanuts, pork and asparagus, and a few other vegetable dishes. We drove back to the village to see it in the evening. At 7:30p many people were outside, sitting along the concrete planted areas on the main street with their toddlers. The women seemed to congregate in one group and the men in another. We sat with the villagers and tried to speak what little mandarin we knew –our names, where we’re from, our occupations etc. It was friendly with lots of laughs. The orange glow of the streetlights came on at 8pm, and there are enough around the village to light the major intersections between the small streets –contrary to what the village leader told us at our first meeting.




The next morning we woke up early to get to the village by 6am to see the morning routines. Heyu, Ted, and Andy and I were the only ones that made it. When we drove up the farmers were already out in the fields, crouched down with their hands busy in the soil. The landscape was hazy and morning dew dripped from everything.


Andy and I went down to the three abandoned homes at the base of the village to photograph each one. About eight farmers walked past us carrying scythes, and headed into the hills to tend to the terraced fields. Ted and Heyu joined us and we interviewed two forest rangers that were guarding the trailhead. They said that they work everyday, and there are two shifts, day and night, which are from 7a-5p and 9p-5a. The job pays 500 Yuan per month. One of the rangers lived in the only occupied house at the base of the village. His great, great grandfather lived in the same house, and his inheritance showed. He had a big plot of land, three houses within his courtyard, as well as smaller peripheral structures where he kept 5 goats. When asked what he did when it rained, he said he just goes inside his house. The forest ranger job began to look more and more like soft-welfare. The only thing they really had to do was stand there, and stop anyone who tried to walk up the trail. He had divorced his wife and lives alone with his 12 year-old son who attends boarding school. When asked about using some of his space as a guesthouse, he said that he had thought of that before and would be very interested.