Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Socialist Village

The BASE program is comprised of several different courses under one umbrella. One of which is the Socialist New Socialist Countryside and Village, which is a government sponsored program to enhance rural life and make it more attractive to offset the massive migration to the cities. The term for migrant workers in chinese cities is the "floating population" (migrant, meaning they have come from the countryside). Part of our class went to visit one of these remote villages two hours outside of beijing. We will then develop a proposal to improve the village (probably a single project). There are over 200 hundred villages that are affected by the latest 5 year plan of the chinese government. 

The journey begins @ 7am

We hired a small bus to drive us out of Beijing. There were 16 of us (including the driver) packed into a bulbous van on steroids. The initial push off was crazy. To get onto the airport expressway, there is a shortcut you can take, which requires one to drive the wrong way up the exit ramp and then do a U-turn into oncoming traffic. We left during rush hour. A few of on the bus who noticed that we were in fact going the wrong way spoke up, in a last ditch effort nervous pleas were yelled, and then countered by "no it's okay, they do this all the time". I sat so that I was facing traffic during the U-turn, and from my judgement this task seemed impossible, but nonetheless he swung out into two lanes before straightening out into one, horns going off everywhere, the driver got the old diesel up to speed and we were off. Jesus. 

Within an hour we were out of the city, and the terrain became mountainous. We wound our way up switch backs through steep, lush-covered mountains, honking at every turn and at every person who the driver thought was not paying attention (everyone). The sun blared in the blue sky, and the air was hot and dry. People stopped and stared as we drove through neighboring towns and villages. Along our route we stopped at the great wall of china where the road intersected the wall along a river and a dam. We walked along the top of the damn, crossing the river, and paid a man on the other side 2 RMB to climb the side of the mountain up to the great wall. We were the only tourist here, so it was probably one of the best ways to see the wall, even though it was just a quick stop. Our presence attracted a few local merchants who were selling fireworks. We bought some and lit most of them off at the dam. They're fireworks are essentially black-cats ranging in size. Ted bought a huge string, lit it, and threw it off the 80 foot dam. It landed in the water and popped a couple more times before going out. The merchants loved it. We also picked up a variety that explodes when you throw them on the ground. A similar concept to the small, white "whipper snappers", but along the same magnitude as a black cat. I wish I could get these back to the states, but there is no way.  
We arrived at the town outside of the village and met with the "leader", as it translates from chinese to english. One of our chinese classmates, Sen, translated the conversation between the group and the mayor over loose-leaf tea in the city building. We talked on the third floor of the city building in a room with a big conference table. The air was cool and reeked of cigarettes. 

After our conversation, we walked up the main road to one of the many traditional chinese courtyard homes lining the streets. Inside the modest home was an elaborate meal set on two tables. We ate lunch, and then drove to the village, and met with their leader, again over hot loose-leaf tea. An hour later, we walked around the 200 person village, investigating each narrow street, and peering behind the courtyard walls. The homes were made of brick, and sometimes a combination of stone, mud, and straw. The roofs were covered in traditional tiles. Each home had a small garden within the walls of the courtyard, and several smaller structures to house chickens, rabbits, and goats. Many of the fences were made using tree branches, but were arranged so neatly they looked very nice. The streets were newly redone, and were one of the worst things in the village. They basically smothered everything in concrete, and smoothed over the embankments and topographical changes into one continuous flow. 

We took photos and made some sketches, then headed down to a tea house shrine, which was nothing more than a few traditional residential-like buildings. A few us hiked along a small road that led into the mountains. There was a communication breakdown along the way because Ted and I thought the tea house shrine was nestled somewhere back in the hills, not at the base of the trail (which is telling to how unassuming these structures looked) After 15 minutes the rest of the group wanted to turn back. Ted and I decided to jogged the rest of the way (it was supposed to be 3-4km away) We took off at a steady clip, and ran for 10 minutes. We never found anything, except for two pheasants that suddenly emerged out of the brush, eliciting screams. The trail continued, but we were quickly running out of time and needed to be back for the dinner. We turned back to catch up with the rest of the group, but our guides who became worried at the base of the trail met us half way between. They were not interested in jogging, so we caused the group to wait for us at the bottom. 

We drove back into town and ate dinner at a restaurant in town. It might have been a hotel or someone's house, it's hard to say. Dinner was another iteration of the lunch we ate earlier with many of the same dishes, like hard-boiled duck eggs sliced in half (very salty). A new dish was rabbit stew that was very good. We drank tea and beer, and did the best we could to eat all the food. Under the cool florescent lights we talked about architecture, representation, and Robert and Mary Ann's olive oil business in Italy. 

After dinner we collected our things from the bus and Sen showed us where we were staying. Most people stayed in the same house where we ate lunch earlier. Several beds lined the walls of two little rooms, and in the main living area was one huge bed that sleeps six people. Traditionally, the whole family would sleep on the large bed, and it would be heated from beneath with coals to stay warm in the winter. I think the modern versions have radiant heat, but they still maintain the same form. About five of us, including the bus driver, slept in another house on a large bed. My only complaint was the snoring, but I had my earplugs with me. In the courtyard I brushed my teeth in a sink, and then got ready for bed. The bathroom was typical, a little porcelain thing punched into the ground summoning the squatting method. 

We ate breakfast at 7:30a, which was another iteration of the same meal we had for lunch and dinner. We drove the bus back the village to do a final read of the place, taking measurements, more photographs, and some sketching. Ted and Sen and I hiked up one of the mountains and got a nice view of the village from the ridge. We left at 11am, and made a pit stop at one of the satellite cites along the way, picking up snacks and some souvenirs at a hardware store. We wound our way back through the mountain, and arrived at BASE around 2:30p.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The last posting was sabotaged for some reason, this is
 full story. 

Everyone has a dog in the cao chang di village, and there are also a handful that seem to run wild. Although the wild ones probably aren't strays because the chinese gov't requires dog owners to register their pet with the local police. Most of the dogs here are muts, or not very pure purebreds. The villagers favor the pekingnese, german shepherds, and few random toy breads. They're also pretty lax when it comes to picking up after one's pet. But also wonder if I am mistaking dog droppings for babies-wearing-ass-less-chaps droppings. 

Yesterday Ted and Andy and I ventured to the pet market id downtown beijing. It was insane. You could find almost anything there. Ted came home with a tiny turtle -not sure of the species, and I picked up a green tree frog for 3 RMB (about 50 cents). The pet market is similar to the way an antique mall is set up, a giant space filled with smaller rooms housing individual merchants. There is also an outdoor section that winds it's way through some other outbuildings. Some of the stand out pets for sale were: chipmunks, squirrels, giant frogs, giant crickets (very chinese), and stingrays. 
Earlier that morning I had gone to the flower market and picked up a couple terrariums and was able to make a nice home for the frog. I'm going to smuggle the frog on the plane when I leave. If it stays healthy, and survives the plane ride it should live for a long time. I tried to get the smallest one out of the lot (about 1-1/4 inches). There were others that were at least three inches long, so I think this species can grow to be very big. This little guy even chirps at night. 

Ted's turtle is doing well, we've been feeding it meal worms, and it seems to think they're pretty good. I think ted is going to smuggle his turtle on the plane too. 

Andy almost bought one of the only puppies we saw at the market, this white fluffy thing. They were asking 100 RMB (about $14.00) It seemed healthy and happy, but it is difficult to register the dog and ship it back to the states. One of our guide books explains how to do it, but is was enough of an obstacle to thwart the sale. 

I have plans to bring a big cricket back to the states. Our professors have brought them through security without a problem (meaning they haven't been caught). At the pet market there are elaborate accessories for them, like hand-carved wooden cages and hollowed gourd containers to house them. Keeping crickets is deeply rooted in chinese culture, which is why there is such an array of products made to keep them. The big crickets are green, and about 2-1/2 inches long with fat abdomens. They live for three to nine months, and chirp loudly and frequently.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Chinese Flu

It came quickly and unannounced. A few people in the group were already sick, but those cases seemed typical of travel, which mine may have been too. It started with aches and pains, sore muscles in my neck and lower back, until I was bed bound, literally. To add insult to injury, I inadvertently weened myself from caffeine -I just didn't have it in me to go down to the store, and besides the only thing to easily supplement coffee are these knock-off frappucino things. 

I got sick on Sunday night. Wednesday was a complete wash because I slept through it. The only thing I managed to do was ride my bike to base in the morning. I debated whether I should walk instead because the world seemed unstable. I skyped my Mom (registered nurse) for health advice, and she diagnosed my condition as the flu. Whew! A lot of strange ideas go through your head when you're sick in a foreign country, especially when you're lying in bed in a strange taxi-cab apartment for hours on end. I found myself asking questions like: what is the avian bird flu exactly? How do you know when your fever is beyond a manageable temperature? At what point do people decide to go to the hospital when they're sick? Where is all this water going? Is this headache from the caffeine?

Thursday things began looking up -I could feel slight improvement. I began eating again (wednesday was just a banana) and went out a few times to get stuff from the grocery store. Sleeping is now sweat-lodge like, but I resist uncovering myself because I remember seeing a special on the discovery channel about how the body naturally develops a fever when fighting a virus or something, because the higher temperature creates a hostile environment, making it easier to kill the foreign operators. Now when I wake up soaked in sweat, I just think, die you mofo's! And I ride it out. 

The flu has continued to sweep through the rest of the group. At least 13 0r 14 out of the 23-person lot is sick. On many levels this fascinating, for one thing it is amazing how a disease can infiltrate a group of people. Then there are those who are still healthy. They are the ones who would survive if this was something more than the flu, unscathed. Damn you! 

Sunday, May 11, 2008


We were told that the Beijing Ikea is the largest in the world. Escalators deliver shoppers to the fourth floor and turn them loose as they work their way down to bottom -in the typical ikea maze-like fashion. 

Sunday afternoon at Ikea was a madhouse. Shoulder to shoulder throughout each floor. Ted and Andy and I began our adventure eating hotdogs on the ground floor for 50 cents each. An ice cream cone cost about 16 cents. 
Bellies full we wound our way up the huge space to the top level and pushed through grabbing some essentials to make the Taxi apartment more livable. The plan was to meet back at the hotdog area in a hour. I cruised through picking up a small reading lamp, extension cord, pillow, a couple rugs, and cotton towel -the last towel purchase I made privileged the strange cow graphics instead of it's function, so I wound up covered in blue fuzz feeling slimy instead of dry.

Half way through the market place level the hotdogs, soda, and ice cream spoke sharply. I found the bathroom and waited for one of three stalls to open up. Finally, I entered only to find a below grade toilet; essentially a piss basin with an extra large hole. This seemed odd for the world's largest ikea, but I guess tradition prevails. It was not a primitive set up by any means, there was a motion sensing flusher on the wall directly behind. 

With nothing to grab onto I recalled the way children in china handle this situation. The babies and toddlers wear ass-less chaps, as I like to call them. They are basically pants with the a hole in the back ready to permit anything that comes. This invention eliminates diapers. A common sight in the village is a little kid squatting on the sidewalk doing their business, number one or two. I emerged a little red in the face, partly from the experience and the other from a sustained power-squat.  

The shopping continued down the check out and I made it through with a bill of 222 RMB, about $75 american dollars, which was well worth it. Cabs are lined up outside ready to take people home. We hopped in and drove back to the Caochangdi. 

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Food Notes

Much of this past week has revolved around food, like group lunches, arranged B.A.S.E dinners, and randomly picked restaurants.

For breakfast I've been eating a crepe-like thing that begins as a huge, thin pancake spread around a hot skillet. An egg is added and spread around the 12 inch skin of dough. Seeds are sprinkled, spicy sauce is spread, and a few dashes of greens,
 then a crispy thing is added and the whole deal gets folded up, then halved, and served. It's really not that great, but so far the best thing I can find, and it's only 50 cents. The other options are pita-like biscuits. Some of them are filled with a slightly sweet bean paste, and others have funny things inside. I'm not sure how to ask for the sweet one, so it's hit or miss. Coffee is non-existent, save nescafe instant coffee. There are quite a few coffee-milk drinks in small cans, like bottled frappucino. 

For lunch a few of us usually go to a restaurant. Sometimes the restaurants have an english menu, but mostly we choose visually from bright pictures. Some of the entrees we've ordered have been inedible, like a chicken entree, cooked but served cold the whole chicken was sliced up into sections -bones and all. It was hard to distinguish between meat, fat, cartilage, and whatever else is inside a chicken. The positive side to all of this is that a huge four-person meal with drinks usually costs between $5 and $8 
dollars each, so it's not the end of the world if you have a bunk meal. 

The dinners have been more catastrophic. At a restaurant suggested to us by Robert and Mary Ann, someone ordered fried tofu, which seemed like a safe move, but it had the worst odor you can imagine. It smelled exactly like a pig with a hint of manure. I'm not sure how they get it to smell like this but it does. Nonetheless I tried one, and of course it tasted just as it smelled. I was so impressed by these stinky little nuggets that I wrapped one up to show the rest of group when we met up later that night for drinks. 

I've been trying quite a few different drinks from the supermarket. There are a lot of sweet-milky tea drinks, and syrupy juices. I've tried the frappucino knock offs in a can, most of which are good, but I picked one the other day that was carbonated cola with coffee flavored -that one got dumped into the sink. All the standard stuff is here, coke, pepsi, sprite, but with a chinese label. Beer is really cheap, a 22 ounce bottle is 2 RMB, which is about 30 cents american.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Settling in

I have some blog catch up work to do. I've been in Beijing for 6 days and just got this blog going. There may be some missing pieces and non-linear fragments:
The Travel:

I flew out of Ohare Saturday morning and arrived in San Fransciso early afternoon to find out my plane to beijing was delayed 7 hours. It worked out well that the BART train is adjacent to the international terminal. I took the train into the city and went to SF MoMA. They had an exhibit on section with a bunch of architectural drawings and models. I took a bus to the haight in an attempt to eat at a restaurant I remembered from my visits when John was living there, but anxiously got off too early. I ended up at some memphis barbeque place instead. 

I headed back to the airport and flew off a couple hours later. The China Air plane was funky, and I think they reuse the pillow cases and blankets a few times before washing them -several hairs and food stains could be seen. But when you're tired enough that is easily dismissed. They served two dinners, one at 11pm west coast time and the other about 9 hou
rs later. The meals were strange amalgamation of chinese and american food, all of which was pretty gross. I slept almost the whole way.

The airport in Beijing is the largest building I have ever seen. I'm looking forward to having another look at it when I leave because I was probably too disoriented to appreciate it when arrived. With the time zone switch of 12 hours and the delay in San Francisco I wasn't sure what day it was. I got to my hotel without any problems -it was 1:30 am in Beijing. The taxi driver flew down the highway passing the rest of the taxis. He was going 160km/hr, I think that is 100 mph. 

I checked into the Botai Hotel. It was similar to the plane, a little stuffy and funky. The small bathroom had mold around the base of the toilet and shower. Not an uncommon sight in my own house, but unexpected in a hotel. 

It was 3 in the morning beijing time, 3 in the afternoon my time. I slept for a few hours until it became light, and went out to see where I was. I ran into one of the other baser's in the lobby, and he took me to a little crepe stand where make breakfast sandwiches. 

I thought it was Sunday (because I left the states Saturday) but it was actually Monday, and we were due at B.A.S.E in couple hours. The taxi ride out to the Cao Chand Di village took about 45 minutes in rush hour traffic and cost around $5.  B.A.S.E had been closed up for awhile and we cleaned a thick layer of dust off the surfaces, set up the desks, and began organizing the equipment.
The Village:

B.A.S.E is located in a village about 30 minutes outside of Beijing. It is supposedly a thriving at district, but the streets function like hallways because the buildings and residences put up large walls, creating courtyards and private spaces. If you didn't know there was an art scene here, you certainly would not be able to tell from the look of things. Deeper into the village everything becomes much more informal. The streets and paths are irregular as well as the structures. The roads are dirty, and lumpy -a mix between pavement gravel. The stores and restaurants spill out of the cramped indoor spaces turning the outdoor space an open air market. Snarls of electrical wire stretch from building to building.

A few of us are staying in the taxi apartments. A single efficiency studio costs $100 per month. 
We each have a private bathroom, which combines the shower with the rest of the bathroom fixtures, in other words, you shower in the same space as you brush your teeth or use the toilet, there is a drain in the floor and the surfaces are impervious. It's really a good idea except when you have to go back in to get something, and either get your feet wet, or your shoes wet, which then leaves dirty footprints all over the rest of the apartment. 

The B.A.S.E

B.A.S.E is a large warehouse space. It used to be an old factory (I think). The ceilings are probably 30 feet high. It is set up like an office, with a library, a manager's corner, a kitchen, meeting area etc. The floors are concrete and the acoustics are pretty bad -you hear everything. There is amazing light through windows on
either side of the rectangular space, and a few skylights punched through the elliptical roof. Like the rest of the buildings around here, it is protected by a walled courtyard, and is nested even further back along a side alley. There are some other studios here, next door is a british artist named Matt Hope. I'm not sure exactly what he does...I need to check his website too. I do know that he is getting 30 ton boulders out of a local quarry for an installation somewhere. I think there will be a field trip arranged to see the quarry. 

Stay tuned....