Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Experiencing Beijing

There were some surprises. The weather was great --- hot, but the famous smog was barely noticeable and we had clear blue skies much of the time. On seven of the eight days you could see the mountains around Beijing; apparently this is unusual. There was a lot more English signage than I thought there would be --- not just for major services such as the subway system, but almost every street sign, many shop signs, and many menus all had English (or at least names in pinyin), and not just in major tourist areas but everywhere I went. It was easier to get about without language skills than I had expected.

I managed to cram in a good deal of sightseeing. I had two free Sundays that I spent roaming around. On the first I was alone and walked from the hotel to around the Olympics area --- the Bird's Nest Stadium, the Water Cube, and the vast plazas between them. It was a beautiful day and lots of people were out sightseeing or flying kites. I took the subway downtown, and walked around the Forbidden City and nearby hutongs --- old streets that preserve the character of centuries of urban living in China. It was all most impressive. (I took the subway frequently all through my trip, as it's easy to find one's way around the system and saves dealing with taxi drivers. It's also ridiculously cheap --- 2 yuan (about 40c NZ) to go anywhere I wanted to go. Obviously Beijing's high population density and low labour costs help, but I wonder if it pays for itself.) I returned to the hotel and went out for dinner nearby with some students, to a cheap but clean local restaurant with food that was simple but novel to me, such as spicy stewed chicken and some unidentified cucumber-like vegetable, cold in a tangy sauce. By the end of this day I already felt much more comfortable; I had stopped feeling self-conscious at being the sole white person in an environment, and I'd adjusted to the traffic behavior in Beijing. (It seems that any driver or cyclist can do anything at any time if they think they can get away with it.) I'd also become used to brushing aside people on the street who accosted me. I wonder what they would have said had I stopped to listen, but my curiosity did not overcome my caution.

During the six days of conferences I only went out in the evenings, for dinner. On Monday night I went with other students to a dumpling house. The dumplings were cheap and tasty but I've had better. Tuesday night was the PLDI banquet at an art gallery in the 798 art district. 798 is a gentrified industrial area (on a large scale, as everything seems to be in Beijing). In fact it feels a little self-consciously bohemian to me, but it certainly was interesting to walk around. The food at the PLDI banquet was a range of delicious finger-foods and I had a great time even though the setting, and big parties in general, aren't really my thing. On Wednesday night I went with a group to a night market downtown, but I wasn't feeling 100% (something I'd eaten earlier, not sure what, disagreed with me) so didn't end up eating anything there. Judging by the smell, that might have been a good idea under any circumstances, although the non-olfactory atmosphere was great to experience. On Thursday I went out with a professor friend to meet his family at the tiny hotel they were staying at in a hutong in a different part of town. This was a classic Chinese house arranged around a central courtyard. We ate at a tiny place nearby, tasty cheap local food at a makeshift table on the street, perfect! Friday was the ECOOP banquet, back in 798 but this time a sit-down meal in a converted factory with the sawtooth-style roofing that is characteristic of the area. On Saturday evening a local Beijing student volunteer took a group of us to Nanluogu Xiang, a famous hutong (near Houhai). We walked the main street, which is mostly shops now, and ate at one of the cafes there. The street, and the cafe, were rather touristy, but we were on the roof and had a great view over the neighbourhood, so it was lovely.

I was fortunate to be able to spend all of Sunday with one of my closest friends. We booked a car and driver for the day and went out to see the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng. Just traveling out there was very interesting, as our driver took some back streets and I finally saw the countryside outside Beijing: dusty, intensely cultivated in chestnut trees and corn, farmers drying crops on the road, run-down villages, strange three-wheeled pickup trucks, and despite the roads being less crowded, even more insane traffic behavior than I'd seen in the city. Huanghuacheng is an interesting place to visit the Wall, since it crosses a river there via a dam, but apparently it's less frequently visited than some of the other parts. We walked along the wall up and down a couple of hills for three hours: slow progress due to the extremely steep slope (hands-and-feet in places) and areas of disrepair. It was very hot: the temperature must have been around 40C and there was little shade. The glue holding the cheap plastic cover to my cellphone melted. Oddly, people on the dam were constantly letting off fireworks: mortar types much more powerful than I've seen in civilian hands before. From Huanghuacheng we went to the Ming Tombs area and visited the tomb of the Yongle Emperor at Changling. It has similar architecture to the Forbidden City, but smaller and in a completely different setting. We also we walked along the statue-lined "spirit way" at the entrance to the Ming Tombs complex.

I think building a massive funereal edifice for oneself would be a grave sin --- it's a monument to one's vanity with a side order of blasphemy --- but it does have the redeeming feature of leaving an artistic legacy for future generations, with luck. It also shows a refreshing acceptance of one's own mortality, which is certainly better than the delusions of immortality (both grand and wilfully blind) that are so common.

On Sunday night my friend and I visited a restaurant near the hotel that served somewhat fancy cuisine from northeastern China. This was a great place: an 86-page menu with lots of interesting dishes and drinks. The most interesting dish we ordered was fried silkworm pupae, which tasted disgusting. Everything else was very nice.

Overall the food during the trip was very interesting and tasty, and I'm glad to have had it, but often the ingredients seemed a bit bland. I think we're lucky to have high-quality produce in NZ.

My visit provoked lots of thoughts about geopolitics and the Chinese people, but mostly trite so I'll keep them to myself. I will say that the Great Firewall is much more painful than I'd realized. Lots of sites I use simply didn't work and although most of the bustage was presumably the Firewall, one of the worst aspects is that you can't easily tell when it's the Firewall, which makes diagnosing problems very frustrating. In some cases the Firewall seems to break only some pages in a given domain, or otherwise make random features on particular pages break or be very slow.

Overall I had a wonderful time and I'd love to go again. As in Europe, I get an enormous thrill just wandering around places where people have lived for thousands of years, and in many ways China's history is even more intriguing. However, I am very glad to come home, and to live in New Zealand.

Of course, the actual point of my trip wasn't sightseeing but to attend PLDI, ECOOP and workshops, give my ISMM invited talk and do a lot of talking about computer science with all the people there, many of whom I know well from my research days. But this blog entry is already far too long so I'll defer reporting on that to another post.


Joe Drew
The poor person whose job is to rate toilets.
I can think of many jobs that are worse.
Alex Bishop
China takes its toilet standards seriously: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-18170693