Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I talked with one of my friends who still lives in Xi'an a couple hours ago. He told me that Xi'an's Christmas Eve was bumping. Every December 24th, Xi'an blocks off traffic into its city walls and thousands upon thousands of people descend upon the city center. I have to imagine that the number of people swells well over 100,000. There are carnival games on the street corners and people selling trinkets everywhere. It's not exactly a traditional Christmas in a western sense, but its a great scene.

Being able to spend Christmas in America is, of course, one of the great things about living in the US again. Being away from home while I lived in China was always a bummer.

Qian and I had a great Thanksgiving and have had a really nice time spending time with family and friends in preparation for Christmas. Qian started learning piano earlier this year and can now play a number of Christmas songs.

My Aunt and Uncle are coming over to my parents house this evening. Then midnight mass with my parents and Qian. Then over to another aunt's house tomorrow where about twenty-five of my family members will be celebrating the holiday.

The weather forecast says that Kansas City is about to get snow dumped on us. I hope this happens. I'd love to have a snowy Christmas this year.

Happy holidays to all!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Holiday Tunes

This isn't Christmas music. This is the album I was part of back in 2007. I figured it'd be a nice holiday "present" for anyone visiting the blog.

Because my old blog is now kaput, this music is no longer on the internet. I'd like to make the album available to the masses, for free, once again.

Enjoy the tunes!

Band Name: The Xi'an Incident
Album Name: Wasted Time on Mountains
Recorded in Xi'an, China on September 1st and 2nd, 2007

Natan (London, England)
: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Piano on "Arise," Electric Guitar on "The Long Way Round"

Mark (Kansas City, USA): Electric Guitar

Zhang Ke (Xi'an, China): Electric Bass

Will (Boston, USA): Drums

Tracks for Download (just click the song title and it'll begin downloading):

1. Arise Written by Natan
2. Travel Light(ly) Written by Mark and Natan
3. Open Roads Written by Natan
4. Grounded from Flight Written by Mark and Natan
5. 3 Days Written by Natan
6. The Long Way Round Written by Natan
7. The Jazz Song Written by Mark and Natan
8. Leave it Outside Written by Natan
9. Gezellig Written by Mark and Natan
A few months after we released this album, Natan left Xi'an and Zhang Ke, Will, and I formed a new band for a few shows. The new singer and guitarist was Dave Rye from Norwich, England. The songs in that band were less pop-oriented and more instrumental.

Here are three tunes that the newer group recorded
on my laptop (with surprisingly decent sound quality) at a rehearsal that I'll put up for download:
1. Trippy Jam "Written" by Mark
2. The Jazz Song -> Written by Mark and Natan
3. Disco Written by Mark and Dave
There are also several YouTube videos. But I'll save those for another day.

The album, these songs, and the six shows I played back in 2007 were so much fun. My rock and roll dreams come true. They're things I will always cherish.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yao Speaking Out on Sharks

I really like Yao Ming. This story makes me like him even more.

From AFP:

SHANGHAI — NBA star and Shanghai Sharks owner Yao Ming urged China on Friday to say no to shark fin soup to stop the overfishing of some species amid growing demand for the delicacy.

The Houston Rockets centre who recently bought his hometown's professional team, unveiled a television commercial aimed at wealthy Chinese which urges them to stop ordering shark fin soup.

"We have species that need our attention and protection," Yao told reporters at a press conference launching the campaign.

"They are endangered by excessive hunting by humans and deprived of habitats due to human greed."

The television advertisement produced for the San Francisco-based conservation group WildAid shows Yao pushing away a bowl of shark fin soup that is served to him in an upmarket restaurant.

"If you could see how shark fin is made, could you still eat it?" a voice asks as Yao looks at an aquarium in the dining room where a bleeding shark flails after its fin has been cut off.

Read On
Click here to see a graphic picture of what shark fins, ripped off of sharks, look like. Not too pretty.

I just did a search on for the video of this ad but couldn't find it. Oh well.

I never had shark's fin in China. Maybe this shows that I have never been REALLY wined and dined to a nice meal. I've eaten plenty of nice meals and banquets, but nothing as nice as having shark fin soup included.

Qian tells me that the cheapest shark fin soup costs about 100RMB (more than $10) for a tiny bowl. I remember seeing dried shark's fin in more upscale supermarkets in Xi'an (Walmart, Metro, etc.) for about 3000RMB (about $400) for a small box.

Although the article says that Chinese people believe eating shark fin is good for one's health, Qian tells me that, from her experience, Chinese people do not see any nutritional value in eating shark fin but instead eat it simply as a sign of status.

The article puts some startling numbers forward:
"Growing demand for shark fin -- driven mainly by Chinese consumers -- had caused populations of some shark species to collapse by as much as 99 percent, WildAid said."
To me, Yao Ming is tackling a noble topic trying to get wealthy Chinese people away from eating as much shark fin as they do.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Compiling My Book

I've started putting together a China photo book the past few days. It has been exhausting. Tweaking the photos, organizing them, and trying to get them into the book-creating software is a huge process. And I haven't even started the captioning yet.

I started making the book at Then, per a recommendation on the last post I made, I switched to the Book Smart software from Book Smart is way better than Lulu's.

We'll see how long this takes. I got a LOT done this past week, but it's still going to take me several more weeks. I'll let everybody know when it starts coming together. It should be really good and professional looking once finished.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Self-Publishing a China Photo Book?

Since coming back to America, I've been flirting with the idea of self-publishing a book of my best photos from China. I'm thinking a soft cover book with, mostly, 5 x 7 inch and smaller photos (ie. not a huge, hard-back coffee table book).

I'm wondering if anybody reading my blog has ever done such a thing. I haven't talked with anyone who's self-published a book. Any advice would be most appreciated.

Also, would any of you, Mark's China Blog readers, be interested in buying a book of my best photos? I imagine that I'd be able to push several copies of the book onto family and friends, but would also like to make it open to a wider audience (if anybody would actually be interested in buying it).

I literally have thousands of photos. Some of them can be found here. Several really good ones are also on the post I made on Sunday. I have many, many more photos that either aren't on this blog or aren't on the internet at all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Top 10 Travel Destinations in China

I've traveled much more extensively in China than I have America. The people I've met, the things I've eaten, and the scenery I've witnessed in China are things that I'll never forget. China is a HUGE country that has MANY different opportunities for a traveler.

Seeing how many places I've been in China, it'd be prudent for me to publish a "Top 10 Travel Destinations in China" list. This is a subjective list of places that I enjoyed the most. So there is surely room for disagreement or discussion.

I'm going to make one qualifications before I present the list.

No metropolises are on my list. Places like Beijing, Shanghai, and, of course, Xi'an are all great cities. But this list is more focused on specific destinations and sites. I also prefer traveling to natural scenery as opposed to spending my vacation time walking down the skyscraper-laden streets of crowded cities. So while there are many worthwhile major cities in China worth visiting, I'm not including such places on my list.

To the list:

Mark's Top 10 Travel Destinations in China

10. Dali, Lijiang, and Tiger Leaping Gorge (Yunnan Province)

Scene at a lake in Lijiang

I was the sickest I've ever been in my life while visiting these three destinations. While in Lijiang, I made a major mistake; I ate a salad. The ensuing two weeks were hell. I eventually figured out I had giardiasis and fought the sickness with antibiotics.

The experience of being sick in Yunnan certainly tainted my experience there. I couldn't bike ride in Dali. I didn't hike the high trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I was able to walk around a lot in Lijiang, but I couldn't enjoy a lot of the fun things about the village.

Dali is a small village teeming with coffee shops, women in ethnic minority garb, and western hippies. It has an immensely laid back vibe.

Lijiang the perfect place to take a Chinese woman on a honeymoon.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is the deepest gorge in the world. From what I hear, the views from the high trail are more than worth the hike.

Although I was deathly ill in Yunnan, I could tell that it would've been a joy if I'd been healthy.

9. Pingyao
(Shanxi Province)

An alleyway in Pingyao

I wrote a detailed article about my experience in Pingyao here. It's something of an enigma: an oasis of Chinese history and modern travel comfort all the while being dead in the middle of China's coal country. Just walking down the streets here is an experience. Be sure to eat the local specialty - 土豆烧牛肉 (beef and potatoes).

8. The German Concession and the Beaches of Qingdao (Shandong Province)

The German section of Qingdao

I spent ten days in Qingdao by myself in the summer of 2006. I'm pretty sure it was in Qingdao that I realized I don't really like traveling by myself. Saying that, Qingdao is worth a visit.

Qingdao has a lot more character than most big cities in China. To me, it seemed as though there was the German concession area built a hundred years ago, the new skyscraper section of the city, and practically nothing in between the two.

Walking through the winding hills of the German section and the summer beaches with hundreds of swimmers are things you'll remember.

A beach with modern Qingdao in the background

7. Heaven Lake and Turpan (Xinjiang Autonomous Region)

Heaven Lake and Turpan aren't that close to each other. I'm lumping them together because they are both a couple hours (in opposite directions) from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake is what I have always pictured western Canada to look like. Heaven Lake is at an elevation of 6,500 feet and the mountains surrounding the lake tower over 20,000 feet. My brother and I camped out at the lake for one night in the summer of 2007. Although we were there in the summer during peak season, once we started walking along the paved trails, we had the place to ourselves. We hardly saw anyone. Setting up camp, eating, and lugging around heavy backpacks was a very serene day.

Me and my brother riding camels outside of Turpan

A couple days after going to Heaven Lake and taking a day to rest in Urumqi, my brother and I headed to Turpan. Turpan is an old desert oasis town along the Silk Road. It is littered with old sites and relics thousands of years old. It is HOT in Turpan. But eating in the night markets, seeing the old sites, and getting intimate with the small Muslim town is well worth being hot for a couple days.

6. The Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai (Beijing)

We were lucky enough to see a rainbow while at the wall

Jinshanling and Simatai are THE places to see the Great Wall. I've been to the Mutianyu section of the wall. It wasn't bad. But it paled in comparison to Simatai.

Jinshanling to Simatai is difficult. The beginning of the hike is about three hours by bus from Beijing (much further than any of the other sections) and it is steep. One must be prepared for a very grueling hike. In fact, I'd say only healthy people should attempt this section the wall. But the payoff for the hard work is sublime. Be sure to spend 35 kuai and ride the zip line at the end section.

5. Emei Shan (Sichuan Province)

Me, with a monkey on my back

My brother and I refer to Emei Shan as "Monkey Mountain." Talk about a mystical place.

At Emei Shan, one can run across wild monkeys, see some of the most pristine forests in China, see Daoist hermits making pilgrimage, stay in practicing Daoist monasteries, hike some of the most grueling paved trails I've ever seen, and see summits thousands and thousands of feet above ground (and the clouds).

Because we were only at Emei Shan for two days and one night, my brother and I didn't even make it to the (what I hear is) beautiful summit of Emei Shan. Even though we didn't see the entire mountain, climbing half the mountain is, by far, one of the most memorable things I've ever done.

4. Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery (Gansu Province)

My friend, Andy, two French tourists, and I were the first foreigners to visit Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in months and months last October. The city had been closed since the riots that took place in the run up to the Olympics. Locals in the city told me they hadn't seen foreigners in months before us.

The story of how we got to the city is, indeed, unbelievable.

It involves being denied tickets on a public bus. Finally convincing the ticket sellers to let us get on the bus. Being stopped at a military check point at the outskirts of the city. Having armed guards (with massive guns) run on to the bus and bark Chinese at us (and particularly me since I was the only one of us who could speak Chinese). Being told by a slick, English-speaking government official that we were NOT supposed to be in Xiahe. And ultimately negotiating an agreement where we could see the Labrang monastery as long as we stayed where the government wanted us to, didn't leave our hotel once we got there, went straight to the monastery at 8AM the following morning, left the monastery at noon, and then left Xiahe before sundown the following day.

Yeah, it was intense. I saw a locked down and repressed community first hand.

Despite the drama of geting to Xiahe, we did end up getting to the Labrang Monastery, the most holy Tibetan monastery outside of the Tibetan Autonomous region. Thankfully, once we finally got lost in the maze of Xiahe's narrow streets, the Tibetan monks, Tibetan pilgrims, and Chinese tourists roaming the streets couldn't have been friendlier.

The highlight was being invited in by a monk into his personal residence. As Andy and the two French tourists we were with walked into the small hut, we heard monks chanting and could smell incense burning. Since I was the only person who spoke Chinese, I acted as translator for the four of us and him. We had tea and relaxed with him for about a half hour.

Getting to spend time with a monk given the situation in Xiahe and the monastery was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's something I will never forget.

3. Yangshuo and Longji Rice Terraces (Guangxi Province)

Just outside of Yangshuo

I can't believe that there is a more beautiful place on Earth than Yangshuo. Its terrain is unworldly.

Yangshuo is all about the scenery. Get out and enjoy it any way you can. Go on bamboo rides on the Yulong River. Rent a bike. Rock climb (it's supposedly the best place in China to climb).

The Longji Rice Terraces

While taking a break from adventures in and around Yangshuo, take a day trip to the Longji rice terraces. Built over hundreds of years, they are just magnificent trophies of human achievement.

2. Kashgar and Karakul Lake (Xinjiang Autonomous Region)

A scene from the Sunday market

If you've been putting off a trip to Kashgar, go now. The old city is presently being razed. Once it is gone, a true relic of Uighur culture will be forever lost.

One of the big highlights of Kashgar is its weekly market. I was blown away by the event. Thousands upon thousands of Xinjiangese from Kashgar and the areas surrounding Kashgar descended up the outskirts of town to trade goods in one market and livestock in another. These markets and the old city of Kashgar do not feel like China at all.

Incredibly, a natural scene unlike any other I've ever seen is just a few hours by car from Kashgar: Karakul Lake.

Me at Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake is at 13,000 feet and is surrounded by 25,000 foot mountains in all directions. That pretty much says it all. Pictures don't do this place justice. Camping here with my brother in 2007 was just... I've run out of superlatives.

The exotic feel of Kashgar with Karakul Lake not too far away make for a truly one-of-a-kind travel destination.

1. Hua Shan (Shaanxi Province)

Above the clouds at Hua Shan

After just writing about Kashgar and Karakul Lake, I feel like objectively they are "cooler" places than Hua Shan, a mountain a couple of hours east of Xi'an. But Hua Shan has some kind of special pull for me. I've climbed atop Hua Shan three times. Each one more intense than the last.

I don't know what it is about climbing the thousands upon thousands of steps that take one to the top of Hua Shan, one of the five Daoist holy mountains in China. All I do know is that I've never been to a place more magical than the place.

Compiling this list was fun. I really enjoyed thinking about all of the great places I've traveled in China. I can't wait until I can get back out to China to do some more!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

China's Missing Girls

The lecture I saw at the University of Kansas' Confucius Institute - "Out of the Shadows: Family Planning and Identifying the 'Missing Girls' in Rural China" - was very good. The presenter, Dr. John Kennedy from KU, has done most of his work in rural Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's Province). So that made the talk even more interesting for me.

I'll highlight some of the main points he had last night.

- The 2000 census published in the People's Daily said that there are 116.86 males born for every 100 females. The number is much higher in rural parts of the country though. He had a rate of 123 boys for every 100 girls in Shaanxi Province.

- The ideal number of children for a Chinese farmer is two boys and one girl. This number will allow the family name (姓) to live on and also give the family plenty of resources for a successful family farm.

- Young men are needed to take care of elderly parents. There is no retirement in China's countryside. Old people basically work until they die. If a family doesn't have a son, the daughters will be married off and nobody will be there to take of the parents in their final years.

- Kennedy talked about visiting "bare sticks" villages. "Bare sticks" (光棍儿) are men who cannot find a wife. There are a lot of factors that go into a man being a "bare stick" - ie. being too poor to be an attractive candidate for a woman - but one of the main reasons there are so many is that there simply aren't that many women in villages. He described "bare sticks villages" as being 100% male villages where men work day after day at a factory or on farms with no wife or family. And, of course, no hope for things to get better.

- The farmers and villagers, particularly women, from the countryside who sell fruit and vegetables in cities were discussed. I liked this section because I vividly remember the women on the streets near my apartment selling fruits and vegetables. Dr. Kennedy explained that those women usually travel into the city three or four days at a time, sell their produce to city folk, head back to their family's farm with money, and then do the whole thing again a couple days later.

- Dr. Kennedy, in his time in northern Shaanxi, came across a family with five children. After getting to know the father and having some baijiu with him, the father told him that of his five kids, only two are "registered." The other three 不存在 - don't exist.

Dr. Kennedy's main point was this: There are a lot more unregistered girls living in rural China than the official numbers of the media says there are. He gave three reasons for the out-of-whack sex ratio:
1. Abortion
2. Infanticide
3. Unregistered girls
Whereas the western media and even a lot of academics think one and two are the main culprits, he thinks that the unregistered girls situation is not well-understood and, thus, under-reported.

There are, in fact, lots of reasons for families to keep girls. No family wants to kill babies. Women can be of use around the farm and aren't simply "another mouth to feed." And ultrasounds (which are illegal) and abortions are often too costly for farmers to have.

There are also reasons for local cadres (party officials) to turn their blind eye to unregistered girls. The main things that cadres are responsible for are as follows:
1. Social stability
2. Economic development
3. Birth rate kept down
As long as the local villagers are happy and the cadre can keep his numbers down, then harmony should be achieved (and promotions for the cadre should be had).

There are a lot of questions/issues that go hand-in-hand with the issue of unregistered girls: What do they do when they're adults? How can they become legitimate? Education? He believes that until the phenomenon of unregistered girls is better addressed, these issues will continue to be a problem.

It's important to try to understand the issues that exist in China's country side. As great as it was talking with people like Zachary Karabell and Robert Compton, they, admittedly, don't know a whole lot about rural China. Their experience in China is in the cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen where economic growth is taking place. Seeing that China is such an agrarian country and that more than half of its population is still farmers, learning more about China's countryside is necessary for having a deeper understanding of China.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

China Lecture Tomorrow in KC

The University of Kansas' Confucius Institute has a lecture tomorrow night. Here is the write-up on what the talk will be:

Chinese census reports indicate an abnormally high percentage of male children born in China. Is this accurate? Where are the missing girls? Scholar John Kennedy's research in rural China has revealed large numbers of unregistered, unreported girls in China's villages. What lies ahead for these girls? What are the implications of raising unregistered girls for the girls and for their families? John Kennedy draws from his research and personal experiences in rural China to help us understand the complex issues related to gender imbalance in rural China.

This should be really interesting. I'm not sure if Qian is going to go, but I am. If anyone reading this is in the KC area, check out the website here for details.

In the next few days, I'll try to share some of my thoughts on the event here on the blog.