Sunday, July 31, 2011

Calligrapher at Shuyuan Men

This is my favorite photo from my trip to China in June:

This photo is of a calligrapher at Xi'an's Shuyuan Men near the south gate of the city's walls. My good friend, Richard, and I were enjoying coffee and chatting as we watched him work. Drinking coffee and discussing China and the world with Richard in many of Xi'an's best coffee shops were highlights of my trip.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

High-Speed Rail Accident

I went out on a camping/canoeing trip in the Ozarks this past weekend. I was saddened to hear upon my arrival back home of the horrific high-speed train accident in Wenzhou.

I've posted about high-speed trains a couple times this year. I find the grand experiment the Chinese are conducting to be fascinating. They've gone all-in with the notion that fast trains will be the wave of the future. I'm not going to make a prediction on the long-term viability of the plans at this point, but one has to think that this is going to be a significant setback for the Chinese government's ambitious goals.

Go check out the following websites for exhaustive coverage of the tragedy: China Geeks and China Media Project. These sights are providing an exhaustive amount of information from both western and Chinese sources.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

River at the Center of the World

River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester is one of the two books I brought with me on my trip to China last month. I absolutely flew threw it. In fact, I read it too fast and ended up book-less for my long flight home. I knew I was reading the book too fast as I was reading it during the middle of my trip, but couldn't help myself. The book was just too much fun to read.

River at the Center of the World is based around the 1995 several month-long journey Winchester took from the sea east of Shanghai, up the Yangtze River, to its source in the Tibetan plateau. As Winchester narrates his trip, he delves deep into the history of the river he's tracking. The book is as much recounting the histories of previous adventurers and different areas' rises and falls as it is about Winchester's experiences.

Winchester hires Lily, a married woman from northeast China, to be his guide/translator up the 长江 (in Chinese, the "Yangtze" is literally "long river"). She is with Winchester throughout the book. Winchester speaks a bit of Chinese but isn't so fluent.

Going from the east to the west, the book begins in the East China Sea several miles outside of Shanghai. Winchester then slowly works his way up the river - through Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Yichang and the (at the time) freshly begun three gorges dam, Chongqing, northern Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and into Tibet.

I've traveled through a lot of China. Despite having seen a ton of the Middle Kingdom, I found myself envious, teetering on jealous, of Winchester's epic journey. He stayed in big cities, saw tiny villages, visited historic sites, took in the unparalleled natural beauty surrounding China's main artery, and had countless humorous run-ins with Chinese people along the way. The trek was executed so well.

In addition to the experiences Winchester took in himself, I really liked to hear the tales about the people in the past who attempted to conquer the river. The stories of the likes of Cornell Plant and Joseph Rock - foreigners who got to know the river and China intimately - are histories that I had never heard before.

Winchester is a really good writer. He seemlessly weaves his experiences with previous explorers' experiences with a more general history of the Yangtze.

I want to highlight a particular long passage of this book. I didn't know how to cut this wonderful chunk of writing down. The following is from p. 295-7, while in Sichuan Province searching for the famous bridge at Luding Qiao, the famous bridge where Mao escaped the nationalist army and crossed the Dadu River:

The River at the Center of the World is a great read. I have a few criticisms, though.

First, there were times where I really grew to dislike Winchester. There were several sections of the book that simply rubbed me the wrong way. In one instance he goes on and on for pages about how terrible contemporary Chinese architecture is and, specifically, how much he hates the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.

Image from

These sections where he rails against things in China he finds distasteful (don't get him started on Chinese green vs. English black tea) both haven't aged well and come across as arrogant and, frankly, annoying.

Second, eastern China is far more prominently featured than the western half of the country. Winchester doesn't get to Chongqing, which is about halfway up the river (give or take), until page 270. The book is 395 pages long. I didn't feel like the first half of the Yangtze (and the latter part of the book) was given enough space.

I found Winchester's experiences in the small villages of western China dotting the river to be just as interesting (if not more) than his time in the mega-cities of the east. I wish he'd written about the rugged more and the (relatively) refined less. I understand that the end of his trip was desolate and maybe didn't have quite as much "content" as the lower reaches of the river. But western China is where I've had my most exciting travel adventures and would've liked to hear more about it.

And third, the book was too foreigner-centric. Winchester, an Englishman (although he has a home in America), seemed particularly fond of other Englishmens' experiences in China.

On top of the stories of Plant and Rock, the foreign boatmen mentioned above (whose stories I did find enjoyable), Winchester also goes to visit another foreigner explorer's grave. The history of old-time Shanghai was nearly exclusively about foreigners. And Winchester seeks out other foreigners working on the three gorges dam and again in more remote sections of western China.

Winchester travels through areas occupied by millions upon millions of Chinese people throughout his trip but his book ended up being mostly about foreigners. That's not the case with a lot of newer travel books written in the past few years that I've reviewed on my blog (see Peter Hessler or Rob Gifford for examples of foreign travel writers who completely immerse themselves in the Chinese experience).

Despite my criticisms, overall The River at the Center of the World is a very fun book that's well-written. It's a great travel read. Bring it on a plane or train with you. You'll fly through it.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Xi'an's traffic is much worse now than it was when I left China in 2009. And it's multiple factors more intense than when I arrived in China in 2006.

Qian learned how to drive in the US last year. She hadn't been back to China since getting behind the wheel for the first time. Traffic was the first thing she commented on upon returning to her home. Switching lanes without looking or using a signal, stopping and reversing on the shoulder of a highway, those turning left going before those going straight at an intersection, etc. - she couldn't believe the audacity Chinese drivers possess given the tight spaces in which they have to operate.

Chinese cities, so dense when compared to western metropoli, are already so crowded. The addition of scores of personal automobiles to Chinese cities is causing serious gridlock. Unfortunately, there's really no solution to the problem of China's increasingly cramped traffic lanes.

China already has plenty of public transportation options - buses that constantly run, trains, subways, and a rapidly developing high-speed train network - and the masses use them. Several Chinese people I know who own cars often ride buses or trains. But there are just too many people who are beginning to accumulate wealth who want to own a car for the increasing traffic problems to go away.

In many respects, I think it's great that so many Chinese are getting to achieve their dreams of car ownership (the red blood flowing through my American veins just perked up as I typed this sentence on the morning of July 4th). Overall, though, I find China to be far less charming of a place to live the more congested its streets become.