Archive for January, 2012

Today’s riddle: Why do Chinese ride bicycles with the stand down?

Living in China I am constantly bombarded by things that puzzle or otherwise confuse me. Today’s mystery is why so many Chinese ride with their bicycle kickstands down…not the two pronged ones (duh) but the little sticks that are sprung to pop out from the side. They take just a tap and a nanosecond to deploy so why do so many people leave them down? I see countless cyclists every day with their stands skimming perilously close to the road surface, just waiting for a chance to hit a bump and topple their riders off.

It’s possible that I’m so conditioned that Bad Things Will Happen regarding the whole Leaving-Your-Stand-Down thing because on motorbikes doing so could easily cause a crash (very much in the style of the pic above). Actually as a guard against stupidity my bike engine shuts down if I accidentally select first gear with the stand still down. Maybe I’m worried about nothing – maybe the bicycle stands just ping up on their sprints when they hit something.

Maybe, this is actually a tiny act of defiance when there’s so much here that could in theory poison, injure or maim you. A sort of two fingers up at the day to celebrate not falling off your bicycle when all the odds were against you.

I need to know. I’m going to HAVE to investigate further.

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Fascinated by the top of the world

Almost constant companions during our trip to Nepal were the Himalayas themselves. In Pokara, I was charmed that from almost anywhere in town you were watched over but not a single peak, but a whole range of impressive mountains. The one that captured my imagination from the start was my first actual sighting of Everest with its distinctive black pyramid shaped peak.

Am I tempted to try to climb it? Well I can’t pretend that I didn’t think about it. Briefly. Some of this was brought about by meeting a Nepali girl who has climbed the mountain several times. She is about 80llbs soaking wet so if she can do it I figured I might have a chance. I certainly like the idea of a challenge on such a huge scale, but while fit but relatively inexperienced people have reached the summit in the past, without significant appropriate experience it seems pretty stupid. If anything goes remotely wrong (and when things go wrong in the mountains it happens quickly and tends to be bad) you really want to know what you are doing up there. So realistically I don’t think I’m about to put in  years and years of mountaineering training and hardship…oh yes and it costs an absolute fortune. I don’t have $60k+ burning a hole in my bank account right now.

I’ve decided instead to focus on climbing mountains vicariously. Since my return from Nepal I’ve devoured a series of books on the subject – I’ve actually read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” twice – a gripping account of the tragic events of the 1996 season, in addition to Anatoli  Boukreev’s account of the same events in “The Climb” plus several of Ed Viesturs excellent narratives of his own climbing career.

What I hadn’t realised prior to reading these books is quite how debilitating extreme altitude is. Of course I appreciated that it is harder to function with less oxygen, but what I hadn’t realised is that breathing supplemental oxygen only somewhat mitigates the problem. Modern climbing plans for Everest and other 8,000m peaks tend to involve a series of sorties to increasingly high camps to maximise acclimatisation. These ascents, sometimes including nights spent at high camps are interspersed with descents to basecamp for people to recover. Over around 25 thousand feet is what is called the “Death Zone”. As the body just deteriorates at that altitude or above, the strategy is generally to spend as little time as possible there. It seems that climbers head for the highest camp, rest there until maybe 11pm, then make their summit push from there overnight. Whether or not the summit has been reached by around 1pm or 2pm the following day, climbers often plan to turnaround and head to more hospitable altitudes asap. Just like diving at depth, the hypoxia experienced at altitude impairs a climbers ability to think clearly so decision making isn’t always great.  Some of the problems I’ve been reading about are in part due to people just not turning round when they should, leading to running out of air and things just deteriorating from there. As with so many things, it’s never a single factor that causes problems but you just aren’t able to survive long at that altitude. The hypoxia also affects how you feel – I was a bit disappointed that all the climbers I’ve heard/ read about have reported just a feeling of numbness at the top rather than the elation you’d expect. All that effort for numbness. Still, as Ed Viesturs says, getting to the top is only half way…you need to get back down again too.

In any case. It is bloody tough but a lot easier now than it used to be.

Visiting a small museum in the Nepal, I was able to view a series of exhibits about the first attempts* at the summit and the eventual successful Hillary/ Tenzing effort. What makes their achievement all the more impressive is the gear they used – clumpy leather boots that would have been cold when wet, heavy tents and not a scrap of Gore-Tex in sight.

* My favourite account of summit attempts relates to one mad Englishman who planned to crashland a small plane on the lower slopes of the mountain and climb up from there. The idea is totally bonkers and that’s before you hear that he didn’t actually have either flying or climbing experience. Insane and possibly the earliest recorded incidence of what they call ‘summit fever’.

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Talking Rubbish

One aspect of Nepal that made a real impression on me was the sheer volume of rubbish everywhere, particularly in Katmandu. One very holy place, where people brought their dead relatives to be cremated and for their ashes to be transported down the river to eventually find the Ganges, was piled high with old plastic bags. Funerals were happening right in front of piles of plastic and filth that floated down the river along with their relatives’ remains. I thought it strange that this didn’t seem to trouble anyone -I reckon it would take just a few people to clean up the area pretty easily.

The Nepalis, or at least those in Katmandu are apparently not that fussed. Where would the rubbish go for a start? There isn’t any rubbish collection service in town. So different to America anyway, where most districts provide a series of coloured bins for you to separate all your recyclable goods from the rest of your rubbish before they pick them up.

So you live in the US and you think you’ve done your thing by separating out all your trash. Right?

Actually probably not. It turns out that a significant quantity of the “recyclable goods” from the good old US of A are sent to China for sorting. A-ha so China must be at the forefront of recycling? Emphatically not. All my rubbish here goes into a single bin probably destined for a landfill site somewhere. I suspect all the the recyclable stuff sent here for sorting probably has the same fate. I couldn’t tell for sure of course but since my visit to Nepal I have made a real effort not to use plastic bags. It’s not going to change the world but I’m going to try to reduce how much refuse I generate.

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Nepal and the Mystic Himalayas

One update that is seriously overdue relates to last November’s trip to Nepal. What an astonishing country! About the size of North Carolina and with only about 30M inhabitants (Shanghai alone has 20M!), what it lacks in scale it more than makes up in diversity. In only two weeks we visited Katmandu to take in the colours and the chaos, we saw some of the remote villages of the beautiful but chilly Annapurna foothills, then travelled by raft down the Seiti river to the jungles of the Chitwan National park. The country feels a lot bigger because the roads are terrible (with the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen and generally plagued by slow moving cows) – and as a result flying everywhere is by far the most effective way of getting around. Otherwise we travelled mostly by bus.

When I was a student I went travelling with a friend in Peru. We just rocked up in Lima and spent the next couple of months just going where the fancy took us,  heading first south down to Arequipa then up to Cuzco and the Inca Trail, and briefly over to Bolivia. We were most dismissive of anyone who went on an organised bus based trip, referring to them as “cultural bubbles”. We both swore we’d never stoop so low.

The thing we hadn’t fully appreciated at the time is the fact that when you work, the bubble approach is really the only way of getting things packed into a short timeframe. That’s how we ended up on a cultural bubble but one that allowed us to pack a LOT into under two weeks. We managed to experience a surprising amount of the country’s diversity. Actually it wasn’t JUST bus travel. We could count, airplanes, taxis, canoes, rafts, paragliders, elephants, bullock carts and ultralights among our modes of transport while in the country.

We saw so much but here’s a selection of memorable places/ experiences:

I loved the mountains, particularly the trip in a plane to fly along the Himalayas. I was lucky enough to be in the cockpit when we flew past Lukla – probably the most challenging airstrip in the world, and the gateway to Everest for many. More on my newfound fascination with mountains later…

I was utterly charmed by the elephants we met in Chitwan. So very intelligent and so very big! What astonishing creatures. I loved the safari on the elephant’s back – three of us sitting back to back in a sort of platform strapped to the elephant’s back. We soon got used to the rolling gait but it was distinctly odd when our steed broke into a rather bouncy trot.

I loved the Stupas – the temples in Katmandu with their multi-coloured prayer flags and Budda’s all-seeing eyes that look out in the four directions.

I was somehow left saddened after our visit to Kumari in Katmandu. Kumari is a young girl, plucked from a village somewhere to become a living goddess to be worshipped until puberty at which point she returns to her previous life. We only saw this Kumari for a few minutes, she looked bored out of her mind. What a strange and probably lonely life.

I don’t think I could ever get used to all the street vendors who descend on tourists in swarms and attempt to sell all manner of random trinkets. They seem to consider price the only possible objection you might have for not purchasing, so if haggling is a favoured sport, Nepal is your dream destination. I didn’t particularly want what they were selling but the chap, a soft touch by all accounts, ended up with armfuls of brightly coloured hats, small bags and various amulets to guard him against all manner of ills. These will all likely be distributed during birthdays and Christmases for some time to come.

Here are some of our pics from the trip.


How hard can it be to get to Mexico anyway?

While on the subject of New Year – we were invited to see the new year in at Rocky Point in Mexico with friends. We happily accepted and vaguely planned to ride the bikes down from San Francisco. Actually I was really looking forward to the opportunity of riding through southern California – what I’d seen of it so far, the coastline down to Big Sur, was stunning. In any case we figured it would take about two days to ride down. It’s a case of heading to the border and turning right. No?

Then we actually got a map out. California is really rather deceptively long as it turns out. Door to door it was looking like approximately 900 miles. We’ve certainly ridden further in two days but on closer examination, the route along the small roads was going to take far too long. So now we were looking at a two day blast down the Interstate. Not fun.

Then we thought about it some more. While the border south of Phoenix isn’t the worst part of Mexico, you still don’t want to be crossing it at night. And you REALLY don’t want to be crossing at night on a bike. So we would have to spend the night on the US side then ride the last 250 miles or so in the morning. So now it would be a 2.5 day trip which would mean we’d have no time to actually BE there before turning round.

Somewhat disappointed we admitted that taking the bikes was not the way to go. We did have a hire car – so we could just drive that down to Mexico, potentially even in one go if we took turns – right? Wrong. Most car hire companies won’t allow you to take your car to Mexico (or take a driving test in it but that’s a different story).

Hmmm. Then we reasoned that a car rental joint nearer the border just HAD to allow you to cross it. We thought maybe we could bike/ drive to San Diego and take a car from there. That was a pretty good plan. The only thing is that rental companies in San Diego that allow you to take their vehicles into Mexico don’t see the need to rent cars. We could have hired a truck or a bus. Why would you not want to transport lots of people and/ or gear in and out of Mexico? Sigh.

This was harder than we thought. We nearly gave up but did eventually make it to Mexico – by flying in and out of Phoenix and renting a car there (mucho extra paperwork required including a promise to bring it back in one piece). Sheesh!

Once we made it to Rocky Point we had a great couple of days. We walked along the beach watching the pelicans fishing, tasted many different establishments’ finest margaritas but my favourite bit of all was visiting the port to watch the fishing boats come in.


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Resolution time

I’m sorry. I’ve neglected posting for a while. I’ve been busy just enjoying the whirlwind that was the end of 2011. It was an amazing year. It wasn’t without its challenges or low points, but I can honestly look back and say that I was given some great opportunities and I made the most of them. It started with a trip to Patagonia, saw me marry and move to China, and included other amazing visits to Indonesia and Nepal (more on that later). The sheer awesomeness of 2011 means that I’ve approached 2012 with a little trepidation. Now that I get a second chance at a new year now it is the year of the Dragon, I thought it was time to make some resolutions:

  • Don’t forget to blog! Sorry to those of you who have been asking. I’ll try to catch up asap.
  • Participate in the Pennsylvania Spartan Run and DON’T SUCK AT IT. I’ve always avoided any running based races. Mostly because I don’t like running. Also I am sufficiently competitive to not want to subject myself to the indignity of being overtaken by someone dressed like a deep sea diver, or Thora Hird or someone. I’m hoping the obstacles will break up my usual running mantra of “hate hate hate hate hate…”
  • Learn Mandarin. OK I’ve taken some lessons but Mandarin is difficult as you have to just sit down and memorise stuff. You can’t take in much from what’s around you as you can’t read any of it. While I am in China I have to reach the point where I can communicate somewhat more than currently.
  • Also China related – I want to be able to acquire skills/learnings about the local market that will enhance my ability to do my job when I return.
  • I want to grow my tiny new consulting business in the meantime. I’ve had some great new business discussions recently. Fingers crossed some of them lead to money 😉
  • It’s not very measurable as an objective but I would like to learn how to worry less about things I cannot change. I spend a lot of time doing that.
  • More easily measured is my resolution to sort my teeth out. I’ve never had many problems with them, but there are a couple of things that need to be sorted:- I need to get my top wisdom teeth removed now that the little buggers are deciding to put in an appearance. I also need to get a 20 year old crown replaced as there’s a small infection underneath it. Neither of these things happened overnight, but 2012 is the year they get addressed. Then, thanks to my time living in the US it is no longer acceptable for me to have English teeth. My wisdom teeth are making my previously fairly straight teeth decidedly wonky so I’ll get them fixed too.
  • I also resolve to drink more water. So far this is going badly. Everyday I drink close to a recommended amount of water I have to go to the loo a LOT. Then when I forget, I don’t drink and I have to start trying to retrain my bladder again. Of all my resolutions, this is so far the most difficult one to keep.
  • This year I will get a Chinese driving licence. I am stopped rather frequently in the US so I think having a Chinese licence could be awesome: “Ni hao officer! What seems to be the problem?”.

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Happy New Year!

It’s officially the Chinese year of the Dragon which kicked off here last night extremely noisily with the whole city setting off fireworks and firecrackers. It’s all about chasing the bad spirits away and letting the good ones in. I think that tells us that good Chinese spirits are deaf – it has sounded pretty much exactly like those TV reports from warzones since yesterday afternoon. Here’s what it looked like last night:

Actually the fireworks were fun but it was particularly interesting to watch the randomness. People would seemingly just plop huge boxes of fireworks on their doorsteps and then light them right there.

We watched for some time as box after box was lit right by the entrance to our apartment. It was almost comical to watch taxis pull up right next to the box and let people out, cyclists and other drivers meandering right past it. We also saw a guy light a rocket/ mortar and then just hold it in his hand as it went off. I don’t believe he was hurt but I shudder to think how many people were injured across China. I suspect a LOT although, now that I come to think about it, there’s a good chance that the hospitals were closed, as everything else is.

The place is quite eerily quiet – very few cars, almost nobody on the street, all the shops boarded up. I read on some blog recently that it is how you might imagine post zombie apocalypse Shanghai, only with more fireworks, obviously.


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