Sunday, May 10, 2009

Day 8 - Beijing & Great Wall

Today we did only three things, but they left us utterly exhausted. First we loaded up at a luxuriously late 9:00am to head out to the Great Wall. We went to a section that was over an hour away from town. Along the highway buildings became smaller until only one story farmhouses dominated, overseeing meager acre plots of crops. Being a major tourist attraction, the hello-people were on us practically before we left the bus. Bought tickets for the ski-slope-like chair lift and traveled up the hill to a low section in the Wall.

Though the Great Wall was originally constructed around 200 B.C.E., the section we were on dated from around 1400 A.C.E. I find it quite frankly amazing that the stone for that section was hauled over 100 km from a quarry outside Beijing - then up a hill and mortared into place. Equally amazing is that the wall was mostly effective at keeping out the Mongolian hordes. Every 500 meters or so there is a guard house or barracks. And in between are some of the most torturous steps and flats known to humankind as the wall follows the curves of the hills and mountains. Steps range from petite 1" high to more than 18" 70-degree, hand-over-hand climbs. Soaked in different levels of sweat, we all managed to make it to the final tower that is part of the tourist section. After a brief pause to admire the view and catch our breath, we had to hike back down (and up, and down).

Getting down was way way cooler than going up. The ride down was a steel toboggan ride. With a nod to Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, we climbed aboard our one-person power-less folding "go karts" and followed the steel track down.

A long bus ride (and nap!) back into Beijing and we arrived at our second destination - the Silk Market. Originally narrow alleys of stalls open to the elements and packed with Chinese and foreign tourists alike, the Silk Market was leveled and replaced with a 7-story indoors version of hte same. Barkers shouted, lured, and even sometimes grabbed passers-by to tempt them into their 8' x 8' stalls. The first two floors were dominated by textiles of all forms - from "Polo" and "Armani" shirts to be had for as little as 30RMB (about $3.50), to socks, "silk" blouses and children's clothes. Then were watches of all "makes", jewelry and pearls, even electronics such as Wii systems and iPhones. Despite being universally exhausted, we all set in to the shopping with a fervor. Flush with our purchases about 90 minutes later, we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and change for our third event...

The Peiking Duck Restaurant. This restaurant is so popular that it has opened three additional locations across Beijing. The meal was, in a word, indescribable. We savored 16 courses including the world-famous Peiking Duck. Probaly the most interesting two courses were the fish. We actually got to meet it when a chef came out with a steel pail of water and a grouper nearly lept out in a vain attempt at freedom. At the end of a 13 hour day, a solid hour of stair-climbing, and a meal that would put Bacchus to shame, we headed back to the hotel, called our mothers, and slept like the dead.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Day 7 - Beijing

Another 5-star breakfast and we headed out for a jam-packed day of site-seeing. First up was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Our tour guide, a history major in college none-the-less, only knew of the 1989 Tiananmen student protests because her uncle had been a student in Beijing at the time. This was really my first encounter with Chinese state censorship, and it was very startling. Perhaps more amazing were the throngs of people. The square is said to be able to hold a million people if need-be, and I now believe it. There were definately tens of thousands of tourists there, perhaps even 100 thousand all told. I'm VERY glad we didn't want to see the perserved corpse of Chairman Mao - that line was at least 2 hours long, and I'm told you're forced past it and may not even see him at all!

The Forbidden Palace was amazing. It's hard to imagine over 100 acres of palace rooms and courtyards. But even stranger was the architecture and history behind it - from the five entrances and five bridges (even the emperor would only use the central one when he was coming to be crowned), to the lack of trees (less chance of assassination), to the very small (compared to Western monarchy) bed chambers. I find it incredible that for over 500 years only the ruling family, dignitaries, members of the court, and servants were able to enter the palace.

After the Palace, we traveled to the Houhai area. This small district was once a quiet strip along an ancient lake, but was transformed in the past decade to one of the hippest bar streets in Beijing. We took a rickshaw through the area and parked to go visit local families. Just 100 feet from the throngs of hipsters are the homes of families that have been passed down parent to child for six generations or more. A small courtyard filled with potted plants, herbs, and a couple of pomegrate trees is surrounded by three or four small single-story homes that once housed three generations. In the second home, we were fed a literally home-cooked meal. The seven or eight courses were delicous - comperable to the meals I've had in most restaurants around here.

Next we were off to the Summer Palace - just a short bus ride away. This palace was sacked at least twice and most famously rebuilt by the Dragon Lady - Empress CiXi. While history may have a colored view of her reign, the grounds are certainly beautiful. Traditional architecture pavilions painted in intricate designs are everywhere. An ambitious subset of us hiked up to the Budda temple at the top of the hill and were rewarded with aching legs and a beautiful vista.

We were so exhausted from the day that only a handful of our group went to the last activity - "discount" shopping the Pearl Market.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Day 6 - Travel to Beijing

Another early travel morning saw us leaving the hotel about 6:40am. A short layover, this time in a much more modern terminal, and another five hours of flying saw us in Beijing. Somehow along the way we managed to fall behind schedule about an hour, so we ate lunch in the arrivals terminal of the Beijing Airport. People split equally between a noodle bar, the Starbucks, and the KFC.

From the airport, we traveled directly to the Olympic sights - the Watercube and the Bird's Nest. Since they don't sell advance tickets, we had to wait for our tour guide to grab our tickets. An unfortunate side effect of being a group of 20-something Americans (including South and Central Americans) in the middle of a massive tourist complex is that you seem to become a tourist attraction too. While we were waiting, several groups of Chinese tourists approached us and asked to have their pictures taken with us. For near 15 minutes we seemed to be more popular than any of the Olympic sights, especially the blonde students!

After our travel and tourism, we headed to our hotel - The Regent. This 5-star hotel has Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, and Rolls Royce showrooms on the first floor - most with lobby access. Dinner was on our own, and people ate everything from Vietnamese and Schezuan to Itallian.

Day 5 - Lijiang and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

It's getting repetitive, but today was again super-busy - and this time at over 7700 feet! We had a full day of sight-seeing, starting with a visit to a nearby spring. The pool and surrounding buildings were so serene - it was like a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We then visited the 400-year-old Baisha murals, learned some about the Naxhi (or Nakhi) people, one of the 56 ethnic groups in China. We had ample time to walk around the Baisha village and had a very delicious and filling lunch while we were there.

Next the big adventure - driving up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. This mountain is the southern-most recognized mountain in the Himalayas. To get up to the Spruce Plateau we first took our bus, then transferred to a national park bus, a cable-car, and a fifteen-minute hike. The view of the mountains and trees was incredible. If that weren't enough, several local Naxhi allowed us to try on traditional garb and snap photos. Some of the girls had immense fun with this. On our way down, we asked for more time so we could have a photo opportunity with the yaks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Day 4 – Travel to and time in Lijiang

Today started early – 5:40 knock on the door for the porters to pick up our luggage. The Westin was kind enough to start breakfast service a half hour early for us, and most of us tucked in like it was our last meal. At the airport, a thoughtful security person noticed our large group (honestly, it’s hard not to) and directed us to an alternate security entrance. Interestingly enough, it was back on the first floor, next to a dingy bathroom, and down a narrow hallway with severely scuffed paint and chipped tiles. But it was definitely much faster – apparently the secret entrance for status business travelers who are “in the know”. Our flight was relatively uneventful. Just a brief layover in some town whose name I can’t remember at a terminal smaller than a provincial train station.
Compared to Shanghai, Lijiang is entirely provincial. Shanghai has a population of over 20 million; Lijiang around 300,000. According to our guide, 300,000 is practically tiny – a speck on the map. It’s claim to fame is agriculture, especially tobacco and tea. It's old downtown is also a World Heritage Site - a tourist draw that brings over 3 million people to this tiny town every year. After a short time getting settled, the majority of us headed off for a brief introduction to the old town and learned where the bars and good restaurants and massage places were.
We again split into self-selected groups and explored the Old Town - shopping, massages, lunch, and a hike up to the temple for a beautiful view of the city. Lunch was an "interesting" affair, and many of us took the opportunity to try a few local delicacies such as dried yak meat, fried cheese (no breading mind you) and fried dragonflies. Yes - and they're like burned french fries with a barb on the end that can cut your tongue if you don't break it off first.

My group stopped in an open home on our way down to see the view from the other side of the hill. We ended up having our very own tea service of some unnamed tea that grew stronger and stronger with each serving.

(Pictures are the view of the Old Town of Lijiang, and Juan Pablo eating a fried dragonfly.)

Day 3 – Shanghai Company visits

Our first company visit day. I originally guessed that expected attire would be business professional – shirt, suit, tie – but I was apparently wrong. I suppose that the boom times combined with Shanghai’s heat loosens the dress code – no tie, and some people wore no jacket. Our first stop was at the China Europe International Business School – CEIBS. This is the #1 ranked business school in China, and Forbes listed it as #8 in the world. We got a brief tour of the campus, and an hour presentation on some of the unique challenges facing China today. At one point our host, Claudia Shaffer, a German expat, cited a McKinsey study that said China was short 70,000 MBA positions. And their school has a class size of 190. We then had lunch at their guest dining facilities (which were very nice), and had the opportunity to meet several current students. For me, it was a great pleasure meeting Karthik, Belay, and Kenneth.
Our second stop was at Eli Lilly China. In the lobby of their office we had to fill out and sign a form indicating we were not symptomatic of the swine flu. Apparently this is now standard practice when “pandemics” loom around the world. Our presentation was informative, but generally high level and 75% things I knew already. The specific numbers, such as the money spent per hour on R&D ($1.9M per hour), were new. A final tour and a group shot and we left on good terms.
Our third stop was to be Mary Kay. An interesting choice, but apparently they are doing incredibly well since entering the China market. However, due to their concern over the swine flu – they wanted us to all sign waivers and wear masks – we decided to let them save face and canceled. Yay – free time!
Once again we scattered to the four corners of Shanghai. Workouts, naps, shopping and massages abound. I, however, snagged a cab to the Shanghai Museum. (As an aside – 5 minute cab ride = $1.65) It had a variety of exhibits including pottery works and porcelain, origins and history of Chinese currency, and calligraphy. All in all, it was a very worthwhile hour for me.
Outside the museum two Chinese girls stopped and asked me to take a picture of them. One of them, a Shanghai-neese continued talking with me, interested about the first American she had met. Eventually she and her friend invited me to a tea ceremony at a shop in a nearby mall. For the next 90 minutes I learned a succinct history of 3000 year old Chinese tea culture and sampled six drastically different teas. I so thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the company that I was nearly late for our authentic Shanghi-Chinese dinner at Zen in the French Concession.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Day 2 - Shanghai city tour and free time

This morning started with a luxurious breakfast at the Westin, complete with two omelette chefs, full western AND eastern breakfast bars. A lot of us stuffed ourselves silly trying a bit of everything. A bit behind schedule we boarded our bus for a tour of the city. We went to the Shanghai Jinmao tower - the second highest building in China at 88 stories. It offered a wonderful view of the Bund and surrounding landscape. Its amazing to me that twenty years ago the entire east side of the Haungpu River was mud flats. Shanghai really has had amazing growth in that time, especially in the past 9 years.

After Jinmao, we went to the "Old Market" - a ocllection of buildings jammed together rebuilt in the classical style, with the curved roofs and everything. Its somewhat of a touristy area, loaded with tour buses and their groups, tons of tiny shops selling Y5 "silk" ties and other nicknacks. After a quick stop at Starbucks (yes, located right in the heart of the market), most of us followed our tour guide Candy to an authentic silk manufacturer. We saw first-hand how real silk is produced and processed - boiling hundreds of silk worm coccoons and hand-picking the threads to spin it into threads. We even got to try our hand at stretching silk out to make cool-in-summer and warm-in-winter silk-filled quilts.

After some more free time in the market, we loaded up to our third destination, the People's Square. This area used to be a hippodrome (a racetrack), that was leveled with the revolution and turned into a nice park and now sports a collection of cultural buildings surrounding it. From here we scattered like plum blossoms in the wind. Some went to the French Concession (which is very large - 10 sq. km.) and visited wine bars or communist propaganda museums. Others visited the National Museum or the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. And some made the bold and decisive decision to go back to the hotel for a much needed nap.

At 6:30 we joined a group of eight future Fuqua students for cocktails in the hotel bar. It was nice meet some more students for the Class of 2009 and disucss where they're from, why they're going to Fuqua, and some of their hopes and fears. After spending some time in Shanghai, I can certainly see that relocating to rural Durham would be a bit of a shock. I wish them all good luck over the summer and next year.

Way too quickly, we had to leave for dinner at M on the Bund, an upscale world-fusion restaurant in Building 5 on the Bund. The view from the terrance was impressive, and the food was a unique collection of international specialties, but mostly French-influenced. Towards the end of the meal, Juan Pablo decided we needed to go karaoke and started saranading the restaurant with his favorite 80s music. After dinner we forewent karaoke, and went to a roof-top bar futher down the Bund for drinks and to continue to soak in the view. It struck me that Shanghai was unusually quiet - except for the late night jackhammering. The traffic noise was there throughout the day, but I don't recall once hearing any ambulance, fire, or police sirens. Even the car honks seem to fade quickly on the tree-lined broad avenues.