Saturday, July 14, 2012


Caochangdi is a small, nondescript village outside of Beijing's 5th ring road. Caochangdi is also the home to an artist's colony that, along with 798 and Songzhuang, comprise some of the major players in the Beijing art scene.

The three of us enjoyed an exhibit of photos of horses on the Inner Mongolian grasslands, taken with corroded film so as to give off a feeling of something that is passing by or is already part of history.

Overall, though, the feeling was not one of strolling through art galleries, but rather one of watching art being created. There was a lot of construction going on, and a number of the gallery spaces were empty. For casual observers like ourselves, this was not a natural or intuitive experience.

We actually felt much more at home strolling through the alleyways of the adjacent neighborhood, with its DVDs ("Avengers" is in the house), cheap restaurants, and lively street action.

Perhaps a return trip when some major exhibit is open is in order...


Busting The Breakfast People

Here was the scene outside of our apartment the other morning, when the police came and busted a collection of people who sell breakfast foods from out of the back of their three-wheeled cycles.

A bit of background first. Every morning, by 6am, there is a collection of sanlunche, these three-wheelers that are either powered by foot or electric motor, parked on the street, with steam filling the air and the sounds of the on-the-ground economy echoing up and down Zhongguancun Lu. For less than a buck, you can enjoy an on-the-go breakfast of youtiao (fried dough), doujiang (soy milk), baozi (buns), or a variety of other tasty options.

From a legal standpoint, many (all?) of these mobile breakfast shops, many (all?) of which are operated by migrants from other provinces who have come from their villages and small towns to Beijing in search of new opportunities, occupy a tenuous position. Unregistered and unlicensed, these carts are part of the underground economy, operating outside of the letter of the law.

On a normal basis, such technicalities seem to make no difference, as there are carts on literally every street corner in Beijing. On occasion, though, we have witnessed cat-and-mouse games between the police and the street peddlers, with carts quickly disappearing as officers approach, only to pedal right back just minutes later.

In this particular scene, there is a blue police truck in the background. On this truck are at least four confiscated mobile breakfast stands. Outside of the frame, we observed a woman, apparently the owner of one of the carts, sitting next to a bunch of bowls, all of which contained the remnants of the food that she had prepared for sale that morning.

And so ended the breakfast-food market outside of Tianzuo Guoji. At least for one particular morning...


Friday, July 13, 2012

Yes, These Pictures Were Taken In China!

During the course of time spent with friends in a foreign compound area of Beijing, we have eaten Mexican food and seen beautiful blue skies over the detached homes (villas), both of which are definite rarities in the Middle Kingdom.


Men With Chains Whacking Large Tops

It takes a lot to surprise us in China, but we can honestly say that this was the first time we have ever come across this particular type of recreation.

While walking through a park in Yanjiao, we happened upon two men holding six-foot (or so) long chains. They were using the chains in a whip-like manner, with the goal being to crack them right at the base of these rather large tops that were spinning on the ground. The aim of the whip-cracking was to keep the tops spinning, which the men (perhaps a father-son duo) had no problem whatsoever doing.

Every time the chains hit the ground, they made a loud "thwack!" that reverberated through the park. Cool! (And also a bit unnerving...)


Meat In The Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter in Beijing is not, like its counterpart in Xi'an, a tourist attraction. Rather, it is the heart of Muslim life in the city, with Beijing's largest mosque (which, as you can see in an accompanying photograph, has decided Chinese characteristics), as well as dedicated schools for children of the Hui minority (a large, predominantly Muslim population from western China with a significant Beijing presence).

The Muslim Quarter also serves as a distribution point for meats heading to households and restaurants. We enjoyed walking through a meat market, and stopping to watch as what we believe are lamb carcasses were being offloaded from a truck onto three-wheeled bicycles.

By the way, that's a huge scale in the background of the top picture, used to measure the amount of lamb being pedaled away...


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Selling Balloons In Sanlitun

Sanlitun boasts of perhaps the largest concentration of foreigners of any public space in Beijing. And with foreigners (not too mention the young, upwardly mobile Chinese who are attracted to such an international vibe) come commercial opportunities...


This Summer Is Coming Up All Charlie Brown

On the heel of Julie's Peanuts glasses, there it is, right in the heart of Zhongguancun...the Charlie Brown Cafe.

Now if we can just get Xi Yang Yang to America...


Lecturing At Communication University Of China

Thanks to He Laoshi and Professor Ji Deqiang, I had the opportunity to deliver a lecture on my research to an audience at Communication University of China. The response to the talk--"Online Consultation and Citizen Participation in Chinese Policymaking"--was much appreciated, with a series of interesting questions from the faculty and students.

Interestingly, one of the students was from Brazil. So it was a lecture on Chinese politics, delivered in English, by an American professor, in Beijing, to an audience that included a native Portuguese speaker. Gotta love globalization!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Throwing Batteries Out On The Great Wall

Look closely at this garbage can and you'll see, between the bins for "recyclable" and "non-recyclable," a small opening that says "battery."

Who needs to throw batteries out while hiking the Great Wall?

Apparently, this special need does indeed exist, as Julie took a peek and discovered several batteries lying at the bottom of the slot. Who knew?


Weird Bug On The Great Wall

Not a bad place to call home...


Z, Then And Now

At Juyongguan Great Wall...Same place, different person...


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Me, Xi Yang Yang, and Capitalism On The Great Wall

Every Chinese kid (including me!) is a big fan of Xi Yang Yang, the television cartoon sensation who dominates not only the airwaves, but the markets for backpacks, toys, snacks, name it. A commercial juggernaut, that Xi Yang Yang.

As we ascended to one of the first platforms during our hike up Juyongguan, there he was, a human-sized Xi Yang Yang, waving at the adoring masses trudging by. Drawn in by this unexpected treat, I went up to Xi Yang Yang, and Julie manned the camera for a few fun shots.

Xi Yang Yang was ready for this, moving me into an assortment of poses with him. It was this elaborate choreography that first set Julie's "uh-oh" off. As for me, I was consumed by the moment, hamming it up with Xi Yang Yang.

Stepping away after this all of this excitement, we quickly discovered (for Julie, confirmed) that Xi Yang Yang had immediate commercial motivations. Motioning that he wanted some cash, Z quickly produced three kuai and we tried to make our move up the wall. Xi Yang Yang, though, was persistent, demanding ten kuai for the photos that were snapped.

Betting that Xi Yang Yang would not give chase, we decided to make a break for it, and high-tailed it up to higher heights. Luckily, the "pleasant goat" stayed put, trolling for more photo opportunities. And so we quickly left the situation in our dust, not looking back.

You think I would learn after all these years...


Z At The Edge Of The World

Even though we picked the cloudiest (most polluted?) day of our time in China so far for our first outing to the Great Wall, we nevertheless took in some spectacular vistas.

And we finally made it to the top of the Juyongguan section!

Eight years ago, this location was our first exposure to the Great Wall. Our 导游 (tour guide) told us, "Two hours!" That's how long we had to be on the Wall that day. Not enough!

As you can see, this particular section is especially steep, even by Great Wall standards. Maybe Desi is reading this post and breathing a sigh of relief that we knocked this climb out while she is safe on the other side of the world. Or maybe not, in which case we'll be happy to trek back to the top as a foursome!


Monday, July 09, 2012

This Is What A Traffic Jam Looks Like In Rural China

It was a train going by that caused the backup. Nice collection of vehicles...


The Washington, DC Of The Far East

No, these pictures were not taken in our nation's capital, but in a rural location to the north of Beijing. No idea what that building is...


Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Latest "Bubba, Is This Up To Code?" Entry

As seen across the street from the Korean barbecue place, where Desi bought her bike four years ago.


The Beijing Spirit Campaign

Here is the latest red banner campaign that is visible in parks and on bridges throughout the city. The so-called "Beijing Spirit" (北京精神) entails four main attributes...





Get to it, Beijingers!


Sneaking In And Out Of A World Heritage Site

Here is the story about a secret entrance into the Old Summer Palace that we have inadvertently discovered.

Adjacent to this one out-of-the-way section of the Old Summer Palace (which, by the way, is enormous; it would literally take all day to walk around the entire collection of lakes and gardens), there is an alleyway neighborhood that is home to thousands of Beijing's fringe residents. (To give you a bit of the flavor of this neighborhood, we can report that as we were walking down the main little road, we watched as a boy of a few years old squatted down and did his business--number one and number two---right there on the sidewalk.)

Right on the other side of the back wall of this neighborhood is a World Heritage Site, the Old Summer Palace, a place of great importance in Chinese history. For a long time, the Old Summer Palace was a countryside refuge for emperors (this is hard to believe now, since the site has been enveloped by the city of Beijing), until it was ransacked in the 19th century by British and French troops. People come from all over China and the world to visit this spectacular and tragic place.

Rather than be deterred by the presence of a seven-foot high dividing line between China's imperial past and alleyway present, residents of this down-on-its-heels location have devised a unique way of bridging the gap...They simply climb over the wall.

As you can see from the accompanying pictures, the wall has been shaped to create a makeshift set of stairs. You are looking at, in the background, a man using these stairs to get into the park. You are also looking at an older man, in a safari-style hat and with a canteen around his neck, instructing Z to climb over the wall and head in. This man had just come out himself, as we stood there and watched.

So why do these residents move freely in and out of the Old Summer Palace? As the safari hat and canteen suggests, exercise and recreation is an apparent motivation. We have seen parents carrying their children's bicycles over the wall. In essence, the Old Summer Palace is the local, neighborhood park for the residents of this little corner of Beijing.

I can also imagine that some of the older women who walk around the park touting water and trinkets may use the secret entrance as well, as I have wondered for years how it could be worth it for them to pay the entrance fee, given the already low margins they are operating on.

What a fascinating little glimpse into the collision of China's past and present, of its grandeur and alleyway sensibilities...