Friday, September 28, 2007

End of an era

This is tough, really, this is a lot harder than I was expecting it to be. I'm currently in my flat, surrounded by piles of papers, foreign coins and clothes. I have a little over a week to go before I leave Beijing but I have to get things packed up as soon as possible. I'm shipping some of the heavier items to Spain and so this all needs to get done now.

I was expecting it to be physically tiring, but it has become emotionally quite draining. As the days tick by and my time in this amazing city diminishes fast I stop to wonder where the time went, how so many things happened in the last two years, yet it seems only last week that I stepped off the plane, into a country and a culture I had never previously experienced, with eyes wide and mouth constantly open to the amazing sights, sounds and smells about me.

Lots of things have happen, as can be attested to by the 300+ blog posts since I arrived here. I've written about ups and downs, more, thankfully of the former, but of course there have been many things I haven't written about, many friendships, many meals, many insights, many cultural faux pas, many nights spent wondering what I was doing here in the first place, and days spent wondering how I would ever leave.

And somehow it's all coming to an end, rather abruptly, or so it feels. I never decorated my apartment. I know it's rather strange but two years didn't really seem long enough to bother (plus, on a Chinese wage, spending money on household adornments isn't the first priority) and so it has stayed as a rather impersonal space, adorned only by my books, films and clothes. This, perhaps is why it's so strange packing everything up. Though the space seems to have no character, somehow the walls are ingrained with memories of the last two years and the piles of clothes are, at least, my piles of clothes.

I came to China not knowing a soul. I've made some lifelong friendships and there are people who will be very hard to say goodbye to. Ties will not be cut, but I don't know the next time I will see these good friends again. I certainly will be coming back to China some point in the not too distant future, but Beijing will no longer be my Beijing, I will be a casual visitor. I know this because I know how fast this place changes. The Beijing I see next time will not be the same one I leave.

I will miss many things about this place. I had planned to write a list of what I would be sorry to leave behind and what I would be happy to turn my back on, but that list would be far from complete and would trivialise so many ideas. If you want to know some of these details then I hope that the last 300 blog posts nicely summarise my feelings about this place.

I'm hugely looking forward to getting to Spain and starting something new, but the last two years has, as was inevitable, changed me in many ways I am unlikely to know until I return to a reality that I'm more used to. I'm not sure when that will be, and I'm not sure how the effects will manifest themselves.

I've promised myself that I wouldn't let my Chinese slip, but I don't know how practical that will be when I put Spanish in with the mix and have piles of work to be doing in Santiago. Thoughts of sitting in quiet cafes with a coffee getting on with my research temporarilly replace the waves of nostalgia I have sitting, writing this. We are the lucky few who land in a job that we get so much from.

Before I leave China I will be travelling for almost two weeks. Next week is a national holiday which I will work through, then I fly to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, on the 7th, to make my way to Jiuzhaigou national park where I will spend three days walking round the incredible scenery. Then back to Chengdu to sit in the tea houses and wander by the river before going down to Yunnan province to see some of the diversity of minority cultures in this country as well as the amazing South China scenery. It's going to be a packed trip, but it should be a lot of fun. Then back to Beijing for two days before flying to England and then almost straight away to Spain.

So, much to be getting on with, and this may well not be the last post about my feelings on leaving China.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Living Beijing

A busy weekend, both work and play. I made it to the Beijing jazz festival on Saturday afternoon, which deserves more time than I have to write. I went for a wander around the park, into the gardens and took some photos of the nature on show there so will leave you with this snap for now:

(Click for much larger versions)
dragon fly 2

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Unexpected results

Kosher options not
Without risk of upsetting
The careful balance

Food delights seem non-
Universal, better to
Opt for static choice

Film nasties lacking
Extreme warnings result in
Rather surprised Shocks

Haiku to undo
Misdemeanors appears quite

A new dimension in culinary delights

A short post as there's still lots of work to get done before I leave here in just over two weeks.

Last night I finally got around to trying a dish I'd been promised by a Korean friend for a while. It turns out that it's not difficult to find around Wudaokou where there is a huge population of Korean students.

The dish is called San Nak Ji and is an octopus based dish, in fact it's just raw octopus. Nothing particularly strange about eating raw octopus which I've had many times in Japanese restaurants. However, San Nak Ji is still moving, on the plate, in your chopsticks, in the dipping sauce, in your mouth. The suckers make it pretty difficult to pick up off the plate, especially with the Korean style metal chopsticks. You dip the pieces in a chilli sauce and then eat. You don't feel them moving much in your mouth but they do stick to your tongue and palate as you're eating them. The suckers can be really rather strong.

Because the tentacles are detached, I certainly wouldn't count this as eating a living creature. Though some may think this is a particularly barbaric act, I would claim that the more you remember that your food was once a living being and don't take this fact lightly, rather than prepackaging everything so that you don't have to think of the horrors of the slaughterhouse or the terrible conditions that your Sunday lunch has had to endure, the better. I am in favour of choosing free-range where possible. Sadly in China this is not an easy task and would certainly mean that I would never eat out.

Anyway, San Nak Ji is worth a try and goes well with a good cold Soju. My camera batteries didn't work so no video from me. I will try and return before I leave and get a personal video of the events. In the mean time you can take a look at a Youtube example of a similar meal. (Obviously do not watch this if you think the sight of writhing tentacles may cause you to be put off your next meal).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday brunch at the Westin

I haven't spoken of food for at least a week. Usually when I do it's about gastronomic exotica. Many of the things below will seem a little closer to home but should be taken no less lightly. It's taken me a year (since it started) to get around to heading to the Westin hotel for their Sunday brunch deal. It's the sort of thing I've generally stayed away from, attempting whenever possible to go for the oriental options. However, a deal like this can only be avoided for so long. There are several hotels offering all you can eat deals for around £20 a head here in the city. In the UK if you happened upon such an offer you would be greeted by a selection of fairly uninspiring dishes which, on the third return would look ultimately unappealing.

Things in Beijing are somewhat different. The Westin hotel in Beijing offers an extravaganza of luxury foods for this price. Champagne flows freely, as do cocktails, fine wines and spirits and beer, to accompany everything from caviar, sushi and lobster, through steak tartare, cured meats, fresh barbeque to chocolate fountains, handmade chocolates and imported cheeses. If you happen to like food and have a spare 20 quid lying around on a Sunday morning GO TO THE WESTIN HOTEL AND INDULGE. heart attacks may be included. We stayed there for around 4 hours, chatting, relaxing and eating the most spectacular food. I remained happy with just a glass of champagne, not wanting to spoil the food and had a couple of the finest cups of coffee I've had this side of Italy after the meal. Anyway, a few photos from the day follow:

Click on the photos for more detail.

The chocolate dish with a piece of gold leaf on the top has a layer of olive oil in the middle which was spectacular. The steak tartare in the martini glass was better than any I've eaten in France and the selection of caviar was worth the trip alone. It may fill you with guilt at the sheer indulgence but that will soon be displaced by unreasonable quantities of fine food. The man standing, beaming, in front of the steak tartare stand is the head chef and was extremely happy to chat as he wandered around making sure everything was going well. I probably tried a quarter of the foods on offer and left satisfied but not stuffed. Well worth the trip!

Pale blue dot

Tales of a spectacular meal yesterday must wait until I can get the photos onto my computer. In the mean time and totally unrelated. Toomanytribbles linked to this video which is worth a watch. Makes you feel pretty insignificant!

Friday, September 14, 2007

File transfer on Meebo and more

I'm almost alone in the building today. Everyone else has gone to Chengde for the weekend. The ITP organises these huge group outings a couple of times a year, but I usually miss the e-mails. It makes for a peaceful day in the office anyway and work is getting done.


Anyway, this post is a quick tech note. I use Meebo as my instant messenger client. It's entirely web based, so you don't need another program running in the background constantly giving you adverts or using up more memory. It also allows you to integrate various accounts: Hotmail, Yahoo, Google Talk amongst others (not Skype - yet). I use instant messaging as a vital part of my work, talking with my collaborators in various continents.

The one drawback has always been that file transfer was not possible - until now! I always had to switch back to msn in order to send and receive files but now I see no reasons to use msn any more.

Of course if you're bothered by the design of Meebo there are dozens of Greasemonkey scripts you can use to make the interface more to your liking.


Cory Doctorow, from Boingboing was in Beijing this week and spoke at the Bookworm. Sadly I couldn't make it, but the video is up on Youtube. Cory talks about the future of information dissemination, copywrite, Web 2.0, piracy, social networking and more.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Reflections, endings and beginnings

This blog is two years old today, and I believe this is the 369th post.


Work finally calmed down late on Tuesday evening. Over 40 hours of intensive calculation in 3 days left me utterly exhausted. I've never needed to work with quite such fevered intensity as this. I've never been a crammer, exams at undergraduate level were a relatively relaxed affair in terms of timing as the revision was usually well planned. So, the task of pulling a series of very late-nights and early mornings was not something I envisioned enjoying. However, the hours did go between complete fatigue and a strange, work fueled euphoria which was actually rather empowering at times.

Yesterday I was too drained to do anything of any use, so I had a relaxed day in a cafe and then went to see Bergman's Wild Strawberries at D22. An early road trip movie, concerning the realisition of an elderly man about the path his life has taken and what he has lost, both physically an emotionally through the years. It's a reflection not just of the individual, but a look at how we sometimes ignore the mirror of those around us, forming our own crooked picture of the way we appear, and our own moral absolutes. This is perfect Bergman material and well worth a watch. Having seen Through a Glass Darkly, earlier in the year I now realise how adept Bergman was at capturing troubled emotions through simple images - sometimes cliched, but always powerful.


I wanted to add an extra note about the Kabuki, which I watched twice last week. I'd been pondering the use of the onnagata, the men who specialise in playing women's roles (there are no women in kabuki performances, though there used to be).

As I watched the second performance on Wednesday evening I wondered what it was about a 76 year old man (Kabuki legend Nakamura Senjaki III) playing the role of a young woman, a teenager, dancing on stage, that was so captivating to watch. This sounds strange, I'm sure, but in fact it comes off as absolutely natural and beautiful to watch.

I was trying to work out why one would have men playing female roles, other than through simple discrimination, but I think I have a clue now, after my fourth viewing of Kabuki. The vision of a man playing a woman's role is an entirely de-sexualised one. There is no thought of the player on stage having anything to do with sexual allure, as it might do if it were a beautiful woman playing the role. What you are left with is a neutered form but still retaining all the elegance and grace which may have been masked by any erotic distractions. The stripping of one aspect of attraction to reveal in much more clear contrast another. It may sound strange, but it really is fantastic to watch.

OK, I think that's probably my input on Kabuki for now, but I'm sure it will crop up again in the future.


I'm still feeling pretty drained but have plenty of work to be getting on with now. Just three full weeks left in Beijing is a fairly terrifying thought - two years have gone very very quickly - thoughts of Bergman resurface!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Brane freeze

I hurt, both in brain and body. 15 hours so far today in front of the computer trying to get this calculation done. I'm guessing another 4 hours at least tonight, but we'll have to see. Thankfully I'm in a bar where the manager has given me free drinks for the month so I'm keeping myself going with green tea. I just want this to be over!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

This month in Beijing

For reasons which I'm not going to go into now I'm working like crazy at the moment. I will probably be up all night at least for tonight, tomorrow we'll just have to see.

I'm taking a five minute break and so will put up a post I wrote a few days ago about the current goings on in Beijing. If work continues like this I'm not going to get to any of it, but I can always hope.

With less than two months left in Beijing I'm keeping a close eye on the things that I haven't done yet which I would like to. There aren't many places that I haven't explored in Beijing that I'm aware of but I'm sure there are many interesting hidden treasures to be found. The ancient observatory I would like to check out when I've time and the underground tunnels which are rumoured to go for hundreds of miles under the city sound intriguing.

There's plenty on over the next month too. There will be a couple of weeks of movies commemorating Bergman on at D22. This week there was The Seventh Seal, which is excellent and I'll definitely see it for a second time when I have a chance. The Bergman season continues with Wild Strawberries and The Magician on the 12th and 13th and finishes with The Virgin Spring on the 19th. Michaelangelo Antonioni's death is not going unnoticed with L'avventura, La Notte and L'eclisse on the 20th, 26th and 27th. Sadly Blowup is not being screened.

At the Box Cafe on the 25th is Au Hassard Balthazar, a very moving story about the life of a donkey, named Balthazar, directed by Bresson. Very very sad but a fine film.

Director Diao Yinan will be talking at Cherry Lane movies before his film Uniform, which I haven't seen but is promoted in That's Beijing.

Cory, from BoingBoing will be in Beijing next week at the Beijing Bookworm, so go early if you're around Sanlitun on Wednesday.

On the music front there's the Beijing Pop Festival in Chaoyang park this weekend, with a truly bizarre line up of Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, Brett Anderson, New York Dolls, Marky Ramone and a few decent Beijing bands (Joyside and the Scoff being the two who I've seen and enjoyed). Carsick Cars, Beijing's favourite band to make it outside China (currently on tour with Sonic Youth in Europe) will be back in D22 on the 29th which is bound to draw a big crowd.

I'll definitely be heading to the Beijing Jazz Festival ( For jazz in the meantime the Red Hand Jazz band every Sunday at D22 are well worth coming to listen to. I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw them for the first time a few weeks ago, though with D22's reputation and a manager who used to own a bar in New York, I shouldn't be.

Beginning of next month sees Faithless and Talib Kweli with Ozomatli on two consecutive nights at the Star Live. Ozomatli are supposed to be superb live.

For big nights out Armin Van Buuren is coming to Ba Hao at Chaoyang park on the 30th of September. The Tuesday night experimental electronica also continues at Dos Kolegas which is well worth a trip if you're feeling like something a little more interesting.

Beijing is getting in on the molecular gastronomy game with a relatively new restaurant, the Blue Lobster, which has superb reviews though is very very expensive. Depending on how work and cash flow goes it may be a treat for myself later in the month.

A friend and I have vowed to go to a new restaurant every week. Next week I have been promised by a friend that I will be taken to eat san nak ji (산낙지). (Only click on this link if you're not feeling squeemish - I really really mean it. - no, really!)

ok, that will do, but with many hours ahead I will need a break later...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Slowing down

Things have got marginally calmer though I still have work to do for Monday. I've been sitting in a cafe this afternoon doing some work and reading 'Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid' by Douglas Hofstatder, a wonderful book on mathematics, logic, information, music and art. Well worth a read if you're interested in the deep workings of logical systems but a fascinating read even if this has never grabbed you before.

I mentioned Nav, my couchsurfer in my previous post. It turns out that Nav is a rather fine photographer and he spent a good length of time on Thursday evening showing me the basics of using Photoshop, which I had never truly appreciated the power of. My own photography, in its limited capacity owes a lot to a friend and designer explaining a few simple rules. Nav explained a more extensive list of factors which go into making a fine photo. I can see that almost all of my photos fail on at least one of the six factors he mentioned (often more), meaning that very few of my photos are quite as good as I'd like. This is surely a matter of practice and with these new guidelines I look forward to seeing what I come up with.

Looking back through some of my photos I noticed this one, which I don't think I've posted before. Unfortunately, the close and blurry foreground detracts from the photo but I am pleased with the look in the child's eyes and the gesture. Yesterday I went for a cruise around the hutongs getting a few more local shots which still need to be seen to.
Who me?

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Things have been crazy this week. I had my first sit down meal since Monday this evening. This has been a combination of trying to fit in a lot of work (often till early in the morning) with some socialising.

I went to the airport this morning to pick up my new Couchsurfer, Nav, who's a very friendly Canadian guy making a four month trip back to his hometown in India. Today was his first day of travel and he's got an amazing trip ahead through Qinghai, Tibet and through to India. He's doing a course in neuroscience at York University in Toronto so we've spent the evening talking about string theory, neuroscience, radical atheism and South Park.

Tomorrow I hope that things will calm down for me and then I'll get back to writing something a bit more substantial.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

All nighters

I was up until 4 this morning trying to get some work finished. We're getting there but still things to polish off. The time delay between my collaborators and myself means that there is always some dead time when one person has finished something and is waiting for a response. In fact I'm in this non-overlap time now while I wait for the others to wake up before I can give them my results from last night.

I took the dead time yesterday evening to go and see the Kabuki performance at the Poly theatre in Beijing given by the famous Chikamatsu-za group. I've gone on about this before on the two previous occasions (here and here) I've seen Kabuki in Tokyo but if you have any interest in the arts at all and in particular of the exotic Eastern variety then you have to go and see this amazing spectacle. It's truly a beautiful thing to watch, and though I didn't understand a word of it bar the Chinese surtitles I could make out I was mesmerised for two and a half hours. In fact so much so that I'm going back today - I'm not expecting to see much Kabuki in Spain!

Anyway, with a very late night to the tune of Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Bernhardt I got some good work done yesterday as I glugged my strongly brewed tea into the early hours of the morning.

OK, back to it...


In addition: Anyone else who was at the Kabuki, did the audience get up and leave before the show was over? I believe there was another act to see! I will see tonight, I hope.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Language in a new light

Working, can't stop, a post from a couple of days back:

About a month ago I finished the 90 half hour lesson series of Pimsleur's Mandarin Chinese. It is without a doubt the most valuable language resource I've found and makes learning Chinese much much easier than anything else I've tried. It's uses interval repetition, such that you will hear a word first slowly and it will be repeated several times over the first minute. Then you may not hear it for a five minutes, and then 20 and then there will be a gap of a few lessons until it will pop up again in context. This format seems to work extremely well. The other technique which is used is that you are prompted to say words and phrases, not with an exact queue but with a hint of the sort of response you should give.

You won't learn a huge amount of vocabulary (just 400 or so words in the 45 hours) but you will learn them well and be able to get the pronunciation and tones accurate by the end of this. This is no small feat in my book.

Anyway, highly recommended - I just wish there were a further 90 lessons with another 400 words.


On the subject of languages I had a small, retrospectively obvious epiphany this weekend as I was getting on with learning Spanish. I've spoken in the past about my struggle with Russian and it's only just clicked why this was.

I didn't enjoy learning Russian because I didn't have any motivation.

This has only occurred to me a decade after I scraped a C grade at GCSE. I had always claimed that the language, even after 5 years of learning it, simply never clicked. I only realised yesterday quite what why this was.

Around a year and a half ago I wrote a rant of a post about the fact that some schools in England were going to make pupils learn Chinese. I thought that this would simply be a waste of the kid's time and effort for the great majority who would never use it (unless China has its way in another two decades). This thought was largely because I was struggling with the language at the time and had struggled at school with Russian (having been forced to learn it) and achieved only passable French. I now see the reason for these outcomes in a clearer light.

When I arrived here and started learning Chinese it was hard work. It's hard for just about everyone (Japanese and Koreans seem to have a slightly easier time of it). When I arrived in Beijing I had around 100 Chinese words to my name and could actually get by most of the time, I could go into a shop and get what I wanted, if I had a dictionary. I could get around in a taxi and if anything tough came up I could usually blag my way through with a stranger's assistance or by phoning a friend. Frankly I didn't need any more Chinese than that and so my motivation was low. I also didn't like the language very much. The Beijing dialect can sound like a man coughing up a rusty bicycle chain and the women don't sound much better.

OK, so a year and a half on from that I know perhaps a little over a thousand words, at a guess. I can have a basic conversation with most strangers and have spent on occasion a few hours with Chinese people speaking nothing but. My Chinese is still really, really bad but I actually love to use it. Having got used to it I actually rather like the sounds (sometimes, the radio shows and real locals still grate my eardrums when I'm not in the mood). And suddenly there's the motivation: the motivation is because I can see that my life is improved by learning the language, being able to communicate with people and I like listening to it.

The part about it making my life better is something that I NEVER KNEW AT SCHOOL! I knew that if I learnt French then I could go to France on a French exchange and speak with my host family, but why would I want to do that? I could go to France with my family and there were plenty of people in England I still had to meet. From a cultural point of view I didn't see that I was going to be gaining much (this isn't something I contemplated but I can see now that it didn't register at all). The motivation for learning Russian, so we were told, was that Russia was soon going to be taking off as a genuine superpower and we would be set for life if we could do business in the language - what sort of motivation is that for a 10 year old? I learnt to read Hebrew so that I could duplicate the sounds from the Torah. Something which I soon became bored with and gave up on. So, it seems that my past experience at learning foreign languages was marred by the fact that I didn't see a good reason why I should make the effort.

I got myself into a bit of an awkward position with my arguments about English kids learning Chinese at the beginning of my stay here because on the one hand I had spoken about how much I enjoyed the nature of language and reading great literature and on the other hand was saying that I really didn't want to bother with the hassle when I could do perfectly well without. I think that the point is, I think it's difficult to grasp how much joy can be gained from reading great works in another language or talking with the locals on an even footing until you've done so. The fact is that it opens up such a new dimension to your life. I don't claim to be able to read literature in Chinese, nor even the local papers but I can get a sense from having spoken with people about the depths of great Chinese works that it would be wonderful to be able to read them.

I've just started learning Spanish while keeping up with the Chinese and I so look forward to the day that I can sit in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela and talk with those around me naturally. I'm smiling now thinking of the first time I will be able to open up a Marquez and read the words in their untouched form.

By all this I don't mean that suddenly language is easy or that I will pick up Spanish in just a few weeks but now I actually want to learn it, not just because I think I should, or I'm told to, but because I'm excited about the prospects of it.

This minor epiphany begs the question: could I have been shown this earlier? Could someone have given me good reasons for learning Russian and French and Hebrew and allowed me to explore the enjoyable parts of learning a language (speaking with the people and reading the literature) to a greater extent. Twice I went to France on French exchanges and enjoyed both occasions, but it rather felt that this was a treat so that I would keep learning the grammar and the vocab lists, rather than the whole reason for learning the language.

Perhaps we just need more enthusiastic teachers but with teachers of all calibers running rather low, at least in the UK, there's little room for such requests I presume.

Anyway, some random thoughts after almost 2 years in a foreign land.