Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I spent five days in a predominantly rainy Lijiang, in Yunnan province, just before coming to Spain. It was perfect for sitting in cafes and reading, although this did mean that I didn't get to see Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is supposed to be spectacular. There was a single day when it was mostly clear and I took the chance to get as many photos as possible. I'm still not happy to take photos of people without asking their permission and this often gives rather unnatural effects, but sometimes it works out pretty well. I would always try and chat with the people first. They would generally be very happy when they found I could speak a little Chinese and this usually lead to a reasonably high percentage of people willing to let me take their photo. I chatting with this guy who was chopping wood outside his house. He had a wonderful smile and seemed incredibly happy to talk with me. He invited me in for dinner but unfortunately I was already meeting some other people and had to decline. He did however pose for a couple of photos and this was one of my favourites of the time I was away. (taken using the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II):

Culture Shock

I arrived in China, two years ago, knowing that my new life was going to hold things which I had never previously imagined. Time does funny things to memory and of course I've left things out of the blog which it didn't feel right to talk about, but I don't remember having any sort of culture shock as I settled into life in a city of 14 million, in a country of 1.3 billion, with cultures, and social practices I had never come across.

Inevitably as I settle into life in Santiago de Compostela I will have to draw comparisons with my past two years, some of which will be good, and some of which will not. Exactly the same thing happened in Beijing.

I arrived here on Saturday and had the weekend to myself to explore and get to know my surroundings. On Sunday as I walked around in the afternoon and evening, having spent the morning getting down to some Spanish grammar in a cafe, I started to feel the closest I've come to culture shock on my travels.

Santiago de Compostela (which I shall from here on call SDC) is a city of 90,000 and the main city areas can be walked across in around half an hour. The centre is made up of an old town, with windy streets, built around the Cathedral, and a new area, with shops, cafes and flats traversing the sides of the hills upon which the city is built.

My feelings of shock are rather hard to explain and have gone away ever since I arrived in the office on Monday morning, met the group and have since learned much about life here.

Sunday it turns out is a bit of a strange day in SDC. Shops are of course all shut, people are it seems mostly with their families, and those who are not (predominantly men) are filling the bars to bursting point, watching the football.

I certainly didn't want to spend my second day sat in the residence reading so I walked around the area, not particularly wanting to join the football fans (I regularly shocked people in China by explaining how I was an Englishman who genuinely had no interest in football). So, I just wondered, rather aimlessly, covering the same ground again and again, feeling rather a lot like I was rattling around in a cage, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

By 7 I wanted a bite to eat and so started trying to find a suitable cafe or restaurant to indulge, but none seemed to be serving. I went into one where the woman (one of the few people in the city who has admitted to speaking English) called me sweetheart for being so naive and told me to come back later.

So, I continued to walk around the same area, getting more and more hungry, until eventually restaurants started opening their doors and I dived in to get some food in me (I'd missed the fact that the clocks went back and so had last eaten some 9 hours previously).

Anyway, the lesson it seems is that on Sunday this city is dead, and my tour was not illustrative of the place in general. My worry as I walked around was that I was going to spend 3 years in a place with nothing going on except football and a cathedral, but I have since learnt that this is far from the truth.

All of November sees the SDC film festival in a variety of cinemas around the city, the modern art scene seems to be flourishing, as does the music (both classical and contemporary) and the guests who come to visit are impressively varied (this goes both for the town itself and the department - David Berenstein will be out here shortly, among a list of people I look forward to meeting).

Yesterday evening saw a talk given in the museum of modern art by Peter Lax, recent winner of the Abel prize in mathematics. He spoke for an hour on the life of John Von Neumann, a fascinating and important character in many areas of mathematics, physics and engineering. I would rather have liked to hear something about Professor Lax himself, but hearing his stories of Von Neumann was interesting too. In a week or so we will have John Nash coming to give a talk which I'm extremely excited about and will try and report on that in detail.

Anyway, along with slightly claustrophobic feelings over the weekend which have now gone away, the language issue turns out to be rather stranger than I had expected. As I arrived in China I was entirely cut off from any Chinese conversation. Here however I can understand what people are talking about perhaps half the time (though I miss most of the details), yet can't say anything back. This feeling of vocal paralysis is extremely frustrating for the time being, but I imagine it's something I will get used to in the time before I can actually interact properly.

And finally, tomorrow is officially a holiday for all of Spain so I shall be looking out for an appropriate cafe to sit and get on with some work, now that administrative duties are quieting down.


Photos from Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou are slowly coming online. (Apologies for the first two which those who don't like strange foods may not enjoy). At some point I'll pick a few to post up here.

Inside out

Thanks to Bee at Backreaction comes this fantastic video illustrating how a sphere can be turned inside out. It's around 20 minutes long and you're not actually going to learn much solid mathematics, but the process is very very well explained and the animation is excellent.

Santiago snaps

A couple of quick photos from my first day in Santiago. Things are pretty busy now, sorting out all the administration and getting back into work. It's now a little past 1 in the morning and I have another packed day tomorrow. Sunday's writeup will have to wait I'm afraid.

For now, this is a view from my current flat (until Sunday):
And the Cathedral which is the hub of the city:


I haven't posted a video for a while, but this one has rather startled me. I had a room mate while I was staying in Jiuzhaigou in the form of a large myriapod:

Jiuzhaigou myriapod
(Larger versions available)
It seemed friendly and never bothered me so I let it move about. I'm scared of few animals, but I really don't like the way centipedes and millipedes move, somehow it just creeps me out. In fact this one was ok, but the huge one I saw in the Australian outback still haunts me.

Anyway, I was taking a look around to find out more about the beast above and came across some information about the Amazonian Giant Centipede which can grow to over 30cm. This video from Youtube is pretty graphic and shows what such an animal can do to a small mammal. It's startling to say the least, and frankly gives me the creeps.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Santiago de Compostela, day 1

It's a little after midnight on my first day in the office, having spent the afternoon looking for flats and having just come back from dinner at the house of a couple of students. Eating at 11 in the evening is something which I will have to get used to having spent the last two years regularly finishing dinner by 6!

I wrote the following on Saturday, the day I flew here, but have not had internet access until now.


I flew into Santiago de Compostela today with stories of rain and gloom and was greeted not only with stunning blue skies and temperatures around 20 degrees but also with simply one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. I spent the day walking round the old windy streets up and down the narrow alleyed hills, buying replacements for all the things I had to leave behind and throw away because of Ryan airs pitiful baggage allowance (total of 25 kilos for carry on plus stowed. My laptop and camera probably approach 10 kilos alone).

I had been told by Spaniards that this city was lovely and I was going to like it a lot, but I wasn't prepared for quite how stunning it is. It reminds me of Florence, of the back roads of Montmatre in Paris, and of small Tuscan villages. I sat having a lunch of chorizo and good bread - I've missed good bread so much in Beijing, though the wealth of other wonders never made me crave for it - in the Cathedral square as the sun moved around to illuminate the front of the wonderfully ornate building which Santiago is famed for. People having just completed El Camino - 'the way' - on foot or by bike made for a constant stream of tired but happy pilgrims.

Trying to find information on Santiago on the web is rather difficult because almost everything focuses around the Pilgrim trail and the Cathedral, so in my time here I hope to find out what else the city of 90,000 has to offer. Stunning countryside (excellent for hiking and cycling) is one thing which made itself abundantly obvious as the plane descended this morning.

After lunch I made my way to a small cafe, ordered an excellent coffee and started writing the extensive list of things to buy. I've yet to get a flat so I'm staying in the residence on campus until I have my own place, but there's still much to get in the meantime.

It being Saturday, only half the shops are open and I'm promised that all of them will be closed tomorrow - the man in the computer shop rolled his eyes, made the sign of the cross and tutted - clearly not one of the large percentage of the population who are still practicing Catholic.

The small restaurants stuck in the back alleys around the cathedral square decorate their windows with displays of some of the most impressive seafood I've ever seen and, though I thought I'd never say this, I think that Galicia may just give Japan a run for its money on the fish front! (Having now tried the octopus I can safely say that this is the best I've ever eaten).

One other thing which has greatly surprised me has been the scarcity of people who speak English. This isn't just the older people in the shops, but the administrative staff in the reception for my residence and even the students - I've been attempting to connect to the wifi and have asked half a dozen students, all of whom tell me they don't speak English. I think that having spent time in a scientific institute in China I have been somewhat spoiled for ease of getting around. It was compulsory for all of the students at the ITP to obtain a reasonably high standard of English to get into the PhD program and so all of them could hold at least a basic conversation, most of them a lot more. Here I have simply been greeted with 'no' from all those I've asked on campus if they could speak English. It seems that Spanish is going to be even more vital to learn than Chinese was. Thankfully it should also be somewhat easier!


There's a follow up post from Sunday but that will have to follow at some point tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Quick update

I'm back safely in the UK, which having not been here for 15 months is rather strange. I'm staying here for a couple of days before heading on to Santiago de Compostela.

The last couple of days in Beijing were filled with paperwork needed to be completed before I could officially leave. Boxes had to be ticked left, right and centre in order to prove that I was up to date with bills, canteen payments, doctors, finance offices, keys, internet, books, office space and more but in the end , after much running around (literally) all appropriate duplicates were filed and after a final dinner with my boss and his students I had my final night in Beijing.

Packing was somewhat panicked as I realised that my bags were well over weight and had to throw out or, in most cases give away, a large percentage of my belongings. So, two pairs of oldish shoes, all my novels, toiletries, stationary and various weighty pieces of winter clothing have to be repurchased at some point. There was a nervous moment when I was told my carry on was too large and would have to thow much of that out too, but some gentle pleading pursuaded those concerned that the extra couple of centimeters were allowable.

I'm now in an even tighter position as I find that although my flight with Ryan air to Spain is very cheap, I'm only allowed a total of 15kg stowed luggage and one bag weighing 10kg carry on luggage (I took around 28kg carry on and 20kg or so carry on back from Beijing). Seeing as I'm going to be living in this, probably until Christmas, this is really not a lot, given that the computer and the camera plus a pair of shoes (I wear something akin to canoes on my feet) probably take up a fair percentage of that weight!

Today I've spent in London getting various bits and pieces done and popping into the Tate Modern to see the Louise Borgeois exhibition, which is very interesting (the earthquake crack in the main turbine room does little for me). As I walked around I was struck by many things, probably the largest being the racial diversity which is in general not visible in most parts of Beijing (there are exceptions). This included the number of foreign languages I heard on the trains, in the cafes and on the street. I was pleased to be able to chat briefly in Chinese as I heard the waitress in a cafe talking on the intercom in Mandarin.

People, expats especially, complain bitterly about how crowded the trains are in Beijing but I was rather taken aback that the London underground is far worse. Taking a train back to Wimbledon (where I'm staying with some friends, my parents currently being out of town) I was forced to see four trains go by without being able to get on them. Football fans in the front two carriages of one of the trains singing and shaking the car didn't do much for my feelings of patriotism either.

Still, cups of tea and baked potatoes have bought back feelings of homeliness and yesterday's wonderful blue skies over London have made it lovely to come back home, if only for a couple of days.

Much to get done in the meantime so best be off for now...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Beijing and beyond

I'm back from my travels about Southern China, feeling refreshed and raring to get back into work. There are a few things which come first though, including crossing continents. As I came back to this polluted, crowded, noisy place which I have called home for the last two years and will be calling home for another 36 hours or so, from the idylls of the South I had some time to reflect on the last two weeks and the last two years. Two years ago I could never imagine that it would be this difficult to say goodbye to China, but getting on the plane is not going to be easy. Nevertheless I am hugely looking forward to the new start in Spain which I'm sure has many things in store for me, both academically and culturally.

Anyway, there are a dozen blog posts buzzing round in my head at the moment since the last ten days traveling but as it's almost 1 am and I have my last day in the office tomorrow, these will have to wait. There's a lot to write in particular about Jiuzhaigou and I have at some point in the future to go through the 500 photos I took there but for now I shall just post one to show why this place is famed for being paradise on Earth:
Jiuzhaigou panorama 1
Click for larger versions. Many more to come when time allows.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I've spent the last few days in a frequently rainy Lijiang, in Yunnan province, home to the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, which has been rained off most of the time I've been here.

Despite the Disneyesque feel, the overwhelming crowds and the constant drizzle, this classical Chinese town with it's many minority influences (Naxi minority in particular) has proved to be a lovely place to spend a few days. I've been wandering around most of the time snapping happy with the nifty fifty (my new fast lens), and getting some fun shots of the local residence who beam as I chat with them in broken Mandarin (in fact some of the locals don't speak Mandarin at all, but one of the many minority dialects which I nod along to with a bemused smile).

I've been staying in a wonderfully calm, wooden guest house for a grand total of around 2 pounds a night, warming myself around their little coal burner and reading in the covered courtyard. I'll attempt to track down a website for this place (Panba guesthouse) as it's well worth a stay, being situated in the old town but far enough away from the crowds to feel very peaceful.

Tonight I head to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, not particularly out of choice but simply because I need to head here before taking my flight tomorrow night back to Beijing, as my trip draws to a close.

Some point when I'm not sitting in a freezing cafe with wet clothes I will update the blog with posts about Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu, take II. For now I will head out and try and track down something interesting to have for lunch (grubs are frequently on the menu, though the local cuisine is not a terribly inspiring one).

Greetings to those who are warmer and drier, but possibly not as relaxed as I currently am.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I'm currently writing in an internet bar in Jiuzhaigou, in Northern Sichuan province, where I've spent the last 3 days. It's a truly spectacular area but I'll get onto that later. (Update - I wrote this a few days ago and am now in Chengdu, about to fly to Lijiang in Yunnan. Blogging has been difficult.)

On Sunday I flew into Chengdu for the start of my journey after a rather tired 5am start. I'd heard good reports about the laid-back lifestyle in Chengdu and so was looking forward to relaxing after a hectic few months in Beijing. As I took the bus from the airport I was a rather disappointed. Despire the addition of more greenery Chengdu seemed to be constructed of the same concrete blocks, cars and crowds that I see everyday in Beijing, accompanied by the same grey sky and smell of pollution. Getting off the bus I wasn't entirely sure where I was in the city though I knew that I needed to get to Renmin park, nearby which my couchsurfing host lived. I was wearing a heavy backpack (mostly books and camera kit) but was happy to wonder round the area till I found someone who could tell me where I should be heading. The sounds of Sichuan hua (the local dialect) drifted over me reminding me of how I felt in Beijing two years ago. There are in fact enough similarities to regular mandarin that I could pick up a little of the local goings on.

I asked a young couple at a traffic lights if they knew where the park was and they told me that they were heading that way and could walk me there. I'm now no longer convinced that they actually were heading that way as I've learnt how friendly the Sichuanese are. It was a 15 minute walk in which time we chatted casually, pushing the limits of my Chinese. I was given their numbers and told that any time I needed any help I could give them a ring. They dropped me off at the park and I quickly found myself a little noodle shop where I shed my many bags and got myself a fine bowl of beef noodles. I ate slowly, taking in the looks of those around me staring at the strange sweaty laowai with the big nose and the big book on China, which I was casually consulting. I sent a text to my couchsurfer to see if it was good to head to his place to dump my things but got no immediate reply.

I made my way into the park to take a wonder around and quickly found myself sat at the oldest teahouse in the city, an outdoor but covered area where people were sitting, playing cards, reading the paper, having arguments, massages and their ears cleaned out, all while drinking tea which was constantly refilled by the house fuwuyuan. I got myself some bitter green tea and sat to wait for the text and watch the locals. Soon a couple of women passed by, one with a camera similar to my own which I took a glance at. She came over and introduced herself saying that she was a photography student and had studied for several months in Bolton. I invited the two to sit down and we spent the next few hours chatting about photography, the local area, travels in China and teahouses in Bolton (her major interest was photographing people in tea houses around the world).

With no reply to the text I tried phoning my host but was greeted with a message saying that the phone was no longer in operation. This left me with no way of contacting him and nowhere to stay, so I asked for some advice from those around me and was directed to a relatively cheap hotel a few minutes walk away.

By this time I felt homeless, yet completely at home, the friendliness of the locals and the completely relaxed atmosphere masking the concrete jungle that it was all set in. Finding the hotel I booked myself in, settled my bags and went out for a walk around the area. Finding a night market I marvelled at the chillis and cuts of meat and got myself a bag of zhi er gen (stinking fish grass) and some local snacks for later. A nearby restaurant saw my first taste of genuine sichuan mapo dofu which was excedingly numbing (packed with Sichuan pepper) but very tasty.

Sated and happy I headed back to the hotel and got a reasonable night's sleep, despite the muzak piped in the corridor directly outside my room.

Early the next morning I was off again and took the plane the forty minutes to Jiuzhaigou, with no plans other than to see the sights which I'd read and heard much about and knew were not too many hours from the airport. As we descended, the tops of the mountains poked through the cloud line and the scenerey slowly opened itself to our view. This looked to be a spectacular place and I haven't been disappointed. I found a local bus which would first take me to huanglong, another scenic destination with calcified pools set in a large valley patched with wooded areas. The 2 hour bus ride to the site was spectacular as we wound our way up the mountain rodes and it was wonderful to finally be breathing some unpolluted air, the first since January where I spent a week ill at a conference set at a ski resort in Korea. The only problem with this pure air was there wasn't enough of the damn stuff. At over 10000 feet the air was thin and trekking up to the valley I found myself struggling to catch my breath. The elderly carried around portable oxygen cannisters which they would regularly puff from as I wheezed and ached.


I'll post photos of Huanglong and of my next few spectacular days trekking the Jiuzhaigou valley when they are organised back home. I'll also continue with tales of spending days without meeting another English speaker, eating brain hotpot, having my ears cleaned out and more when I get a chance. It's been a wonderful trip so far and the last few days spent in Chengdu has entirely made me forget that I'm in another Chinese concrete jungle....


I've been continuing, when possible to add blog posts of note from other blogs into the tab in the top left of this one, of which there have been many. In particular, go and vote for Shelley at Retrospectacle for the student blogging scholarship. Shelley and I started blogging at about the same time and she is one of the most diverse, entertaining and informative bloggers on Scienceblogs - well worth both a read and a vote.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Quick update

Just a quick post to say that all is well, though I haven't had a chance to blog while away. I've spent 3 amazing days in Jiuzhaigou trekking through the valleys(google it to see pictures, though mine will follow when I've sorted through the many hundreds) and I'm now in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and without a doubt the most relaxed city I've ever been in. Spent lots of time sitting in tea houses watching people go by and catching up with reading which has not been happening in the last few months of busy work. I'll be here for another few days and then go to Lijiang in Yunnan province for some more trekking and some more relaxing before getting back to Beijing.

Most likely there won't be much serious blogging for a few days.

Hope all are well in the real world.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Carolyn Porco on the Cassini mission to Saturn

Another fantastic talk from the TED conference. This is from Carolyn Porco on the results from the Cassini mission to Saturn which bought us the incredible photos from Titan and continue to give us new insights into the other major moons. Well worth a watch to see an inspirational speaker talking about where we are at the frontiers of space travel. In some ways incredible, in others rather depressing given where we were 50 years ago.

I've linked to it before but Burt Rutan has many interesting thoughts on the history and future of space travel.

Thanks to Toomanytribbles.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More linguistic frustrations

I was rather hoping to be both learning about and simultaneously blogging about string cosmology this month as the KITPC program started up (and continues for the next two months). Sadly, because I was the only non-Chinese speaker for the first two weeks of the conference, all of the lectures introducing the subjects were held in Chinese. I gave up after just a couple of days.

Tom Banks came out for the third week and gave some excellent lectures on holography and De Sitter space, a subject which I've been reading up on since. From now on all of the lectures should be in English, but I will not be here to report on them (leaving on Sunday to Chengdu). There are many things I will miss about China but the lack of input from talks in English is one thing I'm really looking forward to getting back to. As I speak with my collaborators who have been racing around Europe all summer to conferences I see that there is still some considerable way to go in the true integration of West and East on a scientific basis. Things are at least steadily improving and the KITPC is a good step in the right direction.

Video lectures from Berkeley

UC Berkeley has just started putting video lectures up on Youtube. It's a great start but there's a long way to go in making education truly open source.

Scitalks continues to add more to their database and the new version of the site is very much in the making.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New horizons

Work is winding down as I finish off some odds and ends (all nonetheless important) and I try and work out how much I am going to be ripped off by as I send my books to Spain by ship. Packing up of the flat is currently consisting of friends coming round to relieve me of the piles of DVDs and books which I won't be taking with me. Somehow I need to find an extra zero in the British Airways baggage allowance.

I head off on Sunday to Couchsurf in Chengdu and then go straight to Jiuzhaigou to hike for a few days. I've just bought myself a prime lens (Canon 50mm f/1.8 II) to get me some fine pictures in the dawn and dusk, along with a relatively cheap tripod (I've no large telephoto lens to worry about stabilising) and a remote control.
Midi festival cameraman
(Taken at the 2007 Midi festival, Beijing)

(Trivia - Kubrick's Barry Lyndon uses a NASA built f/0.7 lens for the candlelit scenes - perhaps the largest aperture lens used in film history.)