23 May - 1 June 2019
random trip report
The startup company that's funding me now (led by Peter and Jason) invited me to visit them in Beijing, travel with them to Guiyang to attend a trade show, and then do some rock climbing. Sounds like fun (and I'm certainly not in a position to decline).
Getting my visa is the usual ordeal, waiting for hours at the Chinese consulate in SF. Note to self: next time use an agent for this.
I get up early, walk to BART, and go to SFO. I'm flying business class. The seat is like a tiny hotel room - fully-flat reclining, shelves, and no contact with anyone. The food is good. It's nice. I watch "The Grand Budapest Hotel", listen to Bach organ music on my new noise-cancelling headphones, and read most of "The Three Body Problem" by Liu Cixin, which Jason gave me.
I arrive Beijing 2:30. It's hot. After the usual passport-control wait, I exit, scanning the crowd for a limo driver with a "David Anderson" sign. There is none. Slight panic sets in. I walk around, imagining various scenarios. But after 20 min such a sign appears. A car takes me to the "Grand Millenium" Hotel, which is quite nice.
By now it's around 5:30. I go in search of dinner, looking for street food on the advice of Ellen. The closest I can find is the basement food court in the shopping mall next door. I skip the Burger King and Subway. There are a bunch of places with Chinese-only menus. I get some generic Chinese food by pointing and gesticulating. There's an even more funky and street-like food court in the mall on the next block over, BTW.
After dinner I try to read email. UC switched to gmail a while back, and China blocks Google! I do a little research (difficult without Google) and download a commercial VPN product. This works, but just barely - it takes anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes to connect, and doesn't stay connected for long.
Aside: we've all had dreams where everything is unfamiliar and strange, and where your goals, and the reason for you being there at all, are unclear. You don't feel threatened, but you feel a certain unease. That's what this trip is like for me (although the people involved are uniformly welcoming and wonderful).
Peter meets me in the lobby, and we get something at a nearby Starbucks. Jason apparently has overslept. We get an Uber (the Chinese version, DD) to the airport.
Jason arrives. We fly to Guiyang, a city of 5 million, to attend a trade show called "Big Data Expo", where I'm giving a short talk. The trade show is a gigantic deal. There are posters and billboards everywhere. Government offices and schools in city are shut down for the week of the show.
At the airport, we're met by two uniformed young women, Cici and Ms. Chen (hereafter "the girls"), who are working for the trade show, as volunteers, to help and translate for me. There's also a car and driver who seem to be at our beck and call. It's not clear to me why we're getting these services, and who paid for what. Jason explains later that they're supplied by the local government, and it's because I'm a speaker at the trade show. This makes me a bit uncomfortable, since my connection to the trade show is tenuous at best.
Guiyang - which apparently is the data center capital of China - is in an area of karst: limestone formations whose erosion creates an egg-crate like pattern of steep rounded hills and depressions. This is similar to the part of Puerto Rico where Arecibo is, and in fact the new FAST radio telescope is located not far from Guiyang. The climate is warm and wet, and the hills are covered with dense jungle-like mixed forest. Cici tells me that there are wild monkeys and pandas.
The city is built in the depressions - not just one, but a dozen separate areas, connected by tunnels drilled through the hills. The settlement is 3-dimensional: streets at ground level, elevated roads 50' above that, sometimes long bridges another 100' up. The new construction is all 30-40 story apartment buildings. It rains a lot of the time. It's surreal in a Bladerunner-ish sort of way.
I'm at the "Empark Grand" hotel. There's a metal detector at the entrance because of the trade show, and a large table in the lobby, staffed by more volunteers. My room is on the 37th floor out of 50 or so.
Peter got a SIM card for my phone, but for whatever reason it doesn't work. The means that my phone can communicate only over WiFi. The hotel has WiFi. But access to it requires being able to receive a text message on your phone. A Catch-22, no?
By using Cici's phone I'm able to get WiFi working on my laptop. Now, you'd think that WeChat has a web interface. It does, but to log into it you need to scan a QR code on the phone associated with your account. This is doubly impossible - even if my phone were working it would have a different number.
The bottom line: unless you have a working cell phone, you're helpless and cut off from the world. Note to self: figure this out next time you go to China.
The girls meet me in the lobby, and we take a long drive in the official car to meet Peter and Jason (whom Cici refers to as "the boys") for dinner at funky ethnic restaurant (the boys are staying at a different hotel for some reason).
The local specialty is called "sour fish". It consists of a hot pot of vile-looking broth, in which float parts of what was once a fish. You pick these out with chopsticks. Later, other things (noodles, beef, tofu) are added. It's, well, OK.
I get up early and have the hotel's breakfast buffet, which I'd give a B-. The girls meet me at 8 and we take the car to the Expo venue, so that I can attend the opening ceremony.
There are lots of foreign dignitaries and high-ranking PRC officials. Most of the talks are odes to the event itself, and to Big Data, which is touted as the key to solving social problems like poverty and effective goverment. Two of the talks are slightly interesting: a Nobel-winning economist from NYU, and Hellman Diffie. No one mentions the gorilla in the room: Big Data for government surveillance, control, and repression.
The car takes the boys and me to another hotel, where there's an Astronomy forum. This of course is very interesting to me. Michael Graber from Max Planck Bonn talks about relativity and pulsars. A FAST engineer talks about the design and construction of FAST, which is indeed amazing. There's a talk about the Chinese space exploration program, in particular its lander and rover on the far side of the moon. Someone talks about an image of a black hole obtained using interferometry.
The Chinese talks make repeated reference to the Nobel prize: this is clearly a national priority.
After this (which runs to about 4 hours without break) we're whisked to the "industrial Internet summit", which is 12-15 people - captains of Chinese industry - in round table format. People go around the table and give spiels. Jason holds forth for a long time. There seems to be some discussion of BOINC, in Chinese; I answer some questions.
Afterward, a guy with a video camera sits me down, gives me a script in pidgin English to read, and records me. This (to my dismay) gets used in the video intro to tomorrow's session.
In the process of all the driving around, I talk with Cici and get to know her a little. She's a sophomore in the university in her home town, which is a couple hours away. She studies English and wants to be an English professor; her accent and vocabulary are pretty good. She's adventurous and likes nature. She rides a bicycle a lot, in part because she's repeatedly flunked driving tests due to lack of sense of direction.
I'm awakened at 7 by a rapid series of explosions outside. I can't see the source from my window, but there's a big cloud of smoke. Fireworks? Seems odd. I never find out.
My talk is at 2; I figure I'll take the shuttle bus to the venue. I finish "The three body problem", then work a bit on this report.
At 10:30 I head outside to wait for the bus. After ~20 minutes none arrives, and no one else seems to be waiting. I go back in the lobby, where there's a Big Data Expo info table. The woman tells me there is a shuttle, but its timing is uncertain, and it stops out on the street, not at the hotel. So I go out to the bus stop on the street. A stream of city busses goes by; no shuttle. After 30 minutes I give up and go back to the hotel. The situation is increasingly desperate and surreal. I need WeChat to communicate with anyone. I persuade the desk staff to get WiFi working on my phone (this requires sending a text to another phone).
I get hold of Jason, who says he'll have the car pick me up at 1:15. Of course, the girls are there too. I tell Cici that I'm very happy to see her, and she says the same. On route, I describe to Cici my feeling of being in a dream: nothing quite makes sense, everything is unfamiliar. she describes her own recurring dream, and its origin.
We make our way to the meeting room where my talk is. The session is apparently organized by the same PR firm as the event last night, and there are some of the same people. The room is overflowing - maybe 200 people total. There's a fancy intro on the immense video screen at the front of the room, including some footage of me from last night.
I abruptly realize that, except for making some slides, I haven't prepared for my talk at all. (Aside: this general situation is actually sort of a recurring nightmare for me.) Also, my topic has little to do with the rest of the session (industrial computing - running factories and doing supply-chain stuff). So I hastily sketch some notes trying to connect scientific computing to big data and business. In the end, the talk goes OK - the "amplified voice effect" takes over and makes me coherent.
The other speakers (all Chinese) talk extremely fast compared to me. The talks are all kind of interesting. This is the real world, and these are the people pushing it forward. I especially enjoy a talk by Wang Rui from Maxus, a Chinese car company that makes highly customizable cars. You design your car on an app, and they deliver it in about 3 weeks. All automated, of course.
The moderator is great - after each talk, he gives a 15-second synopsis, and he completely nails it each time.
The real-time audio translators are excellent - I don't know how they do it. There's also a projected automated text translation; this is error-filled (with amusing errors like "sexual" and "obscenity") and almost useless.
The session goes on for 3 unbroken hours. I sneak out as they're setting up for a panel discussion. Cici is waiting - I think she napped during it.
The girls and I go to the main exhibition hall, where according to Cici there's a lot of cool demos like a self-driving thingie. But it's just closed (at 5). Also it's starting to rain pretty hard. We find cover under an enormous letter "T" (from BIG DATA) while Ms. Chin tries to locate the car and Jason. Cici, who hates smoking, tells some guys to put out their cigs.
After a long wait the car appears, and we get in. We've lost Jason. We drive around nearby streets for a while, finally locating him (sheltered from the now-torrential rain) very near where we originally were.
Jason and I discuss movies. He tells me about "Before Sunrise" and its sequels; he wants to make (and star in) an analogous but entirely unscripted movie. He tells me a story of a short movie he made for a woman, and I tell him my own story.
We drive some distance to a restaurant. It's a private-room banquet for the speakers from today's session. Everyone has a tiny glass, and there are countless toasts with some kind of fruit wine.
I'm seated next to Wang Rui, who speaks OK English, and we hit it off. He's outdoorsy, skis, and has trekked to Annapurna base camp in Nepal. He started as an aeronautical engineer; we talk about planes. I invite him to ski in CA.
Of course, the group conversation is in Chinese so mostly I sit there and smile. Everyone seems to have a great time.
We hear loud ethnic-type music coming from the next room. I have a premonition of what's about to happen. Sure enough, the musicians and dancers burst into our room, and the foreigner (me) is singled out for attention. Booze is poured from a bowl into my mouth, a cloth hat is put on my head, and I am forced to join the female dancers, whose swaying hips repeatedly bash into me. Jason (who knows my story of the Mongolian musicians years ago) is horrified and tries to call them off, but I don't actually mind.
I meet the girls at 11 in the hotel lobby. Cici has brought me a couple of presents. I give her my copy of "The Three Body Problem", inscribed. We say goodbye.
The official car takes Jason, me, and Ms. Chen to the airport. We say goodbye to Ms. Chen.
Jason gets food; we discuss Bitcoin, religion, and quantum mechanics. Jason advised me a while back to invest in Bitcoin; indeed, it's doubled since then. He intends to put all his money in Bitcoin, as a matter of principle. If it goes to zero, he doesn't care; he can always get a job and make more money. I admire this attitude (actually, I admire everything about Jason).
We get on the plane, but then it's announced that the flight is delayed 3 hours because of traffic in Beijing. The lady in the next seat charmingly explains this to me in English.
We deplane and wait. I work on this report, but my laptop battery is getting low. The airport has plenty of outlets, but they're 2-prong so I can't use them. I kill time by walking around the airport.
Finally the plane boards again. The overhead racks are full so they take our carry-ons. Oddly - and we learn this after surrendering the bags - there's no room in the cargo hold and they'll send them on the next plane.
Sure enough, when we finally reach Beijing our bags are still in Guiyang. This means I have no laptop charger and no sleep aids. My options are shrinking to zero.
We're met by the company car, a fancy Audi driven by Wei Wei, a former special-ops Marine. He was trained for hostage-rescue operations. He can - for example - climb the drainpipe of a 5-story building in 8 seconds, burst in a window, and kill you 7 different ways with bare hands. He's an extremely good driver; very careful (no scratches on the car) but with lots of creative techniques for moving in heavy traffic (e.g. driving on the shoulder now and then). He's also constantly looking for ways to help. I'm very impressed with him.
My new hotel, the Crowne Plaza, is downtown near Tienenman square. It's nice but not deluxe. My laptop charger, toothbrush etc. are in the missing carry-on. I use the remaining battery life to check email, then go for a short walk. It's muggy. For want of anything better I go to a MacDonalds. I'm completely spaced out; it's been a trying day.
I sleep poorly. A noisy family in the next room (connecting) wakes me around 6.
The breakfast buffet is B-. I'm scheduled to meet the boys at 1, and there's nothing to do except be a tourist. I get a map at the front desk and head for the Forbidden City.
After a few blocks I'm accosted in English by a woman (40-ish, short, plain) who offers to help me find the Forbidden City. My Scam Alarm goes off slightly. She (Jenny) says she's an elementary school English teacher and also an artist, and she has a painting hanging in a nearby book store. So I ask to see it. Turns out there's a room full of various sorts of art (including detailed paintings on the inside of bottles) and it's all for sale, and they take credit cards! I decline. Jenny follows me out and suggests we have tea nearby. We do, and it's surprisingly expensive! More scam, no doubt.
Jenny says we should skip the Forbidden City, and instead take the bus to a park on a hill that overlooks it. I agree - I enjoy her company, scam or not. There a tree where an emperor ostensibly hanged himself. Deja vu - I've been here before, though I can't remember when. We walk up the hill; she's startled by the fact that it's no exertion for me.
On the way down, we stop at a tea house in the park itself, which for 100Y serves a flight of 6 teas with various tastes and medicinal properties:
The young woman serving the tea is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Of course, they sell tea - very expensive. I buy some for myself, and some for Jenny - it comes to maybe $100.
We take the bus back to near my hotel. Jenny uses an umbrella because of the sun; hers is broken so I buy her a new one. She asks for my email address and suggests we meet later during my visit - e.g. maybe a bike ride this evening?
I relate all this to Jason later on. He says this is a known scam, and that Jenny probably gets a cut at the two tea places. But he's not completely sure, and the fact that Jenny spoke decent English (and a little Spanish too) casts some doubt.
My guess is that Jenny is poor and leads a drab life (she described her husband in less than flattering terms), and enjoys talking with unusual men and having money spent on her. Either way is fine with me; I certainly had an enjoyable morning. I don't think she was interested in romance or sex; she was dressed in the plainest possible way.
Wei Wei drives me and Peter to the tech-funky headquarters of TMTPost and ChainDD. These are tech media companies; Peter's company is sharing their space. I meet and spend some time talking with the CTO, Robin, to whom I take an immediate liking. Jason appears, and has my carry-on - woo hoo! The boys and I (and another guy, Kevin) have dinner at a meat-intensive Japanese grill place, in a high-end office tower near the CCTV building ("pants legs") which is damn impressive.
After dinner we go to a brewpub kind of place downstairs, where the beer selection includes an IPA. Jason and I discuss our preferences, using the examples at hand. We politely agree to differ. Nearby there are two women - a cute, slightly chubby one in a tight, colorful dress, and a very tall one with an unusual face. Instruments are set up for a rock band playing later; the tall woman (posing for a picture) sits at the drum set and plays a bit, quickly getting shooed off by a waiter.
Later, I become aware that the cute one is making eye contact with me. She comes over and starts talking. She says the tall woman (who doesn't speak English) runs a modeling agency, and thinks I'd make a good model. I tell her the real model is Jason, and I pinch his cheek. We all chat for a bit. The tall woman (Linda) and I compare our heights (close, but I win). She shows me videos of herself dancing in an orchard, and playing piano, and also a photo of her grown son (I'm surprised - she doesn't look old enough). She asks for my WeChat info, which is exchanged with QR code (with Jason's help). Jason looks at me with new-found respect.
The women leave. Peter and I discuss the Bach Chaconne and population control. We agree that the Chaconne tells a long and powerful story - perhaps the story of an entire life.
I'm back in my hotel at 8. Life is good again; I have a charged laptop, WiFi, and a working phone (on loan from Peter). And tomorrow I'll get outside for the first time in a while!
Climbing day. I meet Wei Wei at 9. We pick up the boys, then drive to a small bouldering gym - "All in" - and meet the climbing guide (Ja - no English name). After a yummy brunch at a nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurant, we head north toward the mountains, along the same road that I took to the Great Wall, long ago. We turn west and end up in beautiful mountain ravine with tall rock formations on each side: orange/red rock on one side, light gray granite on the other.
There are disturbing signs that the area is marked for development and exploitation, but for now it's funky and empty.
The five of us (me, the boys, Ja, Wei Wei) shoulder climbing gear and head up the ravine, turning off onto a sketchy approach trail. A mountain spring comes out in a faucet; I have a drink and douse my sweaty head with water.
The right side of the canyon has 40 sport routes, ranging from 5.9 to 5.12. Only one other party - a pair of women - is there.
First we do a 5.9, with a slightly hard lieback at the start. I do it a couple of times. Jason manages to do it, and Peter makes some headway.
Wei Wei doesn't climb - his foot is hurt.
Then we move up the hill to a short 5.10A, which features some crimpy holds and balance-y moves. Ja is challenged by it - he's not a superstar climber. I do it once with a momentary hang, than a second time to remedy this, and later a third time to try a variation which turns out to be easier. Jason makes some headway but hurts his finger and comes down.
Nearby there's a 5.11B that looks doable - it's pretty vertical, but with some little ledges. Ja and I agree that we should try it.
Ja struggles mightily and has to hang quite a bit. There's a lot of cursing and wailing. The climb is slightly beyond his reach, and leading it must be terrifying for him.
Now it's my turn. I'm super excited - this is what I've been waiting for. The start is a couple of power moves. Then it gets a little easier; there are indeed ledges. But the last 20' or so are a bitch. Little tiny finger-abrading handholds, not much for the feet. I use finger power out the wazoo. My fingertips become loci of pain. I hang several times, swinging left and right to try to find better holds. There's some grunting and roaring, but no cursing. Eventually I make it to the top, completely whacked, hands sore and spent, shin slightly bloodied.
Jason realizes he can't climb this, but he wants to get a picture that looks like he is.
Ja rigs a Prussik so that Jason can pull his way up the rope.
This works, though it's not all that much easier than actually climbing the route. But Jason perseveres, with a large amount of groaning and F-bombs. I think he actually makes it to the top. Later on, however, he's disappointed with the photographs taken by Peter, which don't have enough sky and therefore don't convey airiness and exposure of the situation. Jason aspires to climb this route someday. He realizes that a massive increase in finger strength is needed. He plans to get a hangboard for his apartment.
During all this, I've been composing a poem in my head - a poem involving an orchard, a tall princess named Beauty, and music. Jason offers to translate this for me.
We drive back to Beijing and drop off Ja. I covet his T-shirt, which has the "All In" logo on the front and a sort of climbing equation on the back. But they don't have any more.
Jason, Wei Wei and I have dinner at the same small place near the gym, which I extremely like - the food is simple, diverse, and tasty.
The boys and I drive to a suburban high-tech park and have a meeting with a company that made tons of money in Bitcoin mining chips, and is looking for other ideas. There's a lot of animated Chinese conversation with "BOINC" mentioned all the time. To be honest, I'm a little uneasy about the weight that BOINC is being given. Would it really be that hard for a company with a lot of resources to replicate BOINC?
Jason thinks the meeting went well. He hopes that the company will invest in (or acquire) his.
After the usual excessive lunch, Jason and I go to his apartment. On the way, we stop at an electronics store to get an HDMI cable. We set up his new video projector and watch "Dawn Wall", which is pretty damn great and inspiring. Then we go down to the basketball court and shoot around (with a gaggle of kids) for an hour or two. I pick out a kid (maybe 8) and play him one-on-one. He gets a kick out of busting moves on the foreign giant. Jason has some handles and a nice jump shot, but I thump him at Round the World.
Jason lives in one of those 30-story apartment buildings, which is part of a cluster of 8 such buildings; this is called a "section". In the middle of the buildings is a common area: a playground, koi pond, indoor swimming pool, basketball court, exercise area, etc. These are well maintained and well used. By my calculation, there are about 3,000 people per building, or 24,000 total. Jason confirms this; this is a typical section, but there are much larger ones.
Is this way of living better or worse than the various American models? Not sure, but I get a good vibe from this place. Jason (who moved here very recently) likes it a lot.
After breakfast, I kill time in the hotel lobby. Wei Wei picks me up at 13:00 to go to the airport. He gives me an extravagant array of gifts from Jason - tea and food. I take what will fit in my carry-on; unfortunately I know the food won't make it through customs. Wei Wei and I have a long smiling handshake. Even though we can't talk, I feel like we have some kind of bond: a physical intensity wrapped in an outer calm.
The flight back is smooth. I watch "Johnny English", listen to Liszt lieder, and start "The Dark Forest", which Jason gave me yesterday.
Since I was last here 7 years ago, everything is a little bigger and fancier. More western-looking. More luxury cars.
Most people here don't speak any English, but there are English subtitles everywhere - street signs, business names, produce labels, etc. I assume this is an effort to make things more foreigner-friendly.
Of course some of these translations are "Engrish", like a restaurant called "Uncle Beer Sausage Wish", or these:
China is starting to focus more on the environment, and this is evident. The landscape is less ugly, the air seems cleaner. The streets are clean. Water bottles aren't strewn along trails.
China is assuming world leadership in many areas. Because they're developing and urbanizing so fast, they have a chance to do things in smarter and more moderns ways; they're not stuck with centuries of legacy. They're embracing this in what seems like a healthy way: looking for win-win relationships with the West, rather than just trying to dominate it. Or maybe it's all a ruse.