Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween in Happy Valley

A few weeks ago some friends asked if I wanted to go to Happy Valley. Happy Valley? I've been there, albeit back in central Pennsylvania. I inquired: What is this "Happy Valley"?

Happy Valley (Beijing), as it turns out, is a theme park in the southeast of the city. It's similar to Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Florida with the park divided into different areas with different themes. The areas included Atlantis, the Ant Kingdom, the Aegean (Mediterranean), an ancient Maya Civilization, and a race car/speed way area.

Happy Valley had thrill rides. Happy Valley had games you can never win. Happy Valley had people in costume in the different themed areas. And Happy Valley had roller coasters.

Back in the States, when I was in high school, my dad and I would go to a major theme park every summer to try out some of the best roller coasters America had to offer. Six Flags was one of our favorite parks, but we also took a road trip to Cedar Point in Ohio to ride the world's tallest roller coaster (at the time), Millennium Force. Happy Valley's roller coasters weren't the biggest, or best, but they served their purpose and provided me with a much needed adrenaline boost.

Halloween decorations were everywhere in preparation for the coming ghoulish holiday. It was nice to see jack-o-lanterns since the Western holiday is largely ignored outside major tourist spots.

Happy Valley Beijing wasn't as fun as Happy Valley PA -- rides and roller coasters just can't compensate for football games, parties and the college life. But buckling into the seat of a roller coaster and letting the anticipation of the first drop build up brought back great memories of summer trips to some of America's best theme parks.

ATLANTIS DISCOVERED: Who knew that the lost city of Atlantis was actually in the suburbs of Beijing? The roller coast had the same design as the Superman ride at Six Flags theme park in New Jersey

MA MA MAYA: Another themed area of Happy Valley was like ancient South America, with Mayan statues and other native structures

MAYAN PARADE: A few park staff in costume paraded around the Mayan themed area

ANT KINGDOM: The kid area of the theme park was a larger-than-life ant colony. The ant in this photo is doing a traditional Chinese camera pose: two fingers up making the "peace" sign

HAPPY HALLOWEEN: Halloween decorations were all around -- a nice reminder that the holiday was upon us

BIG SPLASH: A visitor to the Aegean sea area is about to get his by a wave from a Poseidon ride, similar to the Sploosh at Knoebel's Grove in Pennsylvania

SAFE ZONE: I also took the opportunity to get a cool photo of the massive wave -- but I stood far enough away to avoid getting wet

Friday, October 22, 2010

The 163 lb White Guy in the Room

Beijing Review flew me and their French foreign expert Guillaum down to Shanghai the other week for a press conference for the DVD release of Days and Nights in Shanghai. Recall from earlier posts (April and July) that I was in Shanghai on business -- this was the reason.

The DVD covers 24 hours in the Chinese city that never sleeps as a promotional tool for Shanghai and Beijing Review's new initiative into multimedia news coverage and projects.

You can watch a trailer of the project HERE. Try using Firefox if your current browser doesn't work.

The press conference went as expected -- the big bosses of China International Publishing Group took turns talking about the project and saying what a wonderful thing it was for Beijing Review. At least I'm assuming that's what they were saying since my Chinese is bu hao (not good), but I did pick up a few "very good" and "Shanghai this" and "Shanghai that" along with "DVD."

One of the producers had asked me the day of the press conference if I had anything to say to the media, since they'd probably ask me a few questions -- this came after she told me the day before that all I had to do was show up wearing a suit and look professional-- so naturally I had nothing to say. So I thought quickly.

I could take the presidential route and throw out an “Ich bin ein Shanghai-er,” following President John F. Kennedy’s jelly-donut remark in Berlin. Or maybe I’d take a comical route with a loud “Goooooood morning Shanghai, China!” No, too cliché. Ah hell, I thought, I'll just wing it, throw in some "I Heart Shanghai" comments and smile for the cameras.

A large, red veiled display was rolled out and uncovered, ushering applause and flashes from numerous cameras. A few people shook hands. And then it was over. Most of the media filtered out of the room in a hurry.

What just happened, I thought to myself. The French foreign expert who had done the French version of the DVD had the same thought.

I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Having foreign employees at predominantly Chinese events to add a touch of diversity to the affairs is fairly common here. But a few companies go to extremes, hiring foreigners off the street to fill is as "temps" to attend corporate functions or pose as employees or business partners. Said foreigners aren’t required to have any background experience in the company’s industry, they just have to show up for the event, shake hands, maybe give out business cards (with their real or stage names) and smile.

It’s like hiring models for a car show or clowns for a kid’s birthday – sans big goofy shoes but requiring nice white faces. It also apparently pays well -- somewhere around $500 with paid airfare per event-- because foreigners are more than willing to take part in the facade for a day and shake hands with businesspeople from around the world. And, I’m not going to lie, I’ve been keeping my ears open for a few opportunities.

But I was glad to be at the press conference with a legitimate employee with a legitimate company in Beijing.

In the end, I got to do a quick one-minute interview with Shanghai’s English International Channel, which you can watch HERE (it's about 10 minutes or so into the program) so at least I got to make a small contribution to promoting the DVD. Maybe if I improve my Chinese to a level where I can say more than “I’m American” or “Are you sure this isn’t dog meat?” they’ll let me give that speech at the next press conference.

SHANGHAI TV: A woman from Shanghai's English channel ICS interviews me about the project

TEAM SHANGHAI: Chen Ran, producer for the project, myself and Guillaum, the French foreign expert, stand in front of the cutout display of the Days and Nights in Shanghai DVD

Photos property of BEIJING REVIEW

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Close to Heaven

My ears popped as the cable car ascended the green mountains around me. Large gorges and rocks jutting out from the mountain were all around. I was traveling with a few Chinese and foreign co-workers, one of whom muttered some random statistic about the probability of us falling to our doom.

Just then, the cable car passed over some low lying trees revealing the scene above: a temple on top of Mount Tai (Taishan) about a mile above sea level and entrance ways called the Gates of Heaven.

Well, if we were all going to die here, at least we’d be pretty close to heaven, I thought.

Taishan, in Shandong Province, is one of China’s sacred mountains. It’s a place of cultural and religious significance – there’s a few temples and worship halls at the peak – and is the best place to catch a great sunrise or sunset and feel spiritually awakened or reborn, so our guide said. We were there midday, so there was no chance of such revitalization for me.

From base to peak it can take up to 10 hours walking (at a leisurely pace) along paths and a 7,000-plus step staircase.

The chairlift took less than 10 minutes, and although lacking the enlightenment – in spirit and altitude change -- I was sure to feel taking the stairs, I was fine with taking pictures of the paths and steps to heaven from the cable car.

The mountain heights had been developed in proper tourist fashion. Large walkways facilitated a mountain of tourists on the mountain’s peak. Even in the off travel season, landmarks like Taishan, which is one of China’s UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites, draw huge crowds.

And like all tourist areas, there were people trying to sell me things I really didn’t need, but wanted nonetheless – who can say no to an ordinary rock with red Chinese characters on it, or stones washed in “sacred water” from the mountains?

A large telecommunications tower loomed next to the Daoist temple, an out of place obstruction from the modern era that detracted from the natural beauty of the ancient mountains. But hey, even Daoist monks need cell phone reception.

Our group ate at a restaurant in a hotel near the mountaintop. Looking out through the window, we could see the clouds below. Our guide told us they were rain clouds and that Tai’an City below would be getting wet, but not us. Naturally, the food and beverage was overpriced, but we figured there was some kind of transportation charge for getting it up the mountain on top of the inflated prices for tourists.

Taishan even has a beer named after it, although the taste was far from heavenly.

Taishan wasn’t nearly as impressive as the mountains I’d seen in Xinjiang on my August adventure, but the air was fresh, the sights beautiful and the trip relaxing. And since I didn’t have to take 7,000 stairs to get there or walk up winding forest paths, I’ll mark this one down as a fun trip in my travelogue.

GROUP PHOTO: Foreign experts along for the trip included Michael Fuksman (American), myself, Patrick O'Dea (New Zealand) and Christian O'Brien (Great Britain)

BARE PEAKS: Patches of rock jut out from the Taishan range

PICTURE PERFECT: A couple looks sits on a path at the peak of Taishan mountain, watching the mountains roll off into the distance

TOURISM IN THE CLOUDS: Taishan, a UNESCO site, is a popular tourist destination. Even in the off tourist season, there was a mountain of people on top of the Taishan

Some photos by Liu Xinlian, Beijing Review

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Walking in Confucius' Footsteps

For the yearly Beijing Review foreign expert trip, the HR department took us to Shandong Province south of Beijing to visit Qufu and Taishan. A guide picked us up at the train station for a three-day tour.

Our first stop was Qufu, the hometown of Chinese philosopher Confucius.

As widely known as Confucius and his teachings are, Qufu was small and quaint. Even with the enormous Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) and the grandiose Confucius Family Mansion and surrounding gardens, not to mention the large crowds of Chinese tourists, the town was quiet and remote, yet chock full of history. The nearby Confucius forest, where the great Chinese sage and his descendants are buried, was solemn with trees standing side by side ancient burial mounds.
But with the exception of a few smaller Chinese-style pavilions, Confucius never got to see any of it – the temple, mansion and monuments were all constructed after he died.

The temple grounds were built in rings, like the rings of a tree, with each ring contributed by a different Chinese emperor. The inner most ring housed a number of important monuments to the philosopher: a pavilion where Confucius had taught some of his students and a tree planted by Confucius himself, so said my guide. The tree leaned against one of the entrance gates to the temple ground center, held up by a long steel cable.

The Confucius family mansion was somewhat simple, not at all like the Forbidden City or other royal grounds I’d seen in Beijing or Shanghai, although Confucius’s descendants were highly regarded and revered by the emperor’s family. The mansion property was large, yet largely empty with only a few artifacts on display. Most of the Kong family (Confucius’s family name) has since relocated to Taiwan, following the end of the Chinese Civil War and defeat of Chinese Nationalist forces in 1949, but the lineage continues, now in its 83rd generation.

The tomb of the great philosopher and generations of the Kong family was located in a forest near the city’s limits. And much like his teachings, it was simple, yet elegant. A large stele displaying words of remembrance stood proudly above his resting place; a prayer mat in front for people to pay their respects. Some of Confucius’s sons were buried nearby. Large stone statues watched over the sacred grounds. Throughout the wooded area were large mounds -- the burial sites of other Confucian descendants. The graves looked like large turtle shells, shaped somewhat like septic tanks yet containing much more valuable remains. The burial mounds ran off into the forest in all directions, for miles and miles.

And the grounds were quiet, much more so than they should have been considering the flux of people who were visiting. It was like someone had pressed the mute button. The only sound was that of birds and blowing branches as I walked on the paths with burial mounds on either side.

Visiting Qufu helped put a face to a name I’d only ever read about in history books. To walk where Confucius had walked and sit where he had sat was truly inspiring. I can only hope some of that age-old wisdom rubbed off on me.

TOMBS OF THE UNKNOWN: The descendants of Confucius are buried in a forest outside of Qufu. Our guide said there were "millions" of descendants

RESTING PLACE: The tomb of Confucius

THE CONFUCIUS TEMPLE: The entrance to the Confucius Temple. The temple was built after the sage died and was visited by China's emperors and royalty

REALLY OLD TREE: Our guide told us this tree was planted by Confucius over 2,000 years ago

FAMOUS FOOTSTEPS: The three white-tiled paths were for the emperor (center path) and his aids/assistants/concubines/etc