Our family's stay in Shanghai, China

Posts tagged ‘Dave’

Yellow Mountain (Mount Huangshan)

I’m not sure if anyone is still following this since our family returned from China (is anyone out there?)  But since Dave continues to travel to China, there are always new things to share.

On my most recent trip in late September, I had planned to visit a potential customer in Taiwan, including a weekend day.  That trip was cancelled but I may write a post in the future.  I have been to Taiwan a few times but always short trips of one or two nights.  Taiwan is a unique part of China with a shared history, but is very different from the mainland and I’d like to share some of it.

With my Taiwan visit cancelled, and everyone off work for China’s mid-Autumn Festival and National Days (which recognizes the founding of the People’s Republic of China), I had 2 days to fill at the end of my trip.  

When I knew that we would live in China, I made a list of places to visit.  We checked off every destination on our family list but I was left with 2 more- down to 1 after my trip to Yellow Mountain, or Mount Huangshan.  Mt. Huangshan, southwest of Shanghai in Anhui Province, is China’s most famous natural site and is a frequent subject of artwork, often shrouded in mist and clouds.  It is the first place that my colleagues recommended we visit, not the Great Wall or other more famous places (to Westerners), and somewhere all of them had been themselves.

With the holidays starting, all trains were booked, leaving me with one choice- take a bus or not go.  Although buses are far and away my least favorite form of transportation- slow and no facilities being my biggest complaints- I’m always up to trying something once.  But give me a train any day.  I headed off for what I expected to be a 6-7 hour bus ride from Shanghai.  But free tolls for the holidays on the Chinese freeways caused some of the worst traffic I have ever seen.  The tolls are prohibitive (taking into account income differences, a 500 mile drive costs the typical family the equivalent of $300 just in tolls). 

The bus ride lasted over 10 hours, simply due to constant stop and go traffic.  I was the only Westerner on the bus, and sat next to a young guy traveling with who appeared to be his wife and mother-in-law.  I never assume that Chinese speak any English and we barely spoke on the trip (and he obviously did not know whether I spoke English, French, German, or some other language).

Due to the late arrival, I skipped other sightseeing I had planned for the afternoon.  I arranged a taxi and left my hotel before 5am the next morning.  Arriving at Mt. Huangshan around 6, I quickly realized that I should have started at least an hour earlier.  It was mobbed and I had difficulty finding where to get a ticket among crowds like you would see at a concert or sporting event.

Suddenly I felt a tap on my arm, it was the same guy I had sat next to on the bus from Shanghai!    He his family all laughed at the coincidence, and I discovered speak decent English.  They immediately helped me find where to get a ticket, then waved me over to join them in line.

Sam and family

On a hair-raising shuttle bus ride (flying around hairpin curves) up to the cable car that would take us partway up the mountain, we chatted, and I learned his “English name” is Sam.  I could not remember or repeat his actual Chinese name.  At the cable car, we parted ways as I got my entrance ticket.  Then I got to wait in line for 2 hours to get on.  How quickly I forget that waiting in line is simply part of life in China, especially at tourist sites, and especially on holidays.

Riding the Yupin cable car up Mt. Huangshan

But the traffic and crowd delays were worth it. A beautiful, sunny autumn day enchanced the gorgeous scenery.  I climbed the highest peak in the park, Lotus Peak, where quite literally I was grabbing the steps in front of me to climb up.  If you are afraid of heights- and I most certainly am- this is not the place to be.  But I overcame my heart pounding terror and climbed to the top for an incredible view of the mountains.

Looking up at the stairs to Lotus Peak- the tallest peak on Mt. Huangshan

notice the narrow walkway on the side of the mountain

Although there were none of the clouds or mist that Mt. Huangshan is famous for, it was still an unbelievable visit.  The thousands of visitors certainly hampered things a bit, but people were extremely friendly as I tried to interpret maps and confusing- or missing- directional signs.  The pictures below simply do not do justice to this place.  The higher peaks make you feel like you are on top of the world, looking out at the surrounding mountains.  In mist and clouds, it must be surreal.

Thousands of people climbing the stairs and paths on Mt. Huangshan; I hiked to the meteorological observatory in the background

The top of Mt. Huangshan felt like the top of the world (click on the photo for a better view of the panoramic)

As if the earlier coincidence was not enough, after a couple hours of hiking, I came up behind a young couple that I recognized as Sam and his family.  “We meet again” I said, and they turned around and of course burst out smiling and laughing.  We hiked together for a while and I think it was one of the better personal connections that I have made in China!

Lotus Peak- look closely to see people standing on top

one of many interesting rock formations

a lonely pine tree on top of a rock formation

Even with the awesome scenery, making personal connections was the theme of this trip. Partway through the day, I saw a young western couple studying a map. We briefly traded thoughts, I took their picture, and again we headed off our separate ways. A half hour later, I found myself hiking behind them. Déjà vu! We ended up spending the next hour or so going down Mount Huangshan together and even shared a taxi back to the city of Tunxi, where they were staying and I had to catch my bus back to Shanghai. Jeff and Laura are both Americans who teach 6th grade at one of the international schools in Shanghai, and were enjoyable to share a small bit of the visit to Mount Huangshan. They had stayed in a hotel on top of the mountain- there are several- which provide the opportunity to see the sunset and sunrise- and that is certainly a reason to return.

back breaking loads carried by porters- the only way to get supplies up the mountain

more peaks and one of the hotels on top of the mountain

Although I only spent about 6 hours hiking on Mount Huangshan, it definitely goes down with the likes of Yellowstone, Mount Blanc and the Alps, and Chimney Rock Park on my list of most exhilarating mountains visited.

Old Street in Tunxi- which had a European feel with shops and outdoor cafes

If you’re wondering about the last entry on my China “must see” places, it is Tibet. But Tibet’s remote western location would require a week to visit and a significantly larger budget, so time will tell if I ever make it there. And if go to Tibet, Nepal and the Himalayas are practically in the neighborhood, so how could I possibly skip the world’s tallest mountain range, a bucket list item if there ever was one. . .


The Best of China: Top 10 and more

Top 10+ Positive Things about living in China

Now that we have returned from China and are settling back into a routine again, this will probably be our final China blog post, unless Dave experiences something notable to share as he continues his periodic travels to China.  Our time in China (and beyond) was filled with amazing experiences, many undoubtedly will be once in a lifetime events.  This is a family list, but David created it so the order is his.  Each of us would certainly have put different things at the top.

16.  Being able to look people in the eye without straining my neck (David’s).  With the average Chinese man standing just 5’5″ (5 inches shorter than the average American man), it was unusual to have to look up at someone.

15.  Australia and New Zealand.  Being closer made the trip possible.  The experiences of koalas, kangaroos, kookaburras, Tasmanian Devils, the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests, fjords, Sydney, Tasmania, historical sites, and endless breathtaking scenery, nature, and clean air made for 2½ of the most amazing weeks of our lives.  If this were a list of favorite destinations, it could easily be #1.

Holding a koala- what an experience!

Dave’s favorite- Milford Sound in New Zealand

14.  Relaxed mornings.  In the US, I (Dave) nearly always leave home with my family still sleeping.  In China, at 830am I am often the first person in the office.  My workday in China usually starts at home around 5am with overnight email from the US, but the later office start time allows for a cup of coffee and seeing my girls before heading to the office.  Although the days are longer, with the last email or conference call not ending until 10pm or later, my daily China schedule is a far more relaxed way to start the day.

13.  River views.  Although we thought about renting an old lane house in Shanghai, we decided that a more unique (for us) experience would be a high-rise apartment building.  We are glad we did, with views of the Huangpu River and the Shanghai skyline, it is likely the only time in our lives that we will live in such a place.

Our living room view in Shanghai

12.  Personal service.  Low labor costs help, from a personal driver to maid service to living in an apartment that would sell for over $1 million, living in China may be challenging at times, but the reality is that as expats we have lived a much higher lifestyle in Shanghai than we are accustomed to.

11.  Deliveries to your door.  Our favorite service is Sherpa’s- less than $3 to bring a hot takeout meal from the restaurant of your choice in under an hour.  Train tickets, bottled water, and anything else you might need are easily arranged.  Couriers and delivery drivers might be the most common occupation in Shanghai with thousands upon thousands of them, all driving little scooters.

10.  Affordable tailored clothes.  Something that we once viewed as high-end and as likely for us to own as a Ferrari, but now we all have at least a couple of tailored items.  Dave started with tailored shirts in Hong Kong.  The price (about the same as what we pay for good quality off-the-rack in the US) was well worth it for higher quality fabric and a perfect fit that both looks and feels great.

9.  Innumerable historic sites.

Yuyuan Pagoda- 1000 years old but little known outside China

The Yuyuan Pagoda (leaning pagoda) at Tiger Hill in Suzhou; a thousand year old structure that should be as famous as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and perhaps will be one day, as China’s tourist sites become more developed.  Buddhist Temple Architecture, beautiful, ornate places with quiet gardens.  Old city neighborhoods with residents living much the same as they have for 100 years.  There are many, many similar examples throughout the country.

The amazing Terra Cotta Army (Emperor Qin’s tomb), one of Jenna’s favorite places in China

the water village of Xitang- one of many around Shanghai

8.  Separated bicycle lanes.  In Chinese cities, like many countries, there are often barriers and even landscaping to protect bicyclists from cars.  The US could learn a lesson: busy streets for cars, separated paved lanes for bikes, and sidewalks for- you guessed it- walking.

7.  Trains.  We’ve ridden the world’s 2 fastest trains: the Maglev in Shanghai (268mph!) and the high speed line between Shanghai and Beijing.  190mph for 5 hours with just 2 stops was a fantastic and scenic journey.  Just as in Europe and Japan, the speed, comfort, and convenience of traveling by train is definitely something that we wish we could do more of in the U.S.

6.  Walking to the neighborhood grocery store and fruit vendors.  While we can walk to many places such as the coffee shop and hardware store in Noblesville, we wish we had a small grocery store on the square.

5.  Walls.

We saved one of the best for last- the incredible Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is the country’s top tourist destination and for good reason.  It is an astounding engineering achievement and was one of our favorite trips.  But in Xi’an, after visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors that were every bit as impressive as expected, we were surprised by the city wall.  The Xi’an city wall is vastly larger and more impressive than the more famous walled cities of Europe.

The massive city wall in Xi’An- visible in satellite images

4.  History.  It is not uncommon to visit somewhere in China and find buildings and historical references dating back 2 or 3 thousand years.  Even Europe cannot compare where history is usually measured in hundreds of years, not thousands, and the historic sites in the US would be considered practically new.  The girls have visited 18 different UNESCO World Heritage Sites- a third of them during their time in China, all historical.

3.  Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Island and the iconic Star Ferry (taken from another Star Ferry)

Dave has traveled around the world and considers Hong Kong among his favorite cities.  We liked it so much that despite our limited time, we managed a second visit, the only place we visited more than once.  Its legacy as a British colony makes it both more Western and more developed, and the skyline and Victoria Harbour are amazing sights, both day and night.  Views from The Peak are arguably the best city views in the world, making for some of the most expensive real estate on earth.

Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong, from The Peak- is there a better city view anywhere on earth?

2.  Pandas.  Gentle, lovable, and highly endangered creatures that live in just 2 provinces in western China.  The efforts of the Giant Panda Research Center are helping to save this species.  The day that we spent there will provide lifelong memories for all of us.

We could almost reach out and touch this lovable giant at the Giant Panda Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan

1.  Cultural immersion.  While vacations and business trips provide great ways to see the world, there is no better way to truly understand a culture than to live in it, which is the main reason we (well- mostly Dave) sought this experience.  Apartment hunting, grocery shopping, interacting with a wide variety of average citizens, finding leisure activities, living everyday life, and the time to casually explore Shanghai has given us- especially the girls- a depth of experience not otherwise possible.  There are many other countries and cities that we would have preferred to live as expats, but we will all benefit from our time in this country that is becoming such a huge influence on the world in the 21st century.

Top 12 Things We Will Not Miss About China

As our time in China ends, we naturally have thought about our time here, what we have liked and what we haven’t.  So we started to list some.  We’ll start with the experiences and challenges that we are looking forward to being done with.  In a few days, we’ll end on a positive note, with a post of what we have been fortunate to experience.

10 wasn’t enough so here are:

The Top 12 Things We Will Not Miss About China

12.  Squat toilets.  And having to bring our own tp to public restrooms.

11.  No air-conditioning.  Although most public buildings are heated and cooled, the systems are unreliable and thermostats are set well beyond what we consider comfortable.  The office that Dave works in is often over 80F in the summer, and public places like trains stations can be miserable with so many people compounding the problem.  Getting accustomed to being sticky and hot is part of working in China.  Winter is better but similarly out of our normal comfort zone.  Indoor temperatures in the low 60s are not unusual.

10.  Unreliable and censored Internet service.  It’s not just Facebook and Youtube that are blocked in China.  We had to purchase a private vpn service to allow Carol Ann to reach some of the sites she uses for her job, even the WordPress blog site that you are reading this on is blocked, and Google maps is often inaccessible.  The Chinese government’s internet censorship is a complex and huge bureaucracy, employing thousands of people.  Sharing a one-line vpn was a hassle.

9.  Lack of manners.  It seems contradictory, but rudeness does not exist in China.  Pushing, shoving, shouting, cutting in front on the sidewalk, in line, or the highway- all are not considered rude here.  They are just how people move about and get what they need to.

8.  Language.  We are very conscious that we are visitors here, but the tonal language is extremely difficult to learn and our vocabulary is minimal, even after several months of Mandarin lessons.  The huge variety of complex written characters adds to the difficulty.  Everyday things like telling the hair stylist how long to cut our hair or asking our driver to make a quick stop at Starbucks or the grocery store are excruciatingly difficult.  Some of Shanghai is bilingual- such as road signs- but that disappears quickly in areas less frequented by Westerners.

7.  Noise.  We obviously can’t have the same expectations in a city of 23 million that we do in our home town of 50,000, but there is never a moment of peace.  From jackhammers and quite literally 24/7 construction sounds to fireworks and firecrackers at any hour of day or night to constantly honking horns, we long for a quiet day.  Not even the parks are quiet places of refuge.

6.  Not seeing stars at night.  The combination of city lights, smog, and hazy skies that are common in most Chinese cities prevents seeing stars at night.  We relished the views during our trip to Australia where the lack of population and clean air provided incredible views of thousands of stars.

5.  Chaotic and dangerous roads.  Cars weave and wind on the road, with lane markers being irrelevant and the daily deadly dance with taxis- they actually do seem to speed up and aim for pedestrians- is an experience we will definitely not miss.  The girls and I often played a “game” where we would guess how many points a driver would get if they hit westerners, American, blonde American, or multiples at the same time.

4.  Smoking.  As Carol Ann likes to say, Americans may be killing ourselves with heart disease and diabetes through our poor diets and lack of exercise, but the Chinese are going to collectively die from lung cancer.  There is a pending health epidemic of massive proportions with the hundreds of millions of smokers.  It is everywhere, and no smoking signs are routinely ignored.  When the country’s largest tobacco company is state-owned, making billions of dollars a year in profits, it’s hard to see the situation changing anytime soon.

3.  Food.  Most Chinese food is different but not unappealing- though there are exceptions (chicken feet is the classic example).  With less meat and more vegetables, it is much healthier than western diets.  But the ability to recognize and know what we are eating is something we will relish back in the US.  We also must constantly be careful to avoid any food that may have been washed with contaminated water.  Especially with Jenna’s nut allergy, traveling is a struggle.  When we do find something familiar, it is usually unhealthy fast food.  We yearn for our first backyard cookout of burgers and hot dogs on the grill with a fresh salad and yummy watermelon.

2.  Pollution and sanitation.  From garbage and sewage in the streets to open air meat markets without refrigeration to luxurious 5-star hotels without clean drinking water to some of the worst air pollution in the world to other less mentionables (trust us when we say you don’t want to know), the sights, smells- and the risk of illness- can be overwhelming.

1.  Freedom.  The Chinese people go about their daily lives on the surface and appear to be like any other country.   Yet, the internet is censored.  They do not control their destiny in careers or family-planning.  They do not vote for their leaders.  And, most importantly they have no freedom to worship God in the way that they choose.  There is nothing more precious than freedom.  China is far more open than in the past, but the single party government still has total control of power.  Even with all of our imperfections, we are incredibly blessed to have the fundamental freedoms bestowed upon us as Americans.

Piracy: China and the U.S.

It is impossible to discuss China without piracy being one of the first topics of conversation, and is something that we have come into contact with many times during our time here.

Piracy is everywhere in China.  “Knockoffs”, “fake goods” and other euphemisms are in everyday conversation.  There are entire markets devoted to these products, often prominently featured in travel books.  In areas frequented by Westerners, you get pestered with “fake watch sir?”, “lady handbag sir?  Cheap!” and similar from the street peddlers.  At least they’re honest that it’s fake. . .  Walking down the Nanjing Road pedestrian mall, you may get asked 10 times in one block!  The going rate is about $50 for a fake Rolex.

I’ll never forget walking through a Shanghai market on my first trip to China several years ago.  At the time, Mission Impossible 3 had been in US theaters for less than a week.  Already pirated DVD’s were being sold in the market- for only a couple of dollars.

I honestly think that many Americans don’t even realize pirated goods are stolen.  Stealing of course will always be wrong, it is a timeless value that technology does not change.  Copying music, videos, and books has become so easy, that it is widespread.  The average person would not steal a CD from a store, yet, they share songs among friends.  I must confess that I have in the past copied music and computer software.  I am not proud of it, it was wrong, and I hope I never do it again intentionally.

I read many comments looking down on China for the lack of intellectual property rights.  And we should, but must also be consistent.  Just because downloading or sharing music without paying for it is cheap or convenient, it is still stealing.  Someone created the music, they own it.  They have every right to charge for the right to use what they worked so hard to create.

Even small things are pirated.  We bought an UNO card game to play in our apartment.  After using it for a while, we noticed there was no copyright or distributor information.  It is undoubtedly pirated.  This is especially ironic since UNO is distributed by a company in Indianapolis that is having financial difficulties, and here we are buying a game that they never got paid for.  The game is now in the trash.

Yahtzee card game on the left we brought from the US- it has distributor name and contact information and copyright; Uno game on the right we bought in China and later noticed it is blank except for the game logos- unmistakable signs of a forgery.

We have a DVD player in our apartment that cannot play our US DVD’s (a protection against copying).  So I asked the guys I work with, where can I buy legal DVD’s in China?  They couldn’t help me!   Piracy is so rampant in China that legal copies don’t exist.  Talk about making it hard to be honest!

For the most part, Chinese do not see piracy for what it is, it doesn’t even occur to them.  They do not view the ownership of intellectual property to be the creator of the material.  Copying and selling is viewed positively as entrepreneurial, and to be admired.  While I normally respect the cultural differences, this is one area that there simply is no gray area.  Just as what we call corruption or bribes is viewed as a sincere gift in some cultures (like we would take a customer to dinner), piracy is also viewed as part of business and the culture here.

Part of the reason for the cultural difference is the Asian emphasis on “face”, or appearances.  Chinese willingly buy inferior, poor quality products if it gives them prestige (such as designer clothes or a handbag).  It’s the label that matters, not what the product is made of.  Inevitably, many western brands are among those viewed as desirable.  It does not matter if the fake designer clothes wear out quickly, and a “no name” brand is more durable.

The prevalence of piracy is exacerbated by China’s ruthless capitalism.  In the country’s rush to catch up with the rest of the world economically, anything that can make a profit is aggressively marketed and sold.

There does appear to be increasing awareness of the problem.  One of the markets we visited in Beijing had signs posted to the effect of “Please respect creativity.  No illegal DVD’s.”  But just down the street from our apartment is a store selling DVD’s- all of them pirated, being sold in full view of the public and the police.  How can we tell you might wonder?  No plastic wrap or official packaging, mis-spellings and errors on the labels (like spam emails), but the giveaway is the price.  Only a few dollars for something that we’d pay $20-25 for.  It’s easy to sell them cheaply when the only cost is a blank DVD.

A DVD store near our apartment sells nothing but pirated DVDs.

A sign posted in the fabric market detailing how it’s illegal to sell fake goods and that you can be prosecuted for it. But, as our Great Wall guide said, “In China, there is law and there is reality.”

The problem of intellectual property protection (or IP as we shorten it) is very real for more than just music, videos, software, and clothing.  My company is very cognizant of the risk in China of our patents and trade secrets (such as manufacturing knowledge that is not patented) being taken.  In my job, I have to take extra cautions to prevent disclosure of sensitive information, and even limit what information my engineering team can access.  We do not allow customers to disassemble our motors, and we limit access to our IP as much as possible.  It’s what we get paid to create as engineers- why would we allow it to be stolen?  Piracy and IP protection affects everyone, not just movie and rock stars.

I also find our engineers using pirated software- which they view positively for saving the company money.  I love the cost savings focus- but I tell them to remove it anyhow.

Until recently, even the Chinese government allowed pirated software on computers in government offices.  The increased pressure from western countries on China to eliminate pirated products is having an affect.  But it is a very slow process that will take many years, perhaps several generations, to change.  It’s not a matter of just changing what people can do, but also the mindset that does not see anything wrong.

Traveling in China: Dave’s experiences

In my time in China, I have visited much of the country- 14 of the 23 provinces plus Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan- with many unique experiences I would not have seen in Shanghai.

Cities I’ve visited in China

Hong Kong and Macao are “Special Autonomous Regions” and require passports to enter.  Chinese citizens must obtain visas- but not Americans!  Despite the US’s long-standing “One China Policy”, Taiwan is a separate country in all ways, with an elected democratic government.  The capital of Taipei is a direct 2 hour flight from Shanghai, and is very nice, surrounded by mountains.  It is a clean and thoroughly developed modern city and country, quite a contrast to mainland China.

Traveling in China- across the street or across the country- is an adventure and can be downright dangerous.  As you may recall from past blogs, paying constant attention is essential.  Crosswalks mean nothing, you must put your head on a swivel, constantly looking around for vehicles- especially taxis and scooters- running red lights and going the wrong direction.

I have been fortunate to never see a serious accident.  My uncle came to visit China recently and was not so lucky, witnessing 2 fatal pedestrian accidents.  I often say that not having seen an accident is proof of God’s existence, since divine intervention is the only logical explanation there aren’t more.  You have to see intersections to understand what we mean, 30 scooters running a red light with cars and buses coming right at them.  Somehow everyone brakes and swerves around each other.  It is not the craziest place I have ever seen- that distinction falls to India where roads are total anarchy- but China is a respectable second.

The chaos of a Chinese intersection in Xi’An, with no traffic signals or stop signs- cars, buses, pedestrians, and scooters dodging each other; the picture doesn’t it justice

Unlike the US, where we travel mostly by car or plane, Chinese and most other countries rely on many methods.  Walking is not just for people too poor to own a car.  I was in Los Angeles recently for a trade show, and the Americans (myself included, I hate to admit) drove our rental cars or took a taxi from the hotel to the convention center, even though it was only a mile away.  Our Chinese co-workers, who arrived later, walked without giving it a second thought.

Having visited large cities all over the world, walking in combination with public transportation is usually the best way to get around, both for sightseeing and practical everyday use.

Traveling- in China and elsewhere- is quite logical and is relatively consistent with distance:

~1 mile Walk
1 to 10 miles Electric scooter, Subway, or City Bus (sometimes Taxi)
10 to 20 miles Personal car or Taxi
20 to 250 miles High speed train, or personal car
250 to 500 miles High speed train; Bus or plane if limited rail connections
Over 500 miles Fly (poorer people take bus and train trips of several days)

Several of the engineers on my team have daily commutes of about 90 minutes– each way.  They walk 10-15 minutes to a bus stop, take 1 or 2 buses to the subway station, then the subway the rest of the way to our office, changing trains once or twice.  Fortunately, our office is located across the street from a station on the main east-west subway line.

Subways are convenient but are often packed, on weekends as well as rush hour.  The individual lines and stops are marked in Chinese and English, by number, and by color, so you have 3 ways to figure out the right train and where to go.  The subway is the best travel value by far.  The minimum fare is 3 yuan (less than 50 cents), the maximum fare for a 90 minute ride across the city is about $1.50. 

Passengers are aggressive, shoving their way onto the train before people have a chance to exit, and pushing and shoving from the train to the exits.  Forming a line is virtually non-existent in China, but the behavior is cultural, and is definitely not considered rude.  With so many people, Chinese seem to have an ingrained aggressiveness to get what they need.  It permeates Chinese society, from yelling at waitresses, to pushing and shoving, to copying others’ work (that will be the subject of a future blog).

Traffic laws are openly flaunted- but then you see fire trucks waiting at a stop light (lights flashing and sirens blaring)

I commuted daily on the subway when I was here last summer and fall, and use it occasionally now.  The constant shoving in public places has been one of the tougher adjustments to living in China.  I often stopped at Starbucks on my way to the station, and used hot coffee as a shield against being pushed.  It actually worked quite well!

Only about 10% of the Chinese population has a car, mostly using them for family trips, and less so for daily commuting.  As car sales increase past 20 million per year (with China now the largest car market in the world), personal mobility will increase rapidly.  In large cities such as Shanghai where traffic is already bad and air quality is horrendous, I cannot imagine how it will be in 10 years.  Like most of the world, driving is expensive in China, considering gas (equivalent to $6-7 per gallon), tolls, and in large cities, parking.

Saturday afternoon stop-and-go traffic in Shanghai; thank goodness we have a driver

Taxi rides can be hair raising.  The taxis are poorly maintained, the drivers drive like maniacs at high speed (and I’m not known as a timid driver myself) on bald tires and worn out shocks, changing lanes and blowing the horn constantly.  Buckle up, don’t eat a heavy meal first, and say your prayers are all good advice for taxi rides.  The locals, of course, are so used to it, they don’t notice anything unusual.

A busy street in Xi’An with its accompanying smog and plethora of buses

We often depend on company cars with drivers provided by customers as we travel, rental cars are uncommon (I’ve never been in one in all my time here).  Trips from the airport to factories and company offices are nearly as good as an amusement park ride.  Routes weave and wind through cities (a great way to see the real China up close) and on modern freeways equivalent to any in the US.  Highways can suddenly end for construction, and we find ourselves on rocky, dirt roads in the construction zone.  These drivers often aren’t much different than Shanghai taxi drivers, hardly slowing down for obstacles.

Because the highway system was mostly built in the last 10-15 years instead of being developed over several decades, they have been tacked on top of the cities.  The freeways are elevated, soaring 50 – 100 feet in the air, passing close to buildings, and the elevation provides for nice views.  Bridges are modern and architecturally appealing- one of our pleasant surprises in Shanghai has been the amazing architecture throughout the city.

Nanpu Bridge at sunrise

As for the cars themselves, the Chinese car companies have all set up joint ventures with global companies.  VW and GM are the largest, cars are a mix of numerous local brands and international ones that you would recognize.  Ironically Buick, which has struggled in the US, is GM’s leading brand here, along with Chevrolet.  Ford and Chrysler were slower to expand to China.  German luxury cars are very common with the newly rich of China, and driving one is not considered showing off, but is a sign of accomplishment.  We have seen two Aston Martin dealers in the Pudong District of Shanghai alone.  Style and quality are rapidly improving on Chinese built cars, but there is still a significant gap between the local and global companies, similar to Japan and Korea 20-40 years ago.  

We saw our first Chinese car dealership outside China when we were in Tasmania, but whether we will see Chinese cars in the US is definitely a subject of debate.  I personally think it is inevitable, maybe a decade from now.  Consumers invariably purchase the lowest cost product they can find, hence Wal-Mart and other discount retailers’ successes.  Countering that argument is the lack of success of Chinese brands to expand globally.  Lenovo computers is the notable exception, but it got a jump-start by purchasing IBM’s personal computer business.  Volvo cars is also now owned by the Chinese car maker Geely.

In 2010, I drove across Lake Pontchartrain (north of New Orleans) on what was then the world’s longest road bridge.  But it is now #2 and soon to be #3.  Last summer, my colleagues and I rode across the new title holder just a few days after it opened, an amazing 26.4 mile long bridge!  (see the link below for photos of it).  But another bridge in Guangdong Province (near Hong Kong and Macau) will open in 2016 that will be 30 miles long!


There are long distance buses between cities, and I have been in bus factories that make 2 level buses with beds on the upper level.  But I have never ridden one, even my co-workers scoff at them as slow and uncomfortable.  They are cheaper than trains, and only the poorest Chinese appear to ride them.  Buses are everywhere in Chinese cities, subways were only built in the last few years.

There are several passenger ferries in Shanghai- they are the only pedestrian way to cross the Huangpu River from Puxi (Old Shanghai) to Pudong (New Shanghai).  They are a great value, 0.5 yuan for a one way ticket, about 6 cents!  Double that if you are bringing your bicycle, and 2.5 yuan for scooters.  The 5 minute trip across the river provides great views- Jenna always insists on going to the upper deck.  From our apartment we watch them dodge river traffic all day long.

Bicycles are still prevalent- there are millions in Shanghai, used by everyone from school age children riding multilane highways to police on their way to work to construction workers to professional females in dresses (which I’ve also seen in Europe, definitely not unique to China).  Bikes are stolen often, so they are usually old and rusty beaters.  I only ride my bike for fun and exercise, and never leave it out of sight if I do stop somewhere.  There is a great cycling community here, both expats and locals, but I have a new appreciation for what I used to consider as boring rides amongst the corn fields of Indiana.  

This refrigerator on a bike is still one of my all-time favorite travel sights, from my first visit to Shanghai in 2006

A Chinese bicycle and scooter parking lot at a grocery store

The high speed rail network is definitely the shining star of traveling in China.  Trains are clean, fast, efficient, and very comparable to those in Western Europe.  The major difference is the service.  In Europe, there is a wide variety of food and drink, both in the stations and on-board.  In China, there are few dining options, with just an unappetizing microwaved rice and beef dish and a few drinks.  The stations are as packed as subways, with literally thousands of people milling around inside and out. 

The train stops in the station for less than 5 minutes, and you join several hundred other people getting on.  But the speeds are impressive, the newest trains travel 300 kph (~185mph) with an extremely smooth ride, comfortable seats, and power outlets for your laptop.  It is definitely my favorite way to travel in any country. 

Just saying where you are going can be fun as well.  Some city names are hard to pronounce but my favorite trip was going from Hefei (“Hu fay”) to Wuhu (“Woo hoo”)!

As you enter a train station, after having your ID verified (foreigners must have their passport), you go through an airport style metal detector, but everyone sets it off.  The manual check with a hand-held metal detector is nothing more than a quick swipe- which itself goes off- and then you are waved through.  What the purpose is, I have no idea.

The Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train in Shanghai is a bucket list item for anyone remotely interested in train travel.  It is powered solely by magnets (no motor or wheels) and is the world’s fastest regular service train, peaking at 431kph (268mph), with banked curves and a very smooth ride.  I bragged about it incessantly and when the girls finally rode it, they were surprisingly impressed, asking when we could take it again.  Unfortunately, there is only a single line, running about 20 miles from the Shanghai airport towards the city.  It is convenient enough that I ride it regularly when I travel for business, only about $7 one-way. 

Here comes the Maglev

The high speed and futuristic Maglev pulling into the station

Flying is not much different than the US.  Since overall air traffic volume is still relatively low and there are many large Chinese cities, it is more convenient with direct flights instead of the “hub and spoke” connections we are used to.  Private aircraft, however, are rare.  The US has over 50% of the entire world’s private airplanes, so private pilots and 4-6 seat Cessna type planes are uniquely American.  That is starting to change with the increasing wealth of China.

On commercial flights, most of the same security rules apply such as no liquids, etc. but you don’t have to remove belts or shoes.  Just like train stations, the metal detectors are set so sensitively that nearly everyone sets them off.  Unlike the train stations, the pat-down searches with hand-held metal detectors are very thorough and would result in news stories and lawsuits in the US.  To call them frisky is an understatement.  I am very ticklish, and it is often all I can do not to burst out laughing.

Almost all flights are on jets, but one recent trip was on a turboprop (propeller) driven plane that seats about 50.  I have ridden these many times in the US, they are noisy, bumpy, and slow but fortunately the flights are not much more than an hour.  Out of curiosity, in the middle of the flight I asked my 2 co-workers if they had ever been on a propeller driven plane.  Neither had, and our Chinese sales manager, without even turning his head to look at me, quickly replied “don’t talk to me right now, I am very nervous!”  You have to know Robert, but I nearly laughed out loud at him!

Security signs are also a source of humor.  I was in the city of Kunming recently, and next to signs for no knives, no lighters, etc. was a sign for- I am not making this up– no refrigerators!  Well that explains why my carryon felt so heavy, I wonder who stuck one in. . .

Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, subways, buses, bicycles, walking: each one is an experience unto itself when traveling in China.


Day 5

With another 100 miles to go but no deadline on my final day, I allowed myself a little extra sleep after the previous day’s effort.  Starting around 7, I headed east from Cromwell to ride a stretch of the Otago Central Rail Trail.  It is New Zealand’s longest rail trail at 150km (a little less than 100 miles) and is part of the fabulous new New Zealand Cycle Trail network, which will include about 1500 miles of trails when completed this year.  Although mostly a packed gravel surface (not ideal for a road bike), I wanted to try a section.

As I headed to the trail, the terrain changed again, becoming arid and rocky.  This is gold rush country, much of the area being settled in the 1860s.

Approaching Clyde, in the area where gold was first discovered in Otago

The trailhead is in Clyde, yet another quaint little New Zealand town. 

the main road through Clyde- full of B&B’s, bakeries and coffee shops, and even a bike shop for riders on the rail trail

the Muttontown Viaduct on the Central Otago Rail Trail, with beautiful Fall colors

After a few miles on the rail trail, which is a popular family ride at a casual pace over a few days (great idea for a return trip to New Zealand!), I turned back west towards Queenstown, my thoughts turning to the finish of the tour. 

This part of New Zealand is a popular wine growing region, and there are dozens of wineries in the area.

the vineyards were beautiful in the fall, these were a couple of the many that I passed

The road entered the Kawarau River Gorge, yet another new landscape.  Climbing the hills that wind along the gorge was no longer a hard effort, after several days of climbing mountain passes.

The Kawarau River gorge, that winds for about 20 miles

The winding road along the river

One of the best parts of bicycle touring- the ability to stop anywhere for a photo, no parking space required

Continuing past Queenstown, the last road to ride was to Glenorchy.  Unfortunately, I ran out of time to ride the entire distance, a shame since it is another road of amazing scenery, featured in many TV ads and movies- including James Bond chase scenes.

Like the first day’s ride, the road was nestled amongst trees between The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu, but is much less traveled.

The road to Glenorchy- notice the steamship on Lake Wakatipu

As I turned around and pedaled the last few miles back into Queenstown, finishing up a 4th straight day over 100 miles, I was left with a sense of accomplishment, looking forward to seeing my girls the next morning back in Sydney, and the thrill of having experienced such an amazing place. 

I cannot think of a better 4 days of my life that weren’t spent with my family.

map and elevation profile of Day 5 ride from Cromwell to Clyde to Queenstown and road to Glenorchy

Even before I left, I long to come back to New Zealand.   The world is full of places I have never seen.  Given a choice, I rarely visit the same place twice, preferring the unknown.  Even after 450 miles of riding, there is so much more to see just on the South Island.  There is Doubtful Sound, which is much larger than Milford Sound, and requires driving, then a boat ride across a lake, and then a hike to reach.  I’d love to go hiking on a glacier, ride some of the new Cycle Trails, and explore more of the coasts and historic small towns.  It is a beautiful country, definitely one of my favorites of the 30+ I have visited.

Do I have to leave?

And I need more goals to continually be challenged- such as longer rides and more of them.  Above all, I want to do a cross-country ride, and I hope I can find the right purpose and motivation for it.


Day 3

After a short overnight stop in Queenstown, I headed out early Friday morning for 3 more days of touring solely by bicycle.  After about 15 miles, I reached what would be my toughest climb– of the tour and of my life.  The Crown Range Road is a legend, for both cyclists and car enthusiasts.  Cresting at 1076m, it is New Zealand’s highest public road, with spectacular views along the way. 

The “zig-zags” on the lower section of the Crown Range Road.

Beginning the ascent with zig-zag hairpin curves, I spent most of the next hour and a half in my lowest “granny gear”.  After the zig-zags, the climb temporarily relents but then gets steeper, so much so that I had to weave across both lanes to lessen the grade and keep moving: at 3-4mph much of the way up! 

I got a close-up view of the Crown Range Road as I flew in to Queenstown.

Near the top, I came across a road construction crew, and the flagman called out “almost there, mate!”  “Almost there?  Awesome!” was my panted reply. Unfortunately, “almost there” to him was relative to being in a car.  It was probably another mile, which doesn’t seem like much, but that’s 15 more minutes of riding at 4 mph with the steep grade. 

The view makes the climb worth the effort!  (my camera battery was dead, so this photo was borrowed from the NZ Tourism website)

Cresting the Crown Range pass, I headed down.  Fast.  My Bike Friday is very convenient, but the short wheelbase makes for twitchy handling and I had to limit descents to under 30mph.  With a full-size road bike and nerves stronger than mine, it would have been easy to hit 40-50mph or more.  I never stopped on the ascent, but was forced to on the descent in order to cool my brakes.  A couple times I hit a bump and thought I might go down, which can get very scary, very fast on a road like this.  I did make it through the entire tour with only 1 minor crash, when I dropped the chain on a steep hill, but it was nothing serious as no cars were around. 

Sidebar: please ALWAYS allow at least 3 feet/1 meter when passing a cyclist.  This is already required by law in many US states and foreign countries, to create public awareness. Having space to maneuver around those bumps and potholes is even scarier when motorists pass with inches to spare.  I know it is frustrating to wait for room to pass behind a slow moving bike, but a minor crash or swerving around obstacles can become a deadly event if a car is passing too close.  And NEVER honk to “let the cyclist know you are there”.  While very well intentioned, it startles the cyclist and can cause a crash.  THANK YOU!!

Enjoying the morning sun and a descent that gradually turned rolling, I came to Wanaka, a gorgeous and active lakeside community.  I could live here; Wanaka was my favorite town I visited. 

the shores of Lake Wanaka

You have to love a town where 3 coffee shops side-by-side are all doing a brisk business, as everyone takes in the lake and mountain views.  

I stopped in one café for a rare break, for some strong coffee and a snack of real food (energy bars get very tiring), but more importantly to borrow an outlet to charge my camera battery.

Tearing myself away from Wanaka, I headed out for a few hills as the road wound along between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. 

Lake Hawea

The hills slowly gave way to the Makarora River valley, another lush, scenic, and thankfully relatively flat terrain, and into Mount Aspiring National Park.  If I had one more day, I would have continued on this road to the west coast of New Zealand where there are several glaciers.

It was hard not to keep stopping for photos!  When I did stop, my bike made for a great conversation starter. 

At this scenic overlook, I chatted with a young couple- he was from Germany and she from Holland- who were driving through. Even though they had spent several months in New Zealand, they were just as mesmerized by the breathtaking scenery.

Topping 100 miles again, my Friday night stop was in the village of Makarora (population 30).  This was my favorite overnight, I stayed in a spartan but comfortable private cabin that can sleep 4, that cost me 33 New Zealand dollars (less than 25 US dollars).  It might have been the first time in my life that my hotel room cost about the same as my dinner.

My cabin in Makarora (front 1/2 of the one on the left), where my bike is parked

The view from the front porch of my cabin.

Dinner in the adjoining café was simple but perfect for a bike tour, a tasty vegetable pasta accompanied by one of New Zealand’s great local beers.  Searching for healthy, hearty, and convenient food was a minor challenge each evening, since riding 100 miles at a relatively moderate pace burns an extra ~4000 calories per day.

Many cycle tourists bring their own food (and often camp out), but I packed light, with just a change of clothes, bike tools, and a load of energy bars to get me through each day.  That doesn’t seem like much, but with temperatures ranging from the upper 30s to the mid 60s (F), I had to carry a wide variety of cycling attire and my panniers (saddlebags) were stuffed full.

map and elevation profile of Day 3 ride, from Queenstown to Makarora via the Crown Range Road

Day 4

Saturday was another pre-dawn start, having turned around at Makarora and taking advantage of what was now a tailwind that I had fought for much of the previous afternoon.  I aimed for my longest ride on Saturday, so I needed an early start.

Early Saturday morning, I came across a mountain bike event- passing hundreds of cyclists, most of whom smiled and waved as we passed in opposite directions.

Mountain bikers on the road at dawn.

The hills and mountains were gorgeous (I’m out of adjectives) at sunrise-

Lake Hawea at dawn.

Skirting Lake Hawea, I started the long climb up the Lindis Pass, one of the highest in New Zealand at 971m, but with a much more gradual slope. 

The grassy slopes along the way to the Lindis Pass.

A common sight in New Zealand- herds of sheep.

The terrain varied again, from the mountain lakes, to valleys of scrub brush and trees, and as I climbed the pass, mostly grass covered slopes with few trees- but always sheep! 

Look closely at lower right.

Turning around at the Lindis Pass, I headed back down the mountain, and encountered another cycle tourist.  Rich, an older gentleman who lives on the North Island, stopped as he came the other direction.  We had a very nice chat on the side of the road for at least 20 minutes, talking about New Zealand and cycle touring.  As I raved about how much I loved New Zealand and want to come back with my family, he gave me some encouraging tips on family friendly multi-day hiking routes (or tramping as they call it here), with cabins for overnight stops- no camping required.  I only wish I had thought to take his picture.

A great viewpoint for the day.

Approaching the Lindis Pass.

The descent is always worth the climbing effort!

The story of today’s ride was a lack of water.  Most of the New Zealand state highways have many rest areas where I could refill my water bottles.  Today, however, I found none so I started to ration water early in the day.  Finally, with about 15 miles to go, I came across a rest area.  Hallelujah I thought!  This will make the last bit of the ride easier, having already gone about 115 miles under mostly sunny skies.  Pouring Gatorade powder into my bottles, I turned the corner into the men’s room, relief just seconds away.  Then I stopped at the sign on the door “non potable water (do not drink)”.  I was not happy!  The long driveway into the rest area had done nothing but add another mile to my ride.

Back on the bike, I toughed out the last few miles.  Reaching my room in a camping park in Cromwell, I quickly filled my water bottles, immediately downed about 40oz of Gatorade, and took a 20-minute nap to recover.  Total for the day: 129.1 miles, my longest day ever, goal #1 accomplished!

The lack of guardrails on some of the hilly, twisty roads were a bit scary:

I rode in the middle of the lane on this road, otherwise one slip and it would have been a very long fall.

The only negative aspect of long days of cycling in New Zealand was the rough surface of the chip and seal roads.  As I rode, my arms were oscillating like a banjo string, which beat up my shoulders and neck, by far the toughest aspect of the tour.

Map and elevation profile of Day 4 ride from Makarora to Cromwell via the Lindis Pass

Next up: the tour finish with rail trails, river gorges, and movie scenes

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