Holiday Traffic Jam

I’m a little late to the party, but this video has been flying around The Interwebs all weekend. It is a drone-shot video of an insane traffic jam on a highway just outside of Beijing — a highway that I have travelled many times.

I must admit that I chuckled at some of the headlines which described it as a jam on a 50-lane highway. A 50-lane highway? Really? I can assure you that there is no such thing as a 50-lane highway in China (or anywhere, for that matter).

Here’s what you are seeing: the highway coming into town is actually a 3 lane freeway. On the outskirts of the city is a toll booth, with perhaps a dozen or so toll booths. The traffic spreads out to the booths and must re-merge back into 3 lanes on the other side.

Unfortunately, what happens (and what is seen in this clip) is that the cars do not get into neat lines for the upcoming tool booths; rather that just take up every inch of tarmac as they jockey for position. In other words, three lanes spill into 50, then squeeze back to a dozen, then back to 3.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: this happens every year, so why do so many drivers head there in the first place?

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Friday Photos: Fall Colors in Minnesota

Last week my sister and I drove some friends visiting from England up to Lutsen, a ski resort on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We had heard the fall colors were peaking up there, so even though there were no hotel vacancies in the areas, and the RT drive would be close to 500 miles, we decided to turn it into a very long day trip. As you can see from these photos, it was worth the drive.

Lutsen mountain

Lutsen mountain


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A Short History of the Piano in China

During the last 8 years I was in Beijing, I lived in a high rise apartment building on the western side of the city. On the other side of the shared wall between my second bedroom (which doubled as my office) and my neighbor’s apartment was a piano. I know this because every night at 9PM, the little girl who lived next door would sit down to practice.


For the first 3 years I lived in the apartment, she played the same piece — Fur Elise, by Beethoven — every night for 30 minutes. I kid  you not, she sat down  every night and played THIS ONE SONG for 3 years!! To her credit, she got a lot better in those 3 years; unfortunately I thought I was going to lose my mind.

I was reminded of her recently when I read an interesting piece in the Chinese magazine Caixin Online, titled How the Piano Became Chinese. Credit goes to none other than that great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci:

On January 24, 1601, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing bearing a cache of gifts that he had spent years assembling, and even longer trying to present to the elusive Wan Li Emperor. The gifts included such European curiosities as mechanical clocks, religious objects and a musical instrument: the clavichord.

“Musical instruments are quite common and of many varieties [in China],” Father Ricci wrote, “but the use of the organ and the clavichord is unknown, and the Chinese possess no instrument of the keyboard type.”

Indeed, though China in the 1600s had numerous rich musical traditions that employed both domestic and imported instruments, it had nothing resembling the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument and predecessor of the piano. That’s why Ricci chose it, hoping that the unusual instrument would so excite the emperor’s curiosity that he would agree to receive Ricci – who could then explain the precepts of Catholicism and, in his wildest dreams, get the emperor to convert, and with him, all of China.

Ricci’s elaborate plan was partly effective: Wan Li was intrigued by the strange instrument and sent four eunuchs from the College of Musicians to ask Ricci to teach them how to play. Ricci was not a musician, so when he reported to the palace, he brought along his colleague Diego Pantoia, who taught the eunuchs four songs for which Ricci wrote lyrics infused with Christian philosophy. The lessons lasted a month and then the eunuchs presumably gave a recital, although Ricci was not invited and never got to meet – let alone convert – the emperor. However, while Ricci’s gift failed to turn China into a nation of Catholics, it did start the country on the path to becoming what it is today: a nation of pianists, piano makers, piano students and piano lovers.

If you love pianos and China and Jesuit history, you’ll love this article; read the whole thing here.

Image credit: Antony Griffiths, via Flickr

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Consider this my annual obligatory “I’m-glad-I-wasn’t-travelling-in-China-during-Golden-Week” post.

In 1999, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, AND to stimulate the economy, the government decreed that henceforth every man woman and child in China (that would be 1.35 billion of them) would get a 7-day holiday beginning on October 1. The week would be known as “Golden Week.”

The message was clear: TRAVEL! GO SHOPPING! EAT IN RESTAURANTS! SPEND MONEY! (Hmmm….I wonder what Mao would think of those being the government mandated activities to celebrate the beginning of Communist rule. But I digress….)

Of course it’s not entirely true that everyone gets the week off, since there has to be someone to fly the planes, man the ticket booths, work in the shops, and cook the food. But pretty much everyone else in the country had the week off and they took to the streets, the skies, and the tourist spots.

Shanghaiist has compiled some pics from around the country. Here are a few of the scariest…er…um…best:

too_many_people3 too_many_people15 too_many_people19 too_many_people56

More photos here.

And let this be a reminder to you that if anyone ever suggests that you visit China the first week of October, just imagine yourself in one of these photos. Then politely decline.

A Mountain of People, An Ocean of People

All Together now

China on the Move, Visualized


I’ve only been through Lanzhou, Gansu on the train, but after seeing this video, I’m ready to make a visit!

I’m not a fan of the proliferation of drones, but they certainly make for some spectacular shots!

Source: DistrictyMedia, on Vimeo

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When the Media Come Calling

Here’s a pro tip for those of you living in China or planning to travel there. If you are approached by a member of the Chinese media (either national or local) and asked to give an interview or just answer some “quick” questions, JUST.SAY.NO!

I was reminded of that when I saw this cringe-worthy video that was making its way around the inter-webs last week. The Wall Street Journal posted the video under the headline, Xi Dada, So Cute: What Foreigners Think of China’s Leader (According to the People’s Daily).

I think a more accurate headline would have been What the Chinese Media Wants Chinese People to Think Foreigners Think about President Xi.

Now, some of the students featured in the piece are crying foul, claiming that they were duped; that they didn’t know they were going to be featured in a Party propaganda film; that the question about President Xi was just one of many that were asked.

To which I find myself responding, “but of course!”

I tend not to trust journalists in general, but even less so journalists in China. Maybe that’s because I’ve had my fair share of being duped as well (call me a slow learner).

Once when I was living in Changchun (in the 1990’s) the head of the foreign student department told me that a journalist from a local newspaper was in his office and wanted to interview a foreign student. Would I be willing? Knowing that Mr. Y. would probably lose face (who knows what promises had been exchanged between them), and against my better judgement, I agreed.

The reporter told me that he was doing a story about the life of a foreign student in Changchun. He asked me questions about my studies, how I liked the city, and how I was treated by people in town. I answered them politely and accurately, telling him that I was thoroughly enjoying my life in Changchun and that the people were great.

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, though, because when the article was published in the paper the following week, the reporter told specific stories of my experiences in the city, which were obviously made up! That’s not to say they couldn’t have happened; they just hadn’t. Except for my name, where I was from, and what I was studying, the rest of the article “about me” was a complete work of fiction!

Obviously his assignment had been to tell a story that confirmed what the media wanted the Chinese people to think about what foreigners thought about the city.

Mission accomplished!

And who could forget the other time I made it into the Changchun newspaper for engaging in a decidedly “non-foreigner” type of activity: buying a couch!

So remember, folks; if the media come calling, just say no!


Friday Photo: VIP Section

Nine years ago this weekend I travelled from Beijing to Changchun in order to attend the 60th anniversary of the founding of Northeast Normal University. The organization I worked for has a relationship with that school and had been invited to send a delegate. I was thrilled for the privilege to be the official representative because, ten years previous, I had directed our language program at the university.

Attending the event meant not just sitting through ceremonies, meetings, and banquets, but also getting to see old friends and colleagues as well.

The official ceremonies were held in the giant auditorium on campus, and I was given a special seat in the VIP section next to a former president and party secretary (who were also “old friends”). This was the view from my VIP seat in the auditorium;

changchun vip

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