So, How Fast is this Train?

 Friday morning I will board the super high speed train (not to be confused with the high speed train) and set out for Shanghai to meet up with Noel.  Let the Esther Expedition begin!!

So, just how fast is this train?  Well, as you can see from the stats in the chart above, It takes about 5 hours to go 819 miles.  I’ll leave math out of it, but it sure sounds fast to me.

I’ve travelled between a number of these cities more than once in my 28 years here. Perhaps a couple of comparisons may help give some perspective to this journey:

I’ve taken the train between Beijing and Qufu numerous times — it usually took 8 or 9 hours.

I once took a train from Shanghai to Nanjing that took 6 hours.

A flight from Beijing to Shanghai is 2 hours.

So, how fast is this train?  Really, really fast!

Check back tomorrow for a report on the trip.


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(Image source: China Highlights)






Reading Assignment — The Economist in China

In January, the 170-year old magazine The Economist launched a special section devoted to covering China. Every edition will have at least one new story.

The new China editor is Rob Gifford, author of China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. (My review of this book can be found here.)

They have also launched a China blog called “Analects.” This week’s post,  “Old Hands”, is a historical overview of the magazine’s coverage of China since 1843. It’s a fascinating read for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider this exerpt:

The first extended analysis of China came in the eighth issue, dated October 14th 1843. The subject may ring a bit familiar: the potential of China’s consumer market to buy foreign imports. The Economist’s founding editor, the Scottish businessman James Wilson (who in those days wrote virtually the entire newspaper) was not bullish: “The truth is, it requires something more than treaties between governments to make trade.” Mr Wilson observed trenchantly that Chinese consumers have their own peculiar needs that are not met by foreign products, and that their incomes will need to rise as well. “We must not forget” of the Chinese, he wrote (without a byline, same as today), “… the mere liberty or opportunity of buying our goods, does not confer on them at once the ability to do so.” By 2012, it can now be noted, the consumer market for foreign luxury goods developed rather nicely.

In December 1843, The Economist relayed its first reported anecdotes about China: tales of foreigners being deceived by fake Chinese products. These included, according to one written account, “counterfeit hams” made of wood, coated in dirt and wrapped with an outer layer of hog’s skin: “The whole is so curiously painted and prepared, that a knife is necessary to detect the fraud.”

Here is a link to a short interview with Gifford about what they are hoping to accomplish with the new section.

And Gifford recently turned up on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” for an extended interview. The audio and transcript can be found here.

(Image source: The Economist)

Related Post: Book Review: China Road


Bring Warm Clothes

In 1981, a book was published in my home state titled Bring Warm Clothes: Letters and Photos from Minnesota’s Past. The title of that book has been bouncing around in my head the last few days as we put the finishing touches on our upcoming “Esther Expedition,” — a couple of Minnesotans travelling across central China in March, following in the footsteps of another Minnesotan who did the same 80 years ago.

A friend recently asked me if I was stressed about being responsible for all the planning of this trip.  Surprisingly I’m not. I think we’ve got a good plan, but I’ve lived in China long enough to know that a fair amount of it will change along the way. I can handle that.

But, in the last few days, as I’ve been monitoring weather reports out of the cities we will travel to/through, I realize that I do have one fear:  freezing to death. March in the places where we are going is pretty much temps in the 40’s and 50’s with rain and drizzle.

Now, one would think that, given the fact that we are from Minnesota, this would not be a problem.  After all, most of us Minnesotans look at 40’s and 50’s and start digging around for our shorts and t-shirts — especially in the spring.

The dirty little secret though, is that, despite all of our tough bravado, we Minnesotans actually don’t handle cold weather very well.  We do handle it, but our preferred and perfected method is to avoid actual contact with the cold. We live in warm houses. We step into heated garages. We have heated cars (with heated seats). We park our cars and make mad dashes into our heated offices and shops and restaurants, sometimes even leaving our coats in the car!

This is not how it is in China, particularly in central and southern China, where the sun rarely shines and there is little in-door heating.  We will be trapsing around outside a good part of the time — in the cold, in the rain, away from the sunshine.

When I was reading one of Esther’s many letters that are forming the backdrop of this trip, I cringed when I read one written in mid-March about how she was so very cold all the time. So, even though the temps will be warmer than Beijing, I am trying to mentally prepare myself for actually feeling much colder this coming month as we make our way across the country.

We may be Minnesotans, but we still need to be reminded to bring warm clothes.

Related post:  Wear More Clothes

(image source:

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry

“There will be Chinese people on the boat,”  said the voice at the other end of the phone line.  For the 5th time in as many days this was the response I got from a travel agent I had contacted asking for assistance in booking passage on a local ferry boat to take Noel and me up the Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing.  “You’d better take a cruise ship. There will be Chinese people on the ferry.”


China likes to keep foreigners in their little boxes. There is a box marked “foreign teacher;” one marked “foreign businessman;” one marked “foreign student;” and a very large box marked “foreign tourist.”  Harmony in the cosmos is maintained when the foreigners remain in their boxes and function by prescribed behaviors and norms ascribed to said boxes. Clearly what we are dealing with here is a foreigner who has broken free of her box.  The box in question is “foreign tourist.” Inside that box the approved way to ride a boat on the Yangtze River is to book onto one of the many cruises that cater to foreign tourists. Prices include passage, accommodations on luxury boats, food, and sightseeing.

This is not my intention. I merely want to use the boat as a means of conveyance from Yichang to Chongqing. This is not what foreign tourists do. This is too far outside the box.  HEY FOREIGNER! GET BACK INTO THE BOX. BUY A CRUISE TICKET.

Yesterday afternoon I felt like I had victory (and a ticket) in sight.  I had managed to get through to the CTS office in Yichang and was talking to a nice young agent about my situation. Except for the fact that he was a pleasant chap and had impeccable English, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985. Our conversation went something like this:

Me:  I am trying to buy a ticket on the ferry from Yichang to Chongqing.  Can you help me?

He: Yes, we can help you buy a ticket for a cruise.

Me:  I don’t want to buy a cruise ticket. I just need a ticket to ride a boat to Chongqing. Here is a website. Please open it.  Do you see the schedule for the ferry?  I want a ticket on that boat. See, it has the schedule and even the fare.  I need 2 first class tickets.

He: But there will be Chinese people on the ferry.

Me: I know. I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like  Chinese people. Some of my best friends are Chinese people.

He: I will check.

Me: Thank you.

He. I’m sorry, we do not have 2 day cruises.  We only have 3 day cruises. 

Me:  Did you say cruise?  I don’t want a cruise.  I just want a ticket on a boat.

He: Oh. Well, there is an ordinary boat used by locals, but there will be Chinese people on the boat.

Me:  I know. As I told you before, I am not afraid of Chinese people.  I like them. What time does it leave Yichang on Monday, March 5?

He:  3:30pm.

Me:  What time does it arrive into Chongqing on Wednesday, March 7?

He: 8AM

Me: How much is the ticket?

He: 850 yuan. But that is only the bed. No food. No sightseeing.

Me: Is that first class, in a room with 2 beds?

He:  Yes, but you will have to share a room with a Chinese person.

Me:  No, I need to buy two tickets. I am travelling with another friend.  We want to buy two beds in one room.  Can you help me buy the tickets?

He: (sucking teeth).  I think it will be better for you to come to Yichang and go to the ferry terminal and purchase the ticket yourself. It will be cheaper.

Me: But I am in Beijing, and will not arrive in Yichang until Sunday the 4th. I am afraid that I will go to the terminal and they will tell me there are no tickets.  Then I will have a big problem.

He: Yes. 

Me: If I pay you a service charge, will you buy the tickets for me?  What is your service charge? (at this point I was willing to pay anything, even if it meant paying more than a cruise ticket – as a matter of principle)

He: 50 yuan.

Me:  Great.  How can I send you the money?

He: (sucking teeth)  I must first make sure that foreigners are allowed to buy tickets on this boat. Normally only Chinese people ride this boat.

It was at this point that I switched into Chinese and, mustering all of the political jargon I have absorbed in my 25+ years here, gave the poor fellow a fine lecture:


Not only had the foreigner refused to return to her box, she had now  firmly planted her flag by revealing her ability to speak Chinese. He chuckled (a good sign) and sucked his teeth (a bad sign) and told me he would check and call me back tomorrow.

Those were hard words to hear. I felt I had come so very close to achieving my goal, only to have it (possibly) slip through my fingers again.

What will this day bring?  Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?

If this doesn’t work, I call a friend who has a student who has a brother in Yichang.

Stay tuned…

….and if anyone out there knows someone in Yichang who can help, please let me know!

(Image source: f0rbe5)

Bald Baby Day

Thursday was the 2nd day of the 2nd month of the Lunar Year, a day also known as “The Dragon Raising His Head.” And when the dragon raises his head, little boys all across China have to get haircuts!

I ran across these great photos on the Tea Leaf Nation website, in a post titled “Images: Baby Haircut Mania Day.”

The next time kids will get their heads shaved is in the summer, when it is done to keep them cool.

Reading Assignment — Bathed in Smog (Again)

I realize that you may be getting tired of reading posts about the smog here in Beijing, but it is really…pardon the pun….the air we breathe.

I think that this has to be the most depressing headline ever: Bathed in Smog: Beijing’s Pollution Could Cut Five Years off Lifespan, Experts Say. (NBC)

This story, written by Adrienne Mong, focuses on the economic and health effects of our smog and the growing increasingly political nature of measuring air quality in Beijing. You see, the US Embassy monitors air quality in the capital and publishers their readings hourly on Twitter. It almost always hovers between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” Sometimes it literally goes off the chart and the Twitter feed labels it “crazy bad,” at which point the Chinese government gets crazy mad and the laobaixing (common people) get crazy sad. Some have even speculated that this is what triggered the blocking of Twitter in China.Who knows?

Anyway, here are some of the key graphs from the article:

Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia. 

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, breaks down costs that result from the health impacts from ozone and particulate matter, which typically lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

The conclusion? “[D]espite improvements in overall air quality,” the cost of air pollution (as in lost economic productivity growth) in China has mushroomed from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 1995. But for at least one pair of 29-year old software engineers in Beijing, air pollution has actually meant greater economic productivity and a business opportunity.

Mong then goes on to write about the battle discrepancy between the US embassy and Chinese government readings (illustrated in the picture above):

The readings come from an air quality monitor that sits on top of the embassy in downtown Beijing, and they differ sharply from the daily results posted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

AQI values on @BeijingAir range from 0 to 500.  A “good” AQI  is 0 to 50 or what the Chinese call a “blue sky” day.  Unfortunately, many days in 2011 qualified as “unhealthy” to “hazardous.”  But on some of those same days, MEP data maintained the levels were “good” or “moderate.”  (The Chinese, in fact, claim there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011.)

“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 per cent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. embassy data … over 80 per cent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”

Andrews said that Beijing’s pollution levels were “six or seven times higher than the U.S.’s most polluted city.” “Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years,” he added.

Who are you going to believe? The government or your burning eyes? I’m going with the eyes.

Read and discuss among yourselves.

(Image Source: NBC)

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How Bad is the Smog in Beijing?







I just received this email from my new best friend in Yichang:

Dear Zhou Laoshi,
Thanks for your email.
It is my pleasure to help you & your friend.I would buy 2 first class  boat tickets from Yichang to Chongqing. (2 beds in 1 room).The departure date is on March 5,2012.
If it is possible,please transfer the tickets fee in advice.

Zhou Laoshi….Teacher Zhou (my Chinese name)…that was the breakthrough.  It wasn't my Chinese, it was in the final exchange where I identified myself as a teacher, not a tourist.

It wasn't the case of me having wandered away from my box…..I had just hopped into the wrong box!!

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Train

In one hand I hold this ticket – a first class seat on the new super high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. When I hand this ticket to the attendant and board the train next Thursday, I will be setting off on the first leg of a journey that has come to be known as “The Esther Expedition” – an attempt to trace the life and travels of a Minnesotan who worked in China in the first half of the twentieth century.

I had two options for purchasing this ticket.  The first was the 21st century option — buy it online.  This is how tickets are purchased now. Even though my Chinese friend walked me through the online process, I couldn’t shake my skepticism. I’ve gotten used to the convenience and efficiency of purchasing plane tickets online in recent years, but train tickets?

I know we’ve moved beyond the days when I had to be in City A in order to purchase a ticket from City A to B.  And if I was travelling on from City B to City C, the first order of business upon arrival in City B was securing tickets to City C (or, perhaps, back to City A). If I had a friend or a friend of a friend or a friend of a friend of a friend….(you get the gist) in City B, so much the better.  They could get the tickets (only available 3 days in advance) and hand them over to me once I arrived.

The second option for purchasing this ticket was to go to my neighborhood shou piao chu (ticket office) and fork over some cash and walk out with a ticket. I remember when this option was considered to be a revolutionary advancement in ticket-buying. It was glorious! No going to the train station! No standing in line for hours at the “SPECIAL WINDOW APPOINTED TO SELL TRAIN TICKETS TO FOREIGNERS AND OUR BELOVED CHINESE BROTHERS AND SISTERS WHO LIVE IN COLONIES AND BREAKAWAY PROVINCES” (at a higher price, of course), only to reach the counter as the clerk slammed the window shut and yelled “LUNCH TIME! COME BACK IN TWO HOURS!” Now you could simply walk into any ticket office scattered around town and buy a ticket. And not just a ticket from where you were to where you were going, but tickets from anywhere to anywhere.  And back again!

Today being ten days out from my travel date next week, this was what I opted for this morning. I paid my money, and 1 minute later walked out with a ticket in hand.

Another ticket that I am trying to purchase this week is a ferry ticket up the Yangtze River from the city of Yichang (site of the Three Gorges Dam) to Chongqing.

Suddenly it’s 1985 all over again!!

That’s the second part of my Tale of Two Tickets.  Stay tuned…..


(Note:  Noel and I would love to have you join us on this journey by subscribing to our blogs. You can do so using the subscription link in the upper right of this blog.  You can subscribe to Noel’s blog at One journey, two perspectives.)

If you’re late to the party, here are links to previous posts:

Noel and Joann’s Excellent Adventure (Outside-in)

Video: Why I Want to Know This Woman (Tell Me When to Pack)

Video: Dream Fulfilled and Cut Short (Tell Me When to Pack)

Esther Expedition Itinerary (Tell Me When to Pack)