Urban Giants tells the story of two massive telecom centers hidden in plain sight in the heart of Manhattan
It is the most impressive thing I’ve ever set eye – or foot – upon.
The original wall was begun during the reign of the First Emperor of China along an east-to-west line to protect the northern borders of what was then a smaller-in-size China from invaders. This wall was built by connecting sections of wall that were already 500 years old.
Over the subsequent centuries new sections were built and then connected. However, little of that wall remains. Much of what we see as the Great Wall was reconstructed between 1400 and 1600 AD.
We visited the Badaling section, about 90 minutes outside of Beijing. Constructed of stone walkways, some set at steep angles with guard houses, the Wall is a difficult walk.
Worse in slides.
Even worse with pulled tendons in your feet. Which you get from wearing slides on the Great Wall.
Leaving Badaling, the temperature was a breezy 77 degrees. As we headed back into Beijing, the temperature climbed. And kept going.
Figuring this out was complicated by the fact that everything – including the temperature reading in our van – is in Celcius, so I tried to remember my old high school math teacher’s quick formula, and do it in my head.
USEFUL MATH BREAK:
It goes like this. Take the Celcius temperature and double it. It was 28C.
28 x 2 = 56
Now take 20% of 56 and subtract it from 56. An easy way is to put a decimal in (56 becomes 5.6), double it (11.2) and subtract that number from your initial doubled number
56 – 11 = 45* (* close enough, we’re figuring temperature, not landing a rocket. No one ever says “Carl, it feels hotter; are you sure you didn’t forget to add the .2?”)
Now add 32 (to make up for the fact that freezing is 32F but 0C).
45 + 32 = 77 degrees
(Cx2) – ((Cx2) x .1) + 32 = F
As we drove into Beijing, it was hitting 40C. Do the math.
(40 x 2) – ((40×2) x .1) + 32 = F
(80) – (80 x .1) +32 = F
80 – 8 + 32 = 104
It was 104 degrees in Beijing.
And we were going to Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City, which is a great expanse of concrete and stone.
Tianenmen Square is China’s equivalent of the National Mall in Washington DC. It’s bound on one end by the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where you can still see him on display, nearly 40 years after his death.
Complete side note: Communist countries have this thing about keeping their leaders on permanent display. Russia has done it with Lenin. If you’re really curious about the process, click here and here.
On the other end of the square is the entrance to the Forbidden City, the ancient home of the First Emperor. It is, of course, marked by a giant portrait of Mao.
Tianenmen Square was also the site of the June 4 Massacre. On that night in 1989, citizens, mostly students, took to the streets in protest, wanting greater reforms. And their military murdered them. Unofficial estimates say over 4000 died that night.
Walking in Tianenmen, it’s impossible not to see the grainy video that was smuggled to the West in your head, and imagine those thousands of people being murdered by their own government in the middle of the capital.
Security was tight. Uniformed and (pretty obvious) plainclothes security forces were everywhere, including the severe-eyed, stone jawed dude wearing the most ironic “Mr. Music” t-shirt boring holes through everyone at the Meridian Gate. Every pole was covered in a swarm of CCTV cameras.
Still, we managed to get a bit of Wilkes in:
The Forbidden City is awesome. It’s also where we all finally broke. It was a humid 104 degrees, we were in the middle of a giant stone city-within-a-city-within-a-city, there was no breeze and we were done. We didn’t make it all the way through. It’s set up like Russian nesting dolls. Gate, giant plaza, gate, giant plaza…. and we couldn’t do it. We were – finally – done.
Back to the hotel to
burn my clothes take a shower.
That night, our last in China, we headed back to Wangfujing Street. Wangfujing Street at night is incredible. It’s a giant road, closed to traffic, that’s part high-end shopping district:
…annnnnnnd then we hit what’s known as Crazy Food Street.
I’m told that Chinese don’t really eat this stuff, but tourists think they do and so they sell it because adventurous westerners who think they’re Tony Bourdain will actually buy some of this stuff to try it.
Let me apologize for the slight blur in advance. This was Dante’s 5th circle of Hell, not because of the food (more later), and I just wanted to get shots and get out.
There were also whole roasted baby robins, skinned snakes uncooked on a skewer, whole uncooked squid (do-it-yourself calamari?). If you saw it in a nightmare, it was there.
The reason for our haste wasn’t just because of the local culinary color, but because we went from high-end Wangfujing into the depths of poverty in 20 feet.
At 6’3″ with blondish hair and blue eyes, I stood out. I had countless phones shoved at me and pictures snapped for the last 10 days.
This is where it went to horrifyingly heartbreaking. One female beggar, she could have been 25 and she looked 55, came up to me and shoved her 2 year old into my arms and yelled in broken English “PLEASE! THANK YOU! PLEASE! THANK YOU!”.
I was terribly alarmed for the kid, and I had no idea what she wanted – well, money was obvious – but I was wondering if she was trying to sell me her child.
I had been warned that some beggars are actually human slaves, and that giving them money only enables the trade. I don’t know if it’s true, but I was also warned that giving money to one also makes you a target for every other one. I’ve been in major American cities and I’ve seen panhandlers, but nothing like this.
I’m trying to keep walking, and this child is getting squished between her mother and I. I have my hands over my head and I’m getting panicky. As she keeps yelling “PLEASE! THANK YOU! PLEASE! THANK YOU!”, I keep saying “No. No. No thank you. No”, until Xaio gives her 5RNB (about 80 cents US) and she goes away.
This is China.
This is a real sign.
Points to ponder:
– This is truly a lovely tribute to a man (?)(I hope it’s a man) who gave his time as a community volunteer
– if my friends ever used my nickname in a public memorial (not that I have one)(as far as you know), I’d return and haunt them.
– Not that I’d ever (hopefully) have a nickname like Lumpy. Though I’m sure it was meant lovingly. Most likely.
– I like to picture Lumpy out there, takin’ ‘er easy for all of us.
– As if Lumpy would take ‘er any other way.
[The whole series of blogs can be read here]
Monday the 30th was mostly a travel day – another bullet train, this one from Zhengzhou to our new home base in Beijing. So this seems a good a place as any to add in some miscellaneous thoughts that don’t fit elsewhere.
Let me preface this whole series with this thought: I’m not trying to be ethnocentric. I admire much of what I saw of China. In some cases, I chalk up the things I didn’t like to a difference of opinion and a culture gap. In no way am I a pro-America chest thumper. The main reason for our trip was to try to build, in our own little way, ties between China and the U.S. by introducing our students to each other.
That said, most of the culture shock was instructive. And some of it was really funny.
CONSTRUCTION AND VENEER
China is building. This is not a controversial statement, but until you see it – the sheer amount of it – you cannot appreciate it. America hasn’t seen a building boom like this in over 50 years, and that’s only scaled down to our size. We’ve never done anything like this.
No matter where we went, there it was. Entire neighborhoods, 20 or 30 city blocks square, razed and being replaced with new buildings.
The scale and scope was amazing.
What was equally striking was the short lifespan that much of the construction has. We were in several buildings that were less than 15 years old. The facades were beautiful, the foyers and very public areas were flawless. But when we got into the building, there were massive structural flaws – gaping cracks in the concrete walls that weren’t evidence of settlement as much as wholesale shifting. There were 2 inch gaps in many places. Nothing seemed to be maintained, even to the point of a fresh coat of paint.
Decade-old residential buildings (I asked) were showing rust stains down the sides and evidence of structural defects. The massive residential buildings appeared to be mostly pre-fabricated concrete boxes stacked like so many boxes of saltine crackers. In these huge new residential areas, where 20 or 30 new buildings, each 20-30 floors, were being constructed at the same time, there was little evidence of structural steel girders.
It seemed to be so much facade, much of it for show, with corner-cutting everywhere. Say what you will about American government regulations, but these buildings would not be allowed to be built in the U.S..
In a real way, China seems to be where the United States was during the Gilded Age, past its own industrial revolution and coming into its own as a world power. They’re just trying to do it at an accelerated pace. And in the middle of so much great history, the present seems entirely disposable. There is an urgency to now, no matter the cost or price to be paid. Perhaps remnants of Mao’s Great Leap Forward mindset?
For those too lazy to click and read, a study claims that pollution in northern China cuts 5.5 years off the life of the average Chinese and that “based on their modeling, the researchers estimated that the 500 million residents of northern China in the 1990s collectively lost 2.5 billion years from their lives”.
There was also this: “In January, PM 2.5 measurements [particulates in the air] reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of northeastern China. A daily reading above 300 is considered “hazardous” and the index stops at 500. By comparison, the U.S. has seen readings of 1,000 only in areas downwind of forest fires. The U.S. national air quality standard for daily PM 2.5 exposure is 35, and most areas in the U.S. are easily below that threshold.”
Living in Beijing on a bad day is the equivalent of being downwind of a forest fire. Please remember that the next time a politician recommends doing away with clean air laws.
Unless it has freshly rained to clean the skies (and pour the suspended pollution into the groundwater, which it did when we arrived back in Beijing), the air is a filthy, depressing, disgusting mess.
AMERICAN FAST FOOD; CHOPSTICKS AS DIETARY AIDE; SUPERSIZE WHAT?
China’s cities have lots of American fast food. You’d expect McDonald’s, and you’d be right. I avoided it out of principle.
The bigger surprise was KFC. KFC is huge in China. In the northeast U.S., KFC is an also-ran chain. Not in China. It enjoys prominent status. Urban areas in China are almost as saturated with KFC as the U.S. is with Starbucks.
It’s not quite the same as an American KFC.
Which might not be the worst thing in the world. We had KFC three times when we needed something quick and (fairly) predictable. Which is twice more than I’ve eaten it here in the last 5 years.
China doesn’t supersize. Because I don’t speak Chinese and your average Chinese KFC worker doesn’t speak English, Xiaoqiao, Wilkes University’s China coordinator, did the ordering for us. So when I ordered a chicken sandwich meal, large, I had certain expectations. When Xiao came back with drinks that, to me, looked like a small, I said “oh, they’re out of large cups?”. To which she responded, “those ARE the large cups”.
Sheltered – and way overfed – Americans.
Which leads to a broader (pardon the pun) point: if you saw someone who was obese, you could bet all of your RNB that they were American. Granted, I didn’t get a look at all 1.1 billion Chinese, but I didn’t see one that fit the American definition of fat. I saw a bunch of Americans that did. You don’t realize how obese we are as a nation until you go to the east.
Part of it is that eating in China seems to be slower. For one, you really can’t plow through your food with chopsticks the way you can with a fork the size of dustpan. You have to eat slower and it gives your brain a chance to realize that “hey, I’m full” before you’ve polished off another thousand calories.
China has also instituted a national ‘eat healthy’ campaign, portraying healthier eating as a duty to your country. Kind of like Michelle Obama. Maybe that’s why Sarah Palin thinks she’s a Commie for trying to encourage kids (and her husband) to lay off the junk food.
Chinese folkways say that cold things – water, soda – are bad for you. Even on a 97 degree day. Hot tea or plain hot water is almost always offered as a refreshment upon your arrival. You can’t order a cold water in KFC. If you need it, you get boiled water with ice – though I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that NO ONE should be drinking tap water in China. We even brushed our teeth with bottled.
Nothing says refreshing when you’re sweating gallons on a hot day like a cup of scalding hot tea.
File this under: things to know when traveling in Asia.
They (largely) don’t use American-style toilets.
This is a (cleaner) example of an Asian toilet. A porcelain hole in the ground.
You also have to bring your own toilet tissue. There is none in there for public use.
There are some American-style toilets. We called them ‘sitters’. Versus the ‘squatter’. You can figure it out. Mostly you’ll find sitters in American hotels (we booked based largely on that criteria) or handicapped stalls. In the cities, they weren’t hard to find. Out in the mountains, at the touristy places (Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin Temple, Terracotta Army, The Great Wall), not so much.
And opening those stall doors was like kicking in the door on a random house. Maybe it’s a pleasant sitch and maybe you just burst into the filthiest restroom in the Port Authority in NYC. You don’t know until you try it. There was a game show in the 1970’s and 80’s called Let’s Make A Deal, starring Monty Hall. Monty would give away cash and prizes, and then give you the opportunity to trade them away for a shot at something bigger behind “Door #3”. Sometimes it was a new car, and sometimes…. it wasn’t. Or, to quote Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.
At the Shaolin Temple the restrooms were outside-accessible individual stalls, like a strip mall. They all had this sign:
Mike and I initially thought it meant that you could go skiing or tobogganing. But that doesn’t make sens….. ohhhhhhhh….. right. Got it.
As confusing as this was to us, sitters are equally confusing to Chinese who haven’t traveled much. Sitter stalls often have variants on this sign:
I thought it was a joke.
It is not.
At the Beijing airport, just before we boarded our flight home, Mike and I were washing our hands in the men’s room of the VIP lounge. It was a lovely men’s room, and not just as far as men’s rooms go (always fly first class if you can). The stalls were elevated about a foot off the floor. In the mirror, we could see a man’s head over the stall door. It was close to 8 feet of the ground. Doubting it was Yao Ming, we both instantly realized that the right side of the above sign was, in fact, a necessary coaching maneuver. It turns out that there are some horrific injuries suffered by Chinese who try to squat on a sitter. Don’t Google it, just trust me. Do. Not. Stand. On. The. Rim. Of. A. Toilet.
This is China.
[The whole series of blogs can be read here]
Scene: Youth in Government at Keystone College
Following a session on the media’s role in government, WBRE-TV I-team reporter @andymehalshick – a great storyteller, by the way – interviewed Gavin, asking about the effect of corruption scandals on young adult’s feelings about government service.
Gavin’s answer was awesome (if not a bit of a filibuster). His forum question brought his accent to Andy’s attention and got him welcomed to America. It was like a scene out of Borat, given that Gavin has been in America for over a decade. Aside from the FCR people in the room, no one else understood why Andy’s heartfelt greeting was so funny. He seems to have acclimated to our strange customs.
Later, we cornered former Scranton Mayor James Barrett McNulty for a picture. He’s an incredibly gracious personality and hasn’t missed a chance to get in front of a camera in the last 40 years.