Beijing: Jet lag takes its toll

To skip forward in time a little bit: I spent most of the day Sunday, 29 Oct, waiting in line in the Beijing Airport, and left at 5:00 PM (Beijing time) on the transcontinental flight to Newark. Due to the wonders of the International Date Line and the odd coincidence of the end of Daylight Savings time, in local time, my flight landed about 35 minutes after it took off. (Funny, it felt longer than that.)

I had a long layover (twelve hours) last night in Newark, and booked a hotel room for the night on the hope that I would sleep. Curiously, I could not, which was not my experience on the way out. So now, as I write this, I’m waiting in the Washington Dulles airport for my final flight, having slept about 5 hours in the last 40, give or take. We’re now working our way into the late evening Beijing time, and by the time I get off the plane in Charlottesville, I’m afraid that (1) I’m probably not going to stay awake long and (2) switching back to EST might be harder than the switch to Beijing time.

The point of this little rant is to apologize for and to explain the lack of recent updates. I still have three days of travelogue left to fill in, and I took lots of pictures and notes. So don’t worry, those posts are forthcoming; it just may take a couple of days. Personally, I blame the non-Euclidean geometry of the planet.

Beijing: Day five — playing hooky at the Summer Palace

Wednesday was supposed to be a full day at the conference, but I only made it through the first (8:00-10:00 AM) session before I decided I would be a bad, bad structural genomicist, skip the rest of the day’s talks, and spend the day at the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace is a complex of buildings near a lake in northwest Beijing where the emperor would go to get away from the stresses of life in the Forbidden City (its palatial expanses, its hundreds of concubines, etc.). Apparently the lake itself was pretty small to start with, but apparently 100,000 slave laborers can do quite a bit to expand the size of a lake, and now it’s probably better than a kilometer east to west and two north to south. The lake is surrounded by a band of forests and gardens. There’s a hill on the north end with a decent-sized Buddhist temple, which is the large building you see in the background of many of these pictures.

We started along the lake on the eastern side, and walked south along the paved shoreline. There were many tourists around, but despite the bustle of people, the place felt noticeably more peaceful than the rest of Beijing. I heard birds chirping, and felt a constant cool breeze blowing across the water. There were several benches along the sidewalk, on which many tourists were resting, watching the water.

About halfway south in the lake, there is a small island, connected to the shore by an ornate, 17-arch bridge, which is creatively named “The Seventeen Arch Bridge”. There are hundreds of small carved lions along the bridge along the railings of the bridge, each one in a different pose.

We walked over to the island, and toured the small pavilions that were there, then took a ferry to the from the island to the hill in the north. When we got off the ferry, the crowds were considerably larger. Clearly the complex around the temple is the most popular draw in the Summer Palace park. We started to work our way up the hill, which is surprisingly steep. Along the way, we passed a building called the “Walking through a Rice Paper Painting” pavilion (the Chinese have such wonderful names for their buildings). This building was integrated into the rock of the hillside and had positively beautiful architecture.

We reached the peak of the hillside, and I made sure I got the requisite “King of the Mountain” picture.

We then went down into the temple proper. The temple itself is a circular building in a small square courtyard with narrow shutters. Within the building itself there is a single large chamber with a 10-foot-tall golden Buddha statue with many arms. I don’t have a picture of the statue, or of any other Buddha statues on this trip for that matter, because most of the temples have a policy forbidding photography within the buildings themselves. The building from the outside, however, is pretty impressive.

What’s even more impressive is the view from the temple. Not only can you see the whole lake in a panoramic view, you can also see the city rising behind the trees ringing the park.

We went back down from the top of the hill, and before we headed back to the hotel, wandered around the back of the hillside to a place called Suzhou Street. In the days of the Ming dynasty, this canal-side street was a marketplace, and was recently restored. Of course, what better way to simulate a Ming dynasty marketplace than to pack each stall with souvenier shops and pushy sellers in period clothes? Add to that the fact that the sidewalk between the stalls and the canal was so narrow that signs asked that people walk along the circuit in a single direction, and what you had was less of a historical display and more of a gauntlet.

Having run the Suzhou gauntlet more or less unscathed (the one fragment of Mandarin I know best means “No, I don’t want to buy anything”), we caught a bus back to the hotel in time for the conference banquet. We had quite a large, impressive Chinese-style meal (I’ll talk more about food in China in the next post). I personally ate way too much and passed out shortly thereafter.

Beijing: Days three and four — meetings and bite-sized beef ribs

My Monday and Tuesday were primarily spent in the meeting hall. The ICSG 2006 meeting usually has talks all day from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with a two hour break for lunch and poster viewing. I’m not going to describe the meeting itself, on the thought that most of you out there reading this probably aren’t interested. The few of you that are I’ll tell you about it in person. I will say that my advisor Wladek Minor gave a pretty good presentation on Monday afternoon. There were a few technical issues with projectors and laptop power management to be worked out, but his talk went on without a hitch.

More or less, I think I’ve switched over to Beijing time. I still get pretty sleepy about 9:30 – 10:00 PM, and find myself waking up at 5:00 AM (those of you doing the math on my blog posting times will note that I’m posting these pretty early in the morning over here). But I’m no longer passing out from exhaustion in the middle of the afternoon. Unfortunately, I think I’ve adapted enough that I’m going to have to do it again when I get back to Charlottesville.

We are on our own for dinner most nights. On Monday night, I wandered by foot around the district where our hotel is located. There are a lot of restaurants and for some reason late-night hairstyling salons. I also saw some people playing pickup badminton in the street. I ending up going into a Chinese fast-food place called “Kung-Fu” (their logo included a cartoon representation of Bruce Lee) and ordering some sort of beef ribs meal. It included some bite-sized pieces of beef ribs, but for reasons I don’t understand, every piece had a chunk of bone in it. I had two or three pieces and then gave up. Thank God a big bowl of rice came with the meal.

The next night my dinner primarily consisted of Oreos.

Beijing: Day two — Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City

Matt in Tian'anmen Square

I woke up very early on Sunday morning, which is not all that surprising given that I went to sleep at 5:00 PM Saturday. “Very early” in this case is defined as 1:00 AM, so it almost wasn’t Sunday at all. It certainly wasn’t Sunday in Virginia when I woke up. I tried to go back to sleep a couple of times, but by about 3:30 or 4:00 AM I just surrendered.

I’m here in Beijing with Marek, a post-doc in my lab, who also got up early Sunday morning. We were both showered and dressed by about 5:30 or 6:00 AM, and we didn’t need to be back at the hotel for the meeting’s opening ceremonies until about 4:00 PM. So we decided to see some of the sights during the day. We at first thought we might be able to walk to the downtown area to see Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but after looking at the scale of some of the maps we looked at, we realized that we were close to 10 kilometers away from the city center, despite we were within the third beltway road (Beijing has five). Beijing is flat and gigantic, and growing at an unbelievable rate. It’s easily 20-25 kilometers both east to west and north to south. You have to take a taxi to get anywhere.

Of course, if you set foot in a taxi, you take your life into your own hands. It wasn’t just the guy that drove us from the airport. All Beijing taxi drivers drive like maniacs. They’ll honk at anyone– pedestrians, bicyclists, other cars, trucks– for the slightest provocation. They’ll change lanes between in a 20-foot gap between cars at 50 miles an hour like they’re in a high-speed chase. And they obviously only need about 6 inches of clearance around their own vehicle to get where they are going.

The driver took us to Tian’anmen Square, which is a huge edifice to Mao Zedong. Marek was accosted by a man in the sidewalk selling small red books with the quotations of Mao in Mandarin and English, and insisted on getting his picture taken holding the book in front of various Communist era monuments. Must be some sort of Polish thing.

We were trying to see if the Mao mausoleum was open when a young man who spoke pretty good English approached us and told us he was an art student who was having a free exhibition. He took us to a space above the gift shop for the Chinese National Museum and described some of the paintings he and his friend had made, and oh, by the way, they were for sale. We had a hard time getting out of there after that. Generally, people selling things to Westerners were very pushy. They followed you around and kept trying to take you into private rooms and sell you whatever they had for sale, so much so that by the end of the day I was very wary of gift shops. Several times as we walked through the Forbidden City, we were greeted by “college students” with “free art exhibitions”. What’s most surprising to me is that these people had space within official museums.

Anyway, Marek and I bought tickets to go into the Forbidden City, which is a sprawling complex of beautiful buildings, some of which are more than 600 years old. For many years, these buildings were the home of the emperors, and their queens, courts, and concubines. We saw an art exhibit of Russian art on loan from Moscow and walked through most of the City.

Oh, a quick note, if you ever travel with Marek, keep in mind he is a photography nut. I’m pretty sure he took like 500 pictures.

By the time we were done in the Forbidden City at about 2:30 PM, I was pretty tired and a little cranky. We caught a taxi back to the hotel and went to the opening ceremonies for the meeting. By 5:30 PM, I was having serious trouble staying awake. There was an opening banquet at 7:00 PM, and I excused myself early and went to bed.

Beijing: the first day

We left from Newark about 1:00 PM EDT, to fly non-stop to Beijing. If you looked at the standard Mercator projection of the Earth they showed on the monitors on the plane, our path to Beijing was a very confusing one. The route looked like a very big upside-down U, as we were due to fly due north over Greenland, travel halfway east-west across the world, and then fly due south over Siberia and Mongolia. Not until we got halfway and the map changed to a polar projection (e.g., the North Pole was at the center with the longitude lines projecting radially) did I figure out what was going on. The east coast and Beijing are almost exactly on opposite sides of the planet, and the shortest path was a straight line[1] more or less over the North Pole. In case you are wondering, pretty much everything north of Canada and Siberia is a featureless white sheet of ice and snow.

There were about 12 different channels, each running about 2.5 hours of TV programming on a repeating loop. After I watched the 2 channels I was marginally interested in (X-Men III and three episodes of House), I still had nine hours to burn. I watched as many episodes of Veronica Mars as my laptop batteries would allow (not that many). One might have thought that if I was going to take a thirteen hour flight to a place with a twelve-hour time difference, sleeping on the plane would have been wise, but I couldn’t, no matter how much I tried. The longer the flight went, the more I had to get out of my window seat and bother the nice elderly couple between me and the aisle. By the time I got to Beijing, I was pretty much exhausted, my brain thinking it’s 1 AM but my eyes telling me it’s 1 PM.

When I first starting thinking what Beijing would be like, I figured that it would be a truly alien place. Chinese culture, like its language, must be so far different from what I am used to that I wouldn’t even be able to process it. Well, I think I was wrong. The Beijing airport is pretty much like any other airport I’ve ever been in. The taxi ride from the airport was very much the same. Apart from the fact that Beijing taxi drivers drive like lunatics and that the road signs were in gibberish[2], the ride from the airport would have been indistinguishable from a taxi ride from, say, Washington Dulles.

After a surprisingly long taxi ride, we arrived at our hotel. The hotel is a multi-building complex, and of course we weren’t staying in the fancy main building, but the student building next door. We checked into our room at about 5:00 PM local time, and despite the fact that I should have tried to stay up later to get over my jet lag, I was unconscious within about 10 minutes.

[1] Yes, I know it’s not really a straight line. Don’t email me.

[2] To only my eyes, obviously.


For those of you who don’t know, I will be attending a meeting in Beijing, China, for the next 10 days. I will go to this meeting the first part of the week and then get a chance to sightsee around the city– the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall of China. I will have wireless access in the hotel (or at least that’s what the Interweb tells me), so rather than keeping a written journal, as is my custom, I plan to do the very 21st-century thing and blog it.

Ordinarily I’m very nervous about traveling– people who have flown with me will testify I’m usually a nervous wreck– but right now, waiting in the Newark terminal, I’m mostly excited. I woke up at 3:30 AM this morning, even though my alarm wasn’t set to go off until 4:00 PM. I get to walk on the Great Wall of China. How cool is that?