We've built it, now we must make them come

I suspect that quite a few Chinese rail passengers have received the recent news of the firing of the railway minister with some glee. While the last few years' projects to connect most of the country's major cities with a high-speed rail network are very impressive, they have at least one downside: it is often reported that with the introduction of the new high-speed service, "regular" services on a parallel "regular" are greatly reduced, and passengers in effect are forced to take more expensive high-speed trains. From what I have seen, this certainly is the case with the new Shanghai–Nanjing Intercity High-Speed Railway, commonly known as Huning Gaotie. The new fast line, opened in 2010, parallels the existing "conventional" Shanghai-Nanjing railway, and soon will be paralleled by the even faster Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway. It seems that with the opening of the Huning Gaotie, it became practically impossible to travel in the Shanghai-Nanjing corridor on any of the less expensive "older" services: either the regular K/T/no-letter trains, or the fast D trains (which themselves were introduced only a few years ago). It appears that hardly any D trains from Shanghai terminate in Nanjing anymore; and even though D trains running from Shanghai via Nanjing to points beyond (such as Hefei or Wuhan or Beijing) may often have some spare capacity on the Shanghai-to-Nanjing sections, ticket office won't sell such tickets, and will tell customers to buy a ticket on a (more expensive) G train running on the new line. Same goes for K etc. trains. The difference between the Y146 Shanghai-Nanjing ticket for a G train, and a Y80-90 D train ticket, or a Y50 K-train ticket may be trivial to an upper-middle class professional or a foreign tourist. But for someone who earns Y1000-1500 a month (seems to be a typical wage level e.g. in the service sector) it may mean the difference between being able to afford to visit one's family every weekend or only once a month. Of course, G trains are about 1.5 times as fast as the D train, and 3-4 times as fast as "regular" trains; for the entire Shanghai-Beijing trip, this is 1 h 15 m to 2 h vs. 2-3 hours vs. 4-6 hours. However, for traveling shorter distance (say, Nanjing to Zhenjiang) the time saving is fairly trivial, compared to the overall time cost of buying the ticket, navigating the (huge) train stations, and waiting for the train.


Papers, please!

Border Patrol busy patrolling Detroit Bus Station An interesting report in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan 9, 2011). In the US, anywhere within 100 miles from the international border or the seacoast is considered "border area", and the Border Patrol is allowed to check citizenship / immigration status of any persons there. (In practice, I assume, they don't go after "any person" - since perhaps a quarter of the US population lives within 100 miles from a border or a seacoast - but try to identify suspicious persons based based on their appearance, speech, and behavior). Traditionally, the area along the Mexican border was their main stomping ground; but now sufficient funds and manpower have been allocated for the Border Patrol detachments along the Canadian border as well - including in places like Rochester, NY, which doesn't even have an actual land border with Canada. Not having actual illegal border crossers in the area makes the Border Patrol look for immigration violators wherever they potentially can be found - e.g., aboard Chicago-New York trains that happen to cross Upstate New York, and on the local road. An upshot from this over-abundance of funding is that foreign students and staff members in US universities located within 100 miles from the Canadian border found their papers checked frequently - and they don't mean just one's student ID or a local driver's license, but the full stack of paper establishing one's legal status in the US at the moment: the passport, the I-94, the I-20, and any additional paperwork that may have been added as one's situation changed. The originals, not copies! From the practical point of view, this is of course a hassle and somewhat of a risk. Losing one's passport and associated paperwork while in a foreign country is an expensive proposition: Australia, for example, would charge $326 to replace a lost/stolen passport, while the USCIS will charge another $330 to replace a lost I-94 (a little slip of paper that goes inside one's passport). So no wonder most people would rather keep things like this in a safe deposit box. According to the article, the least pleasant effect of the checks is on people whose current immigration status in the US, while perfectly legal, is not that easy to determine (at least, for an average Border Patrol agent) from the paperwork they possess: namely, those who have applied for an "adjustment of status"(e.g., from an authorized foreign student or foreign worker to permanent residence). Some get detained and locked up for hours or days, even though the totality of the documents that they have in their possession is sufficient to proof their current legal status.


Going to school with the turtles

There is an elementary school in Nanjing's industrail suburb of Ganjiaxiang ("Gan Family's Lane"). Quite an ordinary elementary school, with a metal accordion gate and a sign asking parents not to accompany their children to school, as the kids can do fine on their own. But once the kids enter the grounds, they find themselves walking on a path lined up with stone figures: tortoises carrying tablets on their back, columns with fantastic creatures curling around their bases, and bixie (winged lions). These are 1500 years old, and were erected during the Liang Dynasty, in memory of Xiao Xiu, an otherwise fairly obscure member of the Liang royal family. (The bixie can't be seen in the video, as the school was closed for the Chinese New Year holidays). A hundred years ago, French poet and archaeologist Victor Segalen visited the site and felt that he's communing with the eternity. Why couldn't my elementary school be like this? More photos here.

(As usual, all photos are clickable)


Wuhan's seedy side

An array of seed shops in Zhongshan Lu
It is common for Chinese cities to have shops specializing in a particular type of products to concentrate in a particular small area of the city. There is a street in Yangzhou full of cell phone shops, blocks in Guangzhou where every shop cells electronic components, and of course there are garment districts. But in Wuhan's central Zhongshan St, just a block north of the gigantic Wuchang Railway Station, there is something that may surprise many an urbanite: an entire block of shops - several dozens of them - selling vegetable seeds. With the train station nearby, and a bus station across the street, the place apparently is convenient enough for customers arriving from rural areas.
Beans etc. sold in bulk
Inside a seed shop in Nanjing

A surprisingly large array of seeds are sold in small packets: on the outside, not much bigger than those familiar to North American or Australian backyard gardeners, but loaded rather more generously. (Something like 10 grams of seeds, while an American retailer these days would often sell seeds in milligrams!) Many packets sport mysterious names of innumerable Chinese greens and beans that are often seen in China's farmers markets and restaurants, but rarely elsewhere. Other packets, although full of text, don't even seem to name the vegetable in question - apparently, the seed companies feel that the picture is enough. Many such small packets are priced at just Y1-3 (US$0.15-0.50), although some varieties cost quite a bit more. Some seeds, especially larger ones (such as corn), appear in progressively bigger packets, up to 1 kg in weight; watermelon seeds appear in cute little cans. Others (beans etc) are sold in bulk, some by weight, some by count. For example, the huge dao dou 刀豆 beans, a.k.a. jackbeans, went four for Y1 in one of the shops; that would be about 25 beans for $1.

I would be curious to know to which extent Chinese farmers rely on shops like this to get their seed supply every year (after all, some are hybrid varieties, and the packages often say that you can't save seeds), and to which extent they would just come to a shop like this just one to buy some new variety, intending to save the seeds in future years. In any event, the trade appears brisk enough, both in August and in February.

Some vegetables however, can't be started with material from a seed shop: you apparently need to be a farmer who knows another farmer... Luhao (芦蒿), a prized specialty of the lower Yangtze area (tastes a bit like asparagus to me) is said to propagate only by root material, rather than by seeds. Although shanyao (山药; something that looks like a remarkably long and rather expensive radish, and tastes to me rather like a potato) is propagated by seeds, its seeds are said not to be commonly available commercially either.

Wuhan, of course, is not unique. Other cities have such seed shop blocks too: Nanjing's is in the market at Dong Fang Cheng 60 (less than a kilometer east of the Eastern Bus Station), and reportedly Hong Kong has an area like this as well, in Sheung Wan Connaught Road West. While places like this are interesting to visit for their educational value, if you actually intend to take some seeds outside China, it is advisable to become aware of your country's applicable quarantine laws and regulation.


Happy New Year!

A white rabbit - the best gift for the New Year of the Rabbit!

Chinese New Year - just like Christmas, but with a rabbit instead of Jesus.Maybe it's better this way...

Around the Chinese New Year, Yangzhou's street vendors roll out the traditional Yangzhou New Year selection: strawberries, radishes (green outside, red inside), and water chestnuts. Apparently, there is a large district of strawberry hothouse just east of the city.

Days of frenetic shopping activity before the holidays, although I guess what's mostly bought are various ornaments to "deck the halls" and delicacies for the New Year table, rather than gifts.

As the families sit down for the festive meal in the early evening on the New Year eve, the sound of firecrackers outside makes you feel that the city is under artillery bombardment by enemy forces. By the midnight, everyone blows up their firecrackers and fireworks all at once, waking up an occasional sleeping foreigner, and all car alarms in town go off.

At 9:30 am the next morning, I find the hotel door locked. Fortunately, the back door is open.

Xin nian hao!


Yangzhou's pyramid

Who shall doubt "the secret hid
Under Cheops' pyramid"
Was that the contractor did
Cheops out of several millions?
           Rudyard Kipling, "A general summary"


Keep that A/C off

A conversation in a cell phone service office in Wuhan, Hubei:

"How do you like Wuhan?"

"Oh, it's nice here, but a bit cold".

"Yeah, in Beijing they have heating ( 暖气, *nuanqi*), but here we don't".

It is mid-January, it's around -5 C (20F) outside, and hardly much
more than +5C (40F) in the office. Everyone involved wears a winter
coat, and some (at least me) a winter hat too.

And indeed, unlike northern China (such as Beijing), indoor heating of
any kind is viewed as merely an *option* (a somewhat extravagant one,
at that) in the cities of China's Yangtze valley, such as Wuhan and
Nanjing. The region is at roughly 30 degrees latitude - the latitude
of Los Angeles or Morocco - but the climate is a lot more continental.
It is very hot in the summer (these two cities, along with Chongqing,
are known as China's "three furnaces"), but the winter is decidedly
"wintery" - it feels about as cold as in Southern Indiana or in some
parts of British Columbia. I am not sure what the traditional way of
heating the living space in winter in this region was - maybe burning
coal brickets in small stoves, or something like that - but these
days, the only available option in most modern buildings here would be
turning on their air conditioners in the "heating" mode. This, as I
understand, is considered a rather extravagant thing to do, at least
by the older generations, often even in fairly fancy offices or
apartments. And of course even when the A/C heating is on, it's not
very effective: it gives you a stream of dry hot air blowing through
the room, the rest of the place still being pretty cold.

I am not familiar with the local electricity prices, but budget hotels
here sometimes offer the use of A/C (for heating in winter) as an
option, for Y10-20 per day per room - something that would amount to
Y300-600 (US$50-100) a month.

From the environmental point of view, I suppose we all should be
grateful to the people of Jiangnan for not turning their heating on,
as the extra electric energy needed for that would come from burning
coal - and it probably would take more coal to heat the homes in the
region from Chengdu to Shanghai than any European country uses....