Monthly Archives: March 2009

old flames

campanile - spring 2004

campanile - spring 2004

they say that old flames die hard. or to put it more aptly, they never really leave us.

berkeley will always be that old flame for me – bringing back bittersweet memories, a well of inspiration, a place of solace. now that i’ve been out of school for almost two years, i am increasingly reminded of the opportunities and good fortune in my life, which most certainly includes my days at berkeley.

i was always a decent student throughout elementary school and high school, but i learned mechanically. i finished work because it was what i was told to do. it was something that rather than relishing the process it led me through, gave me satisfaction only when a result and a conclusion was reached.

and while this practice would subconsciously follow me through my undergraduate years, it would be at berkeley that i would begin to discover the passion of learning. as i paused to reflect after graduation at what the past four years had meant, i realized that it was only a beginning to what would truly be a lifelong of learning.

and while i wish i had reached this epiphany earlier in life, i hope it’s one that will direct me onward going forward. but where? and in what? i guess the first step to any question is a decision. and decisions … decisions seem to always be at the crux of any endeavor.

perhaps it’s time to revisit old flames, or variations thereof. and even if they burn, we’ll always have that elusive hope to carry us through. after all, is it not better to let the dancing embers of our passions brush against our fingertips than to let the coldness of our excuses and insecurites drench out our flames?


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i just got off the phone with a couple from southern california. they have three biological children of their own, and have adopted three more orphans from china. of their three adopted children, one is almost blind, and the other suffers from a cleft lip and palette. one is from guangdong, another from shaanxi, and another from hunan.

and they’re looking to adopt more, citing the love and grace of god, and all the blessings that he has given to them.

open hearts, humanity, joy.

today, i am reminded of love.

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comme la mer, comme le vent —

vivant entre les lignes, mais dis-moi,

est-ce que c’est vraiment vivant?

entre l’espace et la lumiere,

le tout va avec la destine …

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Travel in China – Logistics

I noticed that a lot of traffic this blog gets is coming from people looking for logistical information regarding travel in China.  Hence, I thought it would be helpful if I listed out some resources and paths, following my own route:

Before I begin, here are some general guidelines:

Train travel is one of the most efficient ways to get around the country; costs are considerably less than flights, and actually are pretty comfortable. It’s also a great way to see the country and meet people you normally wouldn’t in more tourist destinations.

I prefer traveling in the hard sleeper section (arrangement is six berths in each compartment — upper, middle, and lower). You can also opt for the soft sleeper section, which is essentially a private compartment with four beds. Prices are considerably higher for these.

For the truly brave with strong backs, you can also choose the hard/soft seater section. It’s absolutely fine for short trips (e.g., two to three hours) but not recommended for overnight trips … I remember doing it once and not getting the greatest night’s sleep …

To find out more about riding trains in China, a great website is Seat61. A timetable of train times can be found at the China Train Schedule.

Cash and getting cash can become tedious when you make long trips and don’t like to carry large amounts of cash on you. For those who have Bank of America, you can use your BofA ATM card at any Chinese Construction Bank (中国建设银行). I never really had that much trouble finding a CCB and definitely recommend this over opening a Chinese bank account (the problem here being that even after going through the trouble of opening a Chinese bank account, you still face transaction fees when withdrawing cash from anywhere outside the city where you originally opened your account) or carrying large quantities of cash on you. BofA does not charge any transaction fees for these withdrawls, and conversions are made based on the exchange rate that day.

A handy credit card to have is the Capital One No Hassles Reward Card — there are no fees for charges made in China, and you even get 1% cash back!

Shanghai to Huangshan: Here, you have two options.

1) Overnight train to Huangshan — travel time: 11 hours. According to China Travel Guide, the train departs Shanghai at 10:35 p.m.and arrives the next morning at 10:00 a.m. This should give you enough time to catch a quick lunch, and make the one hour car trip to Tangkou, the town the base of the mountain.

Ideally, you’ll get there by 1 p.m., where you can then buy a ticket (it was 200 yuan when I went in October 2008; 100 yuan with student ID during what’s considered the “peak season”). This will leave you with plenty of time to either hike/take the cable car up “hou shan” (the back of the mountain). If you take the cable car, I think it’s about 15 minutes to the top. It’s about a 2 hour hike up otherwise.

Once you get to the top, check in at one of the “hotels” located at the top of the mountain. Prices run steep for beds here (I paid 200 yuan for a bed in a room I shared with 7 other girls; my hostel in Tunxi was 30 yuan a night for a room I shared with five other girls). It’s advised that you make reservations at the base of the mountain first, but there is also an off-chance that prices could be cheaper on the mountain depending on how many people end up showing up. I was told that the mountain was “packed” when I would go up, but there ended up being some empty beds at other hotels.

2) Bus ride from Shanghai to Huangshan — travel time: 5-6 hours. The bus ride costs about 110 yuan from Shanghai Bus Station to Tunxi. There are several departures throughout the day (I think the earliest leaves at around 7:40 a.m.); I opted to take the 9:40 a.m. bus (unfortunately there’s not handy bus schedule website I can direct you to — tickets need to be purchased at the bus/train station).

I arrived at the Tunxi station at about 3 p.m., leaving me with time to check in, buy my train tickets to Guilin, eat dinner, walk around town, and catch a good night’s sleep.

Huangshan to Hongcun and Xidi:

With a tour: (cost ~ 150 yuan) As I mentioned in an earlier post, you can either go with a tour or by yourself. The tour runs about 150 yuan (I don’t remember the exact price) and covers admission to both places, roundtrip transportation from Tunxi, and lunch (really simple lunch that isn’t really worth it). The downside is that you’ll be dragged to “tourist traps” following your visit (i.e., cotton factories, silk shops, jewelery shops)

Without a tour: (cost – 20 yuan for transportation, 80 yuan for admission at Hongcun, 80 yuan for admission at Xidi) Alternatively, and this is what I would recommend, you could take a bus from Tunxi to Hongcun (probably about 10 yuan — I don’t really remember) which departs from the Tunxi Bus Station (really close to the train station). The only thing to watch here is time, as the last bus comes back from Hongcun at around 4 p.m. I don’t think there is a bus that goes from Hongcun to Xidi unfortunately … but I do remember seeing some cars outside that offered to take you the short distance between the two villages.

You can also choose to stay overnight at one of these villages (helps if you have some command of Chinese!). Both are beautiful sites that warrant a visit, and gives visitors a glimpse of China that can’t be seen in the country’s metropolitan areas. I fell in love with the area’s peace, serenity, and culture, and if anyone is looking for a place to stay in Xidi, I can provide some reference.

Bottom line: If you have little time and/or money, a tour is the most economical way to visit these villages. Otherwise, staying a couple days will give you the chance to see a different side of China.

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haruki murakami is one of my favorite authors. the dreamy, non-conformist characters, the way his words flow, the way he lets you into the minds of the characters he draws, its almost existential characteristics (as much a tribute to the translator as it is to the author) … it touches the mind in a way that few other literary works have for me.

recently, i picked up his personal memoir, “what i think about when i think about running,” and one section in particular struck a chord with me. perhaps it spoke to a philosophy that i knew to be true. perhaps it spoke to a work ethic that i admire and respect but too often lack.

it spoke of his singular focus when it came to writing.

he talked of how writing is as demanding of a physical exercise as running is, if not more. it required talent when you were young, and maturity and willpower as you aged. it was partly for this reason that he ran every day, to get into that routine. and how everyday, he would force himself down to write, even if nothing inspiring transpired.

it made think of what would be possible if only we could focus, to dedicate our time to the development and refinement of a single, or a few, crafts.

and it would be in this fashion that murakami would finish his own personal story. with focus, diligence, thought and retrospect, and consistency.


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thinking about motivation, success, and action.

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hongcun & xidi | 宏村 & 西递

Hongcun - October 2008

Hongcun - October 2008

So, I realized how long my Huangshan post was getting and figured I’d best break it out. Given my extra day in the area, I took my bus-mate’s advice on the ride to Tunxi and check out Hongcun and Xidi. Feeling especially lazy with the slight inkling that a cold was catching up to me, I decided to book a tour with the hostel, knowing full well that  I was exchanging a logistical peace of mind for a day of inflexible schedules, and being forced to visit one factory or another. 😛 I figured that a day with a Chinese tour group would be better than being forced to cut my trip short by some nasty cold.

And of course, I ended up wishing I had just gone on my own as soon as I saw these beautiful towns that seemed to jump out of history books and fairy tales.

Hongcun and Xidi are part of the Hui Minority Group, and each had architecture that was unique to their cultures and histories that traced back for centuries.   Neither had windows, and relied on skylights for light and fresh air as that was considred safer. Hongcun was the first stop — even with the masses of tourists, the town’s quiet exquisteness was unreal. Perhaps it was the weather that day, creating a layer of mist against rolling green mountains and hills.

Hongcun was known for producing academics, and the tour guide pointed out all the scholarly relics that had been passed on through time.

The next stop on the trip was Xidi — just a few miles down the road. There was a mountain biking tourney going on that day, and it was funny seeing the mud-clad bikers against the ancient gate that greeted visitors.  Xidi was known for producing politicians and statesmen, and people there were said to be the descendants of Li Shiming.

It would be in Xidi where I would meet Xiao Hong A yi (Auntie Xiao Hong); I stumbled into her home because I was curious about the possibility of spending a couple nights there in the future.  She offered a room in her home for rent for 100 yuan a night for room and board.

I ended up staying and translating some things for her (the entrepreneur in her is trying to start a website to promote her snacks outside of Xidi. This lady, who had no e-mail address, had the concept of a website! Globalization was truly beginning to come full circle). She explained how a guy who stayed with her from the States had started doing so, but he had left.

While we only sat and chatted for 15 minutes or so (stupid Chinese tours …), she left a deep impression on me. More than anything, she wanted to share her people’s culture and way of life with the rest of the world. She had no computer, but she seemed so wise and learned as she showed me her musical compositions, drawings, and works of art.

I also met her older cousin, Fu Rong Xing, who turned out to be an exquisite artist known across the country for his sculpture. He kept telling me about the “hearts of gold” of China’s rural farmers. It was funny because he kept insisting that I was looking for something, and that something was in China’s more rural regions. Funny how he could know so quickly …

They both invited me to stay for dinner and tea, but regretably had to decline as I made my way towards my tour van, where my tour guide was inpatiently waiting.

Before I left, Fu Rong Xing told me I should come back, something I had already decided when Xiao Hong A yi said her home was available. “Our stories are those that aren’t written in books,” Fu Rong Xing said as he guided me out of the town, “but passed from generation to generation.”

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huangshan | 黄山

huangshan - october 2008

huangshan - october 2008

(october 23, 2008 – october 26, 2008)

I had never been to Huangshan before, and was surprised as I scanned train/bus schedules at how close it was to Shanghai. An overnight train ride, or a six-hour bus ride, would place you at the foot of the mountain that legends are made of.

Opting to enjoy what scenery there was from Shanghai to Anhui, I chose the bus ride.  My impeccable sense of timing had me leaving Shanghai on a day that was raining buckets, and the trek to the bus station resulted in a two hour bus ride that I swear was going to run over some poor person on more than one occasion (this is a general feeling I got most days though, and not unlike Muni at times).  My huge backpack drew more than a few stares as I left my family’s residential complex, and a couple kind, curious “nai nai” and “ye ye” asked whether or not I should be in school.

On the bus ride to Tunxi, a town at the base of Huangshan, I sat next to a middle-aged man from nearby Yixin, a small town in Anhui. He had been visiting relatives in Shanghai — the first time for him in 15 years. I just have no desire to go there, he explained simply. I have everything I need at home. The city is too loud and confusing for me.  Hopefully, the effects of mass urbanization will leave him and others like him with the possibility of still returning to his chosen lifestyle.

He talked about the dazzling lights of Shanghai, of the awe-inspiring construction, and about how glad he was to be going home.  And encouraged that I add Hongcun and Xidi, two cultural heritage sites, to my visit to Huangshan.

When I arrived at bus station in Tunxi, I looked for the hostel TripAdvisor had handily directed me to. After checking in, I went straight to the train station only to find that tickets to my next destination, Guilin, had been sold out for the day I had planned to leave on and a sleeper would not be available until the following day. Ah, the joys of traveling alone.

I bought my ticket and went back to the hostel; by then, one of the girls  I would be sharing the room with had come back. Her name was Wang Ye, and she was for a nearby city in Anhui.  A very quiet girl who didn’t look more than 25, she told me she was a doctor who was about to be married to her high school sweetheart. This was the trip she wanted to take as her last act of independence, she said.

There was something sweet yet sad about the way she said it — as if she looked forward to the life she had ahead, but regretted leaving behind an independence she never really experienced. We spent the evening walking in Tunxi, along the streets of the Old Town.

The next day I got up bright and early to make the 1-hour car ride to the actual mountain.  On the car ride there, I met a girl from Sichuan — Li Kun — who was also making the journey herself. We agreed to hike up together since our hostels that night were so close together as well.

And this is where we ran into the joys that is Chinese tourism — we wanted to climb up the backside of the mountain, and in the midst of the confusion when the van first stopped, we were ushered into another car and told we were going to the back of the mountain. We quickly realized that the empty scenic spots they took us to was not the mountain we were looking for and ended up in a heated argument with the driver. Thankfully, we were able to persuade the driver to take us back to the bus depot after threatening him that we’d sue (one American pasttime to make its way over East …)

When we finally ended up at the right mountain, we realized how tough the climb was gong to be. After seemingly endless steps, we were still only halfway from our destination. We both ended up buying a walking stick, and bought wild kiwis (they’re so good! I haven’t been able to find them anywhere elsse — they’re smaller than regular kiwis) to encourage us to go forward.

We met a couple porters on the way up, who were probably among the most fit people ever. They made the trek up and down the mountain twice a day since everything on the mountain (tofu, meat, vegetables, toiletries, cigarretes, etc.) is carried up on their backs.

By the time we reached White Goose Pavillion (why do English transaltions always have such funny sounding names :P), the famous Huangshan clouds had rolled in. These clouds are called “sea clouds” because of the way they come together and look like waves in the sea. I have seen very few scenes as peaceful as the one I saw that day, and could see what had inspired so many an ancient tale and poem.

The next morning, I got up early in hopes of catching a glimpse of the sunrise. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans and the clouds covered any ray of sunlight as the rain came down.  I decided I had come to far to not walk down and contemplated using my extra day to stay on the mountain. Sadly, the weather forecast for the next day projected heavier rain and I figured it was probably best to head down.

The mountain was actually just as beautiful in the mist, as leaves danced in and out.  Rocking out to my iPod, I made the slow descent down, taking as many detours as I could. By the time I made it down and back to Tunxi, it was time for dinner.

And there … I would be introduced to fuzzy tofu. Yes. Fuzzy. It had a taste like “pi dan” (thousand year old egg — again, one of those weird names that don’t really translate into English), only 10x stronger. I smiled politely at the cook’s wife as she smiled and chuckeld.

I got a foot massage for the first time after that, and listened as my masseuse told me about her son, relationships, love, and life. It was really interesting listening to her as she cheerfully described how she only went home on the weekends, and spent most of her income on giving her son an education. She talked about how her and her husband never fought in front of their son, wanting him to grow up to be optimistic and happy. I was touched by her story, especially the non-assuming, happy and carefree way she relayed it all. Life couldn’t be easy for her, yet she was so much happier than many who were more economically fortunate than her.

As I left Huangshan the next day for Hongcun and Xidi, I knew this was a place I would return to, a place where the gods came to paint in the sky.


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