miércoles, 27 de julio de 2011

Summer Update: Gringo in China

I'm sure my loyal following (hi mom) is very upset that I haven't posted in a while, but I've been keeping pretty busy with work and life and such. And during the first few weeks in China, I couldn't even get on blogspot thanks to restricted internet.

China is really something quite different. I'll admit to suffering some culture shock when I first arrived - though going from Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica to Beijing, China is about as different as two cultures can get I think. Far from the laid back Costa Rican hanging out in the jungle/on the beach way of life, life in Beijing is fast paced, crowded, loud and smoggy. A phrase I have heard used to describe the city in the past is really quite true - well ordered chaos. The traffic is more terrifying than in Costa Rica, but somehow I have more confidence that I won't fall victim to it here. Taxi cabs are amazing at swerving just in time, just in the right way. Bicycles and electric scooters abound and intermix with the traffic, though I have witnessed one bike/car accident in person (did not end well for the cyclist). I thought about buying a cheap bike when I first got here, but at this point I'll be leaving in a couple of weeks, and, I'm not sure I have the precision necessary to navigate the traffic.

The subway here is quite an experience. I live in the Jinsong neighborhood, in this building:

which is in the southern Chaoyang District only a few subway stops south of the Central Business District where I work. The advantage is that I'm on line 10, one of the new subway lines built for the Olympics in 2008 (more on Olympic spirit in a sec). But line 10 is lovely, it's air conditioned, the cars are tall, roomy and well lit, it's rarely too crowded (by Beijing standards at least). Compare that to line 1, one of the original lines. Line 1 is completely packed, at any hour of the day. If you value your personal bubble, you're probably better off taking a cab, but if you're ready to get to know about 200 people really well, it's always an adventure. (And all subway rides are only 2 kuai...about 30 cents.) During my first week in Beijing, I took line 1 with a friend at rush hour...when I hesitated to get on the completely packed train, he just said "let's go" and shoved me into the mass of people already inside. Being shoved into other people is totally normal, apparently and being in complete contact with total strangers is quite acceptable. In addition to that, the cars on line 1 are shorter...and the door sill is about forehead height for me. I provoked some laughter when I turned and whacked my head squarely on the top of the door frame getting off the train. (I'm huge in China.)

Anyway, as you may remember, the Olympics came to Beijing in 2008. There is still a lot of Olympic pride here - everywhere you go there are still "Beijing 2008" banners and signs complete with the dancing Beijing logo. I went to see the birds nest, it's pretty awesome. The olympic grounds are really spread out though, not terribly walkable. But I went past the Olympic Village too, one of the first LEED for Neighborhood Development projects anywhere in the world. It received a gold rating at the time, though based on some post construction modifications that some residents made (ie installing split unit air conditioners that are obviously add ons) I wonder if it still performs to spec.

Speaking of LEED certified buildings, I work in Prosper Center, the first LEED certified building in China. It ranked LEED Gold, though I really question how - given the complete lack of attention to water conservation and some serious questions about how energy efficient the windows and lighting systems in common areas are. But here it is:

Energy efficiency, something that I'm always in favor of, is exceptionally important here given the conventional coal power generation and lack of pollution control. The air quality has only been in the "good" range on a handful of days, and sometimes I think I've forgotten what blue sky looks like. It's not that it's overcast - it's just that smoggy. The sun is visible through the smog, but just barely. It's really quite eerie. The buildings disappear in every direction into the carcinogenic mist, I tend to judge whether I want to go outside or not based on how many buildings I can see from our 19th story office. And then to round it out, sometimes we have fantastically violent thunderstorms. Though unlike in Colorado, where you pray for rain because of how arid it is, you pray for rain here because it washes the air. Rumor has it that the government seeds the clouds before major events to guarantee blue sky for photo opportunities. (I have some pictures of smoggy days on my camera I haven't uploaded yet, I'll share those later.) But whether it's smog or fantastic thunderstorm, I'm pretty sure that whoever wrote the Matrix was inspired by Beijing in the summer.

If you want to know how many months I'm taking off of my life by breathing, check out this link: http://iphone.bjair.info/ for current Beijing air quality. As of this writing, we're only in the "very unhealthy for all groups: everyone may experience serious side effects" band. As opposed to "Hazardous" where you're better off seeing how not breathing treats you. (It was that way all of last weekend.)

So, if you meet any tea partiers who want to gut the epa, kindly remind them that breathing is awesome.

Also awesome is drinkable tap water, something Beijing is a little lacking in. I know people who have consumed it, seemingly without ill effect, but the general consensus is that it isn't a great idea. The government does maintain that the water leaving the distribution plants is drinkable, however, the infrastructure is old and carried non-potable water for a long time. That and, the river from which the city's water comes has a lot of industrial development and manufacturing along it. I don't know about you, but I don't really like cadmium in my coffee.

Bottled water is cheap and readily available though, so it's no biggie.

Anyway, I have been pretty busy with work. I'm working on a joint US/China project involving green building and building labeling. Specifically, I'm writing a white paper comparing LEED in the US to China's 3 Star Sustainability Rating System, and working on a bunch of other side projects. But work is boring to blog about. Since I'm a nerd though I'm always happy to discuss it, if you want to know more about the China Sustainable Cities project here, just ask.

But, I have had some time for adventure fortunately. I have seen a lot of the typical Beijing sites: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven and then I took an awesome day trip out of Beijing to do a 14km hike on an unrestored section of the great wall. The "Wild Wall" hike has really been the highlight of my summer so far. Being a tourist is kind of funny though, because while Chinese people from Beijing are pretty used to "foreigners" (as we're collectively known) people from other parts of China are not. I've had my photo taken with random people at their request because I look funny. But, as far as my tourism experiences go, here are a few photos:

Forbidden City:

Wild wall hike:

Tiananmen Square:

There are a bunch more photos available on facebook if you feel like perusing them. All in all, the adventure has been great, and it continues! It is hard to imagine that in less than a month I'll be back in Costa Rica...which seems a million miles away at the moment. (Merely about 9,000.) (And, does anyone know whether airports will still operate if the government shuts down? If so, at least there are a few airlines that can get me there without going through the US.)

This weekend I am going to the Bashang Grasslands to do a several day hike, staying in guesthouses and seeing small villages and some beautiful terrain. Oh and breathing cleaner air, which will be great. More on that to follow.

(Google translate tells me that's "pura vida" in Chinese. Hopefully it's not actually something offensive.)