Beijinged and Shanghaied Seeking the Moon in China

Howdy all, guest blogger Ken here, fresh back from a weeklong business trip to China.

Though I’m well experienced in Europe, this was my first time to cross the date-line and visit Zhongguo. It is a disorienting experience for a first-timer, because an automatic question is “Wait, what day is it back home?”, especially as business e-mails were going back and forth. The circadian shift is extreme, so they were smart enough to send me on Friday so that I’d have some of the weekend to adjust. I was met at the airport by one of the legal assistants from the law firm we’re working with over there, Xuxian. After checking in at the hotel he took me walking in the immediate vicinity to have a beer and get some dinner. It was of course awkward and clumsy, but his English is very good and he noted that he had been recruited from a university known for graduating folks proficient in English.

Sunday was free, so my first stop was Beijing Ancient Observatory. Xuxian told me that the Pinyin translates as ancient place to look at stars/heavens. I bought a ticket, hopped on the metro, and dove into the culture. Got the direction right on the first try, and two stops later at Jianguomen I was in the outskirts of the ancient city (though well inside the modern one.

The worn steps leading to the instruments at the top of the not-very-tall-in-comparison-now tower attest to the age of the structure, while the discretely laid out buildings provide an almost monastic sense to the work that was undertaken there to chart what happened in the heavens. And we should be thankful that they did, as these records have helped us to better understand the recent history of the Solar system. In the gift shop I dicovered that they had three different sizes of Moon globes available. I decide to go with the big one because it was a fair price for a globe mapped out in Chinese characters. I also picked up a copy of ‘Beautiful Moon’, which is largely drawn from Rukl’s “Atlas of the Moon”.

After visiting the ancient observatory I took a walk along Chang’An avenue leading to Tiananmen Square, facing the Forbidden City. The police at the square were of course curious about the large package that I was carrying under my arm, the Moon globe, but were otherwise quite courteous and non-threatening. The square is enormous and can hold a great many people. On one side is the Communist Party headquarters and on the other a People’s Cultural Museum, IIRC. Me, I was heading to the Xidan People’s Bookstore still further west on the avenue.

Up on the top floor was my objective – the astronomical section of the science books. It’s impressively stocked, but in the context of being a major bookstore in the capital city. ‘China Lunar Exploration Program’ is a nice 105 pager published in 2007. Technical diagrams of the Chang’e-1, explanations of the launch vehicle, orbit and trajectory design, TT&C, science objectives and corresponding equipment. It’s a well-done book that clearly seeks to promote interest in a number of engineering areas. I do like the illustration of the farmers on the Moon. $3.50

‘To the Moon’ is a far more sophisticated version of the above, weighing in at 312 dense pages. The illustrations draw liberally from U.S., European, and Russian efforts and is very thorough with lots of basic engineering schematics. I really like this one, even if it was more expensive at $7.25.

I also picked up a couple of books whose source I can’t place yet because they’re thoroughly and completely in Chinese. They seem aimed at a slightly different audience, and while overlapping with the above two also have different illustrations and longer chunks of text. $6.95 for the pair.

Another one was ‘”Chang’E” Benyue: BenXiang Taikong Xilie Congshu’, which I’m going to take a SWAG and say is in a dialect, as many of the characters have a slightly different appearance. Lots of illustrations of Chang’e, and golly she sure is beautiful.

‘Moon Code’ is lighter fare, and seems more historically oriented. I even recognize some of the faces from my Ancient Observatory visit. That Chang’e, she sure is phat. Another $3.50 title.

While checking out, the cashier made an inquiring gesture towards my Moon globe and if I’d gotten it from around the corner. I indicated no, I’d gotten it elsewhere, and after transacting I decided to see what she meant. Zowie! An expo exhibit of the Chinese launch vehicle program! Scale mock-ups of the launchers and display explanations of what kinds of things they did. Also an update on the Chang’e-1 program. There was a really nice special edition book with a medallion and first day postal covers and postcards. I decided to for the lesser ‘Chinese Moon Goddess Flying to the Moon’ book, but which also included a 1/45th scale model of the Chang’e-1 probe. Great suggestive sell by the young man, as I was hesitating hard, but he got me to cough up the $85 for the set. Which I consider a great deal as I know the price of scale models here in the U.S.,and I knew I wasn’t going to find anywhere near as good a duplicate anywhere else but there. Darned if every single subsequent security checkpoint didn’t make me pull it out and and show it to them. Which I was okay with, as I have no difficulty displaying an interest in Chinese technology and culture in this regard.

Then, during the week I was getting the last minute adjustment to the documents made for the meeting with the regulators. It didn’t go anywhere near as well as I could have hoped, so I don’t want to talk about it anymore. What I do want to talk about was the wonderful, excellent Air China flight from Beijing to Shanghai. This is one of those deals where you get bused out to the planes and climb up the stairs. It was a nice A340,and I was stunned when I found that I had ample legroom. I have a 36″ inseam and I had ample legroom in cattle class. It was also a welcome relief after the horrific experience on the 747 from San Fran to Beijing where I’d basically had to shoehorn myself into the seat.

It was a ‘sauve qui peut’ boarding process, where I do have an advantage in my stride and dexterity. My fault is that I was inculcated with ‘queueing’ instincts when I was in England as a kid, which puts me at a gentlemanly disadvantage vis-a-vis opportunists. It went quick, though, and much faster than I would have expected, although I suppose that’s in part the random seat locations of the first batch aboard.

The touchdown in Shanghai was smooth as silk, absolutely commendable for the obvious skill displayed. As with Beijing, one notes the large number of megalithic apartment projects, and just enormous scale of development. During the cab ride into the city I got my first glimpse of the maglev, and I knew that was how I was getting back to the airport. After the meeting with the regulators I had some time Thursday afternoon, so I decided to walk over to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum a couple of blocks over.

Meiguo in his business suit, everyone wants to sell me watches and bags. I don’t think they really believed I was going to the museum. Which I did. ‘Magnificant Desolation’ IMAX is showing right now, if anyone wants to see it on the big screen. They have a nice display area for the space stuff on the top floor, and I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a cultural thing to putting the space stuff closest to heaven. I did take a ride on the Tetraxon trainer (what we would call the multi-axis trainer), though I told the operator it was going too slow and asked if he could speed it up. He said unfortunately not, it’s programmed into the control box. They also have a full-scale mock-up of the Shenzhou capsule, although it’s just a shell so there’s nothing inside to see. I did find a do-it-yourself cardstock 3D Moon at the giftshop that’s kind of cool, especially since it seems to be an elevation map as well. Then it was subway back to the hotel for more work.

Friday morning I decided to do a little walking around. After a walk on the promenade on the Pudong side of the river I took the people-mover ride to the Huangpu side of the river with the old European Bund sector of art deco buildings. I was of course talked into also buying the museum tour of the sex history and sea life exhibits as well. The sex tour was actually interesting from a historical context (2500 years worth), and markedly different from the one I had seen in Amsterdam. One interesting takeaway is that the double fish symbology in Chinese culture is supposed to reflect the vaginal opening. I don’t think I really want to dwell on that one too much. The sea life exhibit featured a lot of different turtles, though I looked into the eyes of one of the larger turtles in a too small plastic tank and saw that he was sad that he could not swim free. That kind of put a damper on the rest of that tour. Sometimes knowledge can be cruel.

The people-mover ride itself is interesting in its own right. A quasi-psychedelic artsy-fartsy extravaganza of light, motion, sound and words. While desperately fighting off a flashback (just kidding), the one thing I really didn’t appreciate was having green lasers aimed at me, even if they were low power. In my DJ days I learned of the codes here in the U.S. that limit where you can point entertainment lasers around people. I also have one of the green lasers that astronomers use and I can easily recognize the risk it poses. But I survived the trip, and would thus begin my unanticipated afternoon adventure.

I wandered up the commercial strip, and of course everyone wanted to sell me watches and bags and DVDs. There was a cool milk advertisement of a kid in a spacesuit, since you need strong bones to be an astronaut. I was just looking around, and did spot a bookstore off to the side. I decided to pop in and see if there were any Moon titles I’d missed, and to see if I could find any kids books on Chang’e. Struck out in both cases, though I did see a number of basic space knowledge books, many by printers that readers would recognize, such as Scholastic. I probably should have asked for help, but I wanted to see if I could find it on my own. I didn’t find anything, but did pick up paperback copies of the TinTin adventures ‘Objective Moon’ and the sequel for $1.25 each.

Having some fun with the Meiguo, some young schoolgirls started practicing some of their English phrases, which I of course politely answered. It has always puzzled me why children are so fearless around me, all over the place. They’ll just pop up out of nowhere and start talking to me, which I completely do not understand as I’m tall, dark and scary, which in theory should be exactly the kind of person parents warn their kids away from. But for some reason kids just don’t fear me at all. Spooky and a bit disquieting.

So I wander out of the bookstore and back out into the mall, pondering the curiosity the Chinese have towards learning our language so that they can communicate better with us. Two young ladies visiting the city from small town China wander up, and strike up a conversation, ostensibly to practice their English. I’m just wandering along, and don’t mind the company, so we walk along, talking and sharing cultures, and eventually the topic of getting some coffee comes up. Sure, why not, as long as it’s not Starbucks. Traditional Chinese coffee it is.

An hour later I find myself mildly intoxicated on whiskey and out a substantial amount of money. I think that I was supposed to pay a visit to the bathroom (hint, hint), but I didn’t have to go, so I didn’t, and we walked back out onto the commercial mall as I tried to gently disengage, explaining that I had to get back to the hotel and do some work, because that’s why I was in Shanghai in the first place.

Of course, I’d been shanghaied, and hadn’t even had the presence of mind to take advantage of it. I think this actually confused the young ladies, and I think one was actually feeling a bit guilty as she realized what she had helped perpetrate on someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a kind and honest man, and the bad karma that would accrue therefrom.

In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder if there was some other factor at play (i.e. perhaps some kind of anti-anxiety chemical other than alcohol), because none of my red flag warning bells were going off, and after years in big cities, and in banking, I have a fairly well refined sense of when a scam is going down. Looking back I can see at each stage where a warning shot should have been fired, and none were. But as my sister noted when I was describing what had happened, this is a scam that has been refined over millenia. There’s a reason they call it being shanghaied. I can tell you it’s going to be a long time before I go back to the [Redacted] on the third floor of the [Redacted] Plaza in Shanghai.

Chastened by this hard-reality 2×4 upside the head, and my bank account, there was naught to do but prepare for departure, since at this point I really couldn’t afford to do any more personal stuff. I’d already figured out the subway and how to get to the maglev, so bright and early Saturday morning I head out with my bags for the metro to catch the 7:15 maglev to the airport. Wow. The last time I went 300km/h on the ground was on the TGV in France. Very smooth and fast (much more so than the cab ride in). More evidence that the Chinese value technology, though my fear is that they will lose too much of their traditional heritage in the process in the rush to be more like other technologically advanced societies.

The transfer from domestic to international at the Beijing airport was rushed, but I got through alright and I have to say that I find Chinese security checkpoints much better done that those here in the U.S. I guess because they’ve learned how to quickly process large numbers of people in a reasonably secure way. As compared with San Francisco, going from several hundred unloading passengers from different arriving flights down to single file before going to sort lines is just a bottleneck nightmare. I arrived in Dallas some 20-something hours later at 7pm.

Some miscellany:

I think one reason that I’m so good at finding my way around in a sea of foreign language is because of the skills I developed for the Orienteering merit badge back when I was a Boy Scout. I was confused directionally in Beijing, in part because you don’t have the usual sky clues because of the haze. But I can read a map well, so I don’t have much fear of just heading out into the unknown as I’ll be able to orient myself and get where I need to go.

It only took one day for my snot to turn black in Beijing. It’s usually about three days in NYC. But the air didn’t seem that bad compared with what some people had told me to expect, and I was after all out walking around in the open for many hours.

One preconception that I had that was reinforced was that fundamentally the Chinese people just want to do business and provide for their families. They hustle when it comes to business, and are always there with the suggestive sell.

The modern architecture in both cities in both cities is amazing, and far more experimental than you usually see here in the U.S. Some of those buildings are really, really big.

On the space front, I don’t see any overwhelming groundswell of public enthusiasm for the topic. Its imagery and icons are being incorporated into things like advertising, so people are aware of it, but its not the kind of focus and priority that things like infrastructure are. Then again, I challenge anyone here in the U.S. to go into just a couple of large bookstores and find a dozen titles on current and future Moon exploration. There were young men, likely engineer wannabes, sitting on the floor of the Xidan bookstore reading through the space books. The books themselves dwell on the topics of historical landers and rovers, and some seem to touch on sample return. There are lots of pictures of Moonbases, but none that specifically imply that they are of Chinese origin. Lots of the usual NASA stuff, with some Russian stuff thrown in for good measure. There is one image of a lone Yuehnaut jumping on the Moon next to a Chinese flag, but given the preponderance of NASA imagery (though maybe not always conveyed as being such) I don’t think it’s something to get one’s knickers in a twist about. One thing I did note while cataloguing them for the Lunar Library was that a large number of them were published in October 2007, although this is not inconsistent with the successful Chang’e-1 mission. We did the same sort of thing back in the days of Apollo.

I have to say it was a good haul for the Lunar Library. Someday I hope to be able to somewhat understand them better, but in the interim I’ll be adding them to the stacks. In case anyone gets freaked out about security and stuff I would just say that these books were publicly sold in open markets. This was done in the presence of security officials and communist officials. I’m pretty sure most of them are available for sale on the internet. (I now know the character for internet) Actually, as tall as I am I stick out like a sore thumb, so it doesn’t really make sense to try to do anything deceitful. I actually consider this a major coup for the Lunar Library, and something that puts it on the path to some kind of true academic legitimacy as research library. Still a ways to go, though, and of course since I’m putting it on the internet anyone so inclined can now go get their own copies. It will also be good practice for learning Chinese characters if I ever get to some degree of familiarity with Chinese.

During down time when I was too exhausted to do anything but sit in the hotel room and surf the internet I did keep running up against content walls, especially the Google blogger websites. Since I didn’t want to offend my hosts I quickly learned to double check the hyperlinks to see if they might lead to potentially blocked sites.

I did not enjoy flying United. I had never felt crowded on a 747 prior to these trans-Pacific flights. I’m incredulous that all four flights had some kind of electrical/mechanical issue that delayed the flight for some lesser or greater length of time. I can only wonder at the statistical likelihood of that happening. The crews were professional, and I don’t envy the work conditions that management has put them in. My personal belief is that what I experienced was the result of United’s trip through bankruptcy, and the consequence of skimping on maintenance and repair as much as possible to preserve cash flow (/snark/ so that management can preserve their inflated remuneration /end snark/). Looking at it from an MBA perspective, if the fiduciary duty of the company is to return maximum value to the shareholder, then they are certainly putting a lot of effort into doing so. If their corporate duty is to provide the kind of flight experience that people will -want- to spend their money on

I also find the concept of having to pay to sit in the emergency exit row quite distasteful. (and recognize the fact that part of the reason I was so lacking in legroom was the non-emergency exit row economy plus seats with extra legroom) I’m the kind of guy who is a fire martial at work and was recently trained in basic CPR and AED. I’m the kind of guy you want in the exit row, because I’m big and strong and can manhandle the door out of the way quickly and efficiently. I’ve commented to some American Airlines flight crews that I would gladly go through a day or two of emergency exit row training in return for first dibs on the exit row seats. Of course, it’s also the kind of perfectly sensible idea that would never be implemented.

What can I say, it was quite an adventure. I can tell my body is going to be a mess for many days. Still, it was a great learning opportunity, and I look forward to going back, this time a little wiser for the experience.

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4 Responses to Beijinged and Shanghaied Seeking the Moon in China

  1. Anonymous says:

    Could you clarify what you mean by shanghaiing? You obviously weren’t captured and forced to work as a sailor, the original meaning of the word?

  2. murphydyne says:

    More in the context of being rolled for a large sum of money by pretty girls, another practice exercised on sailors in Shanghai, amongst other places.

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Ken,
    Thanks for the interesting trip report. Hopefully one of these days I’ll have enough money to visit Asia again. It’d be interesting to compare the cultures of the different countries there.

    It will also be interesting to see how public opinions in those countries evolve regarding space travel, exploration, and development.

    Alas, the one Asian country that I’m fairly familiar with (the Philippines) is somewhat unlikely to be doing much in the way of exploring Selenian Bundoks anytime soon.

    ~Jon

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