Archive for Another Day on the Terrace

Giant furry T-rex discovered in China

Saw this article catching up on my Journal readings this morning… CRAZY!

A giant feathered tyrannosaur has been unearthed in China, the largest creature – living or extinct – known to sport a downy coat.

The carnivore, which grew up to nine metres long, likely looked “downright shaggy,” Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian paleontologist on the team that unveiled the creature, said on Wednesday.

Three specimens of the dinosaur, which the scientists have called Yutyrannus huali for “beautiful feathered tyrant,” have been uncovered in north-eastern China.

One was an adult estimated to have weighed 1.414 tonnes, 40 times bigger than any previously found feathered dinosaur. Two juveniles tipped the scales at about half a tonne.

The ancient bones were found by fossil traders and brought to museums where paleon-tologists realized their significance, which is detailed in the journal Nature this week.

The discovery “provides sol-id evidence for the existence of gigantic feathered dinosaurs,” reports the team led by Xu Xing, at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

The scientists say the creature did not actually fly, which would have been impossible given its large size – far bigger than the average cow – and the downy structure of its feathers. But they say the feathers may have had an important function as insulation because the creatures lived about 125 mil-lion years ago when global temperatures took a dip.

“The average temperature would have been about 10 C,” says Sullivan, an associate professor at the Beijing paleontology institute.

“That is perhaps not too different from northern China today,” he says, but was an “unusually cool” period in the age of the dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex, which was larger and roamed a warmer world, is not believed to have had any feathers though the researchers don’t rule it out.”It’s possible that some dinosaurs that were even bigger had feathers but we can’t tell one way or the other because most dinosaurs are known only from bones,” Sullivan said from Beijing.

While the feather preservation on the three specimens “is patchy,” the team says the creatures had plenty of long, filamentous feathered plumage.

“They would have looked superficially more like hair than the feathers of modern birds,” says Sullivan, who de-scribes the downy creature as quite a carnivore.

“I wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley,” he says.

The obtaining of specimens from fossil traders is not uncommon in China. But the trade is not without problems.

“Some dealers will yield to the temptation to improve their specimens,” says Sullivan, explaining how they have been known to combine parts from different specimens and species.

But with experience and knowledge of both the fossils beds and the traders “who you are dealing with it is possible to largely avoid those problems,” he says. “So we are quite sure these specimens are authentic.”

Sullivan, who was raised in Ontario and British Columbia, did graduate studies at the University of Toronto and Harvard University before heading to China four years ago where he has been involved in several significant fossils finds.

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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Dongbei – First Step

It’s October again!  For those of us in China this is great news because we get a week off for the national holiday (like Canada Day except not in July, eh?).  At this time of year likely over a billion Chinese are traveling all over the country, whether it be a long train ride back to the hometown or a short flight to a touristy attraction in which must be one of the largest mass migrations of people on Earth.

I get set for my own little getaway, but as much as I would have loved to visit the misty peaks of Yellow Mountain, or the limestone karsts of Guilin, I’ve lived learned enough to avoid the hotspots during what they call the Golden Week, when prices everywhere are jacked through the roof and people are packed like canned sardines.

Last year I went for a bicycle adventure at Lake Qinghai, but though  I won’t be cycling through a herd of sheep again anytime soon, I had a rich cultural experience instead.  This year, I’ve decided to lay low and hang out with a friend at his hometown in Shenyang of Liaoning province.  Together with Jilin and Heilongjiang, these three provinces make up the north-eastern region of the country that we expats call by its name in pinyin: Dongbei.

Dongbei – the land of cold, snow, and ice.  A bit like home with a twist of dog meat and dumplings, possibly dog meat dumplings, and large women.  I walk out of the airport the first night and embrace the glorious 4°C weather with hands reaching for the sky.  I had a couple hours to kill before I head to the train station to await my friend’s arrival so I took a cab downtown in search of my favourite Chinese character:  串 .

The better my Chinese gets the more easily amused I am with the pictographic language.  Having lived in Beijing before I have grown peculiarly fond of the word we pronounce chuan’R, and if you see a large red 串 posted outside any restaurants, look forward to a night of local fun.  I skim through the all-Chinese menu looking for words I recognize.  Lamb skewers, beef skewers, chicken skewers.  Fish skewers, mushroom skewers, veggie and potato skewers.  If you get my drift 串 = skewer, see.  Genius, I know right?

For some reason 串 is more a popular pastime in the North and having lived in Shanghai for the past year, I have sorely missed the salty skewers, watery beer, and loud, smoky atmosphere where it seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour to light up, ash, and butt out on the floor.  I match my skewers with 3 large bottles of Snow Flower, a Shenyang brew, and slam’em back thinking, after all, what better way to greet an old university buddy than to greet them half cut?

I am surprised I remember this trip enough to share it, for staying sober in Dongbei seems to be a difficult task.  The second day I tag along with my buddy’s family for a weekend in Donggang, a county-level city at the coast of south-eastern Liaoning near the China-N. Korea border.  We arrive at an insulation materials factory that one my friend’s father’s acquaintances is apparently the owner of and there in the cafeteria I had an enormous meal of fresh seafood with a bunch of middle-aged Chinamen.  I chuckled to myself at the strange resemblance to lunchtime during an audit at work.

I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to consume.  I can honestly say I’ve been quite open-minded about eating in China, but just from looking I was already reluctant to try the seafood and it had been a long time since I had to bust out one of my old theories for survival in China.

 “Rule #2 at the dinner table: if it’s soft you can eat it, if it’s hard then spit it out.  No questions.”

A proportion of the seafood on the table was raw and there was not a pot of boiling soup in sight.  Turns out it’s a local tradition to soak them live in saltwater overnight and eat it with a touch of soy sauce.  I’ve eaten more than a fair share of sushi in my day but to pry open the carapace of a crab that looks like it’s still bubbling at the mouth and drink, yes drink, its innards was news to me.  Knowing not to disrespect, I smile and say it’s delicious, cringing on the inside as I watch another being put onto my plate.

And then came the baijiu.

The foul, colorless poison they call white wine and drink by the litre.  I was told I don’t have to be so polite, so I thought I could relax until I realized that in Dongbei, manners don’t exist in the way that you eat, but in the way that you drink.  When cheers-ing, you have to position your cup slightly lower than the other person’s to show your respect, and when they say ganbei (directly translated as ‘dry cup’, meaning cheers), they really mean it.  Cups of baijiu poured to the brim were being put back like water, and everyone wanted to ganbei the Chinese-Canadian.  We started drinking at about noon and by one o’clock, me, my friend, and a few other particularly adamant drinkers were already at the puking stage.  After lunching and un-lunching, we went fishing for fathead minnows, which were turned into a few excellent tasting dinner dishes including deep fried filet, broth, and of course, more seafood n’ baijiu.

How many of you have been to North Korea?  Ya, me neither, but I got real close.  Later that weekend I was taken on a cruise in a fishing boat near the Yellow Sea and got right up to the North Korean coastguard, who was watching us like a hawk.  The fishermen driving us got the jellyfish they came for, turned around and headed back to shore.  With the cruise concluded the weekend and I breathed a sigh of relief as we prepared to leave the baijiu crew and return to Shenyang, where my friend suggested I crash a wedding but besides that and more 串 , the remainder of my trip was pretty low key.  My friend had described Shenyang as a Chinese Edmonton and I totally agreed.  I took a few photos and went for a little tour of the city, but really not much to see.  I’ll have to look forward to my next trip to Dongbei, when I plan to travel to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province to attend the world-famous snow and ice festival where I shall spend my Christmas Holidays~!!

See also:

Le Tour de Qinghai

https://speakupforscience.wordpress.com/

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Criticizing the Chinese EIA System

Part Two of Three

Introduction

As much as the international level environmental impact assessment (EIA) for mega-scale development has succeeded in China, it is unfortunate they only account for up to 5% of construction projects.  Although the impacts from the remainder of individual development projects are relatively lower in scale, their sheer numbers is of great concern when considering cumulative effects.  The majority of these projects do not require funding and hence are not bound to the IFC Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability, nor are they likely to follow them as voluntary initiative.  Often this means that the social and health impact assessment, which is a key feature of an international EIA, is ignored altogether.  The environmental industry is a growing field in China and there are many weaknesses to its EIA system such as gaps and flaws in legislation along with minimal enforcement.

Gaps and Flaws

Even though China has greatly expanded their legal regime in the environmental sector during the past few decades, the Chinese EIA system regardless has many gaps and flaws where much improvement is needed.  Weaknesses of the screening process, excessive power of local authorities, political pressure on decision makers, and limited public participation have greatly impeded the performance of the EIA concept in this country.

Weakness of the Screening Process

One way to perform an environmental impact assessment is to establish a set of criteria and compare all potential disturbances with their corresponding standards to determine the significance of an impact.  A multitude of numerical standards constitute Chinese environmental laws hence its EIA system relies heavily on quantifiable measurements.  As mentioned previously in Understanding the Chinese EIA System, there is a screening process that specifies whether an EIA report, form, or registration form is required for a project, and the EIA Law stipulates that only EIA reports and forms must be prepared by licensed institutions or certified professionals.  However, these only cover about 40% of development projects in China, in other words the remaining 60% of projects required to submit EIA registration forms are performed by the project proponents themselves, who may not be professionals in scientific assessment.  Furthermore, the problem with having concrete numerical values for environmental standards becomes evident during this screening process; individuals performing the EIA may be inclined to design construction proposals just within the maximum threshold of a category to avoid more stringent environmental scrutiny from the next level up, which works in favour of both budget and time allocation.

Excessive Power of Local Authorities

The authority to approve an EIA is distributed between the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and local environmental protection bureaus (EPBs).  The MEP is primarily responsible for authorizing special projects like nuclear or military facilities, projects that extend across provinces, and projects involving the State Council; local EPBs have the authority to approve all others.  These remaining projects are distributed between provincial, municipal, and county level EPBs, but in reality the county level government approves the large portion of EIAs, worth more than half the total investment of all projects.  This imbalance of power between approval authorities enables lower level EPBs to develop local policies that may impede or even contradict the EIA law, and can lead to incomprehensive consideration of environmental impacts during assessment.  The establishment of a hierarchical government where higher level EPBs directly supervise lower level EPBs is essential to avoid this problem.

Political Pressure on Decision Makers

Similarly, excessive power of local EPBs may lead to political pressure on approval authorities to pursue economic advancement.  Despite their status as state ministry, the mandates and rules of the MEP are often undermined by ministries of industrial and economic development as well as by local governments.  Common violations of the EIA law include beginning construction before approval of an EIA, some projects are approved to build a hill then they go and build a mountain, others completely ignore the concept of EIA.  This is partly a result of the fact that local EPBs are also in charge of their own hiring processes, which is a problem especially where decisions are made by individual representatives of a government.  In other words, people are being put in difficult dilemmas because of China’s relentless push towards becoming an economic superpower, and forces decision makers to approve a project in fear of losing employment.  For this reason, the first step towards strengthening the EIA Law would be to assign the staffing responsibilities to a third party authority.

Limited Public Participation

In order for EIA to promote sustainable development, it is important to incorporate the concerns of the communities, as public participation forms a large part of the necessary social aspect that makes an international level EIA so effective.  With this communication between the government and the public, environmental decision making becomes transparent thus increasing public support of decisions made.  It also raises public awareness regarding environmental issues that directly affect the people, creating a more opinionated atmosphere during consultation. Public participation must be comprehensive and non-discriminating, meaning everyone regardless of age, gender, or ethnic group should be allowed to participate.  The enactment of the EIA Law in 2003 introduced this opportunity to the public in China for the first time.

Unfortunately, another apparent weakness of the EIA Law is that public participation is only required for developers preparing environmental impact reports; therefore only a small percentage of EIAs have a social component, though a number of changes have been made in effort to address this problem.  The EIA Law does not obligate smaller scale projects to consult the public, but they may be subject to local regulations if the proposed development is to be located at sensitive regions or within vicinity of residential areas.  Moreover, information related to the project is made available for the public to view.  With that said, the consultation is still inefficient for several reasons.  Although information is made readily available, it may be inadequate or even inaccurate, and to date the public never has full access to EIA documents.  Furthermore, the “Three Simultaneities” should be expanded to include not only mitigation measures but in addition public consultation.  This way public opinions and concerns will be assimilated into project design, construction, and operation, but public participation in China is only required for a brief 10 days.

Minimal Enforcement

One of the greatest weaknesses of the Chinese EIA system is its lack of strict enforcement.  Sometimes project components will begin construction and won’t complete an EIA unless they are caught by enforcement authorities.  The most evident problems related to lax enforcement involve high compliance cost, integrity of environmental practitioners, and lack of post-construction monitoring and compliance supervision.

High Compliance Cost

Environmental law enforcement is utterly inadequate in China, which explains why so many developers have ignored regulatory requirements in the past.  Legislation provides that those project developers caught violating the EIA law must suspend construction and prepare a makeup EIA document within a certain time limit.  The penalty for not meeting the time limit is a fine of 200,000 RMB, which is miniscule for many large multi-billionaire corporations.  In other words, it costs more to comply with the law and prepare an entire EIA report than it does to break it, take the penalty, and write a makeup EIA.  Ironically, it may be even easier to obtain approval with a makeup EIA since the project has already been invested in and construction has already begun.  This practice completely disregards the “Three Simultaneities” concept and the principle of conducting EIA is rendered useless.

Integrity of EIA Institutions and Practitioners

In order to maintain a certain level of quality, the EIA Law requires professional consultants and institutions to seek certification from the MEP.  This licensing system was established to ensure the integrity of environmental practitioners, but the EIA market in China is too dependent on and driven by clients’ demands.  Some institutions are more focused on business networking than they are on protecting the environment, and because of this the entire EIA concept has become a mere solemnity.  Past EIA documents have been known to lack scientific support and analysis, and have been submitted without conclusions or mitigation recommendations.  Furthermore, there is evidence of data concealment or fabrication indicating that some institutions are willing to provide false or inaccurate information for the sake of approval.  In other cases, though some EIA institutions may be fully certified with appropriate expertise and resources, they are hired because of their affiliation with local EPBs and developers are reassured with the prospect of approval through internal liaison.

Lack of Post-Construction Monitoring and Compliance Supervision

According to the EIA Law, if pollutant emissions in reality exceed what is stated in the document, then the project developer has to conduct a post-construction EIA, make improvements, and have it reapproved, after which the environmental protection authority is required to inspect the project’s operations.  Moreover, the last portion of the “Three Simultaneities” concept requires that pollution abatement controls must continue to be applied after construction ends and operation begins.  These include environmental monitoring and adherence to mitigation measures suggested in the EIA, but again lack of strict enforcement does not provide strong incentive for project developers to comply.  In some cases, pollution control equipment has never been installed at facilities, or is temporarily installed only during compliance audits when inspectors are present thus reducing costs.  Environmental monitoring is supposed to keep a record of the compliance status of the project during operation, but since compliance audits are so rare a large proportion of enterprises are not implementing pollution reduction strategies and the EIA document is simply shelved away after the approval is made official.

 References:

Moorman, J.L., and G. Zhang.  2007.  Promoting and Strengthening Public Participation in China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Process: Comparing China’s EIA Law and U.S. NEPA.  Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 8: 281-335.

Zhao, Y.  2009.  Assessing the Environmental Impact of Projects: A Critique of the EIA Legal Regime in China.  Natural Resources Journal 49: 485-524.

See also: Part One of Three: Understanding the Chinese EIA System  https://speakupforscience.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/chinaeia1/

Coming soon: Improving the Chinese EIA System

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Understanding the Chinese EIA System

Introduction

As a result of an increasingly large influx of information, lately I’ve been feeling a need to pull my thoughts together so I’ve decided to begin writing a summary of what I’ve learned at the office so far.  As a junior environmental consultant, I am constantly on a steep learning curve and I always feel like I have much to learn.  Currently in the middle of my first year, I am spending a good deal of time on environmental impact assessments (EIA), so today I’ll start with a review of that.  An EIA is an assessment of the positive and negative effects that a proposed project’s development may have on the environment and ensures that project owners have a comprehensive understanding of potential environmental impacts and necessary future commitments in order to make informed decisions before beginning (or not beginning) development.  The methodology for conducting environmental impact assessments varies between countries, but the development of international standards has increased similarities throughout the world.  The general processes of an international level EIA as well as China specific procedures as I understand them are as follows.

EIA in China: A Brief History

Not surprisingly, the concept of environmental impact assessment is relatively new in a developing country and was first introduced here in 1973.  Implementation of the new in China often starts with a slogan: “三同时”, or the “Three Simultaneities” is an important concept stating that environmental mitigation measures must be designed, constructed, and operated simultaneously with new projects in hopes of preventing, controlling and minimizing pollution.  This principle was established just prior to the EIA concept in 1972 and has since become mandatory for all development projects.  In the past few decades, EIA has grown substantially and many improvements have been made to the original system.  In 1982, the Chinese government has expanded EIA legislation to incorporate the marine environment into the assessment.  Furthermore, an EIA licensing system was proposed to ensure the integrity of EIA practitioners which among other amendments inaugurated the enactment of the Environmental Protection Law (EPL) in 1989.  The EPL provided the foundation for a number of statutes in succession including those that address air, noise, water and solid waste pollution, as well as resource conservation, wildlife management, land-use control, and hazardous material disposal.  By the late 1990s, EIA has become a standard prerequisite to development in China and the adoption of the new EIA Law in 2003 in addition to the renaming of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2008 as a symbol of rising administrative authority, constitute a few of the major changes that have occurred to EIA since the enurement of its legislation.

Legislative Framework and Approval Processes

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is governed by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the highest authoritative power in the country, and the State Council is responsible for implementing the laws enacted by the NPC.  The MEP is one of several State Ministries and regulates development related environmental impacts under the State Council.  In short, a project owner must carry out an EIA which involves the following key steps: screening and scoping, public consultation, report preparation, expert panel review, then submission to and approval by the MEP.  Likewise, all of the above is prepared for a separate EIA that focuses strictly on marine impacts and is then submitted for approval by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA).  After approval and finalization of the EIA, the project may begin construction.  When construction is complete, the project owner must apply for production trial operation, and then must undergo a completion inspection.  The project is evaluated during inspection via environmental monitoring and once the environmental protection measures have been accepted, only then will the completion of construction be approved and official.  Furthermore, before operation begins the owner must also apply for applicable pollution discharge permits.

IFC and Equator Principles

The NPC and State Council have now promulgated many laws and regulations pertinent to environmental impact assessment, but larger-scale projects are often required to adopt relatively more stringent international criteria such as those suggested by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as the Equator Principles.  The IFC is a member of the World Bank Group that promotes sustainable development by funding projects in the private sector provided that they comply with the “IFC Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability”.  Project financing is a type of funding where the lender is repaid through profit generated by large-scale projects such as oil refineries, power plants, chemical processing plants and mines.  The Equator Principles are “a financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing” based upon the performance standards set forth by the IFC.  Accompanying each performance standard is a mandatory set of guidance notes that must be followed in order to receive funding, but to the benefit of sustainable development, compliance with the above has now become a voluntary initiative for many projects even for those that do not require funding.

Screening and Scoping

The first step of an EIA in China is to undergo a screening process where the MEP or associated Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) classify a project into Category A, B, or C based on the impact significance of expected pollution discharges and proximity to sensitive areas such as places of ecological, archaeological or cultural value.  Class ‘A’ projects require a comprehensive EIA and an environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared.  An environmental impact form (EIF) and an environmental impact registration form (EIRF) are prepared for Class ‘B’ and ‘C’ projects, respectively.  After the screening process, if an EIR is required then the developer commissions a licensed agency to prepare an EIA action outline, which is part of a scoping report that highlights the key issues and impacts of the proposed project as well as the baseline (initial) conditions of the environment where development is to take place.  After the scope of the project has been defined then the consulting agency begins the impact assessment.

Public Consultation and Disclosure

One of the most important aspects of a quality environmental impact assessment is to take into account the opinion of the public.  With this in mind, it is good practice to actively involve the public and incorporate their opinions into the design of a project throughout the entire duration of the EIA process.  As stated in the IFC Performance Standards and in the Equator Principles, consultation should be free, prior and informed, and usually takes place in the form of a questionnaire that is distributed to project affected and interested members of the public as a part of the social impact assessment.  Disclosure is also an important aspect of the EIA process, meaning information about decisions made shall be readily available, which is achieved through the release of a non-technical summary in the language of the local community as well as in a culturally appropriate manner.  Similarly, communities will be able to express their concerns about a developer’s environmental and social responsibilities regarding the risks and adverse impacts of a project through the use of a grievance mechanism also accessible throughout the entire duration of the impact assessment.

Preparing the EIR

The bulk of my responsibility involves the preparation of environmental impact reports.  The contents of an EIR must first contain an outline of the currently existing environmental and socioeconomic conditions at the proposed project’s location, and provide a description of the project’s resources, technologies, and processes.  It shall also list all potential pollutants caused by activities during all stages of the project’s development including both construction and operation.  During this portion of the assessment, all impacts caused by air emissions, wastewater, solid and hazardous waste, soil and noise pollution as well as impacts on ecology, social issues such as land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, cultural and archaeological artifacts and human health will be considered.  The next step is a bit beyond my ability, which is to predict changes in base conditions due to impacts caused by the project.  This usually requires the expertise of an environmental engineer and predictive analyses include air emissions modeling among many others.  Where possible, the project induced environmental impacts are quantified and compared to a set of criteria listed in standards, regulations or other requirements, but often impacts are limited to qualitative assessment as is the case for social and ecological impacts.  Another key feature of an EIR is the identification of mitigation measures that must be incorporated into the project’s design.  Once the consulting agency has determined the baseline conditions, predicted and evaluated the impacts, and recommended mitigation measures, all of the above is reviewed by the expert panel then is submitted to the MEP or SOA as a written report for approval, after which trial operation and inspection/monitoring begins.

References:

Chen, Q., Y. Zhang, and A. Ekroos.  2007.  Comparison of China’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law with the European Union (EU) EIA Directive.  Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 132: 53-65.

International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability.  (April 2006)

The “Equator Principles”.  A financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social & environmental risk in project financing.  (July 2006)

Coming soon: Criticizing the Chinese EIA System

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Year One

Wow, how time flies!  Today, it’s already been a year since I left Canada with the crazy idea that I could live and find work in China and to date I’m pretty pleasantly surprised with the outcome so far.  Before I left I thought I knew what I was getting into but it’s been quite a lot more difficult adapting to the new lifestyle than I initially had thought.  Take food for example, since I grew up in a Chinese family I wasn’t prepared for any culture shock in that department.  I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could live without western food but soon after I landed I realized all the Chinese food I grew up loving was really just Hong Kong-ese, and it hardly even exists in the mainland.  They have a few gimmick restaurants in town but I haven’t really found any one restaurant with the same quality as one would find in Hong Kong… or Mom’s kitchen.  Just last week, I found myself roaming around Shanghai for hours looking for a hotdog stand to no avail.  Though I’m not as well-travelled as I would like to be at the moment I’m amazed with the diversity here even just between provinces, pretty much everywhere I go I find something unique to that region.  I noticed, however, that in general there are a few rules that seem to apply everywhere in China, and the following is a list of subtle or not so subtle differences that I have personally experienced and how I have adapted to them in this country:

1.   Sunday Stroll

This wasn’t the biggest slap in the face.  On the weekend I like to spend my mornings going for a walk on the way to grab some grub.  What is a peaceful nature walk in Canada has become an endless venture through a maze of people.  I tune out the noise by putting on my headphones and hang on to me wallet.

2.   Single File

When it’s time for lunch, don’t start lining up like a chump.  After a week of “Um, excuse me sir, uh excuse me ma’am, um hey, excuse me? But I was fir… OW, exc…” I quickly learned to blend in with the rest of the apes.  There’s room for creativity, but I recommend a sword fight to the death.

3.   Exotic Dinner

Even a whopper costs an arm and a leg compared to Chinese food.  If you’re craving an All-American meal there’s no such thing as cheap average-joe prices, only I’m-a-filthy-rich-expat-living-in-China prices.  As a result, I rarely go for western when I eat out unless I really REALLY need it… and I do get a craving every now and then I’m afraid.

4.   Mealtime Convo

Okay, alright.  This one applies to the Hong Kong-ese as well.  What to say but monkey see monkey do?  Want a quiet supper?  Wait ‘til payday.

5.   Hot or Not

In the west we enjoy a nice turkey sandwich here and there all throughout the year.  Unless it’s a blazing hot summer day in China, it’s usually hot or not.  If you know me then you’ve seen me in the summer: cloudy with a chance of showers.  Rollin’ out the head band baby.

6.   Soft Drinks

Speaking of summer, who in their right mind wouldn’t want an ice cold glass of water when it’s 30 degrees outside?  It appears the Chinese prefer their drinks hot, regardless of the temperature outside.  They even drink warm beer, because Confucius say cold drink bad for body.  I’ll stick to my Coca-Cola.

7.   Everyone’s a chimney

‘Cause they’re always smoking.  Many people aren’t aware, but it’s actually illegal to smoke indoors in Shanghai.  The unsuccessful bylaw was passed last year but I don’t think it’s catching on.  After all, it is a part of the culture:  Eat drink and smoke.  Where I come from people usually smoke after a meal, but here I seen ‘em puff during.  I also find it amusing that the sign used to symbolize “No Smoking” in the west is sometimes used to symbolize 灭烟处, meaning “Butt Disposal” in China.  Enjoy it or suck it up.

8.   The Scouting Report

When the sun is shinin’ ladies bust out the umbrellas and the fellas got a thing for chicken legs with pasty, ghost-like skin.  No competition from me on that one.  I’ll pass, now where the beach at?

9.   Rush Hour

Remember how Mom taught you to look both ways before crossing the street?  Clearly, she ain’t Chinese.  ALWAYS look ALL ways, 360 degrees, red OR green.  The fast guy has the right of way, a four lane road fits six and the crosswalk means dodge.  Play Frogger with care.

10.          Baijiu

The locals drink baijiu, this rice wine that’s like 65% and tastes like rubbing alcohol mixed with formaldehyde.  At 3 kuai a bottle it gets you smashed for a low price, so it might appeal to the cheap drunks out there.  Otherwise stay away.

11.          Crouching Tiger, Hide the Dragon

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  I can’t do it.  Thankfully I haven’t encountered many in Shanghai, but sometimes they are inevitable.  You can see how easy it is for everyone everywhere.  They don’t sit on the bench in the park, they squat on it.  They squat while texting, they squat while smoking.  How do they do it?  The answer is simple and there’s only one logical explanation…….

Evolution.

Practice makes perfect I guess.

WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

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Le Tour de Qinghai

October 2010

The Long Silk Road

I wake up in the morning with a grin on my face knowing that I finally get a break from Chinese school and the stress of the job hunt.  It’s the beginning of my vacation for China’s national holiday, when I plan to travel to Qinghai, a province adjacent to Tibet, for a bicycle tour of the largest and most beautiful lake in China.  Flipping through photos on the internet, I smile with the thought that I’m in for a real treat.  The final destination of over twenty different rivers and streams, Qinghai Hu, a saltwater lake, is a protected zone and sanctuary for numerous species of migrating birds, including some endangered ones. 

Within a few days I’ll be embarking on an adventure to test my physical limits and endurance at an altitude of over 3000 metres on a mountain bike riding about 400km around a lake that is a portion of the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a professional men’s cycling tour and one of Asia’s most elite races.  Going at full speed the round trip should only take 3-4 days for an amateur, but the game plan is to take my time, take some badass photos, have lots of fun and not kill myself… for 5 days.  All packed and ready to go, I set off in anticipation of a 24-hour train ride to Xining (pronounced shee-neeng), the province’s capital city.

I heard bad things about these trains.  They’re packed, they’re uncomfortable, they’re loud, and they’re dirty.  I walk into the train expecting the worst, embracing it as one of the Chinese cultural experiences that I so longed for.  Arriving at my assigned bunker on the train, I pass the time like I always do by tuning out the rest of the world with some good ol trance music and watch the scenery gradually change.  I spent the first few hours staring at a few rundown looking small towns, the next few hours at vast cornfields, and by the next day I found myself glancing outside at an earthy terrain I’ve never seen anything quite like before.  I was surrounded by mountains that resembled mines, terraced much like those rice farms I’ve seen pictures of from the south, only the steps were a lot bigger and it appeared a little too arid for anything to grow.  Watching an old man dump a cartful of trash into a creek, I chose to ignore also the mountains of trash that had built up on the side of the road, the result of reckless ignorance and terrible waste management.

At last I find myself in destination Xining, historically known as a commercial trading hub on one of the Silk Roads en route to Tibet.  It was surprisingly cold, I think to myself as I get off the train, opening my bag to put on a light jacket.  There isn’t much scenery to see here, but you can enjoy a lamb kebab or two with some yogurt made from yak’s milk and if you’re open-minded you may come to appreciate the myriad ethnic minorities that have settled here or are also visiting.  The people here include a mix of mostly Chinese Hui Muslims, who are descendants of Arab and Persian traders who married into Chinese families, and Tibetans as well as a few Kazakhs and Mongols.  Xining is where thousands of Islamic people rendezvous at the Great Mosque, one of the largest religious gatherings in China.  Built during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, the Great Mosque is also iconic in Chinese design for the architectural enthusiast.

Unfortunately, me being me I was too stubborn to do my research ahead of time and missed out on this opportunity, besides I’m not sure how I would’ve felt being one of the few raging tourists amidst a sea of genuinely devoted worshippers. Instead, I ended up doing what I do in every new Chinese city I visit: wander around aimlessly.  After a brief first impression though, I soon came to a conclusion that I hated this city.  The air quality here was so abysmal my throat hurt; I couldn’t take a single breath of air without feeling like I was doing something dangerously hazardous to my health.  I couldn’t wait to get out of this city, but I had to stay a night because I had to make sure I bought return tickets early the next morning, which was not a pleasant experience.  Buying train tickets for October holiday in China is a bit chaotic like the coat check at the end of a long club night; swarms of people who don’t always wait their turn in line push and shove when they approach the front.  Understandably so, the people who work behind the counter treat you with utter disrespect and rudeness.  I woke up at 7am, rushed to the station, managed to buy my tickets among the madness and went back to the hostel to catch up on some extra shuteye before noon.

The Atomic Lab

Later that afternoon I was on board a bus to Xihai, the town north of Xining where I would rent my bike.  I found out when I got there that it used to be the testing ground during the construction of the Chinese atomic bomb.  I tried not to think of the possibility that there could still be radiation present today.  There was something rather odd about this town.  Unlike all other places I’ve been in China, Xihai was unusually clean and very quiet… too quiet.  On the surface it appears to be a peaceful town, but somehow it gives me the feeling that something is going on there.  Some of the locals seem to just stop what they’re doing and glare at you, saying nothing, and it gave me the creeps like I was living in the beginning of a horror film.  The bike rental / hostel I stayed at used to be a research facility, and there I was chatting with the owner asking for directions to the bomb museum.  Noticing my Hong Kong-ese accent, he told me not to speak.  Apparently the locals here have issues with non-Chinese visitors, and I was trampling on the borderline.

“Folks will be a little sensitive about you since Hong Kong is not strictly a part of the mainland.”

“Uhh, what if I’m actually Canadian?”

“Do not speak!”, he repeated again, and ended up telling me that I’m from Guangdong, China’s Cantonese speaking province.  Shrugging, I made my way to the museum. 

Le Tour de Qinghai

The Voyage Begins

Initially I had planned to camp out at the end of each day, but the owner of the bike rental highly recommended against it.  He said it was below zero after dark, also the locals may not appreciate random people setting up camp on their land.  I can honestly say I’m really glad I didn’t go all cocky-Canadian because indeed, it was freezing out at night.  I mean it’s one thing to be out playing ice hockey at minus 5, another to sleep outside in a tent.  I left a bunch of stuff at the hostel and found that my pack was still pretty darn heavy.  So again, the moral of the story is do your research people!  It rained a bit on the morning of my departure, so my trip was delayed for a couple of hours but when I finally set my foot down on that pedal and started riding, the feeling was exhilarating…

Alas, the voyage begins!

The first 5 kilometres was a gruelling task.  I was pedaling against the wind, and the road was deceptively progressing uphill in a subtle slope invisible to the naked eye, and the entire time I thought I was just not accustomed to the weight of the bag hence affecting my balance, not to mention I was at an altitude of 3200m above sea level for the first time in my life.  It wasn’t until I reached flat ground for real that I realized I had been going uphill, and I took my first water break as I looked back and breathed a massive sigh of relief since I knew I still had a good 80k to go before reaching the first checkpoint.

The first day was a pretty neat experience.  It was especially cool how the land seemed to be divided into four completely different zones.  On my left were mountains with snowy caps and grassland then on my right were huge sand dunes that resembled a desert, and of course Qinghai Hu.  When the lake came into sight, I was impressed by its blueness.  I was a bit worried it might not look as nice in real life as it did in photos on the internet, but Qinghai really lived up to the hype.  I stopped to take a few photos, had a snack and was on my way again.  A bit further down the road I came across my first major obstacle.  To my surprise it wasn’t a steep hill, rather it was a giant flock of maybe a few hundred sheep completely obstructing the highway, treading slowly in the same direction I was going.  I caught up to them and took out my camera, getting ready to charge through the herd like a rabid wolf who hasn’t eaten in weeks. 

Ru Xiang Sui Su

The next day was a lot less scenic but no less awesome.  The beginning part was a bit of a tough ride.  Like the day before the wind was relentless as I tried to pedal my way through another one of those slight uphill runs again, only this time much stronger and it felt like I was being pushed backwards.  I needed several breaks and was a little discouraged when I figured it took me two hours to travel the same number of kilometres.  When I finally reached the top of the hill, I was exhausted but thrilled when I looked ahead and saw that I was about to hit the first downhill run of the circuit… and it was huge!  Never before have I traveled at such speeds on a mountain bike, I was like a puppy sticking his head out the window of a car on the highway for the first time.

From a distance I could see people on the side of the road, one on their knees and one with their hands up in the air.  Later I discovered they were pilgrims walking towards Tibet.  The amount of devotion that people can exhibit towards their desires never ceases to amaze me.  Travelling on foot to Lhasa from Qinghai Lake, or perhaps from even further, would likely take years in itself.  Stopping to pray every few feet would no doubt take an entire lifetime and I imagine it is the greatest honour and ultimate satisfaction for their religion.  After flying down the hill I passed by some coloured flags and so I stopped again to take a few pictures.  If you look closely, you can see tiny scripts printed onto each flag.  They are written not in Chinese but in what appears to be Arabic to me, and are hung up where winds are most prevalent in hopes that their prayers will be blown towards the gods in the sky.  At the end of the day I felt tired yet satisfied and I had also learned a few things about Tibetan culture.  I hopped off the bike and started walking out the burn in my quads.  I’ve reached the next town by dusk and devoured an oversized supper before going to look for a crash pad.

I do not recommend Chinese hostels.  Sure, they’re dirt cheap.  At best I managed to find a place to stay for 15RMB a night, that’s roughly 2 bucks Canadian… but trust me, you get what you pay for.  I was living in a farm-like home most of the time and it was freezing, it was dark, and like the train, downright dirty.  Funny story though.  Once I had to unload in the middle of the night, so I went out looking for the outhouse with toilet paper in hand.  Ignoring that it seemed abnormally small, I found the usual hole-in-the-ground type deal and as I was doing the crouching tiger, I heard a slight rustling noise that broke the silence in the darkness.  Startled, I turn on my flashlight to find a plump family of chickens no more than 2 feet away, huddled hidden in the corner.  Chuckling to myself, I realized I had just dropped in an outhouse that doubles as a chicken coop.  If I have to name one and only one thing I hate about this country, it’s those damn squatting-type “toilets”, the absolute biggest culture shock for me.  They even have them in hotels in Beijing!  What’s more, they’ve all got this little knee high slot with an ashtray that always seems to be full.  I don’t understand why men here enjoy smoking in the john, but what the heck.  In Chinese school, I learnt a saying called ru xiang sui su, meaning when in Rome China… do as the RoChinamans do.

Bird Island

P.S. – No birds.  I wish I hadn’t gone in October.  Bird Island is a breeding bird haven populated by swarms of swans, cormorants, bar-headed geese, and rarer species such as black-necked cranes, and is a major stopover for many migratory birds who gather to rest, feed, and mate before heading south towards warmer climate.  I would also have loved to see the array of golden yellow rape, which are mustard flowers famous for their omnipresence during the summer.  Third day was pretty uneventful, mostly riding along a straight highway.  On the morning of the fourth day I got up nice and early to beat the crowd, and when I arrived at Bird Island there wasn’t a soul.  I was able to bring my bike up the stairs and do laps around the boardwalk, from which the view was breathtaking.   Soon after I took the last photo, though, I packed my things and got ready for the return trip.  Finally, fatigue was beginning to take its toll on my body.  I had gotten my fair share of thrills and experiences and just wanted to take a hot shower and crawl into a warm bed.

Homeward Bound

It’s the end of the week and I’m back in the same hostel in Xining trying to pass the time doing a little light reading.  I was indulging into a collection of short stories by Jack London I found on the bookshelf, one of the fewer options in English, when I overheard the neighbours conversing about a forest park nearby.  Since I had some extra time on my hands before my train back I asked them about it and next thing I knew I was in a black taxi on my way there for some hiking.  A black taxi is basically an unlicensed cab driver willing to take you places for a negotiable price.  Yeah, I know it sounds pretty shady but it was the only way of getting there, and it wasn’t the smoothest ride.  The route the driver took was actually another portion of the professional cycling tour and it reminded me of the hairpins you’d see in Initial D.  The forest park was a nice walk with a view of the mountains and a waterfall, a good way to kill the day.  It kind of reminded me of the Rocky Mountains, which made me feel rather homesick.  Before long I was back in another black cab, which got me into thinking maybe I could do the same as a backup job.  Drive all day and hustle tourist money, that doesn’t sound so bad does it?  And thus I ended the trip with this thought, back to Xining, back on the train, back to Beijing, back to the uncertainty of the job hunt, back to wondering where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing in a month, three months, half a year from now…

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Green Milk?

One of the first things I noticed after moving to China was the milk.  When I drank it the first time, I thought it had a different, somewhat sweetened flavor and a very odd texture kinda like a Slimfast shake.  Where I come from, milk is stored and is refrigerated in the supermarkets for like 2 or 3 weeks max before someone’s gotta drink it.  In China, milk is stored at room temperature, likely for a long period of time, so at first I thought it wasn’t pasteurized.  Turns out, the milk that I’m used to drinking back home is treated by what’s called high temperature short time (HTST) pasteurization and Chinese milk is treated by a process called ultra heat treatment (UHT), or ultra pasteurization.

So, apparently UHT is another type of pasteurization that involves boiling at what they call ultra high temperatures for a fraction of a second, as opposed to exposure to lower temperatures for about 15-30 seconds at a time, increasing the shelf-life of milk from weeks to months.  Later I discovered that HTST milk, albeit less readily available, is also available in Chinese supermarkets, but it still don’t taste right to me (must be the cow).  UHT pasteurization is largely the preferred method of milk treatment obviously for economic reasons; however, UHT milk isn’t as rich in nutrients and loses some of its natural flavoring (which may explain the sweetening I noticed), further highlighting the unbalanced bias for development by leaders of this country not only over environmental concerns but over human health as well. 

What’s worse, you may have heard by now that the dairy industry in China was tangled in 2008, and again last year in a scandal involving melamine contamination.  Melamine is a chemical used to make various plastics and other industrial products and was added to milk because of its protein-like qualities in order to deceive health inspectors, but if consumed can cause potentially lethal health concerns involving kidney problems.  How some people can commit such devious crimes has always eluded me… babies depend on milk for sustenance and believe me there’s a LOT of frickin’ babies in China.  Seriously, I mean if you wanna be a bad guy go and rob a bank or something.  You don’t jeopardize the health of millions of peers and end lives before they even have a chance to begin.

A number of companies had their reputations tarnished by the scandal but only one has gone the extra mile to re-polish it.  Mengniu, a giant in China’s dairy industry, is collaborating with WWF to reduce carbon emissions through their Climate Savers programme, which is an international organization that promotes sustainable business partnerships with world-class producers.  Battling through economic obstacles towards GHG reductions and a low-carbon economy by facilitating companies to achieve ambitious emission reduction objectives in a profitable manner, a number of big name companies such as IBM, Sony, Nokia, National Geographic, TetraPak, Coca-cola and recently Volvo, have already established this relationship with the World Wide Fund for Nature.  As a world renowned NGO, the image created by a partnership with WWF is a necessary step for Mengniu to regain positive status, and is now leading the way as the first company to join the Climate Savers in China.

References:

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/how_we_work/businesses/climate/climate_savers/

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