Tag Archives: china

Tibet 2018

In the second half of August, 2018, I biked from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa. The road, the G109, is a lifeline for Tibet, with 85% of supplies for Tibet imported along this route. It parallels the primary train line into the region, and was one of the first paved routes on the plateau.

It’s also 1000+km above 4,500m.

My original motivation for the trip was a similar but different route, the G318 road connecting Chengdu in Sichuan to Lhasa. This route is one of the most popular long distance cycling routes in China, and there are a number of posts I found when looking for bicycling adventures in China that were simply incredible. The 318 wasn’t fully paved until 2013, and it wasn’t uncommon to see posts where groups were fording stretches of waste-deep mud. While this adventure lacks some of the romanticism, it approximates what for me is at the heart of the pilgrimage.

We started by flying to Xining, with a layover in Beijing where I redeemed online train reservations for tickets. After a short connection to a night train to golmud, we got our bikes assembled, and I navigated the kuaidi system to ship the extra luggage to a hotel in lhasa.

The first adventure occurred 30km outside of town. After passing signs warning us we’d already entered Tibet (we were still 100’s of km from the official boundary of the TAR, but the G109 road is managed by the Tibetan authority from Golmud), we encountered a road checkpoint that wanted foreigners to be accompanied by a guide, and to have a valid permit for entering the region. I had worked with Extravagant Yak to secure a guide from TuoTuoHe, a town before the first such checkpoint which either of us were aware of. After a couple rounds of discussions between the officers, us, and the tour guides, we were allowed to continue unaccompanied on the first leg, as initially planned. The hesitation and negotiation reminded me of how rare it is for foreigners to be in this area.

The first week was the highlight of the trip for me. A series of low-mileage but strenuous days brought us to the plateau, and the direct, spontaneous interactions we were able to have each day were fantastic. We got water from a local spring, received a warm welcome from returning military convoys, and learned how to operate a coal stove.

Tibet was interesting to finally see as well. I’ve hesitated to travel or interact with the region because of the political sensitivities. I don’t feel like that I was missing too much – my general impression of Tibetan culture and lifestyle has not dramatically changed as a result of the trip, though I do appreciate the direct experience confirming what I had suspected. In broad strokes, the situation of the Tibetan minority does not seem abnormal to that of other Chinese minorities. Like Xinjiang, there are restrictions on movement, a different predominant language, and different cultural norms. The underlying tensions are not unique, increased Chinese driven development is modernizing the society, but there is concern that the uplift is not equitable, and that improvements may mute traditional cultural values.

Regardless, Tibet-the-location is beautiful, and was fantastic to explore.

China in 2017

I had the chance to visit China last week and tag along with the tail-end of a longer trip organized around various Makerspaces around the region. This is the first time in several years that I’ve spent a prolonged amount of time in the dense population areas of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution that continues in this majority of Chinese life.

The most noticeable change from my perspective is that Beijing and Shanghai are effectively almost cashless. The use of Alipay and wechat pay are ubiquitous, to the point that you feel that you are creating an imposition to shop keepers by paying with cash. While funding your account on either of these services requires a chinese bank account (which itself requires a mainland cellphone number), the process can be short-circuited by making an unofficial exchange with someone willing to send you a personal transfer within the systems. It remains easy enough to find people at hostels, (as well as localbitcoins, I hear) who are willing to trade.

The systems themselves are fascinating to use. Payment to a merchant will automatically cause you to follow the merchants account, typically leading to messages about member cards and discounts. These messages seemed to only be pushed directly in response to a purchase, and weren’t overly intrusive. It seems to be the realization of the business-to-consumer engagement systems facebook and google have been struggling and so far failing to build in the US. Smaller vendors often operate directly as individuals – you type in how much money the bill is, and send it as a direct transfer to an account specified by the waiter or merchant.

This payment structure has resulted in a secondary industry of android-based devices dedicated to sales and scanning QR codes for these systems, as well as receipt printers that turn app orders into printed requests for food or similar.

Apart from the payment evolution, it is really interesting to watch China modernize. Life there now is much more comfortable from a western perspective than it has been in the past, with both a larger presence of foreigners visible and more english available to help navigate. Some distinctive characteristics remain, including a self-interested approach to queuing and different expectations of personal space. Prices in Shanghai have reached parity with those in the west, although cheaper options remain if you look for them.

In terms of Internet connectivity, I was surprised to find that connectivity remained quite similar to what I had experienced in the past. An SSH tunnel to a foreign server was sufficient to maintain email access while I was there, and disruptions I experienced seemed to be much more a function of over-loaded local networks than of more restrictions for international traffic. I talked with a couple different people who mentioned that Astrill continues to not be blocked, and seemed surprised that something so well known continues to operate without disruption.

Thoughts on China’s Updated Cyber-security Regulations

On Monday, China ratified an updated cybersecurity legislation that will enter effect next June. The policy regulates a number of aspects of the Chinese Internet: What data companies need to keep on domestic servers, the interaction between companies and the government, and the interaction between companies and Chinese users.

Notably, when considering the impact on the Internet, the law include:

  • Network operators are expected to record network security incidents and store logs for at least 6 months (Article 21)
    Note that the punishment for refusing to keep logs is a fine up to 10,000usd to the operator, and of up to 5,000usd to the responsible person.
  • Services must require real-identity information for network access, telecom service, domain registration, blogging, or IM (Article 24)
    The punishment for failing to require identity is up to 100,000usd and suspension of operations.
  • Network operators must provide support to the government for national security and crime investigations (Article 28)
  • If a service discovers prohibited user generated content they must remove it, save logs, and report to the government (Article 47)
    The punishment for this is up to 100,000usd and closing down the website

The concerns from foreign companies seem to center around a couple things: The first is that there’s a fairly vague classification of ‘critical infrastructure’, which includes power, water and other infrastructure elements explicitly, but also refers to services needed for public welfare and national security. Any such service gets additional monitoring requirements, and needs to keep all data on the mainland. Companies are worried they could be classified as a critical service, and that there aren’t clear guidelines about how to avoid or limit their risk of becoming subject to those additional regulations.

The other main concern seems to be around the fairly ambiguous regulation of supporting national security investigations by the government. There’s a concern that there aren’t really any limits in place for how much the government can request from services, which could include requiring them to include back doors, or perform significant technical analysis without compensation.

My impression is that these regulations aren’t much of a surprise within China, and they are unlikely to cause much in the way of change from how smaller companies and individuals experience Internet management already.

Mongolia Trip

Click the ‘see my pictures’ link for photos.

I got to the bus station at about 4pm. A guy at the service counter sold me a ticket for 200RMB and said the bus left at 5pm. This wasn’t quite what I’d seen online (180RMB leaving at 4:30) – but that was the only bus that left between 4 and 5. There was one other foreigner on the bus, a guy named Tom from estonia. We both were in the back of the bus, which was possibly better in some ways, though I’m still unsure on that count. The length of the bunks was significantly shorter than my height, and it was not one of the most comfortable 11 hours I’ve experienced. I listened to music for most of the trip, and was pretty relieved when we got intoerlian at 4am. There were a bunch of guys offering places to stay the night when we got off the bus, and I eventually went with one for 25RMB for the night.

I got up at 8:30, and walked around the city. The place I had ended up was south of the main city, and I took a bus through town most of the way to the border. Then I realized I’d missed the train station and walked back.

At the train station, there were a couple of guys who didn’t really speak Chinese who were having a trouble. I eventually determined that the issue was that the tickets for the train back to Beijing Saturday night were totally sold out. This was disappointing to me, since I’d hoped to take a train back rather than being on another uncomfortable 12 hour bus ride. It was not to be though, Istopped in at a travel agency as well, and they didn’t have any tickets to sell me either.

Walked over to the bus station and got a ticket back to Beijing at 4:30 that afternoon, figuring it would give me enough time to get across the border and back. I’d told Tom I’d meet him at the bus station at 11:30, since we’d read that there was a public bus that crossed the border at noon, that would be a bit cheaper than doing it yourself. After getting the bus ticket, which was the only thing I needed to do that morning, I still had an hour and a half, so I took a bus back into the heart of town to wander around some more. The main park inerlian had a bunch of dinosaur sculptures, and they were interesting if a bit out of place. I never did find the dinosaur museum though, which was a minor disappointment. From the park I walked through the food market for a bit – It wasn’t too unfamiliar with the markets throughout China – though there were certainly booths that seemed to have different items. The breads were much firmer in general, reminiscent of the Muslim breads I’d seen in Xi’An, rather than the steamed bread popular in the Han dominated areas.

The town was really different in terms of architecture, which had a distinct soviet feel to it. The feeling was probably heightened by the prevalence of cyrillic everywhere. I believe that the Cyrillic that I was seeing was still Mongolian – just a different way of writing it.

I wandered around the market area a bit, stuff was cheaper than in Beijing – clothing was 10-20RMB for shirts and pants. There also seemed to be a preference for really heavy duty jackets, which made a lot of sense. Headed back to the bus station when it was time to meet Tom. Asking in the station, I got told that there was only 1 bus across the border each day and it left at 1:30pm. I helped Tom get a ticket on that, since he wasn’t in a rush, but decided that I’d try and go on my own, since I needed to get back by 4 – and had heard the crossing could easily take an hour each way.

Outside the bus station were a bunch of taxi’s and they all spoke decent Chinese. I talked to one of them, and eventually he told me that for 120RMB he’d get me across the border both ways. I agreed, and he drove me to the border. We got out, found one of the parked jeeps waiting to go across, and he told the driver what I wanted in Mongolian. He got 10RMB as his commission, and the driver would get 110.

In the jeep with me was the driver, a young Mongolian guy that was related to the driver in some way (nephew perhaps) and two other Mongolians who were heading up. One of them knew a bit of basic English and confirmed that I would be taken across and then back. He actually had been working in Germany, and was disappointed that I didn’t speak any German.

There were 4 parts to the border crossing: entering the border area, leaving china, checking health for Mongolia, and finally entering Mongolia.

To leave, everyone in each car had to pay 5RMB for an exit ticket, which you then gave to a chinese guard at a checkpoint.

A short drive away was the main Chinese border building. We each got tasked with hauling a big bag of rice through the Chinese building, since the goods couldn’t be left in the jeep for this step.

The exit was painless – taking maybe 10 minutes to stand in line and then handing my passport to the guy.

We loaded the rice back on the jeep, and drove to the next checkpoint. A guard gave us all mongolian health forms as well as entry forms to fill out while we waited in the jeep to get to the front of the line. The health form was focused on SARs exclusively, which I felt was a bit out of date, but it wasn’t very intrusive either. When the jeep was at the front of the line, all of us passengers got out, while the driver drove through a couple big scanning gates and the jeep got hosed down by the guards.

the passengers went through what looked like an army field tent, which was really weird. Here we handed in our health forms to agents and then went inside the neighboring building where a big thermometer was mounted on a wall and it was confirmed nobody had a fever.

Coming out of the building our jeep had pulled a bit too far forwards, and the guard made the guy back up, and wouldn’t let us just walk the 100 feet forward to get in. So we drove the 200 yards to the main entrance building.

In the entrance building, the Mongolian agent tried to scan my passport, but the RFID chip is I think successfully deactivated, so she had to type in the number instead. Luckily no speaking was needed on my part, and I got an entrance stamp on my passport, and got back to the jeep on theMongolian side.

We had to wait a bit for the jeep to be cleared by the Mongolian agents, and then got back in to go to Zamyn-Uud, the town past the border. Here, the other two passengers got out at the train station to continue to ulaan-baatar. The guy who spoke a bit of English said I should stay with the jeep, and it would cross back in under 40 minutes.

we headed back towards the border a bit to meet a jeep that had been crossing a bit behind us. Here a couple computer monitors I hadn’t noticed were unloaded from where they were hidden under the back seat and passed to the other jeep. Then we headed to the house of the driver to do the main unloading. They had me wait in the hut that belonged to the younger guy’s sister, while they unloaded the rice from the back of the jeep.

I went out to take some pictures of the area, and noticed that the floor of the jeep was also removable and they had a bunch of additional good that they’d smuggled across the the border as well. The sister was nice, as were her two daughters, though none of the spoke any English or Chinese. They offered my apple juice and showed off their pet turtle. I gave them one of the bottles of maplesyrup that I’d brought and they seemed appreciative.

Pretty soon the jeep was unloaded and we began on the return trip. We stopped by the railway station again to pick up passengers for the trip back, and ended up with 5 Mongolians who were heading to China – two girls, and then a wife and husband with a small kid.

The ‘leaving Mongolia’ process was quick for me – just handing my passport to the agent, getting it stamped and walking out. The family had a bit of an issue, because the father got through first and had the kid’s passport, so the other two couldn’t get through. Eventually they came out to the jeep and got him to give them the passport and then went back inside.

The Chinese health process was in two parts. The jeep first had to drive through a screening building – during that process they had me hold an old jacket over the window because there wasn’t actually a window and something got sprayed at us as we went through.

Then there was a medical inspection. For the Mongolians there was a form – in Mongolian – that they filled out at dropped off. I couldn’t understand that, and before they gave the one in English they made me stick a thermometer under my arm to check my temperature. I filled out that form, and then re-entered China without further issues.

The jeep drove me back to the bus station – the whole process taking about 2 hours. I switched my bus from the 4pm to the 3pm bus, since that way i’d get in at 2am instead of 4-ish, and then bought some snacks for the ride.

The bus back was much more appropriate in terms of space – there was one less row of beds, so there was (almost) enough room to lay on the bed. To make up for this accommodation, the driver avoided highways for most of the way back in order to not pay the tolls. we ended up spending the first four hours on really small 2 lane roads through inner Mongolia – which was especially fun when there was construction and the bus had to detour on dirt paths. (once for a good half hour)

The area was really pretty through – totally flat at the beginning, and then turning into slightly rolling hills. Lots of flocks of sheep and goats wandering around. later we came across the ‘meng niu’ brand cows – one of the famous dairy brands is based in inner Mongolia, and claims to provide milk from happy cows. The cows seemed happy enough, from what I could see.

We got in to the south bus station at 2am, and I took at taxi back to the hotel and went to sleep.

The whole process took 33 hours, and I probably could have done it faster if I was in a hurry. (if I had, say, gone across the border early in the morning and then caught the 10:30 bus back.)

Woke up this morning, and found that I have access to google wave, so I’ve been playing with that a bit, as well as uploading pictures. It was a fun experience, and a part of China I haven’t really seen before.

June 14th – Grottos

Got up at 6:30, I’m mostly adjusted to the time zone now.

Answered email, and showered, and left the hotel at around 7, to go to the grottoes. Sadly, the road that the bus travels on was no longer in existence – it was totally torn up, and just a big patch of dirt that had lots of people but no cars. On the other side of it I did find the datong park, which I hadn’t been to before. The park seemed like a hotspot of activity on a Sunday morning, and was really filled with people. Lots of taiji exercises. Lots of synchronized dancing. Lots of families with children – there was also an amusement park component that was beginning to open when I got there.

I walked back to the hotel to try to figure out an alternative route, and decided that I’d take the 17 from my hotel to the xinkaili terminus, and then switch to the 3. It worked out without a hitch, and I found myself at the grottoes about 40 minutes later.

The caves were amazingly impressive. Some of the sculptures were huge (50 or 60 foot high buddhas). I don’t have pictures of the largest couple since they were under no-photograph protection, and also indoors so that they’d keep their color and not bleach as much as the others.

I think this alone validated the trip out here – really amazing stuff from a thousand years ago. (there are pictures posted)

Came back at 1, and fiddled around with email and uploading photos some more.

I tried to go out to see another temple in town, but it started raining, so I didn’t get very far – stopped in at a grocery store to get some food instead and then hurried back to the hotel so I didn’t get too wet.

Hung out for the afternoon – it didn’t really clear up, and there’s not that much more to see.

The plan for tomorrow is to hopefully see the coal museum, although there’s nothing online with a firm address for the place so I’ll need to rely on finding a cab driver.

I also started thinking about what I’ll be doing for next week, and roughly sketched out a plan. It looks like it’ll be raining for the first couple days (and there’s a ‘feels like’ of 56 Celsius to boot) so that’s probably best spent in doors.

One more day in datong, and then it’s back to beijing on the 16th.

June 13th – Mount Heng

Got up early at 5am. Fiddled with my computer – getting pictures posted and such. Had breakfast.

Went down to the lobby at 7 to meet my driver. The first place we went was the wooden pavilion. It’s a bit over an hour out of town on the beijing – mongolia expressway. It’s a pagoda made of wood. It had some big wooden buddhas, and was beginning to deteriorate on the inside.

The driver said a lot of ‘foreign tourists’ came to datong. Most of them from japan and korea, and mostly there for relgious reasons. Not a ton of westerners.

In another hour we got to hengshan. Half an hour walk up to the temples from the parking lot. Lots of temples, and cool scenery. The area actually reminds me a lot of eastern Oregon. It has the same shrubbery and orange-ish hills.

Lots of staring. I kind of stood out from the crowd I guess. It’s sort of to be expected though.

after I’d explored hengshan we went to the hanging monastery. It’s just across from hengshan, with a small reservoir between the two. Lots of tour groups there, but the place itself is pretty cool. I got through it in 15 minutes, because it is small. It’s not active – all commercial now. There was another one hidden up the hill from it where the monks have retreated.

Then we drove back to the city – getting back at around 2. Coming in it really is impressive how huge the development of the place is. There are a good 30 blocks all under construction as you come in – block after block of cranes. The block I’m in is apparently safe because it’s where the 9 dragon screen is – but both sides are in the process of the demolition. It’s also impressive how active the place is in spite of the demolition going on. Lots of people on the streets and in shops that are still open.

I walked to a super market and restocked on water – I was thirsty after the morning.

Came back and discovered my computer wouldn’t turn on. After some fiddling it’s in a state of partial ok-ness, but is still finicky.

Got dinner from one of the street sellers.

came back and I’m in the process of amusing myself until it’s time to go to bed.