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The Amazing Race: Guilin

Guilin is considered a “small” city by Chinese standards, with a population of over 4 million or about the same population of the entire Greater Seattle Area. Our first full day there we bussed over to the Reed Flute Caves, the most famous cave system in the area.

We stepped inside the entrance to the first cave and the temperature dropped considerably. We walked along a lighted path through a large, cool, damp tunnel and into a much more expansive space. Unlike the caves in Spain, these were obviously much more touristy, as nearly each rock formation was an “exhibit”, and named after either an adjective or idea (strength, happiness, etc.), or what it vaguely resembled (for example, one rock formation consisted of several round boulders neatly stacked on top of each other, thus it was titled “Snowman”).

Each exhibit had multi-colored lights that could be turned on and off, but most of the time I thought the rocks were prettier without the artificial coloring. We let a large group bustle past us, as the leader was shouting in Chinese into a megaphone, describing each part of the cave.

My favorite part of the cave was definitely a large open, dome-like area, which featured a large natural pool, in front a collection of stalactites and stalagmites.

Reed Flute Caves

Reed Flute Caves

We exited the cave and hopped back on the bus, for what our itinerary identified as a “city tour.” Shaosong and Kathleen had dodged questions about the city tour all day, always giving vague replies, but I thought nothing of it.

All of a sudden, Shaosong grabbed the mic and began interrogating the bus. “Have you ever seen the show, The Amazing Race?” he questioned. Before anyone could reply he stated coyly, “well we’re not going on a city tour, we’re having our own Amazing Race…Guilin-style.”

Shaosong and Kathleen that had everyone pair up and grab a large manila envelope, which contained a big map of Guilin, a pencil, 100RMB (Chinese currency) five smaller envelopes, five accompanying clues, and a postcard. We were told that we were being dropped off in the middle of the city, and would have to determine where to go based on the five clues. Once we arrived at a destination stated by the clue, we could open the smaller corresponding envelope, complete the required task and move on. The only rules were that we couldn’t use the internet/phones, nor could we use any form of transportation but our own two feet; that being said, we were allowed to complete the clues/tasks in any order and we were allowed to ask anyone for help.

As we jumped off the bus, Shaosong started the clock and bid us good luck.

Everyone took off going Elephant Trunk Hill, the most obvious answer to one of the clues and the easiest landmark to find on the map. Michelle and I hesitated, staring at the map trying to find our bearings. I had no idea where we were, so we immediately turned for help. We had determined the location of the first clue, thus we asked a nice young couple walking by if they knew where it was.

They walked us several blocks in the opposite direction of everyone else and pointed down the street. We thanked them and headed towards this ancient stone archway next to a large tree. We reached our first destination and tore the envelope open. It said that we had to have our picture taken in front of the archway and then take a picture with a stranger in front of the tree, while all three of us made a “W” sign with our fingers. The first picture was easy, but the language barrier proved difficult while attempting to politely ask people not only for a picture with them, but to twist their fingers into a “W”.

Eventually we found a kind old lady who excitedly took a picture with us and unknowingly showed off her UW pride. As we stared blankly at the map again, I noticed a European-looking man walking past. I ran up to him and asked for help.

He was from Scotland and spoke perfect English. He pointed out where we were on the map, where the supposedly most difficult clue (a obelisk-like sculpture that honors a local war hero) was located, as well as the other three. Michelle and I thanked him profusely, hurriedly scribbled out the seemingly quickest route between the remaining four destinations and set off down the street in search of this particular obelisk.

We found the sculpture hidden partially hidden behind a fence and ripped open the second envelope. This time we were supposed to copy down all of the Chinese characters onto a piece of paper. I did my best, and then we retraced our steps back past the tree and towards the main town square. We arrived in a large square, filled with people, moped rental shops and two glass pyramids, which appeared to be a direct imitation of those above the Louvre in Paris.

The directions then told us to use the money we had in the envelope to buy an item at McDonalds that we would not be able to find back home in the US and take a picture with it. Now sweating to the heat and the running around, we ran into McDonalds to grab a quick bite to eat, along with rather a pair of interesting pork sandwiches (which we didn’t eat and later gave to a homeless man on the street). Before we left, we asked the young man sitting across from us to take a picture of us with our sandwiches.

He gave us a quizzical look, but obliged, snapping an extremely awkward picture of us with our sandwiches. We picked up our things and stormed out, onward to Fubo Hill.

We finally arrived at Fubo Hill Park, opened the envelope and found two tickets to the Park and instructions to take two pictures: one on top of the hill and one with a particular stone. We climbed a set of steep winding stair to the top of the peak, which looked out over the entire city, the Xi River and nearby mountains, and asked an English couple to take our picture. The situation was hilarious, as they had no idea that we were racing against the other teams, thus they looked extremely confused when we shot back down the stairs instead of savoring the view. We thought we took the second picture with the correct stone statue but had actually missed the right one (which turned into a 10-minute penalty).

We ran into a few of the other teams as we trotted down the river bank towards our last stop: Elephant Trunk Hill, named after the rock face that looks a lot like an elephant dipping its trunk into the river. When we finally arrived the last envelope contained tickets for the park, but postage stamps as well. We took a picture in front of the famous natural landmark and then wrote Shaosong a postcard, which we were supposed to figure out how to mail it home to his address in the states.

Elephant Trunk Hill

Elephant Trunk Hill

Michelle jotted a kind message to Shaosong as I figured out how to get us back to our hotel. I hardly used any street names, rather relying on the lay of the land and major arterial roads. I think running around Europe last summer helped out my sense of direction a ton.

We bolted back towards the Guilin Bravo Hotel, through the scorching mid-day heat, hoping that we could have the front desk mail our postcard home, because I had no idea where, or how, to find a post office. Sure enough, we dropped the postcard off at the front desk in the hotel lobby and ran for the elevator. As soon as the doors opened we dashed down the hall and through the open door into Shaosong’s room, where Kathleen was sitting quietly. We had reached the finish line, and based on Kathleen’s reaction, we were the first to do so.

They would disclose the final results until that evening, so we meandered back to our rooms, absolutely exhausted.

That night, after dinner, we went out to sing karaoke as a group. Shaosong had rented a private room for our entire group, so we were able to relax after a long day and sing our hearts out.

Just before the night got going they announced the results, and Michelle and I had won! Even with our time penalty, we finished 30 minutes before the next group. [note: my brother has always wanted to apply to be on the real Amazing Race with me, so maybe this was a sign]

We spent the rest of the night reminiscing about the trip, listening to new renditions of 90’s American pop hits, and watching Shaosong dance to ‘Gangnam Style.’

A group of us woke up early the next morning to watch the Seahawks take on the San Francisco 49ers. Fortunately, the Hawks pulled out the W, and have kept on winning.

We spent the remainder of the day lounging around and resting, up until we went to Shaosong’s parents house for dinner. There we looked through pictures, both from our trip and Shaosong’s childhood, watched all of Shaosong’s videos that he took throughout the trip and ate delicious homemade Chinese food.

As we left, a deafening boom of thunder roared through the surrounding gumdrop mountains, as the wind picked up and sheets of rain began to fall.

The next morning was an early one, again, as we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Beijing. As we waited to board the plane, I looked over and sitting in the boarding area was a shirtless man. I do not know why he was not fully clothed, nor if he ever put his shirt back on, but at that moment all I could do was smile and think to myself, “This is China.”

We made it to Beijing and then onto San Francisco, and eventually, 31 hours after we had left our hotel, we landed back home in Seattle.

I realize it took me roughly two months to finish this blog, but that is life, and as I reflect on these three outrageous weeks, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and frank astonishment.

I walked on the Great Wall of China. I saw Chairman Mao’s body, after I had casually strolled through Tiananmen Square. I rode in a rickshaw and made dumplings from scratch. I met a Chinese metal rock star that now works at the Chinese equivalent of Google.

I ate tarantula and visited the “Harvard of China” (Peking University). I witnessed a nationalistic concert and stepped inside the ‘Bird’s Nest’, as well as the ‘Water Cube,’ where records Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. We rode a train that traveled at speeds of over 200 mph. I looked out over all of Hong Kong from Victoria’s Peak, in awe, and then looked back at the Peak from the tallest bar in Asia.

We floated down the Lijiang River on rafts, rode a tandem bike through traffic and kayaked down another river. I ate some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted at the Eco Farm. We visited an elementary school, where I was viewed as a human jungle gym. We saw China at its smoggy worst. And we witnessed its hidden beauty, as we hiked through the breathtaking, mountainous rice terraces. We survived that one night in a hotel fit for the set of a horror movie. We met Shaosong’s parents and went on an ‘Amazing Race.’

We went to the other side of the world as 19 strangers, and came back friends. We went to China.

Thanks for reading.

Exploration Seminar - China 2013

Exploration Seminar – China 2013

Yangshuo & The EcoFarm

Yangshuo is the complete opposite of Hong Kong.

As we pulled up to the Ecofarm, a quaint five story building run by Peter Pan (yes that is his real name) and his family. The family is so kind and generous and all of the food served at the Ecofarm (which I personally thought was the best food we had China) comes from the family’s organic farm. The area was pretty quiet, minus the herds of ducks that waddled down the road.

Talk about culture shock.

The next morning we headed up the Lijiang River to cruise back down and admire the surrounding gumdrop-like mountains. The rafts seemed to be modern adaptations of ancient river floats. Rather than using bamboo, the rafts were built on 8 or 9 thick white PVC pipes strapped together. On top of the pipes was a small wooden deck, which was covered by a small tin roof. The motor essentially was a modified open prop attached to a long pole that acted as the drive shaft. (note: I want to make one of these next summer.)

Lijiang River Cruise

Lijiang River Cruise

We walked through an ancient village, famous for making beautiful, handcrafted fans. We hopped into kayaks and paddled down a much calmer, less traveled river, beneath the mist and the dark green mountains.

Kayaking

Kayaking

We returned for another delicious meal at the Ecofarm, though shortly after, screams echoed throughout the hallway.

One of the rooms had discovered an unwelcomed guest – a brown, furry spider, perhaps a little smaller than my outstretched hand stood out against the pale yellow wall. Though this was the first large spider we had seen, it would not be the last.

The next morning we took a bus into town to rent bicycles. I had never ridden a tandem bike before, however Parker and I decided that a country where traffic laws are seemingly non-existent would the perfect place to try. We hopped on the bike and sped through a busy traffic circle at the heart of the city, weaving through a few cars before making our way to the other side of the road. We sped down the road until we eventually got to a much quieter, dusty road that led back to the Ecofarm.

Tandem Biking

Tandem Biking

That afternoon we went to Jima Elementary School, just a few blocks down the street from where we were staying. As much as I tried to not compare this experience to my time in the Dominican Republic, I could not help myself. Sure, the kids loved jumping all over me and hanging onto my back, but they seemed to lack something, some sort of childish spirit. They did not seem as fun loving or carefree as the children in the DR, even though they had “more” (according to GDP per capita).

Jima Elementary School

Jima Elementary School

It was at this point in time that I realized that the majority of people here frankly don’t seem very happy. A smile is often difficult to find, on the streets of a busy megacity or on the side of a dirt road in the countryside. While our guide, Chinn, and our hosts at the EcoFarm were incredibly kind and generous, it had become clear to me that there was some large part of Chinese culture that I still do not understand, that perhaps I will never understand.

We bid farewell to the cozy EcoFarm and set off for our next destination. We finally pulled off the road into a driveway in front of what appeared to be our home for that evening. We walked through the lobby (a large empty room), done a pathway and into a rather creepy building. More shrieks echoed throughout the halls as our group opened the doors to our new rooms, but this time the screams were not spider-induced.

Black mold covered the ceiling of two of the rooms, and as I tossed a water bottle onto my neatly made bed, three cockroaches scurried out from underneath the blankets.

The place looked as though it would have been pretty rowdy back in the day – there was a cool rooftop terrace and it was located on a pretty little river. The only problem was that this was 2013, not 1970.

We hiked up to a trio of nearby waterfalls, and actually hopped into one of the cool, crisp pools at the base of the second waterfall. After we returned, we went to a restaurant nearby where we sat around small campfires. We were given a platter of uncooked food on skewers and buckets of beer. As it started to get dark, an eerie green light perched on the opposite side of the river turned on. It was at this point that everyone decided to start opening the beers.

The following day I think was the first time everyone was excited to get on the bus.

We arrived in Longji, a cozy mountainous village, on a cool, drizzly afternoon. We meandered up the steep, slippery stone hill, near the top of the village and into our clean, rustic hotel.

The next morning we awoke to a misty sunshine and started out along the ridge, exiting towards the top of the town. We came around the first corner, only to peer out across a lush green valley of rice terraces that looked like giant staircases descending into the mist below.

The terraces were absolutely beautiful. Prior to this trip I associated China with big cities, lots of people and dirty pollution, yet we found ourselves in the middle of a mountain range, with no one else around but picturesque natural scenery.

Longji Rice Terraces

Longji Rice Terraces

After about five hours of hiking we stopped and had lunch, and then trekked on for another three. At this point the sun had emerged, thus everyone was quite relieved to finally reach the air-conditioned bus and to Shaosong’s hometown, Guilin.

The Tallest Bar in Asia

As we crossed the harbor on a ferry en route to Hong Kong Island, the sun shone prominently over the huge city. We took a double decker bus that felt as if it was going to turn over around every sharp corner, to the Aberdeen fishing village.

I was not aware there was more than one “Aberdeen” in the world, but sure enough, here we were, wandering along the waterfront, peering out over a series of brightly colored, beat up fishing boats and small ferries. It was easily one of the hottest days we had during our entire trip, yet we could not pass up the chance to play a little basketball. We shot some hoops and then took another ferry shuttle out to ‘Jumbo’ the floating seafood restaurant featured in the James Bond film: ‘Man with the Golden Gun.’

Jumbo Floating Restaurant

Jumbo Floating Restaurant

After lunch we waited in a long line to take a tram to the top of Victoria’s Peak, which has some of the best views of Hong Kong. We finally sat down on the tram’s wooden benches and the closed sealed shut and the large red vehicle began clicking up the track like a rollercoaster. At one point we were nearly going straight up a giant hill; it felt like the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios, just without the dinosaurs or exhilarating drop into a pool of water at the end.

The wait was worth it, as we stood in a stone pagoda, looking out over the skyscrapers and surrounding scenery.

View from Victoria's Peak

View from Victoria’s Peak

The next day was our last in Hong Kong. Michelle and I got breakfast with her friends Josh and Breanne Powell (awesome people) and then headed to Opening Day at the Shatin racetrack.

I had never been to a horse race before so the entire experience was new to me. Horse racing is the only legal form of gambling in Hong Kong, thus the industry is extremely popular. We up on some uncomfortable wooden bleachers watch a race or two, learning how to fill out the betting cards. I picked two of the top three finishers in one race, but ultimately ended up losing a few bucks on the day.

While we had thought the view from the Peak was amazing, Shaosong had one last spot to show us. After dinner we proceeded to the Ritz Carlton Hotel, through a maze of marble floors and shops (that I couldn’t afford anything at), and up three elevators to the Ozone Bar on the 118th floor.

View from the Ozone Bar

View from the Ozone Bar

Standing on the deck I was literally looking “down” on the surrounding skyscrapers, most of which were towering in their own right. The crowd was a little different than what I was used to on The Ave or Capitol Hill. I don’t know what was a bigger giveaway that the bar was a little out of our league: the fact that half the group took some pictures and then left or the ones who stayed could only afford one drink.

I figured that I would probably never be in the “world’s tallest bar” ever again, so rather than going with my usual order (a decently cheap beer) I decided to try something a bit more fancy (girly).

Blackberry Mojito

Blackberry Mojito

I got a blackberry mojito, and I can honestly tell you that it was the best drink I have ever had. Michelle got a piña colada and Parker ordered a whiskey sour (which, not surprisingly, was also the best whiskey sour I’ve ever tasted). Only a handful of us stayed to enjoy the view, savor the experience and reflect on the trip so far.

Ozone Bar

Hong Kong was probably my favorite city thus far; I want to come back someday, and could most likely handle staying there for an extended period of time. I don’t see myself ever living there, but more so than Beijing or Shenzhen.

The city is beautiful and very “happening,” which I think appeals to young people. At the same time, there is this disgusting coexistence of extreme wealth and desperate poverty. You will see a swanky 5-star hotel, an apartment building that uses tarps as a roof and cardboard as windows, and a Ferrari driving past a dirty, three wheeled scooter cart. While people are more used to or receptive of westerners here, it feels like everybody wants something from you; everything is driven by money. Maybe I am naïve to think that not every favor, every action, comes with a price tag, but I certainly felt it more here than I ever did in cities such as New York or Los Angeles.

Hong Kong.

We arrived in Hong Kong in the middle of a torrential downpour; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it rain that hard in Seattle before. Our bus pulled up in front of the hotel, essentially in a large puddle. We splashed across the sidewalk to get undercover, as the hotel employees told us that they would unload the luggage. One of the men seemed to be more in charge than the rest so he stood in the rain talking loudly with the bus driver. He returned to us and said, “The crew was going to wait until the rain subsided to unload the bags.”

I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life. I don’t remember the last time that I carried/used/purchased an umbrella, so I put my rain jacket on and walked out into the storm to grab everyone’s luggage. Shaosong joined me, at which point the hotel staff realized that they did not look extremely hospitable standing dry undercover while we unloaded everything. They jumped up to help, while the head employee began shouting at the top of his lungs at the driver.

Shaosong burst out laughing, translating what the man was screaming. Basically the driver was refusing to move the bus closer to the curb or even get off the bus to help. While I won’t repeat what he was yelling here, I can tell you that the man was livid.

He was shouting at the driver during the entire process. Once we had all of the bags out of the bus, he looked down at a large black bag of garbage on the sidewalk next to a trashcan. Without hesitation he grabbed the bag, where it was knotted towards the top, with one hand, and in a singular fluid motion flung the bag as if he was tossing a grenade or a low hook-shot into the luggage area beneath the bus and slammed the door.

Shaosong and I were nearly in tears we were laughing so hard. The man turned around and put on smile as if nothing had happened.

The rain did not let up so we decided to cab to Hong Kong University.  We met a group of students for lunch at a delicious seafood restaurant not too far from campus and then walked back to the business school where we sat down and spoke with a larger group of students (who were mostly freshmen and sophomores). Simply by walking around the campus and talking to a few people, it was evident that HKU was much more “westernized” than PKU. While academics remained the priority, things seemed a bit more relaxed and frankly more fun (for lack of a better word).

Hong Kong University

Hong Kong University

The woman that I spoke with was from Mainland China, thus she was able to compare the two coexisting cultures and education systems. While the conversation was intriguing, the most fascinating moment of the entire day occurred when one the students in our group asked the girl what a certain large, red statue, in the courtyard signified.

The statue was tall and featured a series of people stacked on top of one another, as if struggling to hold each other up.

“June 4th,” she replied murmured quickly, “Since I’m from Mainland China, I cannot explain further.”

Even at the University of Hong Kong, a place of intellectual thought and studies, where freedom of speech is protected and exercised, this student would not elaborate.

I could not believe it.

Still trying to digest what I had just witnessed we wandered around the damp campus a bit more before boarding a bus back to our hotel in TST.

That night a few us headed up to the 40th floor of our hotel to the rooftop patio, which looked out over all of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding bay. The lights were dazzling and shown bright over the water.

Light show above Hong Kong

We sat down on some benches looking out over the city and enjoyed the breeze. For perhaps the first time on the trip we were not rushing somewhere. We did not have an itinerary. There were no horns honking, no gross smells.

There was nothing but peace, quiet and a beautiful view.

The next morning we were welcomed back into reality by the pungent smell of some sort of cheese mixed with traditional Chinese food in the lobby, and a large crowd of people. I’m not entirely sure what was causing the smell, but there is no way that a majority of the hotel guests could tolerate, dare I say, “enjoy,” that smell.

We set out for Pacific Textiles, the company my buddy Parker and I researched last quarter.

We met with one of the original founders of the company. There are four main steps in the clothing industry: yarn à fabric à garment à branding

Pacific Textiles operates within the fabric sector, creating fabric from yarn and then selling it to other companies, which use it to actually produce items (garments) of clothing (which then have brand names, logos, etc. attached to them before they hit retail).

1 lb. of fabric produces about 2 garments, thus in 2012-13 when Pacific Textiles sold 200 million lbs. of fabric, it indirectly helped produced roughly 400 million pieces of clothing for brands such as Uniqlo (a hugely popular Japanese brand similar to GAP), Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Adidas, Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein, Nike and VF Corp.

While the presentation was pretty interesting, the presenter was uncomfortably candid. He made me feel the shirt he was wearing after I asked if he wears clothes that are produced from his fabric, which was kind of funny, but then he made several racist and arrogant comments, that ultimately left a sour taste in the mouths of our group.

That afternoon we stopped by PCCW Global, a company focused on connecting internet users around the globe through means of broadband, fixed line, mobile and TV. While Pacific Textiles was brutally honest and open, PCCW Global (they made sure to say “Global” every time) was more reserved and rehearsed.

Prior to a rather flashy introduction, they apologized for the size of the decently spacious room, saying that they “wanted to make sure that we had the best view in the house” (the view over Hong Kong Island was pretty spectacular).

The presentation was pretty interesting; it is crazy how intertwined and connected the world is becoming. Then all of sudden, almost in an attempt to make sure the crowd had been won over we were showered with gifts. We were told that each of the brand new, leather PCCW Global business portfolio pads on the table were ours to keep, and that they had given all of our headshots to a caricature artist – the results were pretty entertaining, yet there was more to come. The next thing we know we were being escorted outside and across the courtyard, into a classy, journalistic themed bar called ‘The Newsroom,’ for a PCCW Global-sponsored happy hour. We sat down in our own corner of the bar with our hosts and were told to order whatever we wanted. It was awesome, and suddenly, PCCW Global. Pretty easy (and successful) marketing if you ask me.

The entire experience was surreal, and definitely not a bad company to end on.

That night Michelle and I had dinner with David, a family friend. The food was incredible and David had plenty of interesting things to say about the city, as well as China as a whole. As I have said before, I feel like I learn something new everyday. [note: David if you are reading this, thank you again for dinner! We had a really nice time]

Shenzhen.

Trees, buildings and entire villages seemed to all blur together, as we sped through the Chinese countryside at over 200 mph. I had never been on a bullet train before, but after 10 hours aboard one, we are now pretty well acquainted.

Shaosong and Kathleen had told our group that Shenzhen was a smaller city, centered around manufacturing, thus I pictured a quaint town, full of homogenous white factory buildings.

Boy was I ever wrong.

Shenzhen is home to over 15 million people – “small” is a relative term here in China. The city is ultra-modern; nearly all the buildings are coated in glass and shiny new metal.

The next morning we walked into a cool dark blue room, similar to that of Baidu. A large LCD screen greeted us, displaying a map of over 150 million online users of Tencent products. While we were standing in this product room, over 2 million more users logged on.

Tencent

Tencent

Our guide was pretty funny, whether she intended to be or not, as she told us that domestic tech firms dominate the Chinese market, “thanks to the government.” A quick rundown of the company followed, as she explained that the average age of Tencent’s 20,000 employees is 27 and that the company has applied for over 8,000 patents (more than Google). There is a Tencent College, as well as a Tencent Charity.

While the majority of the company’s revenue comes from online video games, its most famous product is called QQ, a sort of instant messaging service. Its search engine is called SoSo, and its logo looks peculiarly similar to that of its biggest American competitor – it even uses the same color scheme.

Unlike Baidu, at first Tencent appeared to be much more self-righteous. Our guide offered ongoing comparisons and justifications against Google. She even managed to mention a scandal within the Red Cross, one the most recognized charitable organizations in the entire world, and proceeded to explain how Tencent’s charity was much more trustworthy and secure.

Tencent’s most recent success has come from its app WeChat (an extension of QQ), a combination of Skype, iMessage, and What’sApp. The app has a function that allows users to simply shake their phones in order to find other users (whom they may or may not know) nearby.

Our guide continued on about the culture of Tencent, the fact that they have “Christmas parties” every year, along with other fun get-togethers, including a rock star themed carnival.

While the culture seems to be a slight imitation of what of Western tech firms and the current Silicon Valley atmosphere, the guide took plenty of jabs at these firms they are seemingly striving to be more like. For example, Tencent compares its Microblog to Twitter, except that its content is “much richer.” Tencent is a really interesting and innovative company on its own, thus I didn’t really understand the nature of these unnecessary comments.

Actually talking to someone who works on a product team gave us a bit more insight on the evident cultural imitation and in fact, a different, more positive perspective. The man we spoke with mentioned “SnapChat” at least 4-5 times during our conversation. Tencent wants to foster creativity, thus he believes Baidu to be “a very respectable company.” It was a refreshing, and I believe, more accurate portrayal of Tencent and its place within the industry.

We bid our goodbyes and headed to a different part of town, one that was much more industrial. We approached a rather sketchy-looking freight elevator, which essentially was a large, stuffy, slow moving metal box, with a creepy, wobbling ceiling fan that appeared as though it would fall out at any moment.

This very well could have been the opening scene in a horror movie. When the doors finally opened, however, we found a neat, clean office lobby with “Ruijing” emblazoned in green text on the white wall.

At the opposite end of the room was a black and red LED screen that read, “Welcome the American guests to visit our company.” We moved into a conference room and sat down a large rectangular table, full of fruit, coffee and other snacks.

Ruijing is one of the top 10 manufacturers in Shenzhen, focusing primarily on chargers, adapters and hardware for various electronic products (everything from SnapOn power tools to LG cellphones).

Mr. Chi, the founder of the company, kindly explained that Ruijing has 800 employees. 80% of the company’s sales are domestic, as it begins to move into home appliances and household items. He fielded a variety of questions from our group, including several about his employees. He says that his employees receive good benefits and packages, working about 8-10 hrs per day. Being that he is one of the more prominent employers, the retention rate of workers is 5 years, which is high for the area.

Mr. Chi ended his presentation by saying that he was “very honored to have us here.” He was also very excited to tell us that his daughter goes to grad school in the states, being that he believes “American schools to be superior to those in China.”

Before we were allowed to enter the physical factory we had to step into an interesting contraption the size of a small metal suitcase, with a hole in the top. Inside the hole were blue plastic bags rubber banded to the corners so that when you applied pressure to the middle they instantly snapped tight around your foot. The goofy blue show bags were to prevent us from getting shocked by electricity, yet, when we walked into the factory, I was shocked by something else. While the area was clean, each worker sat in an area a little bigger than one of those old wooden school desks that are attached to chairs, next to a conveyor belt.

Plastic shoe bags at Ruijing

Plastic shoe bags at Ruijing

The belt would bring one piece of hardware around to each worker who would then shave down, clip or shape the item, place it back on the belt and then repeat. Over and over again.

I cannot even fathom what it would be like to work in a factory, mind you that this particular factory was considered to be one of the best, most comfortable in the area.

China may have the second largest economy in the world (in terms of nominal GDP) but according to 2012 IMF findings, its GDP per capita ranks 86th in the world (just below that of Iraq).

The Great Wall

As we reached a long rectangular gravel parking lot, it was pretty clear that we were no longer anywhere near Beijing. The air was crisp and clean, and steep, forested mountains had replaced the grayish stacks of skyscrapers.

We walked through a gate, and up a long series of stairs. Suddenly, the incline lessened, and I found myself standing on the Great Wall of China. This was something I talked about as a kid or saw in movie, not something that I ever thought I would actually do.

It is difficult to comprehend how beautiful the view was without actually seeing it in person. Words simply cannot do it justice.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

I was awestruck as I slowly turned in a circle peering out over lush green peaks, segregated by a bold, sandy stone line that seemed to outline mountains as far as the eye could see. We stood there briefly, taking the moment in, chewing on the fact that this wall was built by hand over 2,000 years ago.

We began walking along the impressive structure, looking down through the surrounding valleys as we climbed higher and higher along the neighboring ridge. The group seemed to slowly divide into two, as some of us stopped to take photos and move a more relaxed pace, while others trudged ahead. At one point the faster group decided to pause before one of the steepest inclines to allow us to catch up.

Our groups were probably a few hundred yards apart when someone in the group further ahead of us hollered out, “GOOO!” as loud as they could. Without hesitation our group screamed back, “HUSKIES!” as the echo roared through the valley. While we weren’t going to be able to see the first game in the new Husky Stadium, we did make our presence known on the Great Wall.

Fortunately we had traveled to a more secluded part of the Wall, one several hours outside of the city, thus we did not see too many other tourists – though coincidentally enough, shortly after our “Go Huskies” chant, we ran into a Boise St. fan who felt compelled to say “Go Boise” to every one of us as he passed (that really worked out well for him).

We moved ahead until we had passed through 17 fortresses/towers and reached the end of the “maintained” part of the wall. As we sat down to have lunch, a woman in the tower above us began to sing some sort of opera song. This trip just gets cooler/stranger everyday.

Just before we started to head back, a few of us ‘shotgunned’ a beer for no other reason than so we could say we did so on the Great Wall of China. We made our way back down the wall, and headed home.

While many of you reading this headed down to the E-1 parking lot the following day to tailgate before the Boise St. game, we were headed to a concert at the National Center of Performing Arts. We arrived a little after kickoff back home, just in time to see that UW had taken an early lead. As the lights dimmed and the performers took the stage, many people took out their cameras. As plenty of bright smartphone screens appeared throughout the crowd, attendants were stationed throughout the aisles to shine laser pointers on the screens of people’s cameras and phones, to warn them to stop.

While it was rather amusing to watch these guys attempt to hit a tiny screen with a laser beam, the performance was even more entertaining. The group consisted both of musicians, including strings (violins, cellos, etc.), drums and horns, and a large, all-male choir, clad in some kind of military/navy uniforms. The group was very talented, however, there certainly was a ‘propaganda feel’ to the entire performance – especially when the choir changed uniforms and came back out wearing camouflage fatigues and Kevlar vests.

The performance was interesting and the facility was stunning. The slightly ceilings were all extraordinary high, and made of gorgeous light, wood. Being that we had originally entered directly from the subway, we stopped briefly on our way out to look at the exterior of the building, which resembles a large, metallic egg.

Next on our group’s to-do list was the famous Silk Market – a large building, home to six floors of knock-off and replica goods. At first I was excited about shopping in China, and eager to bargain for fake t-shirts and such, however, I was quickly discouraged. The entire situation is incredibly stressful, because as you are trying to bargain (all the vendors start with extremely inflated prices, hoping that the occasional tourist will overpay), you also must silently convert the price back into US dollars, all the while the vendor is trying to get you to buy something. The shops also seem to operate under a different set of principles than in the US, mostly in hopes of making you buy something.

For example, I found a really cool “Tommy Bahama” shirt, but it was white and a size 4XL. I asked if the woman had a large, blue version of the shirt. She immediately said, “Yes” and began pulling boxes out of nowhere. The next thing I know she has laid upwards of 10 shirts on the ground in front of me, none of which are the one I wanted. I told her this and she apologized and grabbed another dozen shirts and spread them out on the floor. The shirt I wanted was nowhere to be found thus I politely said, “Thank you, but that I only wanted that one shirt” and started towards the exit. The woman chased after me and pulled on my bag, telling me that it was unfair that she had gone to all that trouble (though I had only asked for one particular shirt).

Downstairs was full of shoe stores, each of which had every color of the Air Jordan XI (arguably the rarest, and thus most ‘faked’ Nike sneaker). Once again, I was eager to check out just how realistic these shoes were, only to find that they often felt cheap and incorrectly designed. Ultimately, I did not buy anything and made my way back to the hotel to plan out our one and only free day in Beijing.

The following morning, our last full day in Beijing, we took the subway over to the Olympic Park, a gigantic square, nearly empty now, that once held hundreds of thousands of competitors, tourists and visitors.

The Bird's Nest

The Bird’s Nest

We climbed the steps up to the top of the Bird’s Nest, expecting to find the large stadium deserted, but to our surprise it was filled with what appeared to be the set of an upcoming play/theatrical production. There was a giant tree stump in the middle of the stadium, whose roots extended sideways towards two ponds full of fountains and water cannons. We actually sat down for a while to watch rehearsal, which was interesting, but incredibly strange.

Inside the Bird's Nest

Inside the Bird’s Nest

We moved on over the Water Cube, the place where Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals and 23 new world records were set (between men’s and women’s events). While the Bird’s Nest still has some pizazz, the Cube seemed a lot more glamorous on TV, five years ago. Part of the warm, muggy cube has been turned into a water park (which also has seen better days, but does feature a slide that includes a 40-ft free fall and then an incline – yes the Chinese built a water slide that goes up – before dumping riders out into a small pool). It was pretty incredible to stand in the bleachers and look out over such a small rectangular area where some of the most amazing moments in the history of sport occurred.

Water Cube

The Water Cube

When I watched the 2008 Olympics, Beijing seemed like some far away land. It seemed distant and foreign. Yet, here I was, five summers later, standing there in the world-famous Water Cube.

It was a rather fitting ending to our stay in Beijing, a kind of peaceful exit from a city of over 20 million people. The next morning we would be heading to Shenzhen.

Olympic Park

Olympic Park

The Fisheye Cafe

We caught an early subway Friday morning to the outskirts of Beijing. From there we took ‘black taxis’ (unlicensed taxis which operate in areas that are too far out for city taxis to regularly reach) to the Hyundai manufacturing plant. We pulled up a to a gate, which guarded huge parking lot full of identical, white Hyundai Sonatas, as well as a large white and blue warehouse-type structure, the size of the Forbidden City.

We sat through a cheesy/touristy informational video, which talked about Hyundai’s “corporate responsibility”, its different lines of cars. The fastest Hyundai production resides in Alabama, however, this plant is second, producing a new car every 54 seconds.

We learned a bit more about the actual process of making a car and then headed over to see the final part of the production process: Assembly.

The warehouse buzzed with the continuous clank of metal and riveting of bolts. The cars were attached to what resembled a really slow-moving rollercoaster. Men stood beneath or next to the cars, repeating a specific task (installing the doors, putting the wheels on, etc.) over and over again. There was a small bench area with books in the middle of all of the action that appeared to be some sort of break area, though we didn’t see anyone use it.

I also only saw one woman on the entire production line. Our guide proudly informed us that 7.6% of the workforce was female (apparently this number is closer 3.5% the Korean production facilities). Being that roughly 46% of Baidu’s workforce was female, we inquired why more women did not work at Hyundai. Our guide replied that, “That they don’t have the energy, the endurance, to do the manual labor,” which was not very surprising given our previous experiences. Regardless of their employment policies, the Hyundai factory was incredible. It was so cool to see an empty chassis enter a production line and then drive off. It made me appreciate how complex and intricate a car really is.

On our way out we walked down a long, hot hallway which showcased the gifts other visitors have given the factory, which included a golden model airplane and plenty of crystal trophies. I hope they liked our coffee mug.

After lunch we went to Fisheye Café, which shared an uncanny resemblance with a store named after a particular fruit. Along with Apple products, the store also had plenty of high tech gadgets and a fully functioning café. Here we met two Husky entrepreneurs, who live and work in Beijing.

Michael, a graduate from the Foster MBA program, is in the process of producing a mini-projector about the size of an iPhone or wallet. Tommy (who is often confused for Jeremy Lin whenever he goes to the airport), is a Finance major and recent graduate from Foster. He started a website that helps local tech companies find employees. It is kind of a less-social version of LinkedIn, specifically for IT recruiting, and currently has over 10,000 users.

The conversation was really interesting and covered everything from business to views on American higher education. Both Michael and Tommy were very grateful that they were able to attend the University of Washington.

Specifically, Tommy said that while attending school abroad didn’t help with local networking, “American education gives you confidence. It gives you an open mind. Most importantly, I learned that you can do anything if you put your heart into it.”

While we have spent little time in a physical “classroom,” I feel as though I’m learning a ton everyday. I wish school were this fun all of the time.

As we packed onto the subway, I thought about all that I had seen over the past five days and eagerly awaited the morning. Tomorrow we would climb the Great Wall.

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