Monday, May 21, 2007

Waterfall Hike (May 15, 2007)

On this trip to the Lazovsky District Diana and Sergei introduced me to a friend of theirs, Oleg Nikolaevich Voronoi, and he immediately invited me on a hike the next day to some nearby well-known waterfalls, which also are protected as a nature monument, “Elamovsky Spring.” (Elamovsky is the name of the river you follow to the falls. From the “spring” in the name I conclude the river must have its source underground.) It was super nice of Oleg to extend the invitation. Hikes always make my day, and this was a good one.

The falls have a number of names, as far as I understand, so I’ll just choose one I like – Benevskiye waterfalls.

I went on the hike together with Oleg, his wife Galina Nikolaevna, her father Nikolai Alekseevich, and Elena Viktorovna, a teacher and employee of the Institute for Teacher Qualifications in Vladivostok, who was visiting Lazo to give a seminar for teachers there.

The whole waterfall and hike concept really reminded me of Oregon! Of course, after getting to see the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge it’s now hard to find landscapes that will impress me, which Oleg surely didn’t know, but these waterfalls were very nice, high and fairly impressive. Water is an amazing force in any case. Here there was actually an organized trail and everything. Today we were the only people on it, although it was beautiful weather and a great day for a hike. It is 12 km round-trip, and we started only at 4 pm, but this is okay, because it stays light out until 9:30.

Oleg is the Lazovsky District representative for the political party “United Russia,” which is by far the most dominant party in Russia. (They pretty much have no competition.) I had never met a Russian party representative before, so had no idea what to expect. However, Oleg is pretty cool, and I liked him. He has lived in the town of Lazo (pop. 3000-4000) his whole life, and his grandfather was the very first Russian resettled to Lazo in the early 1900s. Oleg used to be a school teacher and in the early 1990s founded an environmental organization dedicated to environmental education. He also has written some books and poetry for kids; he gave me one book as a present.

There is often a problem in Russia with visitors leaving trash on trails, in the forest, on beaches, etc. In short, there is not much of a “leave no trace” culture here. On this trail there were set areas to leave your trash, so there was less trash than usual on the trail itself, but still enough. Oleg picked up every piece of garbage he saw along the trail the whole way to the falls and back. This was pretty touching, actually. By the middle of the hike he had me picking up candy wrappers and bottles, too.

When the hike started it was plenty warm, and since spring was just beginning here, there was plenty of new green and flowers all around. This hike involved crossing a small yet rapidly-flowing mountain river (the Elamovsky) a number of times, and although the water was never too deep, there were plenty of rocks to complicate things. We were lucky that someone before us had made a lot of “bridges” across the river out of fallen trees. Although, I would still not call these crossings safe! Good balance definitely required.

Where we hiked is an area where tigers, sable and goral (an animal like a large black mountain goat) can certainly visit, which we could tell by the surrounding landscape (cliffs for the goral, for example; we also found sable scat) – but we did not see any wild animals (besides ticks, of course). We did get to see some really cool plants, particularly ferns and very pretty wild rhododendrons with lavender flowers. We also passed a handful of 500-700-year-old yew trees, a very unique tree here, which Russians also call “red tree” due to its red bark. (Despite their old age they were not too tall or enormously wide – yew trees aren’t.)

You gradually go uphill on this hike, and at the waterfalls itself – and particularly at the top of the falls – the end of our trip – there was actually still plenty of snow. Apparently in the winter the outside edges of the falls freeze over, but the water still runs through the center, and it sounds like music. Above these falls the river keeps going, and Oleg says there are another 25 waterfalls ahead, but of course, we didn’t have time to check out any more on this day.

Pictures: 1. Venevskiye Falls, 2. Spring is here! It was very green at the start of the trail. 3. A scenic view of the Elamovsky River (Spring), 4. A cool fern. We saw a lot of these on the hike, although I haven’t figured out what they’re called yet, 5. Oleg helped everyone out on river crossings (here with Nikolai Alekseevich), 6. view looking down at the river from the top of the falls, 7. there was plenty of snow above the falls, 8. some amateur photography going on – me at the top of the falls

Merganser Research in the Lazovsky District (May 11-17, 2007)

Back in March one of the Institute of Marine Biology’s education specialists, Liliya, introduced me to a friend of hers, Diana Solovyova. Diana is a scientist at Wrangel Island Zapovednik (nature reserve), located way up north in the Arctic Circle. She studies marine ducks. Every year since 2001 Diana has come to the Lazovsky District, located about 200 km north of Vladivostok, together with her husband, Sergei, to study a rare duck species, the merganser (Mergus squamatus; in Russian, чешуйчатый крохаль). (Sergei is actually a geographer and expert on mammoths! He also works at Wrangel Island, and he and Diana have been working in the zapovednik system, and particularly in the Arctic, for their entire professional careers.)

Diana is super, and back in March she agreed that I could come spend some time with her and Sergei in the field. So I took my second trip out to Lazovsky District in mid-May (this time it was much greener than in mid-April!), and I not only got a chance to see Diana and Sergei’s work in the field, but also to talk with them about everything from science to education to politics to the zapovednik system. They are both fantastic people, and I had a great time.

About Mergansers and Diana’s Research

Mergansers are a rare species found only in the Russian Far East and Northern China; they winter in Korea and China. Nobody is exactly sure how many of these ducks there are left in the wild; estimates range anywhere from 2,000-10,000 individuals. 80% are in the Russian Far East. Why, you may ask, are scientists from the Arctic’s Wrangel Island studying this bird in the Russian Far East, when mergansers don’t travel to Wrangel Island? It turns out that if you study marine birds and you work in the Arctic, like Diana, you don’t have too much to do in the field before June, when the birds start to arrive for the summer. The Ministry of Natural Resources, which pays all zapovednik employees, is okay with employees from one zapovednik doing work in another zapovednik (in this case, Wrangel Island employees doing work for Lazovsky Zapovednik), as long as they’re not busy in their own reserve.

Because Diana does work on marine ducks, she has worked not only in the Russian Arctic but also in the places these birds migrate to – the U.S. (Alaska) and Northern Europe. She also knows English very well. Mergansers are an IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red Book Species (meaning they’re rare), so there is a lot of international interest in studying them, and people approached Diana. Since 2001 the research she leads on mergansers in the Primorye Region of the Russian Far East has been stably supported by a number of grants (from US Fish and Wildlife Service, etc.).

The location: Diana and Sergei work in 4 adjacent districts in the Primorye Region, but they do most of their work in the Lazovsky District. The field season: late March to late May. The last two years they have rented a house in Kishenyovka, a village of 240 people located in the Lazovsky District on the border of Lazovsky Zapovednik. (Diana estimates that of these 240 people, maybe 5 of them are employed. The rest don’t really seem to want to work, and how they spend their time was beyond Diana and Sergei. Obviously, they are a threat to the zapovednik, since they can easily cross into the territory and illegally fell trees, collect herbs, etc.)

The science team: Diana, Sergei, their field and equipment assistant, also Sergei, and Diana and Sergei’s very happy 3-year-old black lab, Joy, are constantly together. Valery Shokhrin, a Lazovsky Zapovednik scientist who is a specialist on predatory birds, also often joins them in the field. And then they have visitors like me, or like Tony, a marine birds specialist from Denmark who spent a couple of weeks in the field with Diana this year in late March-early April.

Mergansers nest in tree hollows on river banks, and a big part of Diana’s research focuses on studying places with changes in habitat, where trees along the river may have been chopped down. In the Lazovsky District a decent amount of forest along the rivers has been logged, and one hypothesis is that now there may not be enough nesting sites for mergansers here. Therefore Diana and Sergei have been putting artificial nests about 20 feet high up in trees since 2001. (These artificial sites either look just like wooden boxes, or like cylinders or wooden “tubes”.)

Sergei and Diana have placed a total of 140 of these artificial nests throughout the 4 districts where they work, with 45 in the Lazovsky District. In the Lazovsky District they find that about 30% of their artificial nests get used every year, and they assume that there are enough natural nesting sites for the rest of the birds. In the Olginsky District, for example – another of the 4 districts where they work – they find that only 5% of the artificial nests get occupied. Here there is just as much logging of the river banks as in the Lazovsky District, but there are not as many mergansers, so apparently fewer sites are needed.

Organizing the Field Season

Field work in late March starts with cleaning the artificial sites of litter and debris collected during the year, and in March and April Diana begins counting and tagging the adult birds as they return to the rivers of the Primorye Region. They catch the birds by putting nets up across the rivers.

At the end of April they start checking their artificial nesting sites to see if birds are using them. The also check the natural nesting sites that they know about. However, it is very difficult to find natural nesting sites, and they have only found 5 or 6 so far, all in the Lazovsky District, where they spend most of their time. (You have to spend a significant amount of time in a place to find the natural nesting sites – suitable little tree hollows are not necessarily easy to discover.)

Maybe you guessed it – checking the nests (and also putting up artificial nests) involves climbing trees. Sergei is an excellent tree climber. When they do the first check of nesting sites starting at the end of April, if they find a nest and a mother, they don’t catch and tag the mother at this time. This is very important! If there is a mother in the nest, she has most likely just recently laid her eggs. If they were to catch her, she would probably abandon the nest. Therefore they wait to catch and tag the mother until after she has made a significant commitment to the nest and won’t abandon it. During this first check, if a mother is there she will just fly away. Then Sergei will take out the eggs. They count the eggs and record the size and weight of each of them.

They also do a water test to determine how old the eggs are. They take an egg and put it in a jar of water. Eggs laid more recently are heavier and will stay at the bottom, where as older eggs are lighter and will float. They can actually estimate how many days old the eggs are. The eggs take 31 days to hatch, and therefore from the water test Sergei and Diana know by approximately what date the ducklings will hatch and, consequently, by what date they have to come back and catch the mother. (They have to catch the mother before the eggs hatch). Mergansers are like chickens – when they hatch, they are ready to go, and one day after their birth the mother will already have them out of the nest and on the water. They’re not like the typical songbirds in your backyard that spend a bunch of time in the nest getting fed by their mother after being born.

When I got to Lazovsky District on May 11 Diana and Sergei were at the stage of doing the second round of checks of their nesting sites. (I really hoped I might get to see ducklings! But the earliest would not start hatching until I was already getting ready to leave Lazovsky District.) From their late-April check Sergei and Diana already know at which sites there was a nest, and now it was late enough to catch the mother birds at those sites. At the same time the teams also does a second check of all the nesting sites, because it’s possible that a mother just hadn’t nested yet when they checked the first time around in late April. Sergei said last year they found a lot of new birds when they checked the second time around, but this year they have not found hardly anything – no mergansers, and just one mandarin duck nest in the Lazovsky District.

On my first day we went to an artificial nest where Sergei and Diana knew there was a mother and caught her. To do this Sergei (standing on the ground) puts a big net that is on a long pole up to the mouth of the nest; the bird senses a disturbance and flies out into the net. (Obviously, you have to be very quiet when you approach the nest.) Sergei and Diana had caught this mother already last year, and they had not only tagged her but also put a logger on her. The logger reads data about the bird’s surrounding environment (things like salinity, temperature, light and dark, etc.) every ten minutes nonstop, all year long. The loggers were used for the first time last year, and they put them on 8 birds. Nobody really knows where the birds go after they leave the Russian Far East for the winter, so they hope these loggers will provide a lot of useful new information. This was the second logger that they had managed to recollect this year for analysis.

Sergei and Diana weighed the bird, took off the logger and put a new one on her, and clipped a sample of her feathers from under her wing. This sample will be used to do a stable isotope analysis, which should help provide information about the time the bird spends at sea versus in fresh water environments. (Although no one can be certain that mergansers migrate to the ocean in the winter, it is generally assumed that they do.) This bird was incredibly calm; I was amazed.

Later in the afternoon we checked another artificial nest, this one in the shape of a box, rather than a tube. There were two mandarin duck eggs in it, which Diana weighed and measured. Interestingly, mandarin ducks lay one egg every day, usually for a total of about 10 eggs. (Since mandarins and mergansers often use similar nesting sites, Diana and Sergei take data on the mandarin ducks they find in their artificial nests, too. Generally mandarins prefer the boxes, mergansers the tubes, although both use both types.) Mergansers usually lay 10-11 eggs. Usually all of them hatch, but only about 60% then live after the ducklings move out to the river, as they get eaten by predators like eagles and mink. In the first winter it is likely that another 50% die, assuming they move out to sea, as the transition from a freshwater to a marine environment can be a tough one.

Mergansers often return to the same nesting site to hatch, but they’re not like salmon, so this is not required – they can certainly go to new places, although no one is sure how likely a scenario this is. However, Sergei and Diana have been concerned that in the course of their 7 years of work here, they have only come across the same birds (which they can identify because they have tagged them, of course) for 2 or at best 3 years in a row – and then they don’t see them again. This makes them think that mergansers may have a high mortality rate. Mergansers can live about 10-12 years and reproduce at 2-3 years. They survive well in captivity, and in Europe many are now being raised and studied in captivity. As you may have gathered, not enough is known about this rare bird – how many there are, where they migrate to, and more. Some research on mergansers using artificial nesting sites was done in the Russian Far East, and in the Lazovsky District, in the 1970s and 1980s. So Sergei and Diana’s work is not only really interesting and professionally done, but also very important.

Pictures: 1. Diana’s husband Sergei holding a mother duck that was caught on my first day; 2. and 3. the village of Kishenyovka; 4. An artificial nest (cylinder); 5. Sergei is checking the contents of an artificial nest (this one box-shaped); 6. Diana carefully removes the caught mother bird from the net; 7. Sergei takes the logger off the bird; 8. Sergei and I winding up the tree climbing equipment after Sergei had checked a nest; 9. Educational posters about mergansers, which get put up in a number of places in Primorye (e.g., Lazovsky and Olginsky Districts, Vladivostok, etc.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Kids’ Expedition to Popov Island (May 8-9, 2007)

For the second year in a row this year the education specialists at the Institute of Marine Biology (IMB), Liliya and Natasha, organized a city-wide environmental education competition in Vladivostok schools. This year’s competition was called “A City by the Sea” and focused on the sustainable development of Vladivostok. There were well over 100 participants, and on May 7-9 the 15 first-prize winners got to go on an expedition to Popov Island, located about 90 minutes south of Vladivostok (on the cutter or ferry). Liliya and Natasha invited me to come and help out and particularly to have a “press conference” with the kids about environmental issues and life in general in the United States. Of course I said yes! Unfortunately, I got stuck in Vladivostok for a day in order to register after coming back from China, so I only went for May 8-9.

I knew it was going to be a great trip, and it was. When I got on the boat to leave Vladivostok I was so psyched I just could not stop smiling. I can just stand on the deck of a boat for hours and watch the water, shore and islands go by. I think I get this from my travels on Lake Baikal. This trip was quite chilly with the winds on the ocean, especially since it was fairly cloudy out – I still got cold bundled up in my coat, scarf and hat, and I even had to go below, where almost all the other passengers were, for about 10 minutes.

From Vladivostok the cutter spends a long time passing Russian Island, a big island south of Vlad, and then you get to Popov. One of IMB’s staff met me at the dock and we hopped on a car to the Ecocenter maintained by the Far Eastern Marine Reserve, where all the kids were staying. The Far Eastern Marine Reserve conducts environmental education activities at this Ecocenter, which also houses a museum, and offers walking tours. Part of Popov Island is protected as part of the Far Eastern Marine Reserve.

The kids were just getting ready for a hike to Pogranichnaya Bay. There they would be met by a botanist, Vladimir Dmitrievich, from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Botanical Gardens, which has a little station on Popov Island. Vladimir Dmitrievich did a great tour for the kids around the cape near Pogranichnaya Bay. Throughout the whole hike the kids were supposed to continue to make observations about Popov Island and define what they would need to live here. (Currently there is a small population on Popov Island, and there is even a school here – but, of course, there are not many of the comforts of city life.)

All of the kids on the trip were 7th-10th graders, although more than half of them were in 7th grade. Although I had only met 2 of the kids before, all of them already knew who I was, and before I arrived they had already prepared a whole folder’s worth of questions for me about the United States. As we headed out on the hike I started meeting most of the kids pretty quickly, and I realized that there was no need to fear that I would be wandering alone – I had almost constant companions who asked me all kinds of questions about me, my life in Russia and in the United States, and also told me about themselves.

These kids were really fantastic. Liliya informed me that almost all of them were very much “city kids” – some of them had only left Vladivostok once or twice in their whole lives, and only 2 of them had been to Popov Island before, even though it is only a short, $1 ride away. Some of them had never even seen a live crab, although they live in a city right on the ocean. All of the kids were incredibly interested in their surroundings, checking out plants, shells and more. It was clear they had already fallen in love with the island. Some of them knew each other before the trip, but certainly not all. They didn’t fight with each other, and I think even by their second day together all of them were already feeling a little bond with all the other members of their group. And they were so well-behaved! Later that evening they had an hour-long museum tour and they all listened with great attention – some even took notes, which was totally not required.

Pogranichnaya Bay is a very picturesque spot. The hike there was beautiful, and we took our time enjoying it. Right on the bay there is actually a popular paid beach with little cottages for tourists in the summer. (We didn’t go there – we saw it from a distance.) A huge number of shells wash up on the beach here, from snail shells to large oyster and scallop shells to sea urchin skeletons and sand dollars. A few of the kids gave me shells as gifts.

In the evening two of the boys, Renat and Viktor (Vitya), decided they wanted to make a bonfire, and they were given permission to go for it. It was a really nice night out. After a slow and smoky start the boys really got the fire going, and we all sat around in a circle and talked, looked at the stars and listened to Liuda, Tanya and Sveta play the guitar – they were quite good (and we sang along, of course, when we knew the words). (By the way, Renat, Viktor, Liuda, Tanya and Sveta were all in 7th grade – talented kids!) This is something I really love about Russia – When people are out in nature it is very common for them to get together around a fire at night, and someone always seems to have a guitar. I always wish I knew how to play, or that I knew more songs – there are so many classic Russian songs that are part of the culture here, and it is so nice to sit around the fire under the stars and sing them, or even just listen.

The next day after clean-up one of the boys, Zhenya, decided to accompany me on a morning walk out to a nearby cape. On the way he told me all about the places he has been in Primorye, from his grandmother’s house in the country, where he is friends with everyone, to Russian Island, where he loves to go diving, to fishing on the sea with his dad. Zhenya is also quite the pro stone-skipper. (Fun fact: In Russian to say “skip stones” you say “to throw frogs” – “puskat’ lyagushek.”) I have tried my hand at skipping stones before, and although I know which ones to pick, I’ve never had much luck. Zhenya started by showing me the right way to hold the stone. Now, either Zhenya is a world-class teacher, or I had great beginner’s luck, because stone skipping actually worked out for me this time. I even got one stone to skip about 10 times, which had Zhenya bragging to all the kids back the Ecocenter when we returned.

Since we were leaving this afternoon we spent some time with the kids having some closing discussions, remembering favorite moments and talking about how to create a sustainable future starting with their own schools. We also got to go on a short hike and see an “ancient people’s site” (стоянка древнего человека), an archeological monument of sorts that a Popov Island resident found while plowing her backyard. Here the kids got to look for artifacts while Natasha told them about the people who used to live on Popov Island, and how we know what we know about them. In addition to being incredibly gifted in working with kids, Natasha and Liliya are also very knowledgeable themselves about a number of topics. I admire them a lot. On this hike I also got to see my first rockslide.

I took the cutter to Popov Island, but we took the ferry back, which was a different experience. They board all the passengers first, and then you spend a lot of time waiting around while they load a lot of cars on deck (with rather little attention paid to whether they might hit a fellow traveler). In the middle of the trip one of the cars started leaking oil all over the deck, too.

I made a lot of new friends on this trip, and I have a feeling I will be seeing these kids around, which I am certainly very glad about – they are really, really fantastic kids, and I liked them all. At the end of our expedition I got lots of requests for my phone number and invitations to visit the kids’ schools. (In fact, I will be making my first school visit on May 23.) They chatted with me almost the whole ferry ride back from Popov Island, and there were plenty of hugs exchanged when we said goodbye after reaching Vladivostok.

Pictures: 1. Kids on the hike to Pogranichnaya Bay: Masha, Nastya, Masha, Zhenya, Arina; Serezha, Tanya, Lyuda, Sveta, Yuliya, Mira (Yuliya and Mira are Far Eastern State University students – helpers J ); 2. pulling into dock at Popov Island; 3. This plant is super cool. Look closely for the purple at the bottom. I can only find the Russian name (связноплодник почколистный) and the Latin (Symplocarpus renifolius), but I think an English translation might be something like “kidney-leaved cabbage.” It’s native to Asia. 4. Masha, Arina, Masha and Nastya and I are checking out shells Pogranichnaya Bay; 5.Shells 6. This rock is called “shtany” (“trousers”); 7. Hiking along the shore with Vladimir Dmitrievich; 8. and 9. views on the Pogranichnaya hike; 10. Lyuda and Tanya playing guitar around the campfire; 11. Zhenya skipping stones; 12. Nastya and Anya digging for artifacts at the ancient peoples’ site; 13. kids playing in the rock slide area; 14. Serezha tells about his “school for the future”; 15. Zhenya and Liliya looking like superstars

China (April 27 – May 4, 2007)

At the end of April I went to Shanghai, China for a week to visit my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Amanda Cotterman, one of the most fantastic and very best people I know. I never imagined I would go to China before (just as, perhaps, 5 years ago I never would have imagined I’d go to Russia). I had almost no expectations, because I truly had no idea what to expect, and yet somehow when I arrived to Shanghai, my first thought was, wow, this is not what I expected. Shanghai is a huge modern city, the economic capital of China, with tons of skyscrapers and some kind of not-so-apparent communism, you might say. You can see a lot of very diverse things in here. Anyway, I'll try to explain.

I flew from Vladivostok to Harbin (in northern China) to Shanghai. All of China is on the same time zone, which means although the flight to Harbin is only an hour long, you leave Vladivostok at 2 pm and arrive to Harbin at 12 pm. (Did you get the time change there? It’s a 3-hour difference.) This means that in Shanghai, which by normal rules would perhaps be about an hour behind Vladivostok, the sun comes up before 5 am and goes down at 7. (While in Vlad, for example, it already stays light out until about 9:30.)

If you look out the window on the Harbin-Shanghai flight, you get the feeling that not an inch of eastern China hasn’t been touched by man. On Russian flights, and even on most American flights, I’ve realized that it’s usually fairly quiet on the plane. Not so on the Harbin-Shanghai flight. People just chatted away the whole flight long. This should have been a sign of things to come – China is not a quiet country. And if you are used to Russian behavior in public, which often makes you feel like Americans must be the loudest beings on the planet, China will make you think otherwise. Amanda’s Shanghai guide book states simply, “The Chinese like it hot and loud.” (Interesting…) I don’t know about the hot part, but loud is certainly right on. When you are walking around Shanghai loud conversations, shouting and honking are certainly something to adjust to. Especially in a city of 20 million people – that’s a lot of people being loud. Chinese drivers really like to honk their horns, and some drivers in particular seem to honk at everything – at other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, maybe even inanimate objects, for all I know – I couldn’t keep up. And multiply that by thousands of cars.

When we got off the plane in Shanghai all of the Chinese passengers piled off and immediately started taking pictures. And I thought, Dorothy, we are so not in Russia anymore. Apparently in this still-communist country taking pictures in airports these days is okay. The airport was large, clean and almost empty, and your luggage comes out almost immediately! Efficiency? Very odd. Amanda met me at the airport and we took the magnetic levitation train to catch a cab. (Really, it levitates! There’s a magnet. Although at first I thought it was called the magic levitation train, which is much funnier.)

Amanda lives in an apartment in the so-called French Concession, near the center of Shanghai. This is where the French lived for about 100 years (1850ish-end of WWII), when Shanghai was colonized. There are other parts of the city that were occupied by the Germans, British, etc. The French concession is a really nice spot, and a lot of the old French mansions are still intact, although today the buildings are apartments, restaurants, shops, etc. In the French concession you do not necessarily feel like you are in the middle of a city of 20 million people. There are modern high-rise apartment complexes next to 2- and 3-story buildings, many of the streets are just 2 lanes wide and tree-lined. In fact Shanghai is incredibly green. Way greener than Russian cities. There are trees everywhere, and the highway medians, for example, are not just grassy but have hedges and flowers that are obviously very regularly tended to and trimmed. (As Amanda says, Hey, this is communism. Everyone has to have a job. So it’s somebody’s job to trim the highway hedges.) The urban reforestation is certainly comforting, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to have done much to disperse the haze that tones out the Shanghai sky most days of the year.

If you were droppedin the middle of Shanghai with no clues, I think you would be hard pressed to realize it’s communist, although perhaps there are a few signs around. In one park we saw 6 guys squatting down and cutting and weeding the grass on a plot of land about the size of my kitchen. It looked like they must be using scissors to do it. And hey, Wikipedia is banned in this country, after all. But Shanghai is a huge modern economic center with thousands and thousands of ex-pats and dozens of foreign companies and investment firms. Although the average salary in Shanghai is only $1500/year, apparently this is enough to support hundreds of boutiques and fancy American and European retail stores which plenty of clothes much too expensive for me. Bars and fancy restaurants are easy to come by, and here you can get pretty much any kind of food you can think of – from Italian to falafel, panini to Starbucks, Northern Chinese to Taiwanese to Shanghai dumplings, guacamole to brie to Eggo waffles, chocolate chip cookies to Burger King. (Amanda claims this is only in Shanghai, not the rest of China. Yes, I tried everything. Oh, except Burger King.) Of course, right next door are the open backstreet markets where you can buy a huge bag of some unknown green vegetable for 12 cents and for a quarter sample an enormous crepe called a jianbing with egg, cilantro, red bean curd, chili sauce and a big fried wonton inside (really, it’s good!). And next to the stylish shops are street vendors selling panty hose for 10 cents, knock-off watches, trinkets, DVDs and more, with plenty of bargaining customers.

In Russia I always try to keep a very low profile and hope I don’t stand out too much as a foreigner. In China, of course this is a hopeless cause. The funny thing is, you don’t really feel like a target for being a foreigner in China. “Shanghai does not have a problem with crime.” That is all Amanda’s guidebook says on this topic. However you do get plenty of attention. Everyone seems to want to prove to you that they know the word “hello.” This means you get “Hello!” shouted at you a lot. Dozens of times a day. It is not a politeness thing. Amanda and I also noticed that it is only Chinese men who do this. (Hmm, a maturity thing?) I also got asked to be in a lot of pictures – apparently I am extra special because I am blonde and extremely white – but Amanda always refused for me.

In China a lot of people ride bikes – regular bikes and motor bikes, none of which appear to be less than 10 years old. In a competition for this type of transportation Portland, Oregon has nothing on Shanghai. However helmets are rather a rarity, and bikers are just as likely to run you over in a crosswalk as drivers (Shanghai, like Vlad – not a safe place to cross the street!). Personal space is not really a big thing in China. Vendors trying to sell you stuff don’t think twice about tapping you on the arm, and there truly were times when we were walking shoulder-to-shoulder in a huge mass of people. Spitting apparently is a big thing in China. Fortunately in Shanghai it is not so bad, where there is a 250 yuan (more than $30) fine for spitting in public.

Although I expected it to be very hot in southern China, it was actually in the 60s my first few days, and only at the end of the trip did we see some shorts weather. Amazing, Chinese people will still be wearing long sleeves, jackets and long johns when it is 75 degrees out. It turned out that Amanda and I spent every other day in Shanghai, and every other day we took a little day trip to a nearby “town.” (Many of these so-called towns have a million plus people.) We did everything from touring Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian temples to seeing an acrobat show, visiting the “Venice(s) of the East” to climbing pagodas, getting facials to climbing bridges, touring communist mansions and silk and rice museums to paddle boating and getting fortunes read. I was lucky to have always-positive Amanda with me, who truly made the trip and was my tour guide, protector (from crazy cab drivers and crazed Chinese photo-happy tourists), and more. China can be hard on the tourist (after all, you are not dozing on the beach here), and although at first I wanted to be as active as possible during what might be my only trip to China, I quickly learned that you have to take some breaks here, otherwise with all the people, noise and new foods to try, you might be feeling a little “bu-shu-fu-ed” – that is, uncomfortable. In fact, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I learned only 3 Chinese words on this trip – “hello,” “thank you,” and I feel “uncomfortable” – the third was certainly a good one! Of course, Amanda and I also spent plenty of time talking away and catching up, which was so great. All in all it was a wonderful visit, and you can read a little about each day, or just look at pictures in the posts below. (You can click on the pictures to enlarge.)

Pictures: 1. Is Mao spinning in his grave? near People’s Park, Shanghai, 2. view from Amanda’s boyfriend Chris’s apartment in Shanghai, French concession, 3. old mansion in the French concession, 4. me with a Fu dog in Jiading, 5. the mullet is still a popular hairstyle in China, 6. Confucian teachings written on tablets on turtles’ backs, Jiading, 7. chickens with heads in market store, Shanghai, 8. stores in Jiading. 9 in front of a pagoda in Suzhou

China Day 1: French Concession and the Bund (April 28)

On my first day in China, a Saturday, we wandered – we took a stroll around the French Concession, where Amanda lives, and then walked down to the Bund and Huang Pu River. I was amazed that there was almost no one on the street, until I learned that today everyone was working, because China celebrates May day holidays, and everyone has off from May 1-7. (All of the sudden on May 1 there were a LOT of people on the street. By a “LOT” I mean more people than I have ever seen before in one place, excepting perhaps the Moscow metro at rush hour.)

First we toured Zhou Enlai and Sun Yat-sen’s residences, and I got to have a Chinese 20th-century history refresher. Both residences were modest, although obviously nice places to live, and they had particularly nice gardens. Zhou Enlai lived in his residence only in the late 1940s, when communist party, from his estate, and the Koumintang (democratic government), from the building opposite, would spy on each other from across the street. Zhou Enlai was one of the most powerful figures in the Chinese government after the Cultural Revolution, until his plane mysteriously went down in 1976. Sun Yat-Sen’s place was bigger. Even though it is probably most accurate to call Sun Yat-sen a democrat rather than a communist, he is still considered the founder of modern China, and his former residence in Shanghai is certainly very well kept-up with a good museum. One of Sun Yat-sen’s sister-in-laws went to Wellesley College, and in general his wife’s family, and particularly the women, were perhaps the most influential family in 20th century China.

After the mansions Amanda and I walked down to the “Bund,” which is the name of the embankment along both sides of the Huang Pu River, which divides Shanghai in two. The east side of Shanghai is called Pu Dong (literally, “east of the Pu [River]”). Pu Dong has been a special economic zone since the late 1990s. As Amanda simplified for me, this basically means capitalism is allowed there. Pu Dong is home to a number of futuristic-looking buildings, and they are currently building the tallest building in the world there, but most people prefer to live on the west side of the river (Pu Xi), where Amanda lives.

Down by the river we also got a very rapid-fire “English” presentation about the history of the Bund. Although I had absolutely no idea what our tour guide was saying, she spoke her version of English very quickly and confidently. You just have to smile and nod.

We walked back from the Bund along some backstreets with plenty of cheap clothes for sale to a spa where we spent an hour and a half getting facials and a massage, all for about $10. It was awesome! I will have to judge all future massages in relation to the one I got at this spa – any massage I had before was definitely not massage! Granted, I was on my own with a Chinese woman who knew no English, but I think we were both amused. I am already ready to go back.

Pictures: 1. me and Amanda on the Bund, with view of Huang Pu River and Pu Dong in the background, 2. and 3. streets in the French concession, 4. Zhou Enlai’s residence, 5. Statue of Sun Yat-sen at his residence

China Day 2: Zhouzhang (April 29)

On Sunday we took the bus out to the nearby town of Zhouzhang (population: 1.25 million), a so-called “water town” with plenty of canals. Zhouzhang is also the so-called “Venice of the East,” although by the end of my trip I learned there are a few towns near Shanghai that claim this title.

Since it was drizzling out we decided to take a petty cab (aka rickshaw) from the bus stop in Zhouzhang to the town entrance gates, and I soon discovered that this is a totally common form of transportation.

In Zhouzhang I got to go into my first Buddhist and Daoist temples (when you enter temples women should step over the threshold with your right foot first), take a canal ride (um, sort of Venice like…), and tour a rice museum, although to my dismay, after the museum I still have only a vague idea of how the rice-growing process works.

At the Buddhist temple I lit a stick of incense and bowed and put it on the altar, for which I got wished good luck and got a little card with my fortune on it. There were several guys in the temple reading fortunes, so Amanda and I decided to get mine read. I don’t remember all of it, but here are some take-aways: I don’t like breakfast (hmm, kind of true); this is my lucky year; I like to travel (I’m not going to give the guy too much credit for getting this one right – I was an American in Shanghai, after all); I have a lucky face; and I am strong-willed, ambitious and active in achieving results. Very nice. And then my fortune teller explained to us that now we should make a charitable contribution.

In Zhouzhang there are also a lot of side alleys with vendors selling all kinds of stuff, of particular note – strange tan-colored taffy-like candy (may be the first time I didn’t feel like eating the whole bag) and meat and rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.

In Zhouzhang you also get a sense of Chinese history. China is old! It is amazing to think about it. Towns like Zhouzhang have existed for 1500 and more years. Yet it is often difficult to sort out what’s real and what’s not, since so many things were destroyed during the cultural revolution and then restored, and moreover, in the case of places like Zhouzhang, many things have been redone for tourists. On the little canal boat ride we got a glimpse of the parts of Zhouzhang that haven’t been redone, but we didn’t get to see anything up close.

In the evening we got to try a Shanghai specialty – dumplings – and saw a great movie (“To Live”) about life in China from the 1940s – 1970s.

Pictures: 1. Canals around Zhouzhang, 2. A rickshaw (in Suzhou, not Zhouzhang), 3. Daoist temple 4. Amanda lighting incense at the Buddhist temple, 5. me and Amanda on bridge in Zhouzhang, 6. Goofing around with the bull at the Zhouzhang rice museum