Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas day pictures of mist

I've been slack in putting anything on here lately, but it's Christmas day... so my gift to the internet is a few photos of some of our local activities over the last few weeks.

A muddy run up Tea Mountain in the mist may be cold, but it's one option we have to escape town

 The sun appeared, last Sunday (appropriately) so we rode up "Cucumber Hill" and went for a hike. These are some of the locals we met.

 We found this nice spot in the forest on Cucumber Hill

 ...more from Cucumber Hill

 On our way home we visited what we thought was a temple just outside of town. It turned out to be a grave yard rather than a temple, and there were these nice old trees.

Yesterday we rode out to Da An, a small town just outside Yonngchuan. We found some nice country roads, ate some noodles, and confused the locals.

Yongchuan's reliable weather. You want mist? We've got it.

 I don't know what this place used to be, but we rode past it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Buddha's Grotto

Fortunately this isn't where Chinese children go to sit on Buddha's knee at the local shopping mall and receive seasonal presents... though perhaps there's money to be made with such a scheme. The Beishan rock carvings near the town of Dazu are an example of Grotto Art which received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999 and now have the appropriate tour buses, gift shops, and overpriced noodles fitting of their significance. Not wanting to fit the mold of tourists too well we decided to ride to Dazu from Yongchuan for the weekend and camp in a field.

The ride over on Saturday was very pleasant, and we found some bemused noodle-house owners in sleepy Dazu to sell us lunch before heading up the hill to the carvings. We paid our entrance fees, dodged some hawkers, found a nice lady who let us leave our bike panniers under the desk in the guide's office, and off we went. The carvings were really impressive, I thought, and most of the preservation was more sympathetic than we're used to seeing. There we no LED lights or musical tree stumps to be seen anywhere. The main significance of the carvings is Buddhist, which I find a constant struggle to understand with the enormous number of significant figures and names. Aside from the numerous Buddhas of all sizes there were some scenes I hadn't seen in temples before which I really liked.

A happy-looking Ox from a rural scene
Bemused by Buddhas
The wheel of life, but who's driving?

Then there was a grotto showing what happens to you in various "hells". It was amazing... there were cauldrons of skulls being stirred by animal-headed beasts, someone tied upside down to a pole being sawed in half, and this painful looking procedure:

I think I would like to avoid hell if this is what's involved
 And of course there was the essential comedy sign:

Perhaps only funny if you're British
Then we had to find a place to sleep for the night. In China just about every square-inch of soil is used for growing something. When the city plants ornamental gardens, the locals squeeze a few vegetables between the flowers. If there's construction going on (which there always is), the mounds of excavated dirt quickly become someone's allotment. This is an excellent thing, but it does make it tricky to find a spot for sketchy camping. On our way up to the carvings we had passed by a small temple and I noticed some steps leading up to the top of the cliff above. I though it would be worth a look. Up above the road was... yes, someone's vegetable patch, but with enough space for our small tent.

Right above that cave, is where we slept
After a good long sleep we clambered back down the slippery steps, just in time to alarm a local farmer enjoying his first cigarette of the day. Unable to explain why we had just slept in the mud next to his cabbages, we probably left him with a very strange impression of "foreigners". Fair enough I suppose...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Things to make and do - Volume 2

This weekend I wanted to stay at "home" in Yongchuan and get some things done, so I did. It's been a satisfying couple of days. I spent some of yesterday wandering around the old town, getting lost, finding interesting things, buying a nice shirt, confusing the locals by asking the price of welding equipment and grinding wheels, and then finding myself again with the help of the GPS. Getting the street-maps to work on the GPS has been a great thing, maybe almost worth the endless hours of monkeying around that it took me to do it.

Something I finally got around to doing this week was finding a fee internet radio app for my iPod. I have been excited by the thought of using my iPod as a radio since I got the wireless to work in our apartment in another monkeying-around epic. That episode was resolved by installing an older version of the firmware on our router. Why does it happen that the new version of something doesn't work when the old one does? Anyway, I downloaded the TuneIn App which has been working really well. I can listen to my favorite BBC radio stations, CBC, plus hundreds of other stations... all for free... and working just fine here in China. Excellent.
That's me wearing my new shirt. Oh, and my iPod playing BBC Radio in China.

Another long-standing "thing to do" was to get some real High Dynamic Range photo software on my computer and figure out how to make my new camera take bracketed pictures and save the files in RAW format. My old camera could do this with some help from the CHDK software, but I never really got along with it. The new camera, which I am slowly learning to love, can do it all by itself... so I'm giving it another go. I've set one of the custom settings to give me what I need for HDR at the twist of a knob. So far, so good. I too this quick photo on my way home from teh supermarket (where I was buying supplies for today's making project). It's a bit wobbly as I was just resting the camera on a brick with no tripod or whatnot, but I think it shows there is potential for some fun stuff here. I used Luminance for this one, which is a bit of a weird piece of software... but free and has lots of options for playing with the images. I also have Photonaut which I I will have a go with when I have some more photos to play with. 
I think there is potential for some fun with this HDR business
 And finally, I needed a waterproof case for my camera. The G12 is more lumpy than my old G9 (which is a shame) and it won't fit in my old Pelican case. Pelican cases are not an easy thing to find here, so I came up with my own solution involving a lunchbox and some foam floor tiles. It appears that a Canon G12 is about the same size as a small lunch (perhaps macaroni cheese) as it fits very nicely in a box I found. With a couple of pieces of foam to stop it rattling around I have a pretty decent (and hopefully waterproof) case. What a great bodge, even if I do say so myself.

Pixels for lunch
Also, some exciting news. Our short film about our Yukon River SUP expedition will be shown at the Cumberland Mountain Film Festival on January 12, 2012. If you happen to be in Cumberland on that Thursday night, go and support the Cumberland Trails! 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fun sandwich

Weekends away are a fun thing, but it's taken us a while to figure out how to make them happen here in China. The complications of living in an out-of-the-way place and relying on public transport in a country where we can't communicate very easily present a new level of complication. However, someone did once said that nothing worth having comes for free. I think it was me.

After school on Friday we burst out and overloaded the school car with adventure-hungry teachers, followed by a taxi (to the displeasure of the drivers) and got to the Yongchuan bus station far too early for the bus to Chengdu. Better than being late (as we were to later find out). We got to the Traffic Inn Hostel in time to make it out for noodles, a pint, and a slightly strange encounter with a chap from Manchester who was partying his way around the world. I already liked Chengdu as it features a river that doesn't smell like poo... a rare commodity in China.

Big Mao
Hao, Mao.
Saturday was spent touristing (is that a word?) around town, visiting temples, eating pizza, and stumbling across a few fine things along the way. We enjoyed some overpriced beer in the "Revolutionary Box Bar", but felt the ambiance was worth it.  We met our teacher travelling companions in the evening for a poke around the Jinli shopping area. I failed to buy anything that wasn't edible, but got my ears cleaned and massaged in a traditional Chinese style... which was actually quite pleasant.

Fine goods for sale in Chengdu... apparently

Most important thing to us in Chengdu was to concoct a plan to meet the Chendu Pandas Hash House Harriers (CPH3) for their bi-weekly hash run. On Sunday morning we decided to squeeze in a trip to the Panda Breeding and Research Center, which I really enjoyed... and I don't usually like zoos. The pandas didn't seem in the least bothered by the hoards of tourists and generally lay around luxuriating and eating bamboo. One of them was trying to climb a tree bottom-first, which was either some kind of game, panda exercise routine, or perhaps a result of a confused mind due to captive panda inbreeding.... but he seemed to be enjoying it regardless. The baby pandas crawled around after their human surrogate mother wearing her blue apron and face mask, crowding around here feet to be fed. It's weird how pandas can recognize a giant Smurf as their mother... but I guess all that's important when you're that age is who's got the milk.

Apparently this is how pandas climb trees

Panda nurse

The hash run was tremendous. Despite having lived in places where I've seen the flour markings of a hash from time-to-time most of my life, I've never been on one. Unusually, the week we came the run was held quite far out of the city, among some farmer's fields. We ran through the bushes and along the dikes between the muddy ponds and quickly got the hand of yelling instructions and searching for the flour marks. During the post-run reverie we realized that there was very little chance of us using any of our planned ways to get home. All the direct buses were long-gone and our backup plan of getting the train to Chongqing would get us there too late to get the bus to Yongchuan. Some kindly fellow hashers gave us a ride to Chengdu East train station and we ran over to the ticket counter. No space on any trains to Chongqing. Whilst this solved the problem of arriving too late in Chongqing, it did leave us stuck in Chengdu with work the next morning. Some of our trademark note-passing, gesticulating, and three words of Chinese got us night-train tickets to Yongchuan... arriving at 4.30am on Monday. Not really what we intended, but we would at least make it to work for 8am.

Hash in the crops 

Chengdu train station looked like the kind of place the space shuttle might launch from.... all white polished things and bright lights. And fake palm trees. When our train boarding was announced in the space-station, the fancy glass-encased escalator took us down to a rickety looking old train full of nocturnal budget Chinese travelers. We loaded up and got what sleep we could as the train creaked along. Thankfully, we made it back to the apartment at 5am, got a little sleep and made it to school on-time. We'll be back in Chengdu again I have no doubt.

Chendgu East space(train)-station

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tea Mountainbiking

When we left Vancouver back in August, I left behind all three of my mountain bikes. Due to packing in as much mountain biking as possible before we left, all three bikes are now languishing in some state of disrepair at the back of a five-by-ten storage locker and buried under the accumulation of everything else Lina and I own. However, out of sight is not out of mind as far as bikes and my mind go. I have been spending some of my spare moments plotting my faithful bike's return-to-form when I unearth them and the tools to fix them. After thinking, rethinking, forgetting, and re-inventing my plan for fettling all three bikes into their most appropriate format I have ended up just about where I started with a plan to concoct a heavy bike, a light bike, and a bike that is somewhere in-between. Ground-breaking stuff, no? It keeps me amused anyway.

On the subject of bikes, we got out before the rain today to ride the trail we found on Tea Mountain a few weeks ago, and try some more bouncy bamboo slacklining. Both were very successful, though riding a bike with fairly slick tires on damp clay was quite alarming on the steeper parts. The dirt-road climb up to the ridge turns out to be all rideable... and pretty long and strenuous, so that should keep us honest.

Unusual mountain biking

Confused locals
A place we found along the way

Did someone used to live here?

Shoes-on slacklining due to spiky bamboo stumps - tricky

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A change is as good as a rest

In this case, the change required quite a lot of resting to recover from it. Whilst I'm not a natural runner, I have found that running around in the forest and up and down mountains is a great way to keep fitness and I enjoy the simplicity of a sport that doesn't involve an expensive bike or skis, helmets, Gore-Tex, and endless equipment maintenance. My greatest running achievement to date was the 50km Knee Knacker up and over the three North Shore mountains. Not only was this a mental triumph for me, but I was reasonably fast (in my opinion) and didn't get badly damaged by the experience. The point I am getting around to here is that I stepped back from ultra-marathon running into old-fashioned road-marathon running this weekend. I've never run a road race before, because I didn't want to. Living in China means some concessions need to be made and Lina proposed we traveled to Hangzhou to enter the well-regarded International Marathon. I don't mind trying something new, so with a bit of grumbling I agreed to run.

The concept of jumping on a bus and a 'plane after work on Friday and spending a day and a half in a strange city in China, running a marathon and jumping straight back on a 'plane again in time for work on Monday isn't exactly my idea of a good time. I like to have time to let my surroundings soak in and to enjoy the experience. I also think short-haul flying (and any flying at all for that matter) is a bad thing on just about every level. Swallowing my ethics I buckled in for the ride.

Saturday we spent doing some sight-seeing and a bit of impromptu clothes shopping in Hangzhou. We walked around Feilai Park and peeked at various Buddhist statues hidden in caves carved around the mountain. It was an interesting place to visit, though as with many things here in China, some rather unsympathetic "improvement" of the ancient sites with concrete street furniture and paving made the place feel somewhat fake. What was definitely real however was the gatherings of locals singing songs, praying in the caves, or playing cards at outdoor tables. Whilst recreation for the Chinese is not what I have grown used to living in Canada, the Chinese do a great job of social gatherings in what seem (to me) the most unlikely places. I will try to organize a "poker game in a Buddhist cave" night when I return to Vancouver and see how far I get.

A walk in the park.
Mystical trees.
Puff the magic dragon (possibly)
An ancient Buddhist monument to rain.
One of Hangzhou's major attractions is West Lake, which is renowned to be one of the most beautiful lakes in China. When we got a view of the lake from the top of a hill in Feilai Park I was a little underwhelmed. West Lake is certainly nice, but "the most beautiful"? Later that day I had a realization. I think my concept of beauty is the property something has in its natural form. A mountain is beautiful because it is a mountain. However, I think West Lake shows how the nature of beauty can be different in other cultures. Here in China, things described as beautiful usually seem to be heavily adorned with gold paint, red curtains, and possibly flashing lights. My theory is that in China, beauty is something that can be bestowed by man (given enough supplies of gold pain and red fabric), and not an intrinsic property. West Lake's unique beauty, in the Chinese sense,  seems to come from the island-temples, the causeways, and the pagodas and other auspicious man-made constructions on the surrounding hills. I feel that as a scientist I need to find two similar ugly objects then spray-paint one of them gold, wrap some red cloth around it, and put a flashing light on top... then get some Chinese and Western volunteers to rate each one's beauty. The results might possibly be fascinating.

West Lake... beautiful or beautified? 
Anyway, back to this running business. I ran a marathon. It took three hours fifty-three minutes. It hurt a lot and on the whole was something I would like to never repeat. Unfortunately, we are already entered in the Bejing Great Wall marathon. Oh dear.

Finally, here are some things I saw at the weekend.

Firebags prohibited?
Chinese fries. Yum.
Hello Mr Brown.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pushing the right buttons

I'm trying to get the hang of my new camera. The fact my new camera is quite similar to my old one doesn't seem to be helping much, but a few partially successful photos have appeared:

The view from half way up Tea Mountain on Friday night.

Lina slacklining in the Bamboo Forest today. 

On my way home from the Bamboo Forest (taken by Lina)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coup of Tea

Today we ran up (and down) the back road to Tea Mountain. Not only does this route have the advantages of pigs, chickens, ducks, and confused locals along the way... but it also avoids the tourist-trap gate and entry fee. Success! Having got our feet muddy on the road, we explored the bamboo a little and found some slackline potential. To my amazement, we also found something that mountain bikers reading this will understand.

We'll be back up to this spot again soon no doubt. Other news to report is that my new street map of China is installed on my GPS, and working unbelievably well. Having overcome this epic technological battle I can turn my attention back to trying to get our strange Chinese internet connection to work with my wireless router. The fun just never starts. Sigh.

More photos of misty bamboo can be witnessed here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Transformers - navigation in disguise

No, I haven't got a special outfit to wear while I read maps... but that's not a bad I idea now I think of it. Maybe some kind of checkered theme would go well with the grid lines? But, I digress. I also haven't written anything about Hainan, and now the iron is cold I probably won't. Luckily Lina wrote something.

One excellent thing we brought with us to China was our GPS. This device proved very useful on our trip down the Yukon River using the tremendous Ibycus Topo maps. I had high hopes of it helping us find our way around China. Navigating here is particularly challenging because we can't read the road signs and new roads spring up at such a rate, bu the time you turn around to go home, there might be a motorway where that country lane used to be. Having some record of where we went seems very wise. However, nothing worth having is ever easy... and GPS mapping of China is certainly a challenge.

The first problem is that GPS maps in China have a well described problem of being "offset" or "transformed" from the point your GPS unit will tell you you are at. Reasons for this seem to be some kind of government bureaucracy which serves the purpose of allowing more money to be extracted from Garmin, Google,  and all the other electronic mapping behemoths that own the pictures of the Earth's surface, the front door of your house, and you walking out of the supermarket with your face blurred out. More adventurous thinkers who write on the internet suggest conspiracy theories, fear of American invasions of China, and protection from intelligent alien parasites as the reason for the GPS offset. I don't know about all that, but I do know that my GPS tells me I am riding my bike in the sea when in fact I am on a road. This can be mildly amusing but makes it impossible to navigate around a town using the GPS. Out in the countryside of Hainan we found we could still get a good idea of where we were, how far to the next town, and that sort of thing, but the GPS screen always showed the offset.

The blue line is our real position, the orange line is where the map tells is the road is. I swear we were riding on the road...

There are various ways that people on the internet have discussed fixing the "offset problem", some more elaborate than others and mostly ineffective on my GPS when I tried them.  Given how much effort it had been for me to get a decent street map of China on there in the first place, I was losing interest in losing more of my life reading about gmapsupp files on GPS enthusiasts internet forums. So I forgot about it for a while.

Unfortunately, I can't forget about unfinished business. More internet digging revealed the mysteriously named Venus Series maps. It seems from the description that someone has taken it upon themselves to re-calibrate the Garmin City Navigator maps to that the offset problem is fixed, or at least greatly reduced. After some fairly extensive internet foraging I managed to download the map and now just have to get it to work on my GPS. I expect this to be no mean feat judging by my previous experiences... but how else could I while away those long winter evenings? To be honest, I could think of many ways... but I will persevere.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Time waits for no-man

I haven't written about our holidays yet, but the relentless pace of life does not pause to wait for me to write about it. This weekend we went on a hurriedly organised trip into Chongqing. The plan was to see some sights that we have failed to see the few times we have passed through town. Despite near (and actual) disasters in the first 12 hours or so of our trip... things worked out well and we got to do a good variety of stuff. Lots of photos can be found here, and a photo-smorgasbord of my favorites is below.

An alternative symbol of yin and yang?

Fish and umbrella.

Yes, really.

The Chongqing museum of flashing lights.

Men at work.

Walking among the Arhats

One disaster worth mentioning was the death of my faithful Cannon G9, which has been abused to the ends of the earth and finally stopped retracting its lens for good. It's been wheezing along and getting stuck for a few months, but this time I completely destroyed it in a last-ditch attempt to get it to work again. I'll see if anyone here will have a go at resurrecting it for me, but I had to concede and buy a new camera on our way out to see Ciqikou old town. China is generally not a good place to buy things that aren't made in China, but luckily Chongqing has a technology market which was a few subway stops before our destination. After some annoying haggling I got the price down by around 45% to about the same I would have paid by walking into Best Buy in Canada. But, at least I have a camera. Unimaginatively I got a Cannon G12. The new apparatus seems to work extremely well in poor light and have a few dinky gadgets (that I don't need), but is otherwise be very similar to my old G9. I did manage to leave the "date stamp" feature on by accident and had to viciously crop my photos from the trip to get rid of it. Who uses that feature anyway? Bah.