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Waking up in Asia

Waking up in Asia

I have spent a lot of time on the road lately, moving from speaking engagement to engagement in a bit of a haze. I arrive, speak, hopefully inspire some farmers, beekeepers, or young scientists to think about food production differently. Then I move on to the next gig. It is difficult to have meaningful relationships with the thousands of people that I interact with annually. These were my expectations when I arrived in Beijing China. I was slated to give two presentations on biological control (pest management using predators), and then I envisioned myself quietly sitting in the back of the room to write papers and answer emails while others orchestrated a workshop on . This is not what happened, and it was the kind of cold, wet slap across the face that I needed but didn’t know it.

Five minutes before the workshop would begin, I had nestled into a perch in the back of the room when a nervous-looking graduate student from Beijing touched my arm, and whispered “Professor, we would like for you to host this course.” My jaw tensed as I realized that 40+ graduate students and early professionals had travelled from 10 different countries to Beijing to attend a weeklong workshop, few of them with strong English skills, and there was only a sketch of what the course would entail (mostly involving lectures). Most of the instructors were located in Hanoi Vietnam, where another cohort of students had been organized, and Kris Wyckhuys was leading the group. The nervous Chinese graduate students who were left in charge of local arrangements for this course were looking for someone willing to assume responsibility for the next 7 days, and they were kind of stuck with me.

This is not to say that I was alone on the Beijing side of the course. Fan Yang and Xiangming (two PhD students) had deftly arranged for details on local arrangements, finding rooms, snacks, transportation, etc to make the course a success. Some top scientists in conservation biocontrol were providing cutting edge lectures. And the overall course organizer Kris Wyckhuys (a good, long time friend) would arrive from Hanoi on Thursday to assist with the largely undefined field aspects of the course. And a brilliant Australian colleague would be present for pieces of the course, but had other obligations elsewhere in China to attend to. And a Chilean post-doc was present who helped in coordinating some of the group activities that evolved. But there remained large gaps in the content of the course, and a local “decision maker” was sorely needed.

Nor should we diminish what had been accomplished simply by organizing the course. Quite simply, an agroecology course of this nature has never been conducted in southeast Asia before. Students from various university and government agencies from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Chile, Ecuador, and the US had been recruited to China for the workshop. Additional countries were represented in Hanoi. Funds had been secured to recruit some of the top minds in agroecological pest management from around the world, including France, Sweden, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium. Frankly, most of the students had never been exposed to systems-level thinking in their degree programs. And all of it was accomplished amidst tremendous political and logistical constraints, the scale of which can only be found by working in the developing world. The course’s very existence was a major accomplishment orchestrated by Wyckhuys.

So here is some of the story from my perspective.


Mike Bredeson (a PhD student at Ecdysis Foundation) would be a travel buddy, and we would meet up with a former student of mine, Ryan Schmid (now finishing his doctorate at K-State), in Beijing. It is a long flight, >24 hours door to door to arrive at the hotel in Beijing, which included a 14 h oversea flight. All went well, and we arrived in Beijing to find a local graduate student holding a greeting sign for Ryan (whose flight had been delayed). We exited the airport in a private car to our first experience of Beijing China.

The rate and scale of growth of Beijing and the surrounding region cannot be overstated. Beneath a hazy, grey sky, enormous cranes are adding anonymous sky scrapers to a horizon filled with industry. 20-40 million people live in this city (the population of Canada), and the degree of growth has been overwhelming over the past 10 years. On streets that used to be filled with bicycles and motorbikes, millions of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and various other makes and models of cars now lawlessly weave their way through a seemingly unending stream of cars. Motorbikes and carts with riders wearing large oven mitts (sometimes body-sized) provide obstacles for vehicles to hopefully avoid. An apartment in Beijing (there are no houses that we ever saw) costs $10,000 per square yard.

Day 1. The Summer Palace

For our first day, Ryan, Mike and I decided to visit the Summer Palace, one of the top-ranked tourist destinations in Beijing. The well-lit breakfast area of the hotel, with its white tables and lemon and lime color scheme, was our introduction to Chinese cuisine. They had a buffet with foods not typically regarded as breakfast fare in the western world. Familiar faces were fried eggs and Bimbo Bread (a Chinese equivalent to Wonderbread). But most of the other foods were strange to us. Sausages on a stick abounded in the breakfast buffet and on the street, and likely represent a major source of protein for Beijing citizens. The origin of the meat was somewhat questionable, and I believe contain more dubious ingredients than the “lips and assholes” contained in U.S. hot dogs. Rice, dim sum dumplings, fried vegetables and meats were common fare. It took us more than one try to figure out the drink dispenser, which gave warm white or brown soy milk, sweetened or not, depending on the button selected. All of it was explained clearly in Chinese characters that were useless to us. The juice was sugar water of various colors. It was all perfectly good, and options changed daily.

Following a nice breakfast, we decided to grab a bus to the Summer Palace. Mike had done some reconnaissance to find the exact bus that we needed to take, as well as the bus stop. But upon leaving the hotel, we would have no internet to retrieve maps. So we had to have our poop in a group before we left. It cost around $1 for all three of us to get a bus ride, which took us on a 40 minute trip, and deposited us near the destination. The bus was clean, and the people were helpful, despite having no English. Mike and Ryan are both 6’ 3” tall, skinny, good-looking Midwestern men, and I was white and wearing my Tilly hat that made me look quite adventure-prone (if I do say so myself). In the eyes of the Beijingers, we may as well have fallen from outer space. If the Chinese government wanted to keep track of our whereabouts, they needed only follow the social media, where literally hundreds of photos of us were deposited daily over the next 10 days, starting when we stepped foot into the Summer Palace.

The ride to the Summer Palace would introduce us to a blot on our mind’s eye that cannot be erased: what we later found out was termed “The Beijing Bikini”. Middle aged men, nearly all of whom would be best served covering as much skin as possible, inexplicably would pull the bottom front of their shirt up and tuck it into their neckline. We can only be thankful that the brassiere-like final product did not reveal more. What made it so striking, in addition to the fact that uncovered pot-bellies were flaring at all in public, is how ubiquitous it was. Some young boys also sported the fashion, but this was mostly middle-aged thing. It seemed a waste for these men to buy a full t-shirt, since so few of them used the shirt to its fullest coverage.

The summer palace itself was a cool experience, and we spent nearly the whole day there. We each rented a set of earphones that would explain tourist stops in English, our locations in the palace revealed by GPS. They didn’t work well, and we would receive facts about buildings in random places as we walked, and would stop still when we began hearing the device engage as though ready to spill knowledge into our brains. The Summer Palace was originally built by an empress (perhaps the mother to the emporer?). A woman of great power. Let’s put it that way. Anyways, she really shafted the country because she spent so much on building the Summer Palace that she emptied the treasury, and when the British and French invaded Beijing, the army had been gutted due to lack of funds. Which set about a string of events that culminated in the Communists taking power under Chairman Mao. Way to go, aristocratic bee-otch. There was surprisingly little information about each building on the information placards, except that each said explained that the buildings were destroyed in 1858 when the British and French invaded, and were rebuilt later. Clearly, it is still a sore point.

Perhaps the best part of the visit, and one of the top experiences of the trip, was our randomly stumbling across an impromptu choir. As we walked around the lake, the huge lotus flowers were blooming in full, we heard human voices in song. Taking a side trail led us to a wooded pavilion, where perhaps 50-60 Chinese people, mostly elderly, had assembled and were each holding a tattered song book. They were singing loudly and none of them were particularly good. And we couldn’t understand a word that they were saying. But it was the most mesmerizing and joyful feeling and experience, and it defies explanation for someone that wasn’t there. We stood listening to them for perhaps 20-30 minutes. The little old ladies would dance occasionally, and just seemed so happy to be there and be a part of this song. And just being close to them singing made you a part of something special. I’ll never forget it.

Day 2. The Olympic Park

I will skip course topics until later, moving instead to the next day of the trip, when we did more fun touristy stuff. The night before, we met a large Chilean man named Mauricio at the course, and he would be a travel buddy for much of the rest of the trip. The next morning would bring us and all of the newly met international students to the Olympic park. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 saw the city transform a large swath of the city into a series of boardwalks, immense stadiums, and meeting areas. The investment must have been considerable. We were allowed approximately 1.5 hours of free time in the Olympic park. Mike, Ryan, Mauricio, and myself decided to make our way to the Bird’s Nest, a huge stadium where the track competitions were held. On our mile or so walk over to the stadium, we passed the Aquatic Center, resembling a huge box-like building adorned with swatches of blue bubble-like panels that each could have been a swimming pool on their own. Walking further, we saw an increasing number of Beijing residents wearing white t-shirts with some sort of contest described on them. We came closer to where there was loud rock music playing, and the tightest cluster of people gathered around. An announcer blared instruction, and a football field sized area was filled with soap bubbles. Masses of foam covered the people, who all became soaked in the stuff. It wasn’t clear if this was a contest, or just an opportunity to get soaked in bubbles, but it was remarkable. As the people exited the bubble zone, their shirts had been turned colors by the soap into a tie-die of red and blue and purple. We walked on.

The Birds Nest loomed as we came closer and closer to the giant stadium. There was a fee to enter the stadium, which we decided was worth doing. The kiosk ticket counter explained the ticket prices in English, but only in a cursory fashion. It appeared that students would get a decent discount, so I encouraged the other three to play that card. It was around $20 for a tour, and the students were somehow entitled to a VIP behind the scenes tour. We didn’t really know what that meant, but we figured we were only at the Olympic Park once, so we may as well make the most of it.

We walked in, and the tour was entirely in Chinese. As is often the case, Mike turned on his charm and managed to get the young lady tour guide to translate into English at least some of what she was explaining to the chinese visitors. I am no sports fanatic, but this stadium is really impressive. We walked about the bleachers for a little while, and then the tour turned toward the VIP and press boxes. We went behind the scenes to see the red carpeted area where the Olympic President stayed and watched the games, as well as Chinese dignitaries. They even made us where little booties, which didn’t fit well over our American-sized feet. The tour culminated by taking the elevator to the roof of the Bird’s Nest. Yes, we walked around the roof of the stadium on a series of catwalks. It was really, really cool. The view was spectacular, and we could see much of the surrounding city from this height. Even the polluted haze couldn’t totally stifle the view. We took the elevator back down to ground level, and made our way to the bus and the short course that would begin that afternoon.

Day 9. The Great Wall

Mike, Ryan, Mauricio and I embarked bright and early for a hike of the unrestored area of the Great Wall in what was to be the highlight of the trip. We took the subway to the correct station, got cash to pay for the organized tour, and awaited the private bus that would bring us to the excursion. The hike was organized by a commercial hiking club comprised primarily of expats. There was a couple of brothers from the East Coast, a bunch of Germans, a couple from Colorado, and several others. The tour guide was Chinese and had fluent English.

It wasn’t long before we were out of Beijing and into some mountainous and rural areas that suited us much better than the urban crowds. It had started to rain, and I had brought some Ziploc bags that would protect our phones and valuables. The landscape north of Beijing is spectacular. The steep slopes covered in deciduous trees and shrubs reminded me very much of the vegetation of the northern U.S. (not the contour, of course).

I had eaten some funny lunchmeat the night before, and this began to adversely affect me on the bus through the mountainous roads up to the trailhead. We graciously stopped at a public restroom, and for the first time all trip I used the traditional Chinese toilet. It is essentially a shallow ceramic basin pushed into the floor with a hole at the rear base of it. No seat, no handles. Just squat down, and hopefully you don’t pee in your pants at your legs, and that there is no lateral sprayage during the dumping process. Fuck the handicapped. There is no accommodation whatsoever for them. I performed admirably, as poop came from me like a squeeze-bottle of jelly. I lost track of time in the process, and the boys were all happy to see me emerge from the bathroom in one piece, as the entire bus awaited my return. I was worried that this was the start of a full day’s battle with diarrhea, but it was not to be. The ol’ Lundgren digestive system came through for me, once again.

The bus dropped us off next at the trail head. The rain had stopped, and a nice cloud cover kept us cool during our hike. There was a 4-acre cornfield adjacent to a small river that was to be our first non-city landscape. This was common for most of the agriculture we had encountered. Small fields of a diverse list of crops that were often grown in close proximity to one another. In other regions, the Chinese were adopting western style monocultures, but a large presence of small farms persist. The trail dirt trail was damp as it meandered up higher and higher in elevation. Everyone was just getting to know one another, but as the climb became steeper and steeper the conversation became more challenging. Soon we were into the switchbacks, and the climb became pretty challenging. We quietly plodded upward through the shady understory of the Chinese mountainside. All conversation had stopped by this point; folks were focused on making the next milestone. More and more sky became visible above us, which lent hope that we were nearing the wall.

We summited into a guard station made of crumbling and ancient stones. The wall rode the spine of the mountain chain in either direction for as far as the eye can see, punctuated by small guard houses on its undulating journey. A sheer drop to either side gave spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. The width of the wall is perhaps 10-15 feet at this section of the wall. Mosses, lichens, and small trees and shrubs spilled out of the rock. This area of the wall had not been restored for several thousand years, and it had become woven into the natural world around it.

The Mongols must have been absolutely terrifying to justify building the Great Wall of China. The resources, time, and human capital that was expended on building a large stone wall on the spine of a mountain chain must have been astounding. Then extend this to the 5500 miles and various terrains that the wall cuts through. That is nearly twice the length of continental U.S. Our tour guide explained that the Mongolians were brilliant tacticians and very brave, but they were crappy farmers. So whenever they would run out of food, they would ride south and pillage some Chinese. After losing my breath trying to climb the steep slope as a Mongolian might have, only to meet a wall defended by soldiers; well, it must have been a tremendously effective defense once it was built.

As we began to hike, we chatted with the tour guide who happened to be a history major amidst many other jobs and interests. With little coaxing, she began to tell us some of the political history of China leading to the modern day communist regime. The various empires with vaguely familiar names (Ming Dynasty, for example) painted a rich and long standing history that makes even European history seem nascent. She mentioned that it is law that every day of the emporer’s life needs to be recorded, and this law has been in place for 2000 years. At one point, Mike naively asked her whether Taiwan should be a part of China (the last Royal Family fled to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution, and declared independence from China). She hesitated, and replied “Of course I need to say that Taiwan belongs to China”. The people of China seem happy, but there is this latent fear that raises its head if one probes into certain topics. It is ingrained not step out of line.

And so we walked leisurely along the old wall until we reached a transition to the restored area. Most tourists arrive at the restored entrance to the Great Wall. We sat and ate some snacks before embarking on this new terrain. The restored wall is cleaner and beautiful, but it lacks the history and story that the unrestored section had. And as we walked, an ass ton of tourists from all over the world pervaded.

Make no mistake: walking the Great Wall is not an easy task. There are hundreds of steps, and some staircases are very steep. We mostly walked down the steps, passing by exhausted tourists that looked to us for some sign of hope that they were nearing some landmark of note. Our route via the hiking path was challenging, but it was a stroll compared to mounting the 2-300 steps at a time that the folks coming the

A take home message that we can learn from in the U.S. We are bombarded by media that strikes fear of the Chinese in our hearts. A world power that threatens our standing. And perhaps they are right. But after being there, I couldn’t help but feel like China is poised to implode. So many people consuming so many resources. The air that they breathe and the water they live with are polluted, the food that they normally eat is processed garbage meant to deliver inexpensive calories, and there are so many people all striving for an identity but with a latent fear of what might happen if they attain it. Honestly, I saw into a crystal ball of what America will look like if we do not prioritize our natural resources and communities.

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