Wangfujing Critter Market

Wangfujing is a popular shopping district in central Beijing. One day, Katie and I were walking along Wangfujing’s main street with Brendan, a friend from home. We found an alley that turned out to be the famous “critter market.” This place looked like it was designed intentionally to gross people out with its strange foods and beverages for sale.

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No Guts, No Story

The soup came next. It contained several cloves of garlic and a few green beans, but it was mostly filled with shriveled lumps of…something.

“Are those mushrooms?” Katie asked.

“I don’t think so.” The soup had a distinct odor that I couldn’t quite place. I grabbed a “mushroom” with my chopsticks and put it into my mouth. It didn’t have much flavor, but its chewy texture made me want to spit it out. I tried, unsuccessfully, to tear the “mushroom” with my teeth. I took a swig of beer and swallowed it whole.

“Well? What is it?”

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Beijing Hutongs, Part 1

Hutongs are northern China’s traditional back alley neighborhoods. Their houses are small; their bathrooms are shared. They typically have communal central courtyards. Some hutongs date back to the Ming dynasty of the fifteenth century. In recent decades, many hutongs have been demolished to make way for highrise towers and wide avenues. Only a few have been protected from modern development.

One day while walking around central Beijing, I stumbled upon

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Beijing Pollution, Construction and Migration

It’s amazing to think how quickly this city has grown. I met one woman who lived here in 1989. She told me that at the time, the Third Ring was the outskirts. Taxi drivers refused to go beyond it. Wolves were occasionally spotted in the nearby forests. Even Katie’s Beijing guidebook, which was published nine years ago, shows the Fourth Ring as the edge of the city, and it only lists a couple of the central subway lines. Now, the Third Ring is downtown. Thirty-story highrises encompass it, and far beyond. The core of the city ends at the Fifth Ring, but a large population (including Katie and me) has spilled beyond even its reaches.

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Adjusting to Beijing

I was confused. Our plane was only a few thousand feet above one of the world’s largest cities, yet I barely saw any lights. Beijing’s international airport is located far from downtown, but I still was expecting the city to look brighter from above. As we neared the ground, a thick haze blanketed us. Visibility was less than half a mile in all directions.

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One Last Stop

On the day of our departure, Katie and I took a shuttle to the airport and loaded two carts with our luggage. When I saw the immense pile, it finally sunk in that we really were moving to China. In deciding what to pack, my biggest concern was that I wouldn’t find pants or shoes in my size. I ended up taking every pair I owned. We wheeled our luggage carts to the counter and checked in our five bags, each of which weighed nearly fifty pounds…… Read More »

Seattle Bound

My next stop was to be Seattle, and I had come on this trip without any flights or hotel rooms booked. My lack of planning came in handy: Cathi Jo, one of the rafters in our group, was driving to Seattle that afternoon. We loaded our stuff into her car, said goodbye to the Madison contingent and made our way to I-90 for the last leg of my cross-country road trip…… Read More »

Paradise Camp

We had the rest of the day to relax, cliff jump, fish and watch the looks of disappointment as the other rafters passed us (the happy campers actually existed, and they were hung over)…… Read More »

The Longest Day

I navigated around a few rocks, fighting hard against the current, trying to stay left. This effort proved futile as the current dragged my boat to the right, turning me perpendicular to the river. I slammed against a rock and water rushed over me. I tried the counter-intuitive method of leaning into the rock so that the current would safely flow under my boat and shove me free. The hydraulic was too strong, though, and I got “window-shaded” – thrown upside-down as the current grabbed my upstream edge…… Read More »

More Dangerous than a Rattlesnake

Water dribbled onto my head, waking me up in the middle of the night. Startled, I looked around and quickly realized that it was raining. I rolled over and wrapped my tarp around my body, figuring I could tough it out. Then a flash of lightning lit up the sky, followed by a loud thunderclap. Several other tents glowed as their occupants scrambled to put on their flys while wearing their headlamps…… Read More »