June 13, 2004

We are both fine and continue to enjoy our China adventure.  This part describes our fourth and fifth weeks of teaching, and a recent weekend (June 5-7) bike trip.  If you did not receive the first three group letters that we sent, you can access them on Tyler’s website ( http://home.earthlink.net/~tylerfolsom/)



I (Fran) have now finished half of my 10 week class.  Thus far, I have covered lake ecology, sources of water pollution, and impacts of specific pollutants on fish, aquatic ecosystems, and human health.  The second half of the class will focus on solutions - preventing pollution, cleaning up contaminated sites, environmental education, regulations, and assessment.  In each lecture, I tell stories of what has and has not gone well in the United States, other Western countries, China, and other developing countries.  I try to be balanced and not point an accusatory finger at any one particular country.  I emphasize that pollution problems are global and solutions will require international cooperation.  My students are well aware of the enormous water and air pollution problems in their country and have expressed a desire to make a difference.  I hope that they will be able to do so!


Teaching is both fun and hard work.  I enjoy doing the background reading (this sabbatical is giving me the opportunity to delve into topics of interest to me!), synthesizing the information, and sharing it with the students.  Preparing the lectures takes a lot of time – approximately six hours outside  of class for each hour in class.  I teach for six hours each week and do need about 36 hours of prep time.  The first two weeks were especially intense.  From Monday morning until Friday afternoon, I did nothing but prepare my lectures and deliver them.   Since then, I have been able to free up one or two weekday evenings to enjoy Xi’an with Tyler and do other things such as keeping in touch with friends.  


For those of you who are fellow Toastmasters, preparing my lectures is analogous to preparing six one-hour Toastmasters speeches every week!  It is challenging to talk for two hours straight.  The 10 minute break between the two lectures does not really rest my voice because I answer individual questions then (as well as after the conclusion of the second lecture).  By the end of each two hour class period, my voice sounds frog-like.  This was especially true this past Friday.  Two of my students gave me a gift of throat lozenges; they said it is good Chinese medicine and will prevent hoarseness.  I will try them during my next class.


I really enjoy my interaction with the students.  There continues to be a core group of about 15 students who sit at the front of the room, are very attentive and seem very engaged in the lectures, and ask good questions that show that they are doing the assigned reading and understand my English.  Several students continue to hang out after each  class asking about various aspects of  life in the U.S.  One day, they inquired if there was a lot of interest in environmental protection in the U.S.  I replied that interest is keen in the Seattle area, but not in the current federal administration.  They shared their opinion that Bush cares only about getting oil from Iraq and getting re-elected.  I was impressed with their perceptiveness!  [The propaganda system is rather different here than at home – Tyler.]


A graduate student in English translation who calls herself Sarah (many Chinese students choose English names for themselves) is auditing my class because she wants to practice her English comprehension and learn more scientific terminology.  Sarah kindly volunteered to convert the rough Chinese in my bilingual PowerPoint slides (this translation is done by computer software and thus the context is often lost) into good Chinese.  Having good translations will be helpful to the students.


However, most of them seem to understand my English.  I gave a second 10-question, multiple choice quiz which I believe was more difficult than the first quiz.  Overall, the students performed better than on the first quiz.  The average grade was 77%, the median grade was 80%, and almost half the students received a 90% or 100%.  Nobody shared answers with classmates this time!


Bike Trip


We had decided that it would be fun to take an overnight bike trip.  We both have our fancy folding bikes.  Since Xi’an is in a river valley, we would go either east or west to avoid mountains.  West was a logical choice, since there is a good tourist attraction (Tang imperial tomb of China’s only female emperor) at the right distance (80 km; 50 miles).  Our plan was to leave early on Saturday (June 5) to beat the heat and traffic, stay at a hotel two nights and do sightseeing on Sunday (June 6), then bike back on Monday (June 7) via a different route.


Our only major question was whether there was any hotel at our intended destination.  Tourists visit the Qianling tombs, but they do it as a bus trip from Xi’an and do not spend the night.  We asked some of our contacts at the University about it and they tried to talk us out of going.  We were prepared to go anyway, figuring that if there was no hotel we could always take a bus back to Xi’an for the night.  On Friday, Tyler spent some time with Gao Yuan, Dr. Feng in Urbanology and Environmental Science (Fran’s department), and the Urbanology travel agent.  Tyler talked them into letting us do the trip, and the travel agent called around to find a hotel.  He booked us into the Qianling Hotel, but warned that they could not guarantee the quality.  We will pay 120 yuan (about $15) a night, which is a discount off the 168 yuan standard rate.


However, we got heavy rain on Thursday and Friday and it looked like we might want to postpone the trip.  The weather report on the web promised no rain for the weekend, so we packed on Friday night.


Saturday morning was cool and overcast with a hint of mist, but no rain.  We got rolling at 7:30 and the traffic on the way out of town was not too bad.  At about mile 9 we hit a construction area where the detour route had turned to mud.  It was nasty going, but after we had passed it we were on the outskirts of Xianyang, which had a wide and lightly traveled boulevard.  The pyramids were interesting.  The Chinese pyramids are not as well known as the Egyptian ones!  China has large gas stations and in this region they have large pyramidal roofs.  We stopped at a number of them for bathroom breaks.  Xianyang is the town that has the airport.  We did not go to the airport, but crossed the (very polluted) Wei River into town and found that it is substantial with lots of skyscrapers and traffic.  We didn’t get out of the built-up area until about mile 20.  The biking was more pleasant once we had some farmland.  We stopped at a gas station for a toilet break and decided to stay for lunch.  It was a truck stop with a substantial restaurant where we got surprisingly good food.  We had completed 25 miles before lunch.


We continued past roadside fruit vendors.  We stopped and bought delicious apricots from one.  Peaches and nectarines were also available.  Fran started to take a photo of Tyler alongside the road and the friendly vendor got into the photo with Tyler.    The navigation is relatively easy, since we are following the main highway, national route 312 and know the Chinese characters for our destination.  QianXian appears to be a major town, since it is the destination shown on all the signs since Xianyang.  [Linguistic note: these are three different Xians.  The city is two syllables (each character is a syllable) meaning West Peace.  The others are one syllable.  In Xianyang, “Xian” means “all” or “salty”; Yang is the same as in Yin/Yang and is used for a town on the north bank of a river.  In QianXian, “Xian” is a different character meaning county.]


About 10 miles from Qian Xian, we stopped at the town of LiQuan and attracted a lot of attention.  LiQuan is definitely off the tourist track and the inhabitants have not seen many foreigners.  We stopped to buy some cold drinks at a grocery store and sat on the steps to munch.  Tyler was surprised that initially there was no one watching us, but that soon changed.  A crowd of at least 15 men, women and children of all ages gathered around us and stared at us in fascination as we first ate cookies, then drank orangeade, and then put on our strange hats (bicycle helmets) and rode away on our strange bicycles.  We felt like monkeys in a zoo and wonder how they feel when people stand around watching them eat bananas, swing from trees, and engage in their other ordinary activities of daily life.


We arrived at the town of Qian Xian at 5:30 and were about to ask for the hotel, but Tyler noticed a large building several blocks away with 5 big characters on the roof that looked like the name of the hotel.  He was right and we headed straight there, got checked in, got demudded, and went for dinner.  We had a pleasant room, one of the nicest we have had in China.  Like most Chinese hotels, it had two single beds.  We asked about getting a room with one big bed.  It turns out that they had one, but it was an executive suite with a living room and fancy stuffed leather furniture.  We decided we didn’t want to pay the extra money.


We tried the hotel dining room, which was very nice.  We were seated in a private room and had a great meal.  Some of the staff here know a little English, but communicating continues to be difficult.  After dinner, we had a request to have our photos taken with three men.  Two of them were wearing suits and appeared to be hotel managers or town officials.  We went into a fancy banquet room for a suitable background and they took some pictures.  Maybe we’ll wind up on the hotel’s VIP display.


The next day was for relaxation.  We took it easy in the morning, then went out to see the tombs.  We took our bikes and wound up doing 9 miles, including the steepest climbing that we have done in China.  After parking the bikes, there were lots of steps to climb to the tomb on the top of the hill.  There was a monumental approach, flanked by sculptures of men and animals.  We were a bit surprised that was not any access to the inside of anything.


Back in town, we went out for foot massages, then back to the dining room at the hotel.  The dinner was not as good as the previous night.  Tyler requested that the waiter suggest something good.  We wound up with kidney, which was tasty if you could get over the cultural bias.  Tyler tried some of it but Fran chose to focus on an eggplant dish instead.


Monday we biked back to LiQuan, then found a back road that would take us south where we could connect with a different east-west main road.  Being off the main road was much more peaceful than on Saturday.  We biked through farms and small villages.  The farmers were harvesting wheat and we could see different stages: cutting it in the fields, bundling it and hauling it in small trucks, laying the stalks on the roadway for threshing (vehicles drive over it and help separate the stalks from the grain), winnowing and letting the grain dry in the sun on the roadway.  We had been surprised to find that large stretches of pavement were used for drying grain, not only in the countryside, but also at the tombs, towns and suburbs.  The farmers were also applying pesticides to their fields and plowing their fields.  It was interesting to observe that each individual piece of fruit on the fruit trees was wrapped in plastic.  Possible functions were protecting the fruit from insects or retaining moisture in the fruit.


Toward the end of our back road we hit an unpaved area, then downhill to a city where we stopped for a delicious hotpot lunch in a restaurant.  It wound up being a two hour meal, which meant that we did not have time to stop at the MaoLing tombs.  We went through the outskirts of  XianYang.  As we got to the edge of Xi’an, Tyler used the GPS to navigate a route home.


The final five miles of bicycling in Xi’an were definitely an adventure!  It was rush hour (6:00 to 7:00 PM) and people were not exactly rushing, but were navigating the streets in typical (i.e. chaotic) fashion.  Please allow me (Fran) to paint a word picture.   As we mentioned in an earlier letter, there are bicycle lanes in Xi’an but they are also used by pedestrians, motorbikes, pedalled and motorized tricycle light trucks,  taxis, and buses.  No one gives anyone the right of way and all vehicles move in both directions in the same lane and pass each other on the left and right without signaling.  Out on the car lanes, the driver who honks the loudest has the right of way.  (There are “no horn honking” signs in many Chinese towns, i.e., a picture of a horn with a diagonal red line through it, but this has got to be the most widely violated law in China)!


Here is what I observed while pedaling my bicycle on ONE block of the bike lane.  A woman on a bicycle passed me on the right, seeming oblivious to my presence.  A man on a bicycle passed me on the left while talking on his cell phone (many Chinese people own cell phones nowadays); he was balancing his bicycle with one hand while his child sat on the luggage rack and held onto him with one hand.  Two motorbikes  approached me head-on; they did change their course about two inches from me.  A taxi decided that this was a fine place to do a U-turn.  A tricycle carrying about 200 cabbages swayed precariously in front of me.  Two men parked another tricycle, jumped down, and proceeded to carry a table across the street.  Just a normal day in the bike lanes of Xi’an!  I consider it to be a great accomplishment that I arrived home alive!  Need I mention that bicycling in Xi’an is not a good way to alleviate stress?   Professional massages work much better!


(Tyler) All this is true, but I just bike with the flow, or a bit faster than it.  My favorite technique is to get behind a motor bike (they have small quiet engines and usually do about 15 mph) and let him or her find a path through the traffic.  If the bike lanes get too crowded, you can always move over to a vehicle lane.  Cars drive in the bike lanes and bikes often use the car lanes!  It is chaotic, but we have not yet witnessed an accident.  Lots of near misses; drivers seem to have their stopping distance calibrated to the exact number of inches needed.  While vehicles do honk and pass others, the speeds are not high.

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