Exploring Beijing


Parking attendent
Parking attendent
(click to enlarge)

I'm in Beijing for WWW2008 which starts tomorrow. I came out early (last Saturday) because I find conferences much more enjoyable when I'm not suffering from jet lag. I'm pretty well adjusted now and I'm looking forward to the talks tomorrow.

In the meantime, I've taken some time to explore Beijing a bit. Sunday I was quite tired and other than going to church, a fun experience in Beijing, stuck close to the hotel. It was rainy both Sunday and Monday, so the weather wasn't up to outdoor activities.

Because of that, I decided that the best use of Monday was to do some shopping. I'd been told that I ought to go to the Silk Street Market, so that's where I headed. What an experience. Six floors of stalls crammed with everything from clothes to watches to electronics to luggage. Most of it is branded with famous brands. Not many of them real, of course.

More workmen
More workmen
(click to enlarge)

The stall vendors are very forward, even clinging to you to get you to come into their stall. The first price you get quoted is 4, 6 or even 10 times what they'll settle for. I'm not very comfortable negotiating and don't like it, so I probably didn't get the best possible price, but I did pay significantly less than the first price quoted. I got some fun gifts for my family. I won't name them here for obvious reasons.

The sun was finally out in the afternoon and since the hotel I'm in is close to some of the Olympic venues, I walked around a bit and took some pictures. I was fascinated to see the workers. For example, they were working on a sidewalk in front of the Bird's Nest stadium (where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held). There were at least a dozen of them all working with hand tools--picks and shovels. No power equipment of any kind being used to build a sidewalk hundreds of yards long.

Rain spout
Rain spout
(click to enlarge)

Today I took a tour of the Great Wall and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. The best part was getting out of Beijing proper for a bit and seeing some of the country side. There is beautiful country not far out of Beijing. Of course there are still people everywhere. The Ming Tombs were amazing in size.

I went to the Badaling area of the wall. This is not a wall over flat terrain, but up and down mountains. I scratched my head in wonder when I thought about people hauling all that stone up those mountains. I hiked up to the top the section where we were and it was very steep. I'm sure my knees will be reminding me tomorrow of the journey.

More pictures of how steep it is
More pictures of how steep it is
(click to enlarge)

We also spent a little time at a jade factory (refactory, I supposed since the original factory was the earth) and had lunch in a cafeteria at the back of a Friendship Store (government run store for tourists). I've had better food. The people making the jade pieces and Ming vases were working in almost unthinkable conditions from an OSHA perspective. But I'm sure they're very well paid in compensation for the danger (sarcasm).

Tonight I went to the Microsoft Research Asia reception at Microsoft's Beijing facility. The food was just so-so, but I enjoyed seeing the demos and talking to the researchers. There were some very fun projects.

The only one I went to that had a handout and a Web page, was the Excel Web Data add-in. This is essentially a very sophisticated screen scraper that puts its results in Excel and can refresh them as the Web page changes. I don't think it runs on Excel 2007 on OS X--at least the installer is a .exe. Maybe I'll fire up Fusion and give it a go later.

Another one that was pretty cool was a mobile application. Imagine two mobile phones streaming separate copies of a movie. When they get close together they both start streaming and showing just half the movie--combining their screens for more pixels. Swap their location and they swap the half of the movie they're showing. The amazing thing is that this coordination isn't done with radio signals, but with sound. The phones chirp to let the other phone know where they're at.

I'm having fun trying to decipher characters. I knew around 250 characters when I lived in Japan. Many of those are coming back and are similar enough to recognize. Of course there are thousands of characters that an educated Chinese knows, so a few hundred doesn't do much good. Even so, it's fun and helps with getting around some.

So far, China has been amazing. The amount of industry and innovation you see everywhere is beyond belief. This is a country that's movin' on up. Of course, everything is being spruced up for the Olympics and there's plenty of poverty around, but the message that comes through loud and clear is that people are working their way up.

I've taken a bunch of pictures. You'll find them all in my photo album for WWW2008.