Historic Quanzhou, China

I recently returned from Quanzhou, which is across the strait from Taiwan. I'd been there twice before, to visit my company's factory, but I never saw the city's historic sites until now. I visited the 1300-year-old Kaiyuan Temple, the giant equestrian statue of Koxinga, the 1000-year-old Luoyang Bridge, and a scenic area on top of Mt. Qingyuan. I always like to see the old stuff when I travel, so this was a wonderful surprise.

Quanzhou was once the biggest port in the area, one of the starting points for the Silk Road. The Kaiyuan Temple contains two lighthouses, each about 150 feet high, that were used by mariners. (That's me at the bottom.) The temple complex is right in the middle of town, but is secluded from the hustle and bustle and quite peaceful. The site is both a tourist attraction and an active religious destination. Here are the photos I took there.

General Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, lived in Quanzhou and won Taiwan back from Holland in 1661. The Dutch had held the island for 38 years. A few years ago, an enormous gold statue of Koxinga on horseback was erected on a mountaintop visible from the streets of Quanzhou. It's 125 feet high and pretty amazing. Check out the photos on flickr, where the statue looms larger and larger as you get closer to it.

The Luoyang Bridge crosses the Luoyang River, which is wide and low at this point a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Actually, when I visited, the tide was low, so there was hardly any water at all. Judging from the height of the bridge's supports, it never gets very deep. As a scientist I was amazed by the bridge's construction: the supports are about 10 meters apart, and are spanned by stone beams. Each beam is about nine meters long, a meter thick, and maybe two feet wide. Astonishingly, none of them appear to have ever broken in the bridge's 1000 years of service! I also appreciate the fact that they erected a statue to the guy who made it possible. Here's the photos.

Lastly we visited Mt. Qingyuan, which at 500 meters is the highest peak in the area. It was quiet and peaceful up there, and we had a lovely outdoor lunch, though I suspect it was that meal that disagreed with me (see previous post). I must have missed the statue of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, because I certainly would have taken a picture of it. In any case, the temple was lovely and the turtles in their pond were very happy. Here it is on flickr.

Quanzhou is a relatively small city, with only 500,000 people inside the city limits. The streets are very busy, but growth has been calmer than in boomtowns like Shenzhen. It has a hometown feel to it, and I'll be happy to return.

Useful info for the traveler in Asia

The active ingredient in Imodium is available in China. If that's too much information for you, skip the rest of this post. I offer it for future reference.

Travelers from the West to China often find themselves fighting gastric distress. Whether you accidentally drank some tap water (even the locals stick strictly to bottled water) or some street food disagreed with you, it's ugly. It's happened to me two out of three trips now, so here's the remedy.Loperamide hydrochloride, the anti-diarrheal ingredient in Imodium, is sold in China in the packaging pictured above right. Click for big. This box contained six capsules and cost 5.5 yen (less than $1 US). I got complete relief in four hours - though a couple days later, the medicine wore off before the illness did, and I had to start taking it again.

You may also be offered the traditional remedy pictured above left, called Seirogan. Most Chinese households keep this around. It smells horrible and it isn't fast or effective enough for a panicked traveler short on time. Especially if, say, you're about to get on a 12-hour flight. It turns out the active ingredient in Seirogan is creosote. Hence the smell: wood smoke. According to WebMD, it's safe.

The concierges and the barkers

EDIT: photo inserted.

I have a couple days off in the middle of my China trip. Yesterday I went shopping at the Shenzhen Railway Station (*). The railway station itself links to Hong Kong, and the mall on top of it is huge and crowded. There is so much activity here that occupations have evolved specifically to assist shoppers. Here I'll tell you about two I met: concierges and barkers.To begin with, our taxi--which cost an astonishing $30US--dropped us off at the wrong place. He was "chosen by the hotel to ensure our safety" (I've never felt unsafe here) but I think he left us at the metro station instead of the railway one. We were about a kilometer from the mall, not too far, but not within eyesight. We called and gave our hotel's staff some hell while walking in the direction of our best guess. Eventually we saw a bilingual road sign that said Train Station Road, and followed it until my companion saw the buildings he recognized.

As we approached--two white guys walking semi-aimlessly, pointing at the tops of buildings, and repeatedly saying "TRAIN STATION" loudly--a Chinese man asked us in passable English if we wanted help. We did. Yes sir, we did.

"Tony" (**) handed us a business card with a phone number and said he would take us to the train station and help us find the things we came to shop for. He led us into the station and to a specific pair of shops that were "his" and that sold some of the things we were looking for.
Now I'd like to try to give you a sense of scale. The mall had a central atrium; there were probably four shops deep on either side of the atrium, and the mall is maybe three times as long as it is wide. So as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, let's say there were 1250 shops in this five-story building. Did we need help? Yes sir, we did.
As we shopped, Tony talked to us about what we were looking for. Upon concluding a purchase (or not), he would take us up or down a couple floors and through zigzagging hallways to the next relevant vendor he had a relationship with.

Tony didn't ask for a tip. The vendor would pay him for bringing us there if we bought something. It worked out well for us. Tony was a concierge and he was pretty good at his job. He found us almost a block from the building, spoke good English, and led us to what we wanted.

They weren't all like Tony. As he led us through the building, every store we passed had someone sitting outside calling to us. I couldn't tell you how many times the word "watch" (as in wristwatch) was said to me. Some actually touched or grabbed us. These were the barkers. We got coffee and came back shopping without Tony and almost immediately fell into the hands of a team of scammers. I should have known because one of them was the first Chinese girl I've ever known to actually try to use her looks to manipulate me. Good thing she wasn't my type. We ended up buying some totally frivolous goods (***) and some electronics that were actually fake. We didn't lose much money, but I did learn a valuable lesson: negotiate only for things whose value you are sure you know.

My success story for the day was shirts. I'm tall and thin, so off-the-rack shirts never fit me. I can buy shirts that are close and get them taken in, or even handmade to fit me, but at American labor rates that's prohibitively expensive. In the Train Station they actually make shirts, so Tony took me to a tailor. They took my measurements and let me look through four books of fabrics. I paid $20 each for six shirts, which will be delivered to my hotel tomorrow. $20 is a fair price for the parts and labor that go into a shirt made in China; I'm just disintermediating the people who don't know what size I am. Look for me looking sharp the next time you see me.

(*) Photo above inserted 6/26.
(**) Many Chinese take Western names to make things easier for Westerners. They favor names that are phonetically similar to their own: Xian Li becomes Charlie or John Li.
(***) A pen that contains a working digital camera. For $17 I can bring it home just as a conversation piece.

China's Radio Shack

I'm in China for work right now. I have no way to upload photos, but I want to tell you about the greatest electronics store I've ever been in.

The backstory: I built a piece of equipment in Cleveland and brought it here for our production facility to use. When I assembled it and plugged it in, the Chinese electricity fried its power supplies. (Yes, I had switched them over to 220V.) Not just any power supplies: these provide current regulated to the third decimal place. I had paid $275 each and I had four business days to get it working. The solution? Drive to a store an hour away.

When we walked in, the first thing I saw was a glass counter piled high with different thick bundles of wires. From six feet away I could see about 50 recognizable types of plugs, jacks, wiring harnesses, and connectors. This was a wire connector vendor. That counter was eight feet wide. It was the first of maybe a half dozen wire connector vendors I saw.

There was a fan vendor. A counter with an impossibly organized pile of small project boxes - aluminum or plastic cases you could build circuits in. LED vendors with spools of flashing lights ready to put into a pick-and-place assembler. One person selling light housings - complex extruded and machined aluminum domes with fins to dissipate heat from a high-power LED. It went on and on. Each vendor had six or eight feet of space.

The place was jammed with people. The sellers didn't hawk, didn't reach out and try to entice us. Navigating the place required a body-and-mind dance of politely slipping through the crowd while scanning the visual onslaught for the parts we needed. It was a warren of narrow angled aisles. If I had to guess, I'd say it was about the size of a largish restaurant. It was China's Radio Shack, an order of magnitude more well-stocked than ours ever were.

We found some suitable power supplies, in three stalls along one wall. At each, we negotiated price and checked specifications. The stall where we made our purchase specialized in sensors: meters for airflow, sound level, light intensity, temperature and humidity, force, electrical current, everything. They even had several oscilloscopes. It was six feet square, and every square inch of the walls and countertop was hung or stacked with something. One of something that they had more of elsewhere. The price for my power supplies? USD$25 each. One-eleventh what I had paid.

That was the first floor. There were four.

The upper floors were progressively cleaner, more open, and less crowded, and sold things that more closely resembled finished goods. On the top floor they sold computers, but the prices were comparable to what we'd pay in the US.

Why does this place exist? Here's my theory: if you are running a factory and need to fill an order for a customer fast, you can come here for the parts. In America we'd have no alternative but to mail-order, but there is such a density of electronics manufacturers in Shenzhen that they can support retail sales of quantity parts.

I got back to the factory and instantly regretted not having bought screwdrivers, crimping tools, voltmeters, soldering irons, and a dozen other things. My Chinese coworkers had improvised a fine screwdriver by filing down the tip of an Allen wrench. Oh well.

My love-hate relationship with bitters

Found in an Italian market today: Ferro-China Magnoberta bitters. $15 for 750ml. I expected something similar to Aperol or Campari, both of which I love to mix with soda (and, in the case of Campari, red vermouth).I've just tossed an ounce and a half of the Ferro-China into soda. The mixture looks like Coke - not a good sign. I'm tasting it as I type this. It occurs to me that the "ferro" in the name may be the source of the metallic taste I can't get out of my mouth.

It tastes like horribly burnt vegetation, rusty iron, and maybe a little cocoa. This is weaponized booze. Serve it to people you never want to speak to again. It may actually be worse than Fernet Branca. WTF, Italy?

Why do I do this to myself? Oh yeah, because this is how I found out about Campari and Aperol. And the moderately useful Getreide-Kummel. And Heering Cherry Liqueur. OK, I feel better about it now.