Monday, March 15, 2010

endangered siberian tigers die in shenyang zoo

The gist: Eleven endangered Siberian tigers died in a Shenyang zoo after being fed nothing but chicken bones for the past three months. Two other starving tigers were shot and killed after they attacked a zoo employee. Some zoos may be deliberately breeding more tigers than they can care for, in order to sell the carcasses on the black market, where they will fetch a high price as ingredients in traditional medicine.
We've all commented on the terrible conditions in Chinese zoos and even speculated about the black market ties, and unfortunately I can't say that I'm totally surprised that this has happened. The lack of oversight and mistreatment of the animals is indicative of a greater problem that, as far as I can tell, seems to be growing - the inability of the growing middle class to manage wealth. From my own limited experiences, it seem like people are getting far richer far more quickly than they ever were in the past, and no one - not the government or the average citizen - knows what to do with the newfound wealth. This can manifest itself in innocuous ways, like flashing name brands or being herded around on "vacations" that shuttle tourists from photo op to photo op because one believes that someone with money and some leisure time should go on "vacation."

However, an inability to manage wealth can also manifest itself in much more dangerous ways, such as the glut of luxury cars being driven by people who have never taken a driving course, or the increasing number of newly-rich entrepreneurs who choose to save their money because they have no idea how to invest it. The deaths of the tigers are another example: the economic situation of the citizens of Shenyang was likely mirrored in their city government, which is a part-owner. The government followed the examples set by other developed countries and wagered that families with disposable incomes would enjoy visiting a zoo, so they built one - without any idea how to care for the endangered animals housed therein or any clue as to how to manage such a large-scale operation. The zoo subsequently went broke, and the owners resorted to killing the animals to get a loan.

This kind of inability to manage wealth, combined with a lack of government oversight and codification of standards, has created a number of other disasters: some have already occurred, like the devastation the earthquake wrought on the poorly-designed high-rise apartment and office buildings in Sichuan, and some are still looming, like the environmental degradation caused by giant factories that churn out billions of yuan worth of products but lack any kind of real oversight. It's difficult to see when and how any of this will change, especially because any real oversight is impossible when local governments - like the city government that is a part-owner of the zoo - have no power to make radical policy changes without first vetting the changes through the Party machine.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

24 hrs in Jiuzhaigou

From March 5th through the 21st, I'll be working at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan in SW China through an exchange I set up with my colleague: he's working in Shenyang for two weeks, and I'm working in Chengdu. I definitely think I got the better end of the deal, but I'm just glad he agreed to trade places! Chengdu is great, and I'll put up some pictures from last weekend later. However, I want to post the pictures I took this weekend while the experience is still fresh in my mind.

On Saturday morning, I visited JiuZhaiGou National Park, which is a 45-minute flight north of Chengdu. You can learn more about it here:

I arrived at the park around 2:00pm on Saturday, and the scenery was beautiful:

However, on the whole it was very frustrating and stressful, and, just like many experiences in China, very mixed.

As soon as I arrived, I was told that the entire 10k stretch of hiking paths I wanted to explore was closed until April 1st. Fine. I boarded the shuttle bus inside the park, and told them I wanted to go to the farthest point that was open. The bus drove me and other tourists about 10-15 minutes inside the park, and then allowed everyone to disembark.

I'm assuming I was the only tourist who wanted to go farther, because at this point I was told to hop in a park maintenance crew pickup truck - a little odd, but still, fine. The driver drove farther in for about 5 minutes and stopped beside a lake. I got out, relieved, and started to walk back in the direction from which we had driven, hoping to find a path and hike back to the entrance. The driver immediately insisted that I get back in the truck and 'offered' to drive me back to the next point-of-interest. At first I thought he had misunderstood me, but I quickly realized that walking was not an option. After he drove me to the next sight, I insisted on walking along the path. He reluctantly agreed, but he sat in the truck watching me as I took pictures and walked along the trail. When the trail emerged from the woods 15 minutes later, he was there, waiting.

I was forced to walk along the road most of the day, since 90% of the trails were closed. Every 5 minutes a minibus would stop and insist I get on, not understanding that I preferred to walk. Finally, towards the end of the day, the pickup truck found me again, and this time another man in a full suit was riding shotgun. I had seen him staring at me at other sights along the road, and he was clearly there alone. He insisted I get in the truck and ride with them to the entrance, claiming that there were no more buses that afternoon, even though the park wouldn't close for another 3 hours. I got the feeling he had been told to keep tabs on me while I was visiting the park. I'm not sure why; maybe it was because I was an American diplomat in a mainly-Tibetan region, or maybe because the next day would be the 2-year anniversary of the Tibetan riots. Maybe it was some combination of the two factors, but regardless, it definitely made me eager to leave Jiuzhaigou. I absolutely love working China, but I think that, as a US government employee, sometimes I see a side of the local government that many other foreigners don't see, and it can make one a little cynical.

This is my self-portrait, with sore feet from the asphalt hike:

The next few pictures feature the beautiful scenery that I barely was able to enjoy.

After I left the park, I visited the 'tourist' area just 10 minutes down the road. It was fairly empty, but I found some outdoor food stalls and wandered around. I also ate the freshest lamb skewers I've ever had.

Some of the people at the consulate told me about a homestay program, through which you can spend the night at the home of a traditional Tibetan family near the park entrance. It was super cheap (about $26) but the home was really, really primitive. I also had a huge headache from the altitude and couldn't eat all of the potatoes and yak meat they fed me. The family was really nice though, and it would probably be more fun when the weather is nicer, since the house has no heating.

Some of the children outside the house at dusk, with their grandfather:

Zhu Ke, my host, with his cute kid, Luosa, and his mother:

They were all very nice, and it was a really interesting experience...but next time I'm staying at the Sheraton!

These ladies walking along the road were some of the few young Tibetan women I saw. I found it really odd that there were tons of younger Tibetan men everywhere, but no women. Even the men at the house where I stayed were about 25-35 years old, with children, but no wives in sight. Maybe it's a cultural/religious thing.

This next picture is one of many billboards on the route between the airport and the national park. It is extremely difficult to read, since the language that is used is very formal and abbreviated, but I think it means "Visitors from the four corners of the earth gather in SongPan to reconstruct a safe and happy living environment for the Tibetan and Qiang boys and girls." (Fyi, Songpan is another tourist town outside Jiuzhaigou and the Qiang are another minority people).

Riiiiiiiiight. I *totally* believe that the Chinese government is encouraging tourism in Tibetan areas for the sole purpose of improving the lives of minority children. How altruistic and paternal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I've been posted to Shenyang, China for over one year now, which means that I've bid on my next assignment. The verdict is in: Kabul. I'm going to serve as a political officer, beginning January 2011, for one year. I'm extremely excited, since I really wanted to go to this region of the world, and I will have the opportunity to work on political issues, instead of the visa-related work that I'm currently doing.

This position was #6 on my list of 6 job opportunities that I bid on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but only because I will be forced to leave Shenyang 3 months early in order to begin this next assignment. As an aside, I only bid on those 6 positions because I really wanted to serve in those places, and I have heard from several sources that such positions are in high-demand. There was definitely nothing "directed" about this assignment.

When I typed "Afghanistan" into the google image search, the returns consisted of 8 maps, 8 pictures of U.S. soldiers, 1 flag, 1 market, 1 NatGeo image, and 3 burqa pictures. I feel like that will likely be an accurate representation of my experiences.

Only one question remains: what should I do about the blog name????

Last of Japan Pics

So I've had tons of trouble uploading these last photos onto my blog. I have been using for the past year, which is a free VPN service, i.e. it gives you a random U.S. IP address so you appear to be in the U.S. In this manner you can access any sites that are blocked in China, and you also can watch shows online that are only available in the U.S. (like Project Runway or HIMYM!) However, it recently stopped working so I've switched to a different service that is not free - It's **MUCH** better, and totally worth the $70 annual fee.

Anyway, here are pics from my last day in Tokyo. After my mom and I left Shibuya crossing with my new camera (yay!), we got lunch at a random curry noodle restaurant, which was perfect.

We were pretty tired, so we just hung around until dinner, when we went to another tempura place that I had read about on, Tsunahachi. It had a great atmosphere, but wasn't nearly as delicious and delicate as the tempura we had in Kyoto.

They were clearly accustomed to catering to tourists (not necessarily a negative), since they had an entire English-language addition to the menu that explained how to eat tempura. I didn't realize that it was such a complicated process, but the chef really liked us and showed us which dishes to eat with which condiment (dipping sauce, pickled radish, or 1/3 kinds of salt).

The best part of the meal by far was dessert. We just asked for plain ice cream, and it showed up fried, with raspberry sauce! I wish that happened more often.

Perfect last meal in Japan :)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tokyo and Kyoto

On Thursday morning, my mom and I went to Akihabara, which is the giant electronics market in Tokyo. It's about 2-3 city blocks of giant buildings that resemble department stores, but all of them sell every kind of electronics imaginable. Also, the area is famous for its maid cafes, and there were a lot of girls on the street corners handing out flyers.

Plus, I bought a used Canon EOS 20d for $500!!

Afterwards, we walked around the Shibuya crossing, which is a huge intersection, kind of like Times Square. This guy was standing on top of a car and gesticulating wildly.

On Friday morning, we woke up early and took a 2 1/2 hour train to Kyoto. I had booked a bike tour of the city, which ended up being incredibly boring. Riding a bike was a great way to see the city, but all of the sights were pretty bland.

Luckily, we went to this awesome tempura restaurant for lunch. It was just us and one other couple sitting at the counter. I had heard that it was the best tempura restaurant in Kyoto, and it didn't disappoint (

Afterwards, we visited the Kiyomizu Temple area, which is kind of a big touristy area in town, but it's nice to walk through and we found some good souvenirs.

Also, the place was crawling with geishas!

They were nice enough to let some other tourists take their picture, so I snuck in and got a picture as well.

Of course, this being Japan, everyone wanted to take their picture.

More lovely geishas!

Back at the train station, a familiar sight for my mom: