Tuesday, November 29, 2011

3. Seeing Guangzhou

Today I was to take a 6 am bus to the airport on the way to visit Tibet. But alas, the tour operator didn't tell me they needed my chinese visa three weeks in advance in order to get the special permit required to go there. They said they needed it, but not that there was this strict deadline, and naturally I procrastinated in getting everything done, and didn't have my visa anything near like 3 weeks in advance. So TIbet is off. Instead, I've arranged to visit the Zhangjiajie national forest area, and we don't leave until 5. I may relate the hell of getting this arranged later, but for now let's look around Guangzhou.

My map cites the 6-Banyan Pagoda as a sight to see right in the middle of the old town. Let's go for it! This time I pay attention to the signs for exiting the metro, which tells you what places of note are nearest each exit. But you know how I get turned around. There are so many turns involved, this way and that, that there's no way to know which way you're facing once you get out into daylight. And there are no more signs once you're outside, nor is even the sun an indication because it hasn't yet burned through the thick haze.

I took my chances and went one way. Then turned right at a promisingly green area down the block, which turned out not to be the Pagoda, but People's Park. This being Saturday, all the People not manning shops are out in the park. And that's a lot of them. They're playing cards or mahjong or some other game at the stone tables. They're bouncing things off their feet. They're having picnics. They're practicing tai-chi to loud pop music, or reading the newspapers posted on long bulletin boards. At the bottom of the park is Guangzhou Point Zero. Happily marked with a large compass showing me that I should take a hard left to get to the 6-Banyan Pagoda. Thank you!

It still takes me another half hour to find it, though, because it isn't actually called that. I wander around the tiny lanes off the main road, full of handpulled carts and miniscule shops and Chinese people everywhere, thinking this pagoda might be some small ruin of interest to tourists. You never know. The Chigang was pretty well ignored, in spite of its nice park. After coming more than once to streets I know are too far, I notice a brown sign directing traffic to the Liurong Pagoda, off somewhere to my right. So I go that way, thinking one pagoda or another is just fine. The beggars get denser as I get close, and it turns out that the temple is a major attraction, for visitors and locals alike.

I have a pocketful of 1 yuan bills and coins, change from getting metro tickets, and I hand these out to the men with amputated feet, paralyzed arms, or other disfigurements that prevent them from working. There's no social security in China, only your family and what you can get. The yuan is 8 to a euro and this makes me realize that I am really rich compared to these people. Not many are yet profiting from the swank hotels and tourist restaurants. In a decade, perhaps. The alleyways I just perused in my search for this pagoda are crammed with people just squeaking by, selling mangos or hoses from shops just 10 yards square. In the temple, offerings will be to the Buddha. I'd rather make my offerings here on the street.

The Liurong Temple is an important center of Buddhism. Hundreds of people have come to the complex today, which covers an acre or more and includes a dozen buildings and shrines. Scattered around the grounds are six ancient banyan trees, revered by the original monks here and most of which have been replaced by descendant trees. So it is the 6-Banyan Pagoda, in a way.

There are only a few tourists. Most everybody has come to pay their respects to the giant bronze Bodhisattvas, pray for luck, and enjoy a peaceful day out. And it is peaceful. There are a lot of people, but they're calm. There's no shouting, no pop music or worse, no hurrying.

I feel strange with my camera, and I know I should put it away but there are not actually signs requesting no photography and nobody appears to mind a few shots.

Fresh food is piled high in front of the statues. Pyramids of apples (taped together to keep them from falling), six-packs of bottled water, oranges, and mangos are the most popular. The bodhisattvas are not the only ones enjoying lunchtime: the multitudes enjoying lunch from white styrofoam containers remind me that the map of the site did indicate a cafeteria. Ah yes, there it is. You make an offering and then step up to the window, where the monks dish out a good portion of rice and a ladleful of mild potato & vegetable curry. Just the simple food to go with the calm.

Not many monks are visible. There's one in grey holding a laughing court next to the world peace fountain. I have no idea what he's saying, but the crowd is smiling and joking with him. Across the path, another monk in saffron watches the first with amused respect.
After the Temple, I make my way through the throng toward the most-touted of the city's parks: (whose name I forget!). Even more than People's Park, Guangzhou has come out to enjoy their Saturday. They are gathered around the famous Five-Goats statue. The story is that millenia ago, five celestial goats came from heaven and showed the people how to cultivate rice. The Five Goats are still revered, though ordinary goats are still dinner.

Down the hill from the Goat statue is supposed to be a flower garden, though I don't see many flowers. Not the right season, apparently. Instead, I notice that the wooded hill is crisscrossed with little trails, often leading to a tiny clearing with a couiple of stumps for seats. Many people have brought hammocks that they string between two obliging trees for a post-prandial siesta. Elsewhere in the park are two ponds with paddle-boats, a theater, an amusement park, a sports complex, a museum, and various monuments. Most of that I'm happy to skip. What I'd like to find is a good place for some panoramic shots of the city, or even just a look at the city (which is huge, but without an aerial view you really don't get the idea of more than the immediate neighborhood). We're on a large hill, after all. There should be a view somewhere, but the abundant trees obscure everything. Which may be just what the Chinese like - to pretend for a moment that they're out in the wilderness.

I hadn't planned to go in the Guangzhou Museum, but it appears to offer from its upper balconies the best opportunity for a view. At 10 yuan (less than a dollar), even if the museum is a wash, what the heck. And it's a nice enough little museum.

It's only midafternoon, but at this point I figure I should get back to the hotel and check my email before my guide picks me up for my tour of Zhangjiajie.

I was supposed to go to TIbet. I should even now be on the second of the two flights required to get there. But the paperwork didn't get through in time, and they suggested this other tour, which I stupidly said Sure! to before enquiring about the cost. Since it was my fault the Tibet tour was cancelled, they're not refunding a single cent of the pre-paid bill. The way the agency presented this other tour, I thought it was instead of the other (and the difference in price vs the higher-priced Tibet tour would just be lost, ok). But nooooo! Without even mentioning the price anywhere, they were charging me full price for the new tour too! Hey, waitaminute! So I had been trying to negotiate something better, seeing as my flight home wasn't for another 4 days, and could not be changed. I needed to do something with that time, and hang around this smoggy city of millions for that long would drive me nuts. We settled on my not paying for any hotels and on getting a free one-day tour of the city for my last day in China (this new tour being one day shorter). I got screwed, big time. Perhaps I could wriggle out of this new tour, which was apparently uncancellable the instant I said Sure. But it would take a lot of effort, the help of real negotiators, and anyway I really wanted to get out of town.

That's BIT, guys. Don't ever go with BIT: they rip you off.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2. BIT's 4th World Breast Cancer Congress.

Sounds grand. The convention center is gigantic, with luxury hotel to match.

One thing I noticed about the organizers, though, was how they kept trolling for new speakers even after the deadline for signing up had passed. Long after. And how the schedule kept getting more compact. How I was originally slotted into Section 18 of Chapter 1, Molecular Oncology of Breast Cancer but on the final final schedule I was advanced to Section 4 of said Chapter. Other Chapters simply disappeared altogether.

The registration desk in the morning isn't exactly thronging with eager congress-goers. Must have picked up their materials yesterday. At the Group Photo on the spacious front steps of the convention center there's room for a serious convention, but only 60 or so people show up. Who bothers with these things anyway? YJB isn't here. Somebody else figures the photo is for invited speakers only. Ah, yes, must be it. Only the elite.

We find our way to a rather modest meeting room, and about 100 of us space ourselves out comfortably to listen to the Keynote Session. This can't possibly be all of us. Well, no; YJB is still not in sight, that's one more. Perhaps many others are lurking in their rooms getting their presentations in order, or recovering from jetlag. Although, the room won't even seat more than 150 so we must be close to all here.

It's one of those small, cozy meetings, then. The kind you can really get to know people, and develop friendships and collaborations. That sort of meeting can be much better than the huge ones where you remain anonymous, pal around only with people you already know, and run from one simultaneous session to another trying to get to the talks that interest you. It could be that sort of meeting but for two things.

First, the organizers tried to cover everything under the sun as long as it's breast cancer. So most people here have very little to do with your particular domain. The natural affinities are stretched very thin. It's good to be exposed to new things at meetings, but this is most fruitful when there's a bit more common ground to start off on.

Second, this gigantic venue. We're rattling around like a handful of peas in a 50-gallon drum. This gives a strong impression of being unimportant, alone, inadequate. Strung about all this empty space inhibits our finding that coziness of a good small meeting.

It's understandable that the invited speakers are rather few in number ("invited" being a relative term; most of us still had to pay the majority of the fees), but we're in Guangzhou, a city of 20 million. Where are all the students? The post-docs? The young clinicians? Local people who don't need the fancy lodging or endless buffets three times daily? Where's the poster session? I heard talk of a poster session in the introductory talk - on the second day four tiny posters appeared next to the coffee table outside the meeting rooms. That was it, the whole poster session. They didn't even merit four poster boards, but had to share space crammed onto two easels.

Ah, the meeting rooms. With the Keynote session over, we split into four rooms for various simultaneous sessions. Four small rooms, but still more than adequate. I like a modest-sized room. It's not as intimidating as a huge auditorium. But some speakers traveled all the way to China to talk before just a dozen other people.

The second day, the woman before my own talk had 10 people in her audience. Two moderaters who of course had to be there, two people working on their computers in the back row, one chick typing on her phone, and me just there because I was next. Some of the four remaining were actually listening. Now that is just too sad. That kind of situation makes you want to ask 'should we do this, or just skip it?'.

To top off the shrinkage, two of the sessions were combined into one at the last moment, just to group people together and make the thing fill up the time before lunch. And there would be no coffee or tea for the coffee break. Just a break.

Contemplating the lameness of the situation while loading my presentation onto the host computer, I figured I would just look at my friend Laisheng a lot, because I knew he'd be attentive. But lo and behold, if didn't the room fill up as the no-coffee break ended. People paid attention. There were two or three even nodding and mouthing 'yes, that's just the thing'. And I had questions! Four bona-fide, tell-me-more questions. And afterward, people came up and talked to me and asked me stuff. And I asked them stuff. We used each other's first names. The meeting was beginning to gel. A bit.

Then we all dispersed into the cavernous restaurant for yet another go at the buffet. And this time I sat with a woman from Iran, somebody who earlier commisserated with me over the absence of anywhere to walk to, instead of with YJB (whom I didn't catch sight of anyway).

It's not over yet - there's a mainly clinical session in the morning that a lot of people are apparently planning to skip in favor of a turn around the city - but I guess in spite of my disappointment over this being neither a larger, more animated, event nor a small intimate gathering, it was worth coming. Seeing my ex and future grad student Laisheng was great, and we hope to work out a way to bring him back over to France to finish the project he started. Preparing my presentation forced me to take the time to get this batch of data in order and consider what needs to be done to make it a good publication. And the interest of my fellow congess-goers showed me that that's worth doing. There really is almost nothing in the literature comparing breast cancer in developed vs developing countries, and the little information I have is indeed a big step forward. There's motivation for getting my colleagues moving on our project again.

In the morning the conference has indeed shrunk again. They decide to combine the two parallel sessions into one because some of the speakers have not bothered to show up. We start off with just 37 people, going up to 48 with some very late arrivals, but that's it. I had thought to blow off the morning too, but it's just too depressing to give a talk to an empty room so out of pity for the speakers I stayed.

The Russian speaker gave the strangest presentation. He had a girl stand next to him at the podium, a young blond with a big smile, and her job was to press the button for the next slide. Never mind that his hand was closer to the keyboard than she was, or that he had to interrupt himself to say 'next slide please' every time. Then there was his talk itself. He would go a minute or two without changing the slide, speaking in a very heavy accent, but the slides didn't contain anything to help us understand what was going on. There were no diagrams or explanations, just naked graphs of data that must have been explained in the flow of words, but who could follow? At one point a chart said that 107 % of the cells were dead. Wow! They're good, these Russian scientists!

By 11 the whole thing was over. I tried to be reasonable at the buffet at lunch (in view of a formal dinner with our Chinese colleagues at 6), but you know how buffets are. A taste of this and a spoonful of that, and your plate is piled high. To compensate, a good walk around was in order.

The convention center is just a few hundred yards from a metro station, so getting to town is not all that difficult. The ticket machines and the metro map are pretty easy to navigate as well. So I carefully noted the name of my station (Baiyun Culture Square) in order to find it again later, and off I went. On my very lame tourist may provided by the concierge I saw "Chigang Pagoda", sort of off on its own away from the dense old town I'd explore in depth later.

The metro station, just 5 minutes walk from the convention center. In the middle of a huge vacant lot!
merging from the metro station I found myself on the bank of the Pearl river, in the shadow of that modern pride and joy of Guangzhou: the collosal TV tower. They are very proud of this tower. They love it far more than some old pagoda. The TV tower figures prominently in tours and postcards and everybody wants to take you there.

Feh on TV towers.
Oooohhhh Aaaaahhhh  !!!!!! TV tower!!!

Where is this darned pagoda?

It takes a bit of wandering around - but that's the point of the excursion, isn't it? - before I spy the pagoda's top peeking above some trees in the distance. Thank goodness it is so tall, because you'd never find it otherwise amongst all the 20-30 story apartment blocks.

On one side of Chigang is a neat little park, with a couple necking on one of the benches, happy to have the place to themselves. Except for the stranger with the camera, that is. The pagoda itself is in a fenced-off area dense with bushes and trees. Around the other side is vacant lot with cars and buses parked, and the entrance to the compound with a smart modern building and an elaborate gate. The gate opens for an arriving limo, but I don't dare sneak in. Doesn't look very welcoming.
The Chigang Pagoda at last

Back at the metro entrance, there's a prominent notice: no combustibles, explosive, or poisonous materials, please. As if people just randomly bring their explosives on the metro every day. Of course, this stuff is always in the fine print posted somewhere for those with far too much time on their hands. Naturally, no poison allowed in the metro. But what person really intent on bringing a load of sarin or some packets of C4 onto the train will really be dissuaded by the rules? Sorry, Joe, the terrorist attack is off; our weapons aren't allowed. There's another sign for No dogs, No smoking, No balloons... No balloons?

You decide - which is better?

China: Arriving

The convention center & hotel
Here I am in a plane, skipping Tuesday. After dozing for more than eight hours, I tried to peek out the window. Outside it's midafternoon, and even at our starting-point it's not so very early in the morning. But the steward makes me shut the windowshade. All the way. Because the other passengers want to sleep.


Should we really pretend it's the wee hours now, when we'll be landing in just 3 hours and it'll be evening already? Shouldn't we accept our night being short and get to work on tomorrow?

Apparently not.

Eventually some brave soul on the other side of the plane, the side with the Himalayas going by, is not told to put her windowshade down, and they start creeping up all over.

There's a lot of empty territory down there in western China. Looks a lot like the US between the Rockies and the Sierras. Not a town for miles. Dry, brown ground, either flat or folded. Then we get into cloud cover, nothing to see at all. About 5 local time there are cities noted on the map and the clouds thin out to a few decorative cumulus, but I can't see much of anything. Roads? Towns? Geological features? It's all hidden by a featureless haze, like the country below is out of focus. Only the occassional riverbank assures me that the in-flight map isn't lying and we're out over the sea.

Another hour goes by, and the smog thins and towns become visible in the fading light. There's a very large fire burning on three long fronts somewhere in China. Then it's dark and we're over Guangzhou, a city of some 20 million, and it's amazingly dark down there. Perhaps we're just coming in over a thinner part of the city. The major streets are brightly lit, but the blocks they mark off are nearly dark. We get right over them before noticing whole forests of 10- to 20-story apartment blocks, the light from the windows is so dim. Every once in a while the plane banks and we get a view that's rather like Los Angeles on a smoggy night. Long straight avenues, crowded freeways, blocks and blocks and blocks of buildings.

Even the airport is a lot like LAX, both in the architecture and the crowds and the lines and the balmy temperature outside. The passport line is a lot slower, though. And like LAX, nobody cares what baggage you walk off with. Outside it's a honking traffic jam. Naturally. The people make a tight jam too, trying to get their baggage carts through the throng to the curb where drivers are allowed to pause and pick you up. No parking and waiting - they'd be mobbed for that. So we have to wait 20 minutes for our driver to go around again and get back to us. Nice of our colleagues to come pick us up! Everything is quite orderly, really. Just too crowded.

They take us to a luxurious hotel right near the University hospital, in a rather interesting neighborhood, my boss assures me. There are plenty of shops and restaurants around, and the subway is right there. But it's the wrong hotel. Our hotel has almost the same name, and it's attached to the convention center, which is half an hour away, near the site of the old airport. Yep. In the middle of nowhere fun. If you could find a way off the grounds on foot, there's nothing but freeway and industry around.

A flowering tree on the hotel grounds

The fabulous view from the front steps of the convention center.
The city can barely be seen through the smog.

A handful of birds brightens the day.
More later!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Source

 Look! Look! There it is!!!!
Oh, sorry. That's a bit of floor.
But you can see a part of it, on the left, just peeking into the frame.
Ah, that's better.
Here we are. The geeky technician is showing the big heads of the project how to program our brand-shiny-new X-Irradiator! There's Mr Double-Strand Break Repair in the foreground, followed by Mr Mitochondrial Repair; and that's Mr Particle Physics Guy in the back. And me Ms Hereditary Cancer Risk Factors behind the camera.
Come the first of the year, we'll have our very own facility for the experimental X-irradiation of whatever will fit in the cabinet.
Just look at that lead door. Weighs a ton!
Er, actually a bit less. I think the whole apparatus comes out to a ton-point-two or suchlike.

And this is just the temporary installation of the X-ray generator. Just wait until next year, when The Bunker is built and the neutron cannon is delivered. Yep! Yep! Our very own neutron source!! Now that's irradiating in style.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I can't stand it

That's it. I'm done. Giving up the Jam.
I just don't have time. No time for a blog where in one of the comments to the current post, there are 9 spelling or grammatical errors in 26 words. Just an example. Perhaps some people find that normal, even cool, but for me it's not a pleasure to read.
I actually like works that take language in new directions, or use dialect to achieve a particular voice. But it's like violence in movies - if it's an essential part of what there is to learn, ok. If it's just gratuitous, no.
So I'm moving on. The balance has tipped. This phase has run its course. In a year I might find a poetry group that's more my style, and pick it up again. Or maybe not - there will be something else by then!


Monday, November 7, 2011

Out there.

Last week's Poetry Jam poem was something of a dud, I admit. This one at least has the advantage of being shorter. On the theme of Windows:

Out there,
the rain lashes
Out there,
the wind is angry
Out there,
the traffic snarls
I watch,
sipping cocoa.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Last of Oct

The weather was beautiful Monday, and the lab was closed so I took a few hours and went for a walk in the hills above town. You can't have a Tuesday holiday here without everyone wanting Monday off too. With the schools closed for the week, it's hard to keep the moms at work. So when the boss is okay with being closed, we're just closed.
One of my favorite stands of trees. I'd love to get a wider shot from this side, but stepping back would mean falling down about 15 feet.
I wasn't the only one out for a stroll in the sun. This popular trail is a regular highway of hikers. Even the pasture with the stand of trees, which is a steep scramble up the last bit of hill off to one side of the trail was full of people - a mom looking at a picture book with her young daughter, a man and some kids wandering around, a random dog probably attached to somebody down the path. No cows, at least. I've never seen the cows up there, although each time I have to be careful of fresh cowpats so I know they're regular visitors.
Still some blackberries in the brambles. A bit past their prime, though the one on the right was okay. 
There's one kind of tree (what kind is this one?) that puts on a great show of Yellow, but it's plagued with Black Spots. Which are kind of interesting, aesthetically, but I don't imagine the tree appreciates them much.
And naturally, the path is sideways. Blogger used to load photos in portrait format if it decided that's the way it went. So it was hit&miss with a lot of abstract things. But now it's made up its mind to be entirely consistent and never, ever load anything but landscape formats.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I didn't have anything in particular in mind when I proposed this week's Poetry Jam themes of The Day Before, or Why so Saintly. If I find some minutes to write properly, I'll tell you tomorrow why I prefer All Souls Day to All Saints, but that's another topic. Waiting for the bus, though, I did come up with one about that faraway (maybe) day when humanity steps forth from its birthplace.


There were cheers
and anticipation
Valves were checked
and rosters
Gone over the good old way,
by hand and with eyes
And again in the computers
double treble backups
lifecraft stowed.
Everything we knew about
we went over again.
Everyone we knew
we hugged and kissed
and shook shaking hands.
We recorded ourselves
and said This is who we are
But who were we convincing?
How were we to know
just how all would be different
with no Earth under our feet?