December 27, 2010

stanford trip: beijing

the weather forecast for beijing literally called for smoke, and i have to agree that stepping off the plane was like huffing an ashtray. luckily, the weather cleared up a bit, and on sunday morning, we visited tienanman square and the forbidden city.

one of our trip tour guides was a high school student not far from tienanmen square during the massacre, so it was really interesting to hear his perspective on living through the event as a chinese citizen. while we listened to him on the bus, we snacked on some local potato chip flavors: blueberry and numb & spicy hot pot flavor. intense and stimulating.

in the afternoon, 40+ pandas descended upon the great wall of china, which, incidentally, is tremendously steep. i was not adequately prepared for the serious workout that would ensue. the photos i've seen before all make the topography seem like wide, gentle rolling hills, but we fully hiked to the top of a mountain -- ancient stairmaster style.

the wall is covered in graffiti, and since the chinese character for jong (same as for chang) is the most common surname in the world, i saw my name everywhere.

highlights of the great wall trek included: my mid-climb breakdown in which i overheated and had to strip down to my skivvies in front of a horde of tourists, and our iconic “pandas on the great wall” photo snapped by our talented trip photographer mia mabanta.

photo by mia mabanta
after some naps and showers, we headed out to partyworld for a night of absurd karaoke.

monday morning, we returned to the meeting circuit, stopping first at CCTV to meet with some very high level folks who, despite being a state-owned enterprise, talked about the station’s mission to be objective and independent with “no favor or fear.” one executive suggested that although a journalist’s goal is to report the facts, he also has a responsibility to report stories that promote the greater good, uniting people rather than dividing them.

we did a studio tour and saw, among other things, our trip leader’s husband on TV (he joined us for dinner back in shanghai) and the elaborate stage preparations for CCTV’s chinese new year special – the most watched TV show in china. on the way out of the studio, we saw many people from the provinces that camp out in front of CCTV hoping to get their stories covered.

our lunch included a chinese ground pepper that makes your tongue numb, and we finished the afternoon with a meeting at state grid of china – the world's largest electric power company. mia and i snuck into the vip lounge for a little photo shoot:

photo by mia mabanta
that evening, maria and i checked out a local grocery store where we picked up some crab and seaweed pringles, followed by dinner at the street market when i snacked on sea urchin, scorpions, and dumplings. others ate sea horses, starfish, pupa, and snakes. yum.

one of the most interesting meetings of the trip was on tuesday morning with an NPR reporter and blogger from chinaSMACK, an english-language news source that translates the hottest stories from the chinese web. the blogger had great insight into chinese internet culture, including some of the politically-charged satirical memes used to evade government censoring (rivercrab, eluding the cat, doing pushups, “my dad is li gang”).

next we visited start-up incubator-cum-early-stage-fund innovation works where they’re trying to recreate the silicon valley environment that allows start-ups to thrive including embracing failure, encouraging adaptability, and providing mentorship from successful entrepreneurs. after the meeting, we took a walk through the offices where chinese entrepreneurs were hard at work building, overwhelmingly, products and tools for android.

we finished the evening at a coffee chat with a representative from china investment corporation who shared this money quote: “in china, you have to work hard, otherwise you’ll starve. we’ve depleted our resources, not like in africa where you can just go pick an avocado off a tree.

local alumni and new students joined us for dinner, and then we took in some nightlife at susie wong’s (where it was salsa night, apparently). later at vic’s nightclub, i saw some of the strangest christmas decorations yet:

for our final day of meetings, we started at china mobile, china’s leading mobile services provider. their experience center tour was especially cool, as they had exhibits for several of their “internet of things” initiative that uses innovative mobile technology to solve real world challenges related to farming, livestock tracking, and energy usage. they also had a grocery store demo of their RFID-tagged products that can be scanned and invoiced without being taken out of the shopping cart. very cool.

we had a delicious final meeting at beijing’s exclusive LAN club, operated by south beauty, china’s leading luxury restaurant empire. designed by philippe starck, the LAN club’s d├ęcor was a kick:

having made a career switch after an unfulfilling stint in management consulting, the south beauty executive we met with joked about her perspective on picking a job: “if you really love money, investment banking, PE, and VC will give you much joy.” she closed her remarks with some discussion of how industrialization, centralized procurement, and localized KPIs help south beauty to manage their growing portfolio of premium dining establishments.

the LAN club is right across the street from beijing’s famous silk market where you can get everything from a fake LV bag to a pair of knee-high boots. after perusing 5 floors of goodies, we geared up for a dinner of peking duck with a side of chinese acrobatics. already nostalgic for our 10-day china-a-thon, we award superlatives to everyone in the group.

photo by mia mabanta
after loading up at breakfast on thursday morning, i headed to the beijing airport to begin my 50+ hour trek to canada for christmas that included, among other things, a 22 hour layover in the tokyo airport. such is the nature of flying on miles, and, despite the brutal travel schedule, i’m super grateful to have stockpiled miles from my consulting days to make this trip possible.

in conclusion...china: eye-opening. fascinating. delicious.

other china trip posts
hong kong (dec 12 - dec 14)
shenzhen (dec 14)
shanghai (dec 14 - dec 18)
beijing (dec 18 - dec 23)
7 things you need to know about china

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