Saturday, June 26, 2010

Visa Run from XiaMen to JinMen (Kinmen)

I'm writing this blog post from my friends' house in Thailand, so it is clear that I didn't get a chance to do a fun visa run I just heard about.

The standard (read: low-cost and/or fast) Visa runs from Beijing are generally thought to be:

  • Sleeper Bus to Erlian then cross into Zamen Uud, Mongolia

  • Sleeper Train to Hong Kong

  • Flight to Seoul, South Korea

  • Flight to Busan (Pusan), South Korea

  • and some say ferries or flights to Japan from Tianjin

  • At this point I've done all of those except for the ferry or flight to Japan. I've even added Thailand to the list a few times because there are very often disturbingly low-priced flights to the delicious nation available on CTrip, Elong, Travelzen, Qunar or even Kayak and Vayama! For me, Thailand is worth a few extra bucks and can easily be done in a weekend.

    However, my Chinese teacher recently told me about a trip he took that involved flying to Xiamen and then taking a ferry across to the Taiwan ROC controlled island of JinMen (sometimes written KinMen). As my exit date approached, I was unable to find a cost-effective flight to XiaMen, so I quickly aborted this plan.

    If I had more time (read: if plan better in the future) I'll consider taking a train down or booking well in advance. I've heard XiaMen is a great place to go and JinMen sound quite nice too!

    Xiamen seems to have a bunch of nice, low-cost hostels and the ferry to and from Jinmen can be done in a day. It is worth noting that JinMen DOES NOT have a Mainland China (PROC) consulate or embassy and this is NOT a suitable run for a new visa. It will only work for those of us that need to exit and re-enter China every time our legal stay expires.

    Has anyone done this run?
    Any recommendations for places to eat, things to see or do in XiaMen or JinMen / KinMen?
    Also, any idea why its name is often written KinMen?

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    Fundraising: NGOs and NonProfits in China.

    Before I get to deep into my observations here, it should be noted that I have worked for and with DonorPerfect Fundraising Software for the better part of the past decade. I have a fair amount of familiarity with the United States non-profit world, both through this role and through various positions I've held at non-profit organizations, along with knowledge gained from friends and family with similar non-profit and fundraising experience.

    When I arrived in China in early 2009, I began to research and try to better understand the NGO and "non-profit" climate here. The term "non-profit" is all but non-existent, and the local and international community generally refers to such groups as Non-Governmental Organizations. These groups generally take on societal roles, responsibilities and projects normally associated with government agencies - but operate in the private sector with private, governmental and international funding.

    China's "charity world" is dominated by NGOs. Most are international and raise funds throughout the world via grants and other methods. Many are sub-divisions or the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations and other globally situated groups. Funds come from member nations and are distributed based on the NGO's current focus and strategy.

    This is not to say that there isn't a thriving smaller scale non-profit industry that is blooming in China. Volunteer opportunities abound - with animal shelters, orphanages and schools. And many of these groups operate with a "traditional" non-profit mentality. They fund-raise from large donors and often invest their own time and energy as capital. Many have small scale sponsors and supplement this income with fundraising events, such as concerts, fairs or auctions. Others raise funds by selling merchandise. And still others operate businesses with a non-profit mentality. Such as a thrift shop that donates un-sellable donations to rural communities in need of clothing and random electronics.

    I'm aware of many, very small groups that operate with next to no funding at all and are solely sustained via manpower and arrangements with venues that host their events. This enables them to use a public space without paying, as the event is targeted to bring in revenue for the venue via additional sales.

    So far, I've encountered very few non-profits or NGOs that operate American (or even European style) fundraising campaigns and I haven't found a single one that uses a sophisticated donor database system to manage their constituent base and identify and nurture relationships with potential donors. The picture I get is that they are simply too busy and this sort of transition is a large enough paradigm shift that would require a large amount of time and resources.

    However, it should be noted that I am mainly aware of English language or at least English language friendly groups. It is also possible that the main reason groups are rarely utilizing such systems to attract Chinese donors is more related to the Chinese donation mentality, coupled with the lack of availability of a Chinese Language donation system.

    After the recent earthquakes in China, all public TV stations aired a large gala event that featured a VERY long segment highlighting dignitaries and leaders inserting donation HongBao (red envelopes full of money) into a donation box. There was a long procession and many leaders wrote inspiration phrases on their donation envelopes that the camera focused on. There were phone numbers and physical locations listed and the program encouraged citizens to donate as well. Most donation campaigns I'm aware of are very nationalistic and related to a national tragedies or issues.

    Of course, temples and museums have donation boxes as well and many are full of cash gifts. But it is also quite likely that fundraising activities and associated non-profits are not flourishing because of the Chinese reluctance to use credit cards. The Chinese savings rate is tremendous and, while most citizens with a bank account have a debit card, these cards are often for Point of Service (POS) and ATM use only. Its only fairly recent that people are activating their cards to make online purchases.

    I don't know the answer and, despite my background and research, I'm no expert.
    I'm curious - what is your take on the status of the small nonprofit in China? Are you aware of fundraising campaigns I overlooked?

    Monday, May 31, 2010

    Friends Who Can See My Shit Groups

    I haven't posted in a while and I apologize in advance too all my friends who check this blog to know what I'm up to. I plan on catching up on the past few months and uploading a lot of pictures, but in the meantime. This. Is. Hilarious.

    Veronica logged onto her google reader this morning and was prompted to update her privacy settings.

    Apparently, people at Google are providing us with two options. Either:
    "Anyone can view your shared items and comment on them"
    "People in your 'friends who can see my shit' groups can view your shared items and post comments".

    I'm sure this was a phrasing used during development of this tool and I don't know how long it was live or if it was rolled out to all of the servers. Anyone have any ideas.

    See a complete screenshot here:
    google reader friends groups shit

    See a zoomed-in screenshot here:
    google friends who can see my shit

    Monday, April 26, 2010

    Electric Bikes in Beijing

    Most of my friends in BeiJing use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation. Sprinkle in a few subway, bus and cab rides and you can get pretty much anywhere, and generally quickly. Veronica commutes to work on a single gear bike every day. Plus her bike has a pretty cool bell!

    Last November, our friend Jared convinced us to invest in an electric bike. And I thank the stars for this every day.

    BeiJing is an ideal city for an bikes in general and electric bikes in particular. Why? Because its flat. Very, very flat. I rarely encounter even minor hills throughout the city and this gets you a lot more distance for your power (be it pushpedal or electric).

    But why electric? Why not just use your feet?

    A valid question indeed and one that can only be answered in one word: cheap-convenient-lazy-awesomeness.

    Okay, that may have been a few words, but every time I charge my battery (pennies a day at most) and zip through the city streets at 30-40KMH, I love life. The bike we opted for resembles a small moped. It doesn't have any gears, just a basic automatic accelerator. Its not too heavy, I can heft it up on a sidewalk if I need to circumnavigate a traffic jam. And its brakes are responsive, to avoid near-death collisions.

    The bike itself set us back just $300 USD. And, as I mentioned, charges cost next to nothing. I have a few friends petrol motor bikes and, while they can certainly move faster than my bike can, they are also louder, more expensive to maintain and technically illegal without proper licensing.

    There are actually a huge variety of electric bikes, ranging from small, lightweight bikes that resemble normal street bicycles and have functioning pedals, all the way up to motorcycle-looking bikes with massive batters that can't be taken out to charge. The latter type needs to be charged in a garage or courtyard, but can challenge an motor bike for speed (but not range).

    Some push pedal e-bikes actually charge the battery while you pedal. Which can be a huge advantage. Running out of battery power with a large, pedal-less electric bike is no fun. Trust me. I've done it three times now. When this happens, you need to remove the battery and figure out how to best take it home to charge. Afterwards, you need to lug the battery back. No. Fun. Especially in the winter.

    I've looked into the laws back in the US regarding these bikes and generally learned that most states consider a bike without pedals to be a motorcycle. As such it requires a license and license plate. To qualify as a non-licensed electric bicycle, the vehicle needs to have functioning pedals and cannot exceed speeds of 20 mph.

    While it is possible these laws were designed solely with safety in mind, I think it is time they were re-examined to account for environmental impact. The bicycle movement is growing in the states and I can only imagine how much more it would grow if people had easy access to a small, in-expensive form of electric conveyance.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010

    2010 Harbin Ice Festival - Day One - Snow Sculptures.

    Apologies for the late post, but things have been pretty crazy in Beijing during Spring Festival / Chinese New Year. You'll probably hear about that by the summer time if my slow-posting trend continues. Either way, as many of you already know, Veronica, our friend Jared and I went up to Harbin (哈尔滨) - China's Ice City.

    Apparently there are four massive ice festivals held throughout the world. I haven't been to the ones in Sapporo, Quebec City, or Holmenkollen; but as of three weeks ago, I CAN say I've been to Harbin. And, despite the bitter cold, I'd consider checking the others off that list too. It was astounding. The only thing cooler than seeing the structures I'm about to share with you would be to see them without huge throngs of people crowding all over the place. But private ice villages that may or may not exist are a bit above my pay scale.

    After an eight hour train ride and a twelve hour stay at a spa, Jared and I met up with Veronica at our hotel. From the hotel we started our winter wonderland excursion by visiting the snow sculpture display and competition. Simply amazing.

    There were two major components of this part of the ice festivities.
    Part one could be called "Yay China (Snow Form)" and focused on many things about which China is proud. This section included sculptures of Chinese Olympic athletes, philosophers, traditional architectural styles, calligraphy, leaders and ethnic minority groups.Veronica and Jared made friends with a group of young Chinese children hanging out behind a snow bar by asking for a drink. But in this exclusive snow bar club, patrons were required to provide their own cups before being served imaginary drinks. Luckily Jared had a thermos.The other part of the park was dedicated to an international snow sculpture contest, into which applicants from all over the world submitted entries. Some were pretty impressive, others weren't. I took some pictures of a few of these, but around this time my trusty point and shoot digital camera finally died. Veronica and Jared snapped this novelty entrant commemorating the addictive PopCap game "Plants vs Zombies". Clearly the game is popular throughout the world, but its name kept escaping me until a Chinese guy touring the park with his girlfriend exclaimed "ooohh Pulan wasa Zanbi" (or something like that).I was thoroughly impressed by this park until we went to the Ice Festival that night.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Fire Cupping (拔罐 - BaGuan)

    I'm still seeing my TCM doctor, though I don't have much to report beyond continued weekly massages and occasionally acupuncture. Every week, when I go in for my appointment, I secretly hope that I get prescribed a fire cupping procedure.

    Flashback. Philadelphia, 2000. While visiting The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, I'm struck by an exhibit on out-dated medical procedures. The pictures and tools of archaic techniques to cure the spirits were fascinating - its hard to believe that doctors / barbers used to perform blood-lettings. If you've seen Steve Martin in his classic "Theodoric of York - Medieval Barber", you'll know what I'm talking about.

    Another process that caught my eye was fire-cupping: the barbaric practice of using small glass hemispherical cups, small amounts of flammable liquid and fire to create a vacuum used to pull skin and burst capillaries on patients.

    After treatments, the ill are left battered and bruised. The colors of the bruises indicate the health of the area and of the patients' spirits. chinese fire cuppingFlashforward. Beijing, 2010. As it turns out, the bruising isn't that bad and the pain is really just constant pressure and heat during the cupping itself.

    My doctor still hasn't indicated fire-cupping as an ideal cure for anything that ails me, but that doesn't mean I can't get cupped. Believe it or not, I paid about six bucks for the beating I received and I got it done at a sauna - not at a doctor's office.

    It's fairly common for saunas to offer cupping in addition to other spa treatments (ear candling, massages, steams, etc). So, when I visited a sauna in Haerbin, I knew that I had to ask for the works. The technician wasn't really focusing on any particular area and, as a result, my entire back was a mess.

    As a relaxing cure - I wouldn't recommend it. If my doctor indicated that a localized treatment would help a particular problem I had, I'd do it again. Looks like fun right?

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    Beijing Bagel Making

    "Operation: Bageltopia"
    People say that everything tastes better when you make it yourself. I don't agree. Not EVERYTHING tastes better. Trust me - I've made some god-awful meals, just ask anyone who ate my "Israeli Coffee Chicken". I've also made some pretty amazing meals, so I guess I should say "roughly half of things taste better when you make them yourself".

    Enter Bagels. I'm never one to shy away from a cooking challenge, and while it probably isn't fair to call bagels a cooking challenge, I was excited when I got an email from my friend Jared with the subject line "Operation: Bageltopia". Here our adventure begins. Our surprisingly simple and satisfyingly delicious adventure begins.

    Excepting garnishes and flavoring, here's what you need:

    500 g flour
    260 ml tepid water
    12 g instant yeast
    1 tbsp honey
    12 g of salt
    20 g soft butter

    Caramel Water (for cooking bagels):
    300 g sugar
    3 L water

    I'm not going to get too in depth with the process but here is a quick summary:
    Step 1: Mix flour, water, yeast, and honey in a bowl.
    Step 2: Knead the dough.
    Step 3: Add the butter and the salt and keep kneading until the mixture becomes a smooth, elastic dough.
    Step 4: Prove the dough. Cover it and let it rise for 40 minutes at room temperature.
    Step 5: Make into bagels. Start with 3 inch diameter balls of dough, pull a hole in the center until the hole is about an inch/inch and a half in diameter.
    Step 6: Prove once more for 35 minutes. It must not be allowed to overprove and get too large!
    Step 7: Make the caramel water. Place the saucepan onto a medium to high heat. Then add sugar and allow it to melt, add the water, bring to boil.
    Step 8: Preheat the oven 200ºC (400ºF).
    Step 9: Poach the bagels quickly for 1 minute on each side. Remove and put on baking tray.
    Step 10: Season the bagels (poppy, sesame, etc)
    Step 11: Bake for 15 minutes until golden brown.
    Step 12: Serve

    There were five of us making the bagels, including a seasoned bagel-making pro (HEY JOEL), so our two batches provided each of us with two bagels, with two left over to tease and tempt everyone else.

    The multiple proving periods make the process take a bit of time, but its well worth it. Our oven was a large toaster oven (true ovens are hard to come by in all but the highest end apartment), so we had to bake in shifts - which made the waiting a lot harder.
    making bagels in beijingThis weekend we're attempting to make 24 bagels for Chinese New Year (春节 - ChunJie)and will likely enlist multiple toaster ovens to speed the process. I'll fill you in with details and pictures soon.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Cute Humidifier - A Beijing Necessity

    I've mentioned before that Beijing is dry. And, unlike in Puritan and Conservative states in the US, dry doesn't refer to booze. Don't worry - there is plenty of that stuff here (though, per doctor's orders, I can't drink it). I'm referring to humidity. Beijing doesn't have much of it and it can take its toll on someone like me.

    I'm the guy that needs to drink a liter of water a day to survive in a normal climate. Beijing has upped the ante and I need about two liters on average. Despite my water consumption, I wake up every morning super dry. In fact, I often dry out so much that I wake up a few times during the night just to chug water.

    Some people say that a humidifier and an air purifier are necessary for life in Beijing. I've been able to make it this far without the better air pair, but I am easing in.

    I didn't spring for an air purifier yet, but I picked up a cute, animal-shaped humidifier, and since then everything's been coming up Milhouse! I paid a little more than 10 USD for an awesome sheep-shaped super-sonic humidifier. I've only been using it for a week or so, but its really made a difference for me AND for Veronica.
    beijing humidifierIf you ask her, the humidifier is the worst of many recent additions to our apartment. Its been wrecking havoc on her hair. But, its been a testament to our relationship that she's allowed me to keep it in spite of all the bad hair days she may suffer as a result. It's a big step.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    December Beijing Snow

    When we arrived in Beijing last year, there were the remnants of an earlier snow on the ground. This excited me and terrified Veronica for the prospect of a snowy winter. Unfortunately for me, the winter of early 2009 didn't grant me my wish and I quickly learned that Beijing isn't known for its precipitation. The subsequent spring, summer and fall were speckled with random showers and the occasional thunderstorm - but on the whole, not much fell from the sky.

    Back around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I remember seeing a Daily Show sketch in which Jon Stewart conceded that China was officially a "Super-Power" as it has the ability to control the weather. He was alluding to reports that a division of the Chinese government seeded clouds to create rain, thus ensuring that the skies were clear for the Olympic Games.

    We didn't witness this tremendous might until November of 2009, when the Government announced a planned snowfall for the coming weekend. Lo and behold, flakes fell. We were in awe. It was just a few inches, but this didn't happen back in Philadelphia. Mayor Street was barely able to keep public transit running, let alone make the heavens open.

    The next weekend it snowed again, though not as much and I was surprised that the government didn't take credit for that as well. The next month progressed nicely and snow free until right after my birthday when we were visited by a multi-day and many inch snow storm. Veronica was home, so she didn't have to deal with it - leaving me in my own snowy heaven. I love snow.

    Beijing is a city much like Washington DC in that it has managed to convince itself that snow is a rare occurrence within its borders. As such, neither city has done much to plan for snow removal if (WHEN) such snow does occur. When the snow kept falling and falling, Beijing was paralyzed.2009 beijing snowfallThe morning after much of the initial snowfall, I had some house guests (HEY RAMONA AND KEELEY), so the three of us decided to take a photo-taking-walk around the neighborhood. The Imperial Academy (国子监 - guozijian) and the Confucius Temple (夫子廟 - fuzimiao) look particularly awesome in the snow.beijing temples snowThe snow stopped being pretty and started becoming annoying when it began interfering with everyday life. My motorbike ate up its entire battery four times as fast as normal when it was skidding around in the snow.

    Roads were horribly messy and one night some friends and I were blasted by a Beijing Snow Removal Vehicle (a street cleaner that was filled with some salt-water compound). This, and a blast text message that told residents to avoid driving, take the subway and help in neighborhood cleanup efforts were about as official as the cleanup process got. Which is probably why it took almost a week to really dig out.beijing streets snowA few weeks after the snow, the government has finally gotten around to sending around cleanup crews. These crews are usually a group of guys with a trash-collecting bike and some shovels. But they get the job done.

    I think the snow is done for the year - but who knows. Weather is usually unpredictable - except for in China that is.