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China journal

Posted on April 15th, 2020

Note: Four years ago today (4/15), State Geologist Keith Schilling and I traveled to China at the invitation of Keith’s Ph.D. advisor at the University of Iowa, You-Kuan Zhang. You-Kuan had recently left UI to become a faculty member at Shenzhen University near Hong Kong. We went there with the intention of deploying a nitrate sensor in a China stream, something that never materialized. 

The bulk of our time in China was spent in three cities: Shenzhen, Fuyang, and Nanjing, although we were also briefly in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Fuyang lies within Anhui province, which borders Wuhan province, origin of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

I kept a journal as best I could while there, and what follows is the journal. I thought about editing it here four years later to make it similar to my current style of writing, but decided against it. 

This is much longer than my usual posts, and so if you don’t have time and just want the highlights, the Fuyang/Bali River section is probably the most interesting. 


We left Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 15, 2016 at 7 a.m. and flew to Minneapolis, then on to Seattle and finally Hong Kong, landing at about 8 p.m. on April 16. Hour upon hour we flew over blazing white arctic tundra, so bright that to even crack the airplane window shade was painful to the eyes. The total length of our trip was about 25 hours, and we never saw darkness until just prior to our landing in Hong Kong.

We met our host, You-Kuan Zhang, at the Hong Kong airport and then traveled by taxi to Shenzhen, China, trip of about 1-2 hours, arriving at our hotel around 10:30 p.m. The hotel, like other commercial hotels we experienced in China, was clean and comfortable and in the western style. U.S. skilled craftsmen would have surely noticed, however, some details of construction were somewhat cheap and sloppy but in general these details would not be very noticeable to most people. The mattresses were very firm, the furniture attractive imitation wood. The size of the rooms was similar to that of U.S. chain motels.


On April 17th (Sunday), we walked the short distance (1 km) to You-Kuan’s University, the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST). This is a new University charged to become the “Stanford of China”. [Note: upon returning to the U.S., I came to find out that many universities in China consider themselves to be the “Stanford of China,” or the “MIT of China” and so forth.] Because of Shenzhen’s technology industry, the university president feels there are opportunities to simulate the high-tech synergy that exists between Stanford and the private sector in the Silicon Valley of California. We visited with You-Kuan in his office and then traveled by taxi (along with a college friend of You-Kuan’s) to the Shenzhen Cultural Museum.

View from my hotel room in Shenzhen

The Shenzhen Museum was large, well-done, and busy with people. The theme was the cultural history of the Shenzhen area from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum housed a generous collection of archaeological artifacts of the area. Along with this archaeological emphasis, others were World War II, the area’s relationship with the British in nearby Hong Kong, and Shenzhen’s role as a laboratory for the new breed of economic capitalism/socialism/communism in modern China. Deng Xiaopeng, (and perhaps Ziyang?) were portrayed as a heroic figures, men with the vision to inspire this new economic system. Mao Tse Tung’s legacy, while present in places, was given much less emphasis. I might note the human wax figures in this museum were remarkably lifelike.

Keith, You-Kuan, me

From there we had lunch in a busy commercial district of Shenzhen, and then traveled (always by taxi) to what was basically a theme park called “View of the World.” This was a very large and busy park that displayed scaled-down (but still large) versions of iconic geological and cultural landmarks from all the continents, for example, the Eiffel Tower, Mount Rushmore, the Matterhorn, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. Although clearly constructed at great expense, by U.S. standards this park was not very well done and very kitschy. Nothing was handicap-accessible (not true of the museum).

We returned to the hotel and then ate supper at a nearby restaurant with You-Kuan, his college friend who accompanied us throughout the day, and another three of his college friends from the Shenzhen area. One of them had travelled about two hours to attend this dinner. These men were all 60-65 years old and very gregarious. They were happy to see each other again. Only You-Kuan spoke English. Keith and I ate and then left the others to reminisce, and we retired to the hotel about 9 p.m.


After breakfast the next day in the hotel, Keith and I traveled to SUST where Keith conducted a program about Iowa water quality for perhaps 15 graduate students and three faculty, including You-Kuan. The student group was eerily similar to what you might see in the U.S.: most attentive, some dozing off, and two or three engaged and especially interested. Two young women were particularly insightful with their knowledge and questions. Clearly most of the students were knowledgeable about water quality and quantity modeling. Most could understand English and many had received undergraduate training overseas. The dean of the college (Environmental Science and Engineering) presented us both with gifts of polo shirts and umbrellas.

I should perhaps mention the college dean at this point. This was a younger man (late 40s) who was fluent in English. He had received his doctoral training at the University of Wisconsin and had been on the faculty at the University of Alabama. His department was set to receive millions of dollars from the city to tackle its water quality and hydrology problems. He seemed a bit nervous about this and how expectations for success would come along with this money. Like many of the educated people we encountered in China, he seemed technically astute about water quality modeling and higher level technical topics, but almost clueless about the practical considerations of improving water quality. I will speak later about this and other water quality topics.

Keith, You-Kuan, the college dean, and I traveled to a U.S.-style mall for lunch. We ate in an upscale restaurant and the food was very good. Afterward we had coffee at Starbucks. Being curious about You-Kuan’s and the dean’s willing return to China after many decades in the U.S., I asked them there about their thoughts of free speech in China. You-Kuan answered that they had nearly complete freedom to speak privately in small groups about any virtually any topic, but were restricted in larger groups and of course in mass communications. They seemed completely satisfied with this situation.

We returned to the hotel for a brief rest and then traveled to the Shenzhen airport with You-Kuan to fly to Nanjing. This is a new, beautiful, and monstrously large airport. Unlike the city itself, the architecture is striking, with the many structures flowing like the wing of an aircraft. Many of the airport workers spoke English. Upon arrival we quickly found out that our 6 p.m. flight was cancelled. We were able to get tickets on another flight leaving at 9 p.m. You-Kuan then left us there at the airport and returned to SUST.

Shenzhen airport

Keith and I passed through airport security (staff were very friendly and unthreatening), and then retired to a restaurant where we drank some beer. We then found our gate. When the boarding announcement was made we traveled down the chute, and to my surprise, boarded a bus and not a plane. The bus was crammed with people. It traveled some distance, perhaps 1 km, where we boarded the plane. Boarding both the bus and the plane was a rather unnerving and chaotic mad dash, as there was no boarding by groups as in the U.S. The plane was staffed exclusively with young (<25) and attractive female flight attendants, reminiscent of 1960s-70s America. They all spoke fluent English. Although there were other Caucasian people on this plane and in other places, it seemed to me that the Chinese English-speakers seemed always to recognize Keith and me as American. The plane took off uneventfully.

General comments about Shenzhen

Although ancient cultures existed here, Shenzhen as a modern city is very new. We were told that most of modern Shenzhen was built from a small fishing village, all since 1980. This is remarkable considering the Shenzhen area now has over 18 million people. By my calculations, this would mean 1400 people are moving into the city every day. This population growth is accommodated by the construction of enormous apartment complexes containing numerous buildings 30-40 stories high. These complexes surely must house tens of thousands of people. Signs advertise these apartments as for sale, with sizes ranging from 100-200 square meters, or 900-1800 square feet.

Most immediately remarkable to me were the cars. Almost all were newer models of the most expensive varieties—Maseratti, Audi, Mercedes and so forth. Occasionally we saw a Honda Accord or similar model. Almost never did we see an older, run down car. Work trucks and vehicles that haul goods were an exception to that. The automobiles evidently reflect the high income levels enjoyed by workers in financial and high-tech jobs. In addition to the expensive cars, scooters were also common. Horn-honking was incessant.

Shenzhen weather is semi-tropical, similar to Houston, according to You-Kuan. There were thunderstorms on Monday morning. It always felt hot.

I saw and heard many varieties of birds. This was a surprise to me as I heard there was “no nature” to be seen around Beijing. Early in the morning a species was singing remarkably like the American Robin. I searched this and found there is a bird in southeast China called a Magpie Robin and I assume this was the species I heard. About 450 bird species are native to the area. Perhaps birds are common here relative to Beijing because there is quite a lot of forested, mountain habitat, plus the area is a large estuary.

Some two-story apartments behind our hotel were older and housed lower-income people. Deck plantings and laundry drying on outside clotheslines characterized these apartments. Shirtless, cigarette-smoking men often sat outside the apartment doors, which never seemed to close. A school was near these apartments, and loud classical music summoned the children to class in the morning and from recess. A very neglected running track and basketball court were adjacent to the school.

Shenzhen was clearly a place where people were getting busy making lots of money. Clothes were expensive and flashy. Women’s shoes were gaudy and no two pairs were the same. Seemingly any random English word could be put on a t-shirt, and someone would buy it. I believe I saw many gay men and one female gay couple. They seemed unthreatened. Cell phones were everywhere and many people had two. I’d have to say Shenzhenians (if they are called that) were more attached to them than people in the U.S.

It was in Shenzhen that we realized that we were physical freaks, relatively speaking. People openly gawked at us as Americans would gawk at seven-foot-tall men. I saw a few other non-Chinese in Shenzhen: Caucasians, Europeans, Indians, and others. One Caucasian woman said “hi” to me in English at the museum. English-speaking Chinese were rare but not impossible to find.

Fuyang/Bali River area

We landed in Nanjing about 10 p.m. Monday night. Xiuyu Liang (hereafter “Rain”) met us at the airport. He was You-Kuan’s post doc in Iowa City and is on the faculty at Nanjing University. A young man of maybe 35, he is helping coordinate a project in the Bali River area and figures prominently from here on out. We left the airport in a hired car and drove to our hotel at least one hour away, near the “new” campus of Nanjing University. I was exhausted by the time we got there.

We were met at the hotel the next morning at 8:30 by Rain and his graduate student Ying Wang. Ying is a woman of 24 going on 15, but is capable with a sense of humor. Like Rain, she speaks English pretty well. We traveled by taxi to the train station, and from there went about one hour by fast train west to Hefei (population 5.8 million). We got off the train there and traveled to the Chinese EPA office in this city. We met a young government official there who is involved with the Bali River project. We had lunch there with the official, his intern and two drivers. The food was plentiful but not particularly good. One dish was a fermented whole fish that would make you gag. The young EPA official was a friendly man who had a Ph.D. in what sounded like chemistry or chemical physics, although he had a hard time describing it even though his English was very good. He had been educated in Paris. Over lunch we discussed the project and Keith and I explained our objective, that being deployment of the nitrate sensor. After lunch we loaded into the vans and headed further west to Fuyang, site of the Bali River project. [Note: I am adding this now. At some point we drove across the Yangtze River, which to me seemed as big in Nanjing as the Mississippi is in New Orleans. The boat and barge traffic on the river below us was nothing like I have ever seen, more congested than Lake Okoboji on the Fourth of July.]

At Chinese EPA office in Hefei

We traveled at 80 mph down a U.S. style freeway to Fuyang. This was a trip of perhaps 1.5 hours from Hefei. Even by Chinese standards the driving was breakneck. As we passed through large areas of greenhouse farming, we saw many small towns that looked abandoned, along with a few smaller cities that were not. As we neared Fuyang, the landscape turned into much larger scale wheat fields, many thousands of acres. The wheat was nearing the end of its growing season. We saw people hand-spraying the wheat with something, quite a task for fields this large. Many fields seemed to have flood irrigation. This is a wet area with ponded water, water in ditches, low spots, etc. One wouldn’t think this area would need irrigation but its latitude is that of Arkansas, and with 800 mm of rain per year, it does probably get pretty dry at times. The landscape has the look of a vast floodplain. We saw people angling in ponded water.

Men playing ping pong at lunchtime in EPA building in Hefei

We entered Fuyang (about 1 million population) and for the rest of day, I could not have imagined I would ever see any of the sort in the span of my life. This was a dusty city with virtually every form of motorized transportation on earth traveling frantically this way and that. There were construction projects everywhere and materials, especially bricks and concrete, were being hauled in every direction you looked. Huge apartment complexes being constructed. I can’t even really describe it. Upon entering the city, a local government official joined us on the side of the road. This was man of about 50, dressed in slacks and sport coat. All the people with us treated Keith and I like we were eminent scientists (I know, have a laugh).

We drove up to a bridge and all piled out of the vans. Even though the traffic was nightmarish, most of our group walked out onto the bridge. Ying and another person (young man, I don’t really remember much about him) dropped a sample catcher off the bridge and into the stream. I had stayed on the bank to take some photos of them.

Collecting and testing water samples at Bali River. Ying is in the foreground wearing hat.

I then walked out onto the bridge and where Ying was conducting some water quality tests on the sample. I looked out onto the stream and its banks and what I saw looked like a scary environmental wasteland. The right bank was vegetated and there even appeared to be a person angling. However, the soil on the left bank was totally exposed right down to the water and numerous pieces of heavy equipment were moving dirt here and there. The noise, the dust, the traffic, the honking, it was horrible. The water did not look good but I have seen worse in Iowa.  We got back into the vans after Ying finished her tests.

At this point I should discuss the Bali River area. First, the Bali River is not really a river so I am going to just call it Bali from here. It is an impoundment of several thousand acres, near the confluence of three small rivers. The impoundment could best be described as a very large constructed wetland. The native ecotype was probably a vast, interconnected wetland complex, but who knows, as all this land has been undergoing modification by people for thousands of years. The water flows from this impoundment into the Quan River (the size of the Des Moines River), then the Huai River (Upper Mississippi) and finally the Yangzte River (Lower Mississippi) just before the Yangzte enters the Pacific. The enormity of the barge and ship traffic on all these streams is an incredible sight to see. As Keith said, imagine a gigantic ship on the Iowa River in Iowa City, and you have a pretty good visual of it. The Huai River watershed is China’s “breadbasket”.

Keith standing outside Ag Extension Office in Bali River area.

Water flow in and out of Bali is being controlled at perhaps dozens of locations through dams that look pretty good and pumping stations that look not so good. Irrigation and fish farming is happening all around. Near as we could tell, the locals are angry that several sweet potato processors are discharging polluted waste into the three feeder streams, negatively affecting water quality. We were also to find out that a very large public park is open and still under construction in and around Bali. This is a textbook water quality problem—multiple users and abusers of the resource with new demands being placed upon it. The main crops are winter wheat followed by either sweet potatoes or corn—thus the land is farmed 12 months per year. We didn’t see much livestock.

We repeated the first stop at several other locations, scouting the sites for sensor deployment, while Ying and the guy assisting her collected and tested water samples. The trips between stops were maybe 15-30 minutes each. These trips were on amazingly dusty and crowded roads, some paved, some not, outside of the city. This was a third-world type experience. I will never forget those few hours.

The housing along these roads was what I would describe as third-world row house, garage/storage on first level, dwelling above. It was apparent, however, that plenty of living was taking place on the garage level. Every so often (1/4 mile or so) there was a long structure with about 6-10 of these row houses in each structure. Sometimes commercial areas or storefronts were between, and sometimes people were vending right from the garage of the row house. Young children played agonizingly close to the horrible traffic. Here the honking cars and trucks were out-numbered by bi- and tri-cycle scooters, with many of the tricycle vehicles hauling stuff in a pickup-like bed—everything you think of—produce, bags of mortar, sticks, bricks, garbage, etc. etc. etc. Piles of bricks were everywhere. People in traditional peasant clothing hauling stuff with handcarts. Men working on the road or laying bricks, many smoking. People hoeing in the fields. Many of the young women wore fashionable clothes. Ever-present smart phones (as common as shoes I think in China). A school getting out and the mothers showing up American-style to pick up the kids, except in this case, on old, broken-down scooters. Chickens. Traditional above ground graves (4’ high mounds of dirt and/or concrete) everywhere—in the fields, in the parking area of the row houses, you name it. Some decorated but most not. Again I can’t even really begin to describe it. There were also scattered slums and huts, but by and large the people looked reasonably healthy and extremely energetic.

Around 4 p.m. we headed to the Bali River park. We stopped at a park office at the gate to use a very dirty restroom. The vans then followed a winding road on an island or peninsula; regardless, water was on both sides of the road. Many people were using the park, even though construction activities were taking place, such as road maintenance. The park was in no way “natural”, but I remarked to Keith that this probably was “nature” to these people, where undisturbed landscapes are non-existent. We saw many people biking, walking, and using pedal boats. Some were fishing. We could see a Ferris wheel on a distant shore, and there may have been a water park of some sort under construction. We stopped at the main water control dam. A huge barge was anchored just downstream from the dam. These boat/barge things look like WWII vintage and are scary looking. Enormous. There were many chickens and domestic ducks here. Ying collected her samples as usual. By this time everyone was getting tired. We lingered and talked for a few minutes, then got back into the vans. I wanted the day to be over.

We had been in the vans for about 15 minutes and I really didn’t know where we were going, when it became obvious that were returning to the general area of the row house neighborhood. We stopped at a rather unremarkable site with a few buildings. This was one of the sweet potato processors.

Keith and Rain at the Sweet Potato processing facility. The hatch where Ying collected samples is seen at their feet.

Led by the local bureaucrat who was completely unhesitant, we began walking in and around the property. This made me very nervous. I don’t know what trespass laws are in China, but we were clearly trespassing in the U.S. sense. No people were visible other than those in our party. We could see water discharging through hatches of a trough that was below a paved area. It was not apparent where the water was going. Ying collected samples from one of the hatches. There were two of the mounded human graves in the paved area—not remarkable at this point in the day.

This processing “plant” was not much more than a barn with some ancient pipes, vats, pumps, etc. It had electricity. Near as I could tell (and speculate), the sweet potatoes are mashed, and then a portion of the starch extracted from the mash, while the remainder is dried and formed into fine noodles. Large bunches of noodles were hanging in one area, apparently drying. The bunches were about 3 feet long and 1 foot in diameter. Bags of starch were lying around, labeled as “tapioca starch” in English. I estimate the bags to have been 50-100 lbs. each. How they kept rats out of there I will never know. Maybe they didn’t. I didn’t see any cats. I thought this might look similar to a moonshine whiskey operation. It was getting dark and becoming difficult to see certain details. I just did not like this situation and was worried.

I left the others and wandered back to the vans parked about 75’ away on the road. Across the road was a grandmotherly woman with a boy of about age 6. They were trying to see what was going on. I knew there was no way she was an English speaker but I wandered over to them and acted friendly. I had some US $1 dollar bills in my wallet, so I got it out and handed one to the boy. He wanted it. They both nervously smiled, and the woman said something to the boy. I lingered for a few moments, and then looked back at the plant. Other people (and a dog) had appeared, apparently the owners or operators, a middle-aged couple, man and woman. They seemed to be talking in a friendly manner to the bureaucrat and the rest of the group, which was a relief. Everybody slowly collected back at the vans, we got in, and left.

From there we traveled to a building with a large parking lot, still outside the city, and got out. By this time, the sun was down and it was nearly dark. No one but Larry will understand the irony of this for Keith and me, but this was the area Agricultural Extension Office. The sign explicitly stated this in both English and Chinese. Many things here in China follow a U.S. model, some overtly, some subtly. This was one.

We went in and sat down at a large table where a meal was immediately served to us by 2 or 3 middle-aged women. Keith and I had long since become sick of Chinese food and this food was not very good. Ying informed us later that the noodles “were not good”, and my guess is that in China, if the noodles aren’t good, there ain’t nothing good on that table. On second thought there was some unleavened bread made by putting the dough in boiling water—this seemed pretty good. There was some talk of the day, but not much, considering. The Paris-educated EPA guy was not with us during the field trip, but he was there at this meeting and he had some interest in what had transpired. I’ve only been sleeping 3-4 hours a night because of the jet lag and was dead tired. The hired drivers had to have been exhausted.

We left the extension office and traveled 15 minutes or so back to Fuyang, and checked into a hotel. What a day.


I at least slept until it was a little bit light Wednesday morning. My window was slightly open and I could hear it was raining. I think I was on the 7th floor. I looked out the window and the rain evidently was not going to stop the scooter brigade. Especially the three wheeled, working variety, which were already hauling their stuff around. I could see that in the low traffic condition, drivers were completely ignoring traffic laws and stop lights. Roosters crowed. I could smell the dust from the previous day on my jeans.

I was impressed this day by the multitude of ways the scooter Chinese protect themselves from rain. They have two basic strategies with a variety of choices that fall within each strategy: shields mounted on the scooter or shields worn on the body. I won’t go any further with this but suffice it to say I saw a lot of clever stuff.  Almost forgot—some also use handheld umbrellas.

Keith, Rain, Ying and I went down to breakfast together. The food was the typical Chinese hotel breakfast fare: steamed vegetables, boiled eggs, and rice soup dominating the choices.  No coffee unless that lukewarm weak brown stuff with milk they always serve is coffee. I eat oatmeal at home every day and was very tired of it a week ago. Not now. Ying told us the eggs boiled in the brown and seasoned liquid are called Fragrant Eggs. They peel very easily. The two hired drivers ate at a separate table. The EPA bureaucrats were not there. Several other Caucasian people were. On our way back up to the room, one got into the elevator without acknowledging us. He looked pissed off, not the first and not the last white person I saw in this condition during the week. Maybe hungover on rice wine.

After packing our bags, Keith and I went down to the lobby. One young female hotel worker was excited to be able to practice her English on us. The rest of our group eventually trickled down but we had to wait a long time for the EPA guys. Then we left.

I won’t waste a lot of your time with the trip back except to say our driver drove like an absolute maniac. It rained hard the whole way and we could feel the van hydroplaning. Keith and I both felt like asking Rain to say something to him, but we didn’t. We made it safely to Hefei where we got on the train to Nanjing.

I will say something here about Chinese road signs. They are all bilingual, Chinese and English. Since there cannot be but a very few non-Chinese drivers, I can’t help thinking this is a government effort to help people learn English. The translations are sometimes comical. “Don’t litter” translates to “don’t chuck sundries.”

Upon returning to Nanjing, we went to the “old” Nanjing University campus. We spent the rest of our week near and on this campus. There is a hotel right on campus and Rain helped us check in. Rain was our host the rest of the day, and learning how to be a host evidently is part of the program for young faculty.

This hotel looked like it was probably built not long after WWII, and not updated since. The rooms weren’t bad but the wallpaper was peeling off in a hideous fashion. Like the other hotels the mattresses were rock hard. Evidently sloppy craftsmanship is a not a new building phenomenon in China. Doors and furniture were wood, and beautiful wood at that—unusual.

We rested for a bit and then Rain returned to give us a tour of the campus, which is over a century old, and beautiful. It is very shady, and the diversity of deciduous trees here and elsewhere around Nanjing is incredible. Rain showed us the campus museum, and then the former home of the famous American author Pearl Buck. She lived and taught on the campus prior to the communist takeover following WWII.

Pearl Buck’s house on Nanjing University campus. It is curious that many of the urban trees in China have the white paint at the base as shown here. 

Rain’s wife joined us about 6 p.m. for dinner. She has adopted the English name Jean. Many of the university people do this when interacting with Americans. Even though Rain had told us he does not like non-Chinese food, we told him we wanted to go to a place called Mr. Pizza, based on a recommendation from Ying. There’s a humorous story behind this but I won’t elaborate.

Rain has a new car. We got into it and proceeded to take the longest 6-block trip in the history of automobile travel. Downtown Nanjing at rush hour—just no. After finding a place to park in the most cramped underground ramp you could ever see, we began our search for Mr. Pizza, who is a damn hard man to find, let me tell you. We wandered the crowded and extremely upscale downtown mall for at least 30 minutes. At one point Rain called Ying to ask where it was. Turns out Ying thought we would go to the one 200 meters from campus (groan). We eventually found the one in the mall.

Rain and Jean at Mr. Pizza in Nanjing.

This is a good time to talk about Rain. Super nice guy, very smart, pretty narrow in all things, very indecisive, a little nervous. Things can be a little frustrating with Rain. Wife Jean is a contrast. Shy with us, but not with Rain. Tough. I’ll finish this by saying that Jean and Ying both have Rain figured out in their own different but equally effective ways. With Jean, it is sort of in-your-face toughness, while Ying goes with the clever and subtle but humorous digs. The humorous part is lost on Rain. Poor guy.

We sat down in the restaurant (sort of like Fong’s in Ankeny) and Jean almost immediately started haggling with wait staff on price. She had some coupon or Groupon-type thing, along with a free French fries offer (appetizer). We ordered pizza (and the fries, which nobody touched). The pizza came with silver rather than chopsticks, and it was good. Jean and Rain really devoured it. Jean used a knife and fork for what looked like the first time. That wasn’t pretty. We finally convinced her to just pick up the pizza with her hands. Rain now likes something other than Chinese.

On the way out of the mall, Keith bought some expensive ping-pong paddles. Funny that he did that the last time he was in China, but forgot to bring them home. From there the trip back to campus was every bit as tortuous as the trip there. Rain’s driving might not cut the mustard in small town Iowa, let alone Nanjing, China. Things got a little testy between Jean and Rain. But we got back to the campus hotel ok. It was still raining and had rained non-stop all day.


Keith and I got up and went to the McDonalds right outside Nanjing University. I did not think the food was quite as good as in the U.S. But at least breakfast wasn’t fragrant eggs and rice soup. There was also good coffee. One note on McDonalds—I saw a Chinese woman eating a hamburger at the Hefei rail station McDonalds. She had put ketchup on top of the bun.

We returned to campus where I was to conduct my presentation for the hydrogeology people. There were about 10-15 students and faculty present in a pretty dingy room, including some of the cast of characters mentioned previously—You-Kuan, Rain, and Ying. You-Kuan had flown from Shenzhen to be with us for the day.

My program, like Keith’s, focused on Iowa water quality and agriculture. I also presented some information about the economics of agriculture in Iowa, and some information about my time at Des Moines Water Works. I had many photos of the Chinese president at a farm right outside of Ankeny. Afterward a subset of these people were selected by You-Kuan to remain and talk with us about the Bali River project and nitrate sensor deployment. This included You-Kuan, Rain, Ying, and two other faculty people. I won’t get into the details here, but Keith and I are a little disappointed with how this has evolved. Just a side note on this, You-Kuan clearly has high status with the group, and serves as a sort of wise elder, almost like an Indian chief of some kind. This was interesting. Clearly they all see him as a mentor and defer to him in all circumstances. This gets a little comical at times and I will discuss this later.

We then went to lunch at the university restaurant. The lunch included those in the Bali River discussion. As usual You-Kuan ordered all the food (and beer, which he clearly enjoys drinking). The food was the usual abundance of Chinese dishes, double what we could eat. After lunch was complete, an unusual thing happened. You-Kuan asked the staff for containers to take home the leftovers. I will also say that guy can pack away the grub like no other person of his size.

Lunch at Nanjing University. Clockwise from left: Ying, You-Kuan, Keith, Rain, can’t remember the other two.

After lunch a graduate student with a chosen English name of Tom was assigned to entertain us for the afternoon. He was at my presentation. Keith had met him on his previous trip here. Tom is an energetic and gregarious guy who speaks English. Although not physically distinguishable from any other average Chinese man, Tom seems to fancy himself as a sort of a Chinese playboy.

We first went to Confucius City in Nanjing. This is a strange but interesting combination of Confucius museum combined with an outdoor shopping mall. It seemed to me the people there were nearly all Chinese, although there was a lot of souvenir-type stuff combined with the usual expensive clothing and shoe stores. We bought our gifts for the return home.

Then we went to a Chinese pool hall, one of Tom’s favorite activities. If you had told me at any point in my life prior to this day that I would one day be shooting pool in Nanjing, China, I would have laughed at the thought. But here we were.

Me, Tom, Keith.

Tom clearly was a regular, because he knew the operator (woman of about 50) and had his own cue stick stored there. We ordered beers and taught Tom that he should always ask for “ice-cold” beer in the American way, which he did in Chinese (this is related to our disappointment with warm beer at Mr. Pizza). We played Snooker. Tom turned out to be hardly better at billiards than we were.

The pool hall could not have looked more American. All tough-looking men, cigarette smoke wafting among the lights, disgusting bathroom, etc. All that was missing was an elderly black guy dispensing wisdom from a stool. We played two games of Snooker and left because it was after five and Rain was meeting us at the university hotel at six.

The three of was walked back to the hotel through rush hour downtown Nanjing.  This was not exceptional but for two things. One was a monkey handler on the street. There was a big crowd around him and three large monkeys that were performing tricks. Keith and I both thought this looked sort of cruel. These monkeys really looked mean and angry. The second thing was Tom’s comments about panhandlers. We saw only two or three the whole time in China, I think all when we were with Tom. Two of them (one old man, one young woman) had terrible leg deformities, exposed so all could see. Tom had been to Los Angeles and seen able-bodied beggars. He clearly saw the relatively rarity of Chinese beggars, and the fact that they were truly physically-handicapped, as something that differentiated China from the U.S.

We met Rain back at the hotel. We weren’t that hungry, but he had brought us some spicy Chinese sandwiches that were greasy and delicious. We had nervously given him our passports earlier in the day to buy train tickets for us. These tickets were to get us from Nanjing to Shanghai the following day. He did not have the passports or the tickets at this time; he said that Ying had them, as she was to accompany us to Shanghai. This gave us some pause, a 24-year old who seemed 15 at times, trusted with our passports like this. But we both were fond of her and let it go. She was to pick us up the following morning at 5 a.m. for the trip.

We left our hotel rooms at 5 a.m. The night manager was asleep in pajamas on a cot in the lobby. Ying was waiting outside. We immediately hit her with the question, “Do you have our passports?” She initially feigned ignorance which sent us into a momentary panic. This is an example of her personality and sense of humor. Pretty bold, considering we are 30 years older and colleagues of You-Kuan, the Godfather of Nanjing U. Unless you have the skill and moxie to pull it off. She has it. For the next five hours, it was like we were being led by the Chinese kid in the second Indiana Jones movie. We felt a little bad (and worried) for her that she was tasked as our guide to Shanghai, a city of 25 million people. She could not have been less concerned about the scary (to us) nature of the trip. She told us not to worry, she was also traveling to Shanghai to visit her cousin.

The trip to Shanghai was the standard Chinese taxi-train-taxi-airport routine, so I will report some of our conversation with Ying during this time. She has not traveled outside of China and did not seem to have a strong desire to do so. She is an only child that was born during China’s one-child policy, and at some point in the week had sort of wistfully remarked how she wished she had siblings. If I remember correctly, her father was a teacher, and she described her mother as a babysitter.

During the train ride, she opened up about a few things in a frank way that our other Chinese companions did not. First, you might recall that You-Kuan was not particularly concerned about free speech rights in China, as long as he was able to speak freely without fear to his friends and in small groups. Ying did not share this sentiment. It was clear that she was frustrated by the government’s restrictions on free speech. If these two (Y-K and Ying) are at all generationally representative, it seems to me the government may have a hard time in future years maintaining its authority on this.

She also asked us what we thought about the ostentatious displays of food that are evidently common when Americans eat group meals in China. We told her we thought it was completely unnecessary and just sort of dumb. She talked about the waste, and I got the sense she had been embarrassed by this practice. There were other such discussions that I can’t recall.

You-Kuan has some subtle but rather comical physical quirks that accompany his Confucius-like deliveries of wisdom. I could never describe them adequately here, but the three of us had a great laugh talking about these on the train, something that could probably never happen within You-Kuan’s group.

Ying accompanied us to the security check at the Shanghai airport, where we said our good-byes.

Me, Ying, Keith at Shanghai airport.

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2 Responses

  1. Susan Judkins says:

    Fascinating read. I think they SHOULD regard you and Keith as eminent scientists. We all should….

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