Monday, May 29, 2006

Last day ... Heading home!

And just like that, we've reached the end of our trip. Our students spent Saturday touring Tokyo with the Rikkyo University students, and then did some exploring on their own on Sunday. Tokyo is a BIG city, and so we only saw a part of it. I know that many of the group would like to stay longer!

We finished up with our 'farewell' dinner at Gonpachi, which is a neat restaurant patterned after one of those ninja houses you see in the Japanese movies -- or in "Kill Bill". We ate in the same room in which Prime Minister Koizumi hosted George Bush in 2002.

And now it's Monday morning. We're still at the hotel, but we'll be leaving in about an hour and a half for the airport, and home. It's been an incredible, memorable trip. The students have experienced cultures and been to places -- the Great Wall, Mt. Everest, Mt. Fuji -- that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

We will see you back in Pittsburgh!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Journey to Mt. Fuji ... and photo!

It's 1AM in Tokyo, and since I'm an old man I need to get to bed ... unlike some of our students! So this will be a short message. We spent today traveling to Mt. Fuji and Hakone National Park. The weather wasn't perfect, but the good news ... actually great news ... is that we actually were able to see Mt. Fuji once we got close enough. On many days the clouds and fog are so severe that it's impossible to see 'Fuji-san'. But today, we were lucky. And that makes two iconic mountains in one trip: first Everest, and now Fuji!

Our students will be touring the town with the Rikkyo students tomorrow (Saturday), and then they will have Sunday free ... at least until our 'farewell' dinner on Sunday night. I will leave it up to them to tell you what they did on their weekend in Tokyo. ;-)

In the meantime, at long last, here is a photo. As you might guess, this one shows the group in front of Mt. Fuji. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

First day in Tokyo

First a confession ... STILL no photos. :-( I'm really, really, really hoping to get a group photo of the students at Mt. Fuji tomorrow!

Speaking of which ... today was beautiful and sunny, and I'm hoping it will hold for our trip to Mt. Fuji tomorrow. Regardless, it was a great day to try out the Tokyo subway system for our trip to Pricewaterhouse Coopers in the morning, and to Rikkyo University in the afternoon. Both visits turned out very nicely. At PWC, we were met by Mr. Joe Divito, a PWC global partner currently assigned to the Tokyo office, and a THREE time graduate of Duquesne (undergrad, MBA, and law school). Duquesne is everywhere!

At PWC we learned a lot about business in Japan. We also heard about Mr. Divito's experience as an American living in Tokyo, and about the experiences of Mr. Divito's Japanese colleagues, who lived in the USA for 6 months and 20 years, respectively. Very interesting.

After most of us ate "Bento box" lunches near PWC, we again boarded the subway for Rikkyo University in the Ikebukuro section of Tokyo, about 30 minutes away. The Rikkyo visit was incredible. There were about 30 Rikkyo students and 4 or 5 faculty waiting for us when we arrived, so the room was filled. After some brief introductions and comments from the respective professors, including yours truly, the Duquesne and Rikkyo students then worked together on their joint presentations comparing US and Japanese business practices, university life in the US and Japan, and career options in the two countries. It actually worked! Later, we were treated to food and drink at a reception, and we provided some small gifts -- Duquesne School of Business t-shirts -- to all of the Rikkyo students.

And tonight, as I write this, the Duquesne and Rikkyo students are all out on the town together. :-) It couldn't have worked out any better!

Our trip is rapidly drawing to a close. Tomorrow (Friday) is our day-trip to Mt. Fuji. On Saturday the students from the two universities will tour the city in small groups. Sunday is our 'free day' -- the only complete free day of the entire trip. On Sunday evening at 9PM, we will have our 'farewell' dinner at a restaurant called "Gonpachi". We were there last year. It looks like a Japanese ninja house. The Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi hosted George Bush for dinner there a few years ago. It should be a great way to finish up the trip!

Still more to come ... Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

First Night in Tokyo

This will be a fairly short message, since we haven't done much except fly from Beijing to Tokyo. Ho hum ... if it's Wednesday, it must be Tokyo. ;-)

We landed in rainy Tokyo early this afternoon -- the rain was the lead story on the 9PM news (I couldn't understand the Japanese, but I got the idea!). It took us over an hour to get from Narita airport to our hotel near downtown Tokyo. It's a very nice hotel by the way. The rooms are a little small, but it's very modern and clean, and it's nestled in a very quaint neighborhood full of noodle shops and sushi restaurants and coffee shops. A great location!

Tomorrow morning we take the subway to the offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers. In the afternoon we will travel to Rikkyo University for a joint student seminar with the Rikkyo students. It should be very educational ... and it should be fun!

Friday is the day we travel to Mt. Fuji, where we hopefully will be able to see the famous mountain. The current rain worries me a little bit, but we'll hope the rain clears by then!

Tokyo is a great city, by the way: modern, clean, orderly, very polite. We should have a terrific time over the next few days. It's a great way to end the trip!

I'm HOPING to have some photos for my next message. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Last night in China

I have to keep this posting short, because unlike the internet cafe in Xian, where I paid 3 yuan (about 36 cents) for an hour and a half, at the "Sino-Swiss Hotel" here near the Beijing airport, I'm paying 5 yuan PER MINUTE. Yikes!

Anyway, we left Xian this afternoon after spending the morning bicycling on top of the ancient city wall. It was about 9 miles - or about an hour - for the complete roundtrip around the wall. It was a very neat experience, and not one you can find in very many places!

Tomorrow morning we get up at 5AM to catch the bus at 6:15AM for the airport, for our departure to Tokyo at around 9AM -- arriving there in the early afternoon. More to come from Japan!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Monday morning in Xian

It's a beautiful Monday morning in Xian. Yesterday we travelled about 45 minutes out of town to see the 2000-year-old Terra Cotta warriors. They are quite an impressive sight: over 6,000 individual (no two alike) life-sized figures in one 'pit' alone, all standing in formation guarding the late Qin emperor in the after-life. When they were found in 1974, they were broken in many, many pieces ... and in what must have been the world's largest jigsaw puzzle, archeologists have been able to reconstruct many of them (and the reconstruction continues). We also received a fascinating history of how China got it's name, how China was unified by the first Qin emperor, and how the warriors were constructed and then later severely damaged in a farmer revolt following the death of the emperor. Very interesting!

We then visited the factory where high-quality replicas of the warriors are made, and of course we had the opportunity to purchase them as well. I believe most of the group did just that!

Last night we attended a "Tang Dynasty" dinner show, featuring dancers and musicians performing acts from the Tang dynasty. The show came first, followed by a delicious dumpling dinner. They served every type of dumpling imaginable: chicken, scallops, shrimp, pineapple, walnut ... mmmmmmm!

According to our original itinerary, today we were supposed to visit Xian Jiaotong University ... Well, it's a long story, but because of language and other difficulties that visit fell through. (We're going to try it again next year!) So we're taking the morning off, and then we will visit the "Wild Goose Pagoda" and Xian History Museum this afternoon. So we should learn even more about Chinese history!

Our time in China is rapidly coming to an end. Tomorrow morning we plan to ride bicycles on top of the ancient wall surrounding the city. Then tomorrow afternoon we will fly to Beijing, where we will stay in a hotel near the airport -- our flight to Tokyo is early Wednesday morning. We will then be in Japan from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, at which point we will pack up for our return voyage across the pacific to home. That said, we will have a lot to do and see when we're in Japan -- so it's not over yet!

I will try to post another message when we get to Beijing, but if I can't, you should hear from us in Japan!

Zai jian!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Last Days in Chengdu

Chengdu definitely exceeded all of our expectations. We went to Chengdu expecting a run-down, congested and fairly poor city, but we discovered that Chengdu is a surprisingly modern and prosperous city. The students really liked it. A short cab ride from our hotel was an incredible, new pedestrian shopping street, complete with huge video screens, up-scale clothing stores (someone found pants for $600!), and places like Starbucks and Haagen-Daaz. Amazing. We don't have anything like it in Pittsburgh -- possibly in New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

Here's another interesting aspect of Chengdu. Very few Americans have even heard of Chengdu, but guess what it's population is? ELEVEN million people.

That's China!

We spent the last full day taking the bus to the city of Leshan ... which has 3 rivers coming together and has a spot that looks somewhat like Pittsburgh's point -- but without the park and the fountain. (And Leshan is definitely not as nice as Pittsburgh ... really!) Leshan is the home of the world's largest Buddha, and I'm here to tell ya that it's pretty big: about 250 feet high. We climbed from the top to the bottom and back to the top on a very hot and humid day. But it was very interesting.

Later we stopped at a restaurant for some of Chengdu's famous "hot pot" cuisine. It's supposed to be very spicy, but unfortunately they turned down the heat on the presumption that we wimpy Americans couldn't take it. We said: "Too mild!" ;-)

This morning was probably the highlight of the Chengdu portion of the trip: a visit to the Panda research facility just outside of the city. It is a VERY nice park-like setting, with a lot of bamboo and other plants, and we saw at least 10 Giant Pandas up close. Many of the students also were able to hold a red panda, which is much smaller and actually looks more like a cross between a fox and a raccoon. They are all really cute. The Panda facility was a BIG hit, as you would guess!

This evening we are in Xi'an (population SEVEN million), which used to be the imperial capital of China. It's a fascinating city with a completely intact, medieval wall around the central part of the city. At some point we are hoping to ride bicycles on the top of the wall ... the complete circle is about 9 miles. (Right now it's raining, but we're hoping that clears out soon.)

Tomorrow we go to see the world-famous Terra Cotta Warriors, and will also see the factory where replicas of the soldiers are made (uh oh, it's another buying opportunity!). Monday -- hallelujah -- will be our first (mostly) free day since we started the trip. We need it ... we're all exhausted, particularly after the trek to Everest and back. (That said, the ability of the modern college student to 'hit the town' never ceases to amaze me!)

Sorry about the lack of photos. The picture-taking opportunities have been limited, and I think I need to give the students a 'photo' break. ;-)

Still ten days to go, and we still have some travelling to do. Stay tuned for more updates!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Lhasa to Chengdu

Not too much to report since the last blog. On our last night in Lhasa, we enjoyed a very nice dinner show featuring Tibetan musicians and dancers in traditional costumes. We also tasted a variety of Tibetan dishes. I can sum up Tibetan cuisine as follows: "1001 Ways to Cook a Yak". I'm not kidding. They had yak in some type of pita bread. They had sliced yak, yak in a hard-boiled egg (think of a deviled egg, where the 'devil' part is replaced by yak), yak with some type of egg covering, yak soup, and so on. That said, it was quite good. Properly prepared, yak can be pretty tasty!

This morning (May 18) we got up early to board the plane for Chengdu, which is quite hot (85 degrees), humid and smoggy, but the smog actually contains a sufficient number of oxygen atoms to sustain human life. Quite a refreshing change from Lhasa. (The air is Lhasa is crystal clear, but unfortunately there's just not enough of it!)

Tomorrow we head for Mt. Leshan, about 2 hours by bus from Chengdu. That will entail a bit of a hike to the world's largest Buddha. The following day we will go to the Panda sanctuary, where we should be able to actually touch and even hold some pandas ... for a price. That should be very interesting.

Then we head for Xian, which will be our last stop (thankfully!) in China before we head for Japan next week.

No photos this time, but I should have some later!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

To Everest ... and back!

Mission accomplished! We have seen Everest up close and personal!

This particular blog needs to be written in two parts, one dealing with the destination (Everest) and the other dealing with the journey. They were two completely different experiences. ;-)

First, Everest, a.k.a., the "Big E". Absolutely glorious, spectacular, awe-inspiring. We had the good fortune of seeing Everest and the surrounding peaks under absolutely perfect conditions: clear, sunny skies. The two most incredible views were 1) the view from 'Gyo La' pass (altitude 17,125 feet) of Everest and the mountain ridge containing 3 other peaks over 8200 meters (which I believe is over 25,000 feet) ... Wow (see the group photo below), and 2) the close-up views of Everest from the guest house where we spent the night (see the other group photo below) ... stupendous! I've also included another photo of just Everest, which I took from the 2nd floor balcony of the guest house. This is what we could see from the balcony, our rooms, and the 'restaurant' (I use the term loosely).

Seeing Everest was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the students will remember it for the rest of their lives.

Luckily that was the case, because the journey there was, shall we say, a tad difficult. The trip was probably 20% wonderous (e.g., we crossed three 5000-meter (16,000 ft) passes, including one during a snowstorm that included Tibetan yak herders and snow-covered yaks -- almost surrealistic), and 80% misery. The roads here are, generally speaking, horrible. Imagine all of the ingredients of a bad road. Tibet has them all: narrow, unpaved, rutted (to the point of being teeth-rattling), numerous obstacles (boulders, tractors, donkeys, sheep, yaks, piles of rocks that seemed to have absolutely no purpose, etc.), traffic! (including Chinese army convoys), steep dropoffs (right when we pass the Chinese army convoy of course), and DUST -- lots and lots of dust(this part of Tibet is essentially a desert, complete with some sand dunes). That was our journey for 5 days.

And THEN, when we got to the guest house, we had to ride donkey carts from the guest house to Everest Base Camp (about 5 miles). And THAT was WORSE! Horrible! Some of the students couldn't take it any longer and decided to jump off and walk. The carts themselves looked as though they were nailed together using scrap lumber from someone's garage ... I'm not kidding! I was sitting in the back of my cart, and during one particularly nasty bump, the back almost fell off. So I held onto the front seat -- they're two-passenger carts -- for the remainder of the trip. PLUS, the cart drivers were all 12 year old boys who decided they wanted to race each other. I tried to yell at them, but unfortunately none of them spoke English, and my Tibetan is a little rusty. Trying to get back to the guest house was even worse. Instead of taking us, the cart drivers wanted to transport their relatives and big sacks of whatever -- they can be a bit disagreeable. Our national guide yelled at them in Chinese, but they didn't know Chinese any better than English. ... But the good news is that we all did indeed get back to the guest house, albeit with some strategically placed bruises!

All of this notwithstanding, it somehow seems right that a place like Everest should not be easy to get to. It's a test of the spirit!

Tomorrow we leave for Chengdu. We'll be there only for a short time before leaving for Xian. No rest for the weary. ;-)

Photos below. More to come later!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Days 1 and 2 in Tibet

This blog was originally created several days ago, but rumor has it that it might not have actually made it onto the blog. That's entirely possible because 1) the entire interface here in Lhasa is in Chinese characters, and 2) I can't check the actual blog because it's blocked here by the Chinese firewall. So all I can do is post and hope for the best. I'm posting blind folks!

Let's try it again ... The following message is from our first two days in Lhasa. The next posting will talk about our excursion to Everest and back!


From May 11, 2006:

Yes indeed, there are artifacts of the modern world here in Tibet ... including the internet.

This particular blog is labeled "Days 1 and 2" because yesterday yours truly was feeling the effects of being at 12,800 feet above sea level. The irony is that although I was worried about how the students would be affected, it turned out that I probably got hit worse than any of them. But you parents should definitely take that as good news. ;-) Several of us were feeling a bit light-headed, and there were a few headaches, but overall we're in pretty good shape today ... even me!

We arrived in Lhasa Tibet yesterday (Thursday) after saying goodbye to our Beijing hosts, who were absolutely wonderful. Our last day in Beijing featured a trip back to Tiananmen Square (incredible) and a partially-successful visit to Mao's mausoleum. I say 'partially' successfuly because as it turns out, one is not allowed to wear sandals into the mausoleum, and guess how many of the women were wearing sandals. You got it. Plus the Chinese army troops were there to enforce the ban, and, uh, I wasn't going to argue with them. So some of us got in, and some of us did not. Oh well ... the students who did go in reported that it was a bit of a disappointment. (Woo hoo!) That night we enjoyed a farewell dinner at the 'revolving top' restaurant, which was a big hit. It provided a beautiful panoramic view of Beijing on a beautiful sunny evening.

We jumped on the bus for the Beijing airport at 6:15 am on Thursday morning (that was not such a big hit!), and landed in Lhasa on Thursday afternoon. Tibet is amazing. The air is bright and clear, and Lhasa itself is surrounded by the Himalayas. You will have to see the photos!

We all love our hotel. It is surprisingly nice -- I'm in the business center right now -- and certainly nicer than our 'hotel' in Beijing. We ate dinner last night in the hotel -- to save our energy -- and then yours truly went to bed. Rumor has it that the students explored the area around the hotel a bit, viewing the slice of local life ... including a cart of yak heads. (Oh yes, yak is a common menu item here ... we had yak last night for dinner ... not bad actually, tastes like beef)

This morning we went to the incredible Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas over the past few centuries. We also did a little shopping -- several of us bought tapestries ... they are really nice! Later today we are going to the Langkor Temple, and then to the Bakhar Market to do some shopping. Tonight we'll have dinner, and then pack light bags for the trek to Everest, starting tomorrow.

Tomorrow we will board 7 Landcruisers for the 2-3 day journey to Base Camp. Again, I'm not sure of the internet availability at our next stop, Shigatze, but we'll see what happens.

In the meantime, here is another photo. This one is of the group in front of the Potala Palace. A photo can't do it justice, but I think you'll get the idea. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Days 3 and 4 in Beijing

Day 3, which was the momentous trek to the Great Wall, started off a bit bleak, with a forecast of rain and fog for the entire day. But as luck would have it, by the time we got to the wall the rain had stopped and did not return until we were leaving. It was a little foggy, but that added to the atmosphere and drama ... at least that's what we were telling ourselves!

Most of us made the incredibly long, steep and somewhat hazardous trip up the wall to the "Hero Stone". Chairman Mao proclaimed that if a person can make it to that spot, then he or she is a "hero of the people". And we did, albeit with legs burning. Amusingly, once we made it to the actual stone, we discovered that in order to have our picture taken beside the stone, we had to fork over 30 Yuan -- and the stone was partially obscured by a curtain, just in case one tried to sneak a free photo!

In this regard, the Chinese will sell anything at any time in any place -- even the Great Wall. The wall itself is covered with vendors selling everything from postcards to tee shirts to "I climbed the Great Wall" medallions. Incredible!

Later, many of us had a massage, which was an interesting experience -- very little English spoken. But we definitely needed the massage after the hike on the Great Wall!

Today (Tuesday) we will have a lesson in Chinese calligraphy taught by a wonderful and talented calligraphy master, followed in the afternoon by a trip to a Chinese steel mill. Tonight we will take in a show of the Chinese acrobats, which was a big hit last year. Tomorrow we head off to Tiananmen Square to see Mao's Tomb, followed later by some shopping and then our farewell dinner in the 'revolving top' restaurant, complete with panoramic view of the city of Beijing.

I mention all of this because this might be the last blog posting from Beijing -- we have a couple of very busy days in front of us. On Thursday morning (early!) we fly to Lhasa in Tibet, and I have NO idea whether there will be internet service. So if you don't hear from us for awhile, don't panic. We'll be back in touch with you as soon as we can!

Finally, a couple of photos from the Great Wall. Unfortunately, the students were so enthusiastic and took off so quickly once we hit the wall, I couldn't get everyone together for a group shot! So here are a couple of photos of the students who were with me on the trek to the Hero's Stone. The larger group shot against the wall is at the VERY TOP. I hope the quality is okay. I've discovered that this internet connection is a bit slow, and the big photo files take FOREVER to upload.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day 2 in Beijing

First, let me just say that everyone is fine and is having a wonderful time!

And now, a quick update about our second day in Beijing ...

The day started with a fascinating lecture on Chinese politics by Professor Zhong, who has actually lived through many of the turbulent events in Chinese history – including the Cultural Revolution and the death of Chairman Mao. His lecture was refreshingly honest and very enlightening, and the students gained a great deal of insight into how and why China views the rest of the world.

After lunch we climbed on the bus for a trip to the Summer Palace, which is where many generations of emperors spent much of their time. It was also the primary resident of the Empress Dowager, who oversaw the last days of the Chinese monarchy. The Palace is an incredible place, expansive and lush, with beautiful gardens and a very large lake – complete with paddle boats. Later that day we had an incredible ‘peasant’ meal in a restaurant within walking distance of the summer palace. No one is going to go hungry on this trip!

By the way, I forgot to mention that one of yesterday’s adventures involved riding the Beijing Subway from the university to Tiananmen Square. It was a very interesting experience, particularly considering that there were 25 of us, all trying to stay together, while boarding two trains with at least 100,000 other people. The subway cars were jammed, and we ran alongside the train trying to jam ourselves in. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but we all made it!

On the agenda for tomorrow is probably the highlight of the Beijing visit – the trip to the Great Wall. So we should have a photo from there in the next couple of days!

By the way, it looks as though tomorrow (Monday) might be a busy day, and so I'm not sure whether I'll be able to post a blog. If not, I'll definitely let you know how things are going on Tuesday.

In the meantime, I'll finish with two slightly less exotic photos. The first shows what it was like on the Beijing subway. The second shows the group in front of the tonight’s restaurant – and no, we didn’t eat at McDonalds, although some of the students just HAD to check out the menu there!

Zai Jian!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Day 1 in Beijing!

After about 18 hours and 3 connections, we have arrived in Beijing! We landed at the Beijing airport last night (Friday), which would be late morning in the eastern US. Needless to say, most of us are dragging a bit -- we didn't get much sleep on the plane, or during the first night in the hotel. It's still a bit of a blur to most of the group, and I suspect most will be turning in early tonight!

But, these folks are troopers. Everyone was up and out by 8 this morning (Saturday). We started off with a breakfast of boiled dough balls and eggs -- just like Mom used to make. ;-) Then we watched was has to be the world's most uh, shall we say, 'detailed' video on the Forbidden City. But, happily, it finally ended, after which we went on a tour of the campus and had lunch with our Chinese student hosts. Later we saw the actual Forbidden City, which needless to say was much more interesting than the video. In fact, it's absolutely fascinating ... and HUGE. We ended the day with a feast at the world-famous Peking Duck restaurant. Apparently a number of famous people have eaten there -- including Henry Kissinger, George Bush Sr., and Kim Jong Il (of North Korea fame). Presumably they didn't all eat there at the same time -- although that would have been interesting!

Tomorrow includes a lecture on Chinese politics in the morning, followed by a visit to the Summer Palace, and an authentic Chinese "peasant" dinner tomorrow evening. We are also trying to set up a visit to the local karaoke bar, which was a big hit last year. Later in the week we visit the Great Wall. So definitely expect a picture from there!

By the way, several of the students have said exactly the same thing: "I still can't believe I'm in China!"

Finally, just to prove that we are indeed in China, I'll finish below with a photo of the group in front of the Tiananmen Gate, which leads from Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City. And as you can see it includes the famous portrait of Mao Tse-Tung in the background -- and presumably someone you know! ;-)

More to come ... ;-)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Ni Hao and Konichiwa!

On Thursday, May 4, 2006, we will be leaving on our Asian odyssey to China, Tibet and Japan. During that time, we will post news of our adventures to this blog as long as we have access to the internet. Tibet is still a wild card at this point, but we'll see what happens.

Stay tuned for updates ... and a few photos from time to time!