April-Sept 2010: Shanghai to Beijing via Kashgar and Jakarta

I last wrote on this blog a few weeks before the opening of Shanghai Expo. Since then a lot has happened (once again) so here’s another installment, recounting the past half year.

My job in Shanghai was to manage the development and implementation of a web strategy for Sweden in China, and the result of that work launched in April and May 2010. Swedenexpo.cn, the official website of the Swedish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, was live by the time expo opened on May 1st, and Sweden.cn was launched in Beijing a few weeks later. I also spent May at the Swedish pavilion training an excellent team of writers, photographers and videographers to keep Swedenexpo.cn pumped full of content for the duration of Expo.

My work for Sweden was done at the end of May. What next? I decided on two new pursuits: To learn Chinese, and to see China. I took a six-month sabbatical, moved to Beijing, enrolled in intensive Chinese classes, and traveled.

But first, I needed to recharge my cultural batteries in New York and DC. Off I went for the first two weeks in June, to stay with Felix and Michelle in NYC, then Matthew and Kim and Charles and Pamela in DC. I spent entire days walking through NYC — highlights there were finally visiting The High Line, Michelle at the MoMA
Michelle at the MoMA
doing MoMA with Michelle
, and looking at the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian wing with new eyes, now that I know a thing or two about Egyptology. (What an impressive collection!) We also headed upstate to sample the delectable food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, with the added bonus that I rediscovered Pocantico Hills, a place where my parents used to take us on long weekend walks when I lived in NYC as a kid. Both in NYC and DC I managed to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years.

Locavore food IILocavore food I

Locavore food, Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Once back in China, I moved to Beijing. I found a little hutong courtyard apartment a stone’s throw from the Forbidden Palace, and enrolled in the Beijing Language and Culture University for a month of summer courses — 4 hours per day, 5 days a week. It certainly helped. I wasn’t the oldest student, but it was close: Most were half my age. (Why are so few 40-year olds learning Chinese? There’s at least another 40 years left in us to use it — that’s a pretty good ROI.)

Graduation dinner at BLCU

Class graduation dinner

Upon graduation at the end of July, it was time to travel. Kashgar had long been an intended destination, but now that the authorities were demolishing the old town, I really needed to go now. I headed off to Xinjiang, first to Ürümqi for a day, then Kashgar for a week. Two girls
See all my Kashgar images on Flickr.
I wrote about what I saw in Kashgar on Ogle Earth
. I also intended to trek up to Shipton’s Arch, the world’s tallest, but the monsoon rains that caused havoc in Pakistan also flooded the access route to the arch. Ditto for an attempt to drive up the Karakoram Highway — instead, I diverted to an little-known but spectacular glacier park containing the Oytagh Glacier, lying beneath a 7,000m peak and rare pine forests. A hike up to 3,500m brought spectacular views, and close encounters with marmot colonies.

In Kashgar, I also took some panoramas:

Breakfast at a tea house in Kashgar in Kashgar

Tea house and evening market, Kashgar in Kashgar

After Kashgar, it was time to reconnect with family, which had set up their summer HQ at the Belgian coast. I spent the second week of August playing with my niece Amélie and nephew Felix, introducing the former to small legos and the latter to the joys of destroying block towers. There was also a day trip with my parents to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, which had a special exhibit on the 140,000 Chinese laborers who came to Europe to support the allied forces. In terms of emotional effect, this museum is one of the best anywhere.

Then off to Sweden for a week of work meetings at the Swedish Institute — brainstorming sessions, mainly. I visited Stockholm’s newest museum, Fotografiska, and found it to be an amazing place in an amazing location, with top-notch curation that gives photography its proper dues as an artform. I also did a presentation at IDEA about how new media technologies are affecting democracy promotion around the world.

Then back in China for a week, before heading off for a week in Indonesia in early September. A flight delay in Guangzhou meant a 24-hour layover that compelled me to explore old Canton’s colonial concessions (albeit in sweltering heat). It’s remarkable how distinctive China’s third-largest city is from Beijing and Shanghai, especially the food markets. (Too hot for photos, though.) Jakarta, too, proved enchanting — but Bali, not so much. It felt, above all, like a jungle version of Ibiza, with Australians standing in for the Brits. The whole island has reoriented itself to tourism, and that’s not what I am after when I travel. Obama statue
Statue of Obama at his old school, which he attended from 1969-1971.
Jakarta, on the other hand, was fascinating
: Old Batavia, where the Dutch built their capital, still has many old colonial buildings and canals. Most of it is in a sorry state, but all of it is salvageable. Here’s the view from the watch tower the Dutch built at the entrance of the harbor:

View from the watch tower 3

Click to enlarge

I’m back in Beijing now, starting a new round of intensive Chinese courses, this time for three months, until December. Christmas will likely be spent in Europe, and after that, we’ll see where I end up. In the meantime, I really need to revamp stefangeens.com, ogleearth.com, in addition to starting work on a few more personal projects, should I find the time. 在见!

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