Lessons and Impressions from Beijing

I spent last week in Beijing, my second visit to the city after a short visit with my father and brother in 2009. I was in Beijing to work on “Reinventing Fire: China”, a collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, China’s Energy Research Institute, and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a deeply efficient energy future for China up to 2050.

I enjoyed Beijing tremendously, and I was struck by how different an impression the city made just a few years after my first visit. Below are some of my impressions.

Public infrastructure

We mostly used the subway to get around the city. For 2 RMB (less than $0.30) you can ride the subway wherever you want. Trains arrive every three minutes, are spick and span, and there’s enough space not too feel like a sardine. Riding Beijing’s metro was a far better experience than taking the BART in San Francisco, and it rivaled the best European subways I’ve been in.

(The subway is also much quicker than taking a taxi: Beijing suffers from heavy congestion, despite (or because of?) the five-lane roads throughout the city.)

Cleanliness

Anyone who walked around Beijing in the last few years will know that the air is typically full of smog. People check air quality on their phone, just to see how many times the limit of the World Health Organization is hit. Fortunately for me, the air in Beijing was exceptionally clear this week: we had blue skies every day.

The streets were also very clean. Returning to my hotel after dinner one night, I walked through a series of Hutongs, traditional Chinese urban settlements, and noticed that there was no trash or dirt anywhere. Several Hutongs also had public toilets, a piece of infrastructure you don’t see even in financially rich Western cities.

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Diet and health

Most days I would get breakfast, typically an egg sandwich, from small carts on the street. For lunch and dinner we would frequently have big, warm meals. (To deal with the after dinner dip our Chinese collaborators would take a little nap face-down on their desks.)

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Despite the big meals, most Beijing inhabitants were quite fit. I did not see any of the gigantic bellies you spot in the United States. (Hopefully this will not change as American fast food and soda spreads in China.)

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Outdoor exercise equipment was installed in multiple public spaces. Chungliang Huang, the Tai Ji master who taught at Esalen this weekend, said it was normal for Chinese people (at least traditionally) to start the day with movement. I forgot to ask my Chinese colleagues if they typically work out before coming to the office. (One day after lunch, our Chinese colleagues were in full battle gear, playing ping pong in the hallway.)

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Architecture

The palaces of the Forbidden City and the buildings around the Temple of Heaven had a beautiful color scheme: dark red, gold, deep green and ocean blue. I love the simplicity of many of the temples, and the order of the floorplans when you look at the old palaces (and Hutongs!) from above.

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Collaboration

One goal of our work in China is to define what the maximum potential for energy savings for different industries is (e.g. for production of cement). It has now happened multiple times that agreed upon analyses are changed the night before a big presentation by “expert adjustment”. The reason for this seems to be that our research colleagues want to tell a message that their bosses will agree with. This hierarchy creates challenges for scientific rigor (and innovation).

Our team now has several Chinese nationals on board, who can communicate directly with our Chinese colleagues and clients (most of whom do speak English). That said, having an interpreter often take the flow out of the conversation. I look forward to the day when spoken word can be instantly translated, so that both parties can engage in interactive conversation.

Chuangliang Huang, Amory’s co-teacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explained that a single Chinese character can hold many different meanings, depending on its context (the characters that surround it.) Amory speculated that this leads native Chinese speakers to be more comfortable to hold in their mind ideas that seem paradoxical to Western minds, a helpful quality for anyone who wants to study quantum physics.

Conclusion

Overall, I was really impressed by how quickly Beijing is developing. I realize that living in one city for a few days do not represent life in a country of 1.4 billion people. That said, working in Beijing during a period of clean skies felt more like living in London than like living in Bangalore. Culturally, Beijing feels different from Bangalore too: if life in India is chaotic, colorful, and emotional, Beijing is much more organized, clean, and productive.

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If you’ve been to Beijing, what was your experience? For some of my Chinese friends, how do they think about this? Should a Chinese government stimulate urbanization, or incentivize people to stay in rural towns so the deep social disruption between elderly people doesn’t take place?

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Bustling Bangalore

Sunset in Bangalore

Last week I arrived in Bangalore. After a thrilling week in India, I am glad I had the courage to book a last-minute flight to Bangalore once I was told that I had to wait for two more months for my U.S. working visa.

Adjusting to life in Bangalore is easy. Many speak English and tasty food is available on every street corner. Several great groups of people invited me to work with them, bringing meaning to my days in India from the moment I arrived. I stay with wonderful friends who double as great hosts. I go to sleep every night having learnt at least three new things.

Buildings, infrastructure and transportation

Buildings shoot from the ground everywhere, although access to a proper home is unevenly distributed. The picture below shows a tent community in front of a newly erected building.

Building and slum

Bangalore’s streets are surprisingly clean, but waste’s final destination may be nearer than you think. I was surprised to discover this garden with integrated garbage dump one morning as I woke up to watch the sun rise from my roof terrace in Indira Nagar.

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Transport in Bangalore is hectic. The first days I traveled by riksha (called “autos”, I actually drove one an auto last Sunday evening), but I quickly decided to test the public bus system. Boarding the bus on my first ride, I was surprised to see only women sitting! When I turned my head to look towards the rear of the bus, I realized that all men were sitting in the back. This is an unspoken rule I’ve observed on buses since, so that women have a place to sit. I wonder how it was first implemented.

Women in bus

Providing access to electricity to the poor

On Wednesday and Sunday I went out into Bangalore’s tent-communities (slums) with the wonderful fellows and interns of Pollinate Energy. Pollinate provides access to electricity to people who do not have access to the grid. They do this by recruiting entrepreneurial twenty-year-olds from local urban communities – called Pollinators – to sell products that people want: solar panels, lights integrated with mobile-phone chargers, cookstoves and possibly soon modular homes; tablets and low-voltage TVs.

I quickly learned that it is essential to work with local entrepreneurs if you are to sell products. When I enter a community – a European with blonde hair and white skin who speaks not a word of Kannada – it stirs up many reactions, yet these do not necessarily lead to an interest in the service we are trying to provide. The real value is created by someone the community can trust – a boy like Madu in the picture below, who gently explains the benefits of not using kerosene. What is important is that the community can trust the storyteller.

I also learned that people’s dis-interest in an electricity-providing product can have many more reasons than poor product design. In two days, I have heard people explain that they fear that the solar panel will be stolen; that neighbors will destroy the solar lantern; or that they simply do not want to be the first of their friends to buy the product.

Madu in tent camp

A little running

After Wednesday’s visit to the slum, Monique and Jamie from Pollinate invited me to participate in Bangalore’s midnight marathon run – the 10km version, not the original Greek length – on Saturday night. Dressed up as light-emitting bees (yellow shirts, black tights, LED-light strapped to our chest) more than twenty of completed the track in Whitefields – cheering and screaming to one another as we passed.

Bengaluru midnight marathon

I spent the last two days with Infosys’ Green Initiatives team. Under the leadership of Rohan Parikh, this group of 15 very competent engineers are committed to realizing the world’s most energy-efficient buildings. Since 2008 the team has reduced energy consumption in new buildings by almost 50%. My goal is to work with part of the team to realize a bold project in the next five weeks.

Sunset from the roof

The art of flying

Clouds from the planeI love to fly. On flights I find time for long stretches of reading. Floating high above the earth’s surface brings a mental distance that is great for reflection.

But the experience of flying can be more tranquil and pleasant if airlines make these small changes:

  • Board passengers in small groups, with group numbers printed in large font on your boarding pass. If it is clear when you are allowed to board the plane, there is no need to push yourself forward in a long line at the gate.
  • Do not interrupt movies for (duty free) announcement messages. Also, why is it not possible for passengers to start movies when the plane is still at the gate or taxiing?
  • Do not turn on all cabin lights on an overnight flight 1 hour before landing. The flight from Boston to Amsterdam takes five-and-a-half hours, leaving 3 hours of sleep between dinner and arrival. Why would you wake everyone up for the final hour-and-a-half? Is it not possible for passengers to switch on their individual reading lights if they want breakfast?

You can try to find tranquility even when your environment disturbs you:

  • Plan to be at the airport early. I have created an annoying habit of delaying my departure to the airport to the latest moment. This led to my first missed flight recently. Plan to be early: you will make up for the “lost time” of leaving early by a gain in mental clarity during your travel to the airport.
  • Do something at the airport that makes you peaceful. Annoyance builds up when you focus your mind on the chaos around you. Listen to classical music, a podcast or an audiobook. I sometimes read even while standing in line to board, although this makes me look like a failed acrobat – trying to move my bags with my feet while keeping my eyes on my reading.
  • Bring an eyemask and ear buds in your carry-on luggage. When you enter the plane, you can take a nap straight away.
  • Talk to strangers. Have a chat with the person sitting next to you at the gate or on the flight. Small talk and jokes bring happiness. Plus: the person sitting next to you may tell you an amazing story (or even become the love of your life).

What are your travel tips? What do you do when you’re waiting at the gate or on the plane? Do you bring special things with you?

Nature’s independence

I wrote this blog mid-June, one week after leaving San Francisco. 

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Riding through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada we were surrounded by pristine pine forest. The environment reminded me of journeys to Sweden, Istanbul’s Star Islands and the Croatian coast.

As I stood in the middle of a quiet road in the forest, two deer walked onto the road. Meters away from me, both deer stopped and stood still for what felt like a full minute. As I set a step in their direction, the deer gently moved off the road and graciously hopped into the forest. It was a magical experience.

Our road has been marked by beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to enter much of it: the vast majority of forest along the road is marked by “No Trespassing” signs indicating that “visitors are not welcome”.

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The craving for possession of land is foreign to me. In Sweden, any person can cross another man’s land as long as the visitor treats the land with respect. This “freedom to roam” is a constitutional right. After all, we are all visitors on earth – the land belongs to no one.

Bliss or pleasure is derived not from possession but from service: walks through the woods and squirrels playing in your backyard versus a document that states your ownership. As Emerson writes:

“Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But non of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which  no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”