Resistance Is Futile

I have been assimilated – a neophyte's attempt to blog

China – Olympic Venues (Bird’s Nest and AquaCube) September 20, 2009

Filed under: Travel — keninsantacruz @ 4:14 PM

Beijing, September 2009

For those who have not seen it in person, the Olympic Track & Field “Bird’s Nest” Stadium is THE most impressive piece of contemporary architecture on the planet.  I realize that not having seen some notable structures up close and personal  (Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, for example), I am in no position to make such a statement, but I’m standing by it nonetheless.  I first saw the stadium, under construction, in a picture in The New Yorker.  Having mistakenly (it happens!) thought that the structure was part of the Tate Modern in London, I found an excuse to visit the Tate and spent a day searching in vain for the improbable, organic, oversized steel form from the magazine.  Later I read the article more carefully and discovered that I had missed the location by 8 or 9 timezones and vowed to one day make a pilgrimage to Beijing.  Opportunity knocked this past week.

The Olympic venues are lit up until 9:30PM most nights.   As colleagues spent the last evening of a 2-day meeting dining together, I guiltily declined their invitation and set off after dark to see the National stadium.  I was so thoroughly enthralled by the Bird’s Nest, AquaCube and Olympic Mall, that I awoke early the next morning and went out again at 6:30AM to take more pictures before my flight home.  I clicked away until my camera registered “Battery Exhausted”.

I let the pictures below speak for themselves.  I show the day shots first, then those taken after dark:

The amazing Bird's Nest National Stadium
The amazing Bird’s Nest National Stadium
It's Huge!
It’s Huge!
Skaters
Skaters
Rappel practice
Rappel practice
AquaCube and the 7-Star Hotel
AquaCube and the 7-Star Hotel
The Bird's Nest at night
The Bird’s Nest at night

Birdnest_Water_1

Bird's Nest detail
Bird’s Nest detail
What can I say - I am partial to the letter K
What can I say – I am partial to the letter K

Birdnest_K_3

 

AquaCube 1

The AquaCube

 

AquaCube_Corner

AquaCube_Detail

AquaCube_Birdnest

For those going to Beijing:  I have visited numerous times.  I have seen the Forbidden City and The Great Wall.  And I have been subjected to Beijing’s general lack of civility and inattention to service.  I AM NOT a a finicky traveller and I did not take offense, but I did notice.  I also noticed that this trip was very different.  Post-Olympic Beijing is a qualitatively different experience.  The air is cleaner.  The people are nicer.   The service is better.  The city planted almost a million trees in the run up to the Games and they created many magnificent public spaces.  I understand that they also made attempts to teach some English to every taxi driver and to train all hotel workers how to deliver Western-style service and amenities.  Travel here is much easier and much nicer than before.  I would never have recommended Beijing as a travel destination before, but cannot help but do so now.  I get a chance to go back and test this theory in November!

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StelvioBike September 8, 2009

Filed under: Adventures,Travel — keninsantacruz @ 5:16 PM

Stelvio Pass Bike Ride – Switzerland, August 28, 2009

This picture scared the bejesus out of me: a 100 km ride with a sustained 2300m (7,545.91 ft) climb as its centerpiece.

The Classic Stelvio Pass Postcard

The Classic Stelvio Pass Postcard

In January, I had spoken to my friend Ruedi and he had suggested that we do the StelvioBike ride in Switzerland on Saturday August 28, the day before a scientific seminar in Bremen Germany and, coincidentally, the one day this year that the pass is closed to auto traffic.  In my mind, this outing took the form of a quick little detour to Switzerland during a planned biz trip to Germany.  With a typically-compromised, US-centric view of European geography, this seemed perfectly reasonable to me.  With a work-centric, typically-compromised training program to prepare for such a ride, this also seemed somehow possible to me.  What the hell…why not?

Of such stupidity are true adventures born!

Web sites devoted to the Stelvio scared me enough that, mercifully, one reality did in fact sear itself into my brain.  The ride was big enough that I would need to train…at least a bit.  In typical-Ken fashion I tortured myself, thinking about the thousands of dollars I would need to part with to get a suitable road bike.  I shopped.  I kept picking out the top-of-the-line bikes…and not buying them.  A neighbor and friend, Jeff, put me out of my misery by selling me one of his many used bikes (allowing him to outfit a sweet new ride!).

Logistics!  I ended up having to fly to Switzerland from Korea.  SFO, Korea (see previous Jeju Island post), Frankfurt, Zurich.  Drive with Ruedi to the Swiss Alps…dinner with his friends…do the ride.  Get back to Zurich.  Jump on a plane.  Go to Germany.

The morning that I was leaving Korea, I found out that Ruedi had crashed on his mountain bike and broken his collar bone.  He was clearly sidelined and I thought (with a certain sense of relief) that the Stelvio was over for me before it had even started.   Hey – I had got a road bike and I had trained a bit, so it had not been a complete waste!  When I spoke to him in person, Ruedi took a somewhat different approach to his injury – all the plans had been made, he said, and I “might as well” do the ride on his bike.  Celise provided similar encouragement.

So I arrived in Zurich at about midnight on Thursday night, rented a car, Stayed the night.  Friday – Ruedi spared me having to navigate Zurich to find his home – he brought his bike to my hotel.  I loaded it up and drove through the Alps (Davos, Flualapass, Zernez…) to the SMALL town of Cinous-Chel on Friday, and had a delightful dinner with Ruedi’s friends.

Bridge on the way to Davos

Bridge on the way to Davos

I woke to persistent rain the next morning (again thinking with a less-certain sense of relief that this might mean the ride was off…).  Defying the weather, I followed Ruedi’s friends south toward the darkening skies of the Italian border to Santa Maria, Switzerland, with wipers running the whole time.  We mounted up and rode.  We crossed into Italy and descended to Prato, 500m elevation.  In Prato, the “biking buzz” was palpable with hundreds of cyclists making their way to the Stelvio Pass road.  French, German, Spanish, & Italian were spoken by the riders around me and were clearly visible on club attire.  All of a sudden, we made a right turn and the next bit of downhill on the road before us was atop the Stelvio Pass, 26 km ahead.  This is an uninterrupted climb of 2260m…something like 7,500ft…with an average grade of about 11% (max 14%).  The ride climbs a fabled series of 48 hairpin turns as it ascends relentlessly up a ridiculously steep Italian hillside.  I decided early on that survival was a good theme for the day – I just needed to not panic, stay focused, and pedal consistently all the way to the top.  That is exactly what I did, stopping only very occasionally to snap some pics.  Here they are:

The first of 48 notoriously steep switchbacks

The first of 48 notoriously steep switchbacks

Climbing into the clouds and rain - relentlessly UP

Climbing into the clouds and rain - relentlessly UP

Scenic - the clouds hide a glacier

Scenic - toe of the glacier behind the clouds

Steep series of switchbacks

Steep series of switchbacks

STEEP! (did I mention that it was steep?)

STEEP! (did I mention that it was steep?)

Up and up and up and up and up...

Up and up and up and up and up...

26 km, 7500+ ft and more than 2 hours later - THE SUMMIT

26 km, 7500+ ft and more than 2 hours later - THE SUMMIT

Freezing - time to descend

Freezing - time to descend

After the summit, the road tips down the other side and falls back down to Santa Maria in one long, steep descent.  We met at a restaurant after, shared a heifeweizen and a soup and went our separate ways – them back to Cinous-Schel for more riding the next day…me to Zurich, and a 7AM flight the next  morning to Frankfurt, Bremen and the International Mass Spectrometry Conference.

I won’t say that this was fun.   Too many complicated logistics and no Ruedi.  But it is a great thing to have done.  Once!

Ruedi provided some scenic pics from previous years’ rides when the weather had been sunny and warm:

Clear day - glacier

Clear day - glacier

Looking up at the climb to the pass

Looking up at the climb to the pass

 

Jeju Island, Korea September 1, 2009

Filed under: Travel — keninsantacruz @ 4:59 AM

Jeju Island – August 2009

Korean colleagues get that far-away look in their eyes and that longing tone in their voice when they speak of Jeju Island.  It is a world heritage site with many cultural, culinary, and natural attractions – most prominently the 1950m Mt. Halla volcano at the islands center.  Apparently the diving is world-class, and, as always, there is plenty of golf!  Korea has taken steps to preserve Jeju’s natural state, such as a strict ban on manufacturing on the island and designation of the entire coast as a marine preserve.  Koreans are proud of Jeju Island – and they flock to it!

Having overcome the combined deficits of no cell phone (my Blackberry was incommunicado!), no access to local currency (BofA helpfully disabled my ATM card the first time I tried to use it!), incorrectly booked flight to Jeju (itinerary had me staying for 2 days at Incheon airport!) and senses dulled by jetlag, I was able to catch a bus from Incheon to Gimpo airport and get on a standby flight to Jeju on Friday night.  I boarded late and took the last seat in a plane chock full of inquisitive Koreans.  This left we with a weekend to catch up on work – and explore.  The weather was hot and HUMID. 

I stayed in the Jungmun Beach Resort area and was able to see:

Yeomiji Botanical Gardens – nothing noteworthy.

 

Lotus pod

Lotus pod

The greenest water on the planet

Seriously GREEN water in the Italian garden

Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls and the beautiful Seonimgyo Bridge of the Seven Fairies Legend. (Cheonjiyeon Waterfall is also referred as “God’s Pond.”  In legend, the seven fairies who serve the King of Heaven descended to the pond below the waterfall on stairs made of clouds to bath in its pristine water.)  Definitely worth a visit!

 

The Seven Fairies Bridge on the way to the falls

The Seven Fairies Bridge on the way to the falls

Beautiful Bridge 3

Beautiful Bridge 2

Crossing the Seven Fairies Bridge

Crossing the Seven Fairies Bridge

The Falls

The Falls

 

Jungmun Beach: not quite up to California beach standards…
Jungmun Beach

Jungmun Beach

Statistically safe watersport

Statistically safe watersports

Gaetggak basalt beach – a beautiful, remote beach accessable from the Hyatt.

Beautiful basalt beach

Beautiful basalt beach

And some interesting random sights:

Sea wall

Sea wall

 

Woman with yachts

Woman with yachts

I specifically avoided the world famous Teddy Bear Museum.

Teddy Bear Museum

 

Hallasan Park with the Mt. Halla volcano, lava tubes, caves, etc. will have to await my next visit.  As will Jeju’s 300 or so lesser volcanoes.

I was lucky enough to witness one volcanic eruption during my stay.  Improbably, a 100-foot igneous rock mass rises from the rim of a clear, palm-lined pool.  We were having dinner at a restaurant in the area and were startled by belches of fire coming suddenly from the volcano.  We left our table and rushed to a viewing platform as the eruption gathered momentum.  Red and purple colored lava began to gush down as huge flames leapt from the volcano and the pool at it’s base.  Then a 30-foot tall fire-breathing dragon emerged from the pool and battled another large, green-eyed serpent that came from a cave in the volcano, roaring loudly and accompanied by a dramatic musical score.  This seismic event occurs with even greater regularity than Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser: it can be seen every night at 8PM in the pool area of the expansive Lotte Resort.  This and many other wonders await you on Jeju!!

 

Tenaya Canyon Descent August 24, 2009

Filed under: Adventures — keninsantacruz @ 4:03 PM

TENAYA CANYON DESCENT – August, 2009

Celise and I descended Tenaya Canyon in 2006.  It left a deep impression of adventure, unrivalled beauty, and solitude.  Since then, we have been angling for a repeat, but have been thwarted by logistics or overwhelmed with other activities.  This year all the pieces came together again.  The trip actually began about a month before the actual outing, with rappel practice for our partners in crime, Alan and Rose, at a concrete stairwell along West Cliff in Santa Cruz.  Kenneth from New York joined for this bit of fun.

Rose's first rappel - West Cliff, Santa Cruz

Rose's first rappel - West Cliff, Santa Cruz

Tenaya Canyon Descent II

In an eco-friendly twist, we decided to pile 4 bodies into Alan’s car on Friday afternoon and leave a Santa Cruz shrouded in smoke from the Bonny Doon fire to drive to The Valley where we would camp and catch the 8AM Tuolomne Meadows Hikers Bus (who knew?), negating the need to set a shuttle and eliminating the 3 hours of extra driving on Sunday night to retrieve the shuttle car in Tuolomne.  Smart!

How best to begin a weekend of hardship and privation?  With Happy Hour at the Ahwhanee and a nice dinner at the Mountain Broiler Room (with a wonderful Wild Horse Pinot Noir) – don’t let the yelp.com snobs deter you!  We did our usual late entry/overnight stay at the backpackers sites in North Pines with a planned early exit to catch the bus.  A night of Turrets’-inspired outbursts from a neighboring camper (unheard by me, but reported by Alan and Rose) and a pot-clanging yell-fest by another neighbor to reclaim their cooler from a bear (unseen by me, but reported enthusiastically by all) had us up at 5:30 and back at the car to pack.  Tents, bags, harnesses, rope, food…

Alan and Rose went to get coffee while Celise and I scouted the shuttle.  We found the stop and learned that we needed tickets.  We purchased the last four (!) tix at a nearby “Tours” kiosk…Yosemite!  With 10 minutes to go, Alan and Rose were not back.  A quick search found them near the front of a LONG line for coffee.  Their persistence in the face of a departure deadline was admirable.  We debated and figured that we had just enough time to get the coffees and catch the bus.  As the line snaked forward …slowly… we counted down the minutes.  Cups in hand, we filled, covered, and ran to the bus stop where Celise was panicking, sure she was going to have to lie in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving without us.  We loaded our packs and boarded last, in smug anticipation of an imminent caffeine buzz.

“I bet you thought this was just a shuttle.  Well you have all actually signed up for a tour, so I’m going to share some Yosemite history with you for the next 2 hours” came over the speakers as we started to drive.  “Are you all aware of the connections between Yosemite and Woodstock?” began our revisionist history of Yosemite tour.  And when he ran out of flashbacks, the driver regaled us with excerpts from “Death in Yosemite” – for Rose’s benefit, we’re sure.

After a few over-long & unnecessary stops (how else could it take 2+ hours to get to Tuolomne?), we disembarked at Sunrise trailhead and started toward Cloud’s Rest.  Not having had breakfast, we decided on an early lunch.  Sidling off-trail to a flat, sunny slab, Celise dug in her pack for the meticulously crafted food stash she had prepared for the trip – and came up empty.  This is when it dawned on her, and then us, that all of our food was back in the car in The Valley.  We shared a communal OH SHIT revelation as fleeting thoughts of beating a hasty retreat to the road crossed our minds.  A quick survey of all caloric contents from the other packs yielded some baked potatoes & hard boiled eggs (breakfast?), some cheese and 6 sad corn tortillas (dinner quesadillas?) and enough random power/snack food that it appeared we would be able to continue.  A quick vote settled it.  I was swayed to vote Aye when a Peet’s bag and drip cones emerged from Rose’s pack.  On we went.

The first time Celise and I did this hike, we had an excellent trail description.  This time, we did the trip from memory (having neglected to bring the excellent trail description) and got it more or less exactly right.  I will spare the details and focus on the highlights.

The “Certain Death” sign is very picture-worthy – and a sure-tell sign that you are on the right path.  My favorite MadLib: Return to Tioga Road _____________.  (While You Can!  Before It’s Too Late!  To Get More Food, Stupid!)

This sign inspires confidence at the start

This sign inspires confidence at the very start!

The drop into the upper bowl is amazing and sets the tone for the remainder of the trip.  Big features, killer views, amazing geology.

Amazing geology in the upper bowl
Amazing geology in the upper bowl
Miles of super-clean, polished granite

Miles of super-clean, polished granite

And a most perfect pool and dive platform!
The judges give Alan a 10!

It’s unanimous – the judges give Alan a “10” for this dive!

Then a hike through a forest

Rose and Celise hike through ferns in the Upper Forest

Rose and Celise hike through ferns in the Upper Forest

More glaciated granite, pools, and slides, with a growing sense of a huge gravity-laden abyss up ahead.

Nature - landscape architect!

Nature – the greatest landscape architect

Beautiful pools before "the abyss"

Beautiful pools before “the abyss”

To Slide or Not To Slide?

To Slide or Not to Slide?  (They slid!)

Now the serious work begins: talus descent, chaparral crossing.

Boulder hopping to the slabs

Boulder hopping to the slabs

Interminable STEEP slabs.  Walkable in boots, just barely.  Aim for the only big tree in the bowl below (missing its top 1/3 since ’06).

Interminable steep slab descent

Overly-long (and steep) slab descent

Rewarded with the best swimming hole of the entire trip.  Don’t miss this one.  Sunny until about 5PM.

Note Celise and Rose creeping down slab to the right

Note Celise and Rose creeping down slab to the right

The Thinker

The Thinker

Alan provided plenty of entertainment!

Alan provided plenty of lively entertainment!

Next came scrambling along the river course through the Enchanted Forest with perfect views of the Quarter Domes.

Quarter Domes from Enchanted Forest

Quarter Domes from Enchanted Forest

Quarter Domes & tree

Quarter Domes and tree

And a great camp site.  We considered several sites before this one, but kept going to the last sandy bar on the river, about 200 meters before the first gorge rappel.  We leveled two spots by moving sand and pebbles around and then made the site memorable by topping with soft sand.  We gathered wood and started a fire.  We earned our Iron Chef credentials by figuring out how to make not-enough quesadillas with inappropriate cooking gear (delicious black bean soup HAD been on the original menu with accompanying cheese and tortillas!).  We stoked the fire as it got dark and cool and talk of the Donner Party subsided when we discovered that we had 3 large dark chocolate bars to eat!  And eat them we did!

Local flora

Who ordered flowers?

Campfire (+ chocolate!)

Alan and Rose enjoy the campfire, wine tea, and chocolate!

It was a crystal clear night with a late-rising moon.  Dark!  It was all very Sagan-esque with billions and billions of stars and a shockingly obvious Milky Way.  Others told of shooting stars and the sound of my snores 2 minutes after my head hit my pillow.

Day 2:

A small baked red potato and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast.  Alan skewered his potato with a stick and roasted it marshmallow-style over the fire.  Yum!

Let the games begin!

Leaving our perfect campsite

Leaving our perfect campsite

Almost immediately to the first rappel.
Fearless Leader

Ken – Fearless Leader

Celise - en rappell

Celise – calm en rappell

Continued scrambling.

Scrambling
Mandatory swim.
Looks Cold!

Looks Cold!

It's freezing!

Everyone In!

Continued scrambling down the gorge, downclimbing as required.

More scrambling
Descending the Gorge

The second rappel.

Alan leads off - Rappel #2

Alan Leads Off – Rappel #2

Rapeller #2

Celise Follows

Rose is a Rap Artist!

Rose is a Rap Artist!

More scrambling down, down, down…

Downclimbing

Don't let go!

Don’t Let Go!

To some beautiful pools and the last rappel.

Beautiful pools
The last rappel

The Last Rappel

The last swim

The Final  Swim!

And the end of the Gorge is near!

Stacked scramble

3-Layered Scramble

End of the Gorge - Half Dome view

End of the Gorge – Half Dome view

The last of our food - we could stayed another night!

The last of our food – we could have stayed another night!

The only reason to dissuade anyone from doing this hike is what happens to you when you exit the Gorge.  Having just experienced the most amazing few miles of hiking anywhere on the planet, it is hard to mentally prepare yourself for what comes next.  The first time Celise and I did the hike, we thought we were done at this point.  We sunbathed and napped and hung out and started down somewhat late in the day.  Big mistake!

The ’97 floods made a mess of the canyon here.  There are many long, dry, boulder-and-tree-choked channels to follow.  The first time down, we dutifully obeyed the topo and kept to the right, hoping for the trail.  It took a long time to materialize and I felt that we had found it by luck.  This time I walked more or less straight to it, but it was still miserable.  And once you find the trail, you have a long way to go.  The trail is incipient and easy to lose.  Its upper stretches are now littered with downed trees and branches – this is new since ’06 (pine beetles?).  It is time to turn off your brain and just walk…and walk…and walk.  The trail descends steeply and you feel like you lose most of the hike’s 4,200 feet here as it goes on forever across steep slopes and rock fields.  It has been washed out in places and it is inevitable that you will lose it many times.  There is poison oak, gnats, mosquitoes…  You get the picture.

Finally you emerge at a bridge on the trail above Mirror Lake, only to realize that you still have 2.0 miles to walk to Mirror Lake (with amazing views of the face of Half Dome on your left that you are too tired to properly appreciate – sorry, no pics!), another 1.5 miles to walk to the Shuttle Bus Stop and, when the Shuttle Bus is STUFFED FULL of clean, well-fed, unburdened people, 1 more mile to walk to the cool beer and forgotten food cache in the ice chest in Alan’s car parked at Curry Village.

We speculated why such an amazing hike attracted so few people.  Because of the rappels, it would justifiably intimidate most hikers.  And the lack of “climbing” would reduce interest by most rockclimbers.  From the time we left the Cloud’s Rest Trail to the moment we joined the Mirror Lake Trail, we passed through indescribably beautiful, unspoiled terrain, thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company and saw exactly no one else.  Not a soul.  This was, we realized, the point of the whole adventure.