As Tranquil As an Airport

The End of A Journey

I never expected to use that phrase in my lifetime, but the new Beijing Airport Terminal 3 comes about as close to that description as I can imagine, especially for international flights. My yardstick of comparison is Beijing Terminal 2 which I have used for the past 14 years, a serviceable but very plain terminal. My experience of checking in at Terminal 2 does not trigger a flood of warm memories, as it usually involved a 30 minute wait in a slow-moving queue. Today in the new terminal I stepped right up to the counter with absolutely no waiting—what a remarkable change of affairs. Airport security did not follow immediately but we walked a bit and then took a train ride to international departures. Only then we went through security and visa checks. We emerged into what is an essence a large and very spacious high-ceilinged shopping mall that provides great opportunities for those last minute souvenirs and gifts. What amazed me was how quiet and uncrowded this space was. The vast terminal (largest in the world when it opened last year, now second largest to Dubai) somehow manages to swallow up the crowds that continuously pour into it. Walking around in there (and walking is the operational word: I noted 6000 steps on my pedometer when I boarded my plane) I felt nearly by myself until I got to the departure gate, which is separate from the central mall area. At the gate I saw a retired gentleman decked out in Phillies red, with sweatshirt and cap. He was from Lititz. I asked him if he had heard the score of game 1, ended only four hours earlier. He had not, so I gleefully reported the happy outcome of the first game of the World Series, which the Phillies had handily won by a score of 6 to 1. I had spent the morning in my hotel room, and I was able to monitor nearly every pitch on KYW1060.com – more testimony to the power of the internet. Otherwise, the flight back to Newark was very smooth, long as can be but on-time. Amtrak back to Wilmington, and then a pick-up from my well loved and long-suffering (i.e., all too frequently abandoned) wife.

It was a great trip, as all of my trips to China are. It was a huge learning experience for me about the process of making quality television programs. I have been on programs before, but there is a difference between an interview, in which the camera grinds away and I blab, and telling a compelling story. Making high quality television (e.g., National Geographic quality) is a grueling process. This series is being produced by a New Zealand company, NHNZ. I came away with the highest admiration for the professionalism of the crew. Apparently it is a rule of thumb that a day of shooting produces roughly three minutes of program. What is it that takes so much time and is so costly to produce? The 32 cases of equipment give some indication that we are not talking point and shoot. There is great artistry in setting up shots, arranging backgrounds, excluding unwanted elements. The takes on each scene are endless: wide shots, tight shots, reaction shots, over-the-shoulder shots. Then of course the principals flub lines, miss cues, exit in the wrong direction, stumble and stagger. So it is re-take after re-take after re-take. It is Pip (Philippa), the producer, who is the ultimate decision maker, the one who gets the ulcers. Her favorite expression is “One more time please!” Sally is the field producer. Forming a perfect duo with Pip, Sally keeps track of every shot and every word of dialogue, knowing at all times exactly how to resume a scene. She also is compiling a video blog, pressing her small camera into our faces at odd times and asking us what we are thinking or what is going on. Alex, the director of photography, is integral to the creative process. I have seen him dangle in a 60 foot hole on a cable, climb a chimney, or balance on a string of neck vertebrae swinging in the air by a crane. He is extraordinarily creative about getting the right shot. Rob, camera-man 2, got his start as a fixer in the Philadelphia shoot, accompanied the crew around the United States, and became so valuable that he was invited to become cameraman 2 in China. His creativity behind the camera was evident, as is his genial personality. He is a true sports fan, and was happy to cheer for the Phillies once his Mets had faded into oblivion this year. Adrian, the sound man, begins his day violating us by poking microphone wires down our shirts and out our waists, and then he spends the rest of the day adjusting them whenever the sound quality doesn’t please him. He is extremely old, my age. We sexagenarians got along beautifully. This genial father of 10 is the most imperturbable of men. He enjoyed greatly sampling the brews of China: Tsingtao, Huang He, Yanjing. For my part, I rarely let him drink alone. Eric Huang is only 27, lived in New Zealand for several years, and has only just returned to Beijing. His father is a Chinese diplomat now serving in Belgium. Eric speaks excellent English, and is our fixer, the bridge between our English culture and Chinese officialdom. Kelly is an intern, given the title of production assistant. She is a mere child of 21, and was hired by Eric from the film studies program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She is fresh-faced and perpetually smiling. She always apologizes for her English but speaks clearly and understands clearly. She is extremely competent, very quick to respond to our needs by running errands, arranging for lunches, ordering food in restaurants, dispensing petty cash, and generally making life smooth and pleasant. She always checked us into hotels, collecting our passports for registration, and then returning them to each of us, a ritual repeated many times. Either she or Eric or both accompanied us on our forays whenever possible so that language was not a problem. One other member of the large crew was Daming, an extremely valuable camera assistant. He spoke little English.

Success for a complicated venture in China depends on meticulous advance planning and people on the ground in Beijing to obtain a wide range of permissions. NHNZ, a major producer of documentaries, operates an office in Beijing for just this purpose. When we left Beijing on Thursday we were met by an official of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, who inquired about how satisfactory the arrangements were. The answer was ‘very satisfactory.’ His handiwork was especially evident in the filming of the Lanzhou – Ding Xi train sequence, where we were handled with great deference at both ends of our short rail trip.

Hotels in Beijing are excellent. Once one ventures out into the provinces the results tend to be a little less satisfactory. One thing that is uniform is the generally satisfactory level of internet and cellular service. China has clearly made a commitment to modern communications that is not matched by all parts of the United States, including rural New Jersey where I live. One learns not to base expectations about the comfort of a hotel by the attractiveness of the lobby, which belies a generally dingy quality to the rooms, especially the bathroom. There is always a western toilet, but plumbing tends to be old and leaky, and all too often the shower leaks onto the bathroom floor. Tight caulking is apparently a challenge that has yet to be mastered. There is rarely a hair dryer or a box of tissue in the room, and never, ever an iron. (Laundry services are cheap and efficient). They are unconscionably stingy with toilet paper. On the other hand, there is always a generous tray of grooming amenities, including toothbrush, comb, shower cap, lotions and potions. There is always some form of water heater in the room, with cups and tea (green or jasmine). Rooms tend to be dimly lit, making reading difficult for us seniors. Alarm clocks are rare, and beds tend to be about as comfortable as ironing boards. Oh, for all this, things are not that bad. I have yet to be daunted! An extensive hot breakfast buffet is normal, and one is usually able to browse enough to scare up a decent meal, including palatable eggs, perhaps corn bread, and fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe). Don’t count on coffee. If you are daring, you can choose cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, beans, peppers, various sliced meats, steamed bread, sometimes dumplings, noodles, and various spicy concoctions that stretch the envelope of what we silly Westerners think of as breakfast foods. In general I would say it is easier to be a vegetarian in China than in America.

I find China endlessly fascinating, and I will happily return again and again. But for now, faithful reader, this is a wrap!

It’s a Wrap: Winding Down in Beijing

It is a calm day for me, less so for Phil and the crew. My only official duty on camera is to eat dinner. Now there is a hardship assignment if I ever heard of one. I expect an outpouring of pity from all of my readers! The nonsense I have to put up with to make engaging television! I awoke with a start at 6:27 a.m. I was hearing traffic sounds and I pushed aside the curtains to close the window. I discovered the sky was fairly light. I was certain I had slept through my alarm clock. At this hour in Lanzhou the sky is still quite dark. Then I remembered we just flown eastward by roughly the distance from Denver to Philadelphia without resetting our watches. The entire country is on a single time zone, so naturally local times are out of kilter. It is not for nothing that time zones were invented.

I came downstairs to a fine breakfast. There is no hot Tang at the Xiyuan Hotel. This 55 year-old hotel is quite elegant and satisfactory in nearly every way – no water rushing across the floor during a shower, no using precious (and I do mean precious!) toilet paper as Kleenex, no wondering how to dry hair without a hair dryer. Nice hotel indeed. And convenient.  From my 18th floor aerie I look down on the roof of the 7-story building of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the repository of fossils ranging from Peking Man to Anchiornis huxleyi, one of the latest feathered dinosaurs to be reported just a few weeks ago. At the IVPP we were warmly received by Xu Xing in his 6th floor office which is crammed with the sorts of fossils that make paleontologists drool. During our lengthy and interesting conversation with the gentle and engaging Xu, Dong Zhiming dropped in. He is one of the greatest fossil collectors who has ever lived and also the most genial of men. He is now in his 70s but still active. I have known him for 20 years. He was Hailu’s Chinese mentor, and I enjoy the esteem of being Hailu’s American mentor. Between the two of them, Xu and Dong have described nearly 10% of all dinosaurs recognized today!  Having the two of them together provided a great photo-op. When filming began I retreated across the street to the hotel for some much needed calm time. I rejoined the gang for lunch at the nearby Korean barbeque. Afterwards Phil and I purloined about 15 minutes for a whirlwind tour of the IVPP Museum, which includes an interesting fossil by the name of Magnirostris dodsoni, named by Hailu and Dong in 2003.

Later in the afternoon I got the call to come down and join Phil for some taxi shots—hailing a cab, getting in, getting out, driving around, etc. By our designated taxi stop along the street my eye was drawn to some ladies’ dainties drying in a window grate just by the gritty sidewalk. Drying laundry perfumed by the fragrances of Beijing air is a common enough sight. Next to that was a massage parlor featuring blind masseuses. Phil and I thought nasty thoughts, but apparently this is a very legitimate operation. Massage is not an uncommon Chinese practice. No haircut is complete without a massage of scalp, neck and shoulders, a rich sensual experience. No wonder the Chinese generally keep their hair short and trim! I think how disappointed our Chinese colleagues must be the first time they have their hair cut in Philadelphia! Taxi shots over, daylight fading, and dinner filming looming, Phil had to make an emergency run to a camera store to buy a sturdy box for transporting the fossil feather. This foray took me to a Beijing that I had never seen, of tall modern buildings and bright pulsating lights. It looked like the Ginza in Tokyo. We entered the electronics department store that was our goal and it was perfectly amazing: 10 floors of up-to-the-minute computers, cameras and electronic gadgets. It was absolutely stunning. I have never seen the likes of it. As we so well know, many if not most of these products are now manufactured in China. They are also sold here, and the size and magnificence of the building are testimony to the growing affluence of the rising middle class in China. They are getting to look more and more like Westerners in so many ways. I found it very embarrassing to be cleaning up pools of drool as Phil moved from one camera display case to the next! One could have dropped serious money there at prices that were more or less equivalent to full retail in the U.S.

Next we dashed off to our “ Peter welcomes Phil to China” dinner in Ho Hai. We successfully avoided being running over by a bus in a street scene then settled in for a dinner in a quaint little restaurant as I welcomed Phil and told him the treats that were in store for him. I felt terrible that the crew had to watch us eat. Phil only picked at his food. He has a tender tummy and wanted no culinary adventures the day before his long flight home. So I had to pick up the slack. Dodson yet again takes one for the team in the gastronomic department. I avoided soiling my shirt on camera, which I consider a signal accomplishment, perhaps my  finest in China! Pip declared a wrap at 8:15, the crew let out a whoop and a cheer, and the cameras were put to a well deserved rest. What I did not know was that an elegant dinner was planned for everyone. Our next destination was yet another Beijing I did not know, the elegant red lantern district of Guijie, the food street. Red lanterns were everywhere, truly colorful and inviting. Our restaurant was a vast warren of intimate rooms connected by exquisite oriental gardens with little fish ponds and quietly bubbling fountains. Even the bathrooms were elegant, with pots of green plants growing in the stalls, something I had never seen before.

Surprisingly, the food was not as exquisite as the setting, but the Peking duck was the best I had ever tasted. We did not settle down to eat until 10 p.m., so I knew this was not going to be an early night. I was not disappointed. After the food was cleared away and much pijiu consumed, it was decided that we should sample some baijiu. This wound was self-inflicted. This was a crew party, not one inflicted on us by Chinese hosts. It came in a pretty blue bottle with dainty flowers. This indicated that it was a better grade of paint stripper, but still paint stripper. But among good friends it is sometimes right to share the communion of paint stripper. We actually consumed two bottles of the stuff. The bottles were small, the group was large (nine), the glasses tiny. I don’t think that it was really enough to do lasting damage to the central nervous system. It was raucous, emotional and deeply satisfying, quite a lovely ending to a brilliant enterprise. When I got back to my hotel at 2:30 a.m., I passed on my blogging chores. I beg your forgiveness, dear reader.

From Ding Dong to Beijing

The film business, glamorous enough on opening night, is a demanding task mistress for those who follow her call on either side of the camera. Early morning calls follow late nights with alarming regularity. Our farewell dinner the night before with Daqing ended at 10 p.m. We checked out of the hotel this morning without breakfast at 6:45 a.m. Short night, especially for us bloggers who write up the day’s events after the fact. We headed not for the airport but for the downtown train station. Here we filmed several combinations of shots involving Phil and Peter arriving in Lanzhou and being met by Hailu for episode 5, and Phil and Hailu joining forces in episode 6. While the crew set up, we availed ourselves of the KFC next door for breakfast. The coffee and sandwiches were welcome. I rashly ordered orange juice, which Phil and I had sipped from cardboard boxes in our experience with KFC a few days earlier. I expected a similar result but was alarmed when it was delivered in a hot cup. Have you ever drunk your breakfast Tang hot? I have to admit that I prefer my hot Tang to my black KFC coffee!

Today I learned a new word in Chinese: woche means ‘train.’ I try to slowly build on my woeful vocabulary one word at a time. There is no doubt that the public square in front of the train station attracts a motley crowd: elderly beggars working the crowd; a dancing woman with a loose screw to be sure who actually defended us from a beggar;  a man walking around dangling a beautiful red fighting cock by its legs. There was general interest in the filming and the scenes certainly captured some local color, but the interest did not disrupt our work. Finished with the outside work, we took the next logical step at a train station. We said farewell to Hailu (for real not make believe), came inside and boarded a train. We received VIP treatment, were whisked through security, passed through an empty waiting lounge filled with cribs (how family friendly is that?!), and emerged on our platform with our train waiting. More filming on the platform, then Phil and I boarded the train, several times (filmed from the front and from the back). So did Alex (camera number one), Adrian (for sound), Sally and Pip for direction, Eric for logistics and Chinese translation and Daming for camera assistance. Phil and I shared a sleeping compartment for our journey to I knew not where. I didn’t even know where we were when we arrived. There is a certain tranquility in not having to make any travel arrangements and having no anxiety about meeting a schedule. As the filming progressed Adrian occupied the upper berth off camera for sound, and Alex wedged himself near the door so he could film Phil and me on our bench enjoying our lengthy journey across China, compressed into a one hour and 20 minute ride. When we arrived at our stop and detrained, Rob (camera number 2) was there to capture us arriving, along with Kelly our other translator. It was quite an operation.

It seems that we were in Ding Xi, and that if we had stayed on the train we would have arrived in Hong Kong several days later. I don’t know what ‘Ding’ means in Chinese. I do know that ‘Xi’ means west. Now if there is a West Ding I am pretty certain that there is an East Ding as well. This would be called Ding Dong, which is too precious! (If you lived in the eastern suburb of East Ding it would be called Dong Ding Dong. I think a little learning is a dangerous thing). Please excuse my frivolity.

Our next goal was Lanzhou airport. Ding Xi is an hour and 20 minutes southeast of Lanzhou. Lanzhou airport is an hour west of Lanzhou. Setting out at noon, we faced a two-hour drive in our bus. The weather turned balmy, probably in the low 70s. In the warmth a general torpor enveloped the bus. I awoke at 1 p.m. and surveyed the epidemic of somnolence. I mischievously took several photos. Sally got the prize for the most original sleeping position. Petite and flexible, her torso stretched across two seats, jacket over her face, her legs straight up and her feet were plastered against the window!

We arrived at the airport almost at the stroke of 2 p.m., had a surprisingly good lunch at a truck stop, and then resumed work. We filmed an arrival scene outside the airport and a taxi scene. Work completed, we prepared for the flight. Preparation is the operative word. The film crew travels with 32 pieces of baggage! The paraphernalia of on-location shooting boggles the mind. This was the first domestic flight in China for the equipment.

Up to now it had been driven from Beijing to Shandong to Liaoning to Lanzhou (two days travel). It was 300 kg of excess weight at a charge of $3 per kg or $900–just part of doing business. The two hour flight to Beijing was very smooth. I had an open seat beside me for the first time since I left home, and thus was able to blog en route instead of after reaching my hotel room. Tai hao le!

A Quick Ride on a Fast Machine – and Phil Pulls a Prank

Originally the plan called for driving to the Geopark for a second day of filming footprints. Faced with a full-scale revolt from the party, an alternate mode of transport was quickly arranged: speed boats. The plan worked more or less well. The less part pertained to the beginning. The two boats arrived 50 minutes later than the 8 a.m. departure that we planned. When they arrived the operators went ashore in search of fuel. They returned after a while carrying plastic containers of gasoline and puffing away on their cigarettes. We wondered if they were going to extinguish their smokes before fueling. Instead of refueling they tied the containers onto the exterior of the boat for later use. It was not until 9:15 that we actually departed. The boats had canopies for cramped interior seating. Phil helpfully observed that water taxis such as these are called ‘flying coffins’ in Brunei. Thanks loads, fella!

The 'flying coffins'

The 'flying coffins'

The boat he and I rode in was designated as the cargo transport for the camera gear. Cases were loaded into the back to allow for seating up front. As the boat sank lower and lower in the water we both began to think that this might not be the best idea, and we refused further cases of camera gear, preferring to share the bounty with our colleagues in the next boat. We set off rather nervously down the river, and the driver instructed us through Kelly, our fixer (and much beloved Chinese intern), to start passing cases forward. He seemed satisfied with the adjusted trim, but frankly we were less than 100% confident. We intuitively searched for the nearest exit from the boat, and duly noted the pile of life preservers in the back. The driver did seem to know what he was doing. Obviously we made it there and back in safety or there wouldn’t be a blog. It was actually a pretty quick smooth ride. We covered the 20 km in 35 minutes, although our friends made it in 30. Our engine had 115 horses, theirs 160! We arrived feeling relaxed and relieved that it was actually a pretty pleasant and swift trip. The difference between the plodding ferry and the swift boat reminded me of the difference between driving a pleasant byway and driving on an interstate. You see so much less at high speed.

Phil, the dinosaur

Phil, the dinosaur

The early morning murk dispersed and left us with quite a glorious day of clear blue skies. By mid day people were shedding layers of clothing. We feared for the worst weather and got the best. Phil was in his glory at the footprint site, as he did his Ph.D. at Sheffield on dinosaur footprints. He cavorted about the inclined rock face impressed with the imprints of more than 1300 foot-to-ground contacts. He came up with interesting interpretations that drew on soil,  mechanical and water content properties of the substrate, and changes of pressure patterns within the structure of the foot.

Tracking Peter

Tracking Peter

His interest is in the biomechanics of locomotion and in behaviors revealed by footprints. He is somewhat contemptuous of ichnotaxonomy (the ‘science’ of naming genera and species of prints, which tacitly assumes that footprints have intercourse with other footprints and give rise to baby footprints). He demonstrated the use of powerful new LIDAR technology to provide three-dimensional mapping of footprint sites within a very few hours, a technique that was entirely novel to me. His ‘toy’ costs $150,000! Due to the demands of filming he was not able to spend nearly enough time observing the fossil treasures the site offers. He has strong incentive to return at a later date for serious scientific collaboration and study.

Phil and Peter and the LIDAR

Phil and Peter and the LIDAR

We pledged to terminate filming by 4:30 p.m. (and actually shut down only 7 minutes late. We did not want to be on the water after dark. The river was like glass on our return trip in the rich golden sunlight of late afternoon. It is easy to appreciate what a highway a broad river can be in an area of rough terrain such as this.

Yellow River sunset

Yellow River sunset

We approached Yongjing and were only about a quarter of a mile from our dock around the bend when our engine cut out. Kelly told us that the engine had run out of gas! Sure enough the boat was drifting backward in the swift current. The driver nonchalantly climbed out the front window and disappeared from our sight. We didn’t know whether to be annoyed, alarmed or amused. Phil helpfully suggested that the driver had donned a life jacket and abandoned ship. The rest of us doubted that. But we needed to communicate with our colleagues on the dock as the distance between us and them was increasing. We first tried the walkie talkie to no avail, and then Phil got out his cell phone and tried to call Eric, our fixer on the other boat. It took several attempts to get through but finally Eric answered. Phil got a wickedly mischievous look on his face and reported “The boat has broken down. We are sinking. Blub blub blub!” Then he hung up. Within moments the walkie talkie was squawking. It was Pip, sounding somewhat dubious but mildly alarmed as well. Phil repeated the same routine. This time it was not as convincing because of the peals of laughter in the background so Phil had to fess up that all was well. We told them we would call back if we actually needed help. But a short time later the engine sprang back to life and we were at the dock in five minutes.

We got back to Lanzhou by 7:30 p.m., and had a farewell dinner with Daqing, his wife and his crew. We hosted the dinner and warmly toasted our new friends for their outstanding cooperation and also for the outstanding quality of their scientific offerings. They will look good on television, that is for certain. Daqing runs a superb operation.

Tomorrow we return to Beijing, but only after a grueling day in Lanzhou.

Goat Upon the Waters (No Chickens Please!)—And the Ride from Hell

Today was another amazing and grueling day, like so many before now. Yet each day is like no other and continues to surprise this seasoned China traveler. The Yellow River, the sixth longest river in the world, arises in Qinghai Province immediately to the west of Gansu. By a circuitous route it flows generally west to east before entering the Bohai Sea in Shandong Province. Southwest of Lanzhou it unexpectedly bends back westward through an interesting gorge, the site of several important hydroelectric dams. This area in Yongjing County is a favored vacation area for good reason. It is truly lovely. The area is also the site of Liujiaxia National Dinosaur Geopark, dedicated to preserving some superb dinosaur footprints discovered by Daqing in 1999. Naturally this was our goal, but one not necessarily easily attained. There is no established road there. The easiest access is by boat along the Yellow River, or by infrequent narrow gauge railway. Despite the difficulties, 20,000 visitors annually have visited the site since it was dedicated in October, 2005, an event that my wife and I attended as Daqing’s guests. Yongjing is an easy and scenic 1 1/2 drive from Lanzhou, crossing a 2200 m pass. As we drove along the river below Yongjing, we began to appreciate the natural beauty that tourists find so engaging. The banks of the river are lined with lovely willow trees, still green,  that arch over the quiet little road. On our right there are lotus ponds, on our left there are fish ponds.

Sunrise on the Yellow River

Sunrise on the Yellow River

As we arrived at the ferry landing, we found a splendid sample of rural China at its most appealing. There was an old man in a Mao cap, silver goatee and wire-rimmed glasses, smoking his pipe and tranquilly eyeing the passing scene. The deeply-etched lines in his face show great character. There was a young mother and her two children, an eight year-old girl and a four year-old boy. I engaged them by taking their photos and showing them the results, an easy ploy for social interaction. I explained to the girl in Chinese that I am an American and I asked her if she was an American. Her response was a girlish giggle. They were waiting for a bus, but nearby folks were waiting for the ferry.

Penn's cultural attache

Penn's cultural attache

The most charming vehicle in the ferry line was a rickety three-wheeled farm wagon with a splendid white goat in the truck bed. The farmer had a 10-year old pig-tailed daughter wearing a jacket that read ‘ballet buddy’ in English on the back. It was a strange sight to see the goat placidly floating across the river. We had chartered a ferry for the day for filming purposes. Our boatman was a farmer turned riverman; his face too was a character study. Our first run strictly for photographic purposes was straight across the river to the ferry dock opposite. Here a young woman on a bicycle attempted to board but sadly was turned away from our charter. She was carrying a basket of live chickens!

When we turned downriver, we sometimes trailed our second chartered ferry (where our cameramen ground away with their cameras pointed at Phil, Daqing and myself), and sometime we led it. It was travel in comfort, for the water was smooth as glass and the weather unexpectedly warm, probably in the mid 60s. The river was broad, swift and remarkably clean. The waters were neither yellow nor brown; the dam upriver must allow sediment to settle out. Soon cliffs came down to rivers edge, first of Ordovician age and then some granitic basement. But for much of the cruise we glided past well-bedded Lower Cretaceous sediments. We marveled at angular unconformities, small faults and wonderful folds, a geological wonderland.

Cormorant in flight

Cormorant in flight

Moreover, there was birdlife to be seen. The highlight was going past a cormorant rookery above white-stained rock faces. The entire colony took flight when we drifted past. Phil blasted away with his 400 mm lens in his Cannon SLR, and captured some wonderful pictures in flight. We also saw mallards on the river (did I really travel 7000 miles to see mallards?!) and a large group of egrets high on a cliff. After numerous starts, stops and reversals of direction (typical of a film operation), we finally arrived at the boat landing for the Geopark. The sign proclaimed in perfectly plain Chinglish “Konglongwan Wharf. Passenger in turn hing and low.” Let me know if you figure this one out!

Phil leaping into Peter!

Phil leaping into Peter!

There are two footprint sites, one under a permanent shelter and the other not so protected. It now being rather late in the afternoon it was decided that the light was too poor inside to film (and Phil was not permitted inside to ogle them—in order to preserve the spontaneity of his reaction). We will return as planned tomorrow. Instead Phil was encouraged to visit site 2 and collect data. Site 2 is over 1000 square meters in area and contains more than 1200 footprints, about one per square meter. Phil is a techie, and he demonstrated the use of LIDAR to execute a computerized map of the site, using a laser beam that records 50,000 points per second. He stated that he could do it in 1.5 hours. Which he did. Unfortunately this operation concluded at 6:30 p.m., 10 minutes after sunset.

Yellow River sunset

Yellow River sunset

We were about 200 meters above the valley floor, and the ferry had left several hours earlier. Vehicles brought us down to the visitor center below, but the only way to get back to Yongjing is by vehicle—namely our 18 passenger bus and Daqing’s fleet of Mitsubishi SUVs. I had already stated that there is no road in. There is not. There is a rude single-lane dirt track that ascends the steep far wall of the valley. The bus driver was trying to hurry Phil as he was clearly nervous about crossing such a perilous road in the dark. We departed at 6:45 p.m. in pitch dark. I turned weenie and asked to ride in Daqing’s hardy SUV; Phil followed suit. I had a hard time seeing the bus as roadworthy. I was a weasel for deserting my friends in the team bus; for once I cashed in on my seniority privilege. We departed in a convoy of five vehicles (including the bus) and groped our way up though switchback after switch back, and then jostled our way slowly down the other side.

Two remarkable events occurred. We were stopped in the dark by a man demanding a toll to continue–a fine bit of rural entrepreneurship! Daqing handled the situation tactfully, pointing out we were not mere tourists, we were visiting scientists and foreigners on an official trip; Daqing’s name was known to the bandit, and Daqing told the man he was prepared to report this to authorities if he did not let us pass. He backed down. After a bit we came to a darkened farm village on this one-lane track. It might have been quaint, with dried corn sheathes lining both sides an arm’s length away from the car. Suddenly we came upon a padlocked wrought iron gate barring our further progress! Moreover, not a person was stirring; the sun was down and so apparently were the villagers. It took 15 minutes to raise someone to open the gate. He too demanded a toll, but once again Daqing talked his way out of the situation. I thought I had seen it all but I am still being surprised. What a country! We finally passed our last obstacle, but the drive continued forever. We crossed the Yellow River back on to the correct side, but had to cross a mountain before getting back to Yongjing. We got to our hotel at 8:30, everyone feeling exhausted from the journey. Never did water seem so appealing an alternative to backbreaking land travel.

Tomorrow we boat!

A Feather in His Cap

Today was positively leisurely for me. I was not on camera at all and Phil did not get his call until 1 p.m. Hailu was supposed to be interviewed in the hotel at 10 a.m., but the hotel was too noisy. Lanzhou absolutely bursts with energy and noise on Saturday. There was a wedding party at the hotel, and nicely-dressed young children were running through the lobby with glee and abandon in the absence of any adult supervision. The oompah band music across the street boomed through our windows until 1 p.m., a nightmare for our sound man, Adrian. Hailu’s interview was delayed until comparative quiet reigned. One camera went to Daqing’s shop and filmed the dismantling of the Daxiatitan skeleton. What took 6 hours to erect took 2 hours and 45 minutes to bring down.

A long afternoon was spent at Daqing’s office, the anteroom of which is actually a lovely small and exquisite museum and a wonderful film venue.  Here among the fossils Phil arrives and receives from Hailu a fossil treasure, the analysis of which forms a key rationale for the entire episode. Dare I say—it is a fossil feather that Phil will guard with his life? While the filming went on for six hours, I lounged in Daqing’s office, drank green tea with him, showed off the pictures of my granddaughter, caught up with my reading, and generally had a low stress day, which is not a bad thing I should say, although the account of it may not make riveting reading. At one point late in the afternoon I tiptoed past the cameras and cables and went out onto the terrace. Here I found cameraman Rob absolutely enchanted by two Chinese boys and their skateboards. In case you haven’t noticed, skate boards have gotten a whole lot more complicated recently. If four wheels were not risky enough, they now have two wheels, and if a solid board were not thrilling enough, they are now jointed in the middle, the better to power forward movement by pumping. I would no more step on one of those than milk a mad bull, but of course these young adepts were coursing up and down the tiled terrace with perfect nonchalance. One was a tall nine-year-old, the other a short eight-year-old. The older wanted to talk, and he spoke really quite decent English. He introduced himself as Bruce. And he has been studying English for five years, that is, since he was four! They were both fascinated with Rob’s movie camera, and he filmed them doing their moves on skateboard. Rob beamed with delight at the encounter. These trans-cultural exchanges are what make foreign travel so rewarding for me. I was so sorry I hadn’t brought some dinosaur books as gifts.

We boarded our bus back to the hotel at 7:30 p.m. It seems that all of the crew meals until now had been eaten at the very good restaurant nearest the hotel. With just a little a little persuasion I managed to sell them on the more adventurous step of going a block away and eating at Tao Yuan Chun, where Phil and Kelly and I had enjoyed our 1000 year magic taro so very much. We all went and had a splendid meal with beer and magic taro and all. The bill came to very roughly $50 for a crew of 12! You gotta love this country!

Tomorrow: boating on the Yellow River to reach our fossil locality.

Exotic Cuisine – Saturday Morning Breakfast

A Note from Phil Manning

Today I persuaded Peter to take me to an eatery that I have never set-foot in on any continent of the world. We choose China for this auspicious occasion. While Peter was keen to assault the taste-buds with Lanzhou Beef-Noodle for breakfast, my culinary palate was searching for something far more exotic…well, in China at least. Breakfast these past few days had been a non-event for me, as I simply could not face the sensory overload of fried fish, chicken, pork, and ‘other’ meats on offer at the hotel…even the expert noodle chef was not enough to tempt me past the vast buffet on offer each morning… once had been enough. No, today I was to sample my first ever KFC- yes, I was no longer to be a Kentucky Fried Virgin.

As you passed through the doors of the said establishment, a bizarre transformation from East to West occurred, complete with tens of square meters of shiny melanin, the sound of familiar music and recognizable food. I was back in the land of square eggs, Styrofoam coffee and very optimistic orange…with a label that should have read, ‘when I grown up I want to meet a real orange’. The familiar taste of e-numbers and preservatives jolted my body into an equally familiar fast-food induced endorphin rush…maybe the beef noodle option would have been a better choice after all…all I could hear in my mind was the gentle scream of Emma Schachner (one of Peter’s PhD students at Penn, whose committee I sit on), given KFC is the exact food she very much disapproves of…its painful when you know they’re right.

Peter and I munched merrily on our reconstituted food, synthetic drinks and commented on how the coffee was surprisingly like ‘coffee’…pondering on where the flavoring had been salvaged? The view from our vacuum formed shiny benches and table was onto one of the main streets passing through Lanzhou. It was akin to watching a travel show on China, in our strangely clean surroundings with incongruently piped music as a backing track to daily life in Lanzhou. Bar Egypt, China is a country where you still feel a visitor from another world, albeit with surprisingly recognizable surroundings. Here it seems East is firmly crashing into West, at an alarming speed. This voracious economy is clearly feeding huge optimism in the whole country that can be felt in all quarters. It was soon time to step through the looking glass and re-join the hustle and bustle of uptown Lanzhou.

As we walked towards the hotel the constant hum of traffic was broken by the indelicate intrusion of a marching band…or so we thought. As we neared our hotel the um-pah-pah of a healthy brass section greeted us on the opposite side of the street to our hotel. Peter and I remarked on how wonderful the sound of live music was…but sadly, we soon realized as the full-brass of the Coldstream Guards kicked in, that the brass instruments held by our marching ‘band’ were as still as a fossil…the would-be musicians did not even have the decency to mime. The oomph had clearly gone from their um-pah-pah.

Peter and I were fortunate to have had this leisurely start to the day, as Hailu was being interviewed as we ‘dined-out’ in style. The process of cross-examining him on his fossil antics would be over by 11am, we would then all shift across town to Daqing’s office…a veritable Aladdin’s cave of lost worlds and forgotten lives. Here we would start the process of picking dirt from bone…otherwise known as preparation, an excruciatingly slow and pedantic process that would test the patience of Methuselah. As to what we were playing with, my apologies again…you will have to wait til the National Geographic series airs…worth the wait I promise.

PLM

How to Build a Dinosaur

Today’s film project is to construct a dinosaur from a pile of bones right on camera in the courtyard of Li Daqing’s laboratory workshop. In this case the dinosaur is a very large one, Daxiatitan, which reaches a length of 90 ft., although this one mercifully was a little bit shorter at about 70 ft. Is it possible for Daqing’s men to assemble a skeleton in one working day? I know it is, because I saw his men assemble 10 skeletons in three days last summer. I thought this would make pretty interesting television, as you will see when you tune in next May.

How many bones does a 70 ft. sauropod have? Possibly the same number as a 30 footer, 50 footer or 90 footer. If we start with the vertebrae, there are 16 cervicals in the neck (yes, twice what a giraffe has plus two), 13 in the rather short back region (we call them dorsals because dinosaurs almost never have lumbar vertebrae), 5 sacrals and about 56 caudals in the tail. Underneath the tail vertebrae there hang down about 45 slingshot-shaped chevrons that start out large near the pelvis, diminish in size towards the end and then disappear altogether. How is your math so far? I think we are up to 135 bones so far. For ribs there are 13 pairs in the neck, and13 pairs in the back for a total of 52 more bones, bringing us to 187, and we haven’t even gotten to the legs yet. The shoulder girdle has two pairs of bones (adding a coracoid) instead of the single scapula of mammals, but the pelvis has the same three pairs of bone; thus four in front, six behind for a total of 10 more bones – 197. Oh, there is a pair of large kidney-shaped sternal plates near the bottoms of the ribs just behind the shoulder. 199.

Phil and Peter with some big bones

Phil and Peter with some big bones

The long bones of the limbs are identical to mammals – three pairs for the forelimb, three for the hind limb (see how easy anatomy is?!). We now have 211 bones. Hands and feet are complicated – there are five pairs of metacarpals and five pairs of metatarsals, for 20 more – 231 bones. The toes of sauropods are short and stubby, with a severe reduction in the number of segments in each digit, although there was a large claw on the inner toe both front and rear. The total number of phalanges both fore and aft is about 30 – 261 bones. There are a very few wrist and ankle bones, also much reduced, say a total of 4 for 265 bones. We could count each bone in the skull like real anatomists do, but let’s be lazy and score 1 for the skull and jaws and top our count off at 266 bones for Daxiatitan.

 

Bone puzzle

Bone puzzle

Is it possible to mount 266 bones in one day? Yes, if you are a member of Li Daqing’s splendid team of workers and if Phil and Peter don’t get in the way too much. There are several secrets that I will reveal to my privileged readers. One is that the skeleton is a cast of the real bones, not the fragile and precious bones themselves. The other is that casts were cleverly designed to be taken up and dismantled for traveling exhibits. Today each of the 90 vertebrae did not have to be painstakingly joined to its neighbors. Rather long stretches of verts were cast as single units—the tail in two units, the heavy sacrum as one, the back as two units and the neck as two units. Internal steel runs the length of each unit, and one unit slots neatly into the next—just like the toy models we assembled as kids, only much much larger and heavier.

As the bone pile was dissected by the workers, the heavy sacrum was carried into its carefully predetermined position in the middle of the court yard. A crane hoisted the unit up into the sky, 12 or so feet above the ground. Next, a pre-assembled hind limb unit (femur, tibia and fibula) was carried over and coaxed into a vertical position. Ideally the metal projection at the end of the femur would have slotted directly and painlessly into the awaiting socket in the sacrum (I am speaking now in engineering not anatomical terms); however the dangling sacrum was free to twist and spin, and spin it did. Scaffolding was quickly erected and soon workers were scrambling all over, oblivious of the height off the ground. After about 20 minutes of wrangling and cajoling both from the ground and from the scaffold, the femur was finally persuaded to slide into its intended socket, aided by a coating of grease on the metal fitting. It was then bolted into position. The process was repeated on the other side and success was achieved a little more quickly. The men carried over the first section of tail with attached chevrons, the tail was lifted by the crane, and union was achieved fairly quickly. Likewise for two sections of dorsal vertebrae. The skeleton was starting to look like something!

Necking with dinosaurs

Necking with dinosaurs

The forelimbs were a little more challenging although once again clever design was evident. The second rib was attached and bolted in (each of the 26 dorsal ribs is separate). It clearly showed sockets for attachment of the scapula. The large scapula with attached coracoid was hoisted into position by the crane, and it was evident that the inside surface had the first rib already joined to it. When the first rib was finally joined into its socket and bolted, and the second rib and the scapula united, the desired structural (not anatomic) union was achieved. The single forelimb unit was wrestled into the socket in the shoulder. None of these were easy because the limbs were heavy due to large size and heavy constituents of plaster and steel. When this operation was accomplished on the other side, four legs clearly supported a torso. In three and a half hours a crew of 14 men accomplished a great deal. A lunch break was well earned. After lunch, the operations were relatively straight forward: slot in the neck, finish the tail, hang each of the ribs, put the three separate pelvic elements in one-by-one on each side, attach hands and feet (four units), add the sternal plates. The final flourish was the hanging of the head, executed with theatrical flair. What a performance! Invite them to your next birthday party! The script called for completion before dark at 6 p.m. It actually topped out at 4:30 p.m. And to think, they even did it in Chinese!

Pete's dragon

Pete's dragon

So this my friends, is how to build a dinosaur. Carefully, slowly, safely, correctly. It really does help to have 28 pairs of skilled hands, a crane and a lot of scaffolding. Our finished product is 70 ft. long 12 feet at the hips, and the head is browsing in a tree 20 feet up. It is truly a sight to behold.

Yi, Er, San!

Do not drive tiredly” read the signs on the expressway today. Sound advice. I write this blog tiredly but happily. I have just learned that the Phillies are going to the World Series! I have also come down off the mountain after a truly splendid day in the field. The temperature began at a chilly 5 degrees C (41 F) but the skies were clear blue. Fortunately for us there wasn’t a breath of wind. We set out at 8 a.m. flat once again and headed for the fossil field only 45 km from Lanzhou that Daqing and his crews discovered only a few years ago and which he and You Hailu (Ph.D. U Penn, 2002) are making famous. We crossed over the mountain on the expressway, and then exited into rural farmland where the 21st century is still only a rumor. We drove a mile or so up a dry stream bed that serves as the local thorofare, past stone wall-bordered corn fields now devoid of their crop. This bone-jarring ride afforded ample chance to contemplate the gorgeous fall scenery.

Excavation with a view

Excavation with a view

Daqing has inconsiderately found all of his fossils at the top of the mountains and never down in the valley. The bone level is at about 2200 meters of elevation, about 200 meters above the valley floor. It is a steep climb, best taken at a slow ascent for plump old guys like myself. But the climber is rewarded with a splendid 360 degree view of the surrounding lands. Part the way up the well-worn trail is a tent city where Daqing’s men live. His men are in the field from April to the end of October. They remain a little longer if the weather stays warm, or shorter if they have to chip too much ice from their wash water in the morning. We had lunch in camp before ascending to the bone quarry towering over our heads. There is a professional cook in camp, and he outdid himself by preparing six dishes for the guests instead of the usual two for the men.  It was delicious and satisfying; I was afraid I would have to be carried up the mountain. I made it, albeit it at a measured pace.

Al fresco high dining

Al fresco high dining

The quarry was a thing of beauty, a beveled surface in the bright red rock just below the crown of the hill. It glistened in the bright sun. The temperature was now probably around 60, and we stripped off layers of heavy clothing.  Daqing had a small army of blue-jacketed men at work. The filming was designed to show the various phases of the collecting process, with as much involvement of the four principals (Manning, Dodson, Li Daqing and You Hailu). The specimen in the quarry is the second known specimen of the great long-necked sauropod Daxiatitan, perhaps the longest dinosaur in Asia. Don’t worry, you didn’t forget this dinosaur from your youth—it was only described by Daqing and Hailu last year. Daqing has recovered one cervical rib that is 4 meters long–these were truly long-necked animals! Only a few bones were left in the quarry. One large block was already encased in a plaster jacket. Another section was almost ready to be jacketed.

Field jacket, Lanzhou-style

Field jacket, Lanzhou-style

As the quarrymen stood aside, we four picked up hammers and chisels and happily banged away. Later on Phil used an electric jack hammer powered by a gasoline generator and hastened the process. The target block isolated, we backed away and let the quarrymen encase the block in plaster and burlap. Phil and I marveled at the speed, efficiency and cleanliness of the process. I get covered from head to toe in plaster when I do it.

Phil's vibrating tool

Phil's vibrating tool

The other thing we marveled at was the size of the block, which Phil estimated at 2 tons in weight! The most arresting visual was the transport of a heavy block of some 3000 pounds straight down the slope in an absolutely controlled descent, with 14 men (including Phil!) hauling on ropes to the repeated cadence of the team leader barking “yi! (ee), er! (are), san!”, easily understood as “one! two! three!” And so the pyramids were built. This was a small block by Daqing’s standards. Last year he brought down a block that was 5 meters long and 1.5 meters high, the size of a small car—he takes no prisoners. This has to be seen to be believed—and you will see it, I promise! This might seem like a day’s work but a dinner scene was carried out in camp, and then we finally descended to our bus down a trail by flashlight under a lovely crescent moon. We left with a tremendous respect for the excellence of Daqing’s operation. It was a thrilling hands-on day. We arrived back at the hotel just after 8:30 p.m. We will be back at it in less than 12 hours.

3000 lb. jacket

3000 lb. jacket

In Which Phil and Peter Go Off Reservation and Discover Magic Taro

In order to maintain crew morale, today is a scheduled day off, the only one during the shoot. Travels days are definitely not considered days off! We had a leisurely 8:30 a.m. breakfast and then Phil and I were picked up at 10 a.m. and transported to Daqing’s office in the Muslim (Hui) part of town, colorful and cacophonous. I should explain that I have worked in Li Daqing’s office and lab for five years. He collected the dinosaur Auroraceratops that my students and I named after my wife in 2005. Daqing is not only a colleague but a close friend. He spent three months in my lab last fall, during which time he completed his Ph.D. dissertation. He also attended my daughter’s wedding and enjoyed an American Thanksgiving with my family. In turn, his wife and daughter (now age 19) are like my Chinese family.

Phil’s eyes bugged out like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Daqing generously permitted photography without reservation, and Phil maxed out on the opportunity. He hardly knew where to turn first with his voracious camera lens. His eye was drawn to the lovely neck of pelvis of Qiaowanlong, the first brachiosaurid from China that You Hailu and Li Daqing described last month. It was also impossible to overlook the massive and interesting pelvis of Suzhosaurus, the enigmatic plant-eating theropod that Daqing and colleagues described in 2007. Then there is the skull of the great iguanodont Lanzhousaurus with the rhinoceros-sized teeth that Hailu and Daqing described way back in 2005. And there are the gigantic sauropod footprints on the wall that measure 1.2 meters in breadth! Almost overlooked were the dainty skulls and skeletons of Auroraceratops on the floor. After an orgy of photography we lunched downstairs. Daqing has a remarkable operation. His workers work hard and he provides well for them. He has a cook for his office and another one for his lab, which is several blocks away. The meal was simple but very tasty and satisfying. It consisted of four bowls, one each of eggplant, cabbage, shredded potato in tangy sauce, and pork. We each had a bowl of rice. The meal was finished with a soup of egg drop and tomato.

Like a dinosaur track, only bigger

Like a dinosaur track, only bigger

Afterwards Phil and I strolled on the campus of Lanzhou University of Technology and sat by a pond to watch the human parade. Photography satisfied, we returned to the hotel at 4 p.m. and decided to go out for an exploratory walk. We were accompanied by Kelly, the young and engaging intern who has the job of keeping the BOFs out of danger. It was a privilege to have her company. We entered a large department store and explored the huge first floor supermarket that any American grocery shopper would be delighted with, although some tender souls may find some of the fish and stray animal parts or the malodorous spiked durian fruit a little vivid. We marveled at the wide range of goods and also at the small armies of uniformed employees, sometimes up to six in a single aisle without a great deal to do. Afterwards we left the comfort of the familiar and walked through a lengthy outdoor market down a narrow and uneven alley behind our hotel. This was China full strength and a great excursion for an anatomist. Various body parts and organs were displayed for our inspection. I even stumped my companion on the identity of a bowl of curious translucent bilobed objects next to a tank of catfish. I knew that they were swim bladders although I had no idea that they could be considered food items. They did not tempt me. For the less adventuresome even the teas and spices were a delight to see and smell. The market unfailingly provides insight into the culture of any nation.

Marketing in Lanzhou

Marketing in Lanzhou

After this invigorating walk we landed at the inviting Tao Yuan Chun restaurant with its red silk lanterns and colorfully clad waitresses for some late afternoon refreshment. With her unfailing instinct for the wishes of her charges, Kelly ordered the ba bao (eight treasure) tea we had enjoyed so much the night before. It was even more enjoyable than last night because it was not competing with so many others tastes and flavors. Then came the snack she ordered, right out of our dreams. She translated the name as ‘thousand year magic taro,’ and it was indeed magic. The presentation was exquisite, a perfect tall triangular pyramid of what looked like coconut-coated donut holes with colored jimmies for decoration. They were hot, had a crisp caramelized outer shell, and a sweet somewhat donut-like taro interior. Oh my, we were in sugar-tooth heaven! We ate way too many, although for the record I stopped slightly before Phil did. We did manage to leave the bottom layer. This beautiful mound of pleasure cost a mere 18 yuan, somewhat less than three dollars. Dunkin Donuts was never like this! At 7:30 p.m. we contented ourselves with a simple meal of Lanzhou beef noodles.

Motor biking sheep

Motor biking sheep

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