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31 December 2009

Hopes for a New Decade

Alas, it is time for another year-end post. But it's not just the end of a year, it's also the end of a decade. Yikes!

There is now less than half an hour left in the 2000s. I'm writing this on my laptop in the family living room with my mother falling asleep in the chair next to me and my brother upstairs microwaving the New Year's Eve Nachos. Dad's upstairs and will come down later.

New Year's Eve Nachos are a relatively new tradition in the Parenti household, actually, in that they've only existed since 24 December. You see, on 20 December, Mom came back from the store with chips and salsa (among other things, of course). By 22 December, David was insisting that we eat said chips and salsa. I suggested we wait until a special occasion — Christmas Eve, in particular. Christmas Eve Chips-'n'-Salsa would become a new tradition. Okay, fine.

Christmas Eve came and we were eating dinner and Mom asked if we were "still doing the New Year's Eve Nachos," completely getting both the holiday and the food item wrong (although to be fair, she was kind of close). We corrected her, but then decided that New Year's Eve Nachos would also be a good tradition to start.

So we did.

Anyway, I still can't quite grasp the fact that we're on the cusp of 2010. It's just always seemed so far away, and yet... here it is! Heck, it's already here in so many parts of the world.

Earlier today, I was doing some year-end data management and typing 2010 repeatedly into some spreadsheets. I mentioned to my brother how much I like typing 2010 as compared to recent years like 2009, 2005, or even 1996.

You see, for as long as I've been able to type, every year has had a repeated digit in it (and in the cases of 1999 and 2000, a triply repeated digit). In order to type a doubled digit, one has to release the appropriate key before depressing it again. It slows you down. However, for 2010, I don't have to fully let go of the zero before I hit the one. It's wonderful! (Or at least, it will be until 2011 puts a kink in the works for a year.)

But not only will the new year bring the end of the "double-ohs," it will also bring new beginnings for my life.

As 2005 turned into 2006, I wrote that I was excited for new "firsts" entering my life in the coming year. That sentiment is certainly repeated again now, four years later, as I prepare to finish my college career in just a few short months. I still have no idea what I'll be doing come May, but I'm excited to live 2010 to the fullest.

That will certainly mean some big changes for me in the coming year, some personal and some not. I may not know what 2010 or the ensuing decade will bring, but I'm ever hopeful that things will turn out for the best.

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30 November 2009

Busy, Bussy, and Fussy

Okay, so it should be abundantly clear from the fact that I basically haven't blogged at all for the entire semester that I've been pretty busy. I've had a lot of things on my mind. Lately, it's been the three group reports, a presentation, and a concert that are all in the next 72 hours amongst a hectic race-to-the-finish week of band practices and other meetings.

So needless to say, when I got on the bus to head back to Shadyside just a few moments ago, these things stayed with me. I'd been fussing about, and had a lot of thoughts running through my head. And when I finally looked up, the sign at the front of the bus flipped from my stop to the one after. Rats. My three-month-long perfect streak was ruined. But it's okay; I got about 160 meters more exercise than normal, and I got 160 extra meters' worth of fresh air.

I needed that.


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31 August 2009

Term 2101 Schedule

8 November 2009: It's been way too long since I've written here. Nothing I say or do can make up for that, but I'm going to make some sort of effort anyway.

* * *

Here is my class schedule for the Fall 2009 term (Term 2101):

Class Title and Credit Value
ChE 0500 Systems Engineering 1: Dynamics and Modeling 5 cr.
ChE 0501 Systems Engineering 1 Lab 1 cr.
ChE 1085 Departmental Seminar 0 cr.
ENGLIT 0325 Short Story in Context 3 cr.
ENGR 1700
Intro to Nuclear Engineering
3 cr.
ENGR 1702 Nuclear Plant Technology
3 cr.
MUSIC 0222 History of Western Music to 1750
3 cr.

18 cr.

It's kind of weird not having any classes in the mornings, and yes, Wednesdays will suck, just as I had predicted. Classes start 31 August and end 11 December; finals are 14-19 December.

31 July 2009

The Things I've Been Doing

Yes, the laid-back blogging part of me wanted to name this post something like "What I've Been Up To," but then the anal-retentive part of me kicked and screamed about the preposition at the end. While I usually don't care about such grammatical things in most contexts (and often err intentionally for stylistic purposes), committing such an error in the title seemed a bit too egregious for my taste. So eventually, I came up with the one I've got, and I'm sticking to it!

Anyway, I've gotten a lot of questions about what I've been doing this summer, apart from the "obvious if you've read this blog at all in the last three months" trip to China. Well, let me be the first to say that what I'm doing this summer is actually pretty complicated to explain. And that's why I thought it would be perfect to write about here.

Sometime while I was in China, during one of my Skype conversations with my parents, after they had asked all they wanted about how I was doing, I asked how they were doing back home. I recall my father mentioning something about church music. Specifically, the fact that ours basically had none. I didn't know quite what he meant by that until I came back.

I guess a number of circumstances caused our organist to leave, the greatest of which were that her husband's job was moving them away and that she was expecting a child. At one point, she became too pregnant to fit behind the organ console and began to only play the piano. But eventually, she had to leave.

For whatever reason, our church was unable to find a replacement in time, leaving quite the void. Hymns were sung to accompaniment CDs, which often wouldn't have the same number of verses as our hymnals, or wouldn't adhere to some of the stylistic musical traditions our congregation is accustomed to. The doxology was sung a cappella, with similarly mixed results.

When I came back from China, I endured one such service before my father suggested that we get the organ working again. You see, when the organ was refurbished with an all-digital system a number of years ago, a MIDI-based input control was installed. In theory, it would allow any song to be recorded in MIDI format to a floppy disk (yeah, remember those?) which could then be played back at will.

So we looked at the manual, developed an understanding for how this system was intended to work, and then we went to the church one day with some hymn files and tried it out. It worked flawlessly the first time. Yeah... that was easy.

Far easier, at least, then actually learning and rehearsing two or three hymns a week. I've learned hymns before and have performed them in church, but it took me a month to learn a week's hymns. That would not be feasible, while this new option would be.

Within a few weeks, the session decided to hire me for the summer at a substitute organist pay level to create MIDI files for all of the hymns in advance of each week's service. And so you can see why I don't like explaining it to people:

"Well, I'm kind of a church organist, but not really."

Anyway, in addition to that, I've been volunteering about ten hours a week at Saint Vincent Health Center in the Quality Department. Basically, in order to analyze the data that needs to be analyzed in order to work on improving quality of service, someone has to enter the data. Or at least take a large chunk of computer-generated data and manually weed out outliers and points that don't quite match what we're looking for on a particular project.

Occasionally, there is also the opportunity to create a spreadsheet that will actually do something with that data, or in one case actually doing some analysis... but the bottom line is that the volunteer often gets the menial work. And I'm completely fine with that, as my supervisors are always quick to keep me "in the loop" and tell me why I'm doing what it is I'm doing on any given day. And that is wonderful.

Of course, there's also my annual time at Camp Lambec as a counselor for Music Camp, as well as preparing newsletters and everything else involved in that. And lately, the big project has been preparations for moving into my new apartment in Shadyside for the coming school year.

So I really have been quite busy. I'll get back to work now.


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30 June 2009

Quite the Storm

I've got half of a post written about what I've been doing to keep busy this summer, but I'm just too tired from everything that was going on today to finish it before midnight. So I'll finish it tomorrow.

But I can still post something short while it's still June, since I've actually got something else to talk about. ;)

How about that rain? It was certainly quite the storm! The lightning woke me up at 05:30 this morning, and we had a bit of trouble traveling the roads in the afternoon (but with a little extra care, we got everywhere safely). The little "creek" in our backyard flooded all the way up to our garden and completely covered it. Apparently, that's the first time that's happened since we've been in this house... over 17 years.

I heard that the football field at McDowell High School, where my family just watched a DCI competition last night, was almost completely flooded today as well.

All in all, we got 4.6 inches (117 mm) of rain today at our house in Girard. I guess after the widespread flooding in Pittsburgh on 17 June, today was Erie's turn.

Any area readers with other impressive (or not-so-impressive) rain totals for Tuesday?


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27 May 2009


According to Google Reader, I have a lot of reading to do. Some of my closer friends also write for their own blogs (of course, some don't). Regardless, it seems I haven't read a single post on any of their blogs since 28 April. In under half an hour's time, that will have been a full month ago.

Of course, part of this is due to the China trip, but it doesn't help that everyone's been so gosh-darn prolific in May. One friend who had two posts in the first four months of the year has already had three in May.

So, I have some catching up to do. And I will be doing it.

And then I'll be getting more pictures up from China. 'Cause it's been a while for that, too.


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16 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 15

Well, I'm still as jet-lagged as ever (getting over it a bit, but I've got a ways to go). Anyway, it's been four days at home now, so it's about time I write about our final day. Of course, I'm multitasking at the moment, watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with my mother on TV, but that's beside the point. Anyway, let's get on with it.

Day 15 – Tuesday 12 May 2009

You wouldn't ordinarily expect a day of long flights to be all that eventful, and for the most part, it wasn't. But the day wasn't without hiccups.

After a quick final breakfast at the hotel, we packed up and said goodbye to our local tour guide, Yvonne.

We bade farewell to Hong Kong, lined up to check in, and made our way to the plane for our departure.

Unfortunately, there were some issues with the airline staff over the serving of peanuts on our flight… something I'm amazed wasn't taken care of beforehand by the touring agency. Nevertheless, it prevented one of our number from flying with us. Because of her severe peanut allergy, our friend was waylaid in Hong Kong a while longer.

A few stayed behind for support and to help sort things out, including Mr. Goldsmith and his wife, and eventually everyone got back, even if it was a day later than expected. And now, the truly weary travelers have returned to the States, many stories in tow, ready to share their experiences with their families, their friends, and the rest of the world.

A very few pictures from Day 15 can be found here. But honestly, how interesting is a long flight?

Coming up: Pictures galore! Give me some time to get them all online, but they'll be there, and you'll be soon to know… stay tuned!

Random side-note: This is my 200th post on this blog! More celebration! Hooray!

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14 May 2009

Four Years

And now, for something completely different...

No, this post has nothing to do with China or my recent excursions there. Yes, I do plan on posting the happenings of our final day (and trust me, it was eventful).

There is something else that needs to be mentioned first, and that would be the fourth birthday of this very blog! That's right, it has been four full years since my extremely lame first post on "Randomness," which was really supposed to just be a temporary name for the blog... I still haven't come up with anything better.

Now, tradition states that I must bake a digital cake for dear old "Bloggy," and so I did, but not without some hangups. You see, I don't have Photoshop on my laptop. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem, but the family computer at home has been having its own issues. To make a long story short, the OS was just reinstalled onto a newly wiped hard drive. So the really old version of Photoshop we had at home is no more.

So this evening, I quickly downloaded GIMP, installed it, and figured out enough about how to use it to cook up this yummy cake. All in about an hour. Pretty good, if you ask me!

Last year, I'd been lamenting having not written much. But this year, between a half-victorious BEDA and my trip to China, I've been blogging a lot. So leave some comments in celebration, and here's hoping that (within reason, of course) it continues!

I will be writing about our final day in China shortly, but to pass the time you can read my posts on past birthdays: 3, 2, and 1.


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11 May 2009

HCC in China: Days 12, 13, and 14

Well, not really mainland China, per se. But Hong Kong works, too.

Days 12, 13, and 14 – Saturday 9 through Monday 11 May 2009

What better way to end the tour than with a big chunk of largely unstructured time in Hong Kong? Having been a British colony until 1997, Hong Kong is extremely western when compared to the rest of our experiences in mainland China. Upon arriving at the hotel early Saturday afternoon, many of us went straight to places like Pizza Hut, where my group of seven easily spent HK$502 (US$64.77) on lunch.

And so now I'll have a story to tell about when we spent five hundred dollars at Pizza Hut. Only once I get the incredulous looks will I mention that I mean Hong Kong dollars.

On Sunday, we dad have a little bit of a structured time. We spent the large part of the morning taking a bus tour around Hong Kong, to the market at Victoria Peak (which was conveniently the starting point of a charity walk that morning) and to the beach at Repulse Bay. We then spent the afternoon at Stanley Market, where many of us scoped out some last-minute deals for family's gifts and others had a leisurely lunch (I had very British fish and chips this time, no imitations). Afterwards, many of our members enjoyed the vibrant nightlife of Hong Kong.

Monday was almost completely free, and so many went out into the 31 °C (88 °F) sunshine back to the beach. I got a bit burnt in places (as is inevitably the case), but it'll be tolerable. I took care not to burn myself in places that would be inconvenient on a long flight home the next day. After a whirlwind tour, Hong Kong was most certainly the place we could kick back and relax, and so we did.

Our final event was a buffet dinner at the hotel, followed by a time of reminiscing about all of the memories we've made together: The first of what will likely be many story-telling sessions in the months and years ahead.

Apologies there aren't any pictures, but I wasn't going to miss out on relaxing myself! They'll certainly be online in the near future, and if you keep watching this blog, you'll be quick to know when they are.

And so this morning (Tuesday), we had our wake-up call at 05:30. Right now I'm doing my final packing, getting ready to head home, as we leave for the airport within the hour at 07:00 HKT. Our departure will be bittersweet, but we'll have so many memories of the times we've had — good and bad, funny and embarrassing — in China.

Coming up: Our homeward flight departs Hong Kong International Airport at 09:30 HKT and is due to land in New York City 15 hours, 40 minutes later, at 13:10 EDT. Personally, I'll be on another flight back to Pittsburgh later on, due to arrive at 17:58 EDT, where my father will take me home. It'll be a long day, but we'll be reflecting on memories the whole way home. And that will make it be worth it.


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08 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 11

I'm going to cut right to the chase and give you the good news. My roommate, Sam, has been gracious enough to lend me his camera for the last day-and-a-half. So, though I may still be getting a new one, it's slightly less urgent… and I can show you some photos in the meantime, but we've got an early morning, so it might not be so many, as I'm really tired and just figuring things out was hard enough.

Apologies for all this extra "drama" on my end of things, but I suppose it keeps you coming back, right? After all, you never know quite what you're going to get!

Day 11 – Friday 8 May 2009

It is fairly obvious that we have been "taking it easy" a bit more the last couple of days. We haven't had quite as much of the hustle and bustle of Beijing, which is refreshing, and also much-needed since it's so easy to get tired now.

We went to Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai… we started in the actual garden, but then we made our way to the shops outside which bear the same name. Many people tried their hand at bargaining one more time, while others enjoyed the comforts of some familiar American brands.

After spending the morning there and eating lunch, we returned to the hotel for a free afternoon to prepare for our final concert at He Luting Music Hall at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The concert was incredible, and though we were incredibly unprepared for an encore (we eventually settled on just doing the final number faster), it was probably one of our best performances of the year. It's good to go out on a high note, I think, and we did just that.

At dinner, we thanked our guides, who will be staying in mainland China, for their wonderful help over the last ten days and just generally unwound, since the tour is coming down the home stretch.

Some more pictures from Day 11 can be found here. Thanks again to Sam for the camera usage. You're a great guy.

Coming up: On Saturday, we wake up at 04:30 again, this time in preparation for our morning flight to Hong Kong (which is, for all intents and purposes, an international flight). Once there, we'll meet our new tour guides, who will take us on an orientation tour before lunch on our own. The rest of the day is free, and the weather promises to cooperate: Brilliant sunshine is forecasted, with a high of 28 °C (82 °F).

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07 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 10

I must start today's post with very sad news (although in the grand scheme of things, it's not that bad). If you've been following this blog since well before this trip, you'd know that I've been working with a half-broken camera this whole time (and I bet you didn't even notice). It's been tough at times, but I've made do for several months now.

And so, it is with regret that I must inform you that my camera is, for all intents and purposes, dead. It started acting weird mid-morning and died at lunch on Thursday, and though we tried other batteries and just about everything we could think of, it just wouldn't work. It took about five minutes and a lot of patience just to get the lens to close. Sadly, it doesn't look like it will be coming back anytime soon, if at all.

I'm half-tempted to just buy another camera here in Shanghai if I get the chance, but who knows what cans of worms that could open? Besides, our tour guide says that for electronics, despite how many of them are made in China, they are much cheaper in the U.S. for the same quality.

So, although I know that a lot of choir members' parents having been playing "Find My Child!" with my photos, I'm afraid that will have to wait at this point until something can be figured out. My apologies.

Nevertheless, it is still my duty to tell you what we've been up to, so here's a short narrative:

Day 10 – Thursday 7 May 2009

We started Thursday by heading to the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, a five-acre traditional house that was owned by a wealthy family. The small entrance to the huge house proves the humbleness of the Chinese people despite this family's wealth. Designs on the pathways symbolized the balance between spending money and earning it. If you're always earning money and never spending it, then you don't get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you're always spending but never earning, then disaster occurs.

After spending some time lingering in the Lingering Garden, we made our way to a local silk factory, where we learned how silkworms are raised, how silk is extracted from them, and how that silk is then turned into the silk products we use. We also learned how to differentiate between real silk and fake polyester "silk."

We walked around the gift shop area of the silk factory for a time before walking upstairs to a restaurant in the building for lunch. Some people were freaked out by the snakes in jars that welcomed us along the sides of the entryway, but everyone was able to get through okay and eat.

Outside the factory, we discussed the museum issue from Wednesday. Did everyone want to go? The consensus was no, we'd all like to go directly to Shanghai, and so we did.

Once in Shanghai, we went to Nanjing Road, which is basically one big shopping district, 5 km (3 miles) long. We walked around many shops, and although a few of us bought things, most of us just soaked in the atmosphere and looked at what there was to be sold.

After an early dinner, we then made our way to an acrobatic performance, entitled "Era: Intersection of Time." Ironically, photos and video weren't allowed at this performance anyway, but I can link you to their website. Everyone was amazed at all the different acts, some with trampolines, some with bicycles, others with pottery, and ending with eight motorcycles in a spherical cage.

Yes, that's right. Eight.

It was mind-boggling, and everyone loved it. We talked about it all the way back to the hotel.

Coming up: On Friday, we travel to Yu Garden in the morning, spend the afternoon in another Shanghai shopping area, and conclude the evening with our final performance of the tour (and of the year), at Shanghai's Conservatory of Music.


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06 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 9

Another quick post. After nine days of travel, it's very easy to get tired quickly. Sorry about that, but it's better than nothing, right?

Day 9 – Wednesday 6 May 2009

First thing in the morning, we boarded our coach and travelled about two hours by highway to Suzhou, making one stop along the way. We went directly to Han Shan Temple, where we saw many Buddhist prayers and wishes tied to trees around the temple itself.

After lunch, we travelled to Suzhou Museum, only to discover that flip-flops aren't allowed inside, which would have excluded about a third of our group. So, we hung out for a while whilst alternative plans were made.

We went to the Grand Canal for a boat tour through parts of Suzhou, seeing a teahouse and some residents living on the canal.

We then got back on the buses (although that didn't deter the "mosquito" vendors), and went back to the hotel before dinner. After dinner, we had the evening free to explore Suzhou in our own ways. My friends and I went to the nearby streets of Suzhou, first in search of lip balm, but then we found some clothing stores with amazing "Engrish" shirts. Even though they were way to small for any of us, we couldn't help but buy a few… only ¥19 ($2.79) each.

More pictures from Day 9 can be found here.

Coming up: On Thursday, we travel to Lingering Garden and Silk Factory, and return to Suzhou Museum before heading to Shanghai in the afternoon. Once there, we will attend an acrobatic performance before heading back to the hotel.


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05 May 2009

HCC in China: Days 7 and 8

Tuesday's technical difficulties have been resolved at this point. It's amazing how useless an electrical converter is when it falls out of the wall socket on its own. It's also frustrating when the hotel staff won't bring the one you asked for until you go back the next morning. But that's what I get for trying to do this at the end of the night.

So, my apologies that I am unable to write a true narrative, but I have 893 pictures to go through and that alone will take forever if I don't hurry. Don't worry; I'll give this due attention once we're back in the States, so you'll get to see and hear about everything you would have missed.

Days 7 and 8 – Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 May 2009

On Monday, we visited a Terra Cotta soldiers reproduction factory in Xi'an, the Terra Cotta soldiers themselves, and the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang (for whom China is named). We then made our way to the airport for our flight to Hangzhou.

On Tuesday, we went to Hangzhou's West Lake, visited Flower Harbor Park (featured on the Chinese ¥1 banknote), and toured the National Tea museum. We then visited a metropolitan park before heading to the Yuquan campus of Zhejiang University for our exchange concert with the university's Wenquin choir.

View some of my pictures from Days 7 and 8 here. Again, I can't get many up right now, but we'll take care of everything in due course. Leave some comments to make me feel better!

Coming up: Today (Wednesday), we travel all morning to Suzhou — a 2 hour, 15 minute drive. We'll visit Hanshan Temple in Suzhou and Suzhou Museum before taking the evening easy. The weather promises to be nice: sunny and 26 °C (78 °F). We'll get back to normal posts then.


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04 May 2009

HCC in China: Brief Update

Greetings from the Business Center at our hotel in Hangzhou. Technical difficulties (adaptor/converter/power supply) with my laptop prevent me from posting about Day 7 at this time. I will rectify the problems in the evening CST (Tuesday morning EDT) and hopefully post a Day 7/8 post then.

But rest assured, we're all fine.


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03 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 6

Again, after a long day Sunday, I'm writing this on Monday morning here in Xi'an. You'll soon see why.

Day 6 – Sunday 3 May 2009

After an exhausting day at the Great Wall, we would certainly want to get a full night's sleep to recharge. But we were awoken by our hotel phones at 04:30 to get us ready for our flight to Xi'an in the west of China, which was the capital city for eleven dynasties and has a very rich history.

Though Beijing was chosen as the capital of the People's Republic of China, Xi'an is home to 8 million people and it is undergoing a boom of construction these days, including its first subway system which is due to be completed in a few years. After having landed at Xi'an Xianyang International Airport at around 09:30, which was just opened in 2003, we made our way to a lunch buffet which featured a mixture of Chinese and Western cuisine. While rice is the staple in the east of China, wheat and corn are grown here in Xi'an, so the west of China revolves around noodles. It was very interesting (but also a bit refreshing) to have fish and chips next to my noodles and rice!

Our local tour guide, May, then talked more about the rich history of Xi'an as we made our way to Xi'an Conservatory of Music for the second of our four concerts here in China. The real treat for us was the local women's choir we got to hear perform after us. It was simply splendid! One surprise we had is that they sang a very similar arrangement of Shenandoah to the one we had sung just a short while prior. This particular American folk song is always very well-received around the world, and so it was nice to hear their rendition.

After the concert (and a short rest period), we went to dinner at a Tang Dynasty dinner theatre. There was live music played on the zheng… the kind of soft, peaceful, and reflective music you'd expect to be played through a speaker at Asian restaurants in the States… except it was live. The food was a feast of over 18 different kinds of dumplings, so there was more than enough for everyone to get things they already enjoyed and to try things they never knew were so good, including rice wine.

Dinner was followed by a performance about the Tang Dynasty, which was centered in Xi'an and which is regarded as one of the most peaceful times in Chinese history. I have a lot of pictures from the stunning and breathtaking performance, and though I can only show a few here, I hope you'll please check out the others. We were completely captivated by the show, and after the hustle and bustle from Point A to Point B all morning and afternoon, this was truly our welcome to Xi'an.

Then, it grew late, and we returned to the hotel to catch up on some much-needed rest and prepare for a new day.

There are plenty more pictures from Day 6 here, including several from the Tang Dynasty performance. Check them out and leave some comments!

Coming up: On Monday, we visit the Terra Cotta Soldiers of Xi'an and Qin Shi Huang tomb before boarding an evening flight to Hangzhou.

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02 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 5

Day 5 – Saturday 2 May 2009

We started the day by heading to a jade workshop, where we learned about the value of jade in Chinese culture. Apparently, while gold is worth about 200 yuan per gram ($910 per troy ounce), jade is worth 1000 to 1500 yuan per gram ($4550 to $6850 per ounce). There were pieces of jade embedded in each of the Olympic medals awarded in 2008.

We learned how to distinguish between the different qualities of jade, and then we walked around seeing what there was to buy. Many things were way out of our price ranges, such as a jade Buddha for ¥58,000 ($8,500) or a large jade ship for ¥680,000 ($99,750), but it was still really cool seeing everything. We learned about some of the meaning behind the "happiness balls," which were being sold for ¥640 ($94), though most of us who bought things settled on some cheaper (but just as interesting) pieces.

Our tour guide, Scott, taught us a little bit of Chinese on the way to the Great Wall, which was about 55 km (34 miles) north of our hotel. Because of the continuing holiday weekend, traffic was continually an issue for us, but we got there alright.

There were two paths we could take from where we parked, and obviously, one is harder than the other. After talking it over with our guide and with friends, I decided to take the more difficult path for what promised to be an even better view.

And difficult it was. When the Wall was built, it was built with uneven steps so that horses couldn't traverse it. And we can certainly see now why it worked! Immediately after a series of several tall, 16-inch (40-cm) steps, there would be a small, 4-inch (10-cm) step, which caught all of us off-guard.

Finally, after about 1800 steps (with many rests in between), we made it to the top… of this section of the Wall. The view was utterly spectacular… words simply cannot describe it.

We made our way to a late (and traffic-delayed) lunch, before heading to Silk Street market to practice the Chinese art of bargaining. It is customary for the sellers to start with an absolutely ridiculous price, and for the prospective buyer to refuse several offers by simply walking away. Basically haggling to the extreme. It was tempting to take a closer look at many of the items for sale, but the sellers were all very aggressive, and even a second glance (and sometimes even walking by) would effectively begin a negotiation… and of course, walking away would only make them shout a lower price to get you to come back.

One of our members managed to buy five small items for ¥225 ($33) after taking the saleswoman down from ¥1,750 ($255) for only four. But it took a lot of determination and a good half an hour to do so. Afterwards, we consulted with our guide to see how we did with our purchases.

We finished the evening off with a dinner featuring Peking Duck, and headed back to the hotel early, full of fond memories of Beijing, but eagerly awaiting our flight to Xi'an in the morning.

I have more pictures from Day 5 here. Enjoy!

Coming up: On Sunday, we take an early morning flight westward to Xi'an, perform the second of our concerts at Xi'an Conservatory of Music, and attend a Tang Dynasty show and dumpling dinner.


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01 May 2009

HCC in China: Day 4

Day 4 – Friday 1 May 2009

Today was Labour Day here in China. To my knowledge, there are no parades or anything like we might be used to in the States, but people just go out and have fun at various attractions and events throughout the week. As such, a lot of the popular tourist attractions were filled with locals even without us.

We started the day at the Olympic Park, home of the Water Cube, where Michael Phelps earned his eight gold medals last year; the National Indoor Stadium, where gymnastics events were held; and of course, the Bird's Nest. Later in the evening, a Jackie Chan concert was to be held in the Bird's Nest, the first concert since the Olympic Games, so we had to visit first thing in the morning and couldn't go inside any of the venues. But it was still really cool knowing that we stood just a few hundred meters away from where some of the greatest athletic feats in recent memory occurred.

We then made our way to Beijing's zoo to visit the giant pandas. According to our guide, the pandas are relatively active in the morning, but if you go in the afternoon, you can't tell if they're real or not, because they don't move much. The path by the exhibit was extremely crowded (as was much of the zoo), but we were able to see two of the pandas nonetheless, even if it did require a little bit of pushing and shoving (which, by the way, is very common here). Because of some slight drizzle earlier in the morning, some of us even bought souvenir umbrellas to match the one carried by one of our guides.

We continued onward to the Summer Palace, where it began to rain a bit heavier for a brief time. Along with the pagodas and ornate gates, there was a marble boat in the man-made lake. Though it's obviously not a real functioning boat, we did take a ferry across the lake which allowed the opportunity to soak in the surrounding area.

After a late lunch, we made our way back to the hotel to prepare for the first of our concerts. The concert was moved on short notice to the concert hall at Mínzú University of China (中央民族大学) to better accommodate our opening act, the Jin Rong Philharmonic Chorus (Financial Street Choir), directed by Zhao Dengan (赵登安). After a wonderful concert by both choirs, we were presented with neck-hangings as small gifts from the host choir, symbolizing friendship, which we all wore to dinner afterwards.

See more pictures from Day 4 here. Some of them are pretty funny, and you might see someone you know! And don't be too shy to leave a comment… I'd love to hear from you!

Coming up: On Saturday, we celebrate our last day in Beijing by climbing the Great Wall of China and doing some bargaining at Yashow Market at Silk Alley. We'll conclude the evening with a Peking Duck dinner, before retiring early to prepare for our flight to Xi'an early Sunday morning.

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30 April 2009

HCC in China: Day 3

Thursday was a pretty exhausting day, but well worth it. That's why I'm writing this on Friday morning.

Day 3 – Thursday 30 April 2009

We started our Thursday with a wonderful breakfast at our hotel, featuring some of the best of Western and Eastern breakfast foods. We ate up, because we knew we had a long day ahead of us. The group made its way to the north gate of the Forbidden City, now known as the Palace Museum. After learning about some of the history behind the museum, we began to make our way through the huge area, entering in traditional style through special gates constructed to keep out Chinese vampires.

The northern section of the city was a residential area, while the center section, home to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was primarily ceremonial back in the days of the emperor. We were lucky to have seen the external ornamentations that had been newly refurbished last year for the Olympics.

The sheer grandeur of the area was striking. It seemed that every time we walked through one gorgeous area of the city, we would pass through a gate that led to a bigger and more impressive area, saving the best for last. So take a word from us: If you ever visit yourself, start at the back (north) gate.

While there, we met many visitors from more rural areas of China who were not as familiar with foreigners such as ourselves. One group, whom we were told is from Shaanxi province, was particularly eager to meet us. We left one of them with a unique gift from his visit with the American tourists: a Tootsie-Pop.

After our visit was over, we passed through more gates until reaching the front (south side), which borders Tian Anmen Square. We were told that the picture in the middle is of Sun Yat-sen, who is regarded as the father of Modern China, and that the picture is only in the square at the national holidays, 1 May and 1 October.

After lunch, we made our way to the Temple of Heaven, where immediately upon entering, we saw many dancers. After many of us danced amongst ourselves (and even with some of the locals), we found some musicians and singers as well. Apparently, many of the folk who come here are retired, and so they just spend their days hanging out in the park. How wonderful is that?

Though the main attraction for us there was the Hall of Prayer, we couldn't escape the local charm.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel before dinner and the alumni reception, which was hosted by the CEO of COFCO Wines & Spirits (which was selected as the exclusive supplier of wine for the 2008 Olympics), Mr. Ning Gaoning, a graduate of Pitt's business school. A few of us went out afterwards; among other things, we saw many of the embassies that are in our area of Beijing, and then we came back, truly tired from all the walking, for a great night's sleep.

There are many more pictures to show… you can see many of my favorites from Day 3 here.

Coming up: Today (Friday), is Labour Day here in China. We will visit the Beijing Zoo, Summer Palace, and a jade workshop, before heading to the Olympic Park for pictures. We will conclude the day with our first concert at the Central Conservatory of Music in conjunction with Beijing's Financial Street Choir.

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29 April 2009

HCC in China: Days 1 and 2

Days 1 and 2 – Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 April 2009

It has certainly been a long day. Well, a long day-and-a-half, to be fair. And I am really tired.

To keep things simple on my end of things, I'm going to link to a few pictures at a medium resolution throughout my narratives, as well as a few more at the end. I do hope you'll take the time to view them.

After staying up until about 02:30 in New York on Monday night (Tuesday morning), the guys in my room decided to get a little bit of rest before waking up around 05:00 for final preparations. We took the 06:00 hotel shuttle to JFK's Terminal 7, and met director John Goldsmith there. Check-in was surprisingly quick, and many of us were completely through security before 07:00.

Since our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 10:10, we had some time to kill in the terminal. After grabbing breakfast, many of us just hung out around the various shops and the food court, while others stayed by the gate.

Finally, it was time to board. And at 10:41 EDT, we finally took off and began our 8068-mile (12984 km) journey to Hong Kong. In order to fight jet lag, we were wise to immediately adjust to Hong Kong time, but that made it a bit weird when the staff were bringing around "brunch" an hour later at about 23:45 HKT.

By 01:00, the cabin lights were shut off so that we could get some rest. And from having stayed up much of the night before, it was much-needed. Taking the polar route was a lot of fun, too. We flew over northern Greenland around 04:30, and by then the lights were on again and people started milling about to stretch and to get their blood flowing. "Lunch," as they called it, was served at 06:30, and then the whole process was repeated again with a mid-morning nap, more stretching, conversing, and the like.

We landed in Hong Kong at 14:25, which was a little bit disconcerting, as our boarding passes instructed us to be at the gate for our connecting flight to Beijing at 14:35. At Hong Kong's airport, they don't really make airport-wide boarding announcements; rather, they have people with signs that inform passengers of what's going on. It was a little bit frustrating being told that it was final call for our flight immediately after going through security, but we hurried along. We all made it okay, and were off again by 15:36, albeit a half-hour behind schedule.

While most people I talked to said that the 15½-hour flight to Hong Kong was tolerable, and was operated in a manner that helped them adjust well, our three-hour flight to Beijing was, for all intents and purposes, a simple domestic flight on a Wednesday afternoon. It was rough for a few of our crew, but all-in-all, everyone's doing well. Because we hadn't eaten since 06:30 (and had no time in Hong Kong), the meal served at 16:30 was received quite eagerly. We landed at 18:26, queued up into a big alphabetical line for passing through immigration and customs, and before we knew it we were gathering our baggage and heading off to the buses.

Dinner was held at the Jin Tai Fulong Restaurant, and while we weren't always exactly sure what everything was, we were, for the most part, adventurous, and tried a lot of it.

Upon arriving at the hotel, most people took right to bed due to exhaustion from the 30-hour marathon that was Days 1 and 2. I found it very interesting when being given my room key, though, that I am in room 444, due to the negative connotations the number four has here in China. It's basically akin to getting room 666 or 1313 in America — while it's really just a number, it still doesn't leave you with the greatest of feelings.

You see, the word for "four" (sì, ) is very similar to the word for "death" (sǐ, ), with only the tonal inflection being different between the two. And since the Chinese are very superstitious when it comes to numbers, many hotels avoid the number four altogether.

Apparently this hotel thought it would be just as well to give the "room of death" (which is actually quite nice) to non-"four-fearing" American tourists. Yay.

You can see more of my hand-picked images from Days 1 and 2 here.

Fun fact: In case you couldn't guess, Beijing is still very proud of its hosting the 2008 Olympic Games. Later this week, we will visit the "Bird's Nest" and the "Water Cube," two of the most recognizable venues built for the Games.

Coming up: On Thursday, we will have tours of Tian Anmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. We will finish the day with a reception for local alumni of the University of Pittsburgh.


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