Sunday, May 22, 2016

Pictures of Freyja you may have missed

We can't completely fill our Facebook feeds with pictures of Freyja, even though we've tried. For those yearning for more cuteness, we present some of our favorite recent photos. You may fill in the captions yourselves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Beijing huan ying ni 2016

At the end of April, I took my students to Beijing to study dinosaurs at the Institute for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology. This was part of a two-year exchange program between China and South Africa. It was a very nostalgic trip for me - because of my graduate advisor Jim Clark I'd had the chance to work in China nearly a decade before. I was very proud to bring my accomplished students Blair McPhee, Kathleen Dollman, Kimi Chapelle, and my postdoctoral fellow Christophe Hendrickx back to my graduate stomping grounds to carry on the tradition of research, eating weird food, and drinking. This is their story...

Within a few hours of our arrival, I had gotten us completely lost and forced us on a 16km death march. Clearly, a morale boost was necessary. So we stopped at that most Chinese of restaurants - McDonald's.

Our spirits rekindled, we bought the cheapest entry ticket to the Temple of Heaven and enjoyed a stroll through the carefully manicured grounds, pausing only to consider the architecture...

Which is indeed beautiful.

We also paused to have something of a breakfast beer as it were, astride the colossal granite steps. No need to worry about sacrilege here - there's more alcohol in an overripe cantaloupe than in the suds they sling on the street in Beijing. Refreshing nonetheless. 

A similarly poorly thought out death march back to our hotel necessitated the first of several trips to the Korean restaurant nearby. Here we're frying up what the menu listed as "blue ox tongue" in what must certainly be a reference to the mythological Paul Bunyan's compadre Babe. 

Later that evening, we were hosted by our colleagues Professors Corwin Sullivan (half Canadian, half Irish, half Chinese by virtue of eight years living in Beijing), and Jingmai O'Connor (half Irish, half American, half Chinese by virtues of ancestry and inebriated orchestrations). We were further entertained by Coconut, general tramp and recent mother of twins.

The next few days found us hunkered down at work, mostly in Corwin's tidy office.

Of interest to us were the IVPP's collection of sauropod dinosaurs, such as this rather large foot (which we only later realized was a cast, not an actual fossil)...

And epitomized by this specimen labeled as "Mamenchisaurus", which stretches the length of the museum and nearly three stories high.

Kimi worked primarily with Profs Paul Upchurch, Paul Barrett and their student Omar on this smaller sauropodomorph, affectionately? known as "Luffy".

They also had the great privilege of visiting the off-site storage facility for huge-ass bones of things, affectionately? known as "the satellite facility". Despite having the name "facility" in its moniker, the facilities there are quite rudimentary, and our intrepid student returned scarred for life. But she did remark upon the high-quality lunch!

And speaking of lunch, the other compelling reason to visit China is to eat all that weird and wonderful food! Even a trip to the grocery store had us reaching for our field guides and scratching our heads as to the taxonomic identity of the produce.

But perhaps my favorite new foodstuff is a Jingmai O'Connor specialty - "roast goat on the street." The guy pictured above in his work uniform is standing over what is essentially a blast furnace, roasting flayed goat limbs and occasionally sprinkling one with a fragrant essence.

Upon ordering one of these flayed goat limbs, you are put at a table with censers of coals, everyone is given a knife and fork, and the goat is put on a spit in front of the crew to be dissected with relish.

A few local quaffs, some veggies in a tasty sauce, and the ubiquitous pickled peanut side dish rounds it out nicely. And I thought I knew it all about Beijing cuisine? Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Did someone mention dog?

A rather epic night at the all-you can eat Japanese restaurant ended with a gluttonous late night binge at the that foodie mecca of all foodie meccas:

Yes, that's right! Burger King!

What fueled this decision you might ask? Well, memories are dim, but several hours shooting arrows in the Archery Bar seemed to have emptied the stomachs. PS I am not kidding. There is a place that serves alcohol and arrows in Beijing, at the same time.

But enough about drinking. We also had a moment to visit some of the other cultural institutions in Beijing. First on the docket was the Summer Palace, where the emperors and empresses and their courts went to beat the sweltering heat (and fetid reek) of Beijing at the height of summer. More of a fantasy garden than a palace, it is said that the lake is full of eunuchs' tears.

The scale of the palace is actually remarkable. Here our intrepid group is lined up along the back wall. Can you spot them?

Another feature of the Summer Palace are the garishly painted ceilings and corridors, each of which is subtly different.

This stone boat is said to represent the fatal hubris of the last empress, CiXi, who squandered the imperial fortune on frivolous luxury. In my opinion, it sounds like one of those bad Polish jokes we used to tell. But in person, it's actually a pretty baller ride.

Also spotted at the Summer Palace were a small flock of the rare Blue Tits, occasional migrants to east Asia.

On our other free weekend day, Jingmai took us out to an unrestored section of the Great Wall, where we spent an afternoon hiking in incredible terrain.

When I say "unrestored," I mean "not maintained for tourists and in fact there are many signs explaining the dangers of hiking it and asking you not to and also its not restored". This steep staircase is one of the many obstacles...

As are completely sheer rock faces such as this one where the wall has generally collapsed.

And if you make it past the rock obstacle, the trolls in the dungeons will surely get you...

And if you make it past the troll somehow (bribe them), the snakes will get you...

But if you make it past the steep stairs, the collapsed walls, the trolls, and the snakes, my son, your reward will be the kingdom of heaven, and some cheesy tourist signs...

...and a chance to witness pretty cool wedding photos (and participate in them)...

...and a couple of spots to take epic Street Fighter II pictures...

...and a chance to remind your graduate students how much you love them.

Whew! What a week! Our exhausted crew in the huge Beijing international terminal, ready to write dozens of papers with all the great data they collected. Good night Beijing! See you next year!