Friday, June 28, 2013

Traditional Chinese Medicine Research

My internship here in China is with the Good Agricultural Practices group here at SNNU. The majority of their research involves products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Many of you know of my interest in tradition Chinese medicine, which makes this internship opportunity even more exciting for me. As of tomorrow I begin my lab work involving one of the most expensive, non-animal products used in TCM. In China, the product is call Dong Chong Xia Cao (while literally means "winter worm, summer grass"), but it's scientific name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis). Here is a look at what we're dealing with:

Mmm... Cordyceps
What you see here is the result of a parasitic relationship between ghost moth caterpillars and fungi. Located mostly in the regions of Tibet and Nepal, these caterpillars become infected with the cordyceps fungus and proceed to bury themselves into the ground. The fungus then mummifies the caterpillar and waits until early summer to produce the sought after fruiting body. When you buy this product, you typically get the caterpillar and fungus together and it'll cost you about $12-17,000 per kilogram! No wonder they call it soft gold. The fact that I get to work with this product at all is amazing.

That'll be $5000 please!
So why do we want to eat these creepy things? Traditionally, is was thought to be an aphrodisiac (like most TCM products?), but also a treatment for ailments ranging from fatigue to cancer. Today, we know that there are a few potentially powerful pharmaceuticals present in cordyceps. Some of which may help protect the body from irradiation and boost the immune system's ability to fight cancer. Modern lab techniques have allowed us to discover that not only are there useful compounds but also multiple species of fungi contained within cordyceps. So which species are producing these helpful compounds? That's what I hope to find out!

To be continued... 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Big Wild Goose Pagoda & Tang Paradise

Finally have some solid plans to go out and do some field work! I'll be going up into the mountains to survey water quality and the distribution of plants used for traditional Chinese medicine. I look forward to filling the blog with some work related things.

A while back I took a day trip into the city to check out some other tourist sites in Xi'an. First on the menu was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the surrounding park.

formally had 3 extra stories
This pagoda was originally constructed in 683AD and built to house the Buddhist treasures brought back from India by monk Xuanxang. Apparently there is a wild goose pagoda in India that inspired this architecture.  It has undergone some reconstruction over the years, the last reconstruction being in the 1500s after a big earthquake. Today it has a bit of a lean to it, pointing slightly to the west. At the end of the night we went back to the fountain to check out their big fountain show, here's the video:

The surrounding blocks are all part of the pagoda experience, parks and markets everywhere. My favorite part had to be the Relic Site Park, where I spent plenty of time hanging out in the morning. Statues of people and poems line the paths, there are even some Kung Fu babies doing their thing.

a great spot to relax during the midday sun 

Next we walked down to Tang Paradise. It's a 164 acre landscaped park that contains many reconstructed buildings of the ancient Shaanxi style during the Tang Dynasty. The park took most of the day to walk around. This park makes for a great escape from the city life, without needing to leave the city. Had it not started to rain so heavily we would have stayed later to check out some of the theater performances.

tang dynasty architecture (always a crane present)
That's it for today! I took a lot more pictures so check them out here.


Monday, June 10, 2013


Alright, folks. I was warned that things may take a while to get rolling, and they did. Here's a little update on my research

Originally, the plan was to go out into the field, interview farmers about their agricultural practices, and compare the effectiveness of organic vs conventional methods. There is just one little problem... nobody seems to have hopped on the organic train. In fact, people seem to think it just doesn't work. I've spent the past few weeks surveying students, asking them what they think about the concept of growing plants without artificial inputs. I received a lot of reasons why they think it wouldn't work.
  • Plants don't grow as big without fertilizer,
  • insects eat all the plants without pesticides,
  • there is more work involved,
  • and the Chinese people don't like change (actual quote).
These were top reasons, which aren't necessarily true, but understandable worries given the pressure to produce enough for your family and/or make a reasonable income. Trying a new method of agriculture would not be without a certain amount of risk, there is always a learning curve. Finally, after a long discussion about organic farming with a member from my lab, we decided that China still has a long way to go. Education, workshops involving alternative methods, and a pilot project showcasing them would be a great start. If only I had more time here! 

The other interesting fact that I discovered was that many farmers have switched to growing ornamental plants. The city is very fond of covering every park and roadside with intricate displays of ornamentals. Trees, bushes, and grasses are all needed to fill the green spaces for new developments. This need has likely driven the shift to letting large companies mass produce all of the food. Which will make it even more difficult to find someone who would be interested in organic food production. 

every plant on campus was planted within the last 8 years
So that's where I'm at right now, good thing I put together a back up project! I'll update you with the details of the other project when things are finalized. Hopefully I can still redesign my original topic, I was looking forward to spending more time in the rural areas.

Strawberry Music Festival!

Last weekend I was invited to join some new friends to check out the Strawberry Music Festival. The 36 degree heat was a bit much, but I had a really good time between shade-following sessions. I couldn't really tell you who I saw perform that day. Some pop-punk girl named Big Sister (or was it little sister), an guy name Old Wolf (mostly sings about his university days), and some local bands with a wide variety of sounds.

The festival also turned out to be my first experience with the take-your-photo-with-a-white-guy experience. Many people brave enough to say hi quickly turned the conversation towards wanting a picture with me. I can only imagine what they look like. A sweaty North American guy dying of heat exhaustion, definitely one for the grandkids! 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Terracotta Army

Here are my photos from my visit to the Terracotta Army site. Despite it being like most busy tourist spots, I had a really great time learning about this lost piece of Chinese history. I'll post them in Google+ so you can check them all out in full screen with descriptions. I still can't believe this just went missing from the historical record!

Check it out here.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

This Week's Entertainment

When it's not raining here in Xi'an there is so much to do! Last night the university hosted an amazing opera performance.

The director and composer is pretty famous in China. I'm told I am very lucky to have had the opportunity, especially since it was free. Here's the short video clip:

(Okay so I can't get the video to upload, 
can't hold a stable internet connection long enough
I'll update once I get it working)

There is a park just down the road that comes alive every night. Crowds of women doing synchronized dancing, men spinning tops with whips, and music everywhere. This happens all day every day and is a great way to relax, stay healthy, and socialize. Whipping tops (not sure of the Chinese name) is an ancient Chinese exercise that has been around since at least 1300 BCE, and involves good hand eye coordination and a strong whipping arm. Next time I go to the park I'll be sure to give it a try.

The older generation is quick to invite me to do things, but the students are initially pretty shy. Once we get past that, they are a lot of fun and always ready to invite me to experience something new. I've become the resident english writing tutor and I get paid in mandarin lessons. I now have a handle on the spoken numerical system, some animals and plants, but most importantly how to order food and drink at the cafeteria. It easily gets to 35 degrees in the afternoon so it's helpful to be able to order some fresh Níngméng shuǐ (Lemonade: pronounced nI-mOng-shway). No more ordering dumplings with a calculator!

Speaking of food, my new friend Cui Miao brought me to the Muslim Quarter to sample a bunch of dishes. All of it was delicious, but neglected to take pictures. I'll put together a proper post next time I visit.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Two Weeks In

This first post is going to be a big one! It took a while to get decent Internet access, but now I’ll be posting more regularly. Where to begin… I’ve absorbed so much. It’s been two weeks since I landed in Xi’an, China and the transition has been fairly smooth so far! For those of you who didn’t see my Facebook post last week, there was a little confusion when I landed at the airport. After waiting for a while, I decided to explore Xi’an on my own until I made contact with someone at the university. I decided to take a bus to the center of the city to stay at the Bell Tower Hotel. The hotel got its name because of this amazing bell tower across the street.

This is what I’ve learned about Xi’an so far. The Bell Tower was built over 600 years ago, and lies directly in the center of Xi’an. Today a huge traffic circle surrounds the structure and connects the primary roads that span straight to the four edges of the city. Before applying for this internship Xi’an was an unfamiliar name. Yet, founded over 3100 years ago, as the city of Chang’an, this city has a long history. All I know so far is that it has been the centre of Chinese society on more then one occasion and was the eastern tip of the Silk Road. I look forward to finding out more about the history and sharing it with you.

Today this city is huge. 8 million people and growing every day. The Chang’an District I live in was farmland 5 years ago. Now all you’ll see are high-rise apartment buildings, parks, markets, and shopping malls. All of the universities that have campuses in the old city have created their new satellite campuses in this district. They even seem to be having a “best library” competition; I think Shaanxi Normal University actually won a prize. Here it is:

I put two pictures to show you what the air looks like before and after a big rainfall. The picture on the left shows you just how thick the haze can get. The rate of development is huge and the combination of burning coal and dozens of construction sites really takes its toll. Due to this rapid urban development, and all of the people migrating from rural areas, this metropolis has spilled out of the ancient walls that surround the old city. Agricultural land is being converted in to city blocks, reducing the amount of land that can be used to maintain the dietary needs of the population. One answer to this problem is to increase the productivity of the available agricultural land. 

This is the solution that I hope my primary research project will contribute to. Land is divided into very small areas. Sometimes as many as eight households divvying up one acre! In order to provide enough food for a family, and enough to sell for a decent income, the land needs to be as productive as possible. On top of that, there is a need to ensure that agricultural practices are sustainable. This will ensure long-term productivity and reduce their contribution to damaging the environment. There are many agricultural techniques being used, and by going out to interview farmers about their techniques and incomes I might be able to uncover which ones are the most successful. I'm certain that there are already some really great methods being used that are tried and tested for this climate. Ultimately, the appeal of higher productivity and income is a great way to convince people to practice sustainable agriculture. In the end, increased productivity means more food for everyone!

Biang Biang Mian aka Delicious Belt Noodles