If It’s Tuesday…The Saga Continues

BrusselsI’ve been writing periodic posts cataloguing my previous three-year secondment to Brussels. Check out the series here. It’s been a while since I’ve posted but the saga of jumping through hoops to work in Europe continues.

At this point, I had been running around town fulfilling the fantasies of bureaucrats.  Over a few days I had:

1) Gotten a medical exam from the only doctor in Washington DC approved by the Belgian government for “official” exams (there are only 7 in the entire US). The odd thing was the doctor seemed like he was old enough to be in medical school around the turn of the century – the LAST century (1900).  I literally was reviewing CPR procedures in my head while he was examining me in case he were to suddenly keel over. It was a close call but both of us escaped from the room upright.

2) Gotten a chest X-ray at a separate medical office to prove I didn’t have anything I was going to spread to the Belgians. A blood sample went to a third lab for analysis. Apparently they don’t want my deadly germs spreading to “the old countries.” Perhaps they remember Columbus.

3) Returned two days later to the doctor to pick up my signed and stamped medical certificate, which I then had to run up to the Belgian Embassy (one of the benefits of working in DC is that just about everything needed is right here). Given that the Embassy was only 3/4 mile from the nearest Metro stop (and the fact that all the taxis were on strike that day), I decided to walk there and back. Naturally it started to rain just as I left and continued until just after I returned….and I hadn’t brought along an umbrella because there wasn’t any rain in the forecast.  Oh well. I was a bit damp but the trek was successful.

4) Running out again to the now defunct Ritz Camera to get two ID photos taken for my passport visa. I’m not particularly photogenic and the photographers seem to capture that deficiency well.

5) Sending all of this along with my CV, copies of my college diplomas, copies of every single page (even the blank ones) of my passport, and a few other pieces of paper to the Brussels office so I can get a work permit. [Of course, I still couldn’t get that until the FBI ran a background check on the fingerprints I had taken a couple of weeks before.]

Once the work permit was issued I had to take that up to the Belgian Embassy again to get my visa. Once I (finally) got to Brussels I had more paperwork to do in order to get a residency card. That excruciating process that had to be repeated every year for my three years there. Anyone who thinks America’s bureaucracy is burdensome needs to live in Europe to appreciate just how easy we have it in the states.

I began to see why some immigrants to my own country choose to take their chances bypassing the official procedures….you could grow old waiting for all the paperwork to be filed. And I’m only going over for a few years. And I was working for the same firm, just changing offices.

But it was worth it.

More to come.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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The 12 Apostles of Victoria, Australia

The gloriousness of the 12 Apostles is not to be missed, despite the fact that there are not really 12, and obviously they aren’t apostles. Still, this is one of those must-see spots in Australia.

The 12 Apostles are a group of limestone stacks off the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. Reached by the Great Ocean Road (a marvel in its own right), the Apostles are slowly eroding away from wind and water. Despite the name, there really were only 9 stacks, but only about 8 remain. I say “about 8” because several of the rest are tenuously perched, and huge storms could lead to collapse on an unpredictable time frame. The last big collapse was in July of 2005 when a 160-foot tall stack suddenly fell and broke up.

 

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Given the slow rate of erosion, you don’t have to worry about racing there before they are all gone. In fact,  the processes that are eroding the existing Apostles are eating away at the more massive limestone cliffs. So come back in a 100 (or 1000) years and you see more Apostles emerging.

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Not far from the 12 Apostles is Loch Ard Gorge with its own amazing limestone architecture, a hint of which can be seen in the slide show above. The “Loch Ard” was the name of a clipper ship that ran aground in 1878. Of the 54 crew aboard, only two survived. Nineteen year old Tom Pearce, a ship’s apprentice, struggled ashore, then rescued 19-year-old Eva Carmichael. Alas, their potential fairy tale story ends there, as both returned to Europe separately. Not to be stymied by reality, when the nearby archway collapsed in June 2009, the two separated limestone pillars were officially named Tom and Eva to commemorate the shipwreck. After all, the story helps the tourist trade, right.

All kidding aside, the trip along the Great Ocean Road was indeed great. The coastline is amazing, as was the temperate rain forest we also saw along the way (more on that later).

More posts on Australia and New Zealand coming soon. The trip took us from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Lord of the Rings New Zealand to Uluru. So much more to show.

David J. Kent is a science traveler. He is also the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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The Fascinating Koalas of Australia

Koala’s are marsupials. I knew that much. But on my recent trip to Australia I learned a lot more about koalas. And they are even more fascinating than I knew.

Koala in Australia

Like all marsupials, which includes other Australian natives such as kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats, plus opposums (the one species in North America), koalas give birth to embryonic stage young that must crawl into a pouch for further development. While considered primitive to mammalian full gestation development, it turns out the whole “live in a pouch” concept reduces the dangers of extended pregnancies.

Part of that danger is food. Koalas feed almost exclusively on the leaves of eucalyptus trees. That is something else I learned – there are anywhere from 200 to 700 species of eucalyptus trees depending on if you are a lumper or a splitter taxonomist. Of those, koalas prefer about 30 species for eating, relying on those with the highest protein content and low proportions of fiber and lignin. Eucalyptus leaves generally have high water content so koalas rarely need to drink. [But see this video that shows how climate change is drying out the leaves and forcing more koalas to seek supplementary water intake.]

A diet of eucalyptus presents some nutritional challenges for koalas. The essential oil from eucalyptus leaves has a natural disinfectant quality, which is why it is often used in insect repellents and antimicrobial products. They can be toxic in large quantities. Koalas have developed a tolerance but still try to avoid the most obnoxious species, which luckily they are able to determine by smell. Most eucalyptus are evergreens, so they make a poor source of energy. This means that koalas retain the food in their digestive systems for up to 100 hours and have about half the metabolic rate of a typical mammal. To conserve energy they move little and slowly. They also sleep around 20 hours a day, spending the remaining four waking hours eating.

Koala in Australia

Two other physical adaptations of koala were fascinating. Since they spend most of their day in trees feeding and sleeping, their forepaws have two opposable digits, essentially, two thumbs. These and sharp claws allow it to securely climb and hang on to the bark of trees. They also have a cartilaginous pad at the end of the spine that fits nicely into the fork of a tree, where you’ll often see koalas comfortably perched.

I saw koalas both in a wildlife park type setting near Sydney (where I had breakfast with one) and in the wilds along the coast south of Melbourne. All koalas are a single species, though because the Victoria (aka, near Melbourne) koalas tend to be much bigger than Queensland (near Cairns) koalas, some scientists consider them to be subspecies. In either case they are one of Australia’s most iconic animals. And truly fascinating.

More to come on koalas and kangaroos and wombats and kookaburras as I sort through over 3500 photos.

David J. Kent is and avid traveler. His most recent book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Science Traveling Australia and New Zealand

I’ve always wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand, and soon I will achieve that goal. My upcoming trip will take a few weeks and cover a lot of terrain.

Keep in mind that Australia is roughly the size of the United States, so the distance from Sydney (#1 on the map above) to Cairns (#2) is equivalent to the distance from Florida to Montreal. Uluru, aka Ayer’s Rock, (#5) is about where Denver would be. Sydney to Queenstown, New Zealand (#3) would be about the distance from Washington DC to Caracas, Venezuela. Bottom line – each flight is a long way.

First stop is Sydney, so the famous bridge, the even more famous Opera House, and (of course) an aquarium. Plus cruising around the harbor, Bondi, and a tour of the Blue Mountains. From there it’s off to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park and more. I’m looking forward to seeing kangaroos, koalas, and kiwis.

The kiwi part will definitely happen after a multistep loop from Cairns through Auckland to Queenstown, New Zealand. We’ll see the wonders of Milford Sound and do a safari through Wakatipu while checking out the areas where the Lord of the Rings movie series was filmed.

But wait, there’s more. From Queenstown it’s back to Melbourne, Australia to check out another aquarium and drive south and west on the coast to see the 12 Apostles (of which there are only seven). Then back to Melbourne for a flight up to Uluru in the center of the country. I’ll need to drive the rental car on the left side of the road. Luckily I’ve done that in Scotland and Ireland so, well, fingers crossed.

From Uluru it’s back to Sydney to catch a long flight back home.

I’ll be updating on the trip whenever possible and will definitely have a ton of photos when I return. This will be my second big trip this year; the first was South Korea and Beijing in the spring. At that time the rumbling of missiles kept tensions high, and just this past week there was a series of earthquakes in New Zealand. Apparently there is a tectonic plate margin running right through the middle of the country.

Well, that’s what science traveling is all about, right.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Irma’s Wreckage: Remembering Barbuda and St. Maarten

Hurricane Irma caused irretrievable damage to the very islands in the Caribbean we had spent many wonderful days on last year. We had met some amazing people on the trip and the devastation is hard to imagine.

Our first and last stops on an 8 day sailing cruise were St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island. Watching the news and seeing how badly the French side was damaged was heartbreaking. I nearly lost it when I saw the photos of the St. Maarten airport. My preview of the trip included this article about how low the planes fly over the beach to land.

Now that famous beach looks like this.

St. Maarten airport after Irma 2017

The area to the right is the ocean, the left is the approach to the runway. We had drinks at the bar where the shoreline meets those red-roofed buildings. The bar itself is no longer there. All that sand on the left side of the road, sprayed up on the end of the runway; that sand used to be a beach on the right side of the road. Now only rocks remain. Over in the central town, much of the area where we stayed in a small hotel along a restaurant-lined boardwalk and beach has been destroyed, or at least ravaged.

Another island we visited was Barbuda. It has an amazing frigate bird rookery, which I wrote about here. Before the storm the frigates outnumbered the human population of Barbuda. Today, Barbuda is uninhabited by people. Every single one of the 1800 people have been evacuated, mostly to Antigua.

Barbuda after Irma 2017

Virtually every building was damaged; most were destroyed. At this point I haven’t been able to find out how the frigate bird sanctuary fared.

Other islands we visited were also severely damaged by Irma. Hurricane Jose, following along right behind Irma, seemed at first headed for St. Maarten and Barbuda, but luckily veered north and spared them a second direct hit. It will be years before the islands are restored. For Barbuda, it might be never.

As heartbreaking as this is, I have fond memories of these islands. Once they recover I would like to visit again. I hope I have that chance.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Reflections of a Science Traveler

Kotor, MontenegroToday marks the fourth anniversary of resigning my consulting job to pursue a career science traveling. Recently I caught up with a former colleague who still works at the old firm. We hadn’t spoken in a long time so she asked me whether I had any regrets about my decision. Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied: “No regrets whatsoever.” I left with my eyes facing forward and have never once looked back on that former life.

My new life has given me plenty to behold, including more time to travel and write.

I generally add a few new countries to my list each year. This year had fewer trips but farther destinations. I was in Seoul, South Korea during the election of a new president (to replace the one impeached and indicted), all while North Korea was haphazardly tossing around missiles. Then on to Beijing, China, which was hosting over 30 world leaders (including Vladimir Putin) for the One Belt One Road Summit. Soon I’ll be in roaming around Australia and New Zealand. The 12-hour drive to and from New England squeezed in between these two exotic locations seems tame in comparison. Another New England trip and Gettysburg are likely in the fall.

Writing has included the release of my newest book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America. This is my third book with Fall River Press, all now in Barnes and Noble stores. I also have two e-books available on Amazon.com (see links at end). My first book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, is going into its 8th printing this fall and has been translated into several foreign languages. Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World is still in stores and may also get a new printing soon.

Meanwhile, I’m working on two new books – one on a specific area of Abraham Lincoln’s interests, and the other a travel memoir (like Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson). By January I might have a third book in progress.

My former colleague also asked a second question: do I get to read a lot? In fact, that has been one of the unanticipated benefits. I’ve increased the number of books read from maybe 50 to over 100 books per year, and broadened my reading interests considerably. Traveling helps. While I don’t read much while I’m on the ground (where my time is spent exploring), the long flights and airport time are ideal for finishing off the latest novel or taking notes on various science, Lincoln, or biography books.

I also have time to do research. I spend some time at the Library of Congress and National Archives, plus make ample use of their online collections and other electronic resources. With nearly 1200 Lincoln books in my own home library, there is no shortage of background material. The travel itself is also research. I regularly incorporate in my books the knowledge gained while traveling, and future books will involve more travel-related topics.

This past several years I’ve been actively involved with the Lincoln Group of DC. As the Vice President of Programs I schedule speakers for our monthly dinner meetings and join the Board in planning – and participating in – a wide variety of other events. Next year I’ll, well, it’s still to be determined what I’ll be doing next year, but likely I’ll still be deeply involved in Abraham Lincoln.

So what will happen in 2018? My tentative plans include considerably more travel to places I’ve never been, including (I hope) to my 6th continent and beyond my 50th country. My writing goal is to finish the Lincoln science book so that it will be in stores no later than early 2019. I’m also piecing together a travel memoir tentatively titled Patagonia Summer that will combine travel, history, and science. The third possible book will likely be a compendium with my Lincoln colleagues. There is still some uncertainty in these plans as experience has taught me that “the best laid plans” often change dramatically.

One thing is for sure. No regrets whatsoever.

See my previous “Reflections” for 2014, 2015, 2016. I’ll likely do a final “reflections” next year on my fifth anniversary, after which I’ll skip to five or ten year reports. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be too famous to write by then. 🙂

[Photo is at Kotor, Montenegro]

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Buenos Aires, Charles Darwin, and the Giant Ground Sloths

Darwin's giant ground slothI’m currently working on a travel memoir of a recent trip to Patagonia. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, where we toured the opera house, visited the cemetery (trust me, it’s the thing to do), and dreamed about Darwin and the giant ground sloths.

Giant ground sloths, you say?

As a scientist and historian I couldn’t help but think of Darwin as we wandered around the capital city of Argentina. I had hoped to get further south to the Mar del Plata Aquarium but weather and circumstances conspired to disappoint me. I took consolation in the knowledge that Charles Darwin, of Origin of Species fame, spent many months in the coastal areas south of Buenos Aires during his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. After general wanderings around Rio de la Plata, the estuary of which separates Buenos Aires and Argentina to the south and Montevideo and Uruguay to the north, Darwin headed to Bahia Blanca and Punta Alta. It was in Punta Alta that Darwin really became enamored of his adventurous investigations, which up until now had been mostly at sea during the long Atlantic crossing, and a few forays into the interior of Brazil near Rio de Janeiro and across into Montevideo.

Darwin's giant ground slothIt was also in Punta Alta that Darwin made one of his biggest scientific discoveries. Ranging about the landscape on horseback, sleeping in the open with guachos or staying in haciendas with local ranchers, Darwin stumbled upon the fossilized bones of, well, something. One specimen was “the head of some large animal, embedded in soft rock.” He thought it might be similar to a rhinoceros. It took a second visit several months later – FitzRoy and his crews were busy mapping up and down the coastline – to realize he had discovered a large number of large mammal fossils not previously known from previous scientific expeditions to Europe, Asia, or Africa. In all he found nine different types of “great quadrupeds.”

Dutifully shipping the fossils with the thousands of other samples collected to various collaborating scientists in Europe, these large mammal fossils ended up via a circuitous route in the hands of French scientist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier determined that these were the bones of what became known as giant ground sloths, some as big as elephants, which roamed widely in the ancient North and South American plains. Cuvier named the huge beast Megatherium, which is, appropriately enough, derived from the Latin for “huge beast.”

Darwin's giant ground slothHere is where the plot thickens. While Cuvier was working up his paper describing and naming Megatherium, workers in what is now West Virginia dug up some old bones and sent them to Virginia’s biggest paleontological expert, who just happened to be Vice President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson named these new bones Megalonyx jeffersonii, meaning “giant claw” (the jeffersonii species name is an affectation that many discoverers take when naming their new species). These too turned out to be giant ground sloths. Meanwhile, Darwin was digging up even more sloth species. Many of these ended up in the Museo Municipal de Ciencias Naturales “Carlos Darwin,” set up in Punta Alta by modern day Argentinian geologist Teresa Manera.

Why is the museum called Carlos Darwin instead of Charles Darwin, you might ask? The museum was established in the late 1990s, not long after the Falklands War. The Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas Islands, were a disputed territory off the coast of Argentina. The British had claimed them many years before and engaged in a war to protect their claim when Argentina tried to get them back. Not surprisingly, the museum wasn’t too keen on recognizing the English at the time so they used the Spanish form of Charles – Carlos – instead. Teresa Manera and her husband, by the way, also discovered giant ground sloth footprints on a beach near there and has been trying for decades to get it made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Darwin wasn’t finished in South America, of course; the Beagle gave him plenty of time to explore Patagonia, both in Argentina and Chile. My own travels in Patagonia included climbing up to the base of Cerro FitzRoy, the mountain in the lower Andes named after the Beagle‘s captain, with whom Charles Darwin spent five years living in a cabin not much bigger than a closet.

Meanwhile, our time in Buenos Aires was quickly coming to an end and we were headed out to Bariloche to start our big adventure. Darwin would make more appearances along the route.

For previous articles about Buenos Aires and Patagonia, this post is a good place to start.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Chasing Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Raft

Today (August 7, 2017) marks the 70th anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s amazing 4300-mile, 101-day sailing of a balsa wood raft named Kon-Tiki from Peru to an island near Tahiti. And I got to see Kon-Tiki in Oslo recently.

Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist. He and his wife spent a year living on the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Pacific. They noticed that the ocean waves always struck the eastern shore of the island, which got them wondering if the original inhabitants had settled from the east, not the western lands that were closer. After 11 years of getting no support for his theory, Thor decided the best way was to prove it was possible that prehistoric South Americans could have colonized the Polynesian islands by drifting on ocean currents.

Kon-Tiki raft, Oslo

And the Kon-Tiki raft was born.

Using balsa wood and other indigenous materials from the Peruvian coast, Heyerdahl and a five-person crew built a 40-square foot raft and named it after a “mythical white chieftain.” Not surprisingly, the trip was rather eventful as they survived many storms, sharks, whales, and ambling men overboard. After leaving Peru on April 28, on August 7, 1947 they smashed into a reef on Raroia, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago that makes up part of French Polynesia. They had made it!

Heyerdahl went on to write a bestselling book about the expedition, which I eagerly read as a budding marine biologist in my youth. He also produced a documentary film that won an Academy Award. These widely publicized his theory and the adventure, which led to further exploits including sailing a reed raft named Ra from Morocco to Barbados. Ra was also in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.

Kon-Tiki, Oslo

It was thrilling for me to see in person both Ra and Kon-Tiki given they played a role in my youth inspiring me to marine biology. As for Heyerdahl’s theory that the Pacific islands were settled by drifting South Americans, that idea has never really gained favor. More recent studies relying on DNA and genome identification show clearly that the dominant genetic make up is Polynesian, meaning that the prevalent idea that Heyerdahl was trying to disprove is probably the right one after all.

David J. Kent is an avid traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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One Belt, One Road, and the Hutongs of Beijing

HutongWe thought we would try something different on this trip to Beijing. Rather than a western-style hotel we chose a small hotel in a traditional hutong. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

A hutong is an ancient alley dating back to the dynastic period of Beijing’s history. The word hutong is apparently derived from Mongolian, coined first during the Yuan Dynasty when Mongolian leader Kublai Khan controlled all of what is much of China, Korea, and parts of eastern Russian today. And alleys they are; narrow lanes with walls on both sides. Periodically you encounter a door, which leads to a central courtyard surrounded by tiny rooms in which various families live. These siheyuans line the hutong. Most of these siheyuans serve the poorer classes and lack toilets, which in modern times have been installed at points along the hutong and shared by all.

Our hutong hotel was on the upscale side, having been renovated to provide a larger than usual central courtyard and modern rooms (each with its own bathroom). Still, the rooms were tiny and the bathrooms were tinier. Late at night the locals just in from the outlying farms (in town to sell goods, perhaps) would arrive, their loud voices and arguments easily heard through the thin walls. Early morning risers added to the din, making sleeping an adventure.

For some reason we decided it would be a good idea to seek out our hotel in the darkened night of 10 pm. Ru’s sister met us at the nearby Ping’Anli Subway station and guided us to the hutong with her GPS. Without her we never would have found it, and the hutong entrance looked exactly like the kind of dark alley I would never (ever) have wandered down at night. After checking out the room she figured we were good for one night before changing our minds. We stayed five days, which shocked everyone, including us.

Hutong Beijing

The One Belt, One Road Summit fell in the middle of our 10 days in Beijing. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR for short) is a development project (call it a trade agreement) seeking cooperation between Eurasian countries. In town for the big meeting was Russian President Vladimir Putin and another 30 or so world leaders (nope, not the USA). Whenever bigwigs are in town the Chinese government shuts down factories and limits car driving in order to cleanse the normally thickly polluted air. We had beautiful clear blue sky for the entirety of our visit, a rarity. A few days after the OBOR meetings were over, the air had already started to get hazy again. It didn’t help that we had high 90 degree F temperatures for every day except two – and those two surpassed 100 degrees F.

After five days we decided that we had experienced enough of hutong life and got a room in a western hotel not far from the Beijing Book Building, a huge structure that makes the local Barnes and Noble stores look tiny. Down the road was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which was closed while the OBOR spouses toured. But that is a story for another time.

For those who want to experience a hutong without actually having to live in one, there are plenty of tours for foreigners offered by people roaming the usual tourist traps. One of the wider ones near the Bell and Drum Towers is called Nanluoguxiang and has been turned into a shopping street, but don’t mistake it for a real hutong. Wander off one of the side alleys to get a better flavor. Plan your walk to end up at Houhai, a beautiful lakefront road lined with plentiful bars and restaurants, all with live music.

Much more on Beijing and other travels on this page, so feel free to click around.

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release July 31, 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Drum Tower of Beijing – Ancient Time Keeper

I recently visited the famous Drum Tower (鼓楼, Gulou) in Beijing, China. I was surprised to learn that it was also a clock, or at least a timekeeper. The tower, which faces its Bell Tower counterpart, was originally built when Kublai Khan was Emperor of China during the Yuan Dynasty (13th century). Originally used as a musical center, it later became a way for the reigning government to announce the time. The two towers maintained this official role up until 1924, when western style clockwork was adopted to keep time.

Beijing Drum Tower

Climbing the long, steep stairway to the top gets you into the main room, one side of which holds a line of humongous drums. The one remaining original drum (of 25) sits to one side, its calfskin head slashed during the Eight Power Allied Forces’ invasion in 1900. We’re here to see the demonstration of the drums. While we wait we take in the panoramic view of Beijing from the outside walkway high above the streets.

Beijing Drum Tower

We also check out the displays of ancient timekeeping equipment. With our modern astronomically-linked smart phones and digital watches, it is interesting to see that much of time was monitored through the burning of incense and candles. Others used water or metal balls.

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In one timepiece called a Bronze Kelou, time is measured by the flow of water through four copper clepsydras. A mechanical device would trigger the attached God of Cymbals to strike his cymbals together eight times for each quarter hour. Another timepiece called a Beilou contained several metal balls that would roll along copper pipe in a 2 meter tall cabinet. A ball would clang a cymbal every 24 seconds, thus it would take 14.4 minutes (an ancient quarter) for 36 metal balls to complete a cycle. It would take 24 hours for 3,600 metal balls to complete rolling, which gave relatively accurate time measurement.

It’s time. Four drummers march in and line up in front of the huge drums. They pound with such brute force it’s hard to imagine the drum heads lasting for very long. After only a few minutes you start to realize the power and strength of the drummers. Check out the video below.

After the demonstration we slowly descend the stairs, which somehow seem steeper going down than going up. This won’t be the last stairs – the even taller Bell Tower is next!

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David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, scheduled for release in summer 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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