The Road to China

Chapter 9:

Stairway to Heaven


Statue within one of the many temples along the route.  

“You care too much”, said a jaded and cynical teacher, when I asked about how to avoid my burnout problem.  “We are here to entertain.  If you try to help them teach to the test, you will simply interfere with their progress.” 

An annoying answer, but I’m finally beginning to see the truth within it.  None of the other teachers here seem to be working as hard as I do, or spending as much time preparing and grading after hours.  Nor does anyone else seem to care as much.  While it's possible that I may be doing a better job, the other teachers seem to have learned how to last in their roles as opposed to crashing and burning.  (Which is more valuable?)  Upon further reflection, I recall that new social workers, medical professionals and even some law enforcement personnel tend to go through the same phase – they have to stop caring so much just to get through the day. 

But that’s not important now.  Today I’m on a train to the Shangdong province, on my way to Mt. Taishan, one of China's five sacred Daoist (Taoist) mountains.  Mt. Taishan houses an ancient (at least 2,000 years old - constructed in the Zhou dynasty) temple high atop the mountain, and one must climb 6,666 stone steps to pay it a visit.  Scholars, poets and 72 emperors have come to Mt. Taishan to admire the mountain, its ancient buildings and engraved stone tablets, and to present sacrifices.  Today it's more of a tourist attraction than a spiritual retreat, but there's no question that climbing this mountain brings you closer to heaven, both literally and figuratively.


Mr. Koh, enjoying his ascent.

I was invited by Mr. Koh to join him and his youthful employees in making this trek.  Mr. Koh is the person behind the Cell Phone Sentry opportunity mentioned in Chapter 5, and he has an interesting history (as does just about everyone I meet here).  He is of Chinese descent but was born and raised in Malaysia, and became a Singaporean.  He had a great career at Motorola before quitting and venturing out in China.  Three years ago he came to China without speaking the language and without knowing much about the business climate here (which, as alluded to earlier, is VERY different -- many established companies who open branch offices in China often close up shop and go home after a few years), and opened a branch office of his Singapore communications firm.  His wife and family are still in Singapore, and he visits them frequently.  Although he's my age, he prides himself on keeping fit -- last weekend, for example, he ran a marathon without bothering to train.  So, I consider this to be a great way to see some of China and to strengthen a business relationship for the future.  Plus, this will fulfill my alleged requirement for exercise for an entire year!

The 8 hour train ride to Shangdong is over, and it's about 5:00 AM.  A five minute taxi ride takes us to the entrance.  Here we go!

Step # 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...

There are many stops along the way; toward the bottom there are a gazillion trinket shops for tourists; toward the top there are many small Buddhist temples and many of our group would stop, burn incense, and pray at each one.  People pass me on the way up; some dressed rather well (as if they just came from a "casual Friday" business meeting), some running with youthful energy, some carrying goods and supplies to the temple and the higher-altitude shops on their backs.  

The picture at the left has been modified to highlight the stairs for the very last 1000 steps or so.  Click on this picture to view a larger version - you can see how tiny the steps are in the large picture, giving you a good idea of the scale.  Do not be fooled; we were climbing stairs for 3 hours before we got to the point where this picture could be taken.  What you see is just the last leg of the climb. 


28, 29, 30, 31, 32...

Carrying supplies to the top.  This person was carrying a relatively light load.  It's interesting to note that here the strategy is to rest the weight of the goods on the shoulders, whereas in Nepal it is distributed along the back and a good percentage of that rests on the forehead (see illustration.)

I am continuously amazed at the stone stairs and side walls that were put here thousands of years ago.  How were these temples built?  How was the ancient Chinese graffiti (for lack of a better description) carved onto these sheer stone cliffs?  Who financed all of this, and how was it paid back??  Still more amazing to me is that some people (like the ones carrying supplies up the mountains) make this journey every day!  Mr. Koh, who considers himself to be in good shape, tried to pick up one of the loads tied to sticks - they were too heavy to lift!  Conventional wisdom says that this kind of exercise should make people look strong and healthy; instead, as in Nepal, they look dilapidated  and will no doubt have a short life.  Another disconnect??  



My mind flashes back 10 years to Nepal, where I spent 3 weeks trekking up and down the Himalayas with my “Let’s-do-aerobics-during-lunchtime – It’ll-be-fun!” friends.  The experience was wonderful, but I swore I would never do it again.  At that time I finally learned (although I had always known it ever since I was very young) that my body was not genetically engineered for exercise.  And yet here I am!  


More stairs.  

I learned my lesson from the Nepal trip, though, and before I agreed to join this trek I emphasized that each person must ascend the mountain at their own pace, and I will do exactly that - and no faster.  My strategy (which was quite effective) was to go VERY slowly - on average 3-4 seconds per step - to ensure that my heart rate stayed reasonably low.  I think I made it up there 2 hours behind everyone else -- not bad!


My mind wanders to back home.  I miss everyone.  I miss my dog Kona.  I wonder what in the world I will do when I return home, as news from my business partner in California (despite his best efforts) doesn't look good, and the last thing in the world I want is another stressful corporate job.  

I think back to all the different forms of income I tried to create for myself over the past three years, and how none of them have provided anything meaningful.   I think back to all the inventions and patents I had amassed back in my NASA days that I could never commercialize, except for one, which everyone seems to use yet I get no compensation.  And last week, I heard that Canon (the giant imaging and copier company) is the latest offender! 


Inside one of the many Buddhist temples along the way.  (Click on picture to hear a sample of the background music.)

Here's the background: While I was still at JPL I invented and patented a special kind of digital camera.  If you took a picture with this camera, you'll be able to prove in court that the image was not manipulated by computer.  Because I was technically a Caltech employee at the time, and because NASA has a policy of not awarding license fees to subcontractors, when the patent was licensed to Polaroid I received nothing.  Then when Epson came out with a camera which violated my patent, nothing was done.  "We're not in the business of enforcing patent violations" came the reply.  Fine.  Now Canon has used my ideas in their high-end digital camera, the D1s.  Surely this must be a high-visibility infringement worth pursuing, right?

I immediately sent an email to my buddy at the NASA Legal team (who still remembers me!) and said, "Look, I know that you're not in the business of enforcing patents, but Canon has clearly violated mine, and with your permission I'd like to hire my own lawyer to pursue royalties."  I got an answer two days later: "We can't give you permission to do that.  But if you send us more details, we'll forward it to the Department of Justice for consideration."  "Well, if I do that, and a judgment is made against Canon, will I see anything?"  There was no reply to that one.  

How do you spell "tchotchkes"?  

I'd share with you my feelings about the whole affair, but there is an elementary school classroom in Woodland Hills, California reading this travelogue so I have to watch what I say.  If nothing else, it is YAELGO (Yet Another Exercise in Letting Go of the Outcome).  When these things happen I think about Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented the Television but got his invention stolen and out-marketed by David Sarnoff; I think about Douglas Englebart who invented the computer mouse and has not made a dime off of it; I think about Professors Reed and Solomon, and how their Reed-Solomon error correction code has improved the reliability of everything from spacecraft communication to Compact Disc players and yet they still have to apply for research grants every year; I think about the guy who invented the coherent laser without having a clue about its gazillion applications, the guy who invented the VisiCalc spreadsheet and the team that invented the Graphical User Interface at Xerox PARC.  

Inside a Buddhist temple.  Each red ribbon represents a wish - you pay your money, write your wish on the ribbon, and post it here.  

None of these folks profited from their immense contributions to the world.  I then think about the guy who invented the Segway, a two-wheeled self-balancing scooter which doesn’t address any identified problem and is far too expensive for the vast majority of its alleged market, and how the world (at least the press) seems to be embracing the invention, and I am reminded that fairness and justice are human concepts that do not naturally occur in the world. 


1,892...1,893,...1,895 - I mean 1,894...

I can't get the song "Climb every mountain" out of my head.


211-1… 211… 211+1…211+2…

Many inscriptions in stone. No, I don't know what they say, but they make the 10 commandments look easy.  

SMS (text messaging via cell phones) is a way of life among my Chinese students; I think breathing is the only activity they do more.  Of course this triggers the memory of another invention I have been incessantly trying to commercialize: The Data Egg.  When I was doing market research for the business plan, I remember the massive numbers in European countries – 2 Billion messages a month – and that wasn’t even counting China, which has to be in that league!  The Data Egg was a perfect solution to the problem of typing on tiny devices with inadequate keyboards (like cell phones) while on the run, and this age demographic would have no objection to quickly learning a new alphabet as long as they think its cool.  I had to stop pursuing funding because of a patent conflict.  Oddly, the patent that stopped me is only good in the U.S., which is also the one place where the SMS messaging is lowest.  (Hey, wait a minute…)


I remember climbing the steps of Masada during my first visit to Israel, with Hawkeye, BJ, Hot Lips, Lorne Greene, Little Joe, Hoss, Mary, Murray, and Mr. Grant.


You cannot get a good feel for just how high we were (1,545 meters) by looking at the picture, but the perpetual haze that day prevented a lot of sellable images.  Here's a shot that could have been a winner. 

So Skip to the End Already!

I'm at the top!!  Huzzah!  I'm surrounded by other tourists from throughout China, there are restaurants and tourist gift shops galore and you can barely see the city down below through the clouds.  But who cares?  I'm here!!  HA!  My legs won't be really sore until Monday, so I'll continue to walk around, and play a few victory songs on the Xaphoon to see if I can learn what other Russian folk songs the Chinese people recognize.  (Everyone loves to listen to the Xaphoon, but nobody seems to know what passing the hat around means. :-) )  

The way down wasn't as easy as one might think; going down tends to be tough on the knees, plus the stones were loose, steep, and not always flat.  But I made it!!  

The day started when we got off the train at at 5:00 AM, and the trek ended about 12 hours later.  Like my trip to Nepal, I'm very glad I did it, and I will probably never do it again.  




Group shot near the top.  I'm the one with the hat.

Also near the top.



Inside a private KTV Karaoke room.

Later that night we all had a big feast, and then (because we still had several hours before our train home) we went to one of the many "KTV" brand Karaoke bars throughout China.  I never thought much about Karaoke as it is practiced in America; back home it's an excuse to get drunk and embarrass yourself in front of your friends and complete strangers.  Here it is different.  For starters, the rooms were private and soundproofed, and full of munchies.  And everyone in this room (well, almost everyone) could sing exceptionally well, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.  Here they got not only the joyful benefits of singing, but they had the experience of having a full backup band behind them.  

Karoke machines still have some technical problems to overcome, though.  For example, today it would be an easy thing for the sound track to change keys to match the vocal range of the singer.  When it was my turn to sing "Hey Jude" and "American Pie" (the new short version, not the Don McLean version) I was probably the only one who noticed that it wasn't in my key.  Nearly everyone else was busy playing a game with a cup of dice.  I don't know exactly how the game worked, but it had something to do with someone rolling the dice, and then someone else taking a drink.  

Later I was told that there are two kinds of KTV bars; and we went to the "clean" version.  I can't describe the other kind here (you know, the elementary school kids and all that).  But it's the "clean" version that is generally used to strengthen business relationships.

I spent the next day recovering and unpacking - I'm moving into a new apartment (well, new to me anyway...)  I'll tell you all about it next time.  


Cable car which starts at the halfway point.  Why don't they bring the supplies up this way?  

The Part I Skipped

Oh, did I forget to mention that halfway up Mt. Taishan there is a cable car to whisk you up past the steepest part of the ascent?  Once I got to the halfway point I made a mad dash (more like an angry limp) straight to it.  What do you think I am -- stupid?  


Until next time...

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"

October 28, 2003



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