Igor Tolkov
Software Engineer, Facebook
Co-founder and Lead Developer, taiLib
University of Washington, Class of 2013
B.Sc. Mathematics, Physics; B.Sc. Computer Science; B.A. Linguistics

Welcome!

I am a STEM quadruple major and a recent University of Washington graduate. Since 2014 I have been employed as a Software Engineer at Facebook. In my spare time, I explore on bicycle, travel with a backpack, and bring my DSLR wherever I go.

I keep a blog, mirrored here, of my adventures. Here is the latest, in brief:

On Tuesday morning, I filled up the teapot in the hotel bathroom, boiled water, and had some tea.

We went out to look for breakfast. There’s a street in the North City, Wensan 3rd Road, along which are some of Kevin’s favorite breakfast / lunch spots. But it was Spring Festival, and they were all closed.

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So, we took the bus to the city center to look for food. Hangzhou strives to reduce pollution and runs electric buses.

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We found a cafeteria. The food was decent, but not very exciting - especially when compared to what we ate the previous two days.

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I was also feeling a little sick in the stomach.

After lunch, we went to the bureau that issues city passes. These are prepaid cards that can be used to pay for public transit and to rent bicycles from the city’s public bicycle network.

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(Across from the office was a colorful-looking residential building.)

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Supplied with our new cards, we borrowed bicycles and headed for the lake. We arrived at the park with the big Starbucks that has an indoor greenhouse seating area. It’s a great idea for the winter, but when we were there it could have used some air conditioning.

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Of course, the lake was beautiful.

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Unfortunately, my stomach wasn’t happy with me. I talked to Kevin about it, and we agreed that the water was most likely to blame. Apparently one shouldn’t drink tap water in China, even if boiled. I really wasn’t feeling well walking around the park then, although it doesn’t look like it at all from the pictures - the whole thing didn’t bother me when I was on my bike.

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We kept bicycling, past the Leifeng pagoda and the walkway across the lake, pausing at another scenic point…

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And then we crossed around the south end:

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The return was along the other side of the lake, and the road went through a wooded area. At one place we crossed a waterway, from where we could see the lake.

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The real treasure was on the other side, though - the sun was setting directly behind us. Behold, the second of the Three Sunsets of Hangzhou.

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Now it was getting dark, but we weren’t far from the end of our ride. We passed the “broken bridge”, which seemed like the most crowded part of the lakeside.

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We returned bicycles, boarded a bus, returned to the hotel, discussed where to eat (I was too sick to care and found a couch), and decided to move first. So, we took all our stuff and walked from the hotel to the apartment which we booked through AirBnB for the remainder of our stay in Hangzhou. (We didn’t move into the apartment right away as we didn’t want to bother the owners on Chinese New Year.) It was very close (which is why we walked), but it still took us what seemed like a long time.

The apartment was in a guarded neighborhood, and the guards asked us a bunch of questions before admitting us inside and telling us where to go. Our apartment was on one of the top floors of the buildings. The problem is, the lift didn’t seem to work. After testing and disproving a weight limit hypothesis, I noticed that the rubber safety flap in the doors was stuck in an awkward position. The flap was pushed in place, the lift responded, and we ascended to the top of the building with ease. 

There, the owners greeted us and showed us how to use various features of the apartment. Some of the interesting things they told us were:

There were also plenty of familiar concepts, such as the bathroom heat lamp and the water dispenser tower (“safe drinking water”). After our brief lesson, the owners left, and we settled for the next three days. Kevin, Alan, and Nina then went to visit Kevin’s other side of the family and to find dinner. I was too sick, so I stayed behind and slept.

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Speaking of dinner, our hosts pointed us to the nearest McDonalds and said that everything else is closed. So, when the party returned a few hours later, they brought me a chicken burger, fries, and some other dehydrated food. They also brought greetings from the family and advice not to drink the water.

Some photos © Nina Yin, reproduced with permission; all rights reserved.

Kevin’s uncle took us to Hangzhou’s Xixi wetland, as we had some time to spare before dinner. This is us at Xixi:

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The place is indeed a wetland, but one with a lot of history. Scattered are a combination of historic sites and tourist traps.

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It was late; the shops were closing down for the night.

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We didn’t have much time to explore, but we did go see some Qing dynasty official’s house. It was a familiar layout with a wide room, followed by a square courtyard with walkways to each side, followed by another room and more courtyards. But what do I know?

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As we turned back, the sun was setting behind a terrace, and I captured the first of the Three Sunsets of Hangzhou.

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Back at the entrance, we waited for Kevin’s uncle, playing a rock-paper-scissors game where you have to keep your balance: the winner of each round puts their front foot behind their back foot, and the lower must extend their front foot to reach the winner’s.

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Dinner was in a restaurant attached to the apartment buildings. Inside were a bunch of sea animals that had not yet become someone’s meal. Amusingly, there was also a geoduck.

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We were seated at a large round table in one of the private rooms. Slowly, our food was brought out.

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We drank warm corn juice, which is just what it sounds like. I was excited, not having seen anything like it in the States. I suggested that as we grow lots of corn in Washington State, we should make corn juice and market it. The others, apparently not big fans of corn juice, didn’t share my excitement.

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There were eleven of us having dinner that day.

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Finally, after dinner, Kevin’s uncle dropped us off at our hotel. We would see them again before leaving Hangzhou.

Some photos © Nina Yin, reproduced with permission; all rights reserved.

On Monday morning, Monday being the 8th of February and the Chinese New Year, we woke as early as was comfortable and re-packed. It was slow, as we weren’t yet accustomed to travel - so slow, in fact, that Kevin and Alan went out and came back with breakfast.

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We took the metro to the Hongqiao (”Rainbow Bridge”) train station.

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There Kevin bought us tickets, and we hurried to the train station. On this trip, I would get used to catching trains, except for one aspect: Hongqiao remains the only station whither we came by public transit.

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The train ride was fun. Kevin, Alan, and Nina got in a conversation with a group of college students who were going to a water town, Xitang, which was a bus ride from an intermediate stop on our train journey. We also thought about visiting one of the water towns, Wuzhen, during our time in Hangzhou, and we discussed the merits of both - they said that Wuzhen is too commercialized, and we should definitely go to Xitang. (It so happens that, due to a misfortune, we didn’t go to either one, but that’s later…)

An older woman boarded at an intermediate stop, headed for Hangzhou. She also started a conversation with us and gave each of us a piece of sugar cane. One bites the stalk, she explained, and sucks in the juice. I tasted sugar cane once before, at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle: it was dry and tasteless; this one was juicy and sweet.

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Thus we came to Hangzhou, crunching on sugar cane. Kevin’s uncle met us at the station - the grand new Hangzhou West Station, and took us in his van to their flat.

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There, lunch was waiting.

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The sweet New Year’s rice is by far my favorite thing, especially with dates on top. I like dates! And at the end of all that, Kevin’s aunt brought out a giant grapefruit (it’s so large compared to American grapefruit, we use the Chinese name “wendan”).

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After lunch, Kevin’s aunt took us for a walk in their neighborhood. In China, residential buildings are often organized in neighborhoods with several tall buildings surrounding a shared outdoor area. Theirs was especially well-kept, with trimmed shrubbery, fountains, and a pool.

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We took some photos, then went back, called down the rest of the family, and took some more.

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We did more things that day: went to a wetland, had a big dinner together, but let’s save that for next time.

Some photos © Nina Yin, reproduced with permission; all rights reserved.

This is the first in a series of stories of our trip to China and Japan in February. Because it was a long trip - over three weeks, the photos took a long time to edit.

Over the course of the twenty-three days, Kevin, Alan, and I would travel China and Japan. We would be joined by Nina in Hangzhou and Hong Kong, and we would join her later in Japan. Together, we were celebrating her university graduation and exploring Asia.

The three of us arrived by plane to Shanghai on Chinese New Year’s Eve on the 7th of February. It was a long, disappointing flight on United Airlines, which had mediocre food and lacked individual TV screens. At the Pudong Airport (7 PM), we bought SIM cards and started the process of trying to find Nina. (We hadn’t agreed on a meeting place.) Eventually, we found out her terminal, got together, and began our China journey.

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It took about an hour for us to find each other, and another hour to get to the hotel (in the center of the west city), so it was 9 PM by the time we got there. We had a reservation at a restaurant on the Huangpu, and luckily they were willing to wait for us, because we didn’t get there until just before 10 PM.

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The feeling was festive, as we had our first meal together in almost two years.

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There was a surprise at the end: we had cake, courtesy of our housemate, Eric. The servers apparently didn’t want to bore us with putting away used dishes, as the cake was brought to an adjacent table. There were four of us, and there were four pieces of cheesecake, four slices of dragonfruit, and eight slices of watermelon. Thank you, Eric!

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We walked back to the hotel along the Bund (west bank of the Huangpu). On this stretch we were underdressed and cold, but this was the only evening we would spend in Shanghai, so we had no choice.

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The face of the Customs House reads ten-to-midnight or, as Americans say, “almost morning”. Thus we quickly made our way to the hotel where we all finally had a good night of sleep.

Some photos © Nina Yin, reproduced with permission; all rights reserved.

I was in the South Bay for work, actually. On Monday and Tuesday, I rode my bike to the office and back. But on Tuesday I took the long way, east along the Bay Trail, then south along Stevens Creek, and back west along Foothills Highway. The first time I did a ride similar to this was when I just started working, and I do this ride at least once every year.

https://www.strava.com/activities/518221914

The next day I woke earlier and rode out into the hills.

There is a fairly long climb up Old La Honda Road to the pass at Skyline Road. I rode up there once before. That time I took a ride on Skyline because I heard there was a convenience store to the right, and I needed water. I was headed for the ocean, then. This time I took a left instead, and vast views opened - no wonder the road is named Skyline! 

From the last viewpoint I could see my office (right by the water), Palo Alto right below it, Stanford right below that, then what looks like a golf course, then hills.

And the way back down, along Page Mill Road, was beautiful, too, but I was in a rush to get back to the hotel and pack up.

https://www.strava.com/activities/518660722

This post is dedicated to a friend who kept me company on one Tuesday evening last September, my previous trip to the Bay Area. We messaged about a park in Palo Alto, and I promised to send pictures, although I never did. On my most recent trip, I visited the park again and remembered about my promise.

There is a creek, the San Francisquito Creek, separating the towns of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. There’s a path just South of the train tracks that crosses the creek. At night, it’s a quiet place with large, tall trees.

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Usually, there is no water in the creekbed. Recently, however, it rained a lot, and the creek was quite full.

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This was on Monday morning. Since then it hasn’t rained in the South Bay. The last it rained was actually Sunday evening while I biked with all my things from one hotel to another. It was dry as I packed my bag, dry as I got on my bike and started pedaling. Then it started raining hard…

Paso Robles is a small town known for wineries and hot springs - a selection of the list of things of no interest to me. My idea of a trip to a town involves taking pictures of cool buildings, getting out of the town and looking at the countryside, all while eating good food and drinking tea.

A map told me to go right to get to the city center. A few blocks later, there it was.

Thus, a movie theater and a “haymarket” building, which was split in two sections: a clothes shop on one side and a sweets shop on the other. The sweets shop was playing The Chocolate Factory, which actually sounds like a great idea, and it had sweets I rarely see these days, such as “chocolate frogs” from Harry Potter.

These buildings overlooked a park, much of which was closed off for construction.

There were also a library and city hall, of course, and there were closed, as it was a Sunday. Further away, I saw a cool-looking hotel and coffee shop, the latter of which was also closed.

The countryside was nice - it would have been nicer, had it not started to rain.

I had lunch, which was insufficient, so lunch was immediately followed by tea and cake.

Then I returned to the station. I wanted to be early, to make sure I don’t miss the train. Also, it was raining enough that being outside wasn’t very fun. Funny thing, the rain seemed to stop whenever I entered a shop, a restaurant, or a teahouse. The train was late.

I think the modest-looking station with its flowering trees is my best memory of Paso Robles. More so, there were no station attendants to yell at me for crossing the yellow line or some other nonsense.

At last the train came.

In most places, when the train comes to a remote station, it stops for about a minute as people get on and off. In the US, when the train comes, you have to wait for the conductor to open a door (they’ll open just one or two), then they wait for everyone to get off, then the conductors tells you where to get on… the whole process takes 5-10 minutes.

Eventually, I was on the train on the seat I was just assigned - I put my things down and looked out the window.

¡Adiós, El Paso de Robles!

There were no ex-cons, on this train (although there was a couple traveling overnight to Seattle), so I spent the return journey in the sightseeing car. The seats pivot, so several people can sit together and chat.

I decided that day that I like trains, and that I don’t particularly like cars… or airplanes, really. If only this train weren’t so slow, I could ride it to California and back instead of flying.

Anticipating rain for all of Sunday, I looked for a way out. In particular, there are two Amtrak lines out of San Jose: the San Joaquin to Bakersfield, and the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles and Seattle. The Joaquin didn’t help, but the Coast Starlight just happens to pass in the morning in the Southbound direction. It is possible to take the train South, then back North in the same day. In particular:

South - North
10:07 - 20:11 - San Jose
11:48 - 18:28 - Salinas
13:38 - 16:37 - Paso Robles
15:20 - 15:35 - San Luis Obispo

The last stop is for reference only, as while technically possible, it is risky and involves spending the entire day on the train. I decided to go to Paso Robles. While the destination was still in the forecast’s rain zone, it was on the edge, and rain there wasn’t expected to be as strong as in the Bay Area.

This much I knew that evening. The next morning I woke early, packed up my things, checked out of the hotel, and boarded the bus to the San Jose station. At the station, I bought my round-trip ticket (it was $63) and, having an hour before departure, headed to Whole Foods for breakfast. The rain was pounding, and I had no regrets spending the majority of the train in the comfort of an Amtrak train.

When it came, people lined up outside. There was some confusion, as we were sent to wait by a door close to the end of the train, outside the covered area, and the conductor there complained that we got sent out to be in the rain before they were ready waiting for other passengers to disembark.

What I saw from the train: green fields, oil wells, a dead cow, and a historic dwelling.

But I was also quite interested in the phone conversation of the passenger sitting next to me.The story as as follows: at Salinas, where he boarded, I initially mistook him for someone collecting trash, as he was dressed in white and carried a large plastic trash bag. Just as I reached for my trash, he sat down next to me, and I realized that the contents of the bag were nothing more than his personal stuff. At that point I thought nothing more of it, other than how it would be nice to buy him a backpack. Then the conductor came by to check his ticket and asked: “How many of you colleagues are with you?”

It was only then that I noticed another person sitting across the aisle dressed exactly the same. At this point I was curious. I wondered if he was, perhaps, doing some kind of missionary work. Then I remembered something I read in the train brochure about the route - and it hit me.

We talked for a little bit… but not much. I learned, mostly from his conversation with his friend, that six of them were released that day from the Salinas Valley State Prison. Two were picked up, while the other four were sent to the train station and boarded the train to Paso Robles, where they were to make a bus connection. Eventually, but not until late in the evening, they would return home. My neighbor was locked up for two years and now was coming back to his wife. I lent him my phone, and they talked for a long time, finally giving up because of poor connection in the California foothills.

This is the four of them. I wish they have a good life.

Next: Paso Robles

Feel free to e-mail at --- or contact me securely with any questions. Enjoy!

About Me

MathematicsRead more
I am most specialized in mathematics, particularly in algebraic number theory. Read about my early math days, my trip to Budapest, my graduate coursework, and see some of my course papers for math classes.

PhysicsRead more
Read about how I completed my physics degree upside down, browse through my quantum mechanics notes, and look at some of my seminar slides.

Computer ScienceRead more
Explore the fruits of my early computer science experiments, my computer science coursework and research, and my web start-up. Watch videos of projects I designed in the hardware lab.

Linguistics and ChineseRead more
Learn why I like linguistics so much, browse pictures of my trip to China, and read my course papers for linguistics and Chinese classes. Practice your traditional character recognition on a writing sample.

ActivitiesRead more
See what I do in my spare time. I used to lead a student organization, and that's no easy task. Read about that and my other leadership activities.

Websites and Profiles

Old Site http://igor.tolkov.com/archive
No longer maintained, but still interesting.
China Blog Stories and memories from July 2012
And any future China travel plans.
Tumblr Song of a thistle
My present blog, mostly with photos. Mirrored on this site.
Google+ "Not all those who wander are lost"
I occasionally post photos here.
LinkedIn My LinkedIn Profile
taiLib My taiLib Profile
A service I co-founded and run. We aim to connect students who have textbooks with students who need them.

Former class schedules

I graduated in the summer of 2013, but my six years of course schedules are still up, and I have no plans to take them down.