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 Friday we decided to see a natural spring in the West Lake scenic area of Hangzhou. We checked out of our apartment and waited for the direct express bus.

And waited.

Some 20 minutes later we gave up and walked toward the stadium. There we boarded a different, much slower bus (it follows the busy road close to the lake). Thus it took us over two hours to get to the park entrance of the spring.

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The paved trail followed a wetland on one side and led into the forest. Along the way tiger sculptures appeared.

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In that forest I saw a squirrel for the first time in China.

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We soon entered the spring complex.

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The ancient spring itself was somewhere around…

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At least, there was something under the glass, but is was too muddy to see. Behind the main square was a pond with stone steps leading to the back wall and cave and the tiger that emerged thence. Above the cave, a sign bore the name of the spring.

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Having acquainted ourselves with the tiger, we continued walking up some stairs.

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There was another pond, more stone steps, and a large sculpture of a monk lying among some rocks with tigers creeping toward him.

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According to the story, the monk, whose name was Xing Kong, discovered the spring. On the subject of how he found it, he claimed that he had a dream that two tigers would dig up a fountain, and the next day it really happened. Despite the fact that there are no tigers anywhere near Hangzhou, the spring got the name “Dreaming of the Tigers”.

The trail ends at the monk’s feet, and you’re not allowed to climb the rocks behind him. At least, that’s what I think this sign says.

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And people do come to the spring to collect water, although the water is diverted in a clean way, coming out from a hose.

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It was time to return. We hurried back, but our bus was so slow (it followed the busy road close to the lake on the other side), that we soon gave up, got off, rented out some bikes, and rode to the nearest train station to pick up our tickets. There was some clever negotiation, after which Kevin got us all our tickets.

We briefly split up. I rode to the Muslim district we passed on the way. To my surprise, I found there a large statue of Yue Fei leading his army.

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Another statue, titled “Four generations under one roof”, also caught my eye.

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I briefly explored the district, having some jian bao for a snack, mostly because the ethnic food would have taken too long.

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I then hurried back - it took too long to find a functioning bike, and I got lost, but eventually caught up with the rest of the group.

They, meanwhile, took a scenic path along the Hangzhou-Beijing canal.

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That evening we had our last dinner with Kevin’s family, who were so generous toward us on the trip.

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They then gave us gifts of tea, and Kevin’s uncle took all of us to the train station. Our next stop: Shenzhen.

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

Contrasting with an eventful Wednesday was a rather quiet Thursday when we had lunch by the lakeside, then met with one of Kevin’s family members and played a card game at a Starbucks.

We decided to eat at Chamate - we have fond memories of the chain from our last trip to China four years ago.

We also bought tea. There was the fruit tea that we ordered four years ago:

Pouring the fruit tea (top: 2012, bottom: 2016)

But we also ordered a leaf tea. It came in a pot small pot with small cups and a whole package of tea bags. Thus, we walked out of Chamate with the leftover tea and now get to enjoy the memories back home.

After lunch, Kevin unsuccessfully tried to get me and Alan to buy clothes, and after that we took a walk by the lake.

We headed for the “people bridge” where we somehow managed a group shot (with a tripod) in spite of all the people.

Hi.

It took a while for me to convince everyone that we should not attempt a jump-shot on the crowded bridge. Instead, we moved to the side of the bridge, and even there it took a few tries.

After the short excursion, it was time to go meet Kevin’s cousin. He was waiting for us at a tea shop by the lakeside, so we headed back. As we were nearing the mall where we were came from earlier, we wondered if today would be a case of déjà vu, and so Kevin called his cousin to find out.

It was. Back at Chamate, we had more tea, and everyone ordered the same dessert.

After tea, it was already time for dinner with Kevin’s family. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more fancy dinner than that day.

Here are all of us, seated around a table and sharing a delicious meal.

This was also my chance to see Kevin’s other side of the family. The last time everyone else went to visit, I was in bed, sleeping and waiting for my McDonalds.

And after dinner, we took Kevin’s cousin to a Starbucks and played cards for a long time. Tomorrow would be our last day in Hangzhou.

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

I woke up late, feeling much relieved. The others left to find breakfast, while I stayed behind. This was a mistake, as finding breakfast turned out to involve taking the bus all the way to the city center - Spring Festival, remember? In the meantime, here are some pictures of our apartment and the surroundings:

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We decided to spend the day exploring the city by bicycle and headed back to the wetland that we saw briefly on the first day. On the way, we got to see some of the city.

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We crossed many canals on the way. We also got to ride by a road closed for construction of a new metro line. Hangzhou is planning to open five more metro lines by the end of the decade, building them using a cut and cover method.

We arrived at the same entrance at the Xixi wetland as the first time, but this time we had our bicycles, so we could go farther, faster. But we quickly stopped at the touristy boardwalk. It was small, but somehow we spent a long time there.

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We left our bikes at a motorbike corral where a security guard was watching. Kevin spend a long time talking to the security guard about something… I don’t remember the details, except I was consistently referred to as the “lao wai” (polite expression for “foreigner”).

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Across the path there was a coffee shop, Xixi Coffee. For some reason, it’s logo had a decoration that resembles the Chinese character for a person: “Xixi Brown Person”.

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Anyway, we kept biking along the main path and turned off to see some old temples and houses.

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(In the last photo, Kevin is unhappy because he told us to stop taking pictures and hurry up.) We wanted to keep going to another part of the park, but found our way blocked by construction. So, we took the main path out of the park.

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We then biked toward the city center, passing a Taobao branch office and the Zhejiang University main campus.

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Next, Kevin showed us the city’s sports stadium. Outside the stadium, there were basketball courts and people playing basketball. I thought: outside Seattle’s stadiums there are popcorn stands and people selling popcorn.

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We took a short break at the stadium and continued toward the lake, to the temple of Yue Fei. He was a general who fought against the Jurchen invaders in the Southern Song era, but he was betrayed, imprisoned, and later executed.

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His tomb is at the far end of the temple on top of a hill.

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Facing the tomb are iron statues of the traitors, depicted kneeling for eternity. 

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Part of the story of Yue Fei involves his mother tatooing the words “serve the country with utmost loyalty” on his back. The character for “country” is missing a stroke, perhaps to symbolize China’s loss of territory following the capture of the Northern Song. Or, maybe Yue Fei’s mother made a mistake.

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We spent a long time at the temple. When we returned to our bikes, it was already getting dark. We thought about dinner, then decided to go back to the main part of the lake. Before that, we took a quick detour to the lake’s biggest park. Except there wasn’t much time to actually see the park. Soon, the sun set, and I captured the last of the Three Sunsets of Hangzhou.

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This was followed by dinner at a very popular cafeteria-style restaurant in downtown. Kevin took the job of getting our orders, while the rest of us teamed up to look for a table. There were no empty tables and no queue - prospectors had to wait at an occupied table and claim it just as it frees up (restaurant staff would then come and wipe down the table). It took a while, but eventually we sat down.

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We then had dessert.

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We were in the central part of West Lake, across from the lake side and famous Hangzhou fountain. The fountain, unfortunately, wasn’t working - it was under renovation in preparation for the upcoming G20 summit. I took some photos of the lake and the surrounding hills.

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Below our feet was a three-dimensional map of the old Hangzhou. Actually, the city is only a few decades old - much of it was build up during the Opening Up period in the 1980s.

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This would end our day, except we had a last trick. After resting a bit at the hotel, we caught a taxi and traveled south to the river. We were expecting to find a lit-up skyline, but picked the wrong place. Behold, Hangzhou’s “Bund”:

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We then had to find our way back. Except there were no taxis or buses running at this hour. So, we checked out some city bikes and rode for about an hour all the way back to the apartment.

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

I promised pictures from my hike back when I biked around Mt. Rainier, and here they are. It was an enjoyable hike, even though it was rather long and steep - over 12 miles and 3750 ft of elevation gain. I wanted to hike to Sunrise because after a long day of climbing hills, I didn’t want to bike up there. Walking instead of riding was a good change.

The other thing that made it fun was the chocolate bar I brought along just for this purpose and the tea I made at the campsite (my mini-stove and thermos are this year’s birthday presents).

So, I started following the Glacier Basin trail. Lots of mountaineers use that trail to the glacier where they begin their ascent up the mountain, so it is very well-maintained. After a wash-out a few years ago, a section of the trail was moved, and now it is an easy walk through the woods.

I looked up this mountain and wondered whether I’d have to trek up there soon.

These are my campsite neighbors, and they were rather fun. They speak some Slavic language, and in the evening they played percussion quietly. A bunch of kids played on the road. In the morning, I watched the climbing group say good bye, then I caught up with them on the trail.

The end of maintained trail is just past a wild campground. That’s actually where the best part of the trail begins, as from here the trail climbs up to the glacier, the views open up, and the biome changes from subalpine to alpine tundra. But I stopped here, as I had other plans. I had some of my tea and turned around.

Soon I reached a fork. The way straight was 2.4 miles back to the campground. The way left was 5 miles to Sunrise. I went left, entering the forest.

I quickly noticed that this trail is much less maintained than the one I came from. There was a tree with lots of small branches sticking in all directions blocking the way, for example. I reasoned that the park service may be slow in removing trees, but I expected hikers to break off the small branches, and thus concluded that not many people walk here.

Being on a low-traffic trail means I was also concerned about bears. You’re supposed to make noise to let them know you’re coming and avoid startling them. So, whenever I rounded a corner I would say loudly, “Bear, bear, here I come!” Whether or not this made any difference as far as bears are concerned is impossible to verify (I didn’t see any bears, or any wildlife larger than a chipmunk, for that matter), but it did helped me with my nervousness.

The climb here was steep (over 500 m over 3 km). As I climbed, winds picked up, making it even more difficult.

The mountain was behind me, and I wonder if I should have done the loop in the other direction.

I approached one of the Burroughs. The wind was very strong here, but I was prepared and packed a jacket and warmer gloves. There was also snow, for which I was not prepared in my sandals. My feet got soaked, though the wind was so strong and the sun was so hot that by the time I returned to the campsite, they were completely dry.

At the top of the highest Burrough (why are they called Burroughs?) the land consists of flat, well-polished rocks. The only thing that grows here is short plants / mosses that can hide in between the rocks. Only hiker fools like me venture up here.

There was a small wind shelter, which had a single bench. Some people were occupying it, and I asked them to take a picture of me.

Ahead were more rocks and mountain views (for which I had to look backward). And more snow. There were skiers there, too - not mountaineers, just downhill skiers who came for the snow.

I was descending, but I still had to walk up to the top of the Lower Burrough. I’ve been there before, though. It’s the same as the upper one: rocks everywhere, polished by strong winds. The last time I was with an organized group, and we took the main trail that leads to Frozen Lake, where a bunch of Sunrise trails intersect. This time I took the back trail that went straight to the wild campsite by Shadow Lake - the shortest way back to the White River campground.

Here, safe from the wind, I had some more tea and chocolate. The trail to Shadow Lake was familiar - I had taken it many times, and the final descent was fast.

I was back in black bear territory, though. “Bear, bear, here I come!”

That was my hike. I reunited with my bike and all my things at the campground, then took a short side trip to see the White River before making some more tea, changing back into bike clothes, and riding home.

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/630438590

Last weekend was extended due to Independence Day, and I took the opportunity to go on a two-night bike camping excursion to Mt. Rainier National Park. I had previously biked to Mt. Rainier, but it was short - started in Sumner and turned around at Carbon River, which is the lowest-elevation park entrance. This time I was going all the way around via Paradise and Cayuse Pass, and I was planning on some hiking.

This was my first time bike camping on mainland, and I had to worry about bears and national park regulations, so I packed a bear can. I also needed a proper backpack and change of shoes for the hikes. So, I hung a backpack off the saddle and secured it to the pannier bag. Inside the backpack was a bear can filled with food and a few other things, though I tried to keep it as light as possible. The whole set-up looked like this:

It seems that every time I plan on going for a bike ride, my roommates plan something fun the evening prior, and the same happened on Friday evening. So, on Saturday, I didn’t leave until past 11 AM, which is rather late when you’re trying to bike 80 miles and set up camp for the night.

I had a crêpe for lunch in Sumner around 3:30 PM. My bike was parked outside, locked to itself, but not to a fixture, and the bags on the back were still on it. I was watching it while eating, but over the course of the trip I got more comfortable leaving the stuff on my bike.

From Sumner I took the Foothills trail to Orting. On the way, my chain started skipping, and I realized that it’s hard to fix things on the bike when there’s something really heavy on it. It turned out that one of the chain joints got stiff, and I moved it back and forth a bit to loosen, which solved the problem.

After Orting, I turned South and was in new territory.

This little road passed two lakes. The first lake had a recreation area where people fished and boated.

The second lake, just North of Eatonville, was more residential, and there was more pleasure boat traffic.

Around 7 PM I got to Eatonville and had dinner.

After dinner I stopped briefly at a local grocery store and was on my way to Alder Lake where I expected to spend the night.

That’s where problems started. The campground I planned on was full. The campground host was helpful, but still sent me a further 15 miles ahead. Turns out I didn’t have much luck finding a campground that night, but there were public lands I could camp on. I took her advice. In Elbe, I bumped my wheel really hard on train tracks and had to replace a tube - by this time it was already dark. By the time I found a cute-looking spot to camp on, it was already midnight. It was cute, though.

On Saturday, I began the journey through the park, having breakfast at a lodge right outside the park entrance. Breakfast was good, but service was slow.

The road to Paradise was beautiful, and I barely noticed that I was climbing over 1000 m on my bike.

I reached Paradise at 3:30 PM, and unfortunately it was too late for hiking. I had a lot of distance, including another large hill ahead.

Shortly after 4 PM, I started a fun ride down the mountain.

Then became the second uphill, steeper than the first, and exhausting. I was going very slowly and took multiple rest stops along the way. The road looked the same everywhere.

After 70 minutes of climbing, I reached the junction with 410, representing the highest point on this climb. At the top, I took a snack break, put on warm clothes (it was getting cold), and biked down as fast as was reasonable.

I spent the second night at the White River Campground in the national park. Despite arriving in the evening, I was able to find an open campsite.

The next morning I did at 12-mile loop hike along White river, up to Sunrise, and back. I’ll write about that another day. I took the backpack with food and my camera, but left most of my stuff on the bike, which I locked to a picnic table. Fortunately, it was all there when I returned.

By the time I started on my way back home, it was already 4:30 PM, and I had 80 miles to go, which sounds like a bad idea. Fortunately, it was mostly downhill from there. There was a stop in Greenwater for dinner.

It was fast - only 40 minutes. By 8 PM, I was halfway home - in Enumclaw.

I arrived in Redmond at 10:45 PM. Perhaps leaving this late had one other benefit: I passed and enjoyed people setting off fireworks, but the most spectacular displays were over Lake Sammammish after 10 PM. Municipal fireworks displays typically start at 10 PM, which is precisely when I was passing the lake.

My ride logs:

Day 1: https://www.strava.com/activities/630438160
Day 2: https://www.strava.com/activities/630438121
Day 3: https://www.strava.com/activities/630504553

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.

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.