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


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:

My favorite part of the Chengdu part of the trip begins now.

After the long trip for tea, we reunited with Alan at the hotel, whither he was returned by his relatives. We then went out to eat. We wanted to eat locally, and I wanted spicy Sichuanese food, so we ended up at a hot pot place in the bar district downstairs.

The “less-spicy” broth was such that when we returned to the hotel I started laughing at something dumb that Kevin said and couldn’t stop for a good ten minutes.

The next morning we ate our last breakfast at the Shangri-La.

We then took a trip down Kevin’s memory lane, which is to say, a street adjacent to the music conservatory. We’d gone there earlier, when I was still recovering: Kevin rented out time on a piano in one of the piano stores, and we played for a while.

There is also a market there…

… and a back alley that leads to the main road next to Sichuan University’s main campus.

On the main road is a Muslim restaurant, of which Kevin and I have fond memories and the timeless story of how I tried to eat a chicken head.

From 2012:

Having failed at tracking down “Old Place”, we wanted to come here to eat. Unfortunately, the place had a power outage and was closed. We talked a bit to the owners, and they took our photograph, as is custom. Sadly, we couldn’t have our “big plate of chicken”. Instead, we ate back on the music street.

That lady tried to talk to me in Sichuanese. (My Mandarin was already bad enough on the trip, and the Sichuanese dialect didn’t register at all.) Kevin was good at it, though, and eager to practice, so after lunch we stopped for another treat.

Then we made way to the train station for the trip to Chongqing. By this time I got used to the fact that all new Chinese train stations look the same.

We got first class tickets because that put us on an earlier train. Funny enough, we were the only ones in the first class section of the carriage.

Chongqing greeted us with a joke that involved following everyone else to the monorail station. You see, there is a station called “Chongqing Railway North” but the way to get there, according to signs at the train station, involved going through a wall Harry Potter-style. Instead, everyone went around the block to the adjacent monorail station, and when we boarded the monorail. The next stop, according to the system map, was “Chongqing Railway North”, which made sense, but we very surprised when the train actually stopped there, and when passengers got off / on.

We spent the night at a hostel called “Travelling With”. It was great, except for carrying luggage up three flights of stairs. They had great chalk artwork on blackboards with maps and tour ideas.

It was Lantern Festival, and we were hungry, so we went out to look for dinner and tangyuan (glutenous rice balls symbolic of the holiday).

We eventually found something that resembles a night market and bought a bunch of food.

And then we returned to the hostel, ate it all, played some cards with other travelers, and excused ourselves for another short night of sleep before we fly to Japan.

We had only a few hours in Chongqing, yet we made plenty of good memories from it.

We spent four-and-a-half days in Chengdu. This gave Alan the time he needed to meet with his friends and relatives.

Meanwhile, Kevin and I planned to take an overnight train to see Mt. Emei and the Jiayang steam train. But that was canceled because I had residual weakness from throwing up and not eating for 36 hours.

Instead, we spent a lot of time at the Shangri-La hotel. That was expensive since our planned three nights there turned into four nights, one of which was split between just Kevin and me.

We had fun, though. Our room came with credits that we spent on buffet meals in the Cafe Z[ed] downstairs.

We also had tea one day.

And, of course, we went out to see and taste the city, although it took me a while to get into the mood for that. On the first day we met with one of Alan’s friends and had a fish for lunch at a new mall in the city center.

That was all I could stomach that day, though - I returned to the hotel after lunch. The next day, Kevin and I went out to the city’s public transportation office to get new bus cards.

Afterwards, we had some noodles, for which I still did not have an appetite.

On the third day I wanted to do something touristy, and we went to the narrow & wide streets district.

After that, we wanted to eat dinner at a memorable place near the Sichuan University main campus. Four years ago, I had some of my favorite Sichuanese food at that place.

July 2012:

This time, “Old Place” was gone.

A sign on the window said that the place relocated to a block away where we searched for it but couldn’t find it. Instead, we had some wontons.

On the fourth day, Kevin and I ventured out to buy some tea. We went to a tea market in the north part of the city. It involved taking a subway, then transferring to a bus. We would have probably been better off walking the short distance that we covered slowly on the bus, which was stuck in traffic, but Kevin and some kids on the bus started a long conversation whose topics ranged from  the Laowai (me) to Hitler and occupied France.

Then we bought our tea.

I was amused by the activity on the street: there were vehicles for washing other vehicles and bikes loaded way over capacity.

In retrospect, I don’t know if the trip up was worth it. We bought good tea, but it took the entire day. Kevin and I rounded off the trip with some Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

My next post will be about the remainder of the Chengdu part of the trip which I found to be the most memorable.

The Renaissance Hotel, Guiyang was in a new part of the city not far from the train station. It was conveniently located for our plan to take the train to Kaili and see the Hmong villages. We canceled those plans because Alan was sick, and as we arrived very late we decided to give him some more time to sleep.

So, the next morning we went on a walk to see the local park.

The park was nice. I was having stomach troubles which I ignored. We returned to the hotel for tea.

This immediately triggered vomiting.

I don’t remember much of what happened after that except that I caused the hotel a lot of inconvenience, that Kevin fed me some Chinese tablets for gastritis, that I kept throwing up until in the evening some spongy stuff came out, and after that there was nothing left in the stomach. My guess is that the spongy stuff was from the bread I stuffed myself with the evening before.

I didn’t eat anything and kept water intake to a minimum, we booked another night at the hotel and a flight to Chengdu the next morning, and canceled our overnight train to Chengdu. Meanwhile, the others went out and had some fish for dinner. They brought me back some bananas and mandarin oranges which were delicious (if only I could keep them down…).

Early next morning we took a taxi to the airport and flew to Chengdu.

The slow train to Guangzhou marked the beginning of the most adventurous part of our trip which, in retrospect, did not go smoothly at all. For now, we woke up early, and I had two jobs while the others packed: to find some breakfast for everyone and to figure out where to meet our tour guide. So, I went out with my suitcase and ran around the block trying to find some open restaurant. Eventually I found a place that made noodles and ordered three take-out containers of noodles. The second job was harder. I wandered around the hotel lobby trying to find other people who may be also looking for the tour bus. It turned out that the bus was late, which is a good thing since Kevin and Alan were also slow that morning. The tour guide eventually found me and gave me three stickers that identify us as being on the tour.

The others came down then, and we quickly ate breakfast (we weren’t allowed to eat on the bus). Kevin also chased down a lady that sold rambutan and bought a bunch.

The bus took us to a pier outside Guilin where we boarded our boat.

The Li river cruise was very beautiful, and I would have enjoyed it much more had I dressed properly - for some reason, I thought it would be fine to leave my thick jacket at the hotel.

At some point, a small boat pulled up to us and delivered the crabs and mollusks in the set meal that we ordered. We were probably the only ones on the boat to order additional food, and it didn’t even taste very good.

We also saw a cormorant fisher. These people use cormorants to catch fish and extract them from the birds’ mouths. They also make money by posing with you and their birds for photos for a fee.

Meanwhile, we kept cruising down the Li river…

We reached the Painted Hill of Nine Horses. According to folklore, the wiser you are, the more horses you will be able to make out on the hill. Thus, an ordinary person sees one or two horses, a general sees three, etc. “A sober person sees a cliff,” I thought to myself.

Just as we reached it, dinner was served, and we rushed downstairs to get in line for the buffet. We also had our specially ordered shellfish.

And then we arrived in Yangshuo, the end of the cruise.

We had some time left to explore, and then we agreed with another family to split the cost of a private car back to Guilin. (Their daughter got sick, and they wanted to return as soon as possible.)

Here are the three of us and our tour guide:

Yangshuo is a funny shopping town that has food from around the world, including a German pub with European servers. It’s a strange place.

We walked around and shopped for snacks and souvenirs. In retrospect, we should have bought some food.

Then we met with the other family, found our driver, and headed back to Guilin past the same rolling hills as we saw from the boat.

And back at Guilin, the troubles started. We ran into traffic and were behind schedule. Our train station was very new and very far from the city, though, luckily, we found a taxi driver who was willing to take us there. It did mean that we had no time to eat dinner. The station had only a single convenience store that sold snacks, and we bought a bunch. Eventually, our train came.

It took us to, again, a new train station (these stations serve only high-speed trains between Guangzhou, Guilin, and Guiyang, but without a large population in those cities that would benefit from the trains, the stations are empty, and the structures that can support tourists are absent).

In our Guiyang hotel, we decided to splurge and order a meal to our room. It involved me talking on the phone in Chinese and ordering some random noodle (I have no idea what the different kinds of pasta are called), but the food we got in the end was good.

Moral of the story: if going on the Li river cruise, spend more than one night in Guilin / Yangshuo.

The border crossing into Hong Kong was smooth. At the train station on the other side, I was still able to message my friends, but our means of communication were about to become more limited. Kevin was able to obtain a phone from the hotel and could call me from it, and Alan had a very limited roaming plan, but I could not contact anyone except through Wi-Fi.


I learned that the others were on their way to Victoria Peak and anticipated to wait for them at the hotel where Kevin and Alan were staying. Being a day late means the hotel does not allow you to check in or even store luggage because your name is not on the reservation. At least they had free Wi-Fi, whereby I learned that the trio would be at the peak for a while, so I decided to join them… in retrospect, this was a bad idea, because it had the almost-certain consequence of making them wait, but I was overcome by a spell of selfishness that day, getting on one of the buses at Admiralty headed on a scenic drive for the peak.

We reunited at the peak.

After spending a long time at the observation platform (because I showed up late), we walked around the surroundings.

We descended by funicular tram that connects the peak to the Admiralty district. The tram used to make other stops along the hill, but now it serves a purely tourist purpose.

There’s a walk from the station to the metro that involves a lot of stairs, which is hard with a suitcase and why I skipped the tram and took a bus on the way up. But there’s a park there, the Hong Kong Park:

And, beyond the park, stairs. Alan and Nina may remember those stairs as the ones over which they took turns carrying my suitcase, and I will remember them for a long time because I was complacent while that happened, being instead amused by double-deck buses and trams on the streets.

We ate dinner at Admiralty. I guess I didn’t really eat lunch that day.

After that we took Nina back to her friend’s place where she was staying, and the day was over. The next day started with hotel breakfast.

After breakfast I went on an excursion to find a mahjong set. I did end up finding one, but it took about 15 minutes over what I projected. We also took a trip to a laundromat to drop off our laundry, negotiating with them to get it done two hours ahead of schedule, as we had a train to catch. At that point, we were ready for lunch.

By the time we were done eating, our laundry was also done drying, and we returned to the hotel to fold it and put it away. (The hotel gave us strict instructions about which surfaces we were or weren’t allowed to use for this purpose.) There, the concierge informed us that if we wanted to catch our train, we had to leave quickly. The information turned out to be only partly true - we did have to leave earlier than we thought, but not as early as we were told, and on top of that, the train was late, so we spent a long time waiting at the station.

This was where we parted with Nina. She would return to Japan and rejoin us in a week. Meanwhile, the three of us took a really slow train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

In Guangzhou, we breezed through passport control through the “foreigners” lane, as we were the only ones who were not Hong Kong or Chinese nationals. At the Guangzhou metro stop we got some food to go, only to realize that the shop had a “C” food safety rating.

The Guangzhou metro took us to the airport, and we flew to Guilin.

Many people who work at FC live in on-site dormitories. They consist of crowded 8-person rooms (two rows of two bunk beds with a hallway in the middle) with attached bathrooms. There is a rush to shower before lights-out. Rural people who had to go to boarding schools are used to the conditions.

Others rent apartments in the city. It was one of these apartments where I spent the night. The apartment consisted of a single room whose geometry comfortably allowed a bed to the side of the door and some space for a dining table and chairs. On the far side from the door was a kitchen and bathroom stall with a squatter.


This apartment was only just acquired, though, and not yet fully furnished. The room had only an inflatable bed and a stool; the bathroom was limited to a low faucet, a bucket, a scrubber, and a pair of flip-flops. In the evening I had no choice but to use all of those - multiple applications of the bucket and scrubber were necessary. The flip-flops were necessary for sanity.

I didn’t have to shower, but I never used a bucket to wash myself before and wanted to try. It took a while, but the experience was pleasant. I wasn’t brave enough to wash my hair, though… (The next morning we bought a shower head.)

J. came in the morning, we had a quick breakfast and said good bye until next time. She invited me to stay longer, but that would have meant missing Hong Kong, and I wanted to reunite with my other friends. So, that day I made my way down to the border crossing and into Hong Kong. I’ll keep this post short, and if the pictures trouble you, don’t worry: you will hear no more of this place.

Here’s the thing: Shenzhen is a big city with plenty of dark sides to it, yet it also holds many bright promises. For example, I heard of a woman who was able to get away from an abusive family and begin to support herself after coming here. For me, it is a place where I have friends, and as long as I have friends somewhere, that place will always be warm and welcoming. Until next time, Shenzhen!

This is the Hangzhou East train station.


Here we waited for our overnight train. Then we waited a bit on the platform. Finally, the train came, and we loaded into our cozy compartment.


The ticket came with a complementary meal consisting of some buns, pistachios, jerky, milk, and tea in a box. There wasn’t any cake, though.


We also had some candy we bought in Hangzhou and brought along. As the train moved, we watched Zhejiang towns fly by. Then we fell asleep.

At 03:45 I woke up. We were stopped at a station… other trains were also stopped on other platforms. I figured out that it was Xiamen. Soon we started moving again, and I went back to sleep.

Around 07:00 we arrived in Shenzhen and took the metro north to the last stop, Qinghu, where we met our friend. We put away our bags and our friend (J.) took us on a tour.


Beyond the river stands the FC complex. Tall chain fences on the roofs and the blue nets under them are a reminder of the epidemic that has hold there. We learned of the tough personnel management techniques that the factory employs to ensure that workers are not able to organize - people who live together always work in different units so that workers are not able to get to know those they work close to. On the other hand, the pay is slightly higher, and working conditions are slightly better here than normal because FC is a large factory that gets a lot of scrutiny (and Apple probably puts pressure on them to improve).

We also saw fish in the river. Given that the river functions as a dump for toxic chemicals, we wondered how the fish could be alive and were shocked that people still catch fish here.

On the edge of the complex is one of many urban villages that makes up Shenzhen. When the city grew quickly from farmland during the Opening Up period of China (Shenzhen was China’s first special economic zone), the government took over most of the land operated by the villages, which then had to build their residential buildings high and close. The modern “urban villages” consist of tall buildings built very close to each other with very narrow streets between them.


We had some lunch there, and I really enjoyed the round sandwich cookies with sesame seeds on the outside.


Here is a somewhat more palatable view of the river and the city.


After lunch, the other travelers gathered their things, and we all went downtown, where we parted for the day. The three of them continued through the Luohu checkpoint into Hong Kong.


I would spend more time with my friend and join them the next day. The two of us first saw an electronics mall. Unfortunately, many stores were closed - it was still Spring Festival week.


We then had Sichuanese food as an early dinner. Shenzhen has a lot of Sichuanese food, probably because many of its residents come from rural Sichuan.


After dinner we walked by some more factories.


I learned about subcontracting - more hazardous work delegated to smaller companies that can shut down and regroup if there is trouble. (The same is alleged of textile factories in the US.) After our short walk, it was time for karaoke with J. and her friends, which is what originally sold me into spending a night here.


J.’s friends were actually FC workers who had just returned to the city from various parts of China and were getting ready to start working again on Monday. We sang a mix of Chinese and English songs, and one of them tried to teach me to play dice. (I really did not know what I was doing.) After karaoke, we had a late meal. It was more Sichuanese food. Fish was served, and I wondered where it came from.

I think about them now. Presumably, they are working 12-hour days (including overtime) doing various repetitive jobs on the iPhone assembly lines. It earns them money that they can split with their families in rural China (although pay is never enough). On the other hand, the economy they are a part of, fueled by the world’s desire for cheap electronics, leaves little room for creativity and is harsh on the individual’s spirit. My hope is that China will prosper, and that the next generation will be able to have some more fun.

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

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.


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


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


We soon entered the spring complex.


The ancient spring itself was somewhere around…


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.

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.