Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Show Me The Way to Go Home

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Christmas has come and gone, and Chinese men, women and children have celebrated this most western of festivals by doing what they do best – eating a lot and buying stuff. Christmas is especially popular in the cities of China, mostly because Chinese city-dwellers like to show off how cosmopolitan they are, and, essentially, that Chinese people are always fascinated by something that they’ve never seen before – a virgin.

The Chinese, being Chinese, have cherry picked the bits that they like best from this most western of tradition and turned into something that they can grasp and understand fully: taking the gift-giving and turning it into another excuse to go shopping. Thankfully, I’m not around to see this desecration of a holy tradition, and like many other, my thoughts turn to heading back home to spend time with the family. Unfortunately, since I’d been away from home for over 2 years (preceeded by a three and a half year absence) the re-entry shock hit me pretty hard.

One of of the things about progress is that you don’t really notice it. Things sneak up on you, and before you know it, it’s normal. Big Things happen when they happen overnight and general elections, but by and large, nothing worth noticing happens fast – language learning, weight loss (two of my favorites) and, of course, the swing in changes from one year to another in your home country that you haven’t visited for a while. In my case, almost two years. People don’t really know how to treat me, it’s kinda like having come out of a coma without the horrific head injuries or cool scars to show the girls.

To whit, here’s a brief rundown of what the UK is all about:

  • Everything must be cheap. People still think that the British economy is on the brink of destruction that will cause tea supplies to falter, cats and dogs to live together in harmony and the thunder of the hooves of the four horsemen to be heard galloping down the high street as the apocalypse approaches.
  • Everything must be low fat. I have the unenviable position of being able to watch infinite amounts of daytime TV, which is punctuated by almost infinite amounts of daytime TV advertising, and the general trend is that it’s alright to sell something that can kill you so long as it’s low in fat and can aid weight loss as a part of a low calorie breakfast.
  • Everyone is suing each other. Half the traders at Zhong Guan Cun would be out of business if mis-selling something was grounds for taking someone to court. Right now, the big thing seems to be PPI, the mis-selling thereof. I can’t actually tell you what PPI means or why you should care about it because the moment that I type in “mis-sold PPI” into Google, I’m inundated with ads, pumped-up click-through links and other nonsensica that I have to plough through in order to tell you what PPI means, and I’m just not that interested in it.
  • Good British TV ended around the time I was 13. It’s sad, but true. Digital TV, and, indeed digital radio has permeated even the remote village that I call home, and since there are 37 channels to choose from now, there are approximately 13,755 reruns of shows to choose from. I was 13 and we had four channels to choose from, and most of those consisted of re-runs and the occasional good show on ITV on Sunday night starting at 9pm.  The good news is that most of these shows are on on the new digital channels around 1:30 in the afternoon, so I can catch up with the just after I get up, and start my day with a good Poirot mystery or a even get treated to a Cheers/Scrubs double-bill at around 3pm.
  • Everyone talks about minor events in major terms. Eloquence seems to be a thing of the past, and expressing yourself in terms of getting drunk and yelling a lot is the norm.

Sounds a lot like China.

While I’m not really lamenting the dumbing down of the British media (I was doing that long before I left for China), I am lamenting how similar it’s become to Chinese TV, which given the quality of Chinese TV, is a particularly damning statement to make. It’s kinda’s f*cking terrifying to think that if my Chinese was good enough, what I watch on UK TV would be almost the same dross that I see when I turn on the box here (I’m looking in your direction China’s Got Talent).

I’ve been contemplating leaving China on a permanent basis, mostly because learning Chinese and teaching English are pretty much the only skills that I have, and at any one day of the week, I get sick and tire of one of them, but after being involved in a road rage incident a mere 20 minutes after leaving Manchester Airport car park, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be staying in the Middle Kindgom for a long time to come yet.

Sorry about that.

Categories: Commentary, Travel

Wenzhou Train Crash Round-Up

July 26, 2011 1 comment

By now you have probably heard about the Wenzhou Train Crash, which is China’s worst train crash since the Qingdao derailment in 2008.

The actual accident and the belated, lacklustre response from the government (and you might want to do a wordcloud on how many times “government reponse appears in this post) have been amplified well beyond any level that the CCP would wish for.

The Beijing-Shanghai high speed line was, of course, one of the flagship engineering projects that the government had been trumpeting for the last year or so, and the opening of the line coincided with the 1st July celebrations that were organised to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.  It’s no big secret that things were pretty much rushed through to meet the deadline, and the Kunming Highway Project had already claimed ten lives a mere day and a half after it was opened.  What began as a unifying, rallying celebration of Chineseness has quickly dissolved into a backlash of fear and paranoia fostered on the Chinese internet through Weibo and Youku and has become a platform for scathing attacks from both the national press on the government, and for angry journlists who have begun demanding more that the usual excuses from party officials.

The China Media Project has a comprehensive  rundown of the salient points of the accident, starting with the now infamous claim from Wang Yong Ping that  “The Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway and Japan’s Shinkansen can’t even be raised in the same breath, because many of the technologies employed by China’s high-speed rail are far superior to those used in Japan’s Shinkansen,”

ChinaGeeks has been covering the days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday since the crash, offering translations and reposts of the Chinese reaction to the accident and the government response.

Much has been made of the Chinese Propaganda Department’s media directives that were almost immediately leaked online that show exactly how the Chinese government manipulates the media to stir up feelings of national pride:

The latest directives on reporting the Wenzhou high-speed train crash:

1. Release death toll only according to figures from authorities.

2. Do not report on a frequent basis.

3. More touching stories are to reported instead, i.e. blood donation, free taxi services, etc.

4. Do not investigate the causes of the accident; use information released from authorities as standard.

5. Do not reflect or comment.

Reminder on reporting matters: All reports regarding the Wenzhou high-speed train accident are to be titled “7.23 Yong-Wen line major transportation accident.” Reporting of the accident is to use ‘In the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’ as the major theme. Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate. No re-posting on micro-blogs will be allowed! Related service information may be provided during news reporting. Music is to be carefully selected!”


The Chinese microblog site has been at the centre of much of the outrage, starting with the survey that showed 97% of it’s users were unhappy with the government’s handling of the accident.  Chinese Youku users have been uploading videos to Youku and other sharing sites, including one  that shows a body being recovered from the crash.  Angry journalists demanding answers from the officials in charge of the recovery operation have also been posted online.

The Economist has an overview of how The Party responded in typical fashion – not blaming anyone and firing a few token officials (God forbid that they should resign and say sorry) and there’s blunt response from Stan Abrams over at China Hearsay to Megan MacArdle’s article in The Atlantic.

Old men, Old Musical Instruments, Old Songs

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment
Dr. Ho and his wife

Image by luca pedrotti via Flickr

Lijiang is home to two living fossils.  One is the Traditional Chinese Medicine expert, the venerated (by Bruce Chatwin at least) Dr. Ho, who was pushing 300 when Python Michael Palin visited him in 1998 (the rumors that John Cleese visited and wrote “interesting bloke, crap tea”, are just that, two idiots wrote the names in the guestbook thinking they were being funny), and must surely be at the top of the World Heritage List by now.  The other is Naxi Music, and the history is far more interesting than Dr. Ho’s tea.

The posters around Lijiang promoting the Naxi Orchestra say that most of the performers are at least 70 years old.  The poster is somewhat out of date, and the median age of the orchestra is around 83 years old.  The youngest instrument is around 100 years old, and the oldest is..well it was based on an ancient Egyptian design that made its way to the Middle Kingdom. During the Red Army’s purges, the instruments were saved from the zealous masses hell-bent on destroying “The Three Olds” by burying them in walls or in the ground.

Xuan Ke is proud of the fact that the orchestra doesn’t receive any money from the government, what he conveniently forgets to mention is that the tickets for the 90 minute show (which ends in typical Chinese fashion with a video presentation) are about $30 each – which of course means that he doesn’t really need any kind of government grant.  Even for $30, Xuan Ke turns up late (confessing that he always comes late) and plays a couple of tunes with the orchestra, interspersing the songs with lengthy discourses in Chinese, and the odd sentence or two in English, most of which centered around the now outlawed practice of foot-binding.  The microphone is mercifully handed back to the Master of Ceremonies, who makes sly digs at the pounding techno pouring from the bars outside, probably forgetting that the audience is forced to watch the octogenarians perform in an unheated room that has, for some inexplicable reason, doors that won’t close properly.


The repertoire ranges from traditional Chinese songs, almost all of which seem to centre on dragons (Song of the Water Dragon, A Black Dragon Dances, Dragons Singing and Dancing, etc) to the cacophonous melodies of Tibetan hymns, to classical Chinese opera.  All of which are more preferable to the music outside that sounds like a thousand monkeys using a thousand typewriters to put up a thousand shelves.

Walking Marriages on Lugu Lake

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The flight from Kunming to Lijiang is not for the faint of heart, although those who suffer from a fear of flying (and if you don’t, you will) can take solace in the fact that the flight, although utterly terrifying, it’s quite short. Short enough to barely drink a bottle of optimistically named “Aviation” spring water. The final approach to Lijiang airport has the plane buffeted and whipped by crosswinds created by the valleys and snow-capped peaks that led off from the Himalayas. While in retrospect it’s quite nice to drop words in like “Himalayas” and “snow-capped peaks”, into the conversation a few hours and a couple of stiff drinks after the event – while the plane was turning on final, I was suddenly aware that I had been repeating to myself “please don’t crash, please don’t crash, please God, don’t let us crash.”. It was the third flight that I’d take in the same month, and the first one that I started praying on.

We landed, most of us with our limbs still attached to our bodies, and most of us making for the toilet all at the same time. It was in the self-same public facility that I became aware that the Chinglish was getting progressively worse the further I got from the big cities. While in Kunming, I’d had to suffer signs reminding me to “please aim carefully” placed at eye level above the urinal, I was now faced with signs that told me to “be careful of the floor slide”, and others that advised me to “please slip carefully”. They reminded me of the Chinglish that had plagued a pre-Olympics Beijing. In China, the further you get from the capital city, the further back in time you go.

Surviving the flight from Kunming, I had to find a place to stay. The taxi driver that fell upon me in much the same way that a lion who had tried to go vegetarian for the last couple of weeks might fall upon a bewildered, self-peeling gazelle that had somehow become trapped between two slices of bread after having swum across a river of barbecue sauce told me that a ride to the city center would cost me 80rmb, and because cars are not allowed in the old town area, I would have to walk the last part. In the taxi, I started to muse that I had been taken advantage of somewhat – that was until we hit the underdeveloped road that led from the airport to the main highway into town. Calling it a road is probably a little too generous, dirt track, undeveloped byway or open air toilet would probably be more apt. I reflected, during attempts by the driver to concuss me on the roof of the car that although I’d been cheated out of 80RMB, the poor state of the road was actually causing three times the amount of damage to the car.

About 45 minutes later, we pulled to a halt. The driver tossed me my bags and gave me directions to my hostel. To tell the truth, he didn’t really give me directions, he just took my money and said “that way”, pointing down a cobbled street whose cobbles had been worn slippery by the thousands of shoe soles that had tread them down over the years.

The Old Town of Lijiang, so called because it was here before 1949, has been spared the locust-like attitude of the Han Chinese to sterilize, tarmac and bulldoze “modernity” into it. Although during my explorations of the town, I did come across a KFC and a Pizza Hut cunningly disguised as old buildings at one end of a street that opened out into the Chinese half of the city. Typical, I thought, the Chinese don’t like anything that doesn’t have a brand name on it, but then, I started to doubt that the women on the bar street trying to entice punters into the garish, equally identical establishments that I’d been taking photos of all day on the streets of the Old Town inside were true Naxi either.

The Naxi and the Musuo are, of course the reason that I’m here. Famous for their matriarchal societies, and even more famous for their “walking marriages”, the Musuo have gained notoriety, not least because of the larger than life figurehead of writer, singer and national celebrity, Namu. Recently described as a “bitch from hell” on a national Chinese TV talent show, and currently married to a Norwegian embassy worked (after having her proposal of marriage rejected by Nicholas Sarkozy), Namu is the author of no less than 8 autobiographies, most of which are thinly veiled attacks on Chinese men (not that they don’t deserve it).

The Musuo number around 30, 000 (and Namu has managed to annoy them to such an extent that they deny that she’s “true” Musuo) and live their lives around Lugu Lake at the base of Gamu Mountain. Here the womenfolk don’t marry, but take a series of lovers and the fathered children are raised independently of the men in their mothers “flower chamber”. While it all sounds very romantic and sacred and mystical and suff, Namu tells in her childhood memoir that her father rode into town on a white stallion seducing her mother by shouting “hey baby, nice ass!”. It would seem that the Musuo don’t really aim that high when it comes to finding a suitable suitor.

While I took my leave on the ancient streets of Lijiang, there is still a lot more to the city that meets the eye – the sacred Gamu Moutain, the Naxi Orchestra whose members had been persecuted by Mao during the “Thousand Flowers” persecution campaigns he waged, and of course, the Namu Museum that Namu herself had built at Lugu Lake in celebration of…herself. Added to all of that, there was Tiger Leaping Gorge. Even at the halfway point in my trip, my attitude towards traveling in China had become similar to MacBeth’s attitude towards killing people – initial doubts, followed by cautious enthusiasm and then greater and greater alarm at the sheer scale of the undertaking with still no end in sight.

A Short Conversation With my Barber

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Today was special, not least because I bought a nice pair of boots to go hiking around in, I also got my hair cut.

Having conversations in Chinese these days are hugely amusing to me. The actual act of speaking is difficult, and it’s only after I step back and look at the conversation as a whole that I realize what exactly we’ve been talking about.

After reading what we talked about, you can probably guess that everything revolved around a Chinese persons favorite conversation topic: Money.

HAIRDRESSER: Short enough?

ME: A little shorter. Really short, like the army, you know?

HARIDRESSER: Ah. I don’t want to cut it. Not many foreigners come here. Blond hair…very beautiful. You sure you want it this short?

ME: Sure.

HAIRDRESSER: Where are you from?

ME: England.

HAIRDRESSER: London? You know Beckham?

ME: No. Manchester. London’s in the south, Manchester’s in the north. I’m from Manchester


ME: I can’t understand your Yunnan accent very well.

HAIRDRESSER: I can’t speak Standard Mandarin!

ME: Ok. Well, I live and work in Beijing.

HAIRDRESSER: You speak Chinese pretty well. Do you work with Chinese people? And you came to Kunming?

ME: No, I’m an English teacher. My colleagues are all foreigners. No Chinese. I came to Kunming to see the sights.

HAIRDRESSER: Oh. On the plane?

ME: Yes. First, I went to Chengdu. I have friends there.

HAIRDRESSER: Oh, friends!

ME: Chinese friends.


ME: Yes.

HAIRDRESSER: How much was the ticket?

ME: From Beijing to Chengdu?


ME: 680RMB

HAIRDRESSER: How much from Chengdu to Kunming?

ME: About 500rmb…I can’t remember clearly.

HAIRDRESSER: I see. How long have you been in China?

ME: About three years.

HAIRDRESSER: Live in Beijing. Hmmm…you look good.

ME: Er. Thanks. I eat lots of fruit.

HAIRDRESSER: How much is a haircut in England?

ME: I really don’t know.

HAIRDRESSER: You can tell me!

ME: I went home once in three years. I really don’t know.

HAIRDRESSER: Guess. Roughly

ME: Probably about ten pounds.

HAIRDRESSER: Ten pounds? That’s 106rmb.

ME: I don’t know. I’m not good at maths.

HAIRDRESSER: How much is a haircut in France?

ME: I don’t know…I’m not French.

HAIRDRESSER: How much is a haircut in America?

ME: I really don’t know. I’ll ask my American friend for you.

Categories: Travel

Kunming to Lijiang

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Travelling is, to misquote Douglas Adams, unpleasantly like being drunk. What could possibly be so unpleasant about being drunk? Just ask a glass of water.

For the last two days I’ve been lying on my bunk in the hostel suffering from a mild bout of food poisoning – the prime suspect is thought to be a dodgy egg on an otherwise perfectly legitimate vegetable sandwich. Being sick in China is one of those things that every Chinese person you come across will have an opinion about, everyone will make a comment about, but no one will actually sympathize with your or offer any constructive advice about. Most of the home remedies revolve around imbibing large amounts of tea, staying away from goats on the Sabbath and, in extreme cases, for example, losing a limb, or being shot or being hit full in the face by a bus, smearing yourself with camel’s milk and diving into a holy lake. On no account should you ever see a doctor in a hospital.

Afflicted with what I could only describe as “epic” diarrhea – I was filled with dread at the thought of sneezing, or doing something even more fatal, like coughing or being surprised by something on the way to the chemist – I made my way to the nearest chemist to make what I thought would be an easy purchase – something that would stop the biological warfare in my lower gut, and give me enough time to drink a bottle of water without dashing to the nearest toilet screaming “fire in the hold!”.

The helpful chemist offered me several Traditional Chinese Medical remedies, almost all of them came with an attached caveat that they would start working in three or four days. Since I was fairly confident that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any teeth left, I forced myself to make a number of trips to and from the hostel in the hope that between the them, the so-called chemist and the receptionist would be able to figure out what the Chinese name for Loperamide (a chemical with which anyone living in China for any length of time should and will become intimately familiar with) was. A couple of hours, and several startled children later I was armed with a simple medication that almost cured me.

While the experience may be a minor tale of a couple of days of discomfort caused by nothing more than traveller’s stomach, it highlights the appalling state of public health. Despite being illegal, spitting (of the Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom. Public toilets have little in the way of soap. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands. Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

Moving on to happier matters, I’m off to Lijiang at the weekend. Michael Palin visited Lijiang for his documentary travelogue “Himalaya”, and he had this to say about the place:

“Lijiang is a tale of two cities: one a modern concoction of business district office blocks and shopping malls, the other an immaculately kept old town, with clay-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and a canal system that evokes Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges. Lijiang became rich and famous because of its key position the Tea-Horse Route from Tibet into China, but its idyllic situation, set comfortably in a shallow bowl of hills, is deceptive. A fault line at the edge of the Tibetan plateau runs below and the ripple effect of the tectonic collision that created the Himalaya has been responsible for over 50 strong earthquakes here in the last 130 years. The most recent, which registered over seven on the Richter scale, hit Lijiang in 1996, killing 300 and injuring 16,000. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed. The majority of them were in the new city.

The wood and stone houses of old Lijiang were built by people who knew about earthquakes and how to withstand them. They remain, thanks to UNESCO money, as an example of how to create harmony, line and proportion on a human scale. The result is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and squares, car free, perfect for walking, but also a victim of their own success. Large-scale preservation of the past is so rare in China that Lijiang has become a big draw, pulling upwards of 3 million tourists a year into an old town of 25,000 people.”

Which is slightly better than the way that he described Wanxian on the Yangtze River:

“…a hellish looking place where countless smokestacks and factory chimneys feed every shade of smoke from deep black to rust brown into a sky already turgid with low, pus-yellow clouds…”

Either way, with the one hour flight touching a little over 30UKP, it’s a deal that’s not to be missed.

Hitting the Ground Running

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

After a long hiatus, almost going insane teaching English and dealing with some of the most difficult students that I’ve ever had the pleasure of educating, I’m in the first week of my month long leave of absence.

Predictably, owing to the mass migration during Spring Festival, my original plan to go to Tibet and the Xinjiang has had to be re-planned, and I elected to travel south instead to Kunming…of course, I started off in my favourite place in the whole world: Chengdu. And had hotpot. Actually, I had hotpot twice, which for my delicate palate is two times too many, but I just seem to get addicted to the damn stuff – to wit, I was able to enjoy the delights of both wet and dry hotpot – the dry one was ribs, which is Chinese shorthand for “full of bones that’ll break your teeth”. The rest of the night was rather misjudged, and I ended up getting terribly drunk in a bar called Jellyfish, which has nothing but the finest in thumpy-thumpy dance music (the type that sounds like an pneumatic drill being gang raped by a deranged posse of air hammers and is almost always played at a volume that makes the chair next to you bleed) and some of the strongest White Russians that I’ve come across.

Against all the odds – especially the Russian odds – and despite having to pack at 1am in the dark, I made it. Although I’m slightly worried that when I boarded in Beijing, my pack weighed 14kg, and at Chengdu airport my pack checked in at 12kg. I’m a little worried that whatever weighed 2kg must have been important enough for me to pack, and I may have left it for some unsuspected innocent in Chengdu.

One other point of amusement was the trouble that my electric toothbrush caused at Chengdu Airport. Initially confused that the item in question was a mobile phone (something that I’ve thought about at length, and can only assume that the battery was the source of the problem) I was summoned behind the check-in counter, whereupon a number of efforts were made to the poor toothbrush. Hungover, still a little drunk, and not particularly happy at having my underwear put on show for every Chinese person in front of the check-in desk, I took the opportunity to further British-Chinese relations, putting on my best Beijing accent and screaming something along the lines of “This wasn’t a problem in Beijing airport, why is it a problem now?!”. Of course I probably got the tones all in the wrong places and the officials in question probably heard something like “why is my armadillo snorkeling? I eat pasta!”. Either way, I established myself as a strung out foreigner who was prepared to shout gibberish at people like them all day if need be – I was duly and begrudgingly allowed on the plane.

The arrival in Kunming was uneventful and as boring as you can expect. The only point of amusement was the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the hostel who was dressed in a style that I can only describe succinctly as “Mad Max Drag”. That is to say that he was kitted out in huge aviator sunglasses, fingerless leather gloves, leather trousers and a leather jacket nicely set off by a luxuriantly thick fake fur ruff around the collar.

So right now, after catching up on some badly needed sleep, I’m fully ensconced in delightful “Cloudland Hostel” in Kunming…sipping coffee, watching old people play mahjong and wondering what else I can do. An idyllic scene somewhat ruined by the Chinese staff watching The Empire Strikes Back on the only TV in the room.