Monday, March 27, 2006

Beijing, China's Head Office

I had built myself up to dislike this town as I had associated it with two things that greatly annoy me; high levels of pollution and dictatorial governments. These were both present in abundance but my reaction so far has been a slight wheeze and brief bursts of internally suppressed anger. Beyond that I am rather enjoying the place and I was surprised that there is an energy that I thought would be in Shanghai but failed to discern. So what's in this place that makes breathing in little amounts of the Gobi desert worthwhile?

One of the really interesting activities in Beijing is to stroll around the hutongs. The hutongs are century old neighborhoods crammed with one storey houses around a courtyard. Originally designed for one family these were rearranged by the commies to house 5. The plumbing facilities are still communal so I guess that makes for strange neighbourhood meetings. They are mainly inhabited by old people who spend most of their time outside indulging in quiet pastimes such as mahjong or, apparently, sitting and watching. Like a lot of nice things in China, they are under threat. They are being torn down left right and centre to make place for glitzier stuff and Olympic related crap. The authorities have sort of caught on that they are popular with tourists and have responded by maintaining a couple that they couldn't resist transforming into sanitized tourist traps. The really nice ones are marked for the bulldozer and I have been told that if you spot one that is surrounded by billboards you had better dive in as it's not long for this world. Some might be saved but the combination of real estate developers' zeal and the legendary corruption of Chinese officials makes this unkilely.

Another highlight was the Great Wall. I happened to do a touristy restored portion of it but this doesn't bother me much as I will surely be able to find some more derelict and secluded portions. The thing is 4000 miles long and even Chinese tour groups cannot occupy that much space. It is a fantastic sight and a good reminder of how advanced the Chinese were. The wall was already being used when Hadrian built his to ward off violent Scots, a feeling shared by all bartenders in London. The main differnce is that the Great Wall is truly a feat of engineering and logistics whereas Hadrian's looks like something to keep in sheep. I particularly enjoyed the sight of large groups of people going through the many towers of the wall. This is fun to watch as the things were constructed specifically to make this difficult by bottlenecking attackers and reducing whatever numerical advantage they had to fuck all. Combined with the locals' inability to queue or give way it makes for great entertainment until you try and get through yourself.

Of course one cannot go to Beijing and not see the Forbidden City. For half a millenia the privilege of walking around this place this was mainly for royals or eunuchs. Now that the entry requirement of having good bloodlines or your testicles in a varnished box is gone, all may enter for a small fee and indeed all do. Many a website will give a much better description that I can so I won't really bother but suffice to say it was quite amazing. Films like the Last Emperor do render it better but Bertolucci did not have scaffolding and the sound of jackhammers to contend with. The whole place is being beautified for 2008 so that it looks really good for the swarms of foreigners who will come to see athletes choke on Beijing's truly foul air.

The downer with the Forbidden City is that you get to it by walking along Tiananmen Square. It's insanely large as only states who love military parades can build and has got Mao's mausoleum on one side and the Forbidden City on the other. It has a monument to the glory of the people or whatever in the middle and is lined by sick looking trees, soldiers standing at atttention at seemingly random spots and annoying touts who want you to see their art gallery. The downer bit is that I couldn't help looking down the side streets and wondering if this was one where students were slaughtered.

My last pick of historical things to recommend is the park around the Temple of Heaven. The temples are only really great if you haven't spent a good month seeing one after the other but the park is great fun. As you enter you see a panel with a whole bunch of forbidden signs. Some of these are reasonable such as a ban on littering, fires and motorbikes but I was somewhat intrigued by the ones that portrayed rifles and trumpets. I know the latter is targeted specifically at trumpets and not music in general as I spent a few hours watching groups of people cluster around musicians (not trumpeters) and join in on a singalong of nationalist ditties. What also caught my eye was old people making strange calisthenics at random moments. This is not Tai Chi but obedience to the recommendation of doctors to do a specific gestures so many times a day.

More contemporary sightseeing can be done in the numerous markets of the town. Some of these were replete with an incoherent jumble of stuff that went from the sublime to the ugly and sometimes the abject. The Ugly is the massive sculptures on sale. These vary from small budhas to 7 feet high stone lions, demons etc. Who buys this crap is a mystery and I was told most of them are destined to decorate businesses but I think a few of them do end up in homes especially the lottery winner schlock like cherubs atop tigers or what looked like a 2 ton statue of Jeanne D'arc. The Abject I found amongst the vendors of Bolshie nostalgia. Some of these were amusing in a kitschy sort of way but a few items were downright macabre. The prize for bad taste must go to small porcelain figurines of a screaming Red Guard with red book in one hand and pistol in another looming behind a bound man with a dunce cap on his head. These little gems of interior decoration seem to commemorate the obscene humiliation of the victims of the Cultural Revolutiuon before they were shipped off to jail or killed for being an intellectual or something.

Overall, my favourite market moment was watching the sale of caged singing crickets. What made this remarkable is that the buyers seem to be looking for a specific sound to grace their home as the vendor gives them a tube-like contrapion that allows customers to listen to the song of an individual cricket. I thought of buying one but I think my dorm mates find my snoring annoying as it is without adding a chirping locust to the din.

Food and booze are also very good in this city. I had held off eating duck elsewhere as I wanted to eat Pekin duck in Pekin. A group of like-minded gastronomes was quickly rounded up and we all went to a small place in a unlit back alley that had a great rep. The rep was confirmed as the waiting room/very narrow hallway was decorated with photos of prestigious patrons such as ministers and diplomats. I personnaly reckon a few of the people in the pictures must have been chancers as Geoff Hoon is already tricky to indentify but the ambassador of Peru is outright impossible. As we waited we could look at the duck oven and the rows of glistening birds slowly becoming succulent. The roasting is ended by the removal of the fat in the bird. One guy takes the now crimson bird and removes the cork in it's arse upon which a gush of hot fat drains out of the duck into a massive basin. Really appetising.

The alcohol fix was much the same as many other cities with the exception that you can haggle the price of beer in Beijing. The touts will drop the price of bevvies until you agree to walk into their bar but you still have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to leave as they try to renege on the deal by putting silly conditions on the price such as they only meant alcohol free beer or it doesn't count if you sit on the couch. You eventually get your beers at the agreed price and it makes for a pleasant bonding experience with fellow bar cruisers as unified responses are the key to good bartering on this deal. The bad side of boozing in Beijing is the end of evening rice wine that American students are fond to buy and want the whole dorm to share. It's fucking vile and gives you crippling hangovers but it always seems like a great idea at 3AM.

My experience of Beijing was heightened by my best mooch so far. Through a friend I got into contact with a couple of French expats who decided to welcome my scruffy self for the weekend in their splendid home. I got to live better than a backpacker ever does and better than I would anyway. They enjoyed their perks but were smart enough to click that it wouldn't last and therefore would be spared the shock of going back to the home country which is apparently a common problem with their peers. They have also limited their forays into the closeted world of the expense accounbt crowd and have done a lot of exploring and indulging in weird habits like learning the language. This meant that I had the rare pleasure of getting a knowledgeable guide without being dragged to a jade factory run by their cousin. I feel like a very blessed parasite.

Anyways, I will soon have to leave this fine city at my regret. I will wash my cashmere jumper and thermals and head oop north mayhaps to peer across borders at North Korea or Russia.

Take care,


Monday, March 20, 2006

Xian, Shaanxi, China

Back on the mainland. I knew I was really in a different country when I started to notice again what I have come to call the laowai wobble. This is when some poor soul nearly ploughs his bicycle into the ground because he just couldn't resist staring at you. I didn't get it during my day in Shenzen as they have seen foreigners en masse before and they don't really care about you. The locals are on the lookout for HK residents as Shenzen is the SAR's discount shopping mall and brothel. It was a village 30 years ago when the government decided to experiment and see what happens when you let the Chinese do business with a minimum of hassle and made the place a Special Economic Zone. It is now one of the biggest and most prosperous cities in China.

Got out of there but due to weird train connections I had to overnight in Fuzhou, a large but nondescript provincial capital and boomtown. I did get to see an interesting side of modern China due to the kindness of strangers. My guidebook hardly mentioned the place but I chatted with a young chap from Hong Kong on the bus and he sorted us out rooms in a businessmen hotel for the price I expected to pay for a dorm bed. I had my first hot bath in months and the sheer bliss of privacy.

The slight drawback to this is that the besuited local guests were on the piss big time and kind of hauled me along probably for novelty purposes. This was all good except for the curse of gambei. Gambei is the magic word they use on drinking sprees when everyone has to polish off their glass regarless of content or quantity lest you seriously insult whoveer bought the stuff. Mercifully their enthusiasm was not matched by capacity and they decided I was allowed to leave without causing offence once half a dozen of them were snoring on the table.

Fuzhou is also the place were I encountered a new blight in my life as a foreigner in the middle kingdom: the Monkey Man. This is a beggar with an ill-kept monkey on a leash that he promptly releases to climb all over you. I ususally deal with beggars with the customary feeble attempt to be friendly whilst trying to ignore their misery and very presence. This is tricky when you have a mangey ape clambering on your shoulders. I have had had to keep my calm as the guy then hassles you for reward money for siccing his primate on you.

After Fuzhou I find myself in the showcase of Future China that is Shanghai. I wasn't as awestruck as I thought I would be as Shanghai sets itself apart mainly from other Chinese cities but it is still a bit of a yokel in comparison to Hong Kong. The centre is pretty much divided between the Bund on on side of the Huangpu river and the French COncession on the other. The latter is were most of the hyped modern buidings are and they have so many of these it starts to look like a campaign to highlight the problem of drug abuse amongst architects. The Bund is the colonial era strip that presents a postcard contrast.

The Bund area was strangely compact and cramped but then again I suppose the streets were designed for 5 rickshaws and the odd Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. It was weird to walk around narrow Chinese streets with their accompanying raucous bustle and then look up and see Art Deco buildings. You don't spend too much time looking at these though as you have to keep an eye out fo rhe silent but deadly electric bicylces that zoom along the place and of course Monkey Men.

All the tourist areas have decided to push the Ye Olde Coloniale Shanghai thing a lot so you find a lot of nostalgic schlock around. I confess that Shanghai in the 20's and 30's has a certain appeal to me but why the locals are so enthusiastic confuses me (by this I mean that the domestic tourists are really into it). From what I recall, Sanghai had the same glorious birth as Hong Kong but with less guilt for Her Majesty's citizens as loads of other countries got in the act and grabbed a piece of the pie. A few crumbs of said pie went to Chinese nationals (pimps, gangmasters, union breakers and other such pillars of society) but mainly the Chinese were treated like 2nd class citizens in their own country. To add insult to injury it asn't just the big hitters of the day that carved out little hometowns on Sino soil but any country with half decent weaponry could come in and grab some real estate. Things are bad when you get colonised by the Italians.

To cap it all of the departure of most powers resulted in the rule by the one lot who would behave even worse :wartime Japanese. Maybe that's why the 30's were regarded as a sort of heyday. It takes some seriously barbaric behaviour to make a period known for child prostituion, de facto slavery, rampant opium addiction and "No dogs or Chinese" signs look like some sort of Golden Age.

After a very, very strange St Paddy's Day afternoon drinking spree that included finding out that there is a Chinese language version of Danny boy, I put my aching head on the pillow of a sleeper train and got to Xian. Xian is mainly known for its terracotta army but has a few interesting spots within it. I had built myself a strange mental picture of a twee smallish town and soon got a reminder that provincial capitals in China are never small. The great Bell TOwer even reminded me of Paris in the sense that they decided to surround one of their famous monuments wih a huge and cacophonous roundabout.

I made my way to the site of what has been apparently dubbed the 8th wonder of the ancient world. Who came up with this I don't know but I strongly suspect the Chinese Ministry of Tourism. After watching several beautiful Nationial Geographic photo spreads of the place as well as many cleverly edited documentaries with great lighting and dramatic music the real thing was somewhat of a letdown. It's worth seeing and still a must see on the China trail but it just didn't have the Wow factor. It might do in a few years though as it is still an excavation site and they reckon shedloads more of the 2 millenia old stone squaddies are yet to be found.

One thing that struck me is that the whole thing was mildly creepy and must of ben really spectacular when they were all standing (most pits contain freakish jumbles of limbs and heads) and painted. What makes this really weird is that the soldiers all have individual features as far as I could see. When they were entombed they were armed with the latest and therefore valuable weapons of the time. The guys who came up with this mausoleum imperial guard really were building a proper army albeit with the slight drawback of all being lifeless.

Maybe it was a not too subtle dig at the current miltary bigwigs of the time. When you invest shedloads of dosh into an army that will guard you when you are dead it's not exactly giving a show of confidence in the army that is supposed to keep you alive. I'm going with that theory anyway as pissing people off is something that makes sense to me whereas religious beliefs don't.

Setting off soon for some world-famous duck, a forbidden city and many a happu moment laughing at farcical commie propaganda in the capital of this vast and fascinating country. I'll be a backpacker in Beijing.

Take care,


Friday, March 10, 2006

Hong Kong, China, Sort Of,

Hong Kong! For those of you who are a bit slow and tend to read with an inner monologue whilst trying not to move your lips, the name of this place should be spoken a bit louder than usual. A sort of defiant, in your face shout like a declaration from a cocky teenager. In Chinese terms, Hong Kong is just that. A nephew that was raised by weird foreigners who let the boy do pretty much what he wanted. He's back in the family hone now but he's got his own room and he's faffing about with his ipod and doesn't give much 'spect to the old ones. They would winge but they've gone a bit gaga recently and the boy pays more than his fair share of rent as well as knowing a lot about business and computers and stuff.

I admit that I sometimes get overenthusiastic about places particularly if they contrast a lot from were I have just been. Hong Kong has got me hopping around with excitement and fascination. I have wanted to see this place for a while and I am not disappointed. Compared to the mainland it's a different world in a different century. One Country 2 Systems, my arse.

I had even toyed with the idea of starting my travels in HK but I got lured by the prospect of a 4 months piss trip in SEA. That and it doesn't have the same ring as Jakarta to Jerusalem. Hong Kong to Haifa doesn't really work.

I am thoroughly enjoying being here and watching the great modern bustle of this place. I am also delighted to be anonymous again. On the scaringly monocultural mainland people stare a lot and you stick out. Here I am just another face in a wonderfully diverse place. I have also become a strange devotee of public transport. In HK you can go overland, underground, above ground, on ferries, on great wooden tramways, insanely long series of escalotors and a funicular. Just getting about is fun.

Walking about is great too. You can trek on the peaks, get lost in Kowloon or walk along the business avenues of Central. The latter still has surprise in it as there are loads of alleyways between the grand skyscrapers where you step in the gesticulating shouting match of Hong Kong street stalls. Also great fun is seeing massive buildings being built and maintained whilst scaffolded in bamboo. I have indulged in little home comforts like going to the cinema or eating sushi. The beer scene is fun and lively too but it's killing my budget. Being a brit I get a 180 days no visa deal but I think 2 more days here is all I can afford and I will have to spend a fair few nights in dorms on the mainland to make up for it. It's all worth it though.

This place is even more amazing once you know its history. The acquisition of Hong Kong is the kind of tale that makes my bosom swell with pride at being British. In short is was a mugging from a drug dealer. Britain had moved into dealing smack (well, opium so I guess it's smack Lite) to earn a bit of dosh and we were selling a lot to the Chinese. For reasons difficult for the Western mind to comprehend, the inscrutable Orientals got a bit upset at our benevolent policy of keeping their population junked up and a bit of a tiff ensued. Thanks to the lion's courage of the British fighting man and the odd century's worth advantage in weapons tech, we got the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking which gave us HK island in perpetuity. After another kicking we nabbed Kowloon on the same terms and a lease for the New Territories for a century. Heroic stuff.

HK was a village before that and it took a few years to blossom. In spite of the despicable way we got our hands on it, we seemed not to fuck things up too much and let the locals get on with it whilst we built banks. I have often seen cases of good intentions producing horrible results and HK is the opposite of this paradox.What started life as an illustration of how heinously vile a colonialist country can be has become one of the most amazing places on earth. Maybe there's a lesson in that. Places with dodgy beginnings like Australia or HK end up all right yet countries that begin life as a noble and well intentioned experiment such as Liberia end up like, well, like Liberia.

This leads me to the fundamental question about the end of British rule over HK. Why, oh God why, did we ever give this place to the Chicoms? A massive moneymaker and one of the places where the locals did not actually loathe us and we just gave it away. To make things even more perplexing is that in the same year the Thatcher government kicked off negotiations about HK we fought a war about another dubiously held piece of land miles away from home. Against all logic we seemed happy to hand this city over but we went to war over the Falklands?! We decided to send Her Majesty's finest to kill and die for the sake of a few barrels of salt fish, the governor's daughter and half a million Rockhopper penguins yet we wouldn't even gripe about losing Hong Kong to a bunch of vicious, incompetent and corrupt old gits? Someone really needs to have a chat with the Foreign Office about lunchtime drinking.

I'll grant that the PLA is a tougher nut to crack than hypothermic Argie conscripts but it's not that good either. The Vietnamese once gave them a kicking with their B divisions and Taiwan is still independent regardless of the weird fiction that the international community has constructed. The people that the PLA seems most efficient at defeating are Tibetan monks and unarmed Chinese students. Plus we could have got the Russkies and the Indians to chip in a few squaddies as they didn't like China much at the time. Or now for that matter.The very least we could have done is set up a democratic regional authority. Fucking geniuses.

Anyways off out for more Hong Kong exploration and constructing neo-colonialist fantasies. There is some consolation in the fact that HK remanes a Special Administrative Region for 40 odd years. Beijing is torn between their compulsive desire to meddle and fuck things up and the knowledge that if they do they'll kill the golden goose. Maybe that's were I underestimated the boys from the FCO. China hasn't got the first clue about what it's going to be like in 40 years but Hong Kong is pretty sure of what it will be: still rich. I get the feeling that Hong Koong is going to become a model and not some strange exception.

Take care,

Arabin the gweilo

Friday, March 03, 2006

Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

Signing in from Oh So Scenic Yangshuo, a small town that has become one of China’s must-see tourist spots. The reason is the following. The next time you pop in to your local chinese for some sweet and sour, glance up to the walls and you will probably see some painting of stalagmitesque hills with rice paddies at the bottom. I can now see the same thing with the difference that I espy sweaty tourists on rented bicycles at the bottom instead of some old guy dispensing wisdom. Postcard China in essence and I’m not really that enthralled. Maybe I’m slowly tiring of tourism as I seem to get more satisfaction in people watching than spotting scenery however grandiose.

This is ironic as I spent 12 hours in Guyang failing to do just that. I gave myself a pointless day stop in this place as a way to make the Fun Run more bearable. Pointless as I found out that Chinese hard sleeper trains are eminently civilised since, unlike hard seat, there is a correlation between places available and people on board. I should point out at this stage that in this classless society the terms first and second class are not used and therefore hard and soft are substitutes. This has little connection with the upholstery but it might have once. As it was bloody freezing I hid in some café and did not indulge in anthropological contemplation.

Before this I had the joy of being in hilly Chongqing. It was a bastard to walk about and it was conspicuously devoid of the one silent thing in China; bicycles. Not much to report but I did like it. One thing worth mentioning is that I discovered the most flagrant case of the importance of being foreign. I was trying to get a train ticket, which is always a frightening affair in China, and was confronted with 12 counters each with a savage mob in front of them. I had seen this before but never to this scale so I wanted to pinpoint the correct queue before wading in. I went to a copper who was protecting the access to 3 separate, quiet and semi orderly queues and got acroos that I wanted to know which particular scrum I should join to get to my destination.

The copper looked at me then at the battling masses and ushered me towards his special lanes. The other lucky few to access this haven were people who waved what looked like a Party card, people who used sign language and people in wheelchairs. I’m not sure if being a laowai marked me as a VIP or as Special Needs but I was glad in any case. I must confess that this was only the most blatant case of me being queue-jumped, taken through a separate door, ushered, babysat and generally spared the crap that the citizens of this place have to put with. Bless them.

This being the birthplace of silly notions about Ying and Yang, how do I make up for being treated like porcelain on the sole basis of being ethnically different? Well, thanks to my faithful friend Beer, I might just have found a way to make my whiteness be usefull to the locals. See below

It started in a backpacker haunt where me and a Californian decided to wile away a few cold ones by discussing politics. We disagreed frequently and gradually slipped into national stereotypes, him loud and boisterous and me aloof and sarky. We were having fun though and many of the Chinese students (they hang around these places to improve their English or maybe because we’re fun to watch) hovered around us looking fascinated. We tried to get them to join in but could only get soothing platitudes off them since they are unused to discussing politics in public and also in confrontational discourse.

We carried on and somehow got around to the topic of freedom of speech and particularly the truly odious and pathetic attempt by my government to ban speech “glorififying terrorism” whatever the fuck that means. This did get some comments off the locals and one thing led to another and we ended up showing them how to circumvent the Great Firewall and some of the stuff you can discover when your web is unsanitised. They really got into to it and were happily searching away most of the crap they had been taught when it struck me that we might have done them a disservice. I asked and discovered they knew very little of the extent their online forays are watched and restricted. We then held a briefing of sorts and managed to convey the 2 golden rules.

The first rule is never to discuss what they learn about and how to find it in emails or chatrooms. We also told them that being registered as was no guarantee of getting away with it. Amongst the many things they did not know is that their glorious leaders had jailed people who let their thoughts go through the outbox. The other thing they did not realise is that some webmail providers have become the corporate equivalent of a bistro owner skulking around the side entrances of the Paris Kommandatur and telling the local Gestapo that his neighbour’s real name is Cohen.

The second rule was to use the Farrakhan Doctrine: Blame Whitey. The governement doesn’t really care what foreigners look up or write about and even if my emails, searches or this twaddle started to piss them off the very worst that could happen is that they would deport me. This in turn would affect me only in that I would have to revise my travel plans and would try and score hero-worship shags off civil liberties activists. We reckoned that if they used webcafes frequented by foreigners they would face much less risk. of discovery. I don’t think they would end up doing hard time for getting around futile attempts to censor the web but in a society where the state has its fat fingers in all pies their prospects could be reduced by the odd mark next to their names.

So there’s where I soothe my conscience. By offering our little privileged hides up as scapegoats I think I go some way to redeem the perks travellers get in this happy land. If not it pleases me to make life difficult for the 30000 strong cyberplod (which actually have their own cute and cuddly mascots) that China has set up.

On a more somber note I have turned 30 since my last post. This does not make me a happy bunny but I find comfort that I am in a strange land doing my best to balls-up the efforts of governments. So fuck you Khronos, The Fates and the Norns. I will not grow up and I will remain puerile until I decide otherwise.

I’ll soon be posting from Hong Kong.

Take care,