It is now autumn in Huainan, and this is the most tolerable of all seasons here. Winter is brutally cold, summer oppressively hot, and spring usually lasts for about a day and a half. Autumn, in contrast, is wonderful. The weather is cool, the air comparatively clean, and it is even a little colourful as the trees turn yellow and orange, and strange autumnal flowers bloom.
I took the opportunity to shoot some photos in the Quanshan and Shungengshan region – a stretch of hills that divide Old Huainan from the new Shannan area to the south.
With my iPhone, I took this panorama of the city as the sun fell:
This morning I was teaching a lesson when a piercing noise began not far from my class. It quickly rose in volume to the extent that it hurt my ears, and I could see from my students that it pained them, too. I have been in Asia long enough not to panic at incredibly loud, sudden noises, but as the sound got louder and louder, I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not only was it interrupting my classes, but I wondered if it was also damaging my hearing. My eyes began to water. Could this be some sort of sonic attack? Were we at war? Of course not. No one seemed particularly surprised. Life went on as normal outside my classroom window, except that people were covering their ears as they continued walking about.
Many hours later, I learned that this siren marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Apparently it happens every year, so I suppose I must have forgotten that, or maybe it just wasn’t so loud last year. It’s easily done. After all, teaching in China – or in fact just living here – involves a great amount of tolerance for idiotic bullshit like eardrum-destroying sirens. In fact, every day I feel as though I’m subjected to a sonic assault. If it is not a siren, it is surely fireworks or someone drilling into a wall.
China is a place where nothing really happens for a good reason. There is a phrase here – “meiyouweishenme.” It literally means “there is no why”. More idiomatically, it means “just because.” It is a good answer for anything that goes on in China.
“Why are you walking down the middle of a busy road with your child in a stroller?”
“Why are you lighting fireworks outside my window at 5am?”
“Why are you encouraging your child to take a shit in the middle of this supermarket?”
“Why is that large butcher’s knife lying in the middle of a playground?”
And so on.
So, the hell with it: This is China. The Chinese will do as they have always done, which is to act in a way that is utterly baffling to the rest of the world. They will commemorate the Japanese invasion by inflicting more pain and suffering on their own people. Anyone who tries to find reason in this will be driven mad, for there really is none. It’s just China as it always has been and always will be.
I got back to this odd place three weeks ago. When I left in early July, I wasn’t even sure whether I would come back at all. Part of me was so sick of it that I thought I might just wander off into the world and find somewhere new. Could there really be a place as terrible as Chinese Tier 3 city? Surely not, although perhaps certain warzones or malarial swamps might come close. And, no I think about it, Cleveland was pretty unbearable. But the last thing I saw before setting off for Thailand was a woman holding her baby out to defecate on the floor of Hefei International Airport…
…ahe first thing I saw when I arrived back in Hefei was a man lying over two “courtesy seats” that are reserved for disabled people, the elderly, or pregnant women.
I think you could safely hashtag these #onlyinchina. Hell, you could probably study these pictures in a Chinese culture class, as they are utterly representative of the good citizens of the Middle Kingdom, for whom no act is too selfish to commit.
Coming back, then, was a sort of resignation: an admission that I will do literally anything for a paycheque. After all, what is more demeaning than living among a billion and a half chronic public defecators?
Well, whatever. I am back, and like I said last year: “This is my last year.”
And, as I say every year: “This time I mean it.”
When you live someplace, you have to find ways to cope with the unfortunate elements, no matter how overwhelming they seem to be. You can find a hobby, throw yourself into your work, or maybe take up meditating. Different people cope in different ways.
I chose to get out into the countryside on pleasant evenings once the sun began to go down, and practice photography. This forced me to look for something beautiful in an otherwise grey and smoggy landscape:
In addition to that, I hit the gym four days a week and spend most of the rest of my time working. It keeps me sane until the next time I escape…
After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.
Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.
Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.
Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.
Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.
I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.
We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.
In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.
At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.
Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.
Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.
Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)
Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.
Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.
As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.
I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.
Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:
Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.
The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.
When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.
Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.
Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.
After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.
Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.
After a week in Phuket, I hopped on a bus east to Krabi. Krabi is a town and a province, but it is also the name incorrectly given to another place – the popular tourist destination, Ao Nang. Where I was headed was Krabi Town, a sleepy little town slightly up river and away from the coast.
It was raining all through my bus journey and so I couldn’t really see the scenery. In fact, I couldn’t see the edge of the road, and I just hoped that the bus driver could see where he was going. When we arrived in Krabi, I walked through the driving rain to my guesthouse, thankfully only 5 minutes away from the center.
It rained on-and-off during my three days in Krabi but that was ok. I spent my time wandering about, avoiding the rain as much as possible, but also used the lightning fast wifi at my guesthouse to catch up on some important work I had hoped to do while travelling. (You didn’t think it was all beer and beaches, did you?)
Krabi is a pleasant enough town, but there isn’t a whole lot to see. It is ideal for a day or two (or three, if you have stuff to do online, like me) but you’d get bored if you stayed much longer.
I explored the mangroves to the north and then Wat Kaew in the center of town, as well as walking all the waterfront and exploring the night markets.
After a few days in Krabi Town, I felt it was time to hit the beach and do some hiking. Krabi Town might make a good base if you had a motorbike, but in terms of just walking, it’s not that great.
I hopped a little white pickup-bus hybrid (which I think is called a songthew, or something like that) and for just 50 baht it took me all the way to a small beach-side town called Ao Nang. Ao Nang is what many people think of when they hear the word “Krabi,” and I guess some people actually refer to it by that name.
It’s not hard to see why people flock to Ao Nang. It is simply stunning. Surrounded by vast jagged limestone karsts and long white sand beaches, this little town may well be have been called Paradise City. Off shore are dozens of picture-perfect islands jutting out of the turquoise waters.
On my first day, I just walked back and forth along the sea, clocking up about 15km as I meandered along the beautiful shore. These pictures really don’t do it justice:
The next day, I hired a motorbike and headed west to Hang Nak Mountain, where I embarked on a long hike to the top. It actually wasn’t that bad of a climb, although the humidity made it rather challenging. Along the way, the forest was alive with the noise of various animals – bugs, birds, monkeys – although I didn’t actually see anything except lizards.
Again, the photos hardly do it justice:
Well, it has taken me an age to upload these photos using the painfully slow WiFi at my hostel. Too much time spent indoors. It’s time to get back out and explore, as I’m off to another part of Thailand tomorrow.
Since my last update, about a trip to Zhaji, I haven’t done much of interest. This semester has been brutal. I teach far more than in previous semesters, and my work now require me to give constant assessments that require hours of tedious marking. In addition, I got a slipped disc that put me out of action for three long weeks, by the end of which the short Anhui springtime had been replaced by the crushing heat of summer. As I write, it is about 38 degrees Celsius outside. A few days after my slipped disc healed enough for me to resume semi-normal activities, I slipped and fell and damaged my right ankle, further impeding my ability to do anything.
In short: it’s been a crappy few months.
Still, I have managed to hobble outside and escape the confines of my house and classroom. By large, Huainan is a pretty ugly place, but I did manage to visit a tiny park with some pleasant flowers:
A few days ago, we also managed to climb a small hill near our house and take a few photos:
It is getting harder and harder to upload photos to WordPress, so if you want to follow my travels and other silly photos, follow my Instagram account, which is somewhere at the bottom of this page.
After just an evening in Pondicherry, I was happy to move on to my next destination – Thanjavur. Located about 150km southwest, it is one of the most important destinations in Southern India because of its temple, Brihadishwara, which is also appropriately known as “Big Temple.” Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola Kingdom, and was popular also with subsequent rulers in Indian history.
From Pondicherry bus station, I managed to get a bus to Chidampuram, and then onwards to Thanjavur. The journey was, honestly, quite difficult. The public bus was crowded and hot, and the noise from the constant sounding of the driver’s horn was difficult to tolerate. Indians are as bad at driving as people are in neighboring countries, and will overtake straight into oncoming traffic with absolutely no thought to the consequences.
After what seemed like an eternity, but what was actually more like six hours, the bus arrived in Thanjavur, and on the way in I could already see the history of the city. Ancient walls merged with slightly less ancient bus stops and shops. Thanjavur is interesting in that way, yet it is also a typical modern Indian town – busy, dusty, dirty. I stepped off the bus and went looking for a hotel. They weren’t in short supply but it did take a while to find a suitable one, which I did eventually on the main drag.
After checking in, I went out to see the “Big Temple” as I’d heard it was best to see when the sun was going down. I raced to get there but it was crowded and checking my shoes at the entrance took some time, so by the time I arrived, I had missed the sunset by a few minutes. Still, the sky was red and it cast a beautiful red light on the already impressive stonework. I managed to plug in the wrong settings to my new camera and so quite a few potentially good photos turned out not so great.
I stuck around the temple until well after dark, taking in the atmosphere. I was amazed how many people kept arriving. From all over India, folks in all sorts of traditional dress appeared. Most of them lined up to go into the main temple itself, while others prayed to the giant cow statue, or the smaller cow statues, and some just sat and talked with their families. Many lit candles or incense, and it felt incredible to stand in the middle of it all and just watch.
In the morning, I returned again. I wanted to take some better photos and to see the temple in the light of day. The magic of the previous night had vanished, but it was now easier to see the intricate designs on the temple walls.
After spending another hour and a half looking around Brihadishwara, I took a brief walk around the rest of Thanjavur and then jumped on another bus, this time heading further south to Madurai.
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Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival as it’s also known) is pretty famous all around the world. If people know one thing about it, though, it’s that the Chinese celebrate New Year in late January… or sometimes even February. That’s because they follow the lunar calendar, whereas most of the world goes by the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese acknowledge the Gregorian calendar through much of their daily life, but when it comes to celebrating New Year, they are understandably traditional and stick the the old ways. As such, New Year’s Eve is a bit of a dull affair in the Middle Kingdom.
Last weekend I travelled with my girlfriend to her father’s house near Hefei. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of New Year celebrations but when everyone went home at seven o’clock and her dad headed to bed about an hour later, I got the impression that it wasn’t exactly going to be like Hogmanay back in Scotland. Oh well. Who needs late nights and hangovers anyway? I’ve seen enough New Years not to care that much any more.
After a rather boring New Year’s Eve, we took off in the morning for the countryside. Vera had told me many times about where she grew up but I’d never actually seen it before and so I was looking forward to it. We grabbed a black taxi out to a little town and then walked from there to a small village about a mile away. Every few minutes she pointed at something and remarked on how much it had all changed.
Walking through the countryside in China can be quite pleasant, especially compared with the pure chaos of the cities. Unfortunately, on this day (and for the past few weeks, in fact) the air pollution was so bad that we really couldn’t see very far. However, what we did see was quite nice – an old man sitting on a bull, a fertility shrine in a rice field, and more than a few large ponds. Beyond that, we could see cluster of trees but through the smog it had a rather ominous look.
We arrived at her little village and then went looking for her grandfather’s tomb in the nearby forest. She had brought flowers to lay on it, although she never actually knew him. He had fought in the Korean War against the Americans, and apparently was a great man. Supposedly, he had met Mao Zedong and was given some sort of award for his achievements–a sword, I think–but this was stolen from him during the Cultural Revolution. We looked around a few tombs but couldn’t find his name, and then finally found a pile of dirt, almost unnoticeable in the forest. That was his tomb. While all the others had been upgraded to marble, his had simply been forgotten. It probably hadn’t been tended to since Vera’s family left the village more than a decade before.
Next, we ventured back into the village and went around a few houses, speaking with the old people. Vera referred to them all as grandmothers and grandfathers, although none of them were in the strictest sense her actual family. This is quite common in China, where despite the One Child Policy having made siblings somewhat unusual, people claim to have dozens of brothers and sisters, and a ridiculous number of cousins, aunts, and uncles.
We stopped in at the house where she was born and grew up. It was a small brick building with a bedroom where everyone slept and a living room which doubled as a kitchen and everything else. It had fallen into disrepair. After leaving the house, her family had not even bothered trying to sell it, so everything of valuable was taken and the house used mostly for storage by neighbours. It was hard to imagine actually being able to live in such a place for an extended period of time, especially given the harsh climate here. No heating, no air conditioning, no running water or toilet, and just a single lightbulb… It is a world away from what I knew as a child. Yet I suppose this is, for most of the world’s population, actually very normal.
We continued to visit her “grandparents” and met some very interesting characters. One was a tiny woman with leathery skin who lived next door to her. She was barely four feet tall, yet apparently had a ferocious temper and repeatedly fought with other villagers:
Another old woman recognized Vera, despite not having seen her in more than ten years. She loudly shouted, “Well f*** my mother’s c*** I haven’t seen you in f***ing years! How the f*** have you been?” (Old Chinese villagers tend to enjoy swearing.)
We met two old people who Vera seemed to know very well. They were sitting outside their house, cutting radishes with giant knives. They had a small field of cotton plants which they’d picked to make a blanket. As soon as they saw Vera, they immediately gave us the blanket. We were, of course, very touched by this generous gesture. They had planted, tended, and harvested a whole field of cotton for a year and then just given away the resulting blanket.
Clutching the giant homemade duvet, we moved on to another town. This involved a long walk and a very crowded bus ride. In this new town, we met one of Vera’s actual grandmother’s – her father’s mother. She was, like all the others, very friendly and interesting. She had a simple house, but much larger than the others and with indoor plumbing. None of her teeth appeared to be real and I wondered how old she was. She looked about a hundred, but she told me she sometimes would walk ten miles in a day to see her friend.
Despite the old woman’s insistence that we stay for dinner, we had to head off on a long journey back to Huainan. Travelling even short distances in China is exhausting and frustrating, so it took us a long time to get back, but eventually we arrived home. We’d left in 2017 and returned in 2018.
Just two days later, we got our first snow of winter. It seldom snows here, and usually only a light dusting of snow that lasts maybe a day before melting into black slush. Needless to say, we were surprised when it kept on coming down, piling higher and higher until it reached about 15 inches. It was so much snow that almost every tree in our neighbourhood buckled and snapped under its weight. We could hear them all groaning and breaking during that first night, and the next day the devastation was just extraordinary.
Of course, snow is incredibly beautiful when it first arrives. Vera was excited and we went out to look around the morning after the heaviest snow and it really was magical… for about five minutes. After you can no longer feel your fingers and your boots fill up with water it really starts to lose its charm.
I bought a new camera just after Christmas and, although I can still barely use it, I took it tested it out in the snow.
Hopefully I can get this camera figured out before I travel to India this weekend (and then back to Sri Lanka after that). Follow this blog to be notified when I post in future. I’m sure the India trip will offer up many photos and stories.
It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.
Here are a few of my favourites:
First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.
I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.
This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.
My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.
I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.
Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.
Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.
I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.
This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.
It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.
This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.
Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.
I am currently in Budapest, where a few nights ago I hiked up Gallert hill to get this shot. It’s one of my favourite ever photos. I will post more from Hungary, which is the last stop on my tour of Europe, later.