Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

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Posted in travel

10 Years

Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.

I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.

In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.

IMG_1588_0295

In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”

China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.

After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.

China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”

But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.

David with Mount Fuji and Ice Cream

Posted in travel

Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

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Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

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Retreating to the Hill Stations – Kodaikanal and Munnar

During the long colonial period, the various Europeans who lived in India found the summer heat oppressive and escaped to what they called “hill stations” – areas of comparatively cool climates up in the mountains. There are hill stations dotted all over India, and here in the south is one of the most famous, Kodaikanal. Although it is winter now, the more than thirty degree heat at sea level is oppressive enough, and I was eager to venture into the highlands for some decidedly cooler weather. More than that, however, I was eager to escape the crowded, polluted cities that, although they yielded much in the way of culture, were reminding me a bit too much of China.

My trip to Kodaikanal involved another agonizing series of bus rides. On the map, only a little over seventy kilometers separated my destination from Madurai, but the journey took nearly six hours as we wound slowly up perilous roads towards the plateau where Kodaikanal is located. When I arrived, I immediately felt the difference in the pleasantly cool air, and I barely broke a sweat on the thirty minute walk to my hotel.

Now that my feet were feeling better, I soon ventured out on my first hike. A very short walk through scenic – almost European – little villages on winding country roads brought me to a small waterfall in the middle of a forest. I was a little disappointed that it only took fifteen minutes to get there. After all those hellish bus rides, my sense of distance and time had evidently become completely warped.

There was little to see at the waterfall except for piles of trash other tourists had kindly deposited, but there was a group of college kids from Coimbatore who seemed eager to talk with me after I broke the silence by saying hello. Like so many people I’d met in India, they were very friendly and curious about life in other countries. They peppered me with dozens of questions until I turned the tables by asking them about themselves and their lives.

When I asked what they studied, one of them said, “What do you think? We study computer engineering like everyone else in India. Through a stone in this country and you’ll hit a computer engineer.” I hadn’t wanted to perpetuate any stereotypes, but a significant number of the people I’d met in India were indeed computer engineers.

When I asked for advice on where I could travel, they were surprisingly downbeat about their homeland. “India is boring to us. How many temples have you seen already? Too many. That’s all there is to see here – temples and more temples. And everywhere you go, there are so many people pushing and shoving to get the best selfie.”

We talked for about fifteen minutes and I was honestly quite impressed by how negative they were about India. Back in China, if you meet anyone, they’ll ask you the same series of annoying questions that always work up to the big one: “What do you like most about China?” Then they’ll tell you what they like best, which is usually one of the following:

  • The food, which is the best in the whole world
  • The culture, which is the best (and oldest) in the whole world
  • Their president, who is the best in the whole world

I suppose, being from Scotland, I have an innate distrust for anyone who lacks a capacity for self-deprecation.

Over the next two days, I continued to hike further and further from my hotel into the mountains surrounding the little tourist town of Kodaikanal. My first long hike began the next morning as I ventured west, past a number of little churches (India is much more Christian than I expected) and away from the main roads into thicker forests along progressively smaller paths. Every now and then, I would see a small group of people – usually college students – hiking and we would talk for a while before parting ways, but mostly it was peaceful. Sometimes I would see monkeys come down from the trees, and a few interesting birds. But there wasn’t much of a view as there were clouds all around. This just made the cool air even colder and more refreshing.

The further I walked, the quieter it became. I was delighted. Although India had offered up fantastic rewards, the price for these had been the crowds and traffic. Out here, I could hear only the birds and monkeys. But then another sound drifted through the forest. It was a sound that filled me with a sense of dread – the music of Jack Johnson. He is to tourist douchebags what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg movies. Soon I reached a small village of homestays and guest houses all filled with young foreign tourists. As I appeared, it seemed as though they all turned and looked at me and my Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt with disgust. They all had dreadlocks and nose piercings and wore Indian clothes probably made from organic cotton. The little shops that lined the narrow dirt street all advertised avocado toast.

What was this place? I wondered. I had come so far into the middle of nowhere and stumbled into some kind of hipster hell. If I wanted this kind of crap, I would have gone to Goa instead. I kept walking and soon disappeared down a tiny hiking trail that mercifully took me away from the little lost commune of assholes. I soon began to feel more comfortable. The trail led through the forest and down the side of a mountain. Occasionally, there were old men and women selling water and crisps, but mostly it was once again just me and my thoughts.

Sometimes I stopped at interesting or peaceful places but there was never much of a view because of the clouds. Occasionally they would part just enough to remind me that there was a world outside the mountain, but for the most part it looked like an old Japanese painting – more white space than actual paint. Once I stumbled upon a gaur – also known as the Indian bison. It is a dangerous but rare animal which inhabits these hills. Absolutely massive, with a large hump on its head, it looks menacing from any distance. However, I was determined to get a photo and attempted to get close to the great beast. I was confident that it would not charge me as I am quite familiar with photographing supposedly dangerous animals. It is true what they say – it is man who is the most dangerous animal. When you show other animals respect, they seldom pose any threat.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that there was a man nearby, and he chucked a rock at the gaur to scare it out of his path. The gaur rushed towards me as I dived out of the way. Thankfully, I was not gored, nor did I fall to death off the side of the mountain. But nor did I get my photo. I ran down the mountainside after the terrified animal, but it was like chasing bigfoot through the redwoods – I ended up with nothing but blurred shots of fur and trees.

*

The next day, I set out on another long hike through the hills, following a circular route that appeared on a map to be a pleasant walk in the forest. Unfortunately, I had misread my map and it was a road rather than a path that I walked along. I was also unaware that it was Independence Day and so any time I passed anything of even the faintest interest, it was obscured by twenty tour buses filled with loud Indians. Every viewpoint, every cave, and every interesting looking tree had a few hundred people crowded around. Of course, when my white face passed by, each person would turn and attempt to engage me in conversation, and then ask politely for a selfie.

“Where are you coming from, my friend?”

“Scotland.”

“Oh yes, very good police.”

I heard that about a dozen times over the course of the day. It finally dawned on me that they were referred to Scotland Yard, which is of course located in London.

When I returned to the town after twenty-five kilometers of interrupted hiking, it was to a new hotel. The first one, which was rather pleasant, had cast my out after my two night booking expired, and I was forced into a “budget hotel” that was actually far more expensive than any I’d previously stayed in. Whenever I inquired about an amenity – WiFi, hot water, bed sheets – the owner would smile and say, “No, sir. This is just a budget hotel.” I was amazed my room had a roof over it. The hotel was rather inconveniently located opposite the bus station, and all night I was treated to the loud honking that the drivers felt was necessary open entering or exiting the station, or indeed even just while staying parked. At five in the morning, I was awoken again by the sound of two Indians having a friendly conversation on the stairs outside my room. Just like the Chinese, Indians sometimes feel it is necessary to shout at the top of their voice when speaking to someone just a few feet away.

When morning came, it brought even more noise and I quickly checked out of the hotel and boarded a mini-bus for another hill station, Munnar. Located in the neighboring province of Kerala, Munnar sounded like it was more of the same – a cool, somewhat quiet retreat in the mountains. As I was sick to death of public transport, I opted for the far more expensive option of a minibus. I couldn’t bear the thought of another unnecessarily long and cramped journey.

Unfortunately, the owner of the minibus (which was actually just a large family car) had booked seven people into a car which could only hold six at most. My fellow passengers argued vociferously with him as I kept quiet. There were a few reasons for my silence. First and foremost, out of seven people, I was the only person travelling alone and therefore the most likely to be kicked out of the car. Second, I had quietly snuck into the passenger seat when the space issue first arose, and I didn’t want to give it up. And third, I am a coward and quite content to put up with unreasonable situations rather than confront anyone about the matter.

I watched in awe as an English radiologist calmly but forcefully refused to go anywhere in such a crowded vehicle, and demanded a refund if nothing was done about it. In the end, the owner backed down and two people were switched to another car. I was impressed and relieved in equal measure. We hit the road with five people in the car and plenty of legroom.

The bus ride up the mountain had been long and painful, but the ride down was entirely different. It was terrifying. I immediately began to regret sneaking into the front seat. The driver took the hairpin corners at breakneck speed, even though one wrong move would have sent us hundreds of meters down the side of the mountain. In true Indian style, he would approach a slower vehicle and beep his horn before blindly overtaking. If another car came in the other direction, it didn’t matter. Indians seem to think that the horn bestows magical powers on them. It is, in fact, a quirk of drivers all across Asia, and something that probably explains the horrendous number of deaths from car accidents across this bizarre continent.

Even though Kodaikanal and Munnar are just fifty kilometers apart, the route down one mountain and up another extends this journey so far that it took us an incredible six hours to reach our destination. Six hours of utterly reckless driving to the sound of Indian love ballads that came from the car radio. The views were probably stunning from beginning to end, but I spent most of my journey with my hands over my eyes or my head between my knees, alternating between blind terror and carsickness.

When we arrived in Munnar, I felt that my ordeal was over. I stumbled out of the car and went out to find a hotel. It seemed that every second building in Munnar was a hotel, guesthouse, or homestay. How hard could it be to find somewhere to sleep?

Four hours later, after trekking from one end of town to the other and back several times, I finally found a small and grossly overpriced hotel that had one available room. It was only double the price of the next most expensive place I’d previously stayed but by this point, even if the manager had asked me for a kidney, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I wanted to go to bed, not because I was tired but because I wanted the day to end.

Using the hotel’s mediocre WiFi, I arranged a better hotel for the following day. It was highly rated online, located in the quiet hills just outside of town, and marked down to well within my budget. I was delighted. The next morning, I set out for a short hike to some nearby tea fields and reveled in the beauty of the artificially manipulated landscape. It was a stunning sea of green – and best of all, I somehow stumbled into an area with no other people nearby so I could sit and enjoy it all in peace. Things were looking up for my stay in Munnar.

Irritatingly, when I returned to my hotel to pack my things and go, just a half hour before I was due to check in at the new hotel, I received an e-mail saying that they could no longer honor my booking. Those bastards, I said to myself. Those complete and utter bastards. I looked again online and could find absolutely nothing comparable. In the twelve hours since I’d booked, almost everything else had been taken. Instead, I booked a modest room in town and pledged to get the hell out of Munnar the next morning. Beautiful tea fields or not, Munnar could get fucked.

I angrily shoved my things into my backpack and set off on the long walk back through town to the southern end of Munnar, where my hotel was located. When I arrived, I found that my backpack hadn’t been fastened properly and I’d left a trail of clothes stretching two kilometers back along the dusty road. It was, as they say, one of those days.

After confusing the locals by slowly winding back through town, picking up dirty socks and underpants off the filthy roadside, I hunted down a small hiking trail near my hotel and climbed up through the tea fields to the top of a large mountain. It was a long climb, but I had a lot of pent up anger to get out, and the exertion felt good. When I reached the top, I was inside a cloud and there was a gentle breeze. All around me the scenery was beautiful – just the outline of the mountains were visible through the haze. From down below, you could just hear the sound of cars leaving Munnar as the Independence Day holiday drew to an end. But I didn’t care about what was down below anymore. I spent an hour climbing large boulders and scanning the landscape, before just sitting on a big rock and letting all the stress melt away in the wind.

Here’s the thing about travelling in India – it’s not easy, but you should never expect that it would be. If you want a calm, relaxing holiday in a lovely environment, there are countless places in the world to do it. And if you really want to see the best of India and avoid all the shit, you could probably pay for that, too. Instead, some of us travel the hard way in search of something we don’t even know. We chuck some things in a backpack, head for the rickety old local bus, and stay in roach-infested hotels. If you let it, this can all get you down pretty badly. But you need to learn how to rise above it, and when you do, what you find is that you emerge into a better world than anyone else could see. In Thanjavur I had witnessed a busload of fat Americans half-heartedly sticking their iPhones in the direction of incredible carvings and snapping a photo without even taking a look at what was there. They had probably seen so many temples and other historical locations that day that Brihadeshwara meant nothing to them except maybe a few likes on Facebook and Instagram. My time in India had been challenging, but when I look back on it, I will remember the highlights all the more for the effort I put into getting there.

Posted in Photography, travel

Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

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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Posted in travel

Chennai and Mamallapuram

The route from China to India was a long one, departing my home on Saturday lunchtime and arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning. However, an extended layover in Kuala Lumpur gave me time to get reacquainted with one of my favourite cities. I took a stroll in Chinatown and then explored the botanic gardens. About six or seven years ago I saw a water monitor eating a large cat there, but this time the scene was somewhat different, with a large number of families holidaying.

When I arrived in Chennai, I made my way to Zostel, my hostel in the middle of the city. In the morning, I took a walk towards the beach. Having walked some twenty-five kilometers in Malaysia the previous day, I soon became tired and eventually relented at the prompting of one of many rickshaw drivers. “I’ll take you around the city and show you everything for just one hundred rupees,” he promised.

Needless to say, he showed me almost nothing and when I got back to my hostel later in the day, I was thoroughly pissed off. Chennai is not really much of a tourist city. It is ugly and crowded and dirty. But I hadn’t expected much, and would have been fine exploring on foot. I had walked by myself through some slums and met friendly and interesting people. Instead, I was fleeced by a dishonest rickshaw driver.

Fortunately, in the evening I made some good friends among the other tourists staying at my hostel, and we stayed up late sitting on the roof of the hostel, listening to music and being devoured by mosquitoes. They all said they were heading in roughly the same direction as me, but different times, and perhaps we will meet again down the road.

In the morning I was ripped off by another rickshaw driver en route to finding a bus south. (In fact, from now on, just assume that any reference to rickshaws involved getting ripped-off.) I arrived at a random roadside and fortunately a bus soon came by and I was on board, flying south along the East Coast Road (ECR). Amazingly, the bus was totally empty except for me – not what I had expected of travel in India. When I got off, the driver asked for 200 rupees, which was more than double what I had been told. Oh well… This was (and continues to be) a recurring theme.

My destination was Mamallapuram (which is just one of the spellings for this hard-to-pronounce place), a tourist hot-spot fifty kilometers south of Chennai. It is famous for an old temple and some Hindu carvings. I was taken by my rickshaw driver to a run-down guesthouse near the beach, and then set out to look around. The beach was not exactly pleasant but the Shore Temple, which is Mamallapuram’s most famous attraction, was really quite nice. It dates back to about 700 AD and was once a part of a chain of similar pagoda-shaped structures that may have acted as navigation aids. Now the Shore Temple is all that remains. It is surrounded by statues of cows (which are famously revered by Hindus) and entrance for foreign tourists is 500 rupees, which is rather steep given that there’s not a great deal to actually see or do there.

In the late afternoon, after a bit of rest back at my guesthouse, I went on another walk, this time to the park that lies west of the main town. Here, the main attraction is known as Krishna’s Butterball – a giant rock that appears to be precariously balanced on a slope, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The area around it was so crowded with people that it was actually not very interesting, but the park itself was filled with old Hindu carvings. The sandstone had been carved into cave-temples and other structures, including a large relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. It is one of the biggest bas-reliefs anywhere in the world, and stands right next to a busy intersection.

While in the park, I was approached by a shy young man who asked in broken English for a selfie with me. I agreed and suddenly a queue formed of some seventy or eighty Indians all asking for selfies. It was bizarre. In China, people always point at me and take photos, and very occasionally someone will ask for a selfie. However, there are very few foreigners in China, and here there were many white people. Granted, I was the only white person in the park… but still, it was a surprise. Most of the people were in family groups and appeared quite poor. Some of them, particularly those with children, wanted me to take their photo with my camera, even though they didn’t have e-mail addresses or social media accounts for me to send the picture on. Later, a boy asked if I was working with a Scottish newspaper, and it occurred to me that perhaps word had gone around the park that I was some sort of journalist and these people wanted their picture in a foreign newspaper.

The late afternoon and early evening I spent in the park more than made up for all the scams and rip-offs I’d experienced everywhere else. It reaffirmed what I had previously hoped to be true – that the people in the tourist industry were unscrupulous vultures, but the average Indian was friendly and decent.

The next morning I set off for Auroville, outside Pondicherry, a few hours to the south. I’ll post more in a few days.

Posted in Photography

My Favourite Photos of 2017

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.

Leopard

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.

Birds

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.

Lots of fish

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.

Vera at Mount Fuji

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.

Campus

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.

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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.

Red fox in a field

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.

Roe Deer

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.

A statue of Rubens in front of cathedral

There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.

Tower 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.

Budapest at Sunset

It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.

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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.

Some yaks on the plateau

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.

Shangri-La marketplace

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.

Meilixueshan at night

Posted in travel

The Sacred Tibetan Mountain: Meili Xueshan

After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.

From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.

Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.

Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.

Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.

We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.

We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.

*

The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.

The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.

Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.

Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.

*

At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.

We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:

Me: Hi, I have a reservation…

Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?

Me: Yes.

Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.

Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.

Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.

Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!

Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.

It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.

We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.

There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.

Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.

*

The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:

sunrise
View from hotel window, shot with GoPro.

After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”

That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4569.

The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.

*

The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.

Posted in travel

From Lijiang to Shangri-La

High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by soaring mountains, is the dusty little frontier town known as Shangri-La (or xiang-ge-li-la, as the Chinese call it). You may think that the name rings a bell, but you’re probably thinking of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, from the novel, Lost Horizon. In his famous novel, Shangri-La was the name of a utopian society somewhere in Asia. Since then, it has become a stand in for perfection. “My own Shangri-La,” you might say of a place that is impossibly beautiful.

The Chinese, always short on innovation and never ones to pass up an opportunity for intellectual property theft, came upon the staggeringly cynical idea of renaming a town called Zhongdian back in 2001. They called it “Shangri-La” and expected the tourist masses to come knocking on the door. Amazingly, they did. Or rather, as many as you could expect to trek way out into the middle of nowhere – because that’s precisely where you’ll find Shangri-La.

An Interrupted Bus Ride to Shangri-La

Getting to Shangri-La essentially requires travel from Lijiang, which itself is quite a remote place. It’s more than a day’s journey from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and Shangri-La is another four hours by bus from there. Along the way, expect to be accosted by police at road blocks. They come onto the bus, take your ID and process it. China is no Land of the Free, that’s for sure. On our little bus, one poor man’s ID was flagged and the police made him go for a urine test – which they announced to the whole bus. As I cursed the police state that caused these unnecessary delays and impinged upon human rights, the people of the bus began denouncing the poor guy. It didn’t matter that his test came back clean – to the people he was now labelled a drug addict and promptly shunned.

Just behind us, a little boy asked his dad what the hold up was. “The police are protecting us from bad people, son,” his dad explained. I seethed with anger. China has become the perfect police state as no one even cares that their freedoms are eroded. No one here knows about Tianamen Square… and if they did they’d probably tell you those stupid students got what was coming to them for questioning the wonderful government.

In any case, that was strike two against the bastards the seat behind… they’d already let their son piss on the floor and the puddle had very nearly doused my bag. Needless to say, I was keen to get as far from the tourists as possible.

Exploring Shangri-La

When we arrived in Shangri-La it was a relief to get off the bus and find myself in what felt like a different country. The area is also known as the Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is geographically, culturally, ethnically, and even politically Tibetan, yet it is not part of the Chinese province (as it sadly is now known) of Tibet. Everything was different here and the awful Han Chinese acted very much as they were in a foreign land. There were fewer of them and more dark-skinned people in colourful clothes. There were probably almost as many visitors from Europe as eastern China. Animals far outnumbered people, too, with yaks, goats, and boars roaming wild all over the land.

We hopped in a taxi to the Old Town (a well-preserved area of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings) and found our hostel for the night. We then proceeded to explore the Old Town on foot, taking in the Buddhist temple and the fascinating wooden architecture. Across the part of China, the various minority groups developed different but similar means of constructing buildings that are totally different from what you find elsewhere. In particular, we really liked the simple roofs with chunks of wood pinned down by large stones. They don’t look remotely watertight, but they certainly are different from anything I’ve ever seen.

We also took the chance to sample some local food, which was delicious. I wonder why I’ve never heard anything about Tibetan food before. It’s as good as anything else I’ve encountered in this part of the world.

IMG_5199
Tibetan food – butter tea and zanba.

In the evening, we sat at a bar window looking out on a square as a little old man in a cowboy hat began to dance. Soon he was joined by a few more people… then a few more… then more and more… At some point even I was in the middle of the square, dancing to Tibetan music with these oddly synchronized dance moves that all came from the cowboy. Everyone was looking to him. Old ladies in pink and blue Tibetan dresses appeared and joined in, yet even they looked to this ancient cowboy for inspiration. He whirled around with a cigarette in his mouth for two hours before the people began to disperse.

Hiking ShiKa Mountain

The next morning we set out towards ShiKaShan – the nearby mountain. We took a taxi there but when we arrived the guards told us that hiking wasn’t allowed and that we must take a cable car to the top. We angrily walked away, intending to sneak onto the mountain, but soon wandered through some nearby valleys and onto the NapaHai – a sea of grass and red flowers home to vast numbers of yaks. As we walked we experienced something that almost never happens in China – peace and quiet. There were no people anywhere. We had come to the edge of China, more or less. In the town there were tourists, but not many, and out here there was simply no one. Wild horses and great hairy yaks wandered about. At first they were frightening but then we realized that they are terrified of us. Big black wild pigs and goats also scuttled around. Streams poured down off the mountain snow and everything was peaceful.

On the walk home – across many miles of grassland – we saw something even rarer than peace in China. We saw a huge unbroken double rainbow stretched over the whole of Shangri-La. Truly, it was the rarest and most unimaginable thing we could have seen. In a light rain, we stood staring at it from the grass. An old man in a tractor chugged by with a massive smile on his face, pointing excitedly at the spectacle.

It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and indeed the end of our time in Shangri-La. The next morning we jumped on a smaller bus on a bumpier, steeper road heading for the very limits of this vast country – into and above the clouds and towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar.

Posted in travel

National Week in Lijiang

Lijiang, in China’s Yunnan province, is one the best-known holiday destinations in the country. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for Chinese to travel here, though, because in the past it was mostly foreign tourists on the their way to Southeast Asia. Tucked away in the mountains at a very high altitude, it was once a peaceful little town. Nowadays it’s still a very pleasant place to visit, although during the holidays it can become rather crowded as the narrow streets are filled with visitors. Still, compared with towns in the more populated east of China it is still a pleasant getaway.

For my tastes it was too touristy but there’s no denying Lijiang is an attractive place, especially if you can see it outside of a major national holiday. Thankfully, my girlfriend and I arrived one day prior to the swarm of tourists that decided for National Week (a week-long celebration marking the anniversary of the country’s founding) and so we were able to enjoy the quiet streets for a short time. By the afternoon of the following day, the difference was obvious – peace and quiet were replaced by a frenzy of commercialism.

Thankfully, we spent only one day in Lijiang before making a well-timed trip north into the mountains. Our aim was to beat the crowds by going further into the wilds of Yunnan than most tourists are willing to do. More stories coming soon, but for now, here are some photos of Lijiang: