Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

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All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

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Posted in Photography

A Chinese New Year

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.

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The smoggy grey hell of Huainan, shortly before New Year.

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.

Vera with flowers

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:

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in travel

Modern Art in an Ancient Setting

Today is Dragon Boat Festival here in China. It’s an old holiday in celebration of a poet called Quyuan, who allegedly killed himself after seeing his country fall apart. In fact, many people today believe that he was either gay or sleeping with the emperor’s daughter, so perhaps it’s not the patriotic tale that the government tries to present. Or maybe people just like gossip. In any case, it’s revered by most Chinese not as a day to celebrate the past or eat zongzi, but as a few days’ holiday from work.

Unfortunately, in China, the government enjoys the old bait-and-switch of giving you a holiday but then requiring you to work it off later. That means a Monday off work requires you to do a Saturday at work and so on. It’s a cruel ruse. Nevertheless, I finagled Saturday afternoon off work and headed from Huainan down to Hefei for the long weekend. It started, alas, at the dentist, but by Saturday night I was taking in live music and drinking nice whiskey.

On the Sunday I rode the new Hefei subway line out to Binhu, near Chaohu. It is amazing how fast this city has grown. I first came to Hefei in 2010 and it seems to have more than tripled in size. It is, in fact, virtually unrecognizable. The whole area of Binhu was fields when I first arrive, and now it is practically a city center to itself. There are vast shopping malls, theme parks, exorbitant hotels, and every self-respecting franchise has a couple of locations here now.

With a group of friends, I drove around the western end of Chaohu (the suffix -hu means “lake” in Chinese, so this is Chao Lake) to a small village where my friend was participating in an art show. The route was scenic enough, but it was here that I ran my first and only marathon back in 2015, and I felt exhausted just sitting in the back of a car.

At the small village, we soon found the old cluster of buildings that would house a small art show. Inside, modern art clashed strangely with the old walls and doors, and sat out unnaturally against the blue skies and green gardens. Yet somehow it was really very pretty. The art was all rather obvious, but nonetheless interesting. It all seemed to revolve around themes of environmentalism, which was pleasant to see. Someone had framed the door to a bathroom with a sign that said, essentially, “All life is art.” It reminded me of being a student and hearing that sort of thing come from my artsy friends. It sounded marginally less stupid back then.

I was approached by a team of reporters from Anhui TV, who asked to interview me, and then followed me around the grounds of the building as I perused the art work. In the end, I never did get their contact detail and I don’t watch TV so I probably won’t get to see myself wandering awkwardly, pretending not to notice all the people following me.

My favourite exhibit was a bizarre one comprised of two Irishmen playing traditional music with a Chinese piper, while another Chinese man tattooed the piper’s back. Everyone crammed into this tiny room and jostled for the best position to film the spectacle. However, if you looked carefully you would see some odd Chinese characters on the back wall which, when read backwards, make fun of the people in the room. It basically says “People are so stupid these days that they will crowd around and stare at anything.”

Ouch.

After the art show, we all spent the night in Binhu. It’s seemed like an entirely different city from the rest of Hefei. It’s all so new and, with the right light, it was actually quite pretty. Travelling in China on holidays is a nightmare, but it’s nice to know that without going too far, you can still get away from it all and see something new.

Posted in update

Winter Comes Early to Anhui

It has gotten cold this past week in Huainan and Hefei, in the middle of China’s Anhui Province. Winter has arrived earlier than usual, and it has brought unusually cold temperatures. People are saying that this winter will be one of the coldest on records, and it’s not hard to believe.

Last year we barely even had a winter. It settled in slowly and temperatures never got that low, before a long, pleasant spring set in at the end of February. It is odd that winter sometimes lasts no more than two months, and in other years it seems to drag on for five. I even remember one year when temperatures plummeted to below minus 20, when last year it barely hit freezing point.

Yet winter can be oddly beautiful in Anhui. Summer is oppressively hot, and spring and autumn are all too brief. The flowers and cherry blossoms can be pretty, but winter brings the yellows and oranges, and at this time of year you are almost guaranteed a blue sky. That makes for cold nights, of course, but in the day the ever-present sunshine is very welcome.

It is at this time of year, too, when the old people in the countryside lay out their rice to dry on the roads. It is odd in a country so determined to modernize at the expense of tradition and rural ways, yet in Huainan modernization has met stark resistance. Traffic yields to angry old ladies with pitchforks and the roads are ruled by little old men in homemade tractors.

Last weekend was my birthday and I visited Hefei to see some old friends and spend time at the Shipyard Cafe and Francesco’s Pizzeria. I walked around town in the bright sunlight and explored a park that, in all my years there, I’d somehow never before visited. I also brought friends some of my new beer. Hefei was kind to me, offering up some unusually pleasant sights and two miraculous hangover-free mornings, despite the dozens of beers and whiskeys consumed.

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I returned to Huainan on the Sunday for work, and Huainan, too, was blessed with blue skies and sunshine which made the return to work a little easier. This is what my university looks like on a particularly nice day:

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Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:

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It helped with my otherwise sour mood following the shock news that the United States had elected the most objectively awful candidate for president. Although my heart goes out to my friends across the Pacific Ocean, and I worry for the future of our planet given their new leader’s determination to wreck the environment, I am at present very glad to be living in China. China is far from perfect, and its government obviously deeply flawed, but this is a country which appears to be bent on improvement, whereas in the West most nations now seem hellbent on setting the clock back several decades with their sickening turn towards far-right groups and fascism.

 

(All photos here taken with my iPhone)

Posted in travel

Nanjing Craft Beer Festival

China isn’t exactly known for its quality beer. Its biggest-selling beers are Snow and Tsingdao, which are both pretty awful. When I first came to China in 2010, living in Hefei, the most exotic beers around were Tiger and Budweiser. Out in the sticks – where I’m currently living – people still prefer their beer warm and with a maximum of 2.5% abv.

Yet in recent years there’s been an explosion of interest in craft beer, which has caused the bar scene in cities like Hefei to grow at an incredible pace. In 2010 there were only one or two poor quality bars and now there are dozens of great ones. It seems a new bar opens every week. You can go places where they have twenty or more beers on tap and fridges with endless stocks of obscure beers from around the world. (The best bar in Hefei, if you find yourself in the area, is Shipyard on Shuguang Road.)

It’s not just imported brews that are quenching the Chinese thirst for good beer, though. As the Chinese have gained a taste for good beer, they’re getting into homebrewing and companies are popping up all over the place. Right now the brewing scene in China is incredible, and I hope that China is soon recognized for its excellent beers. Mostly, I hope that the fondness for cold IPAs spreads into the small cities so that I don’t have to travel for a few hours just to get a beer below room temperature!

The biggest Chinese craft brewer is Master Gao, who operates out of Nanjing. He organizes beer festivals which are attended by brewers from around the country, who come to show off their creations. This year the regular beer festival was replaced by a homebrew competition, where people from all over the country sent in their best brews to be tasted by a panel of experts. An assortment of brewers showed up, too, to sell their beers. Sadly, this year’s festival was hit hard by the rain and attendance was low, but the event still proved fun.

I went along with the Calvin Beer Company from Hefei. Despite the rain, we managed to keep the crowds entertained with with two great beers – the I Pledge Allegiance IPA and the Liquid Sunshine APA – and taught the locals how to play beer pong. Is there anything that breaks down cultural barriers like beer? I don’t think so.