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:
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:
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.
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.
It 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 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 very nearly December and here in eastern China the weather is finally turning cold. In the middle of the day, it’s still warm but at night it is getting perilously close to zero. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees now as the autumn winds kick up. Sadly, people don’t view the fallen leaves as beautiful, and sweep them away almost as fast as they can fall. But for the few weeks while the hang on the trees, and for the hours that they lay on the ground, it is actually quite beautiful. Autumn is probably my favourite season in Huainan, although it is exceptionally brief, sandwiched between the excruciatingly hot summer and the biting cold of winter.
I live in a quiet (by Chinese standards) little 小区 (that means “community”) here in Huainan. It’s actually a rather pleasant little enclave in an otherwise quite ugly city. I think at this time of year, it is about as nice a place to live as one would find in China.
Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.
This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.
Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.
It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:
Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.
I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.
My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.
Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.
We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…
We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.
We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.
Last night I was able to watch the supermoon from the roof of a tall building in the middle of Huainan. The location was not ideal, as the city gives off both light pollution and air pollution, but the sky was unusually clear, and the moon was right overhead between 8pm-10pm. This will likely be the closest the moon comes to earth within my lifetime, and I was glad to shoot a couple of pretty clear shots. I’d ordered a tripod on the 11/11 Chinese shopping holiday, but it hadn’t arrived by yesterday, so I ended up just trying to keep a steady hand as I zoomed in on this rock, which was about 221,500 miles away…
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.
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:
Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:
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.
You might have heard of China’s “ghost cities” – huge areas of urban development completely devoid of people. South of my little city, Huainan (淮南), in Anhui Province, the government has built a new city – called South Huainan (山南)- which is more or less devoid of people, aside from one small park. It is a bizarre place of new apartment blocks standing empty and already crumbling, homes for tens of thousands of people falling apart before anyone has even moved in, brand new infrastructure unused and yet somehow already deteriorating, and little old villages not yet bulldozed as construction stalls.
Two mayors have gone to prison for the corruption involved in getting this bizarre city built. Despite having no sports teams, nor any tourism industry, they saw fit to build a giant stadium (Huainan Olympic Stadium, 淮南奥林匹克体育场;), which looks like it will be finished soon, and an “Olympic Park” nearby. There is a famous house made to look like a piano, as architects were given free reign prior to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on innovative building design. They also attempted to build a $4 billion RMB theme park called Happy World, featuring the tallest ferris wheel in Asia, but shortly before completion the man in charge of the theme park fled the country, taking all the remaining cash with him and dooming the project to failure. The theme park now lies empty, rusting away, although you can see the ferris wheel for miles around.
I’d meant to put up a new post this week, but I haven’t been able to. First, I’m trying to keep a regular schedule of posting photos and stories from my Africa trip during January and February. The next installment is Zimbabwe. Then there’s last year’s North Korea trip, which I’d promised to put online. Whenever North Korea is in the news and people start pontificating on political matters, I’m tempted to post some of my photos from the country, where you actually see the people. I feel it helps us stay grounded and stop silly abstract talk of war.
Unfortunately, I live in China. That means I’m subject to mindless censorship. Personally, I think that censorship results in the strangulation of culture and the withering of creativity and intellect. All those things are visible in China right now and, quite frankly, I’m eyeing the exit. July, 2017 is marked in my calendar as the leaving date. I love my job but this country is grinding me down…
But I digress…
This week is the big Communist Party Congress in Beijing where the party members “vote” on various matters of policy. Perhaps not as ridiculous as the spectacle in the United States right now in the run-up to the shitshow election in November, it is still nonetheless a bizarre festival of all that’s wrong with politics.
But never mind the implications for the wider world – my primary concern is a lack of internet access. In order to circumvent the aforementioned censorship of the internet, I’m required to use a VPN. Usually it is an annoying struggle, but spending money on a decent VPN can save a lot of hassle, especially when one works online most days. During this time of political farce, however, the government exercises its powers to shutdown access to the truth. As we know – or used to think before the rise of Trump – truth is a grave threat to bullshit.
The most commonly used VPN in China seems to be Astrill, and that was hit hard and fast. My service, ExpressVPN, stayed largely in tact until yesterday, when it faltered badly. Today has been a royal pain in my ass. Accessing almost any foreign-based website without a VPN has been nearly impossible, too.
So, for those reasons and more (think: work) I haven’t yet posted to this blog.
As means of an apology, here are two photos I’ve taken over the past 24 hours, in a low enough resolution to upload via one of the few working VPN servers I can currently access. They are the very essence of life in the bizarre land we know as The Middle Kingdom: