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

Auroville and Pondicherry

After spending a day in Mamallapuram (or is it Mahabliapuram? – ah yes, both are correct), I didn’t feel like there was much need to stay longer and instead headed out down the coast to Pondicherry, a small city that was once a French colony. I booked a hostel online that was actually outside of Pondicherry itself – a little to the north in a place called Auroville. I’d heard other backpackers talking about Auroville and thought it might be quieter and more pleasant than central Pondicherry, so it sounded fine to me. I walked to the bus stop on the edge of town, expecting to take the ECR south but after five minutes a car pulled up and offered to take me for the same price as the bus – and for an extra 100 rupees to take me to the hostel in Auroville. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the extra 100 was a great deal, as normally cars and rickshaws will charge closer to 400 or even 500 for just the last few kilometers of the journey. I had finally gotten a good deal on transportation in India!

It turned out that the Blue Lotus Hostel was rather hard to find, but we got there eventually and I checked in. The proprietor was a friendly Spanish man called Ruben and the guests were equally chilled out backpacker-types. I felt immediately at home there. The Blue Lotus doesn’t have much around it, but that’s the appeal. There are a set of bicycles that you can use for free, a few bits of gym equipment, a couple of hammocks in the trees, plenty of friendly cats and dogs roaming the property, and a badminton court marked out in the dirt. At night, far from any other lights, you can see many stars, and the only sounds are birds and other animals in the trees. It was a welcome relief from the big city.

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My attempt at photographing the night sky with my D5600.

With one of my new roommates, I set out on a bicycle to explore the surrounding area. Auroville is an experimental hippie commune of sorts. It was founded in the 1960s by people from more than a hundred countries, under the guidance of a woman they called The Mother. (Yes, I realize it sounds a lot like a cult, but it’s not.) Their aim, in-keeping with true sixties idealism, was to create a near utopian society where race and gender and religion were no reason to discriminate against one another. Cycling around, you can see it is still peaceful and tolerant, and populated by mostly elderly hippies. There aren’t many businesses, but those that exist sell “healing” crystals and organic/ vegan/ gluten-free foods. In the middle of it all there is a large golden sphere, called the Matrimandir, in which the locals “concentrate” (I’m told that mediation is a misinterpretation of its actual purpose). I didn’t get a chance to look inside because it was booked up for days, but instead went to the viewing area and admired the sphere. Actually, I was more interested in the huge banyan trees that grew all around. Banyans are unique in that they grow roots down from their branches to form new trunks that support the tree, allowing one tree to grow tens of meters in diameter.

In the evening, I lay in a hammock and watched the stars come out, and the next day I explored the area on my own. I wandered off into the neighbouring villages to look at some temples and see what life was like. That evening, by strange coincidence, two people I’d met at Zostel Chennai showed up at Blue Lotus and we talked into the evening.

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After two nights at Blue Lotus, I decided to push onward. It would be too easy to stick around in a quiet environment like that, but I came to India to explore, and my idea was to go further south before heading north again through Kerala. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it, so I booked another hostel, this time in Pondicherry itself, and then walked there.

Yes, I said walked.

15km in blistering heat.

Stupid me.

Anyway, I arrived more less alive and well, and checked in to the Valentine Hostel in the heart of Pondi (as some call it). Although I could easily have just gone to sleep, I set out to explore the city before moving on the next morning. First stop: Pondicherry Botanical Gardens.

I have no photos from the Botanical Gardens because they were so terribly disappointing that I never at any stage felt the need to take my camera out and point it anywhere. There was simply nothing to see. Founded more than a hundred years earlier, they have not been cared for much recently. People still work there, but what work they do aside from collecting tickets is a mystery. Most of the park is overrun by weeds and all the greenhouses and glass houses are closed and don’t look like they’ve been open in a long time. Still, it is the only green space in the whole town and the entry fee was very cheap.

Pondicherry beachfront

Next, I wandered through town to a bookshop and bought some reading material, then headed for the beach area. Pondicherry is often marketed as a French colonial town but really the only sign of that is in the street names – everything is “Rue” rather than “Road”. There are no pavements and so walking the busy streets is rather treacherous, but that’s true in much of India (and Asia, generally). I worked my way to the coast and saw the Mahatma Gandhi statue, then had a bite to eat from the only food truck I have seen in this country, which served a fantastic paneer tikka katti (although, to be fair, absolutely everything I’ve eaten in India has been fantastic).

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Schoolboys cycling past Mahatma Gandhi statue.

My next challenge was finding a route south to Thanajur and then Madurai…

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

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

2017 – A Year in Travel

It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.

Vera at Mount Fuji

It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.

A statue of Rubens in front of cathedral

After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!

After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.

In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.Meilixueshan peak

What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.

Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.

Posted in travel

5 Things People Should Know About London By Now

Despite being among the world’s most visited cities, London also seems to be one of the more misunderstood tourist destinations on Earth. People have ideas about London, gathered through everything from history books to postcards, and while those ideas are grounded in reality, they often present the wrong picture. The best way to clarify that picture is to go to London and spend some time there – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But to give you a head start, I wanted to write a few words about five things in particular you should now about London by now.

1. Londoners Are Perfectly Friendly

The idea that “everyone’s so unfriendly” was included in a list of misconceptions about London, and I have to say I agree it’s the wrong idea. You can go to just about any big city, particularly in a foreign country, and think that the population is by and large unfriendly. It happens when there are millions of people in a single place, and it’s also something you can feel more vulnerable about as a visitor or tourist; you’re more self-conscious about how the locals are looking at you or treating you.

Of course there are unfriendly Londoners. The first time I was ever in the city there happened to be a Champions League football match going on between two English clubs, and I had things thrown at me on the street because I was wearing a shirt supporting one of these clubs. But you know what? I kind of love the passion. Londoners are proud and passionate, and they can certainly eye visitors with suspicion, but they’re perfectly friendly by big city standards.

2. About Half The Sights Are In One Place

Okay, this one is a little bit presumptuous of me, because I’m professing to know what “the sights” are that the average tourist would want to see. Still, think about the iconic landmarks of London – the backdrops in movies, the images on postcards, the backgrounds in selfies your friends posted on Facebook…. I bet the list looks something like this: Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square. Close, right?

Well, many who haven’t actually been to London don’t realize that you can cross about half of the popular sights off your list in an hour or two. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster are all located in what amounts to a single large city block. Not to mention, the beautiful Parliament Square Garden is there as well, and 10 Downing Street – the residence of the Prime Minster – is about two blocks up the road. Really, it’s all quite convenient and gives you more time to truly get to know the rest of the city.

3. The Food Is Sensational

The idea that British food is bad has kept many a traveler somewhat unenthusiastic about London and the rest of the country. It certainly used to be the case, at least in the wider reaches of the country. But in London it’s far from the truth. This city has become something of gold standard for international cuisine, with fine restaurants boasting influence from France, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, and many other nations known for interesting and delicious cuisine.

It’s also home to some establishments that belong to world-famous chefs. For instance, Raymond Blanc has a brasserie in town and Judy Joo has a Korean fusion restaurant. London is also the de facto hometown of Gordon Ramsay, who’s probably a better chef than you realize. He’s now known for television and for attraction-like restaurants. Indeed just recently he was written up for putting a restaurant in the heart of the Las Vegas strip (and focusing on burgers, fries and milkshakes). But Ramsay has a trophy case full of Michelin stars and eating at one of his London venues is an unforgettable experience.

4. You Don’t Have To Shop At Oxford Street

I’m not a huge shopper, so this isn’t one that I’m writing about with a whole lot of personal experience, I’ll be honest. But I was doing some research for this piece to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything out and found a few different people talking about the different shopping options aside from the famous Oxford Street. One piece even wrote that shopping on Oxford Street is hell, thanks (as you’d likely guess) to massive crowds. Basically, all the other tourists have also heard of Oxford Street, so they’re on their way just as you are.

As it happens, London is home to a lot of other streets and neighborhoods known for awesome shopping opportunities. Regent Street might be the most famous aside from Oxford Street, but the Westfield Shopping Centre comes up quite a bit, as do Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road.

5. You Do Have To Go To The British Museum

Okay, I just steered you away from one iconic tourist destination in London. And if you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably ready for me to tell you that the museum is an unnecessary, touristy detour that’s no different from other museums you’ve been to a dozen times. Well, I just can’t do it. The British Museum is legitimately special, as one of the largest collections of art and artifacts in the world. Only a few other museums – perhaps the Louvre, the Met, and the Hermitage – are on par with this one.

You really ought to make the time to visit if you have a few days in London. Naturally, as with any major museum, there are exhibitions that pass through and give people a particular reason to go. But exhibitions aside, this museum will stun you with the breadth and quality of its artistic displays. You can legitimately spend an hour in the museum and leave with a new (and better) perspective on human history and creativity.

 

Posted in travel

10 Weird Things About China

I’ve been living in China on-and-off for more than seven years. It’s a place I both love and hate in equal measure, but ultimately one that baffles and fascinates me. People ask me why I stay here and my answer is usually the same: “Because life is never boring.” There’s always something truly weird happening nearby, and if you ever ask why, you’ll get the same answer a Chinese person will always give to such a stupid utterance: “没有为什么” – there’s no reason why.

I thought long and hard about what to call this post. I toyed for a long time with “Things I Don’t Understand About China” but instead went for the more internet-friendly “X Weird Things” title format. Sorry. Besides, some of it I really do understand… it’s just still sort of weird.

You might read some of this and say to yourself, “Hey, I visited Shanghai and it wasn’t like that.” Well, no. Shanghai isn’t real China. Take a bus or train out to the provinces and you’ll get an eyeful of weirdness that will blow your fucking head off.

They poop in public

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Poop with a friend!

Visitors to China are usually assaulted quite quickly with a sight that is rather distasteful to Western eyes – that of someone crapping in the street. The further from Shanghai you go, the more you see it. Sometimes they go slightly off the street, but it’s always just there. It’s usually people holding babies out with their legs splayed to the world, but oftentimes it’s adults. The result is that any public walkway is absolutely covered in shit. If you are foolish enough to go hiking, for the love of all that’s holy, please DON’T follow any little paths that lead off the main trail. If you’re lucky you’ll see giant piles of poop and tissue paper. If you’re not, you’ll step right in it.

The public bathrooms are nightmarish places to go, which probably explains why so many people would rather take a dump in public. However, when you do go to the bathroom, many don’t have stalls or any sort of divider. The ones that do tend not to have doors, and the ones that have both doors and dividers… well, people just don’t like closing the doors. They prefer to have strangers watch them go. It is somehow comforting for them.

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Public pooping is such a problem, the government even had to put up signs to stop it happening.

No one washes their hands

I mentioned above that Chinese bathrooms are awful places. You simply avoid them at all costs while you live here, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to go. What you are presented with are holes in the ground and no toilet paper. They don’t believe in bleach or any other cleaning chemicals, so they never actually get cleaned and so they stink to high hell. There’s no soap, either. Why? Mostly because anything that isn’t nailed to the ground will be stolen. Who am I kidding? They’d steal the goddamn nail.

People here are somehow happy just splashing a little cold water on their hands after visiting the bathroom – and that’s only the fancy people. Most wouldn’t go that far. This disturbingly applies to people who work in the food service industry. A few years ago I sat at my favourite restaurant looking out on the burning piles of trash when the chef took her kid out to shit in the street – right in front of the restaurant! – and when he was done she wiped his ass with a tissue and immediately went back to cooking. Needless to say, I was damn near sick.

…even after handling raw meat!

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Why not? It’s only RAW CHICKEN!!!

The Chinese just don’t seem to believe in germs. Not only are they happy not washing their hands after literally touching human excrement but they will go to the market and pick up raw meat with their hands and just keep on shopping! It is something that completely sickens me because not only are they spreading germs from the meat to themselves, but also the other way round. I’ve stood and watched old woman pick up all sorts of meat, cough and splutter all over it, and then toss it back on the heap for someone else to eat later. Gee, I wonder why I get sick every few weeks…

Babies on bikes

If you’re reading this and wondering, “How the hell did they get to 1.5 billion people with no awareness of basic health!?” then this will just astonish you: People always drive around with babies on their motorbikes and ebikes. This is, of course, not just limited to China and it’s something that I do understand. For most people, owning a car is out of the question and taxis – though incredibly cheap here – are too expensive to take every day for short journeys. Yet everyone just sticks their baby on the front of their bike and takes off into the most reckless traffic on earth. (Okay, maybe that award goes to Vietnam.)

Remember this scene from Bruno:

Yeah, that’s comedy because it’s something so amazingly hard to believe. Yet in China it’s perfectly normal. Which is especially disturbing considering…

They drive on the wrong side of the street

And by that I don’t mean that they drove on the right instead of the left, which they do. Nope, I’m talking about honest-to-god driving into traffic at high speed! People here drive the way they walk, and that’s with a level of flabbergasting arrogance. If you see a turn, you don’t wait for the oncoming traffic to pass, you just go and hope for the best! It’s truly amazing to witness… and yet terrifying. Countless times I’ve seen people lying dead in the street, or others just slightly hurt, and everyone clusters stupidly around, taking photos but not helping… and it’s always caused by someone driving into traffic on purpose. Yet no one ever thinks of this as wrong. A few years ago I was in a small accident myself. A woman driving down the wrong side of the street while playing on her phone crashed straight into me. She shouted, “You foreigners don’t know how to drive!” and everyone crowded around, tsskking at me and muttering about silly foreigners. No one even thought twice about a person going the wrong way down a street. It’s the most normal thing in the world here.

Walking in the street

As if it weren’t bad enough that people careen the wrong way down almost every street in the Middle Kingdom, people casually and very slowly walk in the middle of the road, too. The rest is pure chaos and more than a few fatal accidents. Yes, the pavements are poor condition almost everywhere. But does that really make it worth your while to walk in the middle of the street? To be fair, the roads are relatively new and people have been walking these pathways for decades without getting hit by cars, but now that everyone and their mother thinks they need a car, sauntering down the middle of a street is no longer really a safe thing to do. Because of this, drivers feel the need to beep their horn almost continuously. Which brings me to my next point.

They love loud repetitive noises

Everyone knows that the Chinese love fireworks. It’s been a part of their culture since way back in history. But for some reason this has lead them to a love of (or at least a tolerance for) all loud repetitive noises. In the paragraph above I mentioned car horns. You simply cannot overstate how common these are. In most cities, there are signs that say “No Car Horns!” but as with all signs, the Chinese will choose to ignore it. Buses are among the worst offenders, followed by construction site workers on motorbikes. They will drive at top speed through residential areas not even looking at the road. In China, the rule is this: if you beep your horn and later hit someone, it’s not your fault. So rather than slow or swerve or check a mirror, they beep loudly and repeatedly and just go.

It’s not just the car horns or fireworks. It’s everything. Every shop attempts to woo customers by blaring monotonous lists of items. At my local market, a man in a blue truck full of small mangoes has been sitting in his cab playing Angry Birds while a recorded message drones: “big mangoes… big mangoes… big mangoes…” It has gone on for more than a year. People don’t care. They actually seem to like this sort of thing, and flock to whoever has the loudest and most monotonous recording. Another common tactic is to play that 小苹果 song over and over. I’ll never understand how people can hear the same part of the same song several thousand times and still think, “Hey, that’s original – I’ll go give that guy my money.”

Staring at foreigners’ feet

I could write a whole book about the weird ways Chinese deal with foreigners. (Hey, that’s actually a good idea…) However, by far and away the most odd and yet predictable of these is that whenever a Chinese person meets a laowai, they will look at our feet. It is astonishing, really. I have no idea why they do it and I didn’t even notice until a few years ago when a friend pointed it out to me. I had noticed that most men look me up and down carefully before asking me an absurd question, but I didn’t realize how long they lingered on the feet. My feet aren’t particularly big, so that’s not it. I don’t wear unusual footwear, either. They just always look at a foreigner’s feet.

Smoking in hospitals… or anywhere else

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No Somking!

Across all of Asia, men smoke. Smoking is the coolest fucking thing a person can do, apparently. The smoke from a young age until they mysteriously die around fifty of old age, with their teeth rotten stumps and their fingers completely yellowed. Sure, there are signs up everywhere that tell you not to smoke. But Chinese people know better than to follow namby-pamby signs. Smoking in an elevator is perfectly acceptable, for example, even if there’s a “No Smoking” (or sometimes “No Somking”) sign right there. But in Chinese culture, doing the wrong thing is fine… but calling someone out for doing the wrong thing is bad.

What really amazes me is that if you go to any hospital, you’ll see old men staggering about the halls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They’ll even do this around newborn children. Doctors will smoke a cigarette while telling you that you’re sick because of the wind or moon or because you had ice in a drink one time. It is staggering how little people understand cause and effect in this odd corner of the world.

They wear pajamas… outdoorsIMG_0159

I was reluctant to put this in here because every other “weird China” list includes it – especially ones written by Chinese. However, it is mid-November now and every time I go outside I see people shuffling around in giant fluffy pajamas. I get that it’s cold and you want to wrap up. That makes sense. But does it really make that much sense to wear your pajamas outside? Don’t they get dirty? Don’t they get all wet and gross? I asked one of my friends and he proudly told me that he has indoor and outdoor pajamas. Why the hell wouldn’t you just wear clothes then?!

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.

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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.