A Travellerspoint blog

November 2012

China Rising

A Small Essay about a big country

overcast 15 °C

It has been said that visitors who spend a week in China write a book, those who spend a month write an essay, and those who spend a year write nothing at all. We could say whatever we wanted about China and it would probably be true, but after a month here it is impossible to know where to begin or end...
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China is a fascinating country but it is a land of stark contrasts and many contradictions. Soaring skyscrapers tower over crumbling hutongs and ritzy shopping malls back onto grubby local markets that haven’t changed for decades...
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On the outskirts of Beijing a six lane super highway was restricted to just two lanes because the local farmers had spread their corn to dry on the other four – as they have done for centuries. Drivers in the cities have total disregard for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians – road markings and pedestrian crossings are a complete waste of paint – while the impressive rail system is operated with almost obsessive concern for the safety of travelers. The modern, impeccably clean, stations and trains, are operated with the same degree of control as the equally impressive airports – nobody gets through the gates without passing several security controls and no one is allowed on the platform until the train is due.
As a young child, James often visited his grandfather whose garden was bounded by a soaring stone wall. He would stare at the wall and imagine all kinds of interesting, or perhaps scary, things lay on the other side. Years later he returned and discovered that it wasn’t such a high wall after all, and on the other side was just a field; just like all the other fields. The Great Wall of China has for millennia been a similarly insurmountable barrier that symbolizes China’s xenophobic attitude to the world. China’s fear of the rest of us is hardly irrational, after all, in the past, China has been more sinned against than sinned in terms of international hegemony. However, with growing globalization, and Chinese obsession with western luxury goods, it is only a matter of time before the walls come down...
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Today’s China has out-capitalized the western capitalists, and the Chinese nouveau-riche are out-consuming western consumers. The wealthy buy chateaus in Bordeaux, apartments by the handful, and BMWs by the dozen, while on the other side of China’s high-speed train tracks hundreds of millions still live in Dickensian squalor. But China is rising fast. More than five hundred million people have cellphones and almost all have access to electricity and television. However, we were very conscious of censorship. For instance: we couldn’t access Facebook or YouTube and, for some strange reason, the map on our blog wouldn’t appear on our computer. And whenever we were lucky enough to get BBC or CNN television, the screen would go blank whenever anything remotely critical of China was being reported. But these actions don’t represent the views of the wonderful people we met throughout our travels.
However, xenophobia cuts both ways. We want the Chinese to provide us with affordable shoes, clothes, furniture, tools, IPads and Pods and absolutely everything on the shelves of WalMart and the Dollar Stores, yet we don’t want them to take our jobs or own our companies. We want them to make everything for us at unrealistically low prices and complain when the production causes pollution. We need them to buy our natural resources and then demonstrate against them when they do.
We could write a book about China – but we won’t. What we will do is to come back to visit the friends we made and to visit so many places that we missed on this trip. We will also come back for the food - especially the delicious Portuguese custard tarts, (the favourite of our friend Christine who joined us on our travels from Beijing to Shanghai). And we encourage you to visit this incredible country to see it for yourself and to meet the many wonderful people who made our visit so memorable…
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Goodbye China. Thank you for your generous hospitality.

Posted by Hawkson 05:36 Archived in China Comments (3)

The Very Many Faces of China

rain 13 °C

Any bigoted Westerner who suggests that all Chinese folk are alike should take a close look at this group of red-hatted visitors to Beijing's Forbidden City...
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Carefully staged group shots in front of iconic structures are a must for any Chinese tourist and it is interesting to note that, while we have fearlessly traveled alone with only the internet as our travel agent and guide, almost all of the Chinese have been shepherded around in colour coded groups. Here’s the yellow brigade…
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Thirty years ago when Sheila lived in Beijing she could cause a pavement jam as hordes of curious locals crowded around for a close-up of a foreign face. It's not so bad today. However, there have been very few westerners amongst the vacationing masses so we have often found ourselves the focus of attention. The natives are not shy about taking photos and most have cameras or IPhones ready to snap any interesting looking waiguoren
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But we've done our share of posing as well. Many people have wanted to include us in their holiday snaps - or maybe write about us in their travel blog - and we have asked them to pose for us in return. These delightful young ladies worked at our local bakery in Shanghai…
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While this guy was just having fun on a hat stall…
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And this pretty miss in Xi’An was selling wedding outfits…
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Weddings are big events, and big business, in China and throughout our trip we saw countless brides posing for wedding albums…
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… and actors and actresses making movies and posing for marketing ads…
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Our posing and counterposing hasn’t been restricted to human kind. In Shanghai we came face to face with a couple of pooches coming out of the grooming parlour…
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Yes – these pampered canines are real. And while they might be dolled up like a dog’s dinner – they sure ain’t for eating. The Chinese are clearly in two minds about their dogs; while many people eat them others treat them like kids. Last year a Chinese billionaire paid one and half million dollars for a Red Tibetan Mastiff and sent a fleet of 45 chauffeur driven BMW’s to collect it from the breeder – now that would be an expensive dinner!

Posted by Hawkson 06:04 Archived in China Comments (1)

The Best Exotic Tea Cozy Hotel

sunny 15 °C

Hotels come and go as we wend our way across the globe and we’ve slept in a couple of dozen different beds to date. But not all beds, or hotels, are created equally. Every hotel has been fine in its own way, but some have been more memorable than others. And some have been absolutely unforgettable. A little south of Shangri-La, on a country road to nowhere in particular, is a small hotel with a big heart – The Tea Cozy. Curry, the owner, (with his adopted Indian name), reminds us of the enthusiastic young entrepreneur in the delightful movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But Curry’s Tea Cozy Hotel is no ramshackle old mansion. It is a smart new building tastefully furnished in traditional style with very comfortable beds, (rare in China), and the most exotic wooden bathtub we have ever bathed in…
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...and a pretty pagoda set in a pond of koi carp...
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What makes The Tea Cozy Hotel so memorable is the staff. We have been treated wonderfully throughout our time in China but from the moment we arrived at The Tea Cozy we felt like family – and now we actually are family. Here we are at the gates with Curry and staff member, Suzy...
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Until we arrived Suzy had no Anglicized name so we christened her. And now we are her godparents!
We spent our first two days in Shangri-La cycling the verdant valleys. We threaded our way through ancient stone villages, past duck ponds and rice paddies, and watched the farm workers and fishermen at work and play...
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We crossed and re-crossed the lazy Yulong river while photographing, (and being photographed by), the happy rafters…
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And each evening we returned to The Tea Cozy for a delicious dinner of fresh local produce.
On our final day Curry took us and Amy, together with our goddaughter, Suzy, on a tour of the mountains. The scenery was - well, judge for yourself…
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This River Li vista of karst mountains is one of the most painted and photographed scenes in the world and even appears on Chinese banknotes…
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But there is another side to Shangri-La, and away from the idyllic Li valley, hidden behind the towering riverside mountains, the farmers are preparing for this year’s harvest…
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Hidden beneath thousands of acres of plastic is a juicy crop of gold just waiting to be mined. It's not mandarins, but what is it?
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Suzy and Amy know the answer – but do you?
We have just a few days left in China, and a few postcards left, so if you can correctly guess what is under the plastic we will happily send you a postcard from Shangri-La.

Posted by Hawkson 18:31 Archived in China Tagged mountains countryside accommodations karst family_travel Comments (5)

Shangri-La

Far from the Maddening Crowd

semi-overcast 15 °C

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Picture a bucolic landscape where a forest of mist shrouded mountains sprout out of a somnolent river valley, and the bountiful earth bursts with pastoral riches. Imagine a beautiful land of ancient stone villages surrounded by verdant rice paddies and tea plantations. A land of plenty where oceans of harvested rice dry amidst the mandarin, pomelo and kumquat groves under a perpetually blue sky…
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This is Shangri-La - a place once believed to be no more than a utopian dream of British author James Hilton. But, adventurers that we are, we have found it. It is near Yangshuo - just a two hour bus journey and a six dollar taxi ride from the bustling tourist hub of Guilin. We know we have arrived because it is marked on our map…
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In his novel Lost Horizon (1933) Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, somewhere in the mountains of southeast Asia - an earthly paradise isolated from the outside world whose perpetually happy inhabitants are virtually immortal. It is a timeless place where ancient houses have witnessed the passing of many generations…
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…where a farmer still has time to tend his only cow…
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… and an aging mandarin-seller time to smile for the camera…
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Our Shangri-La is a place that had changed little since Marco Polo’s voyages to China in the 13th century, until the tourists came…
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We thought that in finding Shangri-La we would be far from the maddening crowd, but today’s Shangri-La is overrun with busloads of happy holidaymakers all wanting to raft down the river on one of the thousands of bamboo fishing rafts. And the ancient stone cottages are turning into multi-story villas, guesthouses and boutique hotels overnight…
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The rice paddies and citrus groves are rapidly shrinking under the onslaught of development, so if you want to help preserve rural Shangri-La before it sinks under the weight of tourists the best you can do is to buy their kumquats and mandarins this Christmas…
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P.S. Hi to Canuck teachers Deborah and Lori who braved the rapids on a bamboo raft along with their colleagues from the International School in XiaMen.

Posted by Hawkson 05:10 Archived in China Comments (3)

Night at the Museum

semi-overcast 13 °C

We have left the coast to visit one of China’s most popular tourist spots – the lakeside city of Guilin – and were a little surprised when the airport taxi dropped us at the doors of the museum instead of a hotel, but as we have yet to meet a Chinese cabbie who speaks English we just assumed he'd screwed up...
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There was no point arguing, so we paid him off and decided that the museum staff would guide us in the right direction - and they did: straight past the Han dynasty terracotta horse (circa 200 AD)....
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Up the stairs past the collection of 16th century Ming vases...
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along the corridor filled with 17th century furnishings...
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to a room on the second floor - our bedroom. Yes, dear blog reader, we are spending the night in a museum. Fortunately the bed is modern, although like most Chinese beds it's about as comfortable as a medieval torture rack. Historically the Chinese slept on a kang bed stove, the flat roof of a clay oven, or on bamboo matting on the ground, so they have no sympathy with us Western softies. However, the rock hard bed in the museum fits the surroundings, and the receptionists cum docents are so friendly and obliging that we won’t complain. The city of Guilin has been a “must see” city for centuries because it is nestled among a forest of photogenic karst mountain peaks and has picturesque bridges straddling the river Li and associated lakes…
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But it also has hordes of tourists. It’s the end of November, damp and quite chilly in the mountains, and we cannot imagine what this place is like in the summer.
Gastronomically, Guilin is noted for its delicious dog dinners, (and we are not talking about hotdogs here). It is said that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs apart from the tables and chairs and after some of the things we’ve seen on the menus we’re beginning to concur. However, nothing could have prepared us for what we found in Xiamen before flying to Guilin. We were looking for a loo and we followed these signs up the escalator in a trendy shopping mall…
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Although all of the toilets we’ve become acquainted with in China have been clean they’ve not all been Western, and James was a little disconcerted in Beijing when he went into a Gents and found three men squatting in doorless cubicles while unconcernedly chatting on their Iphones. So the idea of a modern toilet was particularly appealing – especially as we recently encountered some snazzy Japanese style ones with built-in bidets. But what a disappointment. While most restaurants in China don’t have toilets, we never expected to find a toilet that had a restaurant…
This is it! The ultimate in modern toilets with padded toilet seats for fifty…
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Mood lighting provided by illuminated urinals…
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And a menu full of “interesting” brown and yellow items…
Purely for the purposes of providing you with a comprehensive view of Chinese life we had the chocolate ice-cream sundae served in a mini squat toilet…
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It looked disgusting – but we closed our eyes and ate it. So now we have not only had a night in a museum,we’ve also had tea in a toilet.

Posted by Hawkson 19:20 Archived in China Comments (5)

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