Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting To Taiwan The Slow Way

My dream is to be able to complete my trip, travelling round the world, without needing to resort to flying. It will be difficult to accomplish, and almost certainly be more expensive and take longer than if flying, but I feel that airplanes have somehow trivialised distances so that we no longer really appreciate how far away places are. And when travelling by plane from point A to point B you do not see what is between them, how the land changes, how cultures, traditions and people connect the two. Furthermore flying is also the most polluting form of transport (per kilometre travelled) out there. (And in one of the world's ironies/hypocrisies, it is also the form of transport that is taxed the least, thereby benefitting the most affluent as well as the most profligate polluters.) The dream may not work out, but I will certainly try.

The fearsome Taiwanese army, ready to fight off any invasion from Commie China ... OK, maybe not. But they did help me cut my way through the bureaucracy of buying a SIM card in a 7-Eleven on Matsu.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Big Trouble In Little China

Over the course of this and previous trips I have spent about four and a half months in China. A long time perhaps for a single country, but not that long when you consider its size, history, and the fact that it is home to one sixth of the world's population. In my time there I have mastered the use of chopsticks (well, perhaps not mastered, but I certainly won't go hungry), picked up a smattering of Mandarin, speaking as well as reading, developed a liking for red bean ice-cream (and red beans in general) and learnt a good deal about it. I now feel pretty comfortable travelling in China, which has a surprisingly comprehensive rail and bus network, finding accommodation, buying food and generally being a tourist. I can even ask some basic questions, although I will rarely understand the replies unless they are accompanied by hand gestures. I have come to really enjoy the (street) food and find it hard to let a day go by without satisfying my hunger for baozi. All in all my impression of China is very positive, yet there are some things that grate on me and (I feel) are intricately linked together.

In China's breakneck growth many have seen their quality of life vastly improve, but there are also many that have been left behind.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hidden Stories Of Fujian

One of the things I love doing when travelling is finding little-known, obscure vestiges of history. Places that hark to a past that is not talked about, forgotten or, better yet, actively suppressed. I'm not really sure why, perhaps out of a desire to witness a truth that is being denied and thereby keeping it alive, or perhaps to satisfy my own curiosity about disputed pasts and to make up my own mind. Whatever the reason I am drawn to the forgotten stories, even though there is often little there to actually see. Some examples include the multitude of Armenian remains scattered throughout Turkey, many of which were actively destroyed, damaged or converted by successive regimes to deny, or at least reduce, a historical Armenian presence; or Palestinian towns within Israel that have been removed for the same reasons; Jewish remains within the Middle East or the Pale of Settlement where there had been communities for centuries but no longer today; or Communist-era follies in eastern Europe.

The Great Helmsman has a lot to answer for. The omnipresent cult of personality is gone, as is his Little Red Book (which is surprisingly difficult to come by in China, although, oddly enough, pretty easy in Hong Kong), though a number of statues still remain. This one in Fuzhou is one of the most conspicuous.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The War For Drugs (And Tea)

Today's post is a little different from my usual ones. It's not about my travels as such (and there are no photos), but instead is about a piece of history that I have learnt whilst travelling that I didn't know and thought it important to share.

Although the most important factor making Hong Kong such a stress-free destination is the fact that most people speak English to some degree, and many often well, thanks to Hong Kong's past as a British colony. Many people like to pin all the world's ills on colonialism and its legacy, whereas I believe that is too easy a cop-out. Colonialism was often racist, mercenary and exploitative, but it also helped less developed societies to leap forward. Hong Kong would probably be the poster child for positive colonialism: a rich, dynamic and open society that is now ploughing its own furrow. Of course, what is often forgotten, is just how Britain came to possess Hong Kong and how China opened itself up to the outside world. That little episode in history is known as the Opium Wars, and is one of the darkest passages in Britain's history, and one that gets very little air-time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bright Lights And Big Bets

At the mouth of the Pearl River, on either side of the estuary, lie Macau and Hong Kong, former colonies of Portugal and Great Britain respectively. And although they were returned to China (in 1997 in the case of Hong Kong and 1999 for Macau) they still remain administratively and politically separate from mainland China under the "one country two systems" policy and are classified as Special Administrative Regions. They are free of the all-pervasive Chinese censorship; travelling abroad is far easier; they tend to speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin; and use traditional Chinese characters to write rather than simplified characters. In fact in some ways they are more Chinese than their mainland brothers as they have retained some traditions that were purged during the tumultuous years of Mao's China. The ex-colonies are also easier to visit for foreigners than for ordinary Chinese who need a special permit to visit the SARs.

A small shrine outside a shop where incense is burnt and often a food offering (e.g. an apple or an orange) is left is a common sight in Macau and Hong Kong, but almost extinct in mainland China.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Where Can I Buy 4000 Pairs Of Shoes?

I finally made it to Guangdong province on China's southern coast. The palm trees are here, as are the bananas, but the warm balmy weather is still eluding me. The name Guangdong may sound unfamiliar to Western ears, as it is more commonly known as Canton. During the 18th and 19th centuries when the Western powers were expanding their influence around the world their main point of contact with the Middle Kingdom was through the various ports in the province, particularly Guangzhou (which was also, confusingly, named Canton). This is the Chinese region that has had the greatest contact with the outside world and has always been more open to foreign influences, which is easily evident both in its people and its places.

A poignant reminder of China's bygone openness to the world. This minaret stands in the grounds of a mosque in Guangzhou, built in the 7th century AD, and therefore one of the oldest mosques in the world. There is still a significant Muslim population throughout China that traces its history back t those early days.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Chinese Landscapes

I remember, as a child, seeing traditional Chinese landscape paintings. I remember thinking to myself that they didn't look real: they were permanently misty and the mountains looked like caricatures, sort of ideal mountains that a child would draw, but far more "mountainy" than any real mountain. They didn't look like anything I had ever seen in Europe and so I simply dismissed them as fantastical make-believe landscapes ... how wrong I was.

Yangshuo's iconic karst scenery and idyllic rivers make it one of China's most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason.