There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Staffordshire, Quebec and Kunming: Coping with a Cold Snap

Snow on the roofs of North Staffs
I went swimming yesterday morning, as is my thrice-weekly wont. Driving home about eight o’clock, I glanced at the thermometer and saw it registered -6°. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that’s cold.’

Why the extreme cold had not registered as I walked from house to garage, or to and from the doors of the leisure centre, I do not know – maybe it was too early in the morning to notice anything. It certainly registered on the walk from the car back to the front door, all five freezing paces of it.

But I was being a wuss. In February 1998 I went skiing in Quebec. Watching breakfast television one morning, I heard the newsreader say: ‘It’s going to be a mild one today, with a top temperature of –7.’ Yesterday’s top temperature was a balmy +2, but I was still shivering.

Several weeks ago I was complaining about the cold in Kunming, when the temperature was - only just - in double figures. Perhaps I was justified, nowhere in Kunming - with the merciful exception of our hotel room - had any heating and the cold and damp seemed to seep into your bones.

A dusting of snow on Dandly Acres

This morning I woke up to a clear pale blue sky and a light dusting of snow. The rest of the country had snow yesterday, and along with it came the predictable chaos. Equally predictable was the moaning about how it is only in Britain that a little snow brings everything to a halt and how everywhere else deals with it so much better. Canada is always held up as the example, and indeed they cope with snow admirably – but then, it lies around for months on end, so they have to. This is the our first November snow for over twenty years; most years snow lies on the ground for two or three days in January or February, sometimes there is none at all. If Staffordshire spent the same money on snow shifting as Quebec, there would be letters in the local press moaning about expensive equipment sitting idle for 360 days a year. They would probably be from the same people who moan about the current situation.

We had a conversation with Wang about snow in Kunming, which is as frequent as snow here. ‘It’s chaos,’ he said, ‘the schools close, the buses slide off the road, everything grinds to a halt.’ The only difference between here and there is that the Kunming authorities do not have to put up with carping and ignorant criticism in the local press. Indeed, they do not have to put up with criticism at all. ‘The price of freedom,’ said Thomas Jefferson, ‘is eternal vigilance.’ It is also eternal moaning, but he never mentioned that.

Back to Quebec for a final thought. That week in 1998 eventually became so mild it rained. Not proper rain, but the sort of drizzle that might make you think about putting up an umbrella. What happened? The schools were closed, there was traffic chaos and the fire brigade had a backlog of cellars to pump out that would keep them busy until the thaw.

The observation that there ‘is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes,’ has been ascribed to Roald Amundsen, Billy Connolly and Dr Johnson, among others. I prefer Dr Johnson because he was earlier – and Staffordshire born – but whoever said it, it seems they were right, both literally and in a much larger sense.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Macau: Part 10 of China's Far Southwest

Surely it should be tarmac,
the view from inside the Kowloon Ferry Terminal
Hong Kong's Kowloon China Ferry Terminal is more like a cross between an office block and an airport than a ferry terminal. The entry off Canton Road gives no clue that water is anywhere near. The entrance hall is empty except for a bank of lifts. One floor up, in a small shopping mall, a ticket office hides in an unobtrusive corner. Following signs to the ferries brings you to a series of check-in desks where tickets are scanned, seats assigned and boarding cards handed out. Once through, you queue to have your passport stamped before following the signs to an airline-style gate. The first glimpse of water through the window is unsettling; surely it should be tarmac.

The enclosed cabin of the supercat is considerably more spacious than a plane, and if they don’t move quite as fast, they are still quick enough to cover the 70 km across the Pearl River Estuary to Macau in just over an hour.

Macau claims to have been the first and last European colony in China. A permanent Portuguese settlement was established in 1557 and governed by a Portuguese senate from 1583, though under nominal Chinese authority. However, it was not until 1887 – 45 years after the British gained sovereignty over Hong Kong - that the Chinese ceded the right of "perpetual occupation and government of Macau by Portugal". Unpopular colonial wars helped bring down the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, and the new democratic Portugal was happy to allow Chinese influence to grow in Macau. The colony was formally handed back in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong it is governed under ‘one country, two sytems’, has its own border formalities and its own currency, the Pataca. 1 Pataca is worth much the same as a Hong Kong Dollar and even the tiniest business is happy to take payment in HK$ and give change in whatever currency comes to hand.

Probably named for the same Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, worshipped in Hong Kong’s many Tin Hau Temples, Macau consists of three islands, joined by bridges or causeways. On a day trip we confined ourselves to the northernmost island, Macau itself - though it is not quite a island being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.

....a volcano and a desert fort,

The main business of Macau is gambling and the casinos were the destination of many, if not most, of our fellow travellers. The ferry passed under the Friendship Bridge linking Macau with Taipa and then, just to emphasis that Macau is spiritually twinned with Las Vegas, the brief run to the dock passed ersatz Dutch houses, the Colosseum, an Egyptian temple,  a volcano and a desert fort .

We had intended taking a taxi the couple of kilometres into the centre, but outside the terminal we encountered a row of free shuttle buses operated by the various casinos. As we were aiming for the New Lisboa Hotel, we boarded their bus and ten minutes later were disgorged into the bowels of the earth below the slightly tacky gilded splendour of the enormous hotel/casino complex.

The Old Lisboa, smaller and more
understated than the New Lisboa

I have to admit that both Lynne and I have a problem with gambling, not a ‘gambling problem’ but a difficulty with the basic concept. We just don’t get it. Although I live a pure and blameless life – of course -  I can vaguely comprehend the attraction of most forms of vice and wickedness, but gambling is simply beyond me. We have been to Las Vegas, but we just drove through lamenting the waste of a beautiful desert. I have never been inside a betting shop nor, until I dutifully trooped off the shuttle bus and followed the crowd through the doors that opened before us, had I been in a casino. I suppose I should have been curious, should have stayed to watch, maybe tried to understand the attraction, even had a flutter. We stayed in the casino as long as it took to find the escalator to the hotel lobby.

We emerged at the Eastern end of the Avenida do Infante Don Henrique, Macau’s main drag. Despite its name the Avenida does not look Portuguese, it is not quite like Hong Kong either, but it is a lot more like Hong Kong than Lisbon; tall buildings, a mass of Chinese faces and traffic that drives on the left. Given Britain’s century-long ownership of Hong Kong, driving on the left might be expected there, but in Macau it is harder to explain.

Street signs are in Chinese, Portuguese and English and after walking some way up the Avenida we turned right towards the , the cathedral. Once in the back streets it did feel a little Portuguese, the balconied houses might just have been in the Bairro Alta district of Lisbon. The Cathedral itself, a restored mid-nineteenth century edifice on an older foundation, is uncharacteristically plain. Portuguese as Asia can be....,
Largo do Senado, Macau
Continuing through the back streets we found the church of São Domingo, a seventeenth century Baroque building painted just the right shade of Portuguese yellow. From the church the arcaded Largo do Senado led back to the main road and the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) building. The pedestrianised largo has the same small cubical cobbles set out in the same sort of design as can be found in any pedestrianised square in Portugal. We even found an exact copy of the famed squid that adorns the Roman bathhouse in Milreu in the Algarve. Accepting that Chinese crowds are not quite like Portuguese crowds, and that something in the atmosphere says that you are unmistakeably on the edge of the tropics, Largo do Senado is as Portuguese as Asia can be.

We wandered on through the rather disappointing market, by now looking for somewhere to eat. Macau boasts some of the best Portuguese restaurants outside Portugal, but as regular visitors to the real thing that did not attract us. There is, reputedly, a Macanese fusion cuisine which we had hoped to stumble across, but all we found were a few hole in the wall restaurants which were either impossibly packed or uninvitingly empty.

Beyond the market the Avenida do Infante D Henrique becomes the Avenida de  Almeida Ribero, but both parts of the road are too busy with designer goods to bother with food.  In a small square south of Almeida Ribeiro we came across the interestingly named ‘God of Money’ restaurant. The menu was basic Cantonese – but there is nothing wrong with that.

We chose some deep fried cuttlefish and, at the management’s suggestion, sweet and sour pork.  This somewhat surprising combination worked remarkably well, the pork being a more cultured relative of the garish sweet and sour dishes available in every Chinese restaurant in England. Given the helpful attitude of the management, the quality of the food and number of diners, the God of Money may well be smiling on them. I could have ordered the cuttlefish in Portuguese, though sadly not in Cantonese, but that was unnecessary. The default non-Chinese language, written on the menu and spoken by the staff, was English.

Well fed, we crossed back over the road. Crossings in Hong Kong are controlled by lights. Nobody moves when the little man is red and and the crossing ticks portentously as if counting off the seconds to Armageddon. Then the man turns white, the ticking speeds up and everybody obediently scurries across. Macau, though, has zebra crossings. In mainland China, drivers regard the stripes as decorations on the road.  British and Portuguese drivers generally observe them properly but in Macau a pedestrain only has to think about crossing and twitch a muscle in that direction to bring the traffic screeching to a halt.

We joined in
Façade of the church of São Paulo, Macau

Half a kilometre north of  Almeida Ribeiro a set of steps leads up to the church of São Paulo. Begun in 1602, the façade at the top of the steps took twenty-five years to finish. Being designed by a Spaniard in an Italian style and built by Japanese craftsmen it could have been a disaster, but it is actually magnificent.  A dove at the top symbolising the Holy Spirit is flanked by the sun and moon. In the second tier Jesus stands among the implements of crucifixion and below this The Virgin Mary and angels are surrounded by a peony, representing China, a chysanthemum (Japan) a griffin and a rigged galleon (Portugal). Four Jesuit saints make up the lowest tier. The façade is the image of Macau, reproduced everywhere on shopping bags and t-shirts, and the steps swarm with the tourists of several continents all jockeying for the best position to photograph each other in front of the stonework. We joined in.

The church behind was beautiful, too, more beautiful than ‘all the churches of Italy, except St Peter’s’ as one 1630 visitor wrote. We must take his word for it as the church burned down in 1835. The floor plan is preserved, as is the crypt which contains some relics, church regalia and a rather disturbing painting of the crucifixion of  23 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597.

..the golden tailfeathers of the New Lisboa Hotel... 

More steps take you up to the Fortaleza do Monte where stunning views across Macau are dominated, at least to the South, by the golden tailfeathers surmounting the New Lisboa Hotel. The fort saw action once, driving off a Dutch attack in 1622, but today houses the Museum of Macau.

It is difficult to trace British influence in any existing architecture in Hong Kong. With the exception of the Murray House, relocated to Stanley from Central, there appears to be little interest in preserving old builings – knock it down and rebuild it bigger and shinier is the Hong Kong way. Despite that Hong Kong retains a distinctly British air. It is not just the use of English as one of the official languages, nor the driving on the left, there is an atmosphere, a way of doing things which makes the place feel like an, admitedly far distant, out-post of home. Central Macau, by contrast, retains a large area that looks exactly like a sub-tropical Portugal, but that is where it stops. The Portuguese language survives in signs and street names, but we heard no one speak Portuguese; we could discern no surviving Portuguese feel to the place.

Back down in the streets below São Paulo the main business was the manufacture and selling of flat sheets of what seemed to be pounded meat. We had ignored this on the way up, being full of cuttlefish and pork, but took a closer look now. Outside several shops girls were slicing off samples for passers-by. I am not convinced that the old-fashioned term ‘sweetmeats’ ever referred to food containing meat, but sweet meat was exactly what we found ourselves nibbling. Taking the sugar out and replacing it with garlic would have produced a decent salami – and I, for one, would have preferred it.
...the image of Macau, reproduced
everywhere on shopping bags...

Deciding that sugary meat products were not for us we found a coffee shop and ordered cappuccinos and a couple of Pastais de Nata, as they are called in Portuguese, though the menu called them custard tarts. The Macanese are very proud of their custard tarts and we are very fond of Pastais de Nata, indeed morning coffee in Portugal is not complete without one. The custard tarts were perfectly acceptable but, in all fairness, there are several hundred bakers in the Algarve who daily produce lighter, crisper pastry and sweeter, richer custard cream.

We returned to the New Lisboa Hotel hoping to take their shuttle back to the ferry port, but soon discovered a receipt for gambling chips was necessary for a free return ride. There was nothing for it, we either had to lose our gambling virginity or take a taxi. We took a taxi.

The warm November day had become increasingly breezy and by the time we reached the port the sea was distinctly choppy. The supercats, so swift and sure-footed in calm water, do not like waves. They leap from one crest to the next like a drunken kangaroo that is reluctant to get its feet wet. Our return to Hong Kong was less comfortable and considerably longer than our outward journey, and do you want to know about the length of the queues in Hong Kong passport control? Probably not.

In a day we did the tourist ‘must-sees’ but hardly scratched the surface of the real Macau. One day, we will have to go back.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hong Kong: Part 9 of China's Far South West

This was our third visit to Hong Kong, but the first as the postscript to a mainland trip rather than a prelude. Hong Kong has been part of China for over a decade, but they are one country in theory only. Hong Kong people are larger, better dressed and have more confident body language. Unlike any mainland paper, the South China Daily engages in debate and open criticism of the government. Less positively, our room in a Kowloon budget hotel did not just seem small compared with the spacious accommodation we had become used to, it really was miniscule and the window commanded a fine view of next door’s wall. On the other hand, it was clean, had all the necessary offices and the softest bed we had encountered for weeks.

Central, Hong Kong

With four days to reacquaint ourselves with old favourites and find some new ones, we started with our first ever trip to the south side of Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong public transport was, as ever, quick, clean and efficient. The MTR whisked us from Yau Ma Tei under the harbour to Central, a short walk took us to the bus station, and very soon we were climbing through the Wong Nai Chung Gap. The gap is hardly a mountain pass, Victoria Peak is a mere 500m high, but it is the easiest route over the island’s formidable rocky spine. Hong Kong Island is small, so we were quickly at the top of the gap looking down on the south coast and the South China Sea sparkling in the sun. On the top of a double-decker, on the left hand side of a narrow road approaching a mini-roundabout, we could almost have been in England, but for the subtropical vegetation.

Looking back from the Wong Nai Chung Gap

We reached the coast at Repulse Bay, probably named for HMS Repulse which helped free the area from pirates in the 19th century.  It is a resort with a fine sandy beach, though the Repulse Bay Hotel, once a rival to the Peninsula and a British command centre during the Battle of Hong, was demolished in the 1980s. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on the 8th of December 1941, some eight hours after the assault on Pearl Harbor. Vastly outnumbering the British and Canadian defenders, they landed on the north coast of Hong Kong Island on the 18th and fought their way through the Wong Nai Chung Gap and down to Repulse Bay on the 19th. The defending forces eventually surrendered on Christmas Day 1941.

From Repulse Bay the bus followed the coast eastwards to Stanley which sits at the base of a small peninsula. Alexander the Great rampaged round the then known world for eleven years and founded a dozen ‘Alexandrias’ from Egypt to Tajikistan. Lord Stanley, British Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1830s and 40s (and later Prime Minister), did no personal rampaging, but still gave his name to a county in Queensland, a town in Tasmania, the capital of the Falkland Islands and the Stanley we were arriving at.

Instead of alighting at the market we continued to the terminus at Stanley Prison, hoping to find a short cut through to the military cemetery. From 1942 until the Japanese surrender, Stanley Prison was a particularly grim civilian internment camp. It is now a maximum-security prison, and although today’s conditions are, I hope, more humane I would still rather be outside than in.

Looking across Stanley Bay to Chung Hom Kok
We had made a misjudgement and walked most of the way back to Stanley before finding a road down the west side of the peninsula to the cemetery. Built on sloping ground above St Stephen’s beach, it was the burial ground for the British Garrison from 1841 to 1866. Deaths were often the result of disease rather than enemy action, and there are many graves of the soldiers’ wives and children.

After 1866 the cemetery lay unused until the Second World War. Stanley was the last town to fall and the cemetery was itself the scene of fighting. Twelve Canadian soldiers are buried in the graveyard where they fell, though most of Hong Kong’s military casualties are interred at Sai Wan on the island’s northeast corner. The majority of graves are of civilians, many of whom died in Stanley Internment Camp. Among the British and Canadian dead are many local Chinese who died alongside them, a number of Indian soldiers serving the crown, and representatives from many other nations.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Like every Commonwealth War Cemetery we have visited, in France, North Africa and the Far East, it is an immaculately kept haven of peace.

Stanley Military Cemetery
Beaches apart, Stanley’s main attraction is its market which fills the streets between the beach and the bus station. It sells clothes, jewellery, electronics and just about anything else you can think of. It was fairly quiet and many of the visitors were from cruise ships, each wearing a badge with the name of the ship and the number of the bus that had brought them. You need every advantage you can get when haggling with Chinese stallholders, and wearing a big badge saying ‘I’m a sucker’ is not the best gambit.

By the time we had finished with the market it was lunchtime, but the dai pai dong (street food restaurants) promised by our guidebook had gone, dispensed with, like so many others, in the name of tidiness. By the sea front, a line of smart restaurants offered every cuisine under the sun (even including Chinese) at prices that looked eye watering – at least to new arrivals from the mainland. Eventually we found a reasonably priced dim sum place and enjoyed a good meal, including some chickens’ feet, the glories of which I have described before.

Dim Sum in Stanley -
dirty work, but somebody's got to do it
Mazu, goddess of the sea, is widely worshipped in coastal southern China. She is described in Mandarin as ‘Tian Hou’, Empress of Heaven, which in Cantonese becomes ‘Tin Hau’. Tin Hau temples can be found all over Hong Kong but Stanley’s, built in 1767, is older than most. Apart from seeming bigger inside than outside, it is a largely unremarkable building. Beside the door, a tatty tiger skin hangs inside a glass frame. The tiger wandered into Stanley in1942 and was duly shot by an Indian policeman. How the tiger came to be there is not recorded.

Tin Hau Temple, Stanley
The nearby Murray House was moved, stone by stone, when its original site in Central was redeveloped. They must have had a reason, but it was not obvious.

A walk up through a housing estate brought us to the Kwun Yum Temple. Once we had located the entrance it was not hard to find the six metre high statue of the goddess of mercy looking out over the bay - just look for the scaffolding. Not much was happening there, but the gardens were luxuriant and peaceful.

Kwun Yum in her scaffolding, Stanley
We caught a bus back through Repulse Bay, across the landward end of the Ocean Park Peninsula, home to a substantial theme park, and on to Aberdeen.

I was looking forward to visiting Aberdeen, having heard as a child about the floating restaurants and the people who live on boats in the harbour. I was prepared to be met by swarms of touts offering sampan rides and I had composed my mind into its best haggling condition. There was almost no one there. One man offered a sampan ride to the floating restaurants – which are not visible from the harbour – but in mid-afternoon it was an understandably half-hearted offer. We walked the length of the promenade, looked a the fishing boats in the harbour, which was mildly diverting, looked up at the high rise buildings, found the bus station and left. Maybe we were in the wrong place, or maybe Aberdeen harbour has been tidied up and the residents of the floating village transported to the high rises; that would be the Hong Kong way.

Aberdeen Harbour
The Aberdeen tunnel is a quicker, if less scenic, north-south route and we were back in Wan Chai in time for the rush hour.

Back to Central, Hong Kong
We dined that night at the ‘Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar’ a dai pai dong we have visited before and thankfully still exists. There are few things finer than Woo Sung Street clams in black bean sauce.

There a few things finer than clams in black bean sauce,
Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar
The following day’s visit to Macau deserved a post of its own (click here).

The day after, we took the Star Ferry across the harbour. In a deeply unsentimental city where nothing survives if it does not prove its worth daily, the continued existence of the Star Ferries is a minor miracle. Crossing Hong Kong harbour is one of the world’s great short journeys and at HK$2.40 (20p) one of the cheapest. The boats, with a bow at each end so they never have to turn, run every few minutes and the whole trip is over in ten. One disappointing concession to modernity is that some boats are no longer painted the traditional sludge green, but are decked out in their sponsor’s livery.

The island terminal had moved onto newly reclaimed land since our last visit, making the journey fifty metres shorter and meaning it is now a very brief walk to the outlying islands ferry piers.

Ignoring the supercats, we took the slow boat to Chung Chau. Chung Chau is a small, dumbbell shaped island a leisurely fifty minutes cruise away. It is densely populated, though without high rises, but its size means it is car free. There is little to see; a Tin Hau temple, some rock carvings (three thousand years old and rather indistinct), and an impressive Banyan tree in the town centre with a grisly past (it was used as a gallows by the Japanese occupiers).

Ancient rock carvings, Chung Chau

The main attraction for us, and many others that Saturday morning, was the row of seafood restaurants stretching along the side of the harbour. We walked slowly along the row being accosted by the various proprietors and having menus thrust into our hands. They were all much the same and it was less a matter of choosing a restaurant as locating the last unoccupied table in the whole of Chung Chau.

the row of seafood restaurants stretching
 along the harbour, Chung Chau

We ordered a steamed brown spotted grouper and a dish of lightly fried scallops with celery. The scallops were as soft and flavoursome as we could have wished, the large grouper lay in a pool of soy-based sauce, his baleful eye defying us to eat him. We did defy him, and delicious he was too.

All around us, Chinese families were out for Saturday lunch. Teenagers and younger children sat with their parents and, very often, grandparents, eating in civilized family groups. And they were not being fobbed off with chicken nuggets or burgers, they were eating proper food. I thought we had something to learn from that.

Dried fish stall, Chung Chau
Seafood restaurants are as attractive to cats as to humans and from our table by the harbour wall we could see several patrolling the shore, eager for a scrap or two to be thrown their way. One cat was stalking an egret. Its belly close to the ground, its gaze focussed and its head totally still, it crept forward as only a hunting cat can creep. It seemed unperturbed by being only half the size of the egret, or by the two metres of open water between the shore and the buoy where the bird perched. The egret took lazily to the air, thwarting the hunter’s lofty, if impracticable ambition. The cat raised his tail and sauntered off pretending, as cats do, that it had been what he was planning all along.

After an equally leisurely trip back, dusk found us in the Sheraton Skylounge, 26 stories up on the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. The big windows are designed to give the best possible view of the world’s finest free show, the lighting up of Hong Kong. The show might be free, but you need a drink to justify occupying their chairs. The £8 spent on Lynne’s Singapore Sling would have bought dinner for two (with beer and change) in Guilin while I found the price of a Dry Martini had escalated since our last visit. I settled for a frozen Gintini at the same price as the Singapore Sling. It was, I discovered, a gin slush puppy, though in a cocktail glass not a plastic tube. I rather liked it.

The lights come on, Hong Kong Island after dusk from the Sheraton Sky Loung

The next morning, our last day in Hong Kong, we took the MTR north to Diamond Hill where a short and well-signed walk took us to the Nan Lian (Western Lotus Pool) Gardens.

Having walked under a flyover from the Hollywood Plaza shopping mall, the peaceful atmosphere of the gardens came almost as a jolt. Small paths wound through a formal Chinese garden of precisely clipped trees and shrubs, opening up views of wooden pavilions and shimmering carp pools. One pavilion contained a display of exquisite models of Chinese traditional buildings, while another housed a zen rock garden. Looking up from the calm order of Nan Lian to the towering apartments blocks on the hill opposite gave a extraordinary feeling of cultural dislocation. Even stranger was the thought that before the apartments blocks were built in the 1980s we would have been looking at a poverty-stricken shantytown.

Nan Lian Gardens

Across a rustic bridge – actually spanning a busy road - we entered the garden of the Chi Lin nunnery where gravel paths form a grid around a series carp ponds festooned with water lilies. The nunnery was founded in1936 although the current building dates only from 1990. It is a traditional building in the Tang (10th century) style, its wooden beams held together without the use of metal nails. We walked clockwise, as one should, around the temples area, which houses statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, Guanyin and other bodhisattvas. It was not the first Buddhist temple of our trip, but it was by far the youngest, and convincing evidence that the Chinese genius for creating oases of serenity amid the frenetic bustle of daily life remains undiminished. A big ‘thank you’ to Brian and Hilary who know Hong Kong so much better than we do and recommended this place. Further thanks for the loan of their oyster cards, which made getting on and off trains, boats and buses so quick and simple.

Chi Lin Nunnery
Returning to Yau Ma Tei, we ate lunch before wandering through the jade market. We had an introduction to jade in Hotan in 2008. Offered jade in the street Khalil, our guide, could easily distinguish between mountain jade and the more highly prized river jade. Later, fossicking in the river, he lobbed a couple of apparently promising stones back into the water saying they were just green pebbles. Bewildered by jade, and slightly in awe of it, I would be frightened of buying anything in the market – I am convinced I would leave with an extremely expensive piece of green plastic.

Jade market, Yau Ma Tei
I felt less out of my depth in the vegetable market, though I had never realised the world held such a huge variety of root vegetables. We finished the afternoon joining the crowds for a Sunday afternoon promenade in Kowloon Park’ strolling through the gardens, watching the birds in the aviary and listening to the open-air concert.

Tofu, Yau Ma Tei market
In the evening we returned to the Woo Sung Street dai pai dong. The weather had warmed steadily since we had shivered in Kunming three weeks before. November in sub-tropical Hong Kong meant sitting comfortably outside at nine o’clock in short sleeves. We ate deep fried squid and an unspecified fish in black bean sauce - it was almost as good as the clams. I hope we will return to Hong Kong before too long, and when we do, the Woo Sung Street Temporary Hawkers Food Bazaar has not been replaced by tidy but soulless modernity[Update November 2017: I am delighted to say it is still going strong].

Music in Kowloon Park
The next day we had breakfast in Hong Kong and dinner in Staffordshire.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guilin and the Li River: Part 8 of China's Far Southwest

We reached Guilin in time for lunch, which we took in the huge dining room of an international hotel, empty except for us and a German tour party. The food was good, if unexceptional, and clearly aimed at an international market – judging by the signs throughout the hotel lobby, a German speaking market.

After lunch, with no specific visits scheduled we expected Liu to go home, but she had other ideas. She clearly believed either that we should be continuously occupied to avoid getting into mischief, or we needed our hands holding in the street. We thanked her for the offer, explained our desire to explore on our own and gently shooed her away.

‘Gui lin’ means ‘Osmanthus Forest’. The city is not exactly a forest, it is a city, but trees line the roads and spread across pockets of landscaped garden so that the Osmanthus’ strong perfume often fills the air. It is also a remarkably clean city with wide avenues, white buildings that sparkle in the sun, and shops and restaurants looking spick and span.

Beside Rong Hu

We walked through the centre and down to the small lakes that are the remains of Guilin’s Ming dynasty moat. We strolled beside Rong Hu (Banyan Lake) to the old tangled tree that gives it its name and then across a causeway with several right angled turns (because demons cannot do right angles) to a small island. It was, I thought, the place I would put a teahouse - if I had one.

Sure enough, there was a traditional teahouse with a small terrace over the lake. It was peaceful and quiet - mainly because it was too expensive for most locals. You can pay what you like for tea in China, from next to nothing to prices similar to Chateau Lafitte, but next to nothing is not an option in an elegant teahouse. We settled for a pot of Guilin Rock Tea, and one of Guilin Mao Jian, which were both obviously local and relatively cheap (about £3 each).

It is relaxing to sit in the shade on a warm day beside a lake listening to a girl tinkling on a Zhan – a sort of outsized zither. Hot water was always available for a top up and it was easy to stay for an hour or more.The Chinese have a genius for creating areas of calm in the midst of bustling cities, and the peace was only mildly ruffled when Lynne’s expansive gesture sent her tiny teacup crashing onto the tiled floor.   Our bill was 75 Yuan (including 10 for the broken cup), which was 5 more than we would pay for our dinner that night.

The Sun and Moon Pagodas, Shan Hu

Guilin is a main tourist centre, and that evening we joined Liu and a couple of tour groups on a boat trip through the lake system. Starting opposite the rebuilt Sun and Moon pagodas where the lakes meets the Li River, we progressed clockwise through Shan Hu and Rong Hu, past ‘our’ teahouse, under a Chinese arch and then through a series of neon lit bridges representing the nations of the world. We passed under the Golden Gate, The Tiber Bridge and the Arc de Triomphe (strangely relocated to a bridge). The British contribution was, somewhat surprisingly, the Ironbridge iron bridge. Despite its historical importance, it does not have quite the status of the others, and maybe we were the only people on the boat who recognised it.

The fisherman helped the cormorant regurgitate his catch

Cormorant fishing has been practised on the Li River since antiquity although it is now largely, if not entirely, an exhibition for tourists. Beyond the bridges we halted while a man punted his bamboo raft towards us. Two bright lights were mounted on the bow and a line of cormorants stood behind them awaiting instructions. Given the nod, one dived into the lake and quickly located a fish. The bird was entirely free and could have made off with his prize, though the cord round his neck would have prevented him from swallowing it. Returning to the boat, he hopped onto the offered punt pole and was deposited on the deck, which floated at, or a little below, water level. The fisherman helped the cormorant regurgitate his catch and the bird happily set off to do it again. And again, and again. The lake appeared well stocked with fish.

Leaving them to entertain the next boat, we moved on, stopping at prearranged points where a floodlight would appear and illuminate some musicians, a dance or a scene from an opera. It was like Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World After All’ only with real people.

As we headed back, a man produced a two-string fiddle and placed it upright on his knee. The quavering sounds were essentially Chinese, but he played an incongruous selection of Scottish airs, finishing, inevitably, with Auld Lang Syne.

Li River convoy
Next morning we set off for our Li River Cruise. The dock, once in the city centre, has been moved 10 kilometres south and we duly followed the approved migration route of the Guilin tourist. Our boat was full, some 80 or so passengers, slightly more Chinese than European, and was one of half a dozen making the four hour journey downstream to Yangshuo in convoy.

The Li River is neither very wide nor, in places, very deep. Despite their amazingly shallow draft, the cruise boats are big and it requires knowledge and experience to pick out a navigable channel.

The fabulously improbable karst mountains

We had a seat in the upper cabin, but, like many others, spent much of the time on the open deck watching the fabulously improbable karst mountains drift by. A group of guides sat inside and chatted, whilst Liu read a large book on Feng Shui – they must do this trip many times. More surprisingly, two groups of Chinese tourists drew the curtains and played cards.

Despite a slight haziness, the views were memorable and are perhaps better described by photographs, of which we took many, than words.

The Li River

The Li River

Floating salesman

We saw no cormorant fishing - that takes place at dusk - but the distinctive rafts were much in evidence. Once made of bamboo, moulded plastic is now the material of choice, though the traditional shape is still adhered to. With pottery or trinkets standing where the cormorants should be, the owners punted out to the cruise boats, grabbing hold of the lower deck windows and attempting to make sales as they were dragged downstream. At the same time, the boat’s tannoy continually reminded passengers, in English and Mandarin, that they should not buy from water born salesmen. They must have a frustrating life.


We debarked at Yangshuo, a large resort town much favoured by pack-packers and those who cannot, or do not wish to afford the smarter hotels of Guilin. It is a lively place where bicycles can be hired to tour through more of the karst countryside. Decades have passed since either of us rode a bike so we opted for a softies’ trip in a golf buggy. The scenery was still remarkable, but the effort was less.

We gave Liu the next morning off – which should have pleased her but didn’t – and spent our time strolling around town, buying a few presents. The walk down the Li River corniche took us past the old people’s early morning exercise groups. Some were doing Tai Chi, one group’s elaborately choreographed routines involved swords, while others had brought their music and were dancing beneath the Osmanthus trees, ballroom and disco being equally popular. We met several men who each claimed to be an English teacher and whose wife, or sometimes sister, had trained for four years to work in a teahouse, and if we just came along with them….. We declined the invitations.

How grown-ups spend their time in Guilin

We met Liu for lunch and went to a restaurant rather than an international hotel. She wanted to set about ordering, but I could see the menu had pictures and suggested we might like to be consulted. We browsed for a while and I asked about a dish of something brown and dome-shaped. ‘You won’t like that’ said Liu and tried to move on. ‘It is a local speciality, alternate slices of tarot and pork’ she said when I persisted, ‘but the meat is too fatty for you.’ We insisted on ordering it.

While waiting for the food to arrive, Lynne went to the toilet and Liu took the opportunity to ask me a question. ‘Am I an awful guide?’ she asked with a worried expression. I tried to reassure her she was very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English, and we had given her time off because we were quite happy to wander round town, find a teahouse or buy our evening meal on our own. There was nothing wrong with her, it was just that we neither needed, nor wanted constant advice or protection. She seemed to find this a new and difficult idea.

We ate beef with chillies, meat and water chestnut balls with spring onions, leek and cabbage with tofu, a large plate of sweet corn formed into a sort of crisp wafer and, of course, the tarot and fatty pork. It was all top quality but the tarot and pork was particularly memorable, the fat having melted during cooking to leave a rich porky flavour on the tarot which managed to be both crisp and floury at the same time. The sweet corn cake was dangerously moreish as well.

As we ate I asked Liu if her mother was looking after her five year old son. She said he had been in hospital for the last two weeks and she had spent the previous night with him, but he was much better now. We were speechless. She had, it seemed, been fretting about not spending enough time with us when we, albeit inadvertently, had been giving her time off to spend with her sick child.

When we had finished, the owner told us we were the first foreigners to visit his restaurant and he hoped we had enjoyed our meal. We said, truthfully, that it had been a highlight of our trip. We were happy, he was happy and Liu was delighted to find something we really liked. The waitress then added up our bill on an abacus, ignoring the calculator on the counter, which made the mathematician still lurking inside me happy too.

Use of neon in the Reed Flute Caves
Our being the first foreigners to visit the restaurant was, we thought, an indictment of the tourist industry. Corralling their charges in international hotels where they believe they will feel safe, while ignoring much better, and far cheaper, local restaurants seems both short-sighted and lazy.

Leaving the restaurant, we drove a little way out of town to the Reed Flute Caves. The caves have an impressive collection of stalactites ‘n’ ‘mites, some large caverns and several small pools. The neon lighting is bright and garish but strangely effective. It is a show cave, like many throughout the world, but a particularly big one. When Bill Clinton visited Guilin he attended a banquet held in the largest chamber. It must have been an impressive place to eat, but I wondered how warm the food was by the time it got there.

Not departing from the norm

We went on to Seven Star Park, which boasts a vast mural of Chinese history and several climbable karst mountains. There is also a rock shaped like a camel in front of which Bill Clinton made a speech on the environment. Everybody wanted to stand on the spot to have their picture taken, and we saw no reason to depart from the norm.

We filled our remaining time with a visit to the Ming Tearoom. A charming young lady who really had been trained for four years took us through a private tasting of four teas. The Osmanthus flavoured tea was, sadly, not particularly memorable but we finished with a Pu'er. The fragments broken from the compacted block of long matured fermented tea looked like a shards of rotten wood and tasted like liquid wood smoke. Love it or hate it, it cannot be ignored. Foreigners rarely visit this establishment, but Hillary Clinton did, tasting tea while Bill saved the world. We were beginning to feel the Clintons were stalking us.

Serious tea tasting
The rules of airline ticketing meant that having spent two weeks travelling from  Kunming to Guilin we then had to return to Kunming to fly back to Hong Kong. This required an eighteen-hour train journey, mostly in the wrong direction.

Travelling soft sleeper class on Chinese trains is a restful way to see the countryside - if you can actually see it. Darkness fell an hour or two after we left Guilin, and the morning was shrouded in mist.

Our return route was much more southerly, taking us through the industrial city of Liuzhou and the provincial capital of Nanning before turning north for our second visit to Xingyi and then east for a mid-morning arrival in Kunming. This time ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ made an effort to live up to its name. It was a pleasantly warm November day, but sadly we were only there to take a taxi from the station to the airport.

And finally....
Thanks are due to TravelChinaGuide who supplied drivers and guides and made all the land arrangements for the--mainland part of this trip. Their efficiency and their ability to reply to every email within 24 hours regardless of the time of day or week they are received is awe-inspiring.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Ma'an and the Longsheng Rice Terraces: Part 7 of China's Far Southwest

Liu suggested lunch in Sanjiang, but the power was off and anyway a half hour drive to the Dong village of Ma’an promised more interesting fair.

It was quickly clear that Ma’an and its sister villages clustering together to form a small town, would be a different Dong experience. We were no longer in rural Guizhou, but firmly back among the tourists.

The smartest restaurant was full so Liu, rather reluctantly, took us to her second choice. Travelling with Liu was obviously going to be different, too. Dylan entered Miao villages with a sense of belonging and was equally comfortable among the Dong, though our comments about Dong villages’ relative untidiness produced a distinct glow of Miao pride. Liu, a tall, thin, rather prim Han, kept using words like ‘primitive’ and ‘simple’. She regarded the Dong as quaint, if rather grubby, exhibits in a museum, whilst we were porcelain dolls that she must not allow to become dirty or broken.
Drum Tower, Ma'an

If she had fussed around the open kitchen any harder she would have been doing the cooking. Unfamiliar flavours must not be allowed to upset our delicate palates, so she ensured every dish was appropriately bland and policed a rigid ban on chillies. We said we liked chillies, so she permitted the token sprinkling of three dried flakes on the top of one dish. We sent it back for more. Eventually we negotiated a tolerable if unexciting meal.

The villages had the usual Dong features, several Drum Towers, a Wind and Rain Bridge each and plenty of wooden houses but unlike in Guizhou, where nobody had tried to sell us anything, the bridges were lined with souvenir stalls. Several older women hawking only a handful of tenpenny tat employed the persistent, wheedling sales tactics that are only half a step up from aggressive begging.
Wind and Rain Bridge, Maan

The stalls are a consequence of a regular supply of tourists; the aggressive selling/begging starts when enough of those tourists are rich westerners (though few of us would actually consider ourselves ‘rich’). A critical mass of foreigners then drags in the chancers and con men intent on separating easy targets from the contents of their overstuffed wallets. As each side loses sight of the other’s humanity a tourist industry evolves dedicated to guaranteeing foreigners only meet ‘safe’ Chinese. They explain a watered down culture, take the character out of the food and generally ensure the experience never becomes too demanding. In Guizhou we had met people who were proud of their culture for what it was, not what they could get out of us. The Miao found us as exotic as we found them, but we were only two – plus the excellent Dylan – so they could show us genuine hospitality and we treated each other with courtesy and respect. Foreigners in Ma’an, though evident, were still well short of the critical mass, but Liu was part of a tourist industry primed and ready.

A bowl of oil tea
We stopped for some oil tea, a Dong speciality that had so far passed us by. Tea leaves are first fried in oil to bringing out their bitterness, then water is added along with a few peanuts and other less recognisable solids. The result is poured into a soup bowl and served with a spoon. It was a pleasant, though rather insipid brew. As we left Liu said, “she didn’t fry it as long as usual because that would have been too bitter for you, and of course she left out the chillies.” Liu was a victim of an industry that told her that she knew more about our tastes than we did.

We were happy to leave Ma’an and after an hour’s drive we arrived at Longsheng, an unremarkable town, but the gateway to the ‘Longsheng Scenic Area’. A brief stop was necessary in the huge car park outside the ticket office before we drove through the barrier and up the mountain road towards Ping’an, the village where we would spend the night.

The road does not quite make it to Ping’an, but ends in a car park a steep forty-minute walk below the village. As we stepped from the car we were besieged by porters, all anxious to carry our case up to the hotel. Although I am used to carrying my own bags, I was happy to give employment to someone who needed it, but I found it embarrassing that all the porters were women - some of them by no means young. We let Liu pick from the scrum, and we were soon handing over our case to a stocky middle-aged woman. It was too big to fit in her basket, so she strapped it to the top with an octopus clip and bounced off up the path leaving us trailing in her wake. It was a stiff climb and we were grateful to be walking unencumbered, particularly near the top, where we had to negotiate uneven steps in gathering darkness. We arrived short of breath to find our porter sitting calmly on the hotel steps. She then insisted on carrying the case up to our fourth floor room as the creaky wooden building had no lift.


The other guests were a French tour group. We ate our chicken and peanuts that night surrounded by European faces, as though we had somehow stepped into a Chinese restaurant in France.

In the morning we demanded a local breakfast of noodle soup with a fried egg and watched the French party picking at the sweet flaccid bread and scrape of unidentifiable spread that passed for a ‘western breakfast’. Then we went out and climbed the rest of the way up the mountain.

The Longsheng rice terraces are striped across the hillside from the 900m ridge to the stream 500m below. Built some five hundred years ago and still very much in use they are a tribute to mankind’s indomitable determination to wring a living from an unhelpful countryside. We stood on Longji (the Dragon’s Spine) looking down upon thousands upon thousands of terraces covering the flanks of the dragon and reaching out along his legs.
Terraces reach out along the dragon's legs

The terraces are, without doubt, a marvel. They look fabulous in spring when they are full of water, wonderful in the summer when the young rice is green, splendid in autumn when the mature rice is yellow and ready to cut, and magical in winter when covered with snow. Unfortunately, just after the harvest they just look brown and, with the hazy sunshine straight in our faces, very difficult to photograph.

When we returned we found our porter sitting on the hotel steps waiting for us.  She had been there since eight o’clock to be sure to get the job. I still felt guilty about letting her carry my case, but I realised how important the small quantity of cash was to her.

There goes our case
Ping’an was once a Zhuang village but is now largely a collection of tourist hotels. With 18 million people, the Zhuang are China’s largest ethnic minority, though many of them, like Ping’an itself, have become assimilated into the Han mainstream. As we climbed down the mountain, we passed a range of stalls, mostly manned by Zhuang wearing their traditional costume for the tourists.

At puberty Zhuang women cut their hair for the only time in their lives. They cover their heads until marriage, after which they wear their increasingly long hair coiled and uncovered. Two thirds of the way down we paused at a stall run by a middle aged woman and her teenage daughter. For a small payment from Liu the older woman uncoiled her hair and combed it out, holding up the cut hair of her childhood which had been incorporated like a hair extension. We took the obligatory photographs but felt uncomfortable, at best we were watching a freak show, at worst it was a cultural violation. Liu treated the woman like an exhibit, and was keen to take a photograph of us with her. I declined rather more quickly and probably more rudely than I should, but it seemed so wrong. Smiling, the woman recoiled her hair and pinned it on her head, doubtless she would do the same act many more times during the day.

Our last brush with ethnic minorities
This sad experience was our last brush with Chinese ethnic minorities – at least for this trip. We felt we had been privileged to travel through Guizhou and encounter the rural Miao and Dong cultures while they were strong, and while women still wore traditional clothes as a matter of course and not just for tourists. In the longer term, though, I suspect the cultures are doomed and it is not tourism that will kill them, but the riches and opportunities of the modern age. With the exception of electricity and a few agricultural machines, the rural lifestyle has changed little, but whenever we saw a village from above  - and that was often in such a mountainous region - it was impossible not to notice the satellites dishes sprouting from almost every roof. Villagers see how their urban cousins live, or at least a version of it, and they want some of that, just as their urban cousins see a version of how we live and want their cars, dishwashers and pop-up toasters, too. The people will be assimilated into mainstream life and their culture, confined to shows like the one we saw in Xijiang, will be as relevant to everyday lives as Morris Dancing is to the English.

The end of a distinctive culture may be sad, but Miao life is no rural idyll. The people are small, the old people diminutive through a lifetime of inadequate nutrition and their tired, lined faces tell a story of hard toil. The traditional Chinese peasant’s dream of abundant food may have now been achieved, but we saw countless farm workers staggering along the roads, the baskets slung on their carry poles so heavy that their knees bent with the effort of carrying them. We saw people whose horizon would never be wider than the backside of the buffalo hauling their plough. We heard the echo of women whose whole waking life is spent hammering cloth. To return to a theme this blog has encountered before, I cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty just to please me. If they aspire to some of the advantages fate has showered on me, then it would be hypocritical to criticise.