A Travellerspoint blog

Tibet and East Turkestan

Salaam from the Karakorams, I find myself writing this very joyfully from Pakistan after successfully crossing over from China, at 4785m the Khunjerab Pass is the highest border crossing in the world and I was more than a bit nervy going over it. I applied in a couple of places for a Pakistan visa but was told ‘No, you have to apply in the embassy in your home country’… but then I heard about this bizarre loophole at the Chinese crossing where foreigners could get a visa on arrival. The problem is I was doing it ‘illegally’ (for reasons I won’t explain here), I didn’t have a plan B if anything went wrong and the nearest town back on the Chinese side is a 2 day drive away. Therefore despite the extortionate visa fee (thanks to W and the War on Terror) I wasn’t exactly upset when they let me through.

And coming down the Karakoram Highway has been one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, I guess I’ll write more about it in the next email but leaving ‘China’ this way was as spectacular as my entry through Tibet several months ago.

I’ve actually found this email really quite difficult to write because whilst I really do love China, there are some things it (or its government at least) does which are unforgivable.

Ask any Chinese person to point to Western China on a map and they’ll point to provinces like Sichuan or Gansu, in the Chinese imagination the country ‘ends’ at the last fort of the Great Wall at Jiayaguan where prisoners were kicked out of the Western gate and sent into exile. In modern China though, further West are the ‘self autonomous regions’ of Tibet and East Turkestan and they’re some of the worst places in the world to see imperialism in action.

I adore Chinese history and the fundamentally different Confucianist base on which the culture and society is based vs. the West and even things like the music and especially the food I’m already missing.

The pace of development and improvements in the populations quality of life are fascinating and even enervating to see but in what amounts to virtually the Western half of the country things are very different. As I’ve spent quite a bit of time there I found it increasingly difficult to consider the country as one and somewhat hypocritically left the country thinking of it as ‘2 Chinas’ with the positives of the Eastern parts in the middle and the utterly despicable behavior of the Chinese in the West bookending my time in the country.

When I left Nepal several months ago it was via the Friendship Highway to Tibet and due to China's 'Great Firewall' I didn't write about it then but it's obviously one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world and I feel very lucky to have been there at all. As you'll doubtless be aware the Free Tibet movement stepped up a gear during 2008 as it was the year of the Beijing Olympics but the move has arguably backfired as the Chinese greatly increased the number of 'security forces' in the area (1 soldier for every 10 Tibetans) and led to a widespread crackdown in all kinds of areas like schools and monasteries. One of the decisions also made was to stop foreign tourists from visiting the region independently and unfortunately you can now only visit on an organized tour, unless you look Chinese. Much to my disappointment I don’t look like Andy Lau and the tour was disappointing, overpriced and fairly poor quality in a crazy group size of 25; you could ask virtually no questions as the (Tibetan) guide would just quickly mutter "I can't talk about that" and turn away. However, you were given quite a lot of free time to wander around and whilst locals who could speak English would only have brief conversations with you (they can get in a LOT of trouble if caught) simply being there was just a wonderful experience, even at -10 in December.

Tibet plays a very important role in Western imaginations of the 'mystic' East with Lhasa having been the goal of many explorers and adventurers til well into the 20th century. And it is of course one of if not the most celebrated political causes in the world with the likes of Richard Gere and The Beastie Boys being amongst the celebrity activists. And that's because what's happened since the Chinese invasion is really unforgivable on virtually any level; in truth it's hard to know how much of the information given out by Free Tibetan groups is truthful or just propaganda but according to them: 1.2m Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese and 90% of their cultural heritage in the form of monasteries, scriptures etc. has been destroyed or at best turned into tourist attractions. Huge chunks of Tibet have been reassigned to other Chinese provinces and immigration from Han Chinese has been so high that Tibetans are now a minority in the region. Environmentally they've denuded the regions forest cover and animal numbers and in the last few years have even started dumping nuclear waste on the plateau. The history and contemporary politics of the issue are quite complicated but the Chinese claim on the area, with any intellectual assessment is virtually non-existent.

Whilst it's an otherwise fairly disappointing film there's a wonderful scene in the Brad Pitt film "Seven Years in Tibet" when the Chinese army are approaching and playing messages over loudspeakers and on the radio along the lines of "Tibet is being overrun by foreigners and the Dalai Lama is under the thumb of foreign imperial powers" to which the defence minister bemusedly responds "…But we're a nation famous for not letting foreigners in for centuries. In fact the only ones here are you two (Heinrich Harrer and his climbing companion)"
Basically, China lies about Tibet. A lot.
For many years the Chinese government have offered no explanation for the occupation beyond "We've always seen Tibet as part of our country and the takeover in '49 was merely the reunification of the country'.
This is Stalinesque in its dishonesty; in Lhasa there is a staelae recording an agreement between the '2 countries' to respect the wishes of the other, whilst this is from the 10th century the Chinese also use the laughable claim of control due to the fact that during the Mongol empire both were governed as one area. This is like India trying to claim Myanmar under the pretext that both were run by the British once upon a time and ignores the fact that the mighty Red Army took it very much by force against the tiny, untrained Tibetan militia.

Whilst there's obviously a huge amount written in the Western press about the destruction of the region etc. in truth in the first few days there were very few signs of it with towns hosting few security personnel and only the ubiquitous Chinese flag on every public building gave the hint that the Chinese are trying to show their authority.
Tibetans were wonderful people to be around, they don't see many foreigners but even in Lhasa would always greet you with a smile and a tashi delek (hello), I would also describe Tibetans as perhaps the most interesting people I've ever seen to look at with wonderful brightly coloured clothes and seemingly unending supplies of character in their faces at all ages. From the insanely cute children to the effeminate looking long haired men and the ever smiling old women who had more lines than you'd think possible it was something of a photographers dream wandering round and seeing them with their prayer wheels and beads. Culturally it is as you might expect an incredible place to be; Tibetan Buddhism through the use of Lamas and Shamans is much more colorful and vibrant than the more conservative forms of the religion practiced in places like Myanmar or Sri Lanka and the incense filled monasteries and temples are wonderful to wander around. Amongst the highlights were the statues in the Tashi Lumpo monastery and getting to see the monks doing their famously energetic debating (stamping their feet and clamping their hands to make a point) at the Sera Monastery. Amongst such a friendly, peaceful people the first few days just felt nothing but very relaxed and all the things I'd heard about the region didn't ring true.

But then we got to Lhasa and things really changed- the first thing I saw when we got off the bus was a female SWAT officer brandishing a rifle not much smaller than her in the middle of an ordinary shopping street. In the evening there was a festival going on and it would have been a wonderful sight with thousands of colourful pilgrims from the countryside making a kora (circuit) of the big Jokhang Temple. However, they had to share the route with literally hundreds of armed soldiers doing nothing but glaring at the people and emitting that sinister air of menace which comes with knowing they can say or do anything to the locals and there'll be virtually no comeback on them. Tibetans are about as unconfrontational and peaceful a people as can be imagined, quite how the Chinese feel the need for all the guns and snipers on the roof etc. is just beyond me as even if a few Tibetans do protest about anything you can be fairly certain it won't need such a heavy handed response. Still, I made sure to wink and smile at the troops as much as possible and wave at the video camera touting officers looking out for 'troublemakers'.
For all the Chinese 'reunification language' or talk of 'investing in the region' on the ground the Chinese have done so many things which serve seemingly no purpose but to demoralise the Tibetans. From turning the 'picnic island' in the centre of Lhasa's river into a horrible, soulless shopping centre to tearing down the village below the Potala Palace and building a Tianamen style square with an horrific 'Tibetan Liberation Monument' standing phallically out under 24hr armed guard.

In Tibetan Buddhisms hierarchy the 2nd most important Lama (senior monk) is the Panchen Lama and one of the most serious and perhaps the nastiest thing the Chinese have done has been to make him and his family disappear. He was only 6yrs old in 1994 when he was abducted by the Red Army and is believed to have been kept under house arrest ever since though no-one has actually seen him. The Chinese claim that only they can pick new Lamas and it's a deliberate challenge to their authority on the part of the Dalai Lama to choose another Lama. They inserted their own picked Panchen Lama whilst the actual one remains the record holder of the world's youngest political prisoner. For the above reason the Dalai Lama has indicated the next DL will probably have to be picked from the exiled community, if another one is picked at all.

Whilst so much is written about Tibet's incredible culture and it's destruction, Tibet itself is one of the most memorable landscapes on earth. 'The roof of the world', almost all of it is at well over 3500m up to Mt Everest and is the watershed for several of the world's longest rivers (Yangtze, Brahmaputra etc.). It receives very little rain and it's a harsh environment hosting 50% of the worlds silica with the population eking out a subsistence lifestyle with meat the major part of the diet as no crops or vegetation aside from barley will grow. As we spent 3 days on the bus we got a good look at it but the train journey leaving it would surely rate as one of the most memorable in the world.
It was deeply controversial at an estimated $10 billion cost but it's an incredible piece of engineering. Long parts of the line have been built on permafrost and they actually invented a cooling system to keep the ground frozen so that melting snow doesn’t interrupt with the sleepers. You go past beautiful frozen lakes and go as high as 5400m on a 2 day journey to get off the gigantic plateau and it's one of the things which to at least some extent indicates the Chinese influence in the area isn't all bad.

Whilst the present Dalai Lama is one of the most popular men in the world his predecessors ruled under a terribly corrupt and stagnant governing system; new Lamas were decided under a belief in young boys being reincarnated from the previous lama and were picked via an archaic and open to abuse system to maintain the monasteries power, in fact for much of its history in Tibet the theocratic governing system paid no attention to improving the everyday lives of the people.
That’s starting to change as there are definitely positives of the Chinese coming in, in the last few years they've invested billions in building fantastic roads and the railway and organized schooling has been established beyond the monastery system which only educated young (male) monks, which I think most people would agree is an improvement on what went on before.
But, and this has perhaps become the key part of the whole Tibet issue is that the Chinese have done this with only their own interests at heart. Tibet has huge deposits of various minerals, oil and natural gas and the government clearly has a long plan in regards to more trade with Nepal.

Around Lhasa they've taken almost all the best land and turned it into little more than industrial suburbs, the bus system doesn't run to towns unless there's a Chinese community and unless you're Chinese you've got no chance getting a job below the lowest levels in any public service.

In some ways China is not the best place to travel in, whilst the landscapes are outstanding and transport is normally pretty good the distances between places can be exhausting and the tonal language is frustrating to say the least. However, probably the biggest criticism visitors have of it is that it’s ‘The Great Monoculture’. Aside from a few Western provinces the people look, speak, dress and eat the same and thanks to Mao’s unification programmes despite the vast distances there’s very little human differentiation between areas. Therefore another thing which the Tibetans are struggling to deal with is being turned into a human zoo or tourist attraction from which they see few of the benefits. Tibet has become an object of fascination for Chinese tourists with the 'mysterious' Tibetan culture being popularly promoted by the tourist board and Chinas best selling book of the last year, the pseudo spiritual mystery The Tibetan Code. Since the railway was finished in 2007 the domestic tourist industry has grown annually at 45% but as they stay at Chinese owned hotels and pay incredible sums to enter the tourists attractions (e.g. $45 for the Potala Palace) which the government keeps, their presence is understandably deeply resented by the Tibetans. Certainly the bizarre sculpture in front of the Panchen Lamas Tashi Lumpo monastery of a Chinese tourist taking a photo of Tibetan people looked like nothing more than stating 'this is how we see you’.

China's economic clout is now so strong that the issue has now been almost forgotten by much of the international community in fear of losing trade etc. and the Dalai Lama now has very modest goals. Whilst most Tibetans would dearly love the Chinese to leave entirely he's reduced their aim to nothing more than religious freedom with no hope of a separate state in the medium term at the very least.
One of the things I've never understood about Tibet and being there has brought me no closer to understanding is why the Chinese are still persisting in the religious clampdown. During the initial invasion under Mao it was understandable as he was trying to build a united atheist country through the language, political system and everywhere in China experienced a clamp down on religious activity. However, surely that's now defunct and for a culture as peaceful as Tibet surely they should just let it be. The Dalai Lama has now resigned all political roles and even asked for a Chinese passport but he's still listed as a separatist leader and vilified in the Chinese government run press. With the recent news that the Chinese are going to stop schools teaching in Tibetan it's a depressing situation in a magnificent part of the world but I can’t see how things are going to improve any time soon.

I do feel very lucky to have been to Tibet but for a neat summary: an incredible landscape, fascinating culture, a home to wonderful people and the Chinese are slowly strangling it to death.

Fast forward a few months and a similar situation is occurring in what the locals call East Turkestan but the Chinese don’t; despite being the 2nd most powerful country in the world the Chinese really can be unbelievably petty. My Bavarian friend will angrily recount how his China Lonely Planet was confiscated by border guards when crossing from Kazakhstan because Taiwan was covered a different colour and other amusing examples I’ve seen are Tibetan mastiffs and even ‘Tintin in Tibet’ being pointlessly renamed to ‘Chinas’ Tibetan mastiffs and ‘Tintin in Chinas’ Tibet’.

In East Turkestan the cynical name the Chinese have given the province is Xinjiang, which means ‘New Frontier Province’ and that alone is symbolic of the cause of much of the problems in the area.

This area is home to the Uighur people and being Muslim and (unless to the very practiced eye) largely indistinguishable from other Central Asian people it has none of the ‘sex appeal’ of the Tibetan cause to Westerners although if anything things are maybe worse here, certainly more volatile and likely to end in violence than Tibet. China has a slightly longer claim on this area (about 150years) but as with most of Central Asia for most of its history who governed it in practice is highly debatable, China didn’t really start taking a proper interest until the 1960’s and ‘70’s when they found resources and Mao launched ‘the Great Leap Westwards” and encouraged Han Chinese to move in to develop the area.

As can be seen in many examples such as the British in Southern Africa, more recently Russians in Georgia/Ukraine or even the ongoing Israeli policy of changing ‘facts on the ground’ in Palestine, one of the very worst aspects of empire building is moving people into already occupied areas. Ostensibly this is done to develop those areas but it creates divisive, potentially dangerous changes to the makeup of the population and the longterm prospects of peace in those regions. In the case of modern China the concept which screams out at you is Lebensraum as the Han Chinese have overgrown their Eastern heartlands and quite simply needed more room to settle and feed the population. The problem is they’ve taken away so much of the locals land and resources that it’s led to a major culture clash and even violence through an ongoing insurgency in the region.

It’s another magnificent area to travel in, vast and empty it’s home to the giant Talimaklan desert but is punctuated by gorgeous oasis areas such as the -150m Turpan basin where amongst the vineyards you can quite remarkably look up to snow capped 5500m peaks above you.

Ignoring it’s natural charms the Chinese are so interested in the area because it’s rich with oil and gas reserves and is of vital strategic importance in their increasingly successful ambitions to control Central Asia. The Han didn’t really want to move West with its inhospitable climate and different, remote environment so the government has thrown in all kinds of incentives to people to make the move. They’re offered higher salaries in government jobs, free education for their children and in some cases even lower tax rates compared to Eastern provinces. These have been so successful that the joke goes: the ‘Iron Rooster’ (the train that goes West) arrives full and leaves half empty’, to the tune of 250,000 migrants a year moving in.

In contrast the Uighur population have one of the worst quality of life in China, they’re not allowed to speak their own language at school and as in Tibet they’re virtually barred from holding any positions of authority. In East Turkestan they have few economic opportunities beyond farming and it’s a sad but frequent sight all over China where they’re forced to move to cities on the East coast and reduced to doing nothing more than selling either bread or meat on the street as they’re treated disdainfully by the Chinese. As a result, calls for independence have become more pronounced and frequently have started to use violence against the Chinese immigrants as they feel they’re now second class citizens in their own home area. Their way of life is even less compatible with the Chinese than Tibetans and in the bigger cities like Kashgar or especially Urumqi the difference between the two communities is, if not quite apartheid certainly unofficial segregation. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the situation is that you see virtually nobody who’s ethnically ‘in the middle’- they’re clearly either Chinese or the central Asian looking Uighurs as intermarriage is virtually unheard of and culturally the differences are stark. The Southern half of Urumqi is the Uighur part where there are virtually no Chinese wandering round, the people eat mutton, listen to Turkic language music and the women definitely cover up whilst in the Northern half of the city you have the usual neon lights and conspicuous consumption beloved by rich Chinese (flashy, overpriced bars, shops and restaurants) and the women display their standard dubious taste in clothes via skimpy shorts and heels. Due to China’s crazy policy of having just one time zone (it’s still light at nearly 11pm at this time of year) they even time their lives separately with the Chinese following the official Beijing time whilst the Uighurs use ‘local time’ set 2hrs earlier. Apart from maybe Guyana and the warring Black and Indian communities I can think of few places I’ve been where the two communities have so little in common and clearly resent the others presence so much.

One of the biggest criticisms most people have about China is their unforgivable foreign policy and their wasted seat on the UN security council. They’re quite happy to not get involved in any dispute and write off virtually any human rights abuses or clampdowns by abusive leaders abroad as ‘internal issues’ and this has twin benefits for them. On the one hand it allows them to trade with absolutely everyone and so they’ve virtually singlehandedly shored up the world’s worst governments (North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar etc.) totally ignoring any moral implications of doing so in exchange for very cheap resources. In fact you may argue China has been one of the biggest obstacles in achieving peace for much of the world and if everyone behaved like this then we probably would have had plenty more serious wars following WWII. Then on the other hand it allows them to treat their own citizens however they want using the justification that it’s an ‘internal issue’. This task was made much easier by the Sep 11th attacks as with total justification they could point to NATO chasing ‘stateless terrorists’ and say they’re merely doing the same. In East Turkestan the issue reached a crux in 2009 when after riots by the Uighurs over unemployment and their lack of opportunities the Chinese ruthlessly responded by throwing thousands in jail and executed hundreds more. As with Tibet I couldn’t really see how a solution can be found that will make everyone happy, the Chinese will simply not listen to any calls for change either from the Uighurs or the international community and the oppression both Tibetans and Uighurs face is upsetting to see.
Despite all the above I think it would be unfair to blame the Chinese people as a whole as they're told virtually nothing of what's really happening. Thanks to the millions spent on propaganda by the government, the impression I get is that most Chinese merely believe that the rest of the country is simply investing in the region (at their own expense) to improve everyone who lives there standard of living and they receive virtually no word on the human rights abuses etc.. In Turpan we saw a bizarre official mural of Uighurs laughing in the fields and displaying their traditional dancing before it incongruously ran into paintings of electricity pylons and aeroplanes taking off to perfectly highlight the Chinese attitude. Whenever China releases a statement on Tibet or E Turkestan they seem genuinely perplexed why the locals aren’t thanking them for bringing so much development to their areas but they seem simply unable to understand that for other cultures there is more to life than money. As with most people around the world political and religious freedom probably comes ahead of financial concerns for Tibetans and Uighurs but for lots of reasons that’s certainly not true of the Chinese. China is full of public propaganda about how unified and happy all the different races are in the country but seeing the total cultural domination by the Han and lack of respect given to other humans in these areas definitely led to me thinking how the idea and fears of the Yellow Peril and Dr Fu Manchu became popular in the West a hundred or so years ago. Quite a negative way to leave China as there’s so much I admire about it but in it’s current form at least an ever more powerful China is a scary prospect.

Ultimately the lack of freedom in both areas link into one of the strongest feelings I’ve had about traveling in Asia- there simply isn’t enough of it. To put it in some sort of context: Europe has ?m people spread across ? countries, on this trip in Asia I’ve visited 22 countries but collectively they’re home to ?bn people. Much of the blame for this lies firmly with the imperial powers, aside from China described above the British created ‘Frankenstein’ states in India, Myanmar and Pakistan by establishing the modern day countries based on what they found easiest to administer, rather than actually reflecting the cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup of the areas in question. In the New World this wasn’t really a problem as even in the biggest countries like Brazil or the States the national identity is very much formed round the idea that (virtually) everyone is an immigrant. But in Asia things are far different as you have many of the worlds oldest civilizations, based on different religions, ethnicities and language being suppressed or ignored by whoever is most powerful at the time. As a result, with the exceptions of Vietnam and Japan in all of the bigger countries I’ve visited there are separatist conflicts of differing intensities. In almost all countries a power split has formed along ethnic (Myanmar, India, Pakistan etc.) or religious (Thailand, The Philippines, Sri Lanka etc.) lines with the biggest/most powerful group inevitably suppressing weaker groups and it’s been one of the most negative things to see traveling in the continent.

International relations are actually very good in Asia; aside from the ongoing Kashmir issue and minor Thai-Khmer clashes there have been very few conflicts since they gained their independence in the post WWII period. However, because you have so many independence movements across the continent unforgivable sums are wasted by countries with no external enemies like Myanmar and Sri Lanka on relatively gigantic armies whose role is to do nothing other than suppress groups wanting greater autonomy or independence. Far and away the worst example of this is Indonesia where the Dutch were even more guilty than the British in India by not forming a workable plan for the post-independence period. The Indonesian state is now fairly horrific to see as whilst many islands want nothing to do with the country the majority Javans simply send in developers to strip their resources and then the army to hit the locals if they show any resistance.

The only successful independence story of recent years was in East Timor and despite being dirt poor and riddled with developmental problems it would have to rate as one of the most uplifting places to visit in Asia. The people were so pleased of their freedom from Indonesia and the national pride they felt shone through as they happily talked about it and you couldn’t help but hope that Tibetans, Uighurs and the various other minority groups are given the same opportunities. If there’s one wish I’d have for the continent it would be that maybe in the next 30-50 years the map will start to look much more complicated than they currently are and maybe one day more like Europe.

But for now I’m still in Asia, so from Karimabad,


Posted by carlswall 14:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

North Central China

Hello from the city furthest from any sea in the world, Urumqi in Western China. It’s been a varied month spending time in the great Northern capital, and traveling through the Western grasslands and desert yet managing to experience all types of weather from scorching hot to snow but this email will be a bit different as half of it’s not written by me. Not being able to see my friend George in Japan thanks to the earthquake was really quite upsetting so it was just wicked having my friend Cec come out to visit me for a couple of weeks with very much a holiday feel to them. Our first night out in Beijing set the tone for things as after about 15 Jager bulls by 7am Cec had the biggest Red Bull crash since Mark Webber in Valencia last year. Whilst she was passed out beneath a flyover I took the unorthodox decision to use my excess energy to give an impromptu rap performance to 3 resident hobos and their bemused looking collection of canines.

Happy memories, and like China generally, despite the fact she insisted on wearing a bright pink ‘I ♥ BJ’ t-shirt at all times I will very much miss her presence as I go on.

I also managed to complete a small ambition of mine by climbing all 9 of China’s holy mountains (I don’t think playing centre half for the Os is gonna happen) which are dotted around the country. In Asia I’ve always made it a point to climb the holy peaks as they’re some of the most enjoyable places to see the two most important aspects of Asians lives- religion and family being played out.

As in other parts of the world, in Asia mountains play a key role in the people’s imagination, they’re frequently home to the usual selection of gods and monsters and due to the importance of high places in Eastern religions (they see them as auspicious) are some of the most holy places on the continent. It’s traditional that you undertake pilgrimages with your family and wherever I’ve been the different ways that families undertake the journeys have been some of the most memorable sights in Asia. In China that’s no different and it’s a great feeling clambering up the final steps of a mountain greeted by the sight of a colorful temple and a load of Grandmothers serenely burning incense and kowtowing to the Buddha statues. Having said that I do find the Chinese attitude to religion a bit more cynical than elsewhere, put it this way the saying “In China the rich believe in nothing and the poor believe in everything” is about right- the rich have made it and the poor blindly hedge their bets across Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The things that are so important to the Chinese like wealth and status don’t easily slot into religious ideas of aiming to distance yourself from earthly concerns and subsequently the depth of religious practice here is nothing compared to other Asian countries like Myanmar or Bhutan.

Nonetheless, one of the greatest heroes in Chinese history is the monk Xuan Zang whose epic story of retrieving the scriptures from India before returning home is immortalized in Journey to the West (better known to Westerners as Monkey). I read all 1410 pages of it and got to see the great man’s home monastery in Xian which aside from fulfilling another type of pilgrimage has started to give me a bit of closure on China…

Before that though I spent the early part of the last month in the great northern capital of Beijing, I’d be lying if I said it’s my favourite city as it’s the one place in China where people try to rip you off and is blighted by duststorms and a terrible climate- hot and humid as hell in Summer and freezing as ‘heaven’ (?) in Winter but there’s loads to do including plenty of parks and it was fascinating returning there after visiting in ’03.

Like Rome, Paris or Delhi it has very much an imperial feel to it with your appreciation of space very much in the extremes; the centuries old warrens of cramped hutongs (alleyways) sit just off imposingly wide concourses on a gridiron with the absolutely mighty Tianamen Square (well, actually a rectangle) and all the apparatus of government ranged round it bang in the centre of it all.

The city is changing at a cracking rate, put it this way whilst Katie Melua would be amongst the bookies favourites for the most insipid musician of all time award her one semi catchy song ‘9 Million bicycles in Beijing’ I think is now out of date.

When I was here before the city was something of a construction site due to the upcoming Olympics which has had a profound effect on the city, the positivity which the Chinese greeted the games and still feel proud of its legacy was really admirable and stands in stark contrast to the negative nimbyism which many in Britain greeted the London 2012 award with. Whilst the price tag of ‘China’s coming out party’ was exorbitant (believed to be up to $50 billion) I think it’s definitely a nicer place to live now.

A series of efficient ring roads were built as well as several new Metro lines and whereas before the city was covered in 2 wheelers zipping around they’ve been largely replaced by cars as China has now overtaken the USA as the worlds largest producer and consumer of the 4 wheeled monsters. To offset this the city planners have massively upped the proportion of green space in the city and whilst all this was controversial due to the forced relocation of residents to towerblocks in the suburbs, the city is now cleaner and far more orderly than it previously was.

Having said that you are frequently reminded that China is only just starting to play at being a civilized country, you often see Chinese tourists or new arrivals to the city staring almost frightened up at the giant buildings and even in Beijing young kids just go to the loo by the side of the road as they don’t wear nappies, they have a slit in the back of their baby suits so their backsides are always on show!

The Chinese government recently brought in a laughable smoking ban too, this is a country which smokes 1 in 3 of the worlds cigarettes and where toilet roll holders often have ashtrays built into the top of them. Since there are no penalties for getting caught I’ve yet to see anybody adhere to it anywhere except in government buildings- which is ironic because the reason there are no financial penalties is because the government has a monopoly on cigarettes and is therefore a gigantic revenue earner for them. Probably most memorably though are the roads which have an improbable feel of somewhere between Japan and India i.e. there are wide, well marked roads and in theory a proper traffic system but both pedestrians and drivers just do what they want anyway ignoring red lights and signals. The police are so powerful here that they could drastically improve the safety record quite easily but for the moment it’s not a priority for them and subsequently the roads are darn dangerous with Nanjing in particular being an absolute death trap, I saw 5 accidents there in 3 days. Whilst none of them were fatal, a couple of them were ambulance jobs and they were down to the electric bikes which are popular in China. When crossing the road a sense of hearing is probably even more important than sight and as electric bikes make no noise pedestrians and other drivers just aren’t aware of them so they are quite literally an accident to happen. On the plus side though they are very environmentally friendly which is something I feel China gets an overly harsh rap on.

In recent years the environment has become one of the biggest lightning rods for criticism of China from the West with a lot of commentators taking an arrogant and even condescending view of the Chinese, something like: ‘It’s great they’re developing economically but they’re ruining things for everyone as they’re doing sooo much damage to the environment’ . This is not a viewpoint I have any sympathy with, just about every developed country has had to go through an industrial revolution and caused various environmental ills along the way and I don’t really see why China, India or anyone else shouldn’t have the opportunity to develop in the same way, and for the moment at the very least their per capita consumption ranks way below most developed countries.

Furthermore and to be slightly cynical despite over 40years of warnings about the possible consequences of over consumption and damaging the environment the attempts to educate people into embracing ‘The Green Revolution’ only really started taking off in the West in the last 5 years when individuals and more importantly big businesses realized they could actually save a lot of money by driving more efficient cars, turning off lights and all the rest of it. And in this regard China is no different; in fact money, or costs and its’ relationship to environmental protection is even more closely linked.

Aside from embracing electric bikes there are good consequences of this; when supermarkets realized they could charge for cloth bags instead of giving out free plastic ones here they started to do so and bingo China now uses far fewer plastic bags than it did before. Similarly when they realized they could reuse certain materials and therefore save money, very quickly public bins were converted to have recyclable/non-recyclable compartments. Also, as the vast solar power programme in Tibet, nationwide network of HEP plants or the epic 20,000+ turbine strong wind farms in the West will show where the landscape permits it, China has also been one of the worlds foremost adopters of renewable energy generation.

However, there are also plenty of negatives about China’s relationship with energy too and much of these come down to power and water simply being too cheap. It is a fair criticism that China is woefully energy inefficient, to produce one unit of GDP uses up 7 times more resources here than in Japan. The reason for this is that there simply isn’t a strong enough economic incentive to adopt more efficient processes. Eastern China is awash with water so that’s very cheap but more controversially it’s the Chinese use of coal rather than oil which causes so many of the problems. Around the world coal is literally dirt cheap relative to other energy sources and it’s not at all unlikely that as the cost of oil continues to rise at some point other developed countries may have to start using it in much greater quantities again. In their rush for rapid economic development, for the Chinese the price of energy is the most important thing to look after but this means the people have to put up with some unpleasant consequences in the meantime.

Annually China uses up nearly 1 billion tonnes of the stuff and recently overtook the USA as the worlds biggest producer of CO2. Ignoring the international effects like acid rain and possible contribution to global warming it’s the localized adverse effects on peoples lives here which I’ve found most noticeable. China is home to over 20 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world and by EU standards 95% of urban dwellers breathe unsafe air, but these are in the bigger cities- in the coal mining districts things are much worse again. There are coal mines dotted all over the country but the highest concentration is found in a couple of provinces to the SW of Beijing called Shanxi and Shaanxi and life really is not pleasant there. The yellowy grey ‘smog blanket ‘which blights cities like Athens or LA is a constant here but over a much, much bigger area and every day you get the nasty ‘black snot’ and film on your teeth just from walking around. The people all seem to have hacking coughs and everything- buildings, clothes, even the dogs you see are just dirty, covered in nasty grey powder. I couldn’t describe it as like stepping back 150years ago in England as it’s a much drier, harsher landscape and the lack of greenery seems to makes things worse. It’s a hard life, and it would be interesting to know what the life expectancy is like in these areas compared to elsewhere in the country. Beyond the health effects, safety rates for miners are appalling and they’re expected to work long, dangerous hours as the demand for coal means the mines are 24hr operations. It’s another example of seeing the geographical differences in the quality of life in China as you realize the comfortably dressed white collar workers in the coffee shops and cocktails lounges of Shanghai are able to live like that thanks largely to the sacrifices others are making elsewhere in the country. Similarly to other fast growing Asian economies there’s undoubtedly a generational gap too where the current and previous generation are working incredibly hard to ensure a better quality of life for their offspring who are now starting to see the comfortable benefits of their parents endeavors.

I ended up staying in Beijing for a while for 2 reasons and one of them was waiting for my St Reatham based Polish friend Cec to arrive as she joined me for a couple of weeks…and at this point the writing style may change somewhat as I (Cec) hijack the email for a bit. Well, as 2 and a half week holidays go, I can honestly say that this has been up there with the best of them. China has been an amazing place to visit for so many reasons and perhaps in the main because it has been such a varied experience. As Barney alluded to, the holiday got off to a pretty interesting start with the Red Bull night in Beijing – straight off the flight from London – and from that point onwards, sleep was very much an afterthought as far as the holiday was concerned. After recovering to some degree from ‘the crash’ we spent a day wandering around the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, where I was really blown away by the way the Chinese use their public spaces. Walking around, we encountered impromptu choirs, orchestras, tai chi groups and the like, all seemingly going about their business entirely for their own pleasure rather than for any performance purposes. In fact, as I write this, we’re in Urumqi (the furthest west I am going) where there is a much more significant Uyghur population, and we saw another very similar display there, with Uyghurs and a few Chinese dancing to a small radio – something that is very different from anything you could imagine seeing in London (unless you count people getting boozed on Clapham Common, though I suspect that would be a very different sort of experience)! Anyway, from Beijing, a night train took us to Xian, the home of the Terracotta Warriors, which was an immense sight and quite incredible to comprehend when you think that a farmer uncovered it by mistake one day. It was also my first major experience of Chinese tourism in China which is honestly a sight to behold and really quite daunting at times. Tour guide, flags, matching hats (one-time Burberry themed..!) audio guides and hi-speed photo-taking appears to be the norm – something I’m very glad we managed to avoid in the main! Though it was interesting that in a few cases, the tourist attractions weren’t the only thing that interested them, and we became the subject of a few tourist shots as well – I think I might miss my minor celebrity status when I return to Blighty!!

Which leads on quite nicely to that evening when, after a few beers on the ‘bar strip’ we went into a club and proceeded to have one of the strangest evening encounters. We were escorted up to the club in a lift and then all the way through the bar which, despite being pretty plush, was practically empty apart from one table where they sat us down. I thought they were just a table of local people, but it turned out that it was the manager and his groupies, who took it upon themselves to ply us with free drinks, fruit and cigarettes all night; my good intentions to not drink much were slowly eroded when he brought out beer, whisky, whisky shots in beer, B52s – complete with actions – and then engaged us in some bizarre whisky-fume-smoking game, the point of which I’m not really sure, but it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do to appear impressed by the whole thing! Really it was just the biggest display of machismo – the guy was 23 and apparently owned the club, clapped his hands any time he wanted a staff member to bring over more drinks and then, at about 3am when he decided he’d had enough, went into a side room and just shouted at us to ‘Go home’! We took that as our cue and headed for home…another late night and not getting any closer to catching up on the jetlag or night train! I think by that time though, the philosophy to ‘push on through’ had been pretty well established and we resigned ourselves to less as the holiday progressed.

The next day we worked off the whisky with a ride around the 640 year old Xian city walls on a tandem bike. I’d been missing my bike so was pretty happy to be back on two wheels, though the tandem, on cobbles and on a 19m high wall was a different experience altogether. Balance is not my strong point and it was definitely required, but by the end we were basically pros. The views around the city were phenomenal, with quite a marked contrast between the architecture on either side of the walls. One photo in particular really captured modern China, with the wall in the foreground and a mixture of traditional architecture, pagodas and skyscrapers following on behind. That evening we headed onto Lanzhou on the night train - after our first hairy transport moment when our bus turned out to be going to the wrong train station and we then were ignored or declined by every taxi driver that went past. They seem to have a back to front system here, whereby lights indicate that they are full, coupled with the fact that if they don’t like the look of you or where you’re going, they’ll just drive off. The trains, despite being tiring and testing on the body (I don’t think a sitting-sleeping position exists that remains comfortable for more than about 5 minutes) have been one of the great things about travelling across China and again very different from home. For one thing they tend to run on time and are actually pretty efficient. For another, they have the potential to sell some really quite decent looking food (I say potential because they also sell some really weird stuff like chicken feet which aren’t really my cup of tea) but one of the key things is how sociable they seem to be. It’s hard to know who knows who on those trains, but general chatter, music being played on phones and card games seem to be the norm. They also seem to be fairly ofay with the art of sleeping well on them, as exemplified by the ‘bodiless man’ we saw on this one. He laid down some newspaper under the seat, shuffled underneath, helped into his sleeping arrangement by the guy sat next to him, and effortlessly disappeared beneath the seat. All that remained were a pair of shoes and bare ankles sticking out and a bit further up a patch of trouser leg. He seemed to get one of the best night’s sleep on the train though. Unfortunately, that was the night that my (sister’s) ipod got swept up with the rubbish, but to date, that is the only negative thing that has actually happened.

So, to Lanzhou…probably fair to say the most rubbish city we stopped off in so therefore not worth much of a mention and a stroll to the pagoda was devoid of beauty of any kind! Despite that though, the walk there was great for other reasons. Having not seen Barney for the best part of two years, it has been pretty seamless seeing each other again and travelling together has been great and very easy – even when transport hasn’t really gone our way all the time – and stopping for random chats and general musings has become a bit of a feature of our strolls around cities and sights. I feel like we’ve fallen into a bit of a routine what with Barney being the more seasoned traveller – he’s taken to looking after the money and I’ve taken more responsibility for general entertainment! I’ve also been pretty impressed by how much he knows about China (and the rest of the world for that matter...not to mention the phenomenal amount of stats he seems to have at his disposal!) – hence why I’m leaving most of the intellectual and insightful stuff to his section.

Continuing west Zhangye was our next stop where the main thing to do (other than visit the statue of Marco Polo) was an overnight trip to Mati Si which was truly amazing. The bus journey to the town was the first stunner as we passed through agricultural land, to scrub land, onto desert and then mountains rising up out of nowhere. That was only the start though and a walk towards the waterfall took us through the most diverse range of landscapes and weathers – hot sun down in the grassland and pine forest, then snow on the ground as we ascended through the forest, and when the river turned to ice and we emerged out of the forest into rocky mountain terrain where it was actually snowing I was properly in my geographical element! I don’t think any descriptions can really do the views the justice they deserve – but a look back down the valley included ice capped mountains, orange sandstone cliffs, green pine forests, iced-up rivers, patches of farmland and duller scrubland towards the bottom. Sadly we didn’t quite make it to the waterfall as our path eventually petered out and we were left trying to scramble up a fairly precipitous mountain face in the snow, with a sheer drop just the other side of the path! It was disappointing but we had to give up in the end as there was no guarantee of a path or any form of descent the other side. When we got down to the bottom though it was more than made up for when we went a bit off-piste to scramble up to some old Buddhist caves that were carved into the sandstone cliffs and were really in pretty amazing condition. One of the statues was so well preserved from the elements that you could still make out some of the detail on the carvings and even some paint. The entire day was actually a total surprise for both of us – so much richer than we were expecting in both landscapes and history and definitely a highlight of the holiday.

Anyway, I said was hijacking Barney’s email but I’ve just realized quite how much I have, and I’m only about halfway through what we’ve seen and done. Another undoubted highlight was seeing the Western end of the Great Wall near Jiayaguan, unlike the touristy sections near Beijing it was totally deserted so we really enjoyed having the freedom to take in the awesome views at our own pace. I didn’t get close to getting over quite how big, amazing and interesting China is and that’s certainly something I’ve found to be true as we’ve traversed the country – the distances are immense, whether talking between towns and cities, or within them. The diversity of landscapes has also been a real surprise – not least when we arrived in the town of Turpan which sits in the 3rd lowest depression in the world at 154m below sea level. When we arrived there, we had literally been travelling through desert land inhabited in part by camels and part by scrub– and we then emerged into a basin which seems to be the grape growing capital of China. Vine-trellised streets really made it hard to imagine that we were really in China but they also made for a really gorgeous cycle ride to Jiaohe, an ancient Uygur settlement carved out of the surrounding sandstone plateau, which has been phenomenally preserved with dwellings, wells and temples still easily identifiable. The trip we took the next day included another Uygur village which is still inhabited and one of the most striking things about that was that they appeared to be building a new housing development right beside it. That in itself though is quite emblematic of the side of China that we’ve been seeing, and one of the things that has really astounded me at all times actually, as there is an incredible amount of change visibly taking place and at a rapid pace. Cranes and construction work is evident everywhere and it shows no sign of stopping in the foreseeable future! I’m going to leave my bit here though as I’ve definitely waffled on longer than necessary and Barney has far more interesting insights to write about – suffice to say that this has been but a taster of all that China has to offer (and I’ve not even said anything about the people, politics or the other 28 provinces that I have yet to visit)!

Back to Barney -the other major reason why I found myself stuck in Beijing for a bit was waiting to receive my new passport. I was down to my last 2 pages and as part of the ConDem (ned?) coalitions’ cuts it’s now much harder to get a passport overseas with only one processing centre per continent, however much to my surprise they granted me one and I was fairly delighted as I now have the opportunity to travel home overland. Having been away for about 2 years now it’s now time to begin my own version of Journey to the West with the plan (visas permitting) being to go through the ‘Stans and hopefully get home in time for Christmas. I’m not quite leaving ‘China’ yet though as I’m gonna travel through East Turkestan which I’ll write about once I’ve hopefully crossed the border into Pakistan.

For now though, from Urumqi,


Posted by carlswall 14:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

Eastern China

Ni hao from China once again, I’m writing this from the lovely town of Pingyao, SW of Beijing which represents something of a microcosm of the rest of the email as its virtually the last ‘old Chinese’ town of any size but this means there are lots of tourists too - all of which I’ll write about later. I spent most of my time in the last few weeks in the big, terribly nicknamed cities that are dotted along the Eastern seaboard and seeing some of the many millions which make up the population up close. Getting onto a packed provincial train at 02.23 last night I was reminded there really are a lot of people here...

Whilst I did love Japan I did struggle with the portions so it was great to return to China and indulge my Count Fosco like appetite once again, after getting the boat from Japan and taking my last look at the ocean for a while I arrived in Shanghai where its downtown joins the likes of Hong Kong and Tokyo on the list of fascinating cities I’ve been to recently. For around 100 years until the end of the Second World War various coastal ports in China were nicked off them by the European powers as the country went through something of a semi colonized period; Shanghai competed with Hong Kong as the most important and is certainly a city where you feel the different eras of the city all around you. Thanks to the laid back boulevards and villas of the French Concession area, the city got the usual lazy nickname of ‘Paris of the East’ (shared with 8 or 9 other Asian cities) and being a port as well as the widespread Orientalism prevalent in the West at the time developed something of an unfair reputation for China as an exotically ‘sinful’ place with stories of the opium dens and ‘Shanghai girls’. An updated but equally lazy nickname is ‘the New York of the East’ (shared, ludicrously, with Jakarta) as the city has grown to be probably the financial capital of Asia with a bustling populace paired with the soaring ‘scrapers above.

Visually one of the nicest things about the city is the way it’s developed a clever symmetrical architecture along the river showing off its past and present, on one side is The Bund with its famous colonial era buildings and on the other is the financial district of Putong which topped by the stratospheric Shanghai World Financial Centre is reminiscent of Lower Manhattan. They even sell ‘I ♥ SH’ t-shirts- though I can’t see them catching on in the same way.

With all the $ flying around the city is ground zero for the new, wealthier China; perfectly summing up modern China in the city centre is the Chinese equivalent of Rodeo Drive improbably flanked by a statue of Marx and Engels on one side and the site of the 1st Chinese Communist Party congress on the other. Like its multiculturalism though I felt the affluent centre was something of a false front, almost like it was bolted on as the real, near endless city can be found in the suburbs. And like most Chinese cities this isn’t quite so impressive and certainly not very interesting.

I spent much of the early part of this trip in The Philippines and Indonesia which, certainly outside of Africa host some of the least likable urban areas in the world. Therefore seeing nicer cities has definitely been one of the best things about travelling in the more developed world in the last few months. Aside from the cleanliness and lack of danger they’re easy to get around as they all have metro systems built since the ‘80’s and has put in perspective how bad the systems in New York and especially London are- got the technology too early I guess. In China though I think they’ve taken the modernization program a bit far in urban areas and whilst they’re somewhat orderly and fairly comfortable they’ve also had a lot of their character stripped away too.

Spending the last few weeks in the Eastern heartlands of the Han Chinese I’ve had a good view of quite how many of them there are; despite India’s best efforts recently China is still the most populous country in the world and it’s held that rank for a long time.

China does huge engineering projects very well: more recently the Three Gorges dam and railway to Tibet but probably the most famous historically is the Great Wall. However, whilst lesser known the construction of the 1800km Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou in the 7th century linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers was probably more important in the development of China, both economically and as a means to unify the massive country. It massively increased interregional trade and led to the growth of the cities along the route like Beijing (Northern capital), Nanjing (Southern capital) etc. as well as Suzhou which became one of the 15 or so Asian cities to be nicknamed ‘The Venice of the East’. Even though it looks absolutely nothing like the unique Italian city it’s still better than Venezuela (Little Venice) which is one of the worst named countries in the world.

Lazy naming aside the vast network of irrigation canals linked up various other colourfully named rivers (Red, White, Pearl, Jade etc.) meant an astonishing amount of fertile land could be supported and with it comes a gigantic population.

In the post Mao era though the population structure has changed and in the cities the seething mass of humanity at times feels almost intimidating. In only 30 years or so the population has gone from being overwhelmingly rural based to the near 50-50 urban/rural split population of today and its cities have ballooned in size with estimates of anywhere between 50-100 cities of over 1m+ people - most of which you will never have heard of. Mention names like Wenzhou, Fuzhou or Tianjin (and I really could go on) to any non-Chinese person and unless they’re involved in shoe or steel production etc. they’ll almost certainly draw a blank- yet they’re all cities similar in size to London. One you probably have heard of is Shenzen opposite Hong Kong on the mainland, in 1980 it was a fishing village that won a national lottery to become a special economic zone with various government conferred benefits. It recorded annual growth rates of up to 45% and in a mark of just how fast China’s growing, in 30 years the huge No. of immigrants to the factories that sprung up there means it’s grown to 14million people and pretty high up on the biggest cities in the world list. Quite amazing.

Even though I’m normally fairly comfortable in very large cities, in China there’s simply too many of them with often nothing of interest about them. The cities sprawl for many km of industrial suburbs and in the name of development any older parts of cities were normally totally flattened to make way for gridiron rows of ugly but cheap and functional residential towerblocks to house the populace. The city centres all house flashy shopping districts but there’s no sense of history in their identikit styles and the suburbs are certainly monotonous. The population apparently prefer living this way though as whilst they’re away from their families in the provinces they have all mod cons at hand and since only a generation or 2 ago at most, the majority of people lived in the countryside with no access to running water and electricity etc. aesthetics is a secondary concern. There are exceptions to the boring Chinese city stereotype, Nanjing for example has retained its merciless city walls (Ming era) and Beijing for the moment still has pockets of older neighbourhoods but often even cities with rich histories like Guangzhou (Canton) or Chengdu have had virtually all memorable features demolished and been rebuilt in such a way that they’re near indistinguishable and consequently disappointingly forgettable.

Where I find Chinese cities really do come to life are in the parks- they are literally a breath of fresh air in the LA like haze which blights all Chinese cities. Whilst naturally not an extroverted culture at all, in the parks they seem to leave their inhibitions at the gate as they enjoy quite a wide range of pursuits. Tai chi is the most common activity in the morning and brilliantly in China you get outdoor gyms which everyone can use- not just those who are willing/able to pay $100 a month or whatever it is they now cost in England. As the afternoon goes on the people start playing instruments and maybe some karaoke or even theatre before most memorably at night huge groups of ballroom dancers convene- and in total contrast to the West these activities are done almost entirely by older people. As in other Asian countries the elderly occupy a much more respected and visual part of society than they do in the West and that’s thanks mainly to a chap called Confucius whose hometown of Qufu I next visited.

Confucianism is a way of thinking which is very popular/important in other Asian countries but as one of the most influential philosophers of all time has near dominated Chinese society and the national psyche for 2,500 years. As the gargantuan family mansion and worlds biggest/oldest cemetery in Qufu display, the Kongs ranked 2nd behind only the Imperial family as the most respected in China and even now still wield influence in society.

Via high moral standards and individual responsibility Confucianism strives for social harmony and living towards the common good; it fills something of a religious void in China and aims to create order to good effect. In a lot of ways this is true but in the modern world its’ limitations are also now pretty visible.

One of the biggest pan-Asian traits in contrast to the West I’ve noticed on my travels is the emphasis on doing things for the group rather than the individual.

Probably the easiest way to describe it would be that if most peoples conception of the American dream (and increasingly applicable to Britain, Australia etc.) is about the successful status of an individual- in their job, house and all the rest of it, ‘the Asian dream’ in contrast is about the successful status of the ‘group’ be it the family, community and ultimately even the country rather than how any one individual is doing.

In China kids are brought up to be one of the crowd rather than individuals and success is something that’s achieved through quiet humility and patient effort over time rather than more visible examples of creative brilliance and I think there are pros but also cons to this systems.

The importance placed on education in Confucianism is paramount and in contrast to other Asian countries is done on a very egalitarian basis. Regardless of your economic status in Confucianism everyone has the right to education but it prioritises the rote learning rather than displaying creative intelligence type. This means that Chinese students are extremely diligent but even to university level exams here are mainly about regurgitating stuff you’ve memorized as students aren’t allowed let alone encouraged to think differently about issues or challenge ideas. As a result they perhaps lack the skills to think ‘outside the box’ a bit; to highlight this issue much of the storm over that Scandinavian prize last year was basically because China feels huge shame at placing so much importance on education, especially maths and science yet this not translating to internationally recognized breakthroughs.

As children, other activities aren’t encouraged unless they show a particular aptitude at something (ie can do to professional level) so they’re expected to study a few core subjects very hard with little time to develop outside interests. As a result (generally speaking) Chinese people aren’t particularly well rounded- if you ask a 17yr old what their hobbies are don’t be surprised to hear ‘studying’ following the obligatory ‘computer games’, ask someone 15yrs older and you’ll often get nothing more interesting than ‘smoking and playing mahjongg’.

The huge flipside to this though is that with no-one ‘reaching for the stars’ very few have a crash landing either, so as with other Asian countries with its tighter group units China suffers far fewer social problems like drug addiction or homelessness relative to Western countries. Unemployment barely exists as a concept and the importance placed on the family structure means they rarely break down but in the modern world that idea is coming under pressure.

In Confucianism it’s the role of the individual to fulfill their role in society eg servant serves their master, citizen serves the ruler etc. but arguably the 2 most important of these relationships are children serve their parents and women serve men.

In East Asia older people have a far greater role in every area of life- politics, in business and even things like entertainment and I think that’s a positive difference from the West where older people are often ignored and shoved into an OAP home or similar. That would be inexcusable in China where Grandparents are the centre of the home and indeed due to their seniority call most of the shots in the household. One line of Confucianisms most famous set of teachings The Analects (which I’d struggle with) is: “Whilst Mother and Father are still alive do not go on long journeys”- and that’s certainly true in East Asia where between the ages of finishing studying and retiring you’re basically working for others with little opportunity to travel, time to pursue your own interests or even attempt a slightly ‘riskier’ or less secure career. Under Chinese law there is no state pension so children are both morally and legally obliged to be financially responsible for looking after their parents which sounds OK but often doesn’t remotely work in practice. In Singapore they have the same system and the government sometimes has to take people to court for not looking after their parents, even when ‘defendants’ give heartfelt evidence about how they were beaten daily and haven’t spoken to their parents for 20years they still always lose!

Another example you may also have seen is the recent story about the disgraceful request by the Chinese government for higher compensation from the New Zealand government for parents of the Chinese victims of the recent earthquake, the reason why they felt they deserved more was because the single child policy means that the parents now have no financial support system for their old age!

Whilst looking after older generations is obviously a positive thing the extent to which it’s prioritized in China means it does kill off a lot of freedom for the individual to seek their own path when they’re younger.

The single child policy has arguably exacerbated this as Chinese people now go through an unusual ‘growing up’ curve; with only one child in the family as children they’re lavished with attention from 4 grandparents and 2 parents and this has led to the so called ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome whereby children become used to being treated and having their wishes always fulfilled. In China both physically and mentally children really are children (no sexual images in the media or access to drugs etc.) ‘til much later than elsewhere, I always underestimate teenagers or students ages by 3 or 4 years as they come across as much younger and without seeming to have much of an adolescent phase. But then when adulthood hits they’re suddenly under huge pressure. As they’re the only child they have the hopes/expectations of the whole family on them which in Asia is a very big deal and moreover are expected to provide for them financially ‘til they die. So very quickly they go from a situation where they’re treated like children ‘til the end of their studies then once they start working they have the weight of the whole family on their shoulders. Unsurprisingly mental health amongst young people in China is getting worse and worse as they’re simply not equipped for the transition to becoming adults.

Thanks to the one child policy China has also become one of the worst places in the world to be a bloke as there are just too many men, and no being gay doesn’t help as homosexuality ‘doesn’t exist’ here. Limiting the family size greatly exacerbated the problem of prioritizing males in society; traditionally it was the duty of the son(s) family to look after parents so families with only daughters had no means of financial support for their old age. Previously families would have more children ‘til they had a son but under the one child policy the terrible situation developed whereby if a family had a daughter they were setting themselves up for financial ruin; through infanticide and illegal scans leading to abortions etc. China now has something like 50m bachelors as there just aren’t enough women to go round. You certainly don’t notice this imbalance in the cities but in dying ‘1 horse villages’ you pass through all over China the population often appears to be a very sad mixture of old people and their aging sons who’ve stayed behind to look after them. The Chinese government realized the problem some years ago and they relaxed the policy in some situations e.g. you can have a 2nd child if your 1st born is a daughter and eventually lifted the restriction altogether on rural couples but as I wrote about in India (and the recent census there has just confirmed) the social problems caused when you start ‘playing with nature’ are really not worth it and both countries provide ample evidence why being able to choose the gender of your children should never be allowed.

One of the other consequences of being so densely populated and the country getting richer is that China now has one of if not the biggest domestic tourist industry in the world and I would unfortunately have to rate that as one of the worst things about visiting the country. When I was here in 2003 outside of Beijing I saw about 10 foreigners in a month but since then (as in the rest of the world) the overseas tourist market has exploded in China and I think I saw about 30 foreigners wandering around today alone- but they’re definitely not the problem. In recent years it’s become far easier for Chinese to travel abroad (though still not that easy) with normal people now able to get passports whereas before it was just people connected to the party in some way; however due to the weak Yuan, restrictive visa policies from other countries and the usual fears about foreign languages/food etc. they rarely go beyond their own borders, though like America that’s understandable as there’s shedloads to see and do here.

Whilst I can think of other more insensitive travelling nationalities, the Chinese would definitely rate as the most boring in my eyes. Independent travelling is rare as they (almost always aged 50+) prefer to put on brightly coloured caps (so their guide can identify them) and play follow the flag in utterly massive groups (50, 70 even 100 isn't unusual) as their tour guide sprints them through whatever attraction they’re seeing. Visibly in their sheer numbers and audibly as their guides compete to see whose megaphone shouts the loudest they really can ruin virtually any sight. Even in the most important places it’s remarkable how little interest they seem to take where they are beyond eating whatever the local animal on the menu is and taking lots and lots and lots of photos in the same 2 poses- either smiling with a v sign diagonally across the chest or that scary hands by the side with no facial expression they use for family portraits. And now the weather has got better there are absolutely thousands of them everywhere and since all attractions are government run it must be one heck of a big revenue generator…

When I was here in 2003 I barely noticed the cost of attractions but with a growing middle class with money to spend the government has jacked prices up several hundred percent and now don’t seem to follow the laws of economics as far as I can work out.

By Asian standards China is no longer cheap but it’s not an expensive country to travel in either, the food is cheap and delicious and if you’re prepared to sleep in the excellent hostels and don’t need a soft sleeper on trains the daily spend doesn’t come to much…unless you go to any tourist attractions during the day that is; everything in China down to the smallest temple and even viewing platforms has a price tag. And they’re not cheap- put it this way having come from one of the most expensive countries in the world (Japan) it feels very strange to be paying 3x the price for comparable attractions in China.

In most Asian countries they have dual pricing systems whereby foreigners pay a lot more (up to 20x) for attractions, normally I don’t mind this too much as it’s I think it’s important that as many locals as possible can learn about their heritage and some countries are very reasonable (Vietnam, South Korea) although others (Nepal, Sri Lanka) definitely get a bit greedy so you have to be quite picky about what you see. In China far too frequently I find myself having to decide whether or not something is worth doing and often regret not doing them or do pay the money then feel utterly ripped off once I’ve done so. I was heavily warned by others about the prices so it wasn’t a surprise; temples and other cultural sights I can take or leave although you often have to pay $10-15 just to visit a lot of smaller, prettier towns. However, echoing just about every foreigners view of travelling in the country it’s the national parks where things become really insane. The fake student ID I bought off a dodgy Indian guy on the Koh San Road has proved to be the best $5 I’ll ever spend but even with a student price most national parks cost between $20-50 for entry, an absolute fortune - but I’m here so I wanna do stuff.

These costs all make China pretty much the most expensive place I’ve been for attractions but what makes none of this logical is that that isn’t a foreigner price- it’s the same for everyone. So to put this into some sort of local context it would be the equivalent of paying about 200 quid per person to go to the Lake District! I don’t think you’d get many takers at those prices somehow. When I was at the national park at Wulingyuan I got chatting to a middle aged guy who explained how he’d driven 6hrs the day before with 4 other members of his family then got quite a shock when he saw the entrance fee, since they’d made the journey they decided to go in anyway but he spent some $225 on the various entrance fees. I genuinely did feel like putting my arms round him as assuming he’s got a slightly above average income this would mean he’d spent getting on for 10% of his annual salary on a day trip to a national park. A day trip! Aside from the folly of seeing national parks as a way to make money it means quite clearly it’s only the rich who can afford to do stuff, and I guess in China there’s so many of them that the demand curve will just keep rising whatever price they’re supplied at.

Bewildering really, but I can also see why a surprising number of foreign visitors aren’t that impressed by China using the understandable logic that domestic tourists + the costs of doing stuff have ruined much of interest here.

That’s not me though by any means, I really love lots of things about China; the people are friendly in a non-intrusive way, I’d pick the history as richer than any country in the world and whilst the cities are often boring the hugely varied landscapes of the country are absolutely gorgeous. Like just about everywhere else in Asia I find the culture absolutely riveting to observe and there’s something awe inspiring seeing how fast the country is growing and evolving. Even though I’ve been away quite a while now I find I still have virtually no desire to come home and continue enjoying life on the road. I’m now gonna climb some mountains and then will be heading to Beijing.

From Pingyao,


Posted by carlswall 14:32 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kanto and Kansai

Hello for the 2nd time in Japan where this email contains some good and some bad about the country but definitely nothing ugly- aesthetics play such a key role in Japanese culture that seemingly nothing ever looks bad. From the buildings to the people to the environment even manhole covers, everything seems to look gorgeous in Japan. My, it’s weird too but with its cultural uniqueness I’ve found it utterly captivating, thought provoking and left me definitely quite enamored with the place.

In the aftermath of the previous week’s earthquake/tsunami the Rising Sun at the Imperial Palace was at a somber half-mast and with an aftershock a day the world’s largest city was very quiet during my time there, even the world’s busiest railway station (Shinjuku) and the famous Shibuya street crossing were fairly muted. The neon signs which form such an important part of the city’s iconography were turned off to save electricity although I was most disappointed at both the J-League and baseball games being cancelled L.

The city doesn’t have a center as such but half a dozen skyscraper clad neighborhoods which were mesmerizing to wander round and view the various elements that make Tokyo one of the most dynamic urban experiences in the world.

Whilst the bay, fashionable shopping streets and the imaginative red light district were all great I think the otaku (boy geeks) and otome (girl geeks)areas in Akihabara aka ‘electric town’ will live longest in the memory. Otaku roughly means something like ‘geekery’ and for this Tokyo is the world capital; it’s another great journey into the peculiarly Japanese brand of weird as you shop in 10 story department stores filled with nothing but comics, collectible figures and a bewildering array of gadgets.

I found the cosplay (costume play) actors more interesting to look at though; basically these are kids aged between say 13 and 25 who dress up in a variety of outfits like maids and nurses. Often this is just a way for them to show off, as with the posing ‘Goth Lolitas’ (really, that’s what they’re called) but mainly it’s used as a novel way of selling stuff and attracting attention to a store. Probably the most famous type are the maid/butler cafes where in taking the Japanese politeness/submissiveness fetish a bit far the boys/girls wander round paying you insincere compliments whilst they serve you tea and cake. As frequently happened in Japan I found the over attentiveness a bit unsettling (you get a “Hello and Welcome”! in convenience stores and even public toilets) but the settings were even worse. Whilst most of them understandably sport Alice in Wonderland style designs, on the ceiling of one of the cafes in the otome district they had a huge poster of a pair of half-naked male manga characters in a homoerotic pose. Welcome to Japan.

Global top level cuisine has apparently undergone something of a revolution when Michelin discovered Japan a few years ago, very quickly they realized that the whole rating system had to be rethought as Japanese food is so good, now remarkably both Tokyo and the Kansai conurbation have more starred restaurants than London, New York and Paris combined. All that was obviously way out of my price range but I did get to see plenty of strange ‘foods’ or perhaps ‘things being eaten’ would be a better description which has been a theme throughout Asia.

When it comes to meat Asians are much less wasteful than Westerners using every possible part of the the usual suspects as well as other Asian staples like snake and dog as you get used to seeing people tucking into things like pigs ears or a dogs hindquarters. However, they also don’t seem to have qualms eating well, virtually anything, put it this way there’s a Chinese joke that goes “What’s the only thing with 4 legs a Chinaman won’t eat? A table.”

In the Philippines the national delicacy is called balut which is a fertilized duck egg which according to the diners preference is eaten at different stages of embryonic development though the practice of sedating monkeys, slicing the top of their scalps off then eating their brains with a spoon (whilst the monkey’s still living) has to rank as one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of but that’s The Philippines. In SE Asia they’re really into their insects with the usual suspects like grasshoppers as well as things silkworm cocoons eaten not at all infrequently. In East Asia the food has got even stranger as despite Japan’s best efforts to empty them of life the food mainly comes from the sea, even if it’s dangerous. The Japanese love eating the poisonous fugu and as one particularly memorable scene in Oldboy showed Koreans love eating sannakji or baby octopus that’s still alive. Now and again people die as the still moving tentacles cause them to suffocate- they can’t really have too many complaints though eh? They also love their sea cucumbers and various other anemone type things, in their bright purple, orange and blue colors it definitely reminded me of the Jonathan Swift quote about the first man to eat an oyster must have been very brave. In Japan one of the most common ways to eat out are in izukayas where bars serve food in a tapas style. You see some amazing things in the most normal neighborhood bars, aside from the bee larvae and shirouo no odorigui (the tadpole like almost creepy ‘dancing ice fish’, again eaten live) probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen eaten is shiroko which appetizingly enough is the sperm sack of male fish.

Truly vomit inducing –I’m fairly confident I will never eat meat.

Moving on there’s a theory that you can tell how civilized a country is by the size of its middle class, and by this measure Japan stands right up there alongside the Scandinavian countries as one of the most civilized in the world. Between the end of WWII and 1990 the Japanese economic model was rampantly successful and I’d personally rate it as the best system in the world at the time. There is a long held policy of big companies like Mitsubishi known as kereitsus having business interests in lots of different areas(banking, manufacturing etc). They’ve been implicitly backed by government in a variety of ways (loans, tax rates etc.) with the goal of creating full employment and being the mainstay of an economy based on export led growth.

Unlike in the UK for example, in Japan when companies made a profit, instead of adopting a ‘quick, give it to the shareholders’ approach Japanese companies consistently reinvested most of the profits back into the company. This allowed the famously creative R&D divisions in areas like electronics or automobiles to flourish and meant that despite the drubbing it received in WWII for the next 40 years or so it was probably the most successful country in the world. With the goal of doing things for ‘the greater good’ the government has also retained control of and (note to Margaret Thatcher) crucially, invested in the magnificent railways, post office and efficient welfare system . Altogether this has meant Japan developed into a country where financially at least next to no-one is left behind and virtually everyone is middle class. In a great change from other Asian countries you hardly ever see either needlessly flashy cars nor homelessness, crime or other poverty related problems. On a personal level I’d place it as Exhibit A on why fettered or managed capitalism is the best system to run a society. When you consider the size of the population and the variety of environments which make up the country it really is a phenomenal achievement.

By 1990 in terms of its economy or infrastructure Japan had achieved the goal of the worlds most developed or advanced country… but about this point the overheated economy led to the bubbles on the stock and housing markets to pop and the economy has struggled to grow ever since. The country has spent most of the last 20 years vainly trying to retake their preeminent place in the world economy but I think the time would have been better spent in trying to change the work/life balance of their lives.

Living in one of the most formal and pressurized cultures in the world may have brought them success financially but as the infamous suicide rate will attest it does cause other problems. There’s a Japanese saying that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and in a culture where conformity is nearly everything it appears people aren’t given enough freedom to develop emotionally in their own way and consequently the Japanese struck me as an uptight and generally unhappy people.

One thing I did find difficult about Japan and which nearly every foreign visitor to Japan remarks on is how little attention you get; not exactly an extroverted bunch in 5 weeks just one person tried to speak to me and I’ve certainly not been anywhere where I’ve fitted in less but to no interest whatsoever from the locals aside from when it’s their job e.g. shop assistants.

But then I realized that the Japanese are like this with everyone, whilst Londoners are rightly criticized for living in a bubble i.e. we only speak to people we know Tokyoites are about as unemotional as is possible. On the Metro they barely seem to breathe let alone talk and any eye contact they accidentally make with anyone will last either 0.1 or 0.2 seconds. Whilst the bows and smiles are an inherent part of the formalities they observe, natural laughter and easy jokes isn’t really the way here and it continues the theme in Asia of people in richer countries being less friendly/happy than in the poorer ones.

During this trip I’ve been forced to think quite a lot about what makes people happy; it’s been educating seeing people in very poor countries like India or Nepal being very happy but at the same time richer populations like the Taiwanese or Singaporeans are visibly much less content with their lot. The challenging and slightly uncomfortable conclusion I’m trending towards is that in Asia at least the more religious people are the happier they seem to be. In somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore far and away the people with the lowest quality of life are the Filipino women brought in as maids and nannies for wealthy local families as they work tedious backbreaking jobs 6 days a week only to send 80% of their wages back home to their families. However, on Sundays they have their day off and the public parks in those places become a party scene as they noisily chat, eat and sing with a sense of effervescence that the gimlet eyed locals looking on can only dream of.

Whether it’s Christianity in The Philippines, Hinduism in India or Buddhism in several countries despite having far fewer life opportunities and a low material quality of life the populations in those countries seem significantly happier and friendlier than in more secular places like China.

In this sense Japan is no different from their other wealthy neighbors and the last 20years maybe represent something of a missed opportunity to change the setup of the country somewhat.

Like most of their fellow Asians the Japanese work unbelievably hard but whilst I understand this work ethic in developing countries in Japan it now seems unnecessary as they enjoy (and have done so for some time) one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world. One morning bleary eyed I got on a train at 6am on a Sunday to see kids on their way to cramming school as even they’re expected to do 15+hr days at least 6 days a week. One student I met said she did 35hrs waitressing in a restaurant as a part time job whilst she went to college by day! And they receive just 5 days holiday a year- it’s insane! The situation seems to be that people have plenty of money to spend on an unnecessary level of comfort with the expensively wrapped food, designer clothes and toilet seat heaters yet don’t have enough time to spend with their families and friends. As a result they’re emotionally very cold and seemingly not too enamored with the situation, I think if they had a more European i.e. relaxed style approach to work and the personal development of the individual the economy would still be OK but their quality of life would be much, much better than it currently is and consequently they’d maybe be happier.

And as Richard Littlejohn agrees (so it must be true) there is a darker side to the Japanese too; due to their treatment of POWs during WWII Japan did terrible damage to their reputation in countries like the UK or Australia. However, amongst their fellow Asians the Japanese are truly detested. Many Western countries have superiority complexes and Asia’s no different, Thais, Chinese and certainly Koreans are guilty of it but worldwide even Israelis might come second to the Japanese. Throughout the early 20th century when they built their empire in Manchuria and Korea through WWII in SE Asia their barbaric treatment of the local populations will simply not be forgotten or forgiven. The Indian freedom fighter Chandra Bose enlisted Japanese help to train his men to fight against the British but after a couple of months had to abandon the plan as the Japanese treated the Indians ‘like animals’ and were far worse than anything they suffered under the British. They destroyed virtually all of Koreas cultural heritage but most famously in 1937 China suffered the so called Rape of Nanking where high command instructed Japanese troops to massacre between 200,000-300,000 the local population and rape around 50,000 of the city’s women for essentially no military gain. Even now hotels in China have signs up saying ‘No Japanese allowed’ and whilst to be fair Japanese Prime Ministers have made various apologies over the years and give very generous financial aid, their annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Jinja shrine to honor Japans war dead- among them 14 Class A war criminals means relations with their neighbors are perennially frosty.

At 127million people Japan is the 10th biggest country in the world yet only around 1% of the country isn’t pure Japanese and the rest are Chinese or Korean so ethnic diversity there ain’t. But this is starting to cause problems; most developed countries have an ageing population problem but Japans is the worst in the world. With a fertility rate of 1.3 only Italian women have less children but Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world (a whopping 86 for women) meaning that under current predictions by around 2040 just 40% of the population will be paying for everyone. One of the easiest ways to improve this position is by bringing in lots of immigrants (eg the UK) as they have more children but in Japan it’s difficult to see that ever being adopted. About 8yrs ago the unusually flamboyant prime minister Junichiro Koizumi tentatively floated the idea of introducing an immigration policy for the first time in the countrys’ history but despite the logic of this plan it was absolutely shot down by both the opposition and the general public. Whilst they’ll grant 2 year visas to English teachers or Pinoy cleaners/prostitutes the idea of them settling down, having families and becoming a long term part of the ‘Japanese’ population seems unacceptable for the country at this stage, despite the damaging implications this has for both their economy and ability to evolve as a society.

Whilst just about every other developed country have accepted their position and responsibilities in the global village to take in asylum seekers etc. Japan seems unwilling to do so, content in their own world. In its desire to remain firmly ‘Japanese’ a strong vein of xenophobia surfaces and foreigners can never fit in; however this in itself creates a truly unique feel to the place and makes it a fascinating, alien culture and society to observe.

Japan is often described as a ‘2 paced country’ and if Tokyo represents the side running into the future then the old capital Kyoto and the nearby even older capital of Nara represent much of the Japan which remains rooted in tradition. It is a quite amazing place, with over 2,000 temples and dozens of World Heritage Sites there are more ‘sights to see’ than any other city in Asia and like Rome it’s one of those wonderful spots where people live around 1,000yr+ old buildings as an integral irreplaceable part of the city. In the national rebuilding of the country after WWII most urban planners had an affair with the wrecking ball so most Japanese cities including Tokyo possess few buildings which were built earlier than about 1960. However, for several centuries Kyoto was the nations’ capital and whilst it eventually lost political and economic status to Tokyo it stands as the country’s historical and religious heartland.

The rectangle shaped city is bordered on 3 sides by forested mountains and in building nearly all of the biggest wooden structures in the world the architects had the usual Japanese knack of gloriously incorporating the natural environment into the designs. It very much represents the Japan of the imagination as I spent days exploring the city’s shrines built onto the cyrptomeria lined hillsides with my favorite one being the torii covered Fushimi Inari. Based on a set of mountain shrines are several KMs worth of walking paths, not unusual in itself but virtually every step of the way is done underneath a bright vermilion tori (entrance gate to a Shinto shrine) to leave literally thousands all over the mountain. Dotted around are statues of foxes (symbol of good luck) which would be fine but they’re open mouthed with their fangs bared and designed to look scary, you’re allowed to walk the paths at night and catching sight of one in the lamplights is a pretty scary almost supernatural sight. A much more pleasant nocturnal memory is the infamous geisha distract of Gion, it’s simultaneously a very old fashioned yet very lively neighbourhood. In early evening you can still see the glamorous ones shuffling round in their mesmeric kimonos en route to their evening engagements and in the twilight along the river it’s a pretty enchanting sight in a magical place.

I got my timing very right and very wrong in Japan, the Winter lasts quite late so I decided not to visit Northern Honshu and Hokkaido as all the national parks, including most guttingly Mount Fuji were still closed. Having said that visiting in the school holiday month of March meant I could get a rail pass which single handedly made the country affordable. Since the beginning of the economic crisis the Yen has been stronger than Mariusz Pudzianowski as all the banks abandoned the Dollar, Euro and Pound. After the quake/tsunami its value went even higher to its record level so trying not to empty my account has been ‘challenging’ to say the least. Before I came here everybody I spoke to about Japan said the same thing, in the same tone that “I don’t mean to be racist but…” (then immediately contradicts themselves) has become a commonly used phrase: “Japan’s great but jeez it’s expensive”. I simply haven’t been able to afford to do some of the classic Japanese experiences like the bullet train ($30 for 15mins) or an evening with a geisha (around $2000) and the first things I’ll do when I return to China is gorge on fruit (about $1.50 an apple) and get my hair cut ($40) as it now looks worse than Andy Murrays. Well, maybe not that bad.

With all that in mind being able to travel 5 whole days (and I even got a free 1.5 days extra when no-one stamped it!) for just $130 was an absolute Godsend in a country where even by English standards nothing is cheap, very much a stroke of luck.

Being here at this time of year was also great because it’s the time of the legendary sakura, Japan is absolutely covered in cherry blossom trees and at the beginning of April they all come into bloom. In the absence of a big Christmas style festival the entire country goes crazy over it, aside from everyone taking hundreds of photos of the spectacle they host hanami parties where every spare foot of ground in the parks are taken up by picnics as people get drunk and generally celebrate the beginning of Summer. When the wind blows the petals come down like a pink snow and aside from being a beautiful sight it’s a lot of fun to be around.

I ended my time in enjoyable city of Osaka which was a perfect place to get a last dose of the Japanese urban experience. Something else the Japanese are very good at is putting on big scale entertainment options and it was great fun going up on the worlds largest ferry wheel and possible best aquarium- they’ve even got a whale shark! I couldn’t explore the Blade Runner like landscapes in Tokyo but Kansai hasn’t been affected by the quake so I got to enjoy the pulsating neon of the amazing Dotombori district. At night the streets and all the scrapers are covered in a blaze of electricity in the form of moving ads on billboards and even sides of buildings, like Time Square or Picadilly Circus but over a much larger area. Just fantastic, yet again I found myself struck by just how unique Japan is- there’s just nowhere almost anywhere like it.

I’m not sure what it says about me but as I’ve got older I’ve definitely realized my happiest (and most mischievous) moods are when I’ve been drinking the night before. As in Korea alcohol is very much the social glue which holds Japan together and feel like I’ve been living the dream a little bit recently. Thanks mainly to my friends the 3 Ss: soju, shochu and sake (and some very friendly expats) I seem to have been in a blissful semi- permanent drunken haze for the last effortless couple of months. Japan is an amazing place to be on so many levels, whilst for financial reasons I couldn’t stay any longer I was still there for over a month and I do feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit. I certainly intend to return in the future.

Now it’s time to return to the Big Red One as I take the slowboat to Shanghai.

From Osaka,


Posted by carlswall 14:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kyushu and Western Honshu

Onsen (hot spring) Attendant: “Sorry, no enter”

Me:” Errr.. why?”

OA (pointing at the liberal sprinkling on my torso): “No tattoos”

Me: “Why?”

OA: ”Yakuza”

Me: “…. Do I really look like I’m Yakuza?”

At which point I just ignored him and entered anyway. I then spent the next hour being pointed at and whispered about behind hands by the onsens other patrons, which when you’re naked is quite disconcerting let me tell you. Hello to my first few weeks in probably the only place in the world where people say I look like a gangster- the Land of the Rising Sun, 5.5M vending machines and 48 member pop groups. Yes I’m in Japan. Of course the quake/tsunami off Sendai has dominated the news since the weekend but just to prewarn you the email subject is Kyushu and Western Honshu rather than Eastern Honshu where the earthquake was. Whilst I’d love to recount a stirring tale of survival delivered in a hardy Corinthian style I would have to make it up, though I have written a bit about it. Also this one doesn’t have a U rating so you may wanna miss out the section after the Shinto shrines…

I began my Japanese travels in Kyushu, the Southernmost of the 4 main islands, Whilst much of the country is still covered in snow the climate down South is much more forgiving and after spending most of the last few months struggling with chopsticks as my hands were too cold to grip em properly it was appreciated being in a sunny climate. My southernmost stop was the breathtakingly sited city of Kagoshima. When you’re walking around the streets you get grit in your eyes and a film on your teeth- that’s because of the stuff the huge volcano Sakurajima spits out. It sits just 4km away and has been in a state of constant eruption for the last 65 years. In Napoli’s twin city everyone wears face masks, the city is covered in a fine level of black ash and as I kept looking up towards the peak at the latest rumble and smoke ejection I realized I’ve not been to many cities with a more amazing natural setting, your eyes kept getting drawn up to it yet it was a strangely relaxing place to be for a few days.

Volcanoes are a key feature of the landscape as Japan ranks only behind Indonesia in number of active ones though I was really gutted not to be able to hike the Kirishima route where you get to summit 5 active volcanoes in one day. However, one of them started erupting a few weeks ago so a huge area was closed off though I could see it and took a few photos from the train.

But whilst taking photos of the clouds erupting out of the volcano was great, seeing photos of a different type of cloud in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima will maybe live longer in the memory.

With hindsight Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the US during WWII seems a strange one as they had terrible supply routes (Japan has very few natural resources) and had no expectation of actually defeating their much bigger foe; merely hoping to form a better negotiating position to gain territory elsewhere in Asia. This policy obviously slowly backfired but Japans isolated geographical position left the US with a dilemma of how to end the war with a strategic advantage over the USSR. Whilst they knew Japan was slowly being defeated due to the whole ‘shame/losing face issue’ the Japanese simply wouldn’t surrender and with the defeat of Germany the fear was that the now free Russian army could simply move back to Siberia and mount an invasion of a near defenceless Japan. This could in theory have created a Red empire of a size that the Allies thought might be unmanageable; therefore the decision was made to drop the recently developed A-bomb, bring a quick end to the war and be able to dictate Japans future.

Most of central Hiroshima was destroyed but now has a very interesting feel to it with plenty of striking ‘60’s and ‘70’s concrete modernist buildings; they might not be to everyone’s taste but seeing the harshness of the lines of the Peace museum or the Cathedral it felt a strangely appropriate way to commemorate the city’s destruction. It’s a tragic period of human history and some of the exhibits in the excellent museum were pretty shocking. Some of the photos of burn victims and their subsequent health problems were difficult to look at but the personal accounts of how people lost their loved ones especially parents recalling their children slowly dying unimaginably painful deaths from Black Rain will probably remain with me longer.

However, on a grey, rainy day I found much less visited Nagasaki sadder and I’d maybe rate the 2nd A bomb as one of the US’s lowest moments. Nagasaki is a small but interesting place as it was the only port allowed to trade with the rest of the world (restricted to China and Holland as the Japanese didn’t trust Catholics!) for several centuries and subsequently became the centre of Christianity in Japan. Even now it very strongly retains a small town feel, it’s spread out over a number of coastal hills punctuated by gorgeous Shinto shrines and for various reasons was an odd place to hit. It’s in an isolated spot and didn’t have all that much heavy industry; a long way from anywhere else it was bombed only by accident as the first target of Kokura was too cloudy on the bombing day. Inexplicably Truman gave the order to bomb the city even though it had a 250 man Allied POW camp and with Japan already having signaled it was going to have to surrender most scholars agree the decision to launch was done almost exclusively as a warning to the USSR for the years ahead. The 2 bombs had a similar death toll (initially 75,000 rising to 150,000 with the after effects) whilst the first bomb could be justified as a means to end the war, akin to Dresden the death and destruct ion caused by the Nagasaki attack just seemed a cruel and largely pointless punishment to inflict on the defeated population.

Japan cut itself off from the world for a long time and its isolated island position means that it developed as something of a cultural Galapagos, not having all that much in common with even China or Korea. It occupies an unusual perhaps unique position in that despite having one of the most distinctive cultures in the world and pretty much everyone having awareness and opinions on it, due to the cost/distance of getting here very few people actually make it. As a result it’s an extremely rewarding place to visit and as I’ve walked around Japanese cities I’ve found myself noting lots of things as being very different, for the most part in a good way.

One of the things I’ve really loved so far about Japan are the aesthetics of the place and the sense of visual stimulation you feel just from wandering around and looking at things. From more obvious imaginative areas like the manga comics/cartoons and the tranquil gardens to more mundane things like apartment buildings the Japanese have an uncanny ability to make nearly everything look interesting. On a human level the Japanese are super trendy too and when not in their regulation work suits everyone seems to have their own personal sense of style which they don’t mind flaunting. Whilst it’s not something I normally pay too much attention to I’ve really noticed and loved the clothes people wear here. The schools uniforms are fantastic, boys start off wearing Donald Duck style tops and shorts even in Winter before graduating to handsome tunics with brass buttons all the way up that the likes of Dr. Sun Yat Sen would have looked good in. In contrast the girls start with full length skirts then just seem to grow without changing them so by the time they’re 16 you can see why camera phones have to make that ‘click’ noise, but more on that later.

Perhaps the most distinctive item of Japanese clothing is the Kimono and they really are gorgeous to look at, they tend to be in soft rather than bright colours and will normally have the beautiful nature designs on the obi (sash) on their back. Whilst younger women only tend to wear them on special occasions unfortunately its quite a common sight to see older women wearing them on the street and it’s certainly the most flattering way I’ve seen to grow old gracefully.

I’ve also really appreciated the more low key style of the Shinto shrines here. After having seen my fair share of temples on this trip I was ‘templed out’ as they say but rather than the stunning images of Buddhist or Hindu temples, Shinto shrines are much more understated and I’ve grown to love seeing em again. They tend to be made of wood and use white and black more frequently than bright colours ,also as they’re usually built to Japans geography ie on forested hillsides or on prominent coastal locations they’re both very photogenic and fit in much better with the natural landscape than religious buildings normally do.

But whilst some things are of a good difference some are better filed under the weird and definitely the area where this has been most noticeable these first few weeks is in the representation of sex and the sex industry generally….

Different countries in Asia occupy extremes in this area; despite being home to the Karma Sutra India as a country would have to have the most hypocritical attitude towards sex I’ve seen. Everyone from the government to the media to ordinary people there seem to believe Indians somehow have higher moral standards about it than Westerners and that everyone’s a virgin til they’re married etc. Yeah right.

In reality though, even ‘quality’ newspapers like ‘The Times of India’ for example will show photos of Bollywood starlets looking very beautiful and elegantly dressed on page 3 but on page 13 will, every day have a gratuitous photo of someone like Kelly Brook or Paris Hilton in a bikini. Similarly the IPL (Indian Premier League) has scantily clad cheerleaders but one of the conditions is that they have to be brought in from overseas. In other words it’s fine to use sex to sell… as long as it’s white not Indian women.

The genders don’t mix at all and there’s definitely no sex education so Indian men are the most immature you couldn’t hope to meet. As a white bloke they seemed to view me as some sort of oracle and way, way too often I found myself in a decent convo with blokes as old as 30something about cricket or similar when they would start asking the most inappropriate and often disgusting questions about sex. I realized my shoulders hunched in and my body involuntarily started forming into a defensive ‘ball shape’ as 200 decibel klaxons went off in my head whenever this happened telling me to ‘abort’ and leave immediately. Ultimately though I’m a bloke so could ignore it but just about every female traveler to the subcontinent has a canon of truly foul stories of things the men said or tried to do to them. Definitely one of the most negative aspects of traveling in India.

Much better was in the stricter Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Tibet or Bhutan where, preoccupied with getting off the wheel the people gave off a pleasing aura of being above it all. A ‘Yes we’re aware of it. And….so what?’ kind of attitude... There’s no media obsession with it and people definitely don’t talk about it but in a much more relaxed way than you’d find in Muslim countries for example.

Whilst Thailand and The Philippines are rightly famous for the prostitution and ‘sex pats’ etc culture and you’re confronted with it in lots of places and situations in Asia they’ve been the exceptions. Until I got to Japan and now I just don’t know what to think.

This place is weird, weird, weird. Various international studies show that Japanese couples have less sex than all other major nationalities but some of the stuff you see here is way beyond the pale of what passes for mainstream elsewhere.

Japan has the worlds biggest porn industry, which is fine but maybe as much as 1/3 of it isn’t actually human based (I thought that was the point) but sukebe or manga porn. Even convenience stores will have a wide selection of manga porn that goes off into all these strange subgenres and it’s seemingly un-taboo to display it in public. It’s a testament to just how weird Japan is that the strongest memory of my first few weeks here isn’t seeing the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima, aftermath of the quake or erupting volcanoes but seeing the middle aged suited salaryman bloke in front of me on a train reading a sukebe magazine where most of the content seemed to be bestiality set in space. You’ve probably heard of used schoolgirls panties sold in vending machines- well that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what else is on sale (used shoes, water bottles etc). There’s a TV show where girls lose their virginity live on air and they have quite incredible establishments called ‘no pan kissa’ bars which have floors made of mirrors and the waitresses don’t wear underwear. And if you pay extra you can lie down on the floor.

Unsurprisingly whilst all that’s bemusing/amusing there’s a much darker side to it too. As the high profile Lucy Blackman and even creepier Lindsay Hawker cases showed to the West, ritualistic sexual murders happen a bit too frequently here and the country has a very high domestic violence rate. Another strange Japanese practice are the ‘mizuage’ collectors, these are basically men who collect girls virginities as a character explicitly explains in Memoirs of A Geisha if you’ve read it. They normally go to South East Asia and bribe the parents of peasants to sell their daughters as they believe it gives them powers of reinvigoration and longevity. Of course.

In parts of Japan the age of consent is as low as 13 and it’s quite staggering how institutionalized paedophilia is here, you can buy magazines of kids (and I mean 7 or 8yrs) in their underwear and you may have heard of the long established practice of compensated dating. This is where men will pay schoolgirls to go on dates with them and there have been various scandals where teachers have made some extra money on the side pimping out their students. As with many Asians the Japanese don’t talk about social problems and ignore them rather than accepting they exist but it really is quite shocking to most foreigners what goes on here and is something the country has to tackle.

After leaving Hiroshima I headed onto the lovely city of Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan (or East Sea for the Koreans amongst you) which is where nuclear problems of another type began. As my Mum noted afterwards via the No of ‘Are you OK? Emails she’s had to send me I’ve travelled a seemingly disaster proof route on this trip. I’ve managed to narrowly avoid: flooding and a typhoon in Taiwan, more floods, a typhoon and a volcanic eruption in the Philippines, 4 earthquakes and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia and even the long running political protests in Thailand. And once again I got lucky in Japan-whilst coming from a country that effectively doesn’t have natural disasters I should feel lucky but I guess that’s simply life on the Ring of Fire.

I did feel the quake and several subsequent aftershocks (or at least I think I did) but at the time even though the house I was in was shaking and my feet started going from under me I thought it was just an abnormally loud thunder clap- frankly it may well have been. Whilst Col. Gaddafi and even the Japanese PM (he was on the point of being forced to resign over taking a big ‘donation’) were probably pleased the quake has dominated the news so much this one definitely wasn’t ‘the Big One’ or daijishin as it’s called here. A major fault runs SW of Tokyo (the March 11 quake struck in the sea NE of Tokyo) and historically there’s been a quake every 60 yrs on average on that fault, the last major one was in 1923 so it’s now 20yrs overdue. When that hits then in a city of 36M you probably would be counting the dead in 6 figures rather than the 4 or low 5s that have been predicted from this incident which struck a relatively unpopulated 4% of the countrys land mass.

It’s been oft remarked in the news coverage that the Japanese are better prepared for a disaster than probably any other country and I think that’s true on several levels. They’re sufficiently rich that they can build quake proof structures and coping systems which poorer countries can only dream of eg compare the death/damage count from the ’10 quake in Haiti with this one. More than that though the Japanese are phlegmatic if nothing else; in the deeply held Japanese desire of doing things for the common rather than individual good people won’t panic, there’s barely a trace of self pity and it’s difficult to see how the hysteria that took off after Hurricane Katrina (which was a much smaller disaster) for example would happen here. Much of the reason for that and one thing that really has been apparent is how differently the local media reports things versus international sources; I watched some of the local coverage with a half Japanese half American girl who translated the reports and the difference in language used is remarkable. As one of the ills of modern rolling news coverage/internet blogging etc. international sources have been guilty of over-sensationalising reports by exaggerating danger levels and using gratuitously emotive language, in contrast the Japanese reports urge people not to panic buy resources, to follow local government advice and focuses mainly on giving out information on what’s happening rather than focusing on more eyecatching stories. Western crisis reports tend to show a fast and noisy montage of images of the disaster which just hasn’t been the case here, it’s all done using much more measured language and just generally gives the impression of the situation being brought slowly under control. For example one of the reports from the BBC showed people running in Tokyo station and the commentary described it as “… people frantically dashing for trains South to escape the possibility of a nuclear fallout”. Well, I was there about the same time and yes some people were running for trains but in a giant commuter station at rush hour that will happen. If anything people seemed remarkably unbothered, indulging in the Japanese metro pastimes of dozing and playing with their mobiles. Rather than contemplating the incoming apocalypse.

Far and away the biggest downside of the quake for me was not getting to meet my friend George, he’d been living in Tokyo for the last few months but was 100km NE of the city ie nearer the quake epicenter when it hit. He really did have an adventure and unfortunately found himself sufficiently traumatized that he preferred to fly home rather than stay in Japan any longer. This was really gutting as aside from not being able to see my first familiar face in a year it left me with fairly unclear plans for the next few days. However I’ve got across Honshu with no problems and tomorrow I’m gonna do the opposite of FCO advice and go see “how they live in Tokyo”. There have been powercuts in the last couple of days and daily aftershocks but I don’t think I’m gonna start glowing.

So after that rather disparate set of issues I’ll try and be a bit more normal next time,

From Nikko,


Posted by carlswall 14:27 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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