Saturday, 29 January 2011

Osaka, Nara and Kyoto

Osaka: 'America Village' topped by the Statue of Liberty, a weird corruption of the US fashion world beloved by Japanese youth and a great place to people watch. Dotombori, middle and left, bustling shopping arcades on canals with the kind of girls wearing the kind of clothes that leave you with eye and neck strain.

"Is Buddhism for me?" A wild deer of Nara, the original Japanese capital, visits one of the many temples.

Todai-ji temple in Nara-koen, a hugely impressive temple with a huge and impressive Buddha even for someone who has seen a lot of temples and Buddhas. Apparently the biggest wooden building and the biggest bronze Buddha in the world.

The very tame but still wild deer of Nara are all over the city, hassling children for crackers and knocking over the elderly.

Water for purification at the entrance to all Buddhist temples.

Kyoto: A geisha, whether genuine or model, in the ancient geisha district of Gion. There are fewer than 100 in the city and 1000 in Japan.

The cobbled streets of Higashiyama, in Kyoto, are lined with original wooden latticed Japanese homes and restaurants and walked by women in kimonos and wooden sandals, the only giveaway of the current year being the cables and the cameras.

Kyoto: Japanese lanterns and characters are now noticeably different from their Chinese cousins.

Kyoto: A bamboo forest in the hills above the city. I walked through a deserted temple and up here for a great view across the city to the mountains opposite, surrounded by family shrines and undisturbed by the people below.

Trinkets left at the shrines above the city.

The Ryōzen Kannon memorial in Kyoto commemorating the Japanese soldiers who died during WWII, seen through a metal grate as it was closed.

Sun setting over Kyoto with the silhouette of the Kyoto Tower on the left, my landmark for finding my way back to the hostel without a map after a long day of exploring.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

65 Hours to Japan

The Yan Jing, my home for just over 2 days

I'm now saying konichi wa with a bow instead of ni hao with a handshake, and domo arigato instead of xie xie. From back home I would have put Japan and China firmly in the same box, my knowledge of the 2 contrasting countries having been about the same as the 6 year old me stood in the local fish and chip shop chanting 'Chinese Japanese' whilst pulling the corners of my eyes up and down in front of the stainless steel counter. The 6 year old me I will forgive but the 23 year old has been very much enlightened.

But to begin from the beginning... How hard it was to leave that nice warm bed and that beautiful warm person at 4:50 on Tuesday morning. I don't think it needs to be emphasised how much I've enjoyed this chance stay in Beijing, and that the only reason for my departure is my visa's imminent expiration. The journey began with a taxi, and then a 210mph train ride to the coastal city of Tianjin, followed by a 2 hour taxi ride to the port which included a lot of shouting and confusion and my first realisation of how much I've been sheltered from the inconvenience of unshared language for my time in China. With the childish drawing of a ship on the ocean I finally arrived at the terminal to board the ship that would be taking me across the Yellow Sea to Japan.

I was the 1 and only laowai (old foreigner) or gaijin (outside person) and the only solo traveler aboard a ship of 200 mainly Chinese and a few Japanese, mostly young people making the journey for work. What with my mood at having left Cecily and my temporary home behind and the attention caused by this, the first few hours were spent quite uncomfortably, not to mention dealing with the unappealing thought of being stuck aboard this ship for more than 2 days. A few fellow passengers found the courage to approach what was probably a pretty unwelcoming face hidden in a book, but when they did the typical warmth and friendly curiosity was hard not to warm to. I was given Chinese tea (drunk by almost everyone traveling, usually in a clear bottle 1/2 filled with leaves) and some to this day unidentifiable vacuum packed food-like substance. My new buddies returned later for another 'chat' but we had exhausted all communication last time so they filtered away to the karaoke, not to be seen until they were offering me vodka in bed - bed being a bunk in a small and far too hot room with 15 other guys. The next evening it was the turn of a very drunk Japanese student to interrupt my film watching but again it was nice to talk with someone else for a while.

After 54 hours on board I disembarked in Kobe only to be welcomed into Japan by a customs check that only just stopped short of examining my insides with a rubber-gloved hand. Everything was unpacked and searched to the last possible hiding place, Jelly Babies and Cadbury's Mini Eggs were taken for x-ray and chocolate-filled sponge cakes were broken open and checked inside. When the chemicals dripped on some 'leaves' tweezered from the bottom of my backpack failed to turn either orange or purple I was free to leave the 2 apparently disappointed customs guys behind. In 22 border crossings, being checked at all was a first.

The view from Kobe city up to Kitano and the hillside

With 2 more trains and a great deal on confusion in navigating the Japanese subway I made it to my first stop, a total of 65 hours door-to-door.
Kobe is a great, small and friendly city, but as even the Lonely Planet says it isn't packed with things to see so it's only thanks to a head cold brought from the ship that I'm still here on Sunday. After enjoying the interest in just seeing the simple differences in people and society, behaviour and language, I made my way up to the Kitano Ijinkan area on the Kobe hillside which was home to some of the first foreigners in Japan at the end of the 19th Century and still displays the architecture of the UK, France, Austria, Denmark, etc., at that time. This is the same Kobe hillside that was largely destroyed by the earthquake in 1995 so in between these buildings which were rebuilt piece-by-piece there are those that remain destroyed but uncleared.

The ijinkan houses of Kitano

Evidence of the earthquake of 15 years ago - I don't know how this stained glass window survived in the destroyed house above

Saturday saw a visit to a local sake (rice-based alcohol or nihonshu, as sake just means 'alcoholic drink' in Japan) brewery to enjoy some free samples which temporarily saw off my cold.

Tomorrow I am finally moving on to Osaka, the place name that for some reason it was apparently very cool to print on t-shirts in the UK for the past few years, and then Kyoto, a city of 12 centuries and home of the treaty, before the megatropolis of Tokyo.

Below are some of the photos from Beijing that I couldn't post from China...

Tian'anmen Square looking north towards the Forbidden City (top) and south to the Monument to the People's Heroes, celebrating revolution, uprising and opium destruction, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Monks and speed skaters - the gate on the right is the old entrance to Beijing


What I thought was a nice old shopping street and hutong but is actually faux-old after knocking the original buildings and alleys down.

Mao's Mausoleum and a happy visitor

So cold!

Inside the Forbidden City

Reluctant in front of my own lens (Photo courtesy of Cecily Huang Photography©)

Power in words and building

Snowboarding at Nanshan

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

中华人民共和国 / Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó / China

Despite being a child of the technological age I've been defeated by China's internet censorship and the temperamental server-jumping workaround, and as such can't post any other photos than the 4 below. Aside from finally getting around to visiting Tian'anmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Chairman himself, most of what I've been doing is pretty un-Beijing-specific so I was going to let the photos speak for themselves... Ah well.

There's a metaphor in here somewhere - Dear Leader Mao obscured by National Flag in the pursuit of perfect symmetry.

Very cold guards patrol everywhere, and you need a security check just to enter the public square - the World's biggest

Mao Zedong's giant portrait hung on the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace', the entrance to the Imperial City

So, Tian'anmen Square was the windiest and coldest day for a long while which may have contributed to its underwhelming impact. Not as big as I'd believed, though apparently 4 times bigger than Red Square, it's presided over more by 2 huge screens playing proud Chinese moments (some would say Nationalist propaganda) than Mao's kindly face. It takes some hard thinking to draw up images of the events of 1989 - the famous Tank protest occurred on the incongruously named 'Eternal Peace Street' crossing the north of the square. To the east the National Museum of China, closed for expansion to make it the biggest in the world - nothing's worth having unless it's the biggest. To the west is the Great Hall of the People, from wherein China is ruled by the Communist Party. South lies a huge building housing Mao's preserved body which sees a constant procession of adoring Chinese and curious foreigners, and north is the centre of old Beijing, the Forbidden City.

Like so many places, the grandeur and history of the 600-year-old home of Emperors and Empresses and government past is hard to appreciate or visualise through hoards of shouting, happy snapping, flag following, identically dressed tourists, though it is at least positive to see so many domestic tourists - China's burgeoning as a 'socialist market economy' (or maybe just capitalism without democracy) is a long way from the imagined reality of a 'communist country', and people seem constrained by the more Western ties of money, status and 'success' than state oppression, though that in itself is likely a sign of the State's success in control...

The architecture of the walled city and its nearly 1000 rooms is incredible, but the real interest comes in taking a broader look at the 21st Century city created around it. The old City Walls are now Beijing's busy 2nd Ring Road, punctuated by place names ending in men, meaning gate: sites of the old entrances into the city. The city's hutong (ancient alleyways) - the ones that found enough favour to escape the painting of , meaning 'demolish' - are now bursting with cool independent clothes shops, cafes and bars, some in the old siheyuan courtyard homes dating back 2000 years. These are overlooked by the Drum and Bell Towers which sounded out the time (using a drum and a bell) over the same hutong centuries ago.

The city is nothing like I expected - it's huge and busy but without the chaotic, hemmed-in feeling of Hong Kong. The streets are wide and skyscrapers relatively few so on a sunny morning it feels more like riding through a town than one of the biggest cities on earth. As for China itself, I've only seen 7 of its 22 provinces - 6 from a train window and only a narrow spectrum of Beijing itself - all I do know is just how much I don't know. Spending all my time with a native has opened a lot of doors that would otherwise have remained closed, but in this case more into the life of China's more outgoing and broadminded or Western-born or educated mixed-heritage citizens, rather than gaining any insight into the seething mass of the 1,300,000,000 population. What I've missed out on in true everyday experience has been made up for with fun - snowboarding 45 minutes from the city at Nanshan; ice skating on Beijing's old canal network; drinking with the city's more affluent inhabitants in overpriced boutique bars and dancing to international DJs in the ex-home of a 20th century warlord's government...

Reluctantly that is coming to an end as my visa expires on the 19th - the fastest 30 days of my life - so the next update will be from the hopefully more internet-lenient shores of Japan following a 2 day boat ride from Tianjin. I've met some incredibly lovely, interesting people here and I hope on my next 30 days in the country (date TBA) I can combine that with seeing some more of China's varied landscapes and meeting more of its varied people.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Seeing in the Arbitrary Beginning of a New Solar Cycle

The New Year celebrations were a super fun end to the party season here in Beijing. Considering Chinese New Year is still a month away plenty of locals celebrated alongside expats and tourists in this part of town. Our plan had been to head to the super cool factory setting 798 art district for some hardcore techno warehouse raving (I even had my emergency military glow stick) but following a large amount of wine and fondue and a couple of deadly Duvels not drunk since February in Belgium (the most expensive meal of the entire trip it should be noted, though worth it for the interesting company of Dutch embassy staff and Japanese journalists), midnight crept up on us in another bar and the rest of the night was danced away there, to far more civilised music played by the world's oldest and coolest Chinese DJ, and long-held dreams of the moment the clock strikes... were fulfilled. Exhaustion set in at 4am and thanks to luck and a piggy back all returned safely to Happy Village II (or Xingfuercun in Chinese).

As the UK was seeing in midnight I was waking briefly, dry mouthed and thumping headed. As the UK was waking up dry mouthed and thumping headed I was in Dongyue Temple learning about the work of the Taoist's 'Department of Wandering Ghosts’ and the ‘Department for Fifteen Kinds of Violent Death’. Quite different from most previous New Year's Days.

The weather here is generally around -1 but often with wind chill (or when cycling) it's more like -18, which is making me long occasionally for the non-stop sweating and 3 showers a day of Thailand. I've just returned from playing the first organised football for about 8 years for which the 8000 miles of cycling helped precisely zero and I was wheezing all over the pitch, not helped by the dryness of Beijing's air - pollution definitely doesn't seem as bad as expected, and certainly not on the Delhi or Tehran scale, though undoubtedly it's there on the larger scale.

I have something of a feeling akin to having come home being here, and, not helped by winter, Cecily's apartment is very hard to leave - Tiananmen Square and The Great Wall still remain unvisited and instead an armful of DVDs have been watched and a bunch of hours have been whiled away in bed. Not the best use of time but, I think, perfect.