Thursday, 24 February 2011

Back in China: 1 Year Anniversary on The Great Wall, Lantern Festival in Beijing and Solo in Xi'an

After arriving back from 3 weeks away with much excitement I celebrated my 1 year on the road anniversary (if I can still call it being 'on the road') with a walk along the Great Wall of China with Cecily, an experience that is among the few to manage to live up to my expectations and an incredible way to mark the 366th day since I cycled away from home in Eastbourne!

Que more lazy days in coffee shops and quandaries about what to do from day 389 onwards...

In the meantime, I survived an evening out in the firework-and-debris strewn Beijing streets, when regulation and sense are left behind for the last legal opportunity to set off fireworks in the city. The Lantern Festival falls on the first full moon of the new lunar year and marks the end of China's, and much of Asia's, mammoth 15-day New Year festivities.

Close your eyes and you could be in a war zone. Open them and you still could be.
The firework displays I'm used to involve a couple of trained pyrotechnicians in a 200-metre exclusion zone. These are boring. My new favourite firework displays involve a guy who had 150 yuan in his pocket and a cigarette (the firework lighter of choice). Plonk the jumbo box down in the middle of the road without fanfare, light the fuse (is it lit? maybe? better check...) and retreat to the safe distance of 3 or 4 feet. People nearby? They'll be gone once the first one explodes. Part fear, part awe, everyone then stands for the next 60 seconds and watches the fireworks explode into the neighbouring buildings, sparks returning to earth unextinguished, stray non-vertical eruptions threatening us all but, in a Russian Roulette kind of way, that is part of the fun. And it was fun; I couldn't stop laughing with excitement the first time I saw it on my way to the shops. Whaaaaat?! It's a great example of the lack of rules and regulations, but the aftermath is all you need to realise why the rules and regulations exist. Every year at this time those that forget to close their windows find their apartments gutted - this year's toll: 194 fires (in Beijing), 388 injuries (in the first 6 days), 40 deaths (nationally), and 5,945 fires nationwide in 32 hours.

Cecily is currently visiting one of 'the world's most polluted places' for her work so I have finally managed to leave Beijing behind for a few days in Xi'an, the city at the end of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Warriors. Shrouded in the eponymous Chinese haze that has been noticeably absent for most of my time in Beijing, Xi'an is crowded and polluted and historically significant, an ancient capital and political, economic and cultural centre of China.
I'll have to post a mammoth photo update of the Great Wall and the Warriors once I'm free of the bounds of China's internet control, which will come with my visa expiring on March 9th, as, like the Great Wall, describing them in words is a pointless exercise.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Korea: Busan, Gwangju, Seoul

From Tokyo I caught the awesome-looking but average-velocity shinkansen Bullet Train over 1000km south to Hakata/Fukuoka (the 5 hour journey would have been impressive if the Chinese equivalent I took a few weeks before wasn't 25mph faster and a lot less than £160, but it did have wifi and lots of leg room). After 1 night there which involved forcibly getting drunk on shochu and sake at the behest of 2 epitomical Japanese businessmen, I took a ferry across to Korea.

The visit to Korea for me focused on the capital, Seoul, thanks to the incredibly catchy advertisement that has been in my head for months since I started watching CNN on hotel room TVs, and a stop-off in Gwangju to visit Chris who I originally met in Delhi and bumped into again in Bangkok, and is now in Korea on behalf of a female (small world for sure, in more ways than one). More time was spent playing pool or asleep and/or hungover in Gwangju than I would like to admit so aside from having the company of Haena who is Korean, my insights only went as deep as the realisation that the young folk here are incredibly attractive and incredibly fashionable, with their lens-less black rimmed glasses and crazy hairstyles.

Seoul is a massively popular city with a huge number of Brits, Americans, Canadians and Australians there to teach English, and along with the fact it's pretty inexpensive, safe and has a lot going on, not to mention that the Korean girls seem to find something remarkable about Western guys (whether that is for better or worse; the continual giggling may have been genuine hilarity, or maybe it was just my beard), makes it a fun place to be.
With the long bus ride there and a flight booked to coincide with Cecily's return to Beijing from her hometown for Chinese New Year, I only had a couple of days to explore the city and brave the cold, but they were pretty full and took in a couple of palaces complete with changing of the guards ceremonies as they happened centuries ago under King Sejong the Great and generally getting a feel for Seoul's particular 'vibe', which even in the cold and quiet of the New Year celebrations exists along the pretty riverside in the centre of the city, and the bustling shopping and nightlife districts around Hongik University and Myeong-dong.

Most affecting though was a chance visit to an exhibition entitled 'Where Love Does Not Exist', displaying and describing life within North Korea's Prison Camps which, in my ignorance, I didn't realise existed. Thanks to the media and Team America I saw Kim Jong-il as a deluded but funny character to make fun of until he dies, but with stories of imprisonment in 'Complete Control Districts' and treatment reminiscent of Nazi Germany, I will think again. The most shocking story for me, in amongst many both tragic and graphic, was about the North Korean Cheerleading Team (I know that sounds like an oxymoron) - 21 girls sent to the South for the Asian Games in 2002 and imprisoned on their return for 'breaching their pledge not to divulge anything they have seen or heard during their trip'. It appears they are still imprisoned in Taehŭng concentration camp for political dissidents where, if all is to be believed, they are treated incredibly badly, however with the controls the North has on such issues the only sources available are dissidents who have escaped.

"I was born in a political prison camp and lived for 24 years without knowing who Il-Sung-Kim and Jong-Il-Kim were. I have never heard the words 'love', 'happiness', 'contentment', 'unfortunate', 'injustice', 'resistance', and only discovered the meanings of these words in South Korea. These words are words that do not exist in political prison camps. Socialised with the bare minimum of words and emotions to perform addition and subtraction, and to follow work instructions, we were bred under physical violence as labouring slaves."
-Former prisoner of the 14th Gaechon Completely Control Zone Camp from Dong-Hyuk Shin's memoir.

Other stories included inmates having to eat rats and snakes just to survive,and punishment for breaking any of the prison rules being death.

So then I had coffee and read some Dickens.

That lead to another experience of hospitality and kindness to strangers reminiscent of Iran, as I was accompanied on my trip to the N Seoul Tower by new friend and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Subeom. It was dark and misty so the view wasn't spectacular, but from 500m up (the tower is on top of a small mountain) the extent of the city on the Han River was impressive.

Seoul is a friendly city and Korea is an interesting country with an interesting history, ancient and modern, sitting somewhere in between Japan and China not only geographically but also socially, with people looking both ways and drawing on both modern cultures, however I couldn't quite place it or get a full perspective of it, whether because it is hidden beneath the mixed culture or the Korean culture just has blurred lines between it and its neighbours, or maybe I just wasn't there long enough.

Back in Beijing now for the remnants of the New Year celebrations (i.e. avoiding death-by-firework) before paying a visit to some other parts of China. As usual, photo posting is not working so will follow sometime.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Photos from Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing, one of if not the busiest crossing in the world, overlooked by one of the busiest Starbucks in the world. This is also the location of Shibuya station where Hachikō the dog (star of the movie with Richard Gere) waited for his owner at the same time everyday for 9 years following his death.

Having seen other photos of the crossing, this Sunday evening was apparently a quiet time.

Even so the crossing reloads with people with each-and-every phase of lights.
Tokyo is also home to the world's busiest station in Shinjuku, with an average of over 3.6 million passengers per day, which along with over 200 exits makes getting anywhere fast pretty tricky for the inexperienced.

The view over huge, sprawling Tokyo and across to the mountains from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.

And that is Mt. Fuji, which you can see in the wide shot above under the cloud in the left third.

A more peaceful side of Tokyo in Asakusa, the ancient Downtown entertainment district.

The 634m 'Sky Tree', atop which are 2 crane operators who deserve a lot of money.

The rather strange bouffant-and-pointy-shoe look of the 'hosts' in Tokyo's Kabukichō red-light district - these guys all stand out on the street to 'catch' female customers, and who wouldn't be tempted? From Wikipedia; "a night of non-sexual entertainment could cost $500 to $600. A women's studies professor explained the phenomenon by Japanese men's lack of true listening to the problems of women, and by women's desire to take care of a man and be loved back".

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Tokyo, and Thoughts on Japan

Cecily summed Japan up better than I could hope to in her comment on my last post: (ignoring the part about watching US sitcoms, I don't know what she's talking about there as I am clearly a committed cultural explorer) "It shows the mixed culture of Japan: adopted modern culture, well-preserved tradition, bustle and peaceful. Mysterious as it is always. It is Japan".

I think most people's thoughts on Japan include the hyper bustling megatropolis of Tokyo (most likely the iconic view of Shibuya crossing) alongside a peaceful Zen Buddhist temple. Both views are correct and in reality not always that separate.
There's a distinct similarity between the Japanese cities I visited and I think that extends throughout the country - on any brief stroll you can see women in traditional dress alongside girls in decency-defying modern outfits, 6th Century Shinto shrines enveloped and overlooked by 21st Century business buildings, neon alongside lanterns and cyclists alongside supercars, and packed pachinko (pinball) parlours and seedy host/ess clubs alongside... well, there is no ancient mirror for that, I suppose they are a modern extension of an evening of entertainment with mahjong and a Geisha. Wherever you are, walking 1 street away from the well-trodden paths of tourists and locals alike can see you in a peaceful street of traditional homes lived in my stooped old men and women for generations.

As for the people themselves, as contradictory and fascinating as a modern Western people can get to a modern Westerner - the surface is placid, with a thick layer of incredible politeness and sensitivity to feeling and ego, respect and reverence for other people permeating all aspects of daily life. The conductors and food-trolley stewardesses bow on entering and exiting train carriages, all members of staff welcome each-and-every customer to walk through the door of any restaurant, shop or bank, friends young and old part with multiple bows, and all talking seems to be littered with excuse mes and thank yous. The subway is silent; everyone is using their mobile phone to text or browse but no one is talking or letting it ring aloud, and there are no audible conversations. More people seem to be asleep than usual, which I suppose hints at the long hours spent working and studying - 'Salarymen' working 12 hours a day and clinging onto a job following the economic bubble-bursting of the early '90s. This along with the unique way of interacting it seems has lead to the culture of men and women paying £30 to sit with a member of the opposite sex for nothing more x-rated than a chat - every red light area is packed with these and they seem to be patronised fairly regularly. Add to these the 'Maid Cafes' and Chikan (pervert) Bars: mocked-up train carriages where you can grope the 'sexy commuters', acting out what is a big problem on Japanese trains at rush hour - and the more underground, social repression-enforced quirks and perversions begin to appear below that placid surface.

Photos from Tokyo and words from Korea to follow, as it's late and beer awaits.