Thursday, 3 September 2009

Beijing Acrobatics

Another of the series of my photos lost with the camera was a visit to a Beijing acrobatics show. The show was exceptional and, as with all skills at that level, they made it look so easy. The bit with 14 girls on one bike was pretty spectacular, apparently more than in the clip here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan

Well, here we are, the bit without photos. To be more exact, the bit with the photos taken by some thieving lowlife, but I’ll come to that later.

The Great Wall is almost mythic - everyone has heard of it, it is on the tourist "must see" list but as with so much in China, the reality doesn’t sit entirely alongside your preconceptions.

As I explained, we hired a guide and a driver, and having heard how crowded The Wall can get we asked him to take us to a quieter section. He checked we didn’t mind walking and took us to Juyongguan, a part of the wall close to Beijing and Badaling (the Oxford Street in rush-hour version) but - as it has no cable car - much quieter. There are two semi-circles to walk there, the northern is the less steep and more frequented and the southern, well, lets just say that he took us up the bit that most people come down and there were very few - maybe a dozen or so - that we passed on the way. Of course, when we came down the other way we realised that most people just don't make it up. I did manage to take some great photos.....

The things that strike you most forcibly about this section of the wall is first, how big it is, nothing you read or imagine prepares you for this socking great thing built by hand. But second, how steep it is. Imagine one of those stiff Lake District climbs - you know the sort, the ones that hide the next stage of the climb from you until you get around that bend, the ones where you think "we must be somewhere near the top now" only to discover that you aren't even half way. Now, make it steeper. And higher. Now, build a stone wall about 5 meters wide and about 6m high all the way up it. In places, the pitch is so steep that the steps are about 60cm high and 20cm deep. Oh yes, now carry on building that wall for 5,000 miles. Hadrian's Wall is quite something to see, but this is just something else.

The day was quite hazy, but that lent a mystic quality to the view. Sure, it would have been nice to see for miles but then we wouldn't have known what we were looking at, so misty was good too. No matter also that the wall had obviously been extensively renovated over the years - this is China after all - that place still owns time in a way that few other places can. Just to stand there was a privilege.

Looking, walking and standing on the Great Wall of China you can only wonder at the mind and the attitude that conceived it all those thousands of years ago. This, more than anything else, shows China as the land of the possible.

As I said, my photos are no more, but fortunately I was carrying my bike GPS and recorded the walk, which is where this Google Earth Picture comes from. If you want to load the walk in Google Earth yourself, here is the link.

Monday, 31 August 2009


Placing the copper wire on the shape.

Filling the design from the pallette of colours

Polishing down the finished object

When we decided to travel independently, rather than in a tour, we thought we might hire a private guide for some trips; we didn’t realise then that a day with a car, driver and English speaking guide would cost only £50. Part of the deal, though, with any guided trip whether in a group or on your own is the shopping. You get ferried to factories and enterprises, shown around and given the opportunity to buy.

This was one of our first experiences of that kind. We were on our way to the Great Wall and the guide took us to this Cloisonné (Chinese enamel ware) factory. The factory itself was fascinating, a seemingly haphazard amalgam of stunning colours, base material and shambolic apparatus leading to a fantastic product. I tried to capture the effect photographically; here are some of the results.

The Cloisonné technique involves placing copper wires on a base shape, repeatedly filling the troughs with enamel and firing until the glaze is built up. It is then polished down and the wire electroplated. We did buy a vase, even though it appeared a little expensive, but the quality of it is much higher than the copies you can buy cheaply on the streets.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Old and New


One is possibly 700 years old, the other isn't - can you guess which is which? Walking the streets of Beijing we came across a temple to Wen Tian Xiang, a formative figure of Chian from the Song Dynasty. The gatekeeper seemed surprised to see us, and happily took our 20p entrance fee (compared to the £4+ at the larger attractions) and we were left to wander the site on our own - very unusual in China. These photos highlight the Chinese obsession with renovation; the new stone is the one presented and the old one is tucked away in a strange, museum like collection of artefacts. You are left on your own to realise that the one is the copy of the other.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

So How Polluted is Beijing?

I remember the fuss made over the pollution for the Olympics, but I was not prepared for what it really meant - this. You hardly see any blue sky, a pall hangs over the city all the time. Here I am standing on Jing Shan park - a massive man-made hill created around 1300 AD from the earth dug out to create the moat around the Forbidden Palace, that you see here. This is the North Side of the Palace, the main entrance is in the South as the Chinese believe the South to be most important - maps are often printed with South at the top and a compass is called a "south pointing needle". You can also see the symmetry of the Palace, built with the principles of Feng Shui at its heart.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

China - land of contrasts

This is by no means the most extreme example of the contrast between have and have-nots I came across, but it was the first. This shot is just across the way from the glossy hotel we stayed in in Beijing. That building that looks like a shed is someone's home and what woman is doing here is washing up at the communal tap. The aircon is something that you find even on the more downmarket homes (I hesitate before using the epithet "hovel", but I can't help thinking that); it's near universal application puts you in mind of the coal burning electricity generation that powers China. It goes some way to explaining the miasma of pollution that hangs over Beijing, casting a dirty haze over everything.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Palace of Earthly Tranquility

And this is what the fuss is about. As ever, a mixture of heavily restored building and priceless ancient artefacts. The 360 view is here (I do like that site).

I got a crush on you

This is in the Forbidden Palace, just outside the main throne room. The crush is fully as bad as it looks, and then a bit worse, I confess to having been more than a little frightened. In a strange way I suppose this was the first moment that the underlying difference in culture really came home. Snails for breakfast is one thing, viewing this kind of behaviour asa normal or acceptable, and the mindset that lets it happen is another.

We had hired a private guide for this visit, which substantially improved our experience. She was able to provide the background and to work our way around the crowds rather than through them. When I asked her, "Isn't this dangerous here? Aren't people going to get hurt?" Her answer was "Oh yes, they do, quite often". There is a way that the cavalier disregard for Health & Safety is almost comforting, but when it comes down to it, if I had to choose between this or our own (somewhat-over)nanny state approach, safety would win. It's just a shame there isn't a happier medium.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Dragon Tales

The dragon in China is a different beast from the evil monster in the west. They are potent symbols of power and control, they are the Yang to the Phoenix Yin. In these tiles, you can see that they have 5 claws, which marks them out as the Emperor's and so you won't be surprised that I came upon them in a quiet corner of the Forbidden Palace, the Court of Eternal Longevity.

I've found a link to a 360 view so you can see it in situ here:

Friday, 21 August 2009

Something for the Weekend

Out of sequence, here is one of the shots I took to use as screen wallpaper (I keep my screen icons on the left), you are welcome to use it if you want. It's from the Tang Dynasty, around 700 AD and seen in the Shanghai Museum, and cheers me up each time I see it. Maybe I'm strange.

While I'm at it, a little background. This is not a "normal" blog of mine, this is being created for me to remember, and to help me crystallise thoughts that are floating around in my head. It's a useful device for writing to talk to you, but then you may not even be there, and even if you are there you may not be listening, no matter. While I'm still writing this blog it there will be pictures some days, other days there may not be any. So now you know.

Moving On

One of the most difficult things for me was getting my head around the Chinese attitude to the past. From the immediate evidence: the way that historical buildings are "restored", the buldozing of the shanty towns, the absence of mementos of the past, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Chinese only value the past for what it can give them in the future. This, the Socialist Statue, is one of the only images that hint to the communist background. But then, on the day that Mao's toumb is open, the queue stretches right around the block - and Tiananmen Square is the largest block in the world. Makes you realise, it's all a lot more complicated than it seems at first.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


China is still a country where things get repaired and reused. People repairing shoes by the roadside, collecting empty plastic bottles, everything has a use and a price, this floor covering looks like it is headed for some future transaction. Looks to me similar to the legions of scrap iron collectors you see. Even though there is vast amount of building work going on in Beijing and the rest of China, you don't see any skips.

But don't get the udea that this is about being green - this is all about money. Just because they use bicycles, they still all aspire to cars.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Flu can be a swine

The Chinese are paranoid about swine flu. Before we could set foot in the country, we had to have our temperature taken three times, and we were advised not to take public transport for a week. You also see a lot of people wearing these masks. Which, when you consider the Chinese habit of spitting everywhere - incredibly noisily - is more than faintly risible. But hey, we were let through so that was ok.

What I didn't manage to capture as it went by so fast was on the taxi ride into town: a sweeper like this sweeping the side of the motorway. No protection, no high viz, no hard shoulder. We were in a different country for sure.

Looking forward to China

On the rail shuttle into Beijing airport, I didn't know what to expect any more than these children did. Three weeks of experiencing a culture and country so entirely removed from our ordinary life in the West lay ahead, I had no notion of what to find. My six months of learning Chinese was hopefully going to underpin our indepemdent travel but to date served only to underline how woefully inadequate my language skills were likely to be.

The adventure begins.