A Year in Pictures

After looking over previous posts on here I noticed there were very few photos of any of the places I visited and wrote about. This, combined with a hint of inspiration from the Facebook ‘Year in Review’, has made me go through all pictures from my year abroad last year and whittle them all down to a top 40.

I have confess I only took these pictures with a humble compact camera, so don’t expect any groundbreaking photography skills here.

The Yungang (云岗) Caves near Datong, Shanxi province contain these huge Buddhist carvings into cliffs.

The Yungang (云岗) Caves near Datong, Shanxi province contain these huge Buddhist carvings into cliffs.

The historical streets of Pingyao, Shanxi province, have been largely spruced up for the tourist industry, but  still offer a rare chance to stroll down traffic-free alleyways which bear any resemblance to how they would be in traditional China.

The historical streets of Pingyao, Shanxi province, have been largely spruced up for the tourist industry, but still offer a rare chance to stroll down traffic-free alleyways which bear any resemblance to how they would be in traditional China.

Not exactly the prettiest picture, but the experience of standing on a crowded overnight train during the National Holiday for 12 hours was pretty memorable, for the wrong reasons.

Not exactly the prettiest picture, but the experience of standing on a crowded overnight train during the National Holiday for 12 hours was pretty memorable, for the wrong reasons.

Prime example of "Chinglish" - dodgy translations from Chinese into English. This gem was discovered on the Tianjin Eye, an observation wheel over the sprawling city of Tianjin.

Prime example of “Chinglish” – dodgy translations from Chinese into English. This gem was discovered on the Tianjin Eye, an observation wheel over the sprawling city of Tianjin.

The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨冰雪节). All these huge sculptures are carved out of ice by artists from all over the world.

The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨冰雪节). All these huge sculptures are carved out of ice by artists from all over the world.

Wudaokou - home for the duration of the year in Beijing. Couldn't get away without putting this on here.

Wudaokou – home for the duration of the year in Beijing. Couldn’t get away without putting this on here.

The Great Wall at Jinshanling snaking away over the hills into the distance. On a bitter winter's day this scenery was breathtaking.

The Great Wall at Jinshanling snaking away over the hills into the distance. On a bitter winter’s day this scenery was breathtaking.

Another photo of the Jinshanling Great Wall.

Another photo of the Jinshanling Great Wall.

In Tai'an (泰安), a restaurant owner prepares freshly hand-made noodles, which turned out to be some of the tastiest I've ever had.

In Tai’an (泰安), a restaurant owner prepares freshly hand-made noodles, which turned out to be some of the tastiest I’ve ever had.

Looking up the sacred mountain of Taishan (泰山)

Looking up the sacred mountain of Taishan (泰山)

Another side of China - the booming Pudong (浦东) business district of Shanghai.

Another side of China – the booming Pudong (浦东) business district of Shanghai.

The Shanghai World Finance Tower

The Shanghai World Finance Tower

Welcome to the nothingness of Xinjiang province, northwest China.

Welcome to the nothingness of Xinjiang province, northwest China.

Kazakh yurts in the Tianshan (天山) mountain range, just north of Urumqi

Kazakh yurts in the Tianshan (天山) mountain range, just north of Urumqi

Tianchi (天池)

Tianchi (天池)

The Night Bazaar in the provincial capital of Urumqi. The whole area has a distinct central Asian influence, and the distinct ethnic group of the Uyghur people.

The Night Bazaar in the provincial capital of Urumqi. The whole area has a distinct central Asian influence, and the distinct ethnic group of the Uyghur people.

One of the ancient buildings of the Jiaohe (交河) ruins, an old oasis town in the middle of China's northwestern desert.

One of the ancient buildings of the Jiaohe (交河) ruins, an old oasis town in the middle of China’s northwestern desert.

A portrayal of "ethnic diversity and integration" in a museum in Urumqi.

A portrayal of “ethnic diversity and integration” in a museum in Urumqi.

Food stalls in the People's Park of Urumqi.

Food stalls in the People’s Park of Urumqi.

Urumqi has been undergoing huge development following financial investment from eastern China. It bears the outward appearance of any other Chinese city.

Urumqi has been undergoing huge development following financial investment from eastern China. It bears the outward appearance of any other Chinese city.

Not just Chinglish, this 3-way sign draws in the Uyghur language as well. Lol.

Not just Chinglish, this 3-way sign draws in the Uyghur language as well. Lol.

Intro - Beijing's biggest electronic music festival. Notice the little girl on the woman's shoulders.

Intro – Beijing’s biggest electronic music festival. Notice the little girl on the woman’s shoulders.

Inside the Bird's Nest / Olympic Stadium, Beijing.

Inside the Bird’s Nest / Olympic Stadium, Beijing.

"Tantalising panoramic views" promised by the Lonely Planet guidebook were pretty hampered by fog at the rural Jiankou (箭扣) section of the Great Wall.

“Tantalising panoramic views” promised by the Lonely Planet guidebook were pretty hampered by fog at the rural Jiankou (箭扣) section of the Great Wall.

Sampling local cuisine - chicken's feet

Sampling local cuisine – chicken’s feet

The damp Wenshu Monastery in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

The damp Wenshu Monastery in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Pandas

Pandas at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Our night-stop on Emei Mountain (峨眉山), Sichuan province. This was the only time the clouds cleared away to reveal the surrounding hills.

Our night-stop on Emei Mountain (峨眉山), Sichuan province. This was the only time the clouds cleared away to reveal the surrounding hills.

The Great Buddha at Leshan (乐山), Sichuan province is the biggest Buddha carving in the world.

The Great Buddha at Leshan (乐山), Sichuan province is the biggest Buddha carving in the world.

The atmospheric sunrise from Huangshan (黄山), Anhui province.

The atmospheric sunrise from Huangshan (黄山), Anhui province.

Another one from Huangshan (黄山)

Another one from Huangshan (黄山)

Sanqingshan (三清山) was another nearby mountain offering amazing scenery.

Sanqingshan (三清山) was another nearby mountain offering amazing scenery.

A path was carved onto the sheer cliff-face at Sanqingshan (三清山).

A path clinging onto the sheer cliff-face at Sanqingshan (三清山).

A sea of clouds, again at Sanqingshan (三清山).

A sea of clouds, again at Sanqingshan (三清山).

One last picture from Sanqingshan (三清山).

One last picture from Sanqingshan (三清山).

"Pianos are the crystallization of human history, world science and culture, and the Labour and wisdom of mankind". Okay. An insightful analysis from the Piano Museum of Gulangyu island (鼓浪屿), Xiamen, Fujian province.

“Pianos are the crystallization of human history, world science and culture, and the Labour and wisdom of mankind”. Okay. An insightful analysis from the Piano Museum of Gulangyu island (鼓浪屿), Xiamen, Fujian province.

Xiamen and Gulangyu island.

Xiamen and Gulangyu island.

The beach at Sai Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

The beach at Sai Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

The beach at Sai Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

The beach at Sai Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

The beach of Tai Long Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

The beach of Tai Long Wan, New Territories, Hong Kong.

“If you want to see the real China, go to Japan”

So, the first term back at university in Oxford after the whole living-in-China thing has been and gone. They said going abroad for a year would be a “life-changing” experience, but I feel like everything here is very much the same as before – term time seems to relentlessly follow the pattern of: essay crisis, bop, translation, Tesco, struggling to cook an edible meal, music rehearsal, essay crisis, repeat. This all means that this silly little blog thing never really receives my full attention in term time, so it’s only in the holidays that I turn to it and scratch my head for anything mildly interesting to whack up onto here.

I changed its name from the painfully unimaginative “James Robinson in China” to the most cheesy-yet-permissible pun which you see above, partly in order to make it okay for me to post on here about a trip to Japan I’m going to be making in March/April 2013. I suppose the good thing about the change in name is that I can justifiably put up absolutely anything relating to any place east of the UK now…

But yeah, about Japan, mega-excited about that. I’m doing a Japanese course as a module at uni, and there’s nothing like a three-week solo trip to boost up from the basic level of konnichiwa and sayonara right up to the complicated stuff. It all happened really spontaneously though – I just saw an insanely cheap fare on Alitalia (which might be why it’s insanely cheap), and booked it. I can’t wait though – currently planning on going to Tokyo (of course), somewhere in the Japan Alps (possibly Nagano or maybe Takayama), Kanazawa, the Kyoto/Osaka area then down to Kyushu for some off-the-beaten-track sort of stuff. Any suggestions???

PS. The title of this post takes after a certain professor of mine

China’s school attack

While the world was reeling from the tragic elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut on Friday and mourning its victims, a less deadly yet equally disturbing incident was unfolding across the Pacific. At around 7am that morning, a Chinese villager (named Min Yingjun) set out on a frenzied rampage at a school in Wenshu Township, Henan Province. Armed with a knife, his attack thankfully killed nobody, yet hospitalised many of those among the 22 victims.

Min was suspected by police, as well as villagers, to be “mentally ill”. I can’t help but let this draw my attention to the appalling state of mental healthcare in China – not only the fact that psychiatric hospitals are effectively nothing but prisons, but also how conducive society is to the degradation of mental health.

Immense competition for success, and therefore pressure, is present throughout life – school, exams (with the infamous 高考 (gāokǎo) university-entry level exam as an example), universities themselves, work places and families. These aren’t exactly the fault of any authority; they’re just hallmarks of a country with a huge population, finite resources and conservative families. Yet these people grow up into a world where poor treatment and unjust legal procedures prevent grievances from being heard, and more extreme measures are needed to vent frustration against the “system”.

Many turn to suicide; China has the 7th highest suicide rate in the world and accounts for over 30% of all suicides across the globe. But there is also a worrying upward trend in violent rampages like yesterday’s, and I’d guess this is largely a trait of a disaffected population who feel powerless in the corrupt system which governs their lives. You could say this is just rehashing the same old argument which relates the lack of democracy to every societal problem, but corruption strips away all hope of what anyone would call a system of justice.

Give the Chinese government their due credit, though. The Xinhua News Agency has very scant coverage of the China stabbings – controlled media doesn’t silently encourage copycat attacks to the same degree as with free, open media (although of course Chinese propaganda still hushes political scandal which should be exposed). Also, strict gun laws lead desperate people to knife crime, evidently less deadly than gun crime. However this is a very shallow form of prevention, and they’d do better to address the root cause of such discontent. Needless to say, the authorities themselves would never say this is due to their politics, though…

I’m trying to steer clear of the whole comparison between the US and China (as so many people do), but the two events’ occurring so close together really highlights what each government can learn. While many in the US believe this is the time to amend the constitution and tighten gun laws, Chinese leaders should recognise the significance that their system has in driving people to extreme measures.

A week of elections?

By the end of this week, two of the world’s largest and most powerful countries will have held events addressing who holds power at the top (I’m reluctant to compare them both as elections). It’s just by coincidence, of course, that the US presidential election and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 18th National Congress have fallen in the same week, and I’m not going to launch into the democracy vs. [insert whatever China is here] argument here; it’s been done so widely already. There are already plenty of viewpoints around what the rest of the world thinks about China, but what I have heard to be some Chinese people’s view on the rest of the world reflects something else which is relevant in this week’s events.

I regularly email friends I met in China, and in one recent email I asked one of them what opinion she held on the CCP reshuffle, Xi Jinping [the expected new President], and what effect any change would have upon her.

The first thing she answered with talked about the British situation, and in particular the Labour Party and Ed Miliband:

He is pretty young and close to workers. I think that kind of represents that Britain is still caught in economic stagnation. People feel unsafe because of unemployment, inflation and global competition so they would like a party to support the welfare system and charge tax from big corporations as well as rich people.

Next up was her opinion on other world governments:

Americans vote in the morning and know who is president in the afternoon; North Koreans know who their ruler will be since they are the children [of the current leader]; Japanese vote all the time yet still don’t know who the ministers are

Then, finally, comes her opinion on her own country:

As a Chinese, we basically don’t have many political rights. We can’t choose anything. Yes, we vote our representatives, but we know nothing about him and that representative says yes to nearly all the motions. I don’t watch CCTV [the state broadcaster] so I know little about him. In my mind he is another second-generation Communist who was born into power. In daily life young people rarely talk about politics – we just make fun of it in our own way. You cannot express your opinion openly and seriously, otherwise you are in danger of, in extreme cases, being imprisoned. At last, the most important thing in politics is that we free our minds, eyes, ears and mouth. We should have the right to have different ideas, and can’t let the party tell us what to believe.

The last bit, on Chinese politics, is what we hear about a lot already and is not a huge surprise – people’s awareness of their lack of participation, and a latent yet suppressed desire to change that. However what I find most interesting is the very fact that she first talks about foreign politics (many would say this is just way of finding freedom to express opinion). I really don’t know if it’s true that Japanese people don’t know who ministers are, but the fact that young, educated people in China seem increasingly aware of foreign issues just reflects how, with globalisation in full swing, it is now possible for opinion not to be centred on the whole Communist thing. All the anti-foreign rhetoric once used to enforce state loyalty is no longer water-tight. After all, who would have thought that she knew nothing about her own leader yet enthusiastically talks about Ed Miliband, a leader of the opposition in a faraway country?

“Are you fluent in Chinese yet?”

Every time I hear this question is a facepalm moment. It’s so difficult to answer because it’s always subject to how you define “fluent” and so “fluency” isn’t a yes-no sort of question. Therefore I always respond with an awkward “Urmm, well, maybe, depends what you mean…”.

I suppose I should first say how I view my level of Chinese at the moment. If there’s an idea that I want to communicate, I can do it using a fairly good range of words, although there will be times that I’m struggling to find a specialised word. For example, if I wanted to find a plumber, and didn’t know the word for ‘plumber’, I would ask if anyone knew “someone who could fix the water pipes in my house”. It communicates the idea nicely, and gets the job done, but is kind of cheating. Therefore I’d probably say that I’m confident, and I’m an expert corner-cutter, although my range of extended vocabulary probably isn’t actually that good. (‘Plumber’ is shuĭguăn’gōng 水管工, so now I know, and looking at the characters, it makes total sense: “water” + “pipe” + “work”).

This isn’t something I think is unique to Chinese. Whatever language you learn, I think that “fluency” is anything you want it to be. It might be the ability to speak simply to get a point across, to attain confidence in speaking and listening like a native, to read and understand complicated texts, or to be able to write essays or articles with native-style flair. I would say that Chinese in particular makes it hard for a foreigner to achieve this final one, since it has an insane amount of idioms and so-called “four-character expressions”, all littered with subtle nuances and historical references. It’s virtually impossible that I’ll ever be “fluent” if it’s this last definition that you mean.

I would imagine that most language learners would agree that it is a long and sometimes arduous road through tedious vocab drills and grammar exercises to finally attain some degree of confidence. Living in a totally immersive situation, like I did in China, however, creates some deceptive illusion that you can skip the ‘studying’ step, and just let it ‘all soak in’. Maybe if I were three years old, couldn’t speak any other language and didn’t live in a flat of English-speaking housemates, it could possibly have worked. Living in the country shouldn’t be seen as some magical key to fluency, and I slightly regret that I didn’t take to the whole experience more diligently.

For the moment, though, if I’m asked the “fluency” question again, I suppose I’ll have to settle for simply responding “sort of”.

Returning to Macau

… continued from previous post.

Macau.

First things first, ugh I’m really hot. I got here via the Special Economic Zone of Zhuhai (boring), and have now departed China-proper and am in the former Portuguese settlement of Macau (Aòmén 澳门, or門 as they like it here). It’s the first time in a while that I’m up a gum tree with communication; on the bus you hear Cantonese, Portuguese, Mandarin, and English, but when push comes to shove, the only one which matters is the first, in which I can say “hello”, “thanks”, “fantastic” and “aeroplane” (which I thankfully learned on the fantastic aeroplane trip last week). Signs are written in Portuguese as well though, which makes me glad for my limited exposure to Spanish. A police guard failed to understand my Mandarin (mainland-speak) when I asked for the nearest ATM. The only place that I’ve got by in English was in Dairy Queen, which I patronised mainly for its temperature.

I saw the obligatory cultural sights: the Ruins of St Paul’s (that famous lone-standing façade), the Church of St Dominic, and another chapel round the corner, as well as lots of street-wandering. Similar to my recent Taiwanese experience on Jìnmén 金门 just off Xiamen, Macau is more like the China from movies – narrow cobbled streets, vertical signs and characters squigglier than those I’m used to (traditional, unlike the mainland’s simplified variety). You also get more aromas and miscellaneous whiffs that remind me of London’s Chinatown. I have lots of experience of street ambience in Macau, since I spent about two/three hours alone searching for some Burmese restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet book which turned out not to exist (my trusted companion has turned against me). In the end, I gave up and went to some generic noodle joint.

It’s worth repeating how ridiculously warm it is here; as hotels are also ridiculously pricey (over £60 for anything apart from this, and I’m on a shoe-string) I’m feeling the heat in the San Va Hospedaria, which lacks air conditioning and loves to keep the front door open. There’s an army of ceiling fans making a valiant yet futile attempt at making the air temperature tolerable. For the first time ever, I’m not frustrated at the lack of hot water in the showers, for the icy plunge this evening was the most welcome feeling of relief I’ve felt all day, maybe bar Dairy Queen. For all this guesthouse lacks in luxury and comfort, it more than makes up for it in character and charm. Plus, it’s comparatively reasonable at £17 per night. Let’s just see if I can sleep though…

Returning to Kaiping

… continued from previous post

I was literally the only person on the bus from Guangzhou to Kaiping, and I can see that the city is hardly a wonder. It’s not really endowed with beauty either, but it hasn’t been a wasted trip. The charm lies in the surrounding countryside scenery of rice paddies and fields, and the homes-cum-watchtowers which are scattered among them. These diāolóu 碉楼 were the homes of overseas Chinese who got rich abroad and returned to their ancestral homeland to build and reside in these buildings. Apparently there are thousands around Kaiping (according to the trusty Lonely Planet guide who has been with me since the beginning!), but the diāolóu I’ve been able to see were all around Zilicun 自力村 (shit, what’s happening, I forgot how to write first time round!), only about 10 of them. After getting off the bus at the side of a deserted road, it was a disconcertingly long walk along a lonely road in some fields (you know that feeling when you don’t know if you’re on the wrong track…?). On the way I saw a duck farm, which was fun, albeit noisy. I dare say that this was real Chinese countryside, and it felt really peaceful.

The diāolóu cluster stood sturdily yet inconspicuously nestled in among the trees of the plain. The main attraction to this place is the European styles of the buildings and the curiosity of such styles existing in China, but despite my family’s penchant for architecture, I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t distinguish between Gothic or Renaissance (or whatever else), sorry mum). As such, as I’ve seen my fair share of European architecture, coming to the diāolóu for me serves as an excuse for a nice tranquil countryside walk, a brief perusal into local history, and pneumonic cleansing from the smoggy Pearl River Delta. Returning to Kaiping let me catch up on the London 2012 Olympics. The Chinese are winning obscene amounts of gold medals, and are rightly pleased with themselves, too.

To be continued…