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.

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“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

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…

Returning to Guangzhou

So it’s come round to that dreaded time of year again when my life gets transplanted to Oxford, meaning that all my worldly possessions have to be sifted through and hauled into boxes. One nice side-effect of this process, however, is rediscovering useful stuff which I had previously buried into some obscure folder I never use in that dangerous “this is a nice, safe place” state of mind. This time round, I unearthed some scraps of paper which I had scrawled travel notes on while in Guangzhou, Kaiping and Macau (from my recent summer trip). Here goes:

Guangzhou

I left Xiamen last night, and in true environmentally-unfriendly style, I took the hour and a half’s flight to Guangzhou, situated in the far south of China, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong. On the flight I was accosted by a 11-year-old boy, who took me in as his big brother, teaching me a few words in Cantonese (the local dialect there – Mandarin is spoken as well, but the locals’ native tongue is Cantonese, very different) – but I can’t remember the majority of what he taught me. He also emotionally blackmailed me into recording a video of me and him on arrival in Guangzhou airport, possibly the most embarrassing thing I’ve done in a while. It consisted of the two of us making ‘peace’ signs to the camera, him saying “we are super friends” and then giving me a high-five – it was just too hard to say no! Another highlight on the timeline of our relationship was at the baggage reclaim, when he pointed enthusiastically and shouted “Oh look James, it’s another foreigner, looks like he’s from India”. We parted company on good terms, despite the embarrassment.

ANYWAY. Impressions of Guangzhou: I’ve been trying to think of this all afternoon, but haven’t come to any conclusion yet. My day started in the ultra-modern area of Tianhe and the New Guangdong Provincial Museum, which despite initial disappointment, ended up to be really good in its exhibitions of the history and nature of Guangdong. The area around the museum was packed with glistening skyscrapers, but the Martyrs’ Memorial Park area felt grubbier and slightly more characterful. The area around the Guangxiao Temple and the Mosque Dedicated to the Prophet, even more so. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Cathedral of the Sacré-Coeur – a Western-style old building nestled among typical, grey, dreary and oh-so-Chinese residential tower blocks, with clothes drying out the windows.

Then, an even more unexpected appearance: a boisterous and passionate sermon being delivered to a room full of African expats. I was in China, yet had flashbacks to a trip to Zambia I made when I was younger. Down an alleyway I wandered through a bustling market street with chickens crammed up in cases and being snatched up for the slaughter, old ladies scrubbing clothes in the streets and an army of bicycles fighting against the surge of pedestrians. The Pearl River waterfront is hardly Victoria Harbour or South Bank; I dare say that neither will Guangzhou as a whole be likely to win any aesthetic prizes anytime soon. Finish off the evening with a stroll through a busy fishery/market thing and a bowl of noodles served by some Henan people (who noted that I apparently look like I come from Xinjiang (Central Asia)?!)

So a pretty mixed bag from GZ. Definitely got its empire of glitzy glass edifices, historical substance, cosmopolitan culture and buzzing market life. Yet none of these impressions have proved to be strong enough to define the city for me. Maybe that’s a good thing (everyone loves vibrancy and variety), maybe it’s bad. Either way, despite only exposing myself to a day of its sweaty and stifling smog, it doesn’t ooze that more-ish quality that other cities can boast.

I’ll come back if I have to.

P.S. I’m mourning the death of my Lonely Planet paper cover, which has been in shreds for a few weeks now.

To be continued…

Mount Tai – Part 2

View from the summit

The summit of Mount Tai

I’ve heard the top of Mount Tai itself looks spectacular, if only it were possible to see clearly. As expected in these winter months, a thick fog was clinging tightly to the mountain and the pink sun was only vaguely visible until it descended into total obscurity behind clouds a fair margin above the horizon. In the end, we didn’t even notice that the sun had set. The summit of the mountain is not so much a peak as it is a very gently sloping, wide space filled with hotels and telephone masts. This is accompanied not by the sound of silence, but rather by speakers blasting out modern Chinese heart-wrenching power ballads, the most memorable of which was called “Mum, Don’t Cry” (妈妈你别哭 Māmā Nĭ Bié Kū). My personal highlight, though, was the “Terrace for Viewing the State of Lu”, where Confucius had supposedly stood. We were not pilgrims expressly following in his footsteps, but it was a strange feeling to stand in the very spot described in one of our first year Classical Chinese texts. Even if the view was simply looking into a thick cloud.

After we had sufficiently explored the summit of the mountain and had sat down briefly inside to thaw, the really exciting bit began. Night had well and truly fallen, and here we were, at the top of a 1,532 metre-tall mountain, without a hotel, faced with 6,293 steps down. Thankfully, one of our group had brought a handheld torch, and we eventually perfected the formation whereby one of us could shine the torch to allow all of us to place our feet carefully on each step. We were clambering down the main route up which the majority of tourists climb, and so we met a fair amount of puzzled faces questioning our reasoning for coming down at night. The path was wide and well made-up, but seemed never-ending. Shops and stalls passed by and the route snaked down the mountain, every step as sheepishly trodden as the last.

It was a good few hours until we reached a wide tarmacked bus stop. Being dark, we assumed that the bus services had stopped and continued to follow the stairway. It led us to another, considerably smaller and unpaved track which led us into a darker forest and definitely didn’t have the air of a main route. We were sure we hadn’t missed any large turnings. Confused but resigned to the absence of alternatives, we carried on and hoped that it would lead us back onto the main drag soon. This was certainly a hope which it didn’t really fulfil. We must have scrambled for at least three-quarters of an hour along a dusty track through the forest, one person wide, leading over large boulders and tree roots, in the pitch black of night, aided only by the weak light of our mobile phones. It would have been the perfect setting for a horror film. At one point, it directed us down what I’m sure was at least a 30% slope. It was definitely a case of putting your head down, focussing on your feet and not on what you could see of the distance, as what was ahead would just make you hope that there was a house round the corner.

Which there was! It was a real godsend that the path, at long last, led us back to the main steps. There we were welcomed with looks from Chinese people more disapproving and bewildered than ever before. How much further, we asked… another hour. It was ambitious to ever hope that we’d reach the end of the path so easily, so we carried on climbing down the steps. Legs feeling categorically like jelly, now.
Aside from the blip of the, let’s say, unofficial routing, the rest of the descent was not too bad. After such a long day of walking, my mind had been sapped of energy and I now struggle to have any distinct recollection from any time after our emergence from the shrubbery. The epic journey concluded when we found a taxi hanging around after just dropping off walkers climbing up the mountain. To our surprise it had only taken us three hours to come down (even with our slight detour), yet it still felt like we had spent longer coming down the mountain than we had spent going up. We rode back into the town, all resolutely sure that we had earned a huge McDonald’s. After getting back to the hostel, straight to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so fast.

Again, it was nice to escape the crowds which, to our surprise, didn’t seem to be present on Mount Tai. I have heard that the mountain is a tourist magnet due to its historical significance, yet there was gladly no sign of that at this time of year. The summit might not have lived up to expectations due to the fog, yet the climb up Mount Tai presented simply stunning scenery, and the climb down provided one of those silly little stories which make you laugh later on. We may have done it better if we had heeded the Chinese naysayers and not done it the “wrong way round”, but I can still say that it was an enjoyable and fully worthwhile excursion.

Mount Tai – Part 1: Following in the Footsteps of the First Emperor

Looking up the valley towards the summit of Mount Tai

Barely two weeks have passed since we ventured into the great outdoors of the Great Wall at Jinshanling, and already the rigours of Beijing urban life have been starting to grind again. I find that every day spent in this sprawling city of 19 million is increasingly leading me to crave fresh air and open spaces. Plenty of activities are in the pipeline for the very near future (including a visit from a group of seven friends from the UK and imminent visits to Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and Huangshan), and thus our free time in the coming months will be at a premium. Faced with a single free weekend, and a startlingly long checklist of not-to-be-missed activities, we were overcome by a rush of carpe diem. Arguably the most sacred mountain in China can be easily reached by a two hour train journey from Beijing, so what were we doing wasting time in the city?

Mount Tai (泰山 Tàishān) stands in the eastern province of Shandong, looming over the city of Tai’an (泰安 Tài’ān) at 1,532 metres, and is a site that has been venerated throughout the course of Chinese history. The First Emperor proclaimed the unity of the Chinese states at the summit of the mountain in 219 BC, but it also seems that anyone who’s anyone has also done something important here. Mao Zedong and the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu have visited, and even the big man himself, Confucius, once stood on Mount Tai and got all wax-lyrical about “considering the state of Lu small”. (I can’t vouch for him on this one though, thanks to the thick fog). Thanks to its central position in Chinese history, the mountain is regarded as a truly significant site, and hoards of people climb the mountain to attain the blessing of a hundred-year life, which is said to be bestowed upon all those who climb the mountain on foot.

We reached the city of Tai’an, nestled at the southern foot of the mountain, by fast train, as the city lies on the high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai. These ‘G’-mark trains are spotlessly clean and race along at 300km/h, contrasting hugely to the regular, slow and dirty trains which trudge around China’s section of normal railway. Tai’an itself, as a city, is unremarkable. In Chinese terms, this means grey, filled with dreary tower blocks, and stretching in every direction for as far as the eye can see. We only used the city as a point to rest up, so there is little to comment on the city itself.

We soon found out that, according to curious Chinese people who forced themselves upon us in conversation, our trip was “very poorly planned”. Such conversations invariably consist of me starting up conversations with people on trains, with initial enthusiasm to practise my spoken Chinese, only to regret the over-bearing nature of the ensuing dialogue and trying to withdraw all traces of interest. In this case, a young woman on the train sat next to me and, after finding out that I am a student of Chinese, started to grill us on our plans (of course, this followed the ubiquitous ceremony of “Where are you from? Are you American?” – “No, I’m British” – “Where do you study?” – “At Peking University” – “Wow, do you find Chinese hard?” – “The writing and the tones are hard, yes” – “Do you like China?” – “Not anymore”. The last one was thought, not said). It transpires that Chinese people like to climb the mountain at midnight to be at the summit in time for sunrise, then climb down immediately afterwards; the lady on the train greatly disapproved of our plan to climb during the day, maybe stick around for sunset, then climb down in the evening.

We decided to ascend by the less-trodden route, which led up the back of the mountain through the Tianzhu Peak Scenic Area. After a little confusion about how to reach the launching point for this route, we commenced the slow and steady five-hour climb to the summit at around midday. The sun was out with the blue skies, yet the air was bracingly chilly. A wide ravine scarred its way up the steep mountain side, getting gradually thinner as it twisted its way past sheer cliff faces and forested slopes. Rivers once poured down this course, punctuated by waterfalls of varying height, now frozen over by the harsh winter. We were greeted by new cliffs and rocky promontories which became increasingly spectacular the further we progressed up the mountain. Every now and then, we came across temples with curious names such as “Hurrah at the mountain temple” (呼山庙 Hū Shān Miào) which provided fantastic vantage points up, across and down the valley. The whole route had concrete steps, only occasionally giving way to sheets of ice and snow. Five hours of climbing later, a sense of elation descended upon the group as we could peer down the dramatic slopes that we had just scaled and had reached the summit.