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Tiantouzhai to Xingping day 16

It’s a bright sunny morning and I’m in a bit of a rush, having had an uncomfortable stomach over night. A bowl of yoghurt and fruit sorts me out, before my final walk down the mountain and into Dazhai where the hard sunshine casts an atmospheric light on old women cooking corn in open fires or spreading red chilliscro dry on their verandas. 

Strangely the bus leaves a few minutes early. The journey to yangshuo is windy, slow and towards the end incredibly bumpy as the bus traverses an unmade road. Even in this pretty rural enclave of China nothing stops progress, as mountains are sliced open and scarred by machinery as it is becoming more accessible to the outside world, which requires speed and direct straight roads, which unfortunately will increase the volume of traffic exponentially. Out bus makes several pit stops, at one, the driver hoses down the bus. The Chinese boy behind me strikes up conversation. I say boy as it is hard to guess his age accurately. He looks about 18 but turns out to be 26. On the bus with  his parents and 2 sisters scattered around the bus. He is sitting alone at the back. He is from shangsha and works in Beijing for a small construction firm. His dream is to build a  huge bridge that will carry his name and be his legacy. As he says nobody remembers who built a tower block. There is a piece in the news today about a glass bridge in zhangjiajie, iconic and making a statement about Chinese technology, which is having to close after a couple of weeks due to high volumes. I show the guy a photo of Clifton suspension bridge and explain its importance in terms of engineering. He is distinctly unimpressed and insists that although this type of structure may have been invented in uk it is China that has developed and progressed it. There seems to be a lot of symbolism in architecture and a certain sense of status in terms of communicating to the world what a society is capable of. He reveals that in Beijing any new development must be at least 6 storeys high otherwise it will not get planning percent. As he says China has too many people. I know this is a mistranslation but an apt one, as “a lot of” and “too” are both communicated by “tai”. That’s an interesting linguistic proposition. Does this mean that a large number is always neutral in connotation? Or the converse?

Language is certainly an inhibitor in trying to accomplish some of what I’m curious about. I have an idea of what my rather privileged Chinese students believe and value (though avian their language isn’t sophisticated enough to really communicate their thoughts), but what about the average and less well to do Chinese? My friend on the bus makes a good attempt to discuss many issues. He has not been to university and travels by bus, so it is apparent he is less well off, however his family are middle class, with his sister working in advertising, and his father a cook. I want to know what he feels about media control. He trots out a line familiar to me that the Chinese government protects its people from “bad information” by censoring the Internet. My friend fails to understand my argument that these restrictions undermine the intelligence of a people, and I fact present them with a controlled view of the world. This guy is a living paradox, as whilst he had no issue with state controlled media he uses a vpn to access Facebook and sees this as beneficial. I see this as dual standards and hypercritical. But this is China. Having your cake and eating it. Dogmatic conforming yet self-interested. A communist state in name but a burgeoning consumer society. As I’m reading about the endemic struggles that women have in Chinese society I ask him about gender roles, and I’m not surprised to hear him support the line that men and women are not equal in skills or abilities and that it is natural that men dominate society. He refers to ability, I hope he means possibility, but the more I hear the surer I am that he means the former. There is no room for debate. He sees things as black and white, is not aware of a world I change and the needs to address traditions that stigmatise and oppress. If I were to challenge him he would retort with “you don’t understand China”. Of course this is true, but one of the frustrating things about the Chinese is this catch-all escape clause, which basically circumvents any critical discussion. I see this in my students too. It’s kind of depressing that these views are so unquestionably held and that people such as this guy are not keen to look at other cultures and see there is something to be learnt from them.

Arrival in Xingping is disorientating and in a not very convenient location. I walk about 30 mins along the highway I construction, past numerous builders suppliers, through a tunnel that penetrates one of the hundreds of pointed limestone peaks that make this area  so unique. A little local bus takes me north up the river li to the small town of Xingping. Popular with Chinese day trippers, or half-day trippers, who come for a bamboo rafting experience, the departure point of which is directly in front of my window. There is a cluster of hutong with bars and tourist shops, which, although geared up for making money do not seem exploitative. The more interesting area is where the locals are. At dusk, a couple play ping pong on a full size outdoor table, elderly people with their wooden doors open play cards or gaze onto the streets, children play on bikes, the bustling market is winding up, but the live poultry area is still active. Some of the sights here are quite unpleasant, birds being plucked, others squeezed into transporting cages, off for someone’s dinner.

Sunset from the roof of the hostel is pretty. Once the day trippers have gone the hostel area settles down to a slow intimate rhythm and after a wood fired oven pizza (really), an odd experience in China, which doesn’t quite work, as this is a dish that is simple and requires the best quality simple ingredients, and China is not known for tomatoes or mozzarella, I have s lengthy talk with Agnes and Christian from Stuttgart. This covers brexit, the meaning of travelling, the changed nature of dreams when we travel, the philosophy and function of photography.

This feels relaxing here. I’m enjoying this trip a lot.

  
  

Guangzhou day 9

This blog will now become random thoughts, now I’ve caught up with logging. 
Fu yau yuan Buddhist vege restaurant has a shrine by the door which some of the customers bow to on exit. The gracious and mildly amused maitresse de (if that exists) sits me by it, meaning the predominantly aged yum cha clientele pass pleasant remarks which are probably mild mockery of the gweilo using chopsticks. On 2 occasions the waitress asks me if I want a spoon. I think I do a reasonable job with kaozi. I guess I’m not graceful. Do they take pity on me or want me to feel comfortable with western eating utensils instead? I don’t sense hostility. They are very attentive and kindly in here. An enormous gweilo appears at the door and is rapturously greeted by a waitress. Obviously a favoured regular. He looks a bit like one of the reviewers on happy cows.
This is another place with never ending tea top ups. I think it gets stronger the longer the session goes on.

  

Guangzhou day 8

I can’t get the aircon to the right temperature, but anyway it’s cooler than outside. I want to get up early and see the city coming to life. On my street corner are the 21st century bare chested coolies, sitting and squatting, by the kerb, smoking and waiting to be called into action. There seems to be a thriving industry in sorting and collecting recyclables. Bicycles are used as delivery vehicles. I see 12 or so water tanks strapped to one. The little hutongs are atmospheric and historical. Homes to sleepy old people who stare impassively when I greet them. I do exchange a few words with a lady packing up her breakfast stall and offer to send her my photos of her. Another old guy asks me where I’m from. The rest look bemused and I’m not sure if this is guarded hostility for venturing into their shady streets bedecked with strings of laundry. There is a market stall selling chickens freshly slaughtered, a little show through whose curious Windows I peer. It is plastered with amateurish water colours of flowers and writing practice sheets. Inside seated on one side of a long table are two little girls diligently drawing as a youngish man with a white goatee points between an arrangement of vegetables and some sketches he is making pinned to the wall. A lady stands behind the girls and guides their movements. Evidently they are in a still life drawing class. An older man opens the door, I’m thinking to remonstrate, but he invites me in. I politely decline. Could be a bit awkward. Some people don’t mind being photographed. The coolies do, as does the furniture restorer sanding a chair on the street as his caramel coloured poodle sits in attendance.
I’m having lunch at zen again. This time it’s heaving and full of lively chatter. Bitter melon soup and fried noodles with bean curd skin.

  The route here takes me past countless little stores selling refrigeration parts, copper piping, hardware type stuff. That reminds me of the neighbourhood near Mong kok where all the little shos sold paint and decorating stuff. These kinds of places would have vanished decades ago as the diy mega store took over in uk.
The guan xiao si temple next door is week worth a visit and seems to be more monastery than temple. The garden is pretty and peaceful. On the hall of the sleeping Buddha a meditation chant has begun, primarily led by black and brown robed women, some men as well. They are not monks as they wear grey and nuns shave their heads. The chanters walk in a clockwise direction snaking in and out of the rows of cushions they squatted on and circling the reclining Buddha in the hall. Two ladies one clinking a bell, the other tapping a block, lead the way. This lasts at least 40 minutes and seems quite joyous. Outside I listen and watch. A 4 year old boy copies his mother and circumflexes.

I want to get somewhere else, but the hutongs and their rich source of image delay me. Finally I get the metro to yuexiu park and visit the museum of the mausoleum of the second nanyue King zhao wen. It’s a kind of pyramid covering the excavated 2000 year old tomb. This was discovered only in 1983 as the hill it was secluded in was being levelled for housing. The museum contains fabulous jade artefacts from the tomb, which fortunately had never been pillaged. This is the suit he was buried in.

  A thunder storm is brewing and I hit the streets and explore. Cities have a sense of urgency in the rain and figures sheltering under umbrellas reflected on the glistening neon lit pavements are an enticing sight. I’m hoping I will get a bit lost once I’m past the hospital and climb over a flyover, but there is something vaguely familiar. It’s the plumbing shops. Somehow I’ve made a direct line back to my familiar neighbourhood. I’ve walked a lot and sweated a lot. Time for a beer.

I wonder if anyone is reading this. Leave me a comment!

Xi’an

It’s quite messy, chaotic, under- developed in many ways but you sense a kind of peacefulness, acceptance, tolerance, rather than a disquiet of various groups of people’s circumstances.

I’m staying on a back street with 3 backpacker type hostel/ hotels amidst a local community of hole in the wall eateries: at night small groups sit on squat stools around little tables eating hotpots, the flames casting a cheery and conspiratorial glow, or trays of skewered meat and bowls of dips. Old men sit on their steps and slowly follow you pass by. At the end of the street is a soya milk bar and a number of open air stalls who dip fry a kind of pitta then let you fill it with your choice of veg, tofu or meat, all mixed up with a chilli paste. On the street corners in the heat of the day, unemployed drivers of 3 wheeler cycle trucks laze and doze in their trailers.

The Muslim quarter is over the main road,and this is a totally different kind of China. Xian being the terminus of the Silk Road has historically been the home for traders and other races. The narrow streets are a riot of noise, hubbub, smells, tastes, sights. You are swept along by the calls of the kebab stands trying to entice you in, the rhythmic hammering of young men pounding sesame paste with wooden mallets. The smells are cumin, coriander, pepper. The men wear little white skulls caps, the women headscarves. I have hand squeezed pomegranate juice, a slice of yellow rose flavoured jelly, some spicy twice fried baby potatoes and some fried tofu. You eat on the go and walk and walk, it’s intoxicating.

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The Muslim quarter borders on the Bell Tower which is the central landmark here in the ancient city. It’s a Qing dynasty 4 tiered structure with the characteristic pointed gabled roof. At night it’s lit up and is an incandescent red, yellow, blue and very beautiful. Somehow it’s been absorbed into the modern city and now sits isolated from its sister drum tower as a roundabout where 4 busy roads intersect. This roundabout is 6 lanes wide and has an additional fenced off cycle lane. Watching the traffic is engrossing, and I’m glad I’m neither driving nor a passenger at this place. Buses thunder on to the roundabout, in the full knowledge that they are the biggest and that if anything tries to get in their way they will come off the worst. Then there are the modern cars, with drivers demonstrating a directness that suggests an arrogance and aggression. Pity the two wheeled riders, but somehow they all career on without a thought for mortality. Knackered old push bikes with pillion passengers, scooter riders checking their mobiles, mopeds with dogs in the foot wells, families of three including babies on one bike, woefully under-powered electric scooters with tiny wheels struggle to break across 5 lines of traffic. By the way, not a helmet in sight. A couple clatter across on their 3 wheeler bike towing a trailer that serves as their food stall, the cooker still steaming. An old man with a hand cart laden with boxes pushes his way across the road. A three wheeler taxi drives clockwise, that is against the flow, from one road to the next. A guy parks his car for 5 minutes in the outer lane. A mountain biker storms across with nerves of steel, or no nerves at all. Having lights appears arbitrary. Somehow there are no accidents, nor any hesitations or mis calculations that might lead to one. It works. It’s dangerous, scary, but works. There is absolutely no comparison with the UK. How many traffic laws have been broken here?

All this revolves beneath the bell tower, set in an ocean of neon, and curiously less Chinese signage than western: KFC, McDonald’s, Bell Tower Hotel Xian. The surrounding pavements are full of hawkers with trays of those green plastic hair stalks which seem to be de rigeur right now, slices of watermelon, micro SD. Cards. In the subway underpass below the tower alone legged man is selling plastic flower tiaras. There is a square between the two towers with steep steps at the bottom of which play a busking group with guitar and hand drums. Overhead a remote control plane lit with red and blue lights soars, dives spins and skims the tree tops. Makes me think back to the Shoreham disaster. Even though it is small, I’m sure this stunt flier could cause serious injuries if it hit the crowd at these speeds.The video screen that dominates the square plays the trailer to the Minions film and perfume commercials. It’s all beginning to feel like Blade Runner. There are mobile Police vans, which seem to be merely a place for the policemen to hangout and watch videos on their mobiles, rather than a control centre. For a control state, I have to say the police are virtually invisible, and their is no sense on intimidation. Meanwhile passers-by photograph themselves and the tower. Awful photos. Their best smiles. Smiles to themselves. This is how they want to remember themselves.

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Prachuap day 2 continued.

Om's house seems to be a social hub, and I spend a clue of hours there after visiting monkey temple, city shrine, and the vege restaurant. I meet Petra, a German physiotherapist who is into cycling. Our paths cross several times later when I cycle out to wat ao noi. The conversations are backgrounded by the incessant on-repeat Christmas tunes from next door. Wat ao noi is out beyond the fishing villages and amid the extensive fish breeding pools. The cave temple with the two reclining Buddhas is nothing special, but the climb up through bourgainvillia and cacti is beautiful. The adjacent main temple building is also noteworthy, being made of dark wood and having a surrounding terrace encircled by spectacular entwined naga.

The evening takes shape when JJ invited peter and me to her friend's itaLiam restaurant. It's our Christmas party, replete with snowman deely boppers, and gifts for James, her son, and her friend's daughter. Funny how asian kids are so much more endearing than British ones. The ravioli and tiramisu aren't bad, but vastly overpriced. The conversation is animated and joyful.

Back in the seafront the tide has gone out, revealing a beach. We stop in the tuk-tuk to chat to some friends. And there I teach James some vocab. When I set off home alone along the promenade he runs after me and onto the beach, where I go for a last gasp if air. We high five several times before I go off to bed for a long looked forward to sleep.

Prachuap Khiri Khan day 2

I get up reasonably early to a cool breeze.

 

I feel invigorated and spend a relaxing and enjoyable few hours climbing then hanging out on the mountain on the northern side, khao chong Krajok. There is another temple here, a scruffy group of buildings, a gold stupa, colourful bushes and a lot of monkeys. The steps and trees are full of them, and I feel like I'm invading their territory. Some are scabby and mangy. Their principle past-time seems to be picking fleas off each other. They are not exactly aggressive but a bit intimidating. I see a young boy with a bag of corn, bought from an old man with no teeth. Suddenly he is shrieking as scores of the beasts are at his feet, jumping up, all around him.

 
 
 
 

 

I have found a great and chilled out vegetarian restaurant, which also does a wonderful chocolate smoothie. Everywhere else sells seafood, so this place has already become my regular haunt.

Back at om's peter is having tea. I join him and JJ brings me some sticky rice which is cooked by steaming it inside bamboo cane. The Austrian next door seems to have lost it..or has decided to piss everyone off today. He is playing a cd of Christmas songs done in a kitschy oomp pah Austrian style. Frosty the bloody snowman in a tropical climate. It's beyond irritating….

 

Nakhon si Thammarat day 2

Nearly any rain, at least not until nighttime.

I spent today with Ning, an old student from Regency, and her old school friend and husband who are both university teachers. The deal is I teach a lesson with them tomorrow, and they drive me around the city today and lavish me with lunch, tea and dinner. It's a really nice day and I get to learn and appreciate things I wouldn't be able to do as a solo farang with no thai language. We make merit at the temple, which is considers the most important in southern Thailand. The white stupa allegedly contains yet another of the buddha's teeth. The gilded spire obviously isn't golden as corrosion stains drip on the white plaster work. Unfortunately the walkway around the stupa is closed, but we burn joss sticks (3 for the Buddha; 9 for the God, which we do at the city shrine later) and candles which get snuffed out by the breeze before we have time to kneel and plant them in the ash trough in the boat alter. We have little scraps of gilding, which we transfer to the Buddha effigies. Mine blow away, rather then cling. My merit is hard to. Achieve. Out of the sudden rain, we walk a cloister like passage where there is a large gong. None of us succeed in making it resonate. This is done by caressing 2 raised knobs. One woman coaxes a tremendous ringing tone from it. Wow.

We visit the city museum, which has some rather amusing dioramas, including one of a thai school room with a projected animate school teacher. There is a a big freize on which is written the 60 commandments that school children must learn these days. It's a bit much. Ning comments that the first commandment which is basically “do good things” suffices.

Afterwards we go to the city shrine for more merit making, and then to the remains of the city wall. On the city park nearby old and young, slim and not so slim alike exercise on the open-air communal gym-type equipment, though it feels more like a dangerous kids playground. On the field groups of men are playing a kind of keepy-uppy game involving a hollow rattan ball and bare feet.

A shared meal together is great: when you eat alone you can't possibly order so many dishes. Equally being with Thais, they are able to specify exactly what they want cooked. We have egg and bitter cucumber, a Chinese mushroom soup, broad beans and green beans in a spicy sauce, and a very hot tofu in yellow bean curry paste.