Friday, May 16, 2008

Tha advantage of speaking at conferences is that you get to travel to some pretty fantastic places. So I've been in Norway for a few days, speaking at a military conference. Stayed in Oslo for one night in the Hotel Opera, opposite (you've guessed it) the new Opera House. It's a low set building, all sharp lines and a crysatline white exterior. It's so low that you can wander up and onto its roof. Spectacular setting overlooking the sound.

Next morning off to Gol with my Norwegian hosts and a couple of nice guys from Washington DC. The rail trip was three hours of spectacular scenery. It's all black lakes, mountains, rivers, trees and wooden houses. May of the houses have separate out-houses on pillars, where they hang smoked meat.

I had a great afternoon in Gol sunbathing in the grounds of the Stavkyrkje, a tall wooden church that reminded me of Chinese and Thai architecture, with its vertical wooden beams and pavilion-like layers.

And just a word about the people - it's VERY friendly. Norwegians love a laugh and drink like drains. They have a drink called Linae Aquivit, which crosses the equator twice in Sherry barrels, to make it blend and get the sherry taste through gentle rolling. You dow them in one gulp. My hosts were fantastic.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Books on China

China is so often either a blank in people’s minds or shaped by simplistic, western images. This is why the place surprises everyone who visits. The reality is so very different from the prevalent view. This is a personal list of 13 books that I found useful prior to and while travelling to China.

All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger

The Changing Face of China by John Gittings

The Great Wall by John Mann

1421 by Gavin Menzies

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer


The Analects by Confucuis

I Ching by Lao Tsu

Politics and people

What does China think? by Mark Leonard

China an the West in the 21st Century by Will Hutton

Behind the Wall by Colin Thurbon


China Inc by Ted Fishman

Mr China by Tim Clissold

China Shakes the World by James Kynge

Give that China has such a long and continuous 4000 year history as a single political and cultural entity, one overarching history book is worth reading, as one will inevitably want to date the things you see, such as the The Forbidden City, temple of Heave, Summer Garden, Great Wall, Terracotta Army and so on.

All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger
All Under Heaven by Rayne Kruger does this well, written chronologically it tells the full tale right into the 20th century, from Confucian age and earlier through the main dynasties, namely Ha, Tang, Sung, Yuan (Mongol), Ming and Chin, although it stops with the Communist taking power in 1949.

The Changing Face of China by John Gittings
Gittings, a journalist, has been reporting on China from 1049, and this book is a history from 1949 to the present and this book completes the picture with a detailed account of 20th century Chinese history.

The Great Wall by John Man
It ain’t a wall, can’t be seen from space and some sections are more reconstruction than original. Nevertheless, I won’t agree with the Watford Football team’s famous assessment when on tour ‘If you’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen them all”.

1421 by Gavin Menzies
1421 by Gavin Menzies tells the tale of the eunuch Zhu Di’s epic voyage, speculating that he circumnavigated the entire globe. He’s an ex-navy submariner and brings lots of practical experience, along with 15 years of research to the table. However, the evidence gets very sparse the further he goes from the accepted route of the voyage. It does provide a great introduction to the world of the court and eunuchs at the time.

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer is written by a German POW, who escaped from a British POW camp in Northern India and walked to Tibet. The escape makes great reading but his earthy descriptions of a Tibet trapped in a mystical, feudal but reactionary, Buddhist bubble, where one the one hand, people shit in the street where they stand and medical care barely exists, and on the other celebrates a nomadic life that is now being crushed by a dominant Chinese culture. It is a land wholly dominated by the Living Buddha and the brutish and backward behaviour of the monks meant the life expectancy of the people is around 30. Interestingly, it is the British who have a foreign presence here up until the Chinese invasion in 1951. We saw it as a barrier and bulwark for the Empire, no different from modern China. Indeed, China has a much longer and more compelling case than any other power for its, albeit crude, dominance. If you want to rise above the hippy fondness for Tibet or the Chinese Party line to understand the real Tibet, this is a great start.

Chinese though was shaped, historically, by three things: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. There are, of course, many other schools of though, including legalism but one has to start with the main rivers of though before exploring the backwaters. Chinese personal, public and political behaviour and patterns of thought often seem opaque to outsiders, but these texts explain much about their modern manners.

The Analects by Confucius
The Analects by Confucius has 20 short chapters and is, at heart, a code of personal conduct, with a focus on personal learn, reciprocity in action, caution in speech, loyalty to one’s ancestors and family, subservience to the state and political advice. Confucianism is still taught in Chinese schools and reading this short, but at times difficult and alien text, gives real insights into modern Chinese thinking. Confucius is to China, what Jess is to the West, someone who teaches by parable and leads by example.

I Chin by Lao Tzu
Taoism promotes the key concept of the Way (Tao). Manichean concepts of Ying and yang underlie this philosophy and have come to shape medicine, architecture and even ways of thought in China. On one level, it promotes a sense of balance and moderation, on the other it is irrational nonsense. You find both in modern China. There is a balance in personal behaviour and traditional architecture, with its horizontal, symmetrical and north-south grids. Yet the obsession with lucky odd (as opposed to even) numbers leads to crazy prices for car licence plates. In medicine there’s a lots of simplistic ying and yang thought which relies on analogy (horns and erections). The I Chin by Lao Tzu is the key text a wonderful play of opposed concepts that shows both the subtlety and complexity of this way of thinking.


What does China think? by Mark Leonard
What does China think? by Mark Leonard is a fascinating insight into the political and economic landscape described through the eyes of China’s intellectuals and think-tanks.

Maoism has been replaced with the cult of the US. Some see this as self-hatred or ‘reverse racism’. The danger is that China simply adopts foreign models, Maoism then Consumerism, rather than forging their own future and idea of modernity. This ‘grope for stones as you cross the river’ has meant a series of pragmatic and incremental changes and innovations. Double-track pricing – state prices and market prices but gradually moving more towards market prices, allowed for transition. The release of market forces through smallholdings, tow enterprises and economic zones. There are some experiments around ‘deliberative polling’ where spending decisions are decided by the people.

They have rejected the sharp Gorbachov reforms and fear the break up of China as happened in the USSR. The Western liberal democratic model is also feared. The Cultural revolution has shaped attitudes away from democracy. They see democracy as weak, with diminishing interest in political parties, idiosyncratic candidates and low faith in political leaders. Singapore and Hong Kong have show commercial success, national identity and little corruption, without democracy.

Democracy is not a given. Local consultation with an incremental cascade from local level upwards has been tried. The Communist Party has 70 million members and is still firmly in control. There has been a swing towards the left with promise of 20% increases in education, welfare, unemployment benefit and health.

China wants to be a superpower, as it has been several times before. They measure CNP (Comprehensive National Power) with 64 indicators. It is careful about a balanced power-profile, hide brightness, nourish obscurity. This means an invisible foreign policy, neutrality on others. Aid without strings and on tariffs for poor countries. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation with 5 central Asian countries – they are a force for Asian unity. Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania, Mauritius as a stepping stone or ‘hub’. Iran is also being wooed as are Venezuela and Canada War is a failure of strategy. As the USA remains bellicose, China quietly turns up. Their rise is seen as a new phenomenon, a win-win phenomenon. Soft power techniques – Confucius Institutes, Mandarin language and foreign students all in the mix.

But the neo-comms are also at work to preserve a Walled World. Asymmetric warfare, shooting down satellites, negates the US obsession with military hardware. Trade war, resources war, financial war, media war, economic aid war etc.

It is still a Walled world within a Flat world. We hear little of the demos on unpaid wages, pensions, corruption and lay-offs. Saudi Arabia controls internet traffic by having one ISP. It screens out un-Islamic sites. Chinese traffic is too large to police but it has four levels of filters and keyword identification Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, Falun Gong. The Great Firewall is full of leaks and much traffic takes place between mobiles and using flash drives.

China and the West in the 21st Century by Will Hutton
Hutton takes on the big themes in politics, economics, foreign policy, environment but it is a tale of two Chinas.

Exponential growth has led to huge numbers of people being lifted out of deep poverty and a massive trade surplus that now means China is a major global player, in the WTO and on the economic and military landscape.

However, there are few great companies and problems with productivity, rampant counterfeiting, corruption, white elephant projects, risky bank loans and inflation. China was not a signatory of the Kyoto agreement and many of its huge cities sit beneath smog that blots out the sun for days on end. Desertification is eating away at productive agricultural land, water is polluted or in short supply and air quality is appalling. As there are no independent checks on pollution, separate from the state, there is no real incentive to solve the problems through law or protective agencies, it remains cost free. This remains a problem for both China and the world.

Economically, this is rampant capitalism, with few of the slowly evolved checks and balances of the West. Companies keep three sets of accounts, one for the bank, one for tax, one for management. Load and bad debts may yet rebound if there’s a downturn or recession and the credit crunch in China could be mother of all crunches. The raining of expectations may also lead to political problems as there are huge funding issues around health, education and social security. China is 144th in the world on public health supply.

China Inc by Ted Fishman

China Inc by Ted Fishman is the voice of some one who lived in China for fifteen years and his fusion of anecdote, description and analysis in absorbing. Unlike Hutton he sees China as a much more important powerhouse claiming that we underestimate the size of its economy and influence. Its success has come at the expense of other poor economies and its effects are being felt in the US and Europe. Some see China as being the dominant world economy, and power by 2050 or much earlier.

The danger is the willingness to suspend reason and see only a bright future, as happened during the Cultural revolution. Its neocons are the neocomms who see a utopian socialist/capitalist future and chase it at all costs, environmental and otherwise.

There’s an interesting commentary on Chinese chauvinism and xenophobia, explained I Peter Hayes Gries book China’s new nationalism. Visitors are routinely called ‘foreigners’ or ‘long noses’ and the Japanese ‘devils’.

Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age, education and support, exacerbated by the one child per family policy (apart from minorities). These savings fuel the economy. Shanghai is their crow jewel but there are many other huge metropolises.

Mao is examined as a creator, influence and now ironic marketing device in modern China. There were the attempts to alter nature by destroying all birds, mosquitos, rats and flies, leading to ecological crises. Even pets were banned. His steel surge led to the abandonment of reasonable agricultural policies and starvation. But Mao is now hated but marketable.

It was the farmers who created capitalism with their personal surge of productivity and surpluses, creating businesses and restaurants. But there are dark sides to the surge. Exploited migrant workers, corrupt business people and officials, rampant prostitution (your room phone will ring in every hotel), the abandonment of health and education for all.

The war on girls, with draconian one child policies, infanticide, male ancestor lines, patriarchal rural traditions, massive foreign adoption of girls and imbalances in gender, possibly up to the population of the UK in the next decade. He speculates that this may lead to a rise in male violence.

He takes a look at manufacturing through the car industry. The success of Volkswagen (3/10 new cars) is visible in every city but so too is the rise of Chery and other home grown brands. They have a massive pool of cheap labour to build cars. The US has bee slow to respond but now have some brand presence and the Japanese are there in force. Honda and Volkswagen now make cars for export in China. Quality mobile phones and coactivity are everywhere. This is a country in love with manufacturing and making things.

Pirate nation is a look at China’s long history of imitation, borrowing and copying. The scale of software pirating is immense, even at the corporate level and punishment is rare and irrelevant. Local officials are often involved in counterfeiting businesses and tourists lap it up. This creates an unfair commercial playing field. It also puts a break on ideas led innovation and entrepreneurialism as everyone knows that their ideas can be pinched and copied. This is a nation that broke all the rules to get here, they see this as a virtue. It is, in fact, a massive global subsidy.

China has climbed inside the US and world economy with its buying of US bonds (lending to Us, acting, in effect as its bank), currency controls and economic activity. The US may find itself high and dry if China decides to get growth from sales elsewhere and abandon support for the US. The US is a dependent child and may become an abandoned child if it continues to live on blind consumerism and debt.

There are nearly as many people learning English in China, as speak English in the US, Canada and the UK combined. Learning Mandarin is pointless, better to learn other skills, while Chinese kids learn English.

Mr China by Tim Clissold
This is an entertaining and largely anecdotal book by someone who studied mandarin in Beijing then was hired to head up a wall street charge with 400 million dollars into manufacturing in China. It joy is in the descriptions of culture clashes between brash US financiers and Chinese chancers. Capitalism and culture clashes at their worst.

China Shakes the World by James Kynge
On the World Bank’s list of the 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China. Oil gushed out to wells to be wasted and water conservation is rare. 44% of the felled timber imported is illegally felled. China buys, copies or insists on IP transfer but it is perspiration rather that inspiration that drives their economy, a mammoth pool of cheap labour.

Business is not what one might think. Key sectors are largely state owned (banks, oil & gas, telecoms, railways, power, ports and petrochemicals). Companies only float one third of their share capital, faked results, share manipulation and the banks may need to make costly readjustments. Then there’s the breakdown of trust, bribes, even fake policemen. But it is corruption that remains rampant.

The final chapter on foreign affairs reveals the, at times artificial, attempt to woo foreigners, has a manipulative side. It refers to Making the Foreign Serve China by Anne-Marie Brady, who obtained instruction manuals on how to woo foreigners. It’s all very utilitarian, especially around the Olympics. Foreign policy is truly global and Kynge looks as the tripling of trade to Africa, the courting of Venezuela, Sudan, Burma and central Asian states. Pakistan and Bangladesh are also in its sights. Much of this is about protecting its oil routes but also to increase trade.

Day 14 - Beijing

Final meal
We took a taxi to our final restaurant and had some amazing fish and a final fling, followed by a session in a local bar – karaoke and all. I’ve never really got into karaoke. It seems to kill conversation – so I went out and sat out in the street to watch
Beijing go by.

One last thought - what I loved was the people, ot the cheap shopping, skyscrapers and modernity. What all of this maufacturing ad rush to modernity means is commoditisation. China is not an innovator. there was little in the way of things that was surprisig, fresh or new. The same copied stuff appeared everywhere. One yearned for a creativity, rather than copying. I suspect this has a lot to do with the eductioal system, with its Confucian conformity. It was disappointing to see MacDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks in all major towns and cities. I hope the Chinese don’t fall for this commoditised, US version of western culture.

Day 13 – Ping An

More walking
I followed the narrow stone path out to some of the remoter paddies and down to the next village in the valley. Just head off on the network of stone paths and you’ll find yourself alone with just the occasional farmer and water buffalo. The countryside is stunning with not a vehicle or even bicycle in sight. Wooden family houses, built with not a single nail, woods, pavilion bridges over streams and even birdsong.

Out on the Dragon’s head I stopped to take a picture of an old woman who shrieked with joy when I showed her the digital image on the back of the camera.

Trudging back down the mountain with our bags, a few succumbed to the 20 Yuan porters. We flew from Guilin to Beijing was its usual smoggy self

Hard beds
I did, eventually, get used to hard beds in China. Rural houses, had flat board beds, heated from beneath during the winter, this idea has clung on and you’re likely to experience some snooker table surfaces on your travels. Hotels are fine but some have the rather clichéd pianist in the foyer, something I think has died out in the west.

Airlines – staff – bow
Chinese airports are full of new aircraft as air travel, especially domestic, has boomed. On board there’s a calm politeness from the cabin crew. They stand in a triangle before take-off and bow one by one, repeating the performance before landing. Even provincial airports are gleaming new structures.

Beijing was its usual smoggy self. We drove even closer by the CCTV building. The closer you get the uglier it seems. Later that evening the heavens opened and Beijing was surely glad of some cleansing rain.

Day 12 –Ping An

Woken this morning by firecrackers, a shop opening apparently. The rice (really a grass) paddies here were first built during the Yuang Dynasty then finished in Ming times, when the local tribe was pushed up into the mountains after a war. The clay here is strong and thick, creating waterproof walls for the paddies and the water supply from the limestone above is plentiful. Every possible slope has been cultivated on all sides. You can hear the frogs in their thousands. Swallows are favoured as they nest in pairs for life and symbolise love and loyalty.

It’s back breaking work, digging out the clay by hand, ploughing by buffalo, planting, fertilising, and reaping. The terraces are very slender hugging the contours of the hills, so everything is transported in baskets suspended on poles on people’s backs. The whole process needs constant care and attention. There’s two crops a year here, meaning even more work.

The local women only cut their hair once in their lifetime, when they’re eighteen. It’s long and black with a sheen from the rice water they use when washing. They’re also a good humoured lot.

We visited the local school but I abandoned the class visit (the usual singing for tourists) and went to the playground to play some kids at table tennis – I was roundly thrashed. We then had a game of basketball – great fun for all, even if I did fall over, graze my knee and rip my trousers! They love this game.

Day 11 - Yangshuo

At breakfast I spoke to two cyclists who were doing a leisurely 20Km a day in the area through villages and tows. They had been pick-pocketed in a remote village and had their mobiles nicked.

Bike trip
We hired bicycles and rode out on dirt tracks to the rice paddies where people were hoeing, carrying manure I baskets, using water buffalo to plough or darting rice shoots into the mud. There was no sign of mechanisation and the people looked as poor as one can imagine. It rained on the trip and we sheltered in a café and beneath a limestone overhang. I had noticed a lot of smoking among the men, but not women. Paul, our guide, said that only ‘naughty women’ smoke.

Chinese calligraphy
In the afternoon we did calligraphy classes and Tai Chi. I chose calligraphy and enjoyed the deliberate and almost ceremonial approach to writing. We did the basic nine strokes then some basic characters and our names. He also introduced us to some freestyle writing. Carl and Gil did Tai Chi with a teacher who had spent ten years at Shaolin.

Great firewall of China
Hidden away in the school was a large internet café that had people doing English online, games and the usual stuff. A PC costs as little as £200 and the software is almost all pirated. I tried the usual Tibet, Tianamen and Taiwan searches but most were disabled. However, Wikipedia is available, with these sections rendered inaccessible.

You can still see the real deal here with cormorant fishing, rural China in all of its filth, poverty but dignity and majesty. Within minutes you can move between 21st century technology and commerce to feudal farming. But it’s disappearing fast. The government have reduced rural taxes to zero I some areas and reduced it in others to redress the balance between the increasing rich/poor gap.

Entire group stopped off for a foot massage, apart from me. I wasn’t convinced by the ying/yang intro. Everyone, however, did enjoy the experience. We drove North West of Guilin to a valley and had to swap buses to get to Ping A. The driver deliberately swung the bus round the bends so that our guide would fall into his lap – it worked, a manoeuvre he had clearly used often. He the asked her out for a drink!

We had to walk up to the village with our bags, although local women (all 50+) would carry them for 20 Yuan. We felt shamed by the offer. It was a hell of a climb and we were all pretty much whacked when we reached our wooden hostel. The view from our room was across the rice paddies - bliss.

Day 10 –Yangshuo

Boat on River Li
Our boat to Yangshuo had around 60 people, including some
US high school pupils on an exchange. Locals on bamboo rafts, five log bamboo poles bent at the foot by heat, hover the boatman hooks himself onto the boat where they sell vegetables for lunch and souvenirs to tourists. It looks quite dangerous.

The scenery is beautiful because it is so strange. The landscape breaks all the rules of natural appearance and contour. Rock cones and pinnacles rise straight up from a flat floor unnaturally thin with rounded tops. The limestone fractures with rain and great blocks shear off the sides creating these surreal shapes. There are literally thousands of them and as the river cuts through them, ever more dramatic cliff are to be seen, created by river erosion.

Yangshuo is a hotpotch of shops restaurants and bars, part hippy-trail, part market, part local. You can buy LOTS of counterfeit stuff here, CDs, DVDs, clothes etc. I indulged by buying Sgt Pepper, 40 Licks and the latest Radiohead album at £1.50 each, along with a couple of rucksacks, at a tenner each, for the boys.

Minnie Mao’s Cafe
At a couple of time’s at the excellent Minnie Mao’s, the best Chinese food we had on the whole journey. The free pool and internet also provided some welcome light relief. Mao has become a figure, not of fun, but of irony. He’s on tourist tee-shirts and Mao china figures, little red books, posters and watches whose face shows him waving away time ca be bought anywhere. In Beijing there’s a whole floor in the market of serious collector quality Mao material. I only saw Chinese people buying, so there must be interest in him, either historic or ironic.

Rural China
We took a trip out of town and visited a tradition farmhouse. This was a bit of a shock. The main room had some primitive wooden furniture, a picture of Mao on the wall and a wooden ancestor shrine. The woman who lived here was 55 going on 70 and when I shook her hand on leaving it was as hard as a claw from fieldwork. The place was primitive with a bare concrete floor a bare light bulb hanging down on the end of its wire, and was a dispiriting a home as you could imagine. The kitchen couldn’t have been more basic with wooden fire under simple pots and a tiny stool for the cook to squat on. Snakes in the fields are seen as a good thing as they keep down the rats. Below this landscape are vast etworks of natural caves with may species of blind fish.

Sound and light shows induce in me a sense of dread but the Yangshuo ‘show’ is far removed from the normally awful tourist spectacle. Designed by XXXX, China’s most famous film director, it cleverly uses the landscape as its stage, the kart peaks as a backdrop, the lake as centre stage, the lad as side stages and the River Li as a surprise addition. The story is a rather dull tale but it is enough to sit back, watch and listen.

Most of the action took place on the lake with 100 boats and boatmen swarming from left and right and producing a genuine gasp of wonderment when the lifted red cloth screens from beneath the water to create ripples of cloth across the entire lake. Hundreds of flaming torches covered the banks of the lake, Water buffalo, farmers, fishermen littered the landscape while the strange Guilin Karst Mountains were lit in white or muted colours. At one point hundreds of individually lit singers strolled across the lake like diamante skeletons.

The songs were beautiful. The first, sung by a soloist in a sampan, drifting slowly across the lake in the moonlight. Others by what the Chinese call ‘minority groups’ (anything that is not truly Chinese is referred to in the rather alien language of ‘foreigners’ or ‘minorities’). This minority group were a major hit with songs that ping-ponged between the men and women in a series of questions and replies. These mass choirs were, at times a little over-choreographed, even North Korean, but the sound was wonderful.

Culture and chat
One curious cultural difference was the way the almost wholly Chinese audiences chat and answer mobiles during the whole performance, and even stand up in front of you before the performance is finished. The audience was awash with mobile phones being held aloft to video/photograph the action, blinding those in the row behind. The act of recording it was clearly, to many, more important than enjoying the real performance. I’m told that cinemas are similarly plagued with people who cheerfully answer and chat into their phones during the entire movie. This also happens in India, then again Bollywood is nothing more than second rate musicals, there’s nothing much to hold one’s concentration. The habit is also creeping into UK cinemas where popcorn munching, coke slurping and paper rustling can completely destroy one’s enjoyment of a film. The whole point of cinema is suspension of disbelief. Why go if eating is your aim? I could cheerfully, and silently of course, pop a line of chicken wire round their necks and pull to keep them quiet.

Day 9 – Xian City

Goose pagoda
We got a taxi to the Goose Pagoda, where a sort of
Disneyfied Buddhist Temple exists, telling the story of the introduction of Buddhism to China in a great wood and stone mural. Callum and I climbed to the top. Pagodas have odd numbers of floors and were designed to hold Buddhist relics and sutras, This one is a rare stone building, to protect the sutras from fire. We had trouble getting a taxi, but managed and headed into the city through the great wall.

Xian’s Great Mosque
Up a narrow alley along a stall lined street, turn left and we’re facing Xian’s Great Mosque. There’s around 60.000 Muslims in this part of the city and the mosque has been here since 742 AND. It’s really a Chinese temple, but facing west to Mecca, added to over the centuries, with the final pavilion turned into a prayer hall. Halfway there’s a traditional Chinese two storied pavilion that acts as a minaret. It has a rather run down feel but it was quiet and clam, as a Mosque should be and had sparrows in the grounds. Threatened with destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it survived, and today at prayer times one can see Chinese Muslims, with white caps, some with beards, flock to prayer.

The Muslims are famous here for their beef oodles, so we decamped to a nearby noodle restaurant and scoffed beef noodles and kebabs – very spicy. We took some time to buy a couple tee-shirts and silk scarves. In an astonishing piece of fakery we bought a deck of cards showing wanted Iraqis, issues by the US. The Mickey Mao watches, with Mao waving his hand, don’t even keep the time, so only buy for display! Then it was off to the airport to fly to Guilin.

Flight to Guilin

Guilin is hotter and has more humidity, hence the spicier food. Indeed they eat almost anything, especially snakes, stir-fried, in soup or the blood and gall in drinks. Our local guide, Autumn gave us a great introduction to the area and on arrival, we had a beer and dinner.

Day 8 – Xian Terracotta Warriors

This is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World on the site, and they have a point. There’s also a dig at the US where a label claims that they invented chrome 2,200 years before the US. ‘How amazing it is!’ says the text.

Making a warrior
On the way to the Terracotta Army we stopped at a factory that makes replicas. This was great for the kids as they got to make their own warrior from the same clay as the originals, a deep, dark brownish-red colour and perfect for moulding.

We were given two-piece moulds, a slug of clay, and pressed it into the sides. A fine, detailed warrior emerged. Carl and I had noticed an abandoned headless Emperor in the coal pile. We filched it along with a goofball of clay and shaped a new head back at the hotel.

Seeing the warriors
We had seen some warriors in London a week before this visit. It had a few choice pieces, horses, a general, acrobats and a replica of the Imperial chariot. Here we were to see it in situ and on scale. This period was truly the big bang for modern China. It was lifted from feudal warfare into a huge, centralised, unified walled state with canals, standardised coinage, weights and weapons. The same features we see today in its deep pool of cheap labour, centralised government, enormous state funded projects, standardised behaviour and manufactured objects. Mao himself used this Emperor as a role model.

Pit 1
Our first sight of the site was the low pyramid of In Shi Huang’s unexcavated tomb. It was a sunny day and we entered the covered Pit 1 to face the massed ranks of the warriors. They stand in columns, separated by clay walls. The first ranks have no armour, the bravest shock troops at the front. Occasional horses and chariots, guards on the outside. They all face east, where his enemies lay, and he was right to worry, his tomb was sacked and his 14 year reign ended in disaster,

He was a tyrant but how you wonder how despotic he could have been to have commissioned such a huge work of art, albeit to his personal goal of immortality. The figures have great heads but the bodies and legs are clearly mass manufactured. It’s the expressions and hairstyles that impress, along with the sheer effort in making them in such numbers. It was though that the faces were modelled on the workers but it is now believed that real soldiers posed, as the workers would not have had enough time. It is, in a way, a reminder of China’s love for manufacture. These figures are more than life size and produced in astonishing numbers. The colours were originally quite gaudy, and little of the pigment survives exposure.

The site was ransacked two years after his death when people looted the bronze armaments, pushed over the figures and set fire to the timbered roof. Other damage has come from water seepage, earthquakes and the simple collapse of further timbers.

The guy who discovered the site, after sinking a well, sits in a corner, charging for signed books. He famously had lunch with Bill Clinton.

Pit 2 & 3
The other two pits contain more specialised groups of cavalry, archers and charioteers. The weapons were designed to be manufactured in huge numbers and had interchangeable parts. The museum has some weapons on show as well as the real Imperial chariot.

What everyone is waiting for is the excavation of the tomb. We know from historical records that it contains his coffin and a recreation of his empire with Mercury Rivers, a starry sky and other treasures. I’d much rather have seen money spent on this than the Olympics. We had jasmine tea in a pavilion then headed back to Xian.

German hoax
There a great story of a German art student in 2006, who studied the site in great detail, dressed himself as a warrior, climbed unseen into the pit and stood posing as a warrior. Pablo Wendel, made up like an ancient warrior, jumped into a pit showcasing the 2,200-year-old pottery soldiers and stood motionless for several minutes. The 26-year-old was eventually spotted by police but not arrested. Mr Wendel is reported to have entered the museum on Saturday where he changed into his outfit, jumped over a barrier and took up a position on a pedestal he had taken along. "I got to the area where he was supposed to be, looked around and didn't see him - he looked too much like a terracotta warrior," Hong Kong newspapers quoted a security guard as saying.

As Mr Wendel's "performance art" did not harm any of the ancient relics, he was not arrested or charged but given "serious criticism", the reports said. Mr Wendel had his costume confiscated and was sent back to the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, where he is studying.

Cycling the walls
That afternoon we entered Xian city by the south gate and hired bikes. There was some doubt about cycling the entire wall – 12 Km, so we set off at pace. In the end we did the whole route but not without a puncture and tongue biting from the cobbled surface. It was a bone rattling experience but worth the effort. The irony is that the city walls are almost empty as the locals have been walled out by the price. This is a shame as I’d much rather have seen the real people on their own wall.

Dumpling dinner
Xian is famous for its dumplings so we headed out for one such dinner. They were delivered at pace – pork and leeks, seafood, walnuts, chicken – 18 varieties in all. Callum loved this food and set the pace in Beijing with more than 10 dumplings for breakfast. When we emerged the city wall was lit up and looked great.

Day 7 – Longman Caves

Buddhism was introduced to
China at around 68 AND from Afghanistan. There’s reckoned to be 100,000 statues of the Buddha at the Longman caves which have been carved over many centuries in differing styles. The statues are set back in large caves or carved niches, some with hundreds of tiny relief carvings of the Buddha. The Tang standard of beauty was set by a rather plump concubine, and this is reflected in the plumpness of images from this period. Others float on lotus pedestals. The glory of the spectacle is the huge final Buddha, whose expression is truly calm in the face of a hive of babbling visitors and photographers.

No one seemed really interested in either art or religion. Guides bellowed from megaphones. Swarms of Chinese visitors were laughing, strolling, and above all, taking pictures. This is as much an obsession with the Chinese, as with the Japanese. There must be some cultural reason for this – perhaps capturing family images as part of ancestor traditions, as most of the pictures were of the ‘me in front of X’ variety.

We then had a long bus journey to Xian.

Day 6 – Shaolin Temple

Peony Park
Woke up in
Luoyang with a train load of field guns in the station where we disembarked. After breakfast in the New Friendship Hotel I went for a walk in the Peony Park. It was a riot of activity but all organised and at a pace to suit everyone. There was slow paced tai chi, ultra-slow tai chi, faster with swords, slower with pikes, mid-pace with scarves, the two large groups dressed in beautiful red and white silk suits exercising with fans which would all chop open at the same time producing a wonderful wooden snap sound. There were also modern dancers doing waltzes and the tango. One group were dancing in unison to Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ but in a slow and graceful fashion, in complete opposition to the lyrics, which I’m sure they don’t understand. The there were the badminton players and people playing foot badminton. Big brush calligraphy was also on show. There was even a guy with a bullwhip and a spinning top.

Several people came up to me and spoke in English. One an older man, had great English, another woman wanted me to meet her English teacher and they turned up I the hotel the next day. On the way back to the hotel, I was asked to sit down at one of several tables with Doctors and nurses, where I had my blood pressure taken, along with several photographs.

Thousands of students
We struck lucky as on this day, a big-wig was visiting and this brought out the entire student population. Shaolin was a mass of students, colour, movement and flags. There were students in mock fights, poses, playing mah jong and meditating in the woods. They were remarkable disciplined and happy, despite the cold wind and their flimsy, silk outfits. This is the home of Zen Buddhism, founded in 496 AND, and all modern martial arts, a sacred mountain with a sacred temple. There are 160,000 students here in schools with up to 30,000 students who receive a disciplined martial arts and normal curriculum education. Students are sent here by their parents from all over China. The aim is to give them some discipline, independence and jobs in the police, military, security, even movies.

There was a show in the theatre and selected kung fu monks wielded sticks and performed moves with the audience. One thrust a needle through a tiny hole in a pane of glass to pop a balloon.

Before leaving the traffic was held back by some dignitary. This made the locals angry and there were some horns from waiting cars. A police car showed up and it quickly stopped. I loved the dissent. That night we ate in a revolving restaurant on top of some luxury hotel.

Finger painting
One man was doing extraordinary ‘finger-painting’, complex landscapes with mountains shaped by fingers and thumb, then trees incised with ink on fingernails. This is an old art form in China, and some works can be seen in the British Museum.camoflage

Pagoda Forest
We walked to the Pagoda forest, where many of the monks and masters have been buried. There are about 250 from the original 450 standing with a strange, modern example showing an aeroplane, video-recorder, laptop showing how rich the previous abbot had become.

Day 5 – Wall walk & Luoyang by train

Walking west on the wall
We woke early and headed up to the gap in the wall to walk west towards Jinshanling. There was not a soul to be seen and we walked to the 13th castle across vertiginous camel humps around more ruined sections and through marvellous scenery. The walking was hard going but the rewards more than worth the effort. Light rain made descents treacherous and I slipped and gashed my finger. The route from Simtai to Jinshanling is about 10 kilometres. We walked halfway and back, the same total. Even the older kids did the walk.

Train to Luoyang
We drove back to Beijing and decamped into the huge Beijing West Railway Station, which is where all trains to the South depart. It was exciting to board a sleeper train and get settled into our cabin, four bunk beds, and a table. Everyone was excited by the novelty of it all but I crashed out into a deep sleep.

Day 4 – Great Wall at Simatai

Believe it or not
It can’t be seen from space (Ripley’s Believe it or not myth), it ain’t a single wall (it’s may walls), it’s largely not the original 3rd century BC wall (mostly Ming 4-500 years old) and has been recently, heavily restored (in parts). Nevertheless, its scale, grandeur and audacity take you by surprise. Our first glimpse of the wall was on approaching Simatai, and as we were staying in a Hostel, literally beneath the wall, we had stunning views as we ate lunch. It was also great to feel fresh air after so many days in
Beijing smog.

I had gleaned, from John Mann’s book ‘The Great Wall’, that this is the most impressive stretch of the entire wall. It rises steeply on a narrow ridge, making the climb an exhausting effort. You are pulled forward by the sight of yet another wall castle, but it’s still exhausting. We reached the final castle 13 by clambering over some rocks on the last stretch and it felt great. We had all imagined visiting the wall but the reality exceeded ay powers of the imagination. The sun was out and the wall shone as a white line across the mountain ridge in both directions.

Wall building is a feature of Northern houses, where walled courtyard kept out people, wind and dust. Hundreds of city states were walled and sieges were commonplace throughout Chinese history, and there’s the well known psychological walling that Emperors, including Mao (the last Emperor) used so effectively to seal up the country from foreign influence. I never really felt as if I had got through the walls, set up deliberately or not, in the minds of the Chinese people I met and spoke to. It was as if they were keeping something from me.

Wall or monument?
Like Hadrian’s Wall, it had bee painted white, and like that wall, was really a monument to an Emperor’s desire to build and leave monuments. It didn’t really work, as the Mongols and Manchus, both from north of the wall ruled China for hundreds of years, but it’s part of China’s mindset. The wall was not only used as a political symbol by Mao, famously featured in Nixon’s visit in 1979 And even now survives in phrases such as the ‘Great Firewall of China’ the state’s attempt to keep foreign, online influences out of the country.

Walls never work
Of course, walls, in the end, never work. On this note I had a strange encounter with a guy on the wall at Simatai. He had an American accent and on passing he commented that the wall was steep up ahead. I asked him where he came from, and he said ‘Jerusalem’. I replied that I had been there a few years ago. As we turned to part, he commented that ‘this wall never really worked’, I agreed and, without thinking, said, ‘Do you think yours will?’ He turned and walked away.

Zipwire home
Exhausted by the long climb on the wall, we decided to all zipwire back down across the lake. Hanging from a rather old canvas harness, we were pushed off the platform into space, with only gravity to pull us sailing over a green lake to the bank far below. Then a boat ride back to our hostel.

Firecrackers backfire
We were all quite elated, and after we had a meal and a few beers, I decided to set off some firecrackers to celebrate our ascent of the wall. I had bought them earlier in a tiny store in the village. Unfortunately, I did it without telling them and it frightened some of the kids, even producing tears. A lesson learnt!

Day 3 – Heavenly Beijing

Temple of Heaven
We got up early and took a taxi to the
Temple of Heaven park, a large park with perhaps the most beautiful building in Beijing, the three tiered Temple of Heaven, its blue roofs and simple design as elegant as the Dome of the Rock. Set upon a three tiered marble plinth, it towers above the park. It’s surrounded by a wall, like all major parks, but beautiful inside, with trees and paths, and absolutely no litter. They love, care for and use their parks.

Altar of Heaven
The marble altar was used to renew the year by the Emperor on the winter solstice. The earth was square and heaven round, so the circular altar is surrounded by a perfect walled square. You’ll see this on innumerable old Chinese coins (all fake). It presents nothing but itself, a three tiered marble structure, but it’s packed with numerological symbolism. You climb nine steps on each of the three tier and the balustrades are in nines, as are the paving stones on the top of the altar that radiate in multiples of nine. This symbolises the nine Chinese sections of heaven. The 360 pillars on its balustrades represent the days of the year.

The Chinese have a deep interest I numerology. They define everything by numbers. Political initiative is the Four of this… and Five of that…. Look carefully and you’ll see it in the architecture, number plates, phone numbers, bank numbers, stock market picks, street numbers and so on. It’s a national obsession.

2 – lucky – we have twins and this is regarded as auspicious

6 – lucky and 666 very lucky (reverse of western demonic link)

8 - lucky

9 – see everywhere in old architecture


4- unlucky as it sounds like the word for death

5 - negative

7 - downward

Joy in the park
Of equal interest in the Temple of Heaven park are the early morning activities – tai chi, swords, fans, a game where one keeps a feathered shuttlecock aloft with one’s feet, calligraphy using a large brush and water, singing, playing traditional music instruments, cards, mah-jong. Thousands of people taking exercise or simply having fun with their fellow citizens. It was actually quite moving. We bought two shuttlecocks (for 30p) and had a try ourselves. By the end of the week the boys were getting quite good. A typical British park at that time of the morning would be empty apart from a couple of dog walkers. We agreed that this was one of the great highlights of the trip.

Its social function is extraordinary as older people sit, chat, exercise, sing and walk their birds. This was a sort of small paradise, far different from any other park I have visited.

Summer Palace
To see many of the traditional forms of Chinese architecture a visit to the walled Summer Palace will reward you with temples, pavilions, bridges, shops and pagodas. Entering by the north gate takes you into the riverside traditional Chinese shops then a Tibetan temple complex full of Buddhas and Hindu deities. There is also interesting evidence of Cultural Revolution vandalism as many of the ceramic Buddha tiles have had their heads hacked off on the lower reaches of the temple. At the top of the hill you descend through a series of tiered pavilions to the lakeside.

A walk anticlockwise around the lake took us past the Dowager’s marble boat, an extravagance that cost China dearly as the money was earmarked for the navy, leaving the country defenceless. Other bridges are superb high backed arches or graceful pavilion designs. The largest has 17 arches (the largest the lucky number 9th arch lies in the middle. It is useful to get some knowledge of the Chinese obsession with numbers. The Taoist Ying and Yang determines a difference between odd and even numbers (odd-male, eve-female). Nine is a very lucky number, four is not.

Day 2 –Forbidden Beijing

Tiananmen Square
It’s so big you can’t really appreciate it as a square, yet its empty and sterile appearance is matched by a warmth in the people. A walk around brings you into contacts with every type of Chinese citizen. May have clearly never seen a foreigner, and will stare, stop and listen and ask for photographs. They are, to a person, cheery and polite. The police presence, even those that are visible, is considerable, as several Falang people have tried to set light to themselves. It has seen battalions of Red Guards wave their little red books only to unleash terror and violence, demonstrations, and in 1989 the crushing of a student and worker democracy movement. It is
China’s epicentre.

It can hold half a million people and to the north is the gate into the high-walled Forbidden City below a huge portrait of Mao. It was here that he proclaimed the republic on 1 October 1949. This was also where the Emperor would lower his edicts in the mouth of a Golden Phoenix down from the wall. Mao, was, in effect, as Colin Thurbon calls him, the last Emperor.

Forbidden Walled City
The Forbidden City is aligned north to south pointing to the pole star, the source of heavenly authority for the Emperor. After crossing one of the five marble bridges the crimson city reveals courtyard after courtyard in a precisely planned, ordered and repeated series of symmetrical buildings and courtyards with orange/yellow, tiled roofs. Ceramic talismans lie at the corners of the roofs, in odd numbers, 5/7/9, to give good luck. To build this place the Ming Emperor built a 1000 mile canal from the previous capital Nanjing, measured the old capital palace, and built one even larger.

Structurally it reminded me of the temples of Egypt, particularly Karnac, with its carefully aligned (east to west) series of pylons and enclosures, forbidden to the population, with the Pharaoh, the link between heaven and man, who left to renew agricultural prosperity every year. The similarities don’t end there. Both civilisations kept themselves, fairly hermetically sealed, and both had continuous 400 year dynastic histories. Both dynasties had more than their fair share of despotic men, hapless youths and poisonous women. More importantly, the Emperors/Pharoahs were seen to control the cycles of time.

The buildings have burned to the ground, deliberately and accidentally, many times, hence the huge bronze cauldrons next to every substantive structure. The buildings were built of wood on stone platforms to satisfy the eternal urge of balance between ying and yang, despite the obvious problems with fire. Made of iterlocking wooden beams, without nails, they are particularly resistant to earthquakes. The dragon paths are huge, single blocks of marble, transported on ice during winter. The columns are made of huge timbers that were transported trasported from the south by water.

Here, tens of thousands of eunuchs ran the show. Their penis and testicles 'treasures' were cut off and kept in jar. This tradition continued until well into the 20th century. Concubines were another large group, 13-25 year old virgins, who could never leave the city. The place had lots of gifts, most notably a giraffe.

Even today this centralised state can command huge building projects to be completed to tight timescales. The cadres are the new eunuchs. Then, as now, there were state police and pogroms that happened then, as in recent Maoist history. Taianmet Square has see its massacres and so has te city where thousands of eunuchs and concubines were torn to shreds after rumours of illicit relations between the two.

Walled Hutongs
We left the Forbidden City via the North entrance, over the moat, and went to the Hutongs where we had a rickshaw ride. These tightly packed walled courtyard houses are hidden from view. Stopping off at a market we saw live fish in tanks being bashed to death inside plastic bags for customers and the usual array of hen, chicken and quail eggs. Every street had its community volunteer with a red armband.

Afterwards we had lunch with a family in a hutong house. The guy brought t his fighting crickets. They had their own little cage with a bed, water and furniture. Their living room had a Buddha and Mao statue next to each other.

We all went to an acrobatic show, and although the audience was small, it was jaw dropping. All the usual stuff, but the hat routine was fantastically choreographed.

CHINA April 2008 Day 1 – Beijing – first impressions

First impression - WOW
When we arrived a
UK minister was rushed into a black limousine from our flight, she, and her civil servants, looked downright scruffy compared to her Chinese hosts. Beijing Airport is easily the most impressive airport I’ve ever seen. Its architecture combines grand scale with the delicate features of traditional Chinese building. The whole building has a dragon shape. A curved, slatted roof is suspended high upon delicate tapered red and white traditional pillars. There are lots of restaurants, lots of helpful staff and the business lounge is probably the best I’ve ever been in, with space and full meals.

Second impression - gasp
Second impression - apart from the endless blocks of graceless, high rise housing and offices, it’s the pollution. The sun makes rare appearances here as the brown haze that smothers the city blocks it out. You can see, smell and taste the poison and after a couple of hours a tingle in the back of your throat makes its presence personal. Coal fired power stations, heavy industry and cars, millions of them, pump out fumes that are literally choking both inhabitants and roads. This may yet play out as a PR disaster. Haile Gebrselassie will not run in the marathon. There are underground coal fires that have been burning for years, coal fired power stations, massive increases of unchecked industrial air pollution and millions of new cars. There have been efforts to move factories and limit cars on the basis of odd and even numbers weeks before the Olympics, but none of this seems sustainable.

Third impression - cars
China is in love with cars and a surprise was the quality of the cars. I lost count of the high-end Audis, Volkswagens, Buiks, Lexuses, Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas. The home grow Geely ad Chery seem less popular. Black is the preferred colour, preferably with blackened widows, a carry-over from the enormous fleet of state cars that ferry officials around the city. Public transport seems to be beneath them. Blue colour licence plates are private, black - officials and white military. They undertake, overtake, often simultaneously, but the Chinese are a polite and constrained race, so there’s no road rage, gestures, shouting or swearing. Thousands sit patiently in daily traffic miles long. The subway, surprisingly, is fast and efficient, but crowded, far preferable to the car choked streets above. Unfortunately it has limited reach at the moment. The new lines, however, will make it far more useful, and at 2 Yuan (6 pence) it’s a bargain.

The whole of China is on the move with American style freeways and millions of new cars hitting those roads every year. Unfortunately, this produces lots of pollution as well as millions of first time drivers. China has now copied or bought or designed technology that now allows them to make their own cars. The quality of the driving outside of the cities is appalling and downright dangerous. Trucks sit two abreast on two lane roads, and death defying overtaking is the norm. The very literal signs advising against drink driving and tiredness show that there’s lots of problems. Even more literal are the signs for overweight and high loads – an elephant and giraffe respectively.

With well over 6 million ew cars hitting the Chinese freeways this year, the majority new cars, Chia just below the US, has become the scond largest car market in the world. An interesting driver, in addition to status, is privacy. In such overcrowded nation, a car offers a welcome private space , especially for the young.

Taxi drivers are silent and appear sullen. It’s now a low paid job so few speak any English. Pointing to a map doesn’t seem to have any effect so you need Chinese character directions from a phrasebook or your hotel reception. However, the meter system works well, and they’re cheap.

Fourth impression – architecture
Beijing has become a supposed hotspot for contemporary architecture and the Birds’ nest stadium and swimming centre for the Olympics are impressive. Other than that, the skyscrapers are often mundane or downright ugly. There’s no sense of a downtown core of quality tall buildings, only long ranks of dull design. That is not to say that they this type of building is a mistake. It is the only way to house this number of people and it has, apparently, become desirable to live high above the noise and pollution.

Many of the high-rise blocks are totally at odds with traditional Chinese architecture that demands a respect for horizontal lines and symmetry. All of this verticality and deliberate asymmetry lacks the human scale and poised beauty of the pavilion. There is no better (or worse) example of this awful rush towards supposed modernity than the new CCTV (state owned TV) monstrosity. The building is a gigantic two legged, leaning, Escher-like colossus, designed to house 10,000 employees. It’s an aesthetically offensive building with not a single redeeming feature.

First walk
Your first walk, especially if it is far from a tourist haunt, will elicit lots of looks and stares. China was closed to the outside world and has really only opened up in the last 25 years, so many older people have seen few, if any foreigners. Few people travel, as visas are expensive and difficult to obtain, so even the young are curious. We were travelling with a load of young kids, and almost everywhere we wet people wanted photographs of them standing next to a couple of foreigners. It was always done with great politeness and humour, as it is genuine curiosity. There are few places in the world where you genuinely feel this way and few friendlier places to have a stroll.

This first walk out of the hotel took us to a local supermarket where lots of artificially coloured foods in gaudy packaging assaulted the senses. One thing we did appreciate was the noodle pots. These bucket size pot noodles need only hot water and are slurped everywhere in China. There’s free hot water available even in airports.

We stayed in the Guanxi Hotel I the east of the city, close to a lively market selling huge amounts of furniture, toys, coins, stone statues and a whole floor of the central building devoted to Mao memorabilia. Everything is negotiable and the sky-high first prices need to be brought down to a third or less through the usual ritual of shocked expressions, laughs and walking away, only to be pursued by the seller. I suggested, later in our tour, that a ‘personal shopper’ service would go down well for many foreign visitors.

Exercise and sports
The Beijing Olympics and Tibetan protests were in the press and on television. Curiously, my first glimpse of sport was cricket, on the way from the airport. However, it was clear that the Chinese have a radically different tradition and approach to sport and exercise. Table tennis is everywhere but basketball is the sport they adore. Space is at a premium, so soccer fields are rare. Basketball is played in every school.

Then there are the street gyms – free equipment in little parks for citizens to exercise. But this is nothing compared to the millions of older Chinese who get up at dawn and do Tai Chi and a myriad of other activities in their local park every morning. China wakes up, exercises and gets on with the job. They are clearly conscious of personal health, and obesity is very, very rare. More on this later.

First meal
Our first meal was in a local restaurant, with no English menu, but the food was familiar. Most British people have now consumed a fair amount of Chinese food. What was odd, and at times annoying, was being shunted into a private dining room. This may be regarded as a privilege in China, but it isolates you from the real China you come to see.

Food matters a lot in China, and there is barely a street without a clutch of restaurants, however, all of this is quite recent. The cuisine is different with Beijing Duck in the north, dumplings in Xian and spicier food in the south. The Chinese eat anything with legs, apart from tables and chairs, and anything that flies, apart from aircraft. Unfortunately, the banquet meals seem to be prepared for foreigners on the basis of bulk and what they think you’d like to eat. The plates just arrive. I’d much rather have ordered a dish or two myself.

Finally, at the end of this first day, a word in praise of Chinese beer. You’ll find it everywhere, and it’s mostly palatable. Nothing great but does the job. Ganbei! (Cheers)