Sunday, December 30, 2007

Beijing - The door to China history

Our trip to Beijing was already two weeks ago, but too much traveling and the Christmas celebrations made it hard for me to have time for my blog!
We had such a nice time in Beijing. It is so different from other cities in China, like Xiamen or Shanghai. The history from the Ming and Qing dynasties is so present there... in the historical sites of course but also in the architecture of private homes, with the traditional curved roofs we really don't see in Xiamen. Yep, we played tourists and visited all the usual places, and particularly enjoyed the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Beijing is definitely getting ready to "receive the world" for the Olympic Games and wants to look its best. Millions are being spent to renovate the beautiful red, gold and yellow paintings of the historical sites and it is truly somptuous and grandiose. But there was one thing that made these visits even more enjoyable for me: having read the Empress Orchid book (the story of the famous Empress Ci Xi), I found myself transported back to the imperial life in the 19th century. Everywhere, in the Forbidden City, at the Ming tombs, at the Temple of Heaven, I could imagine the Emperor and the Empress being there, walking around, governing and praying... I was walking through all the places the book had taken me and reliving all their stories. A very special feeling!
I will tell you more in future postings for sure. In the meantime, I think I am getting dizzy with so much incredible traveling (what an exceptional year!). I am thinking of applying for a Guinness record for having visited the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Palais de Versailles in Paris in the same week!! Pretty crazy! LOL

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Street life photography

Small open shops, retailers in their shop, selling their merchandise but also living right there, on the street: cooking, eating, drinking tea, watching TV, playing cards or checkers, even doing school homework. That’s real China. And it makes for fascinating photography. For quite some time already, I have meant to take more time to walk the streets to capture such moments. I have not done enough of it yet. But in the meantime, I would like to share with you the exceptional photography of another blogger, for a great experience of just that, people in the streets of China. Visit his blog. There is nothing simpler than “walking through” his photos – no clicks necessary, simply scroll down and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On the Silk Road

Michael Yamashita's photoI just read a few days ago that the Olympic Torch will travel the ancient Silk Road, on its way to Beijing, going through 113 cities in China! Well, I have been here in China too long, or I have been reading too much about traveling through China (China Road, my favorite book or Marco Polo's Travels), or drinking too much Tsing Tao beer, because my immediate thought to the news was: "Wow, it would be so cool to follow the Torch for a few months, even if it means hard beds and food not always to my taste".
Traveling the Silk Road must be a fascinating thing. It will take you deep into interior China, all the way to its western border. In fact, the Silk roads (they were several trails) were already used in the times of the Romans and until the 15th century, when it became easier to travel by sea. The merchants were using it to transport silk - a mysterious Chinese invention - but also spices, porcelain, jade, gold, silver, wood and Arab horses. It is also the road Marco Polo took through China. Anyone out there with a photographer or journalist's job for me with the mandate of following the Olympic Torch through China?

Friday, December 7, 2007

China-Taiwan intricacies!

Back to China! In the past few days, I have been exposed to some fascinating readings, which highlight how the intricacy of the relationships between China and Taiwan show its little head even in subjects like the road taken by the Olympic Torch Relay on its way to Beijing next year (read below)! As an ignorant Westerner, I came here a few months ago thinking China and Taiwan were simply 2 countries – nothing more to it. I know, I know, if I had read more on even US relationships with China in the past 10 years, I would have known that the reality is much more complex. My “reeducation” (funny word to use here in China) started over a lunch with our Taiwanese partner here in Xiamen when he explained the complexity of the relationship with a striking statement: “China thinks Taiwan belongs to China and Taiwan thinks China belongs to Taiwan”. Quite a simplistic way of describing the situation, and a provocative statement about Taiwan’s thinking which I have not been able to confirm through my internet search. (You know me by now, I love to dig into intriguing history subjects like this one). The only statement I have found (on a Taiwanese site about its history) on the latter was: “In the 1970s, Taiwan had been kicked out of most international organizations because the Kuomintang [political party in China and Taiwan for the reunification to the mainland] authorities at that time still continued the claim to sovereignty over China.” On the more commonly discussed subject of China claiming sovereignty over China, you simply have to read articles like this Wikipedia article to start appreciating the complexity of the issue. The important “take home message”: Taiwan has not formally declared independence, because it could lead to military confrontation with the People's Republic of China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. And China is not kidding! As late as the mid-90s, China was doing “practice military exercises” and firing missiles just North of Taiwan, as Taiwan was “thinking” about independence. But back to the interesting story on the Olympic Torch Relay Road. The Relay Road was announced recently. “The Olympic torch will be carried across all five continents, [and] along the ancient "Silk Road" and 135 cities” in China. Immediately Taiwan rejected the road… because it was a “domestic road” (from a Chinese town to Taiwan back to a Chinese town). Interesting, no? The Relay Road has now been changed to go from Vietnam to Taiwan and back to Hong-Kong (a lot longer road on the map!), to avoid the confusion! Another example: I was reading an article recently on Quanzhou, a 6.5 million people city 45 miles from Xiamen. In the listing of the counties Quanzhou administers, you can read “Jinmeng county (to be unified)”! Well, Jinmeng (or Chinmen – or Quemoy in English) is a little island close to Xiamen, but which belongs to Taiwan! That tells you about China’s “pretentions”, doesn’t it? I guess that if China-Taiwan relationships were heating up, we would be right in the middle of the action. I will leave you with a last story… In my tourist guide on China (from DK, British publisher) you can read on the credits page: “The external boundaries of China as shown in this book are neither correct nor authentic”. Are you left pensive?… PS: the map above (click to enlarge) shows you Taiwan and on the coast of China the little island of Chinmen, and just West of it, of the same size, the island of Xiamen. That shows you the strange location of Chinmen and how close to potential action Xiamen is!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Very exotic Malaysia

I could have titled this blog "I shook hands with the descendant of a REAL head hunter!". That would have been a punchy headline - and a true statement. Too bad it was too long! In the few days we spent on the Malaysian island of Borneo, I have done some of the most exotic things I have done in my life. A few of them could be easily added to a top 10 list! I have: yes, shook hands with the descendant of a head hunter; saw cinnamon sticks (see photo below) about 1 meter long (3 feet) sold for 10 ringgits ($3) a kilo; lived high in the jungle in a little house which could only be accessed by a one lane dirt road with an immediate drop of at least 350 meters (1000 feet) on each side (and I have photos to prove it!); of course took cold showers with a kitchen pan for a little bit of hot water; planted an avocado tree; cut a pineapple from its bush myself and ate it one hour after; photographed monkeys 2 meters from me along the road; visited a village market where the "white face" (me) was the attraction of the day and where the main thing they were selling was actually tobacco; saw a show of traditional dances and choir at a book launch attended by the chief minister (governor) of the province of Sabah (where I was the only white person in a crowd of probably 1000 local Malaysian people); travelled around in a car full of vanilla to be planted (I thought I would actually plant some but they had to soak for a few days prior to planting) and finally went to a local hairdresser where you have to bring your own shampoo and where you are sitting in a regular chair, sitting straight when they do your shampoo (with plenty of foam on your head! They only take you to the sink to rinse your head. Oh well, yesterday in Xiamen, China I had to lay down to have my shampoo done!). I am sure that by now you wonder "How did this all happen?" Good question! I usually try to keep my blog postings short, but I think this is an exceptional story, worth of some details! Well, after our honeymoon in the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, with its beautiful landscapes and beaches, we were off to "the Malaysian jungle"! Truly. The trip's purpose was an amateur radio expedition (my husband's hobby). We flew to Kota Kinabalu (KK for the locals) on the Island of Borneo, Malaysia. For those of you who are not quite familiar with the geography of South East Asia (see my map) Malaysia is divided into 2 parts: the Malay peninsula in the West (south of Thailand) and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, north of Indonesia. The capital Kuala Lumpur is on the Malay peninsula. It is from KK that we drove through the mountains to the countryside, to the little town of Keningau, in the province of Sabah. And after helping my husband set up radio antennas at that house, high up the jungle road, I was down to the town for the big celebration of the day. Cinnamon sticks
The whole town of Keningau was attending a major event: an important local family gathering, celebrating a famous ancestor and all its descendants and launching a book about this family (and trust me there are a lot of descendants to one single man, when men have several wifes and many children!). That famous man was a Malaysian warrior... and head hunter. So, after having being "forced" to the hairdresser by my local host (I am not too keen on having my hair done in strange places but the result was a nice blow dry for 7 ringgits ($2)), I was off to the event. Fascinating. All the town was invited and there were probably 1000 to 2000 people (hard to count). Surprising layout: in a large gymnasium, many banquet tables have been set up (for the VIPs) on the basketball court, but the stands were also filled with people (the non-VIPs!). My host explained to me that the tradition was that when you invite people to an event you have to feed everyone and everyone brings his WHOLE family: uncles, grand-parents, children etc. No wonder we were so many. After all the speeches and the presentations, dancing and singing, everyone ate! Sitting at one of the VIP table (my host knew the person who launched the book), I stroke up a nice conversation with a sophisticated local business man. As we were talking, he casually mentions: "I am actually a direct descendant of this warrior - and head hunter". "Of well, then I really need to shake your hand" I said "so I can tell my friends that I shook hands with the descendant of a head hunter!". And with a smile, we shook hands accross the table. After a few minutes he added: "Well, I should really get the story straight here, my ancestor was not going out and beheading people, he was fighting his enemies and keeping the enemies' heads was the proof to his village that he was truly doing a good job as the leader protecting his village"... For sure, my stay in Malaysia was anything but boring!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Old Malay houses

The secret destination for our honeymoon! Saturday morning, 2 weeks ago. Finally, I will know where we are going. Singapore airport. The departure board indicates that the 8:40AM flight is going to... Langkawi! Interesting name, hummm, the mystery continues. I had never heard of such place... Well... Langkawi is a group of 99 islands (101 at low tide!), which belongs to Malaysia and are situated West of the Malaysian peninsula. And it is in Langkawi that my dear husband found the most amazing place to stay, just the perfect spot with just what I love: history, character and great food. That special place, a small resort (12 rooms) is composed of old Malay houses, 120 to 150 years old, on stilts, made of nice tropical dark wood and nice carvings. They have all been brought there from different parts of Malaysia. Not much is known about them, except that people could oversee the rice fields from these homes at night, and 30 to 40 people could sleep (very tightly) in that beautiful room my husband and I had all for ourselves! It was simply magnificent. The breeze was flowing through the windows of the "hut" on all sides of the room, the landscape was spectacular with the mountains, the wetland and beautiful white birds passing by at sun rise and sun set... And I have to say, the food was simply excellent. My favorites: the seafood platter with a very peculiar lobster called the rock lobster (look at this square head with no claws!), and a gingerbread - caramel ice cream sandwich! In summary, a superb week. I will share more in the next posting, but for now, I will just leave you with the link to the resort website, if you are intrigued!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dehli? Oups, no... Singapore!

A little bit more than two weeks ago... Tuesday night. 6PM. Newark airport in New York. In line at the gate for our flight to Dehli. The agent is desperately searching through our passports. "Where are your visas?". "Visas? What visas? For India? We need a visa?". I know, it is difficult to believe that seasoned travelers like us assumed we did not need visas for India and did not check. Oh, well. So, like they say in Monopoly, move immediately to the next stop... Singapore! An unexpected day in Singapore, an island nation, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Malaysia, and the smallest country in Southeast Asia. I was surprised to see the strong British influence there. You have to go from one place in Asia to another to start understanding how extensive the efforts from Western nations, and in particular Great Britain, had to be in order to establish trade posts all over Asia. We enjoyed walking along the river and spent a great evening at the famous Raffles hotel, named after the British gentleman, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who landed on the main island in 1819, and developed Singapore on behalf of the British East India Company. It is a big white hotel, of colonial design, with several lovely interior courtyards, bars and restaurants. At the Long Bar, sitting down for a drink was like being back in time, in the 19th century, the atmosphere was colonial, ceiling fans and dark wood... Really cool! The evening seafood dinner outside in a courtyard was a very nice conclusion to this unexpected day in Singapore. Not a bad trade compared to Dehli!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The map of Marco Polo's travels

It seems that a number of people are looking for a map of Marco Polo's travels (as shown by my blog traffic data). So here is the best one I found, which might be useful to some of you. You can click on the image to enlarge it. So where did Marco Polo's travels take him? Well, he left from Venise, Italy in 1271 and traveled throughout what is known today as Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, India for 24 years. Quite a trip, no?... Interested to know more? The 2001 National Geographic articles "on the traces of Marco Polo" (see my previous posting) offer great insights on his adventures. It is fascinating to see how we can still see nowadays some of the traditions observed by Marco Polo at the end of the 13th century. The last article also includes an amazing photograph of a copy of Marco Polo's travels book, annotated in the margins by noone else than Christopher Columbus. Simply unbelievable!
And if you are interested in other explorers and their discoveries, make sure to check this article on Samuel de Champlain's explorations of the N.E. of the United States, at the time of New France. The authors have created a complete map of 6 voyages, because they could not find a good one on the internet!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Private room


There is a nice little restaurant, close to where we live in Xiamen, called Know How. I love the name, it is the most Chinese-sounding English name you can imagine! We like to go there at lunch or dinner, because the environment is pleasant, the food is good and inexpensive. And they definitely have the best "seafood dumpling"!
I know, you already imagine the small dumplings so common here. That's what we thought as well the first time we ordered it. And to our greatest surprise... and our greatest pleasure... came a big bread bowl, filled with seafood in a nice creamy coconut and red curry sauce. And all this for 30 RMB ($4). I love that dish. I can go back there every week and order it everytime!
So, the other day, we invited our business partners for a quick and simple lunch there. The five of us arrived at the restaurant a little after noon. There were a number of nice and quiet tables we could choose from, but to our surprise, our business partner started talking to the waitress... in mandarin of course, so we couldn't really know what was happening, and before we know it, we are in a private room upstairs! And a few minutes later, we have all ordered something that we will share... plus a couple of other dishes... and the whole event suddenly looked too familiar! It had become one of these official business meals with our Chinese hosts! No more casual lunch sitting all together in the dining room like we are used to in North-America! Oh well, it seems like there is only one way to have a business lunch or dinner here: a private room, a round table with a number of dishes circulating around! And the most funny thing is that we ordered our favorite "seafood dumpling" which I praised to our hosts, but none of them seemed interested to try it... we really have different taste buds it seems!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Far away travel

You guessed right. This photo is not of China, but of our house in beautiful Vermont. If you are a loyal reader, you probably think that I have being too quiet in the past week... Well, for the past 2-3 weeks, I actually have been in Vermont and Quebec (even though I continued to write about China because I still had untold stories). And I have been traveling in my mind as well. I listened to the audiobook of Mao's Last Dancer, a wonderful book, a great insight on the life of a peasant and then dancer in Mao's China in the 70s. I also listened to Notes from China, which also describes Mao's China. And I started the Travels of Marco Polo. I would recommend Mao's Last Dancer. It is a fascinating story on China (with the last part actually taking place in Houston, Texas, as this young dancer became a very famous dancer there) and you don't have to like dancing to enjoy it. I am sure that, as I tell stories about life in China in 2007, I will relate back to these readings. Yep, there are still a lot of stories I want to tell. And there are more travels to come. My husband and I are leaving back to Asia next Tuesday. We will be in Dehli, India for one day (I cannot wait, I hope to take some nice photos there) and then in Malaysia (far up in the jungle) and also at a secret location (my husband's secret) for our honeymoon, and back to China until Christmas. Well, I promise, I will keep sharing stories and photos. And if you know about any great book on China, let me know!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

China in 1895

Intriguing illustration, don't you think? My husband received an issue of a New York magazine dated 1895 as a gift from my parents. And, surprisingly, the center spread was this illustration (you can click on it to enlarge it). The Chinese emperor, looking rather ill, is being served ultimatums (hard pills to swallow) from Britain, Russia and Japan. Humm, that got me really curious. What was happening in China in 1895 which would explain such caricature? What was Britain doing? What about Russia? And Japan?
Britain? Well, my story on Gulang Yu already talked about the pressure of Britain on China to open ports for trade (Opium Wars). In 1894, Britain is negotiating with China the extension of the convention on Hong-Kong territory, finally signed in 1898… for 99 years as we all know. The Treaty of Nanjing, in 1842 at the end of the first Opium War had already given Hong-Kong to Britain.
Russia?... my research led me to learn that at the time Russia was pressuring China with troops in Manchuria.
Japan?... in 1894-1895, I discovered, Japan is actually in war against China over Korea. With China weakened by the wars with Britain and France, Japan has desired to reduce the influence of China over Korea, worried that Korea would get under the control of another military power (simply too close to Japan for comfort!). The interesting thing about Japan at the time is that Great Britain and France actually helped Japan build their Navy, training the Imperial Japanese Navy in gunnery and seamanship and building ships for Japan. Something the allies may have regretted a few years later.
April 1895: the war concludes with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (known as the Treaty of Maguan in China) in which China recognized the independence of Korea and ceded Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan belonged to Japan at the beginning of the 20th century? I did not know that! At least not until a few days ago, when one of our business partners here in Xiamen, who is from Taiwan and loves to discuss with us the relationship between China and Taiwan, told us about it. Taiwan – China relationships… quite a subject, right? For future postings…
So mission accomplished: The role of every actor in the historical illustration is understood. It was quite fun to play detective to understand what lead to its drawing in 1895. Hope you enjoyed it too. (What I did not say is that the other part of the illustration showed the Egyptian being happy to be left alone. I researched that as well, but that is another story, which has nothing to do with China).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

History discussion with a young Chinese

Small stone sculptureWhen we visited Gulang Yu,
I got really intrigued about the history of China in the middle of the 19th century and the relationship with the Western nations (see Gulang Yu posting). Because of the perception that China "had been humiliated" that you constantly read about, when the subject is being discussed here in China, in museums, guides, books, etc. There is not one time where the relationship has been discussed that I have not read the word "humiliation" in the same sentence!
So, a few days later, I decided to ask a local young Chinese about what he had learnt about it in school. After all, that young man was born and raised in Xiamen, and Xiamen is one of the 5 Chinese ports which were opened to trade to the West, by the treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, after the defeat of China against the British. (The 5 "treaty ports" as they are called were: Amoy [Xiamen], Canton [Guangzhou], Swatow [Shantou], Ningpo [Ningbo], and Shanghai).
The conversation... "What did you learn in school about Xiamen as a trading port occupied by Westerners in the 19th century?"..
"I did not learn about it"..."Do you know about the 5 treaty ports, the opium wars, the Western countries wanting to trade with China?"... "No"... "Hummm, what did you cover in your history classes?"... "the long history of China, the dynasties..."... Well, I understand, 2000 years of history is quite an extensive subject.
I was amazed myself that in the "Dynasties of China" book I read, there was one little chapter to cover 300 years of history... from 1644 to 1912 (the Qing dynasty), a longer history than the whole history of North-America. Then I asked him: "And what did you learn about Mao Tze Tung?"... silence... Hummm, either he did not hear me (doubtful), or did not understand me (possible), or it was one of those ignored questions, when Chinese people will just ignore you asked a question, or answer off-subject, rather than answer a question they just don't want to answer... Interesting...

Easy blog reading

You have a few blogs you like to check regularly. You wish you could be told when they have a new posting without checking each blog individually. Well, then you have not discovered Google Reader yet. With Google Reader, you can list the blogs you want to keep up with ("subscribe to them" is the technical word) and your Google Reader page will show you the new postings when they are written (published). You just need to open a free Google account, and if you use Blogger (for your own blog) or Google Analytics (to check your blog or website readership), then you already have a Google account.
One more tip: if you like to check your readership, you may want to change your blog settings for "site feed", so readers actually still "visit" your blog. Set it to "short" and if I lost you there, write me a comment with your e-mail and I will explain. Enjoy reading those blogs!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Marco Polo

I hope National Geographic and photographer Mike Yamashita will forgive me for borrowing this beautiful photo. Afterall, it is to talk about their articles. I discovered this really interesting series of 3 articles from National Geographic, while searching for a map showing the route Marco Polo took during his travels. Interestingly enough, National Geographic has followed the same route as Marco Polo had during the 13th century, when he left Venice, Italy in 1271 and traveled to China (and other countries) for 25 years. They published the articles in 2001, but also have a short slide show with great photos and commentary on their website, and a book Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey has been published by the photographer Mike Yamashita. Anyway, all the information on the articles, slide show and books is available at the following link and the back issues of National Geographic can be purchased by calling here (boy, this information was really hard to find!). I am planning to enjoy it all... and of course read Marco Polo's travels! I have to say I love to read about explorers. It may be because I am originally from the part of France where Jacques Cartier was born and I have sailed in Brittany when I was young. Or because I am a little adventurous myself. Who knows? In any case, I have read Jacques Cartier, Columbus, Magellan, Shackleton (who explored Antarctica) and Eric the Red (the Viking who discovered Groenland). And Marco Polo was next on my list of readings before I even knew we were coming to China. And hey! I would love to hear from anyone reading this, on what they think about these National Geographic articles or any great explorer's book out there...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

$3.70 meal for two!

Yep. Two lunches of noodles for a total of 28RMB ($3.70). Nice dishes. Great taste. Same price as the nice iced coffee (29RMB) I can get a block away from the noodle place. Without mentioning the
cafe latte they wanted 69RMB ($9.20) for at Xiamen airport (I revolted against that last one and refused to pay more than for a Starbucks coffee!). It is tough to figure out price relationships here. I give you these examples, but usually in the same neighborhood we will eat for 100-110 RMB ($15) per person (including beer), Chinese or Western food alike. And there is this great Japanese place we just discovered with superb food for an "all you can eat" 95RMB ($12.70) dinner including 2 little containers of sake per person! So, what is the cost of living in China, for us Westerners or for Chinese people? Hard to say, some things are simply a lot cheaper than in North-America, especially when labor is involved and some things are sometimes more expensive. I can get my professional printing jobs done for less than 25% of the cost, but we paid more for a home printer than we would have in the States.
And salaries you ask? Well, a factory worker or technician can make 2 to 3,000 RMB ($270-400) a month, but according to Rob Gifford (you know the author of China Road I always talk about),
a farmer makes 1,000 RMB ($135) a year. And I see some young Chinese women driving big BMW cars I seriously cannot afford. Some people are extremely poor here and some people are now extremely wealthy. This is the contrasting world of today's China.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

China Road

What an amazing book that was. I quoted it already a few times in previous blogs to explain some of China's reality and I am sure I will quote it again. Rob Gifford was National Public Radio's Beijing correspondent in Shanghai for 6 years. In this book, he recounts his travels along Route 312, the longest route in the world's most populous nation. And as he speaks fluent mandarin, he has during his travels all these wonderful contacts with ordinary Chinese people. China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power draws on Gifford's 20 years of observing first-hand this rapidly transforming country, as he travels east to west, from Shanghai to China's border with Kazakhstan. This book has the feelings and emotions of the current reality of China, establishes wonderful connections between the daily life of people and the historical and cultural roots of today's China and tries to imagine how the future will unfold. Personally, I had the audio book version (for my iPod) and the narrator was also the best narrator I ever heard. It made the audiobook better than reading the book. He gives the mystery feeling which is the atmosphere the author I believe wants to convey. In conclusion, if you have only one book you want to read about today's China, this is definitely the one! And if you currently live in China, you will relate greatly to what he says and feel, and will probably learn to understand the "whys" of a number of things you have observed! Here is more about the book.

Bhutan tourism

My last blog on Bhutan. My husband Ed and I were very curious to compare the tourism industry in Bhutan to the one back home in Vermont, because both places are about the same size. And we were actually lucky enough to find recent articles for both countries. Bhutan welcomed 17,000 visitors in 2006 (it limits the number of visitors however) and tourism revenues were $25 million in 2005. On the other hand tourists take 13.4 million trips to Vermont every year, for total revenues of $1.57 billion and has 23,000 hotel rooms. I know, Bhutanese people reading this blog are going to say: "they must be literally invaded by tourists!". Well, may be people in Stowe (a major ski resort here in Vermont) feel that way, but the place where we live and most places in Vermont I believe feel that this is actually a pretty quiet place.
Of course, Vermont can attract people for short stays a lot easier than Bhutan can, but it definitely shows that Bhutan tourism has a lot of space to grow as an industry!

Morning light

7:00 AM. The sky is blue with a few white clouds. The air is so crisp and so clear. The light is unbelievable in the rising sun. Everything, the trees, the monastery seem to take the nicest colors and the crispiest lines. I am starting to believe some impressionist painters who were saying that light can be very unique sometimes, in some places. I am so glad I got up early on that sunny morning, and was brought here by Yeshey Dorji, our guide photographer, to capture the morning light on this mountain monastery and the faces of these young monks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trekking in Bhutan

We hiked the Long Trail in Vermont a couple of times for 2-3 days, carrying tent, sleeping bags, food and clothes on our back. But hiking in Bhutan is quite a different experience, both exhilarating and tough.
We had a wonderful crew for just the two of us, my husband and I: 5 people (guide, cook and horsemen) and 6 horses carrying dining room tent, table and chairs, other tents, food, propane tank, even a tent for the outhouse (toilets) with a hole in the ground, quite a luxury way of camping.
Trekking is a wonderful way to discover Bhutan. The Himalayas are spectacular. And of course, you see places only accessible that way.
We hiked for 3 days and a half, from Timphu, the capital of Bhutan to Paro, and saw 2 beautiful monasteries (Phajoding monastery and Jili dzong) and and a few nice altitude lakes (including Jana Tsho lake).
But even though we chose easy trails (we trekked from 2600 meters to a maximum of 4300 meters - some treks go as high as 6 or 7,000 meters), it was not easy. Starting at 3500 meters, the altitude really affects you before you get acclimated to it. You are short of breath and you start getting pounding headaches. Hiking periods are March-April and October-November, and beginning of October, when we were there, the temperatures drop rapidly as the sun sets, and we were very quickly in our -20ºC sleeping bags trying to stay warm.
But the views are breathtaking. And our trekking team took great care of us! Even the food was impressive (our cook also worked in a major hotel in Timphu). I am still looking for the recipe for the great tomato-ginger-garlic soup he served us every night!
One more thing: if you decide to go trekking in Bhutan, bring some little items you need... sunscreen (the sun is strong!), Tylenol, bandages, kleenex and... toilet paper. They bring a lot with them on these horses, and tell you the only thing you need is warm clothes and warm sleeping bags, but I think you will be glad to have some toilet paper when you need it!
PS: Our wonderful travel agent: Dragon Quest Adventures, owned by Yeshey Dorji, an expert bird photographer.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tonight we can read blogs in China!

Don't know what happened and don't know if it will last, but tonight we can read blogs in China (and if you read my previous blog on the subject Blog Censure!?, you know that their access was blocked before and why). Let's enjoy!

Taksang Monastery (Tiger's Nest)

What a wonderful place! Back in May, it was the reason why we decided to go to Bhutan and it was just as impressive as we could imagine - and even more.
The hike up to the monastery is breathtaking. It is not easy tough. A number of tourists abandon before reaching the top. But you can see the monastery early in the climb, and there is a nice view of it at the teahouse half way the climb. So, everyone can enjoy some of it.
After a couple of hours of hiking, when we think we are finally right there, start a series of steps, pretty scary actually, narrow and at the edge of the ravine. We are going down to cross the valley and reach the side where the monastery is, pass by a two hundred meter high waterfall, and finally make the final ascend.
The reward is to enter such a gorgeous religious place. Not a coincidence that so many monasteries here in Bhutan require a few hours' hikes up hills. It takes some effort to deserve such a blessing.
This monastery has been built in 1684, on the site where Guru Padmasambhava, the essence of Buddha Amitabha, landed on the back of a tiger and mediated for several months. There is nothing like it anywhere else on earth, I am convinced, an impressive monastery, simply hanging on a vertical 1000 meter high cliff! What a sight!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bhutan economy 101

I know you probably don't want to hear about the economy of Bhutan. But there are some interesting facts about it, I wanted to share. I will try to make it really short, to keep you all awake. The country is of the size of Vermont, USA, in size and in population (700,000 people). Its capital and largest city is Timphu, 70,000 people.
While countries look at their GDP (gross domestic product) to measure their economic success, Bhutan has actually decided to focus on GNH (Gross National Happiness!) and it is not just words. The concept is embedded in policies, plans and legistations and the country has identified four pillars for the implementation of this guiding principle: sustainable socio-economic development; conservation of the environment; promotion of culture and good governance.
So Bhutan is definitely doing things very differently. With the help of India, his largest economic partner, Bhutan has developed hydro-electricity to a level it can actually export to India. Hydro-electricity is its number one source of revenues. Impressive, no? I have to say it is incredible to see the power of the waters running down from the Himalayas.
The second source of revenues for the country is tourism, but Bhutan has decided to manage it carefully. It limits tourists to 10,000 a year, they have to pay a minimum tariff ($200 US per day, not cheap!) directly to the government bank, which keeps 40% of the revenues.
It also has a great forest coverage, 70% of the country, but again, while it could get high revenues from such timber, it is very careful about avoiding excessive cuts, and limit them to local needs.
Being a small country, Bhutan is in need of labor and is getting his cheap labor from India (Indians are the only ones who don't have to pay this daily tariff to get in the country). Nowadays, you can see many Indians doing construction work along the roads of Bhutan particularly between Paro, where the airport is and Timphu the capital. Next year, there will be major celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of the kingdom, the coronation of the 5th king and the beginning of the democracy (popular vote) offered by the king. And Bhutan has been working hard on that road for 2 years already to increase it to 2 lanes for its VIP guests!
It makes for a surprising scene in Timphu on Sunday afternoons, when suddenly there are more Indian faces that Bhutanese faces in the streets...
So, is this country who was closed to the world until the mid-80s and has very strong buddhist traditions succeeding at its vision? Well, I will let you judge for yourself. Most of the roads are still one lane, and when another car is coming in front of you, oh well, both cars go half way on the road shoulder. But they are working really hard to improve such transportation structure. They only have had TV for 6 to 8 years, but we had wireless internet in the room of our hotel and their cellular phone coverage in the mountains of the Himalayas is better than we have back in the US, in Vermont!
Their employment rate is 3%, their poverty rate is 31% and they are starting to get cases of AIDS, a sign of the country opening to the world.
And as a last note, it was defined as the 8th happiest country in world, by a survey of the University of Leicester (Canada was 10th on that list)!
Well, that was your first class (and probably the only one ever) on the economy of Bhutan!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Smiling faces

Our great guide KenchoPeople of Bhutan are so wonderful. Charming people, beautiful faces, colorful clothing. And yes, they still wear their traditional robes every day : gho for men, kira for women, and it is not for the tourists! It made for the most wonderful photography experience I ever had. I would go back to Bhutan anytime, to have more time to wander around, sit down, watch people and take these fascinating portraits. I always feel shy about taking photos of people, feeling like I am steeling something from them, even though there is something delightful about a nice photo of an interesting person. In some countries, like in China where we are, people will run from the camera, or, if they are poor, they will try to get money from you for the permission of taking a photo. In Bhutan, people were so different. They were so friendly. They were smiling at the camera, the monks in the monastery or the people on the street, happy to have their picture taken or sometimes even asking for it. There was this little poor little boy who asked me in English "take a photo" and proudly posed for the camera. There was that young monk who gave me a big smile as I reached the courtyard of a monastery on an early morning drive, up in the hills. There was that school boy (hiding behind the older boy on the photo) who wanted to look at the photo I took on my camera, and soon I had four young kids hanging on me, looking at my monitor. That had to be the most exciting moment of my trip, that special connection of a few minutes with a few charming kids from such a different world. I have many memories in my head and on my camera of all these people. Thank you to all the smiling faces of Bhutan!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Painted houses

Can you imagine an entire country (of the size of Vermont and with 700,000 habitants) where all the houses look the same and are all beautifully painted with earth colors? Well, this is reality in Bhutan!
Magnificent houses, very square, with white walls, visible structural beams made of blue pine, all painted of the same colors from nature: red, ochre, brown, white and black (no chemical paint here!). Amazing architecture!
The supporting beams of the roof and of the floors sometimes, and the window frames are nicely decorated. There are lots of designs of dragons, the symbol of the country – the land of the thunder dragon - circles and curved shapes. The paintings are symbols of peace and harmony in the home, and meant to keep the evils away!
Bhutanese people have an unbelievable sense of national identity. And it is obvious when you see the care and love they put in maintaining these beautiful structures.
Even more interesting is the fact that this architecture is similar for private homes and for official government buildings and monasteries. The official buildings are called dzongs and they share the functions of government offices, temples and monasteries. Built several centuries ago, it is said that they existed in Tibet as well, but that in Tibet they fell into ruins or are simply used in museums. Here in Bhutan, they are part of people’s daily life. Quite unique.
And if you look really closely, you will see some details in monasteries which you won’t see in private houses: in monasteries, the painted wood structures are actually carved and sometimes gold leaves are applied.
We have seen some quite majestic monasteries here. But for our last two days, our hotel – in Paro – was certainly equally memorable. Built to oversee the valley of Paro, the Gantey Palace used to belong to a member of the Royal Family. And we are convinced we had the best room in the whole place, a corner room on the top floor with a view on the whole valley! Check the view from our bed!

Landing in Bhutan

A week ago, we were arriving in Bhutan. Leaving from Bangkok, Thailand and after a short stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, we were finally approaching our destination: Paro, Bhutan.
As our A319 plane, and its 150 passengers started to descend, some kind of miracle happened. I was suddenly in a 2-seater private airplane, feeling like the hero from "Out of Africa" when landing in the impressive landscape of wild Africa.
Here we were descending deep in a valley with the strong white waters of its river running below us. And on each side of us, high, impressive, steep slopes of the Himalayas... one or two thousand meters high slopes. The mountains were magnificent. And the plane was following the valley, banking right one time as the river bended right, banking left as the river bended left. That had to be the coolest feeling. And if nature was not beautifully enough, traces of human life were just as impressive. Dozens of wooden painted houses perched everywhere on the cliffs, with bright green fields of high rising rice. Finally, here we were, entering the last valley, the long straight landing strip right in front of us... landing in Paro, Bhutan.
That had to be the most incredible landing ever I experienced. At that instant, I knew the week ahead would be as extraordinary as we imagined. If paradise exists, it must look like Bhutan, I thought. Bhutan is pure beauty...

370 million tourists in one week!

Last week was National Day Holiday in China. National Day is October 1st, and Chinese people got the whole week of holiday, even though there are discussions of reducing the length of this official holiday in the future. Because when 1.3 billion people are on holiday at the same time for a whole week, it can get pretty chaotic!
Imagine, the newspapers were revealing that there were 370 million tourists traveling last week here... 370 million! It is way more than the population of the USA, and it was the amount of people who traveled over this single week! Hard to imagine. Are we ever glad we left for Bhutan (that little kingdom of just 700,000 people), because Xiamen, China, where we live, is supposedly one of the favored tourist attractions in China! And we thought that the streets were crowded here on a regular Saturday afternoon. I don't even want to imagine how they were last week!
The newspaper also mentioned that on that holiday, Chinese people spent 15% more than 2 years ago. They spent 350 billion yuans (50 billion US$)!! You have to hear these kind of numbers to realize that yes, the economic boom of China can change the lives of the Western world as we know it, for ever. By the way, on a final note, that holiday week is called the Golden Week, right name for it, it seems!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Trekking in Bhutan

We are in Bhutan and trekking starting Tuesday morning... so no blogging for us this week. But be sure to come back and visit the blog next week. Bhutan is an unbelievable place and I cannot wait to tell you everything about it!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A day in colonial Gulang Yu

Spending the day walking around Gulang Yu was such a treat last Sunday!
Gulang Yu: “the wave which sounds like the beating drum” (gu for drum and lang for wave) – what a nice name!
Gulang Yu is a small island just 5-minute ferry ride from the island of Xiamen.
We wandered all day and we felt like we were back in time at the beginning of the 20th century, but in a place where inhabitants were long gone and had deserted their gorgeous colonial residences.
Indeed a lot of the homes are empty, falling into ruin and covered in ivy, with overgrown gardens of tropical flower bushes. But despite the decay and the abandonment, it is said to be the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial mansions in mainland China. It is difficult to explain the reality of the island and its architecture though without going back to just a little bit of history. From the 16th century to the 19th century, starting with the Portuguese and then the British, the Dutch and the French, Europeans tried unsuccessfully to open trade with China. But the Chinese emperors, who considered every other country as its vassal, was a lot less interested in opening its country to trade than the British were interested by its products, such as its tea. So China resisted for several centuries, forbidding access to its ports, its rivers and its lands and trying to limit the trade to the port of Canton. The British continued to trade illegally though, having found a product of desire which it brought from its Indian colony: opium. As the trade of opium increased rapidly, the emperor of China understood the dangers of its addiction and forbid its trade. It also tried to punish illegal trade by destroying boat loads of opium it would catch. A century of humiliation started for China however in the middle of the 19th century. Humiliation is a word which comes back often in the books you read about that period. China lost two opium wars against the Europeans – British and French – and had to pay heavy fines to reimburse for the destroyed shipments, and to open its ports to trade and to missionaries. Amoy (today’s Xiamen) along with Beijing and Shanghai was one of these ports, which saw the arrival of the Europeans. Amoy officially became a foreign concession in 1903. For more on the subject, you can read an interesting book: The dynasties of China, by Bamber Gascoigne. I grabbed it last year at Shanghai airport!
Today, more than in other former “treaty ports” even Shanghai, Xiamen has kept the signs of its colonial era. It has many nice colonial buildings on its coastal streets and it is said to have the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial-era shop-houses in mainland China as well.
But Gulang Yu has a very special place in the history of the trading port. Most of the foreigners lived on the small island rather than in Xiamen itself.
And by the 1930s, the island counted about 500 resident foreigners and more than 10 consulates. No surprise! The island looks like a tropical paradise, with its hills and its coastlines. It has a nice breeze which I am sure is precious during the tropical summer months.
Today, there are many tourist shops, but also nice beaches, many gardens to visit and many nice narrow streets where you can adventure and discover this colonial heritage. We even visited a museum which was not on the list of tourist places to see on the island, with tons of relics, oil lamps, books, clocks and furniture.
The feeling was strange. It was just an accumulation of objects on tables, as if people had taken everything from the many houses and just dropped them here. Two gold fishes were swimming in a bathtub outdoors… a child’s wooden toy was in the middle of the courtyard. The signs explaining the history let the visitor know in broken English (and mandarin of course) that the local people were not happy at all with the fact the foreigners had taken over the island, and it was time that the island went back to what it used to be.
And there is a lot more to see. It is a place for artists with its school of Arts and Design, and many sculptures in the gardens, its piano museum with over 100 pianos from the 19th century, its piano concerts and much more. We will have to come back!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mid-autumn Festival

Xiamen is preparing itself for a celebration. It is mid-autumn festival here in China, one of the most important celebrations of the year. Don’t be confused, as we are end of September and you are thinking it is the beginning of fall. We are on lunar calendar here in China, and the autumn has started sometimes in August. The mid-autumn festival will take place on the next full moon, on Tuesday.
It is a celebration for friends and family to gather and we should see fireworks here downtown Xiamen. But more importantly, the mid-autumn festival is about 2 things in Xiamen: moon cakes and dice games.
Made of a thousand recipes with savory and sweet fillings, the moon cake symbolizes the moon of course. It is associated specifically with this festival, the same way some other foods are associated with other celebrations throughout the year. And everyone buys them for friends and family! In stores, you can see high piles of these gold and red nicely decorated boxes, and people are walking the streets with their arms filled with boxes, like people with Christmas gifts.
The dice games are played EVERYWHERE. And it may very well be a specialty of this area, rather than a tradition seen throughout China. For that game, six dices are thrown in large ceramic bowls, and the combination of numbers coming up define which prize is won. As you walk the streets, you can actually hear the sound of the dices being thrown in the bowls. Retailers give customers chances to play the dices if they spent a certain amount of money in their store. Sales people for the credit card company have a display in the street and you can play the dice game if you register for a credit card (hummm, it is an interesting sales strategy when you know that most retail stores don’t accept credit cards!). Last week, at a lunch of the expat association, we played the game of course… the prizes: Tupperware boxes! On our street, tables have been set up and there the prizes are large bottles of cooking oil. Interesting, no?
This afternoon, on the island of Gulang Yu, they even had a huge set up of over 100 tables with bowls on their soccer field. I am telling you, this is a serious affair here. The fascinating thing is that the number which makes you win the dice game is… 4! I know, the number “4” was bad luck when I tried to get a phone number… but I guess that when you play dice game, it is actually good luck. Well, I am so confused now. Confusing China.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Zhong qiu jie!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blog censure!?

Blog readers of the world: Be content! Why? Because you can read all the blogs you desire! Bloggers from Xiamen, China – like my friend Tina and I - are happy to post blog entries for you to enjoy (as long as we can guess the menus in mandarin), but guess what… we cannot read them ourselves!
It is said that blogs had been used to organize protests and that consequently the authorities have blocked them all. One thing we are not sure of is if it is only in Xiamen or all over mainland China. (Radio-Canada news Home Page is also blocked, whereas I can log to CNN.com… go figure!).
So, here are a few tricks for bloggers to go around this unpleasant surprise (it is not fun if we don’t try to go around what authorities are trying to impose, right?).
Trick number 1 (I am pretty sure it works from what I observed on line): put your blog within your website if you have one… then it will loose this noticeable “blogspot” URL, and everyone will be able to read you.
Trick number 2: view the blogs through a VPN – you know a company network – That is what we do ourselves to read expat blogs from China. It is slow but it works.
Trick number 3: go to Hong-Kong for a week-end (we need to exit China every 30 days anyway with our visas) and enjoy all the blogs in the world then! Read away for the whole week-end!
Trick number 4: if you are planning to move to China, and are looking for all those valuable tips and pearls you can find in blogs (and nowhere else), don’t wait to get here to read them, it will be too late. Read them before you come!
And to all of you out there, start enjoying reading those blogs as if they were forbidden fruits, because they may be…

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Food etiquette

An evening at the restaurant with Chinese hosts... Food is coming, several dishes at once. We are taking nice portions of food: fish, meat, vegetables, soup… Such a nice assortment. But generous helpings may after all be a mistake! Because more food is coming… and more. After a while, we start asking ourselves: how many more dishes have been ordered? How much more will be coming?
Have to try everything though, to thank your guests for their hospitality!
Some things we love (as per our Westerner taste) some others… oh well… well, we have tried them… “no thanks, I am OK, no more”… what was it anyway? Chicken feet… sea cucumbers… brain or other delicatessen…
We are so full now!
We promise ourselves that next time we will just take a few bites of everything!
In the meantime, I am finishing the bowl of soup I was served. My guest serves me more – despite my resistance. OK, got to eat it. Good, my bowl is empty again! Oh, no, he is serving me more! Why?... I am so, so full… I really won’t be able to finish this one!
It is only a few weeks after that feast that I discover what happened there. My mother had taught me to always finish my plate of food, because leaving something was not polite. Hummm, it is quite different here in China, quite the opposite actually. if you empty your plate, your Chinese hosts will feel that they have not been good hosts and have not offered you enough food,and they will feel bad about it. And will serve you more (ah, ah, I understand now!). In China, leaving food in your plate is the right thing to do for respect to your hosts!
Oh, one more thing: slurping when you eat your soup is a sign of appreciation here, quite OK, nothing rude about it.
There is a lesson there: next time I think that someone just did something “universally” impolite, I will think again. What is politeness to me might very well be very rude to my neighbor and the opposite could be true as well!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Museum of Tea Ware, Hong-Kong

I always loved everything about tea and teapots.
There is a lot of tradition around tea. When I was young, I was told the “teachings” of the British: warming up the teapot first, one spoon of tea per person and one for the teapot, etc… Did the Brits in fact learn what they know from the Chinese? I wonder.
Today one thing is clear: China is at the core of the tea tradition.

So, during our last visit to Hong-Kong, it was great to discover the Museum of Tea Ware, which is located in Hong-Kong Park.
First, the museum is a fascinating place for potters. An exhibit showed the works from a 2007 creativity competition of pottery teapots. Videos were even showing some of the potters making their creation.
I also picked up a pamphlet which described the physical characteristics of a well-functioning clay teapot, its body, lid, handle and spout, in details. The “How to” of clay teapots. I should try it one day!

But the museum has much more to offer. Did you know that the various types of teas require different water temperatures, and that for instance the temperature for green tea should be 80-85°C, and 100°C for black tea? require different teapot sizes depending on how much the type of tea leaves will expand? that some brewing methods recommend to not only rinse the empty teapot with boiling water, but also rinse the pot filled with tea leaves a second time, before finally brewing the tea? that oolong tea should only brew very shortly not to be bitter (but use large quantities of tea!)? A world to discover, indeed!

And it is just the beginning of my exploration. I am ready to “hit” the many tea houses of China next!

Blind date at the Orient

The Orient: an Australian bar behind the Marco Polo hotel (the reference location for all westerners here in Xiamen). The blind date: Mark and Tina.
You can read their blog at http://wichmannstories.blogspot.com. They have some “crispy” stories there (that’s the French expression – des histoires croustillantes – and I have no idea if it translates well into English! Juicy stories, may be?).
Anyway, Mark and Tina arrived in Xiamen two months ago from Chicago, and we had been exchanging blog comments and e-mails for a few days. So, Friday night we decided it was time to go for a beer together. And as they were on their way to the Orient, Tina told Mark how it felt like a blind date. We would meet and one of us could say “Oh, you don’t look at all like your picture!”. On our side, I told Ed in the elevator “it is like a blind date, we know so much about them (we read the past two months of their blog) and we have not met yet”. Funny, no! Well, we had a great time, sharing stories about how we manage the interesting challenges life throws at us here. There is a certain connection that immediately exists between “expats” here (as we are called), because we share the same experience. And they are a few of us here: Mark and Tina, Mark is originally from near Boston, Tina from Toronto and they were living in Chicago. Mark works with their contract manufacturer here for a water treatment equipment company. They have been here two months, and will be here 18 months. At the bar, there was also a writer from California who arrived one month ago, and another westerner who had been here for 20 years (20 years!). At the METRO store two days ago, we helped two kids (they looked so young!) who arrived two weeks ago, are from Denmark and work for Ecco Shoes. They will here one year. At the apartment (condo-hotel) we stay at, there are many Japanese and some westerners, some even with kids who leave for school in the morning. The American international school is probably not far.
It is a strange feeling, the feeling of being back in time, like we imagine colonial India at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century… even the haze from a hot and humid climate, the local people and some of the architecture make you feel that way sometimes…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Exchanging money back to US dollars?

We had been warned not to exchange too much money into RMB because we won't be able to exchange back to US dollars. Something quite funny happened to us at the Bank of China yesterday on this subject:
We needed to exchange dollars to RMBs in this case. Tellers are helping customers, customers are sitting and waiting and we quickly realize we need to get a number to talk to the bank teller. The machine distributing the numbers is asking us which service we want: "individual business" or "foreign exchange outward remittance", so we indicate "foreign exchange outward remittance" (That was probably the wrong answer anyway because we wanted to exchange dollars to RMBs in this case but not the opposite). Our number is 3040 and the "foreign exchange" counter indicates 3032, but there is no teller there. There are tellers for "individual business" handling clients 1148 and 1149. Minutes pass by. More clients are being helped at the "individual business" but noone shows up to help at the "foreign exchange outward remittance". We try to get the attention of a teller, but without success. What should we do? After a 20-minute wait, we decide to get one of these "individual business" numbers which will definitely solve our problem, but we smile thinking about this extremely efficient way to not service the customer looking for US dollars. Afterall why have a teller telling people "no, you cannot get US dollars" when you can simply have them wait for a long time, until they simply give up! For the whole 30 minutes we were there, noone ever came to that counter for "foreign exchange outward remittance"! Of course, there may be a totally different explanation for what happened but it was funny to imagine that could be the explanation. In any case, don't they have the cutest little girl on their pamphlet?