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!