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!