Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Stories for travelers to Vermont

I know... I am so sorry I did not write any more stories about China for a while. I would still like to. There are so many things I did not discuss yet: the nice Shikumen houses in Shanghai, the Hakka round houses we visited in a day trip from Xiamen, the wonderful karaoke with our friends Mark and Tina, when we even sang the Canadian hymn! And more...
But I am been so busy trying to tell interesting stories on Vermont... that I did not seem to find the extra time. So, in the meantime, if you would like to read about all the wonderful things to see or do in Vermont, you can read me at: www.travel-vermont.net!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The palanquin of a Chinese bride

That was a little treasure in the middle of a wonderful day. A few seconds of being transported – it seemed – in another world. On that warm day of spring in Fujian province, I actually witnessed a moment which I thought only belonged to historic books and novels. It was the parade of a traditional Chinese wedding, and a glimpse at the palanquin of the bride. And I could imagine the rest of that day for her: earlier, getting ready at her home, now, in this red palanquin being carried by four men on that dirt country road to the home of her future husband, with a veil on her face probably… and later, the ceremony where her future husband and her will discover each other’s faces… may be for the first time… who knows?
It was just like stories from the 19th century or even from 30 years ago (I had read the long description of such a day in Mao’s Dancer a few weeks prior). And on that day, in the beautiful countryside, 3 hours away from Xiamen, from the top floor of one of these traditional round Hakka houses, I was witnessing it! A very special moment of Chinese tradition! May be it did not mean much to my travel fellows, but for me, it was one of the most exciting moments I lived in China…

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Photos from Spratly!

As per popular demand, I have loaded some photos from our expedition to Spratly... more photos than you've ever seen from me!
You can see them on our radio expedition website N1URSpratly, but I made sure that a number of them were not "radio stuff"!
The only thing you won't see is the famous "shark" and the cool sight of divers floating under us, while we were snorkeling! Too bad I did not have that underwater camera!!
Anyway, enjoy!
PS: Next, I am virtually traveling back to China. I need to talk to you about that really cool old Shikumen home we visited in Shanghai!!

Monday, March 31, 2008

News from Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia

We are flying back home. Long, long trip back home (5 flights over 36 hours from Spratly to Kota Kinabalu to Taipei, Los Angeles, New York and Burlington, VT).
And while I am flying half around the world (it seems), I hear that one of my friends from Vermont, Ariana, is in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, for a very exotic trip it seems - from horse backriding to skiing to cooking... Quite exotic indeed. So while I get back into the swing of things here in Vermont, and get my body clock back to US time, I thought I would share her blog with you, so that we can all dream about going to such a remote place one day... You can read her blog at http://kelingkeling.blogspot.com. And don't forget that I still have a number of good China stories to share!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Encounter with a shark!

Here in Layang, Layang, Spratly this week, we truly feel like the odd couple. Everyone here is a diver. One American even asked us - very surprised - "How is it possible?! You are here in one of the top diving spots in the world and you don't realize it?!". Well, we answered: "You are here in one of the most desired remote locations for amateur radio and you don't know it!!".
It must be true though. There are people from all over the world here: France, Germany, Poland, Italy etc... One young man from Poland is especially coming to photograph sharks, and he has been doing this everywhere already it seems: Galapagos, South Africa, Maldives, etc.
In any case, between two sections on the radio yesterday, we managed to walk to the end of the small island and try our snorkeling equipment. Nice! Very nice! The reef was swallow, the water clear and we saw a number of tropical fishes. But the reason why this place is so incredible for divers, is that there is a very abrupt drop of the reef, to what seemed like bottomless ocean.
The funny story though belongs to my husband Ed. He was following a nice big and colorful fish, when he suddenly saw a shark... "Cool, I need to get closer" he thought, and here he went... After a few seconds though, he reached "consciousness": "Eh, what in the world am I doing?... This is a SHARK!!! And I don't even know if it is dangerous, or how big or how far it is..." Funny, no?...
I guess we enjoyed it though because we were back snorkeling today, but this time we took the boat with the divers. Fantastic... Sting rays and many fishes. But the most beautiful sight for me was actually the first few seconds under water when I discovered the reef and a few divers starting their dive just under me. It was almost like a smooth and peaceful dance... And the water was so incredibly clear. Too bad I did not buy that underwater camera afterall!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

China media coverage of the Tibet situation

I am not an expert on Chinese politics nor the Tibet situation and for that reason I have never touched on political subjects in this blog. The closest I got to discussing politics was when I touched on the fact that young Chinese people never seem to discuss Mao time. So, I won’t do it more today than I have before. What I am sharing here is how we felt last week, when trying to get news about Tibet from “inside China”… You had to be there to realize how the “picture” of what was happening could be incredibly distorted!
As the Tibet violence started last week, it was amazing to see that in the matter of a couple of hours, the Yahoo news were blocked… and a few hours more, we could not even access anymore the Yahoo page all together! Some people could not even access their Yahoo email! Surprisingly, we could still visit www.cnn.com, which had “softer” headlines about what was happening. YouTube was of course also blocked, but this is not anything new.
That night, Tibet was of course a subject of conversation as we shared a few beers with some expats (it was Saint-Patrick’s day after all!)… Interesting enough, we had brought our young Chinese friend with us. I was observing him as we were talking, and the look on his face was truly saying “I don’t know what you guys are talking about”. Not surprising. So that was Monday.
Unfortunately, I don’t read or speak mandarin, so we were pretty disconnected from what the Chinese media were saying all week. We did keep up to date with the situation using my husband’s company VPN (virtual private network).
We were flying out from China Friday, and the TVs at the airport - in English interestingly – had one headline “other Asian countries support China’s action in Tibet”. They mentioned India and Pakistan. Another headline was that “China was complaining about the bias of international media”. Wow! Indeed a different angle… in a message targeted to foreigners, if we consider that most Chinese don’t speak English. Interesting complaint, when China itself does a lot more than spreading biased news… it simply blocks them! Then, on the plane, finally we could read some news on Tibet – in English – in the Hong-Kong paper, the “South China Morning Post”. It mentioned that India actually prevented some Tibetans to cross the border to China to help reduce the tensions. There is indeed a good reason for India and Pakistan to support China’s actions, and it is to avoid violence in their own countries in the border areas where some Tibetans live.
We could also read about the way China justifies its actions of restricting the news “to avoid violence to spread to other regions”… Truly, there is never “One truth”…
I will end this posting by mentioning a really interesting blog (for those of you who can reach French)… a fascinating memorandum actually signed by 30 Chinese intellectuals (names and professions included), with a very comprehensive point of view I thought. Interestingly enough, the blog itself is hosted by the French newspaper Le Monde, and I am just wondering what kind of risk these intellectuals were taking by signing this article, if the fact it was written in French was helping them not getting censured (or is this blog censured in China?), where these intellectuals resided, in China or in France, why Le Monde was hosting such a highly political blog… so many questions…
In any case, it was definitely an interesting way to “speak up” in this difficult context.
I will end this posting with all these unanswered questions but there is no doubt that last week has shown us how extensive and complex the “freedom of speech” issue truly is in China…

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Layang Layang: One island, one resort

After an overnight in KK, we flew to Layang, Layang, a Malaysian Spratly island yesterday morning. One-hour flight to reach this tiny island in the middle of the South China Sea. It is actually a circular reef with the island at the tip of it. Unfortunately I cannot show you photos before we leave because it is forbidden to upload and download photos here at the resort. It is also forbidden to take photos of the Navy base located at the end of the island (at least if I want to keep my camera!). It is hard to imagine what is here. As we are rolling on the landing strip, we can see - just there on the left - the rooms and the swimming pool of the resort. Fortunately, there is only one flight a day. So, the noise of planes won't really disturb us. As I said before, that's all there is here: the airstrip, the Navy base and the resort. So, it is funny to come to the supper buffet and not being asked any question or any proof you are staying at the resort... if you are here, you got to be at the resort!!
Hard for me to find something historic (as I like to do) on the island, but it is definitely a strategic spot. It was used as a base during the Vietnam war... And this morning, we had the honor to show our room with all the radio equipment, to noone else than the top commander of the Malaysian Navy, who was visiting the island today... Yep, you heard right "the top guy"... He was fascinated about us coming from so far and connecting with people from around the world. I won't expand about our radio stuff here (we have the other blog) but yes, I have talked from here with people from Oregon, Scotland, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Hong-Kong and to tons of Japanese!! And it is just the beginning!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Heading to Spratly!

This is where we have lived for the past 7 months (well, 5 months really if we substract the traveling as our expat friends here point out). I will miss Xiamen, China and soon Asia, with all the great people we met, the great places we saw. But for now, our adventure is not quite finished. We are heading for Spratly in 1h30! We will report on our adventure there, may be with no photos for now if the internet connection is too slow. It is an amateur radio operation, as I mentioned before, so we are also discussing the "radio stuff" on our N1URSpratly website.
So stay tuned... and stay tuned for more China stories too, because even after I leave, I still have a number of stories I did not have time to tell yet... like the traditional wedding I saw, the great Shikumen houses in Shanghai, the Water Village near Suzhou, the old round Hakka houses in the Fujian province, tea houses and more... So, bye, bye Xiamen... I will be back next year!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Xiamen sidewalks

In Xiamen, most sidewalks are tiled. I am not sure if it is the case in other Chinese cities, but it is definitely very common here. And some of the tiles (like the yellow ones on the photo) are actually soft, like made of rubber. I always wondered why. So yesterday night, as we were walking home with our Chinese friend Wayne (after some beers to celebrate Saint-Patrick's day with some expats, at a bar owned by a guy from Sweden who was apologizing for not having enough Irish songs... Imagine that!)... so as I was saying, yesterday night as we were walking home, I took the opportunity to ask our friend. "Why the soft tiles?" "It's for the blind people, so they can follow the path... and you see, they have stripes and then the last one before the street or when they have to turn have dots rather than stripes, so blind people know when to stop. They can feel the shapes with their feet... You don't have those in the US?" "Nope" I answered, and he added, concerned: "So how do blind people find their way around?" "Humm, unfortunately, they have to manage without this great help!" I said... Well, this time, China impressed me!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chinese's bound feet

I remember hearing about Chinese women with bound feet when I was young. I thought it was a legend. Probably, Chinese women simply had small feet and they had tight shoes. What a surprise when I realized that it was far from being a legend... There are still some old women with bound feet in 21st century's China... There is an unbelievable photo of them in "Marco Polo: a photographer's Journey" book from Mike Yamashita (I will add the photo to this posting when I get back home where the book is). It looks pretty shocking to see these women with feet half the size of a normal foot... And the incredible story of this tradition, I read in "Mao's last dancer". Fascinating. Again. Like so many things here in China. Young girls had their feet constrained in tiny shoes, as they were forced to bend their toes under their sole. It made women more "acceptable" for marriage, a sign of class and distinction in a way. But women with bound feet were actually handicaped (we can imagine). They could not walk long enough distances to bring lunches to their husbands in the fields for instance, and stayed mainly at home. So, I will not only bring back a 70s' Mao clock from China, but some exquisite ceramics, a little red pair of Chinese bound feet!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Middle of the South China Sea

Yep... I am going to add another star on my map of Asia in a couple of weeks. And that will definitely be a very special one. I hope you will be reading this blog then. I am going to be right in the middle of nothing else than... the South China Sea. I know… it sounds very exciting… I have been way too lucky this year with my travels! I am going to have to settle down after these great 7 months in Asia... or … may be not!.. But for the present, the destination will be Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands are indeed intriguing. Discovered in 1791 by Henry Spratly, they are a series of islands, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, claimed by EVERYONE (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia)! Why? Because of their strategic location and the fact that it was thought for a while that there could be oil there.
We will be in Layang Layang, one of these islands.
Not an historic place, but rather a long and narrow reef… truly tiny (around 25,000 square meters!)… A paradise for divers and underwater photographers it seems... and amateur radio operators, like my husband Ed (and I, yes, newly licensed to be able to go to places like this with him). The amazing thing is that the island is practically man-made! The Malaysian government, who operates the island, created it by filling the channel between two isolated reefs with sand. It also managed to build on it an airstrip, a dive resort AND a military installation.
So today we got the authorization from the Malaysian Navy to go there. Everything is finally in motion. We ARE going! And as you can see, it is not an easy place to get to: controlled by the Navy, with limits for how much luggage we can take, limited internet access, etc. But I am really excited!!.. Does it show? I am even planning to buy a little underwater camera I saw advertised on TV.
For more information on the amateur radio stuff, see our expedition website at www.N1URspratly.com.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Love for Mao

My friend Ann took that photo in a flea market in Beijing. Interesting subject... and quite shocking to see that there was a time when even self-criticism (as you can see with 2 of these little sculptures) was the subject of decorative ceramics. Well, I don't think that Chinese people care anymore about Mao. I have not heard one Chinese person mention his name. Not surprising...I am sure they got an overdose of him for years. But Mao is in the flea markets today... for the pleasure of tourists. The fact is that when I saw this photo I immediately thought "I got to get some memorabilia of Mao before I leave". So Friday came, day of the flea market in Xiamen, and I was there - with Ann as my guide - ready for some serious hunting! Indeed we found some other examples of ceramics portraying Mao and his famous Red Book... and yes, I now own a 70s-style little alarm clock, with of course the portray of Mao, and a worker with a moving hand holding... the Red Book. I will bring home a piece of China history!.. Well, Chinese people may not care about Mao anymore, but they are happy that we, the tourists do. How could they have ever believed they could actually make money on all that old Mao stuff?! The love for Mao is not dead, indeed!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lantern Festival

Last night was a rainy evening in Xiamen. But it was also the night when we finally went and wandered throughout the great displays of lanterns not far from our apartment.
Indeed for the past month we have observed construction of large and colorful displays on the little flat and probably artificial island in the middle of the (artificial?) lake on Xiamen island – including two huge dragons with their long tails right in the middle of the water! Preparations for the Chinese New Year we thought. We were surprised to see it was still there at the end of the holiday time and it is still beautifully lit every night… We had been traveling and on jet lag and I am ashamed to say too lazy to venture there.
So it was really time to enjoy the scenery despite of wind and rain. After all, they would probably be dismantled any time now. So here we went. Quite interesting indeed. There must have been 100 or so very large structures. The funny thing is that they are actually all “advertising pieces” promoting the latest real estate developments here in Xiamen or things of that sort. They pretty much look like the floats at the Thanksgiving Parade on Fifth Avenue, except for the fact they are hollow structures lit from inside… giant lanterns indeed.
Of course traditional themes are being explored, dragons and cute little mouses (this year’s astrological animal), but I really enjoyed the originality and beauty of some less traditional ones like these women running and the nice Chinese garden with flowers (photo above).
But I would disappoint my loyal readers, I am sure, if I did not add a bit of history to my posting… So here it is: the Lantern Festival marks the end of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year on the 15th day of the lunar year, on a full moon. It is a celebration of lion and dragon dances, fireworks, eating rice dumplings and of course lanterns. I also read that an essential part of the Festival is “guessing lantern riddles”. Riddles are posted on lanterns which visitors try to guess. If they guess right, they’ll receive a small gift from the lantern owner!
And the origins of this Festival? Well, it is amazing to see that there is nothing – it seems – in China which doesn’t have about 2000 years of history! And the Lantern Festival is no exception. It dates back to legends of the Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago. The funny thing – somewhat similar to what I found about the legends of how silk was discovered – is that you can read different legends in different articles, all stating very authoritatively that “this is THE legend of the Lantern Festival”.
One legend reads that an emperor from the Han Dynasty ordered to light lanterns in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha on that day, as he had heard that Buddhist monks were lighting lanterns as they were watching the remains from the cremation of Buddha’s body and worshipping Buddha.
But I love the other legend even more… Here it goes. The Jade Emperor in Heaven was very angered at a town for killing his favorite goose, so he decided to destroy the town with a storm of fire. A good fairy heard about the plan and warned the people to light lanterns throughout the town. From Heaven, the village looked ablaze. Thinking that his goose had already been avenged, the Jade Emperor did not execute his plan. From that day on, people celebrated the town being saved by lighting lanterns in the street… on the first full moon of the year… Isn’t it a wonderful story?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Expats of the world

Fascinating people… whom we have met in the past few months. There is something truly fascinating about being in places like China and meeting all sorts of people with intriguing life stories to share. And may be they truly have more interesting stories, or may be – and very simply – we just take the time to listen to their stories. In Canada and in the US, of course we would not talk to a stranger in a restaurant, or have supper with someone who just posted a comment on your blog, but being abroad, and in a country where being a foreigner is written on your face, we do. We notice Westerners like ourselves, we strike a conversation, we look for opportunities to meet and share experiences.
And today “this is their stories” like they say on TV… There is Mark and Tina, living in Xiamen, another American-Canadian couple here for a couple of years, him working in a subsidiary of his US company, her being remarkably dedicated to learning mandarin at the university. We simply met one night – the famous “Blind date at the Orient” - because Mark has posted a comment on this blog. We read each other’s blogs all the time and we have promised to go for some karaoke night soon (something we HAVE to do before leaving China!). Then there is Marie-Frederique and Tom whom we met through an “expat lunch”. She is a painter, a life-time expat from France who lived in a few African countries and her husband Tom who is from Romania. They decided one night – just like that – to move from the US to Xiamen and start a new business adventure! Xiamen looked like a “nice enough place to live” and labor would be cheap in China. After 2 years, they have 40-50 employees - painters and Photoshop people - and they mass-produce paintings for Target and other major US retail store and hotel chains (including her famous “chefette” which I am sure I saw somewhere in a retail store in Montreal!). Their office is just fascinating to visit: more sophisticated than anything else in Xiamen, with nice sitting area, kitchen and art gallery (virtual visit here). There is hundreds of new artwork being literally created every week… totally overwhelming… And our very international group (her and Tom and my husband Ed and I) enjoy sharing a quiet supper together! Then still in Xiamen, there is Ann and Michael, and their 3 children. Blogging was also our connection. They are here from the US for one year. He is teaching philosophy at Xiamen university and she is taking care of the children and blogging about their lives, their kids’ life at school and their interesting travels throughout China - for the pleasure of all of us. We met once and had a really nice time walking throughout the campus and enjoying a very local lunch (but delicious!). I enjoyed the small streets and the very active life around the university, very different from our “expat” neighborhood. And I love her husband's story, the symbol that no one should ever give up in life in the face of adversity, especially young people. Her husband Michael actually left community college, worked 3 years in a kitchen, went back to school, and now has a PhD in… philosophy! Quite extraordinary indeed. Last but not least in Xiamen, in the same apartment building as us, lives a business man (I have to ask him for his name!), originally from Savoie, France, living in Hong-Kong, married to an Asian woman, and responsible of a new Wyndham hotel in Xiamen. With his young son who is studying in the US, we all sat together one night at the local Australian-owned cafe to share the traditional Tuesday night “two-for-one” pizza and beer, and had one of these wonderful conversations which has you travel around the world in minutes…
My last story is the one from Sanna and Tom, originally from Sweden, who live in Beijing with their 3 children, him working as the communication director for Nokia.
We met under the most unusual circumstances! Remember last October… when we trekked for 4 days in Bhutan. This was a unique experience, not shared by many. Indeed we met 2 people only every day (a lot fewer than climbers of the Everest experience!). So you can understand my surprise went I read Sanna’s comment on my blog! “I think we met in Bhutan… I recognize your tent… we did the same trek in October”. And indeed we had met … and met again in Beijing for the most wonderful and unusual evening. Just because of that blog posting, we had decided to meet again. For one evening, and one evening alone, we were transported far from the crazy life of Beijing to a very peaceful and very beautiful Swedish home. We truly could not have felt more in Sweden if we had been in Stockholm! It was before Christmas, in a secluded quarter for embassy people, which looked just like an American suburb. And we had such a wonderful time: Christmas tree with Swedish decorations, fire in the fireplace, hot spice wine, and lots of memories from Bhutan which we all shared on that night…
So “expats from the world”, thanks for all these wonderful moments!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Year of the Rat

Or may be I should say “the year of the mouse”, like I read in a China Daily newspaper’s article (sounds “friendlier”, no?).
In any case, the “year of the rat” is everywhere around us… to my great surprise. The phenomenon is probably nothing different than any other year, but it is definitely something new and surprising for me, living the experience of my first Chinese New Year.
Of course, I have known about the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. I knew that people’s zodiac sign depends on the year they are born (based on Chinese lunar calendar of course).
And the coming year, starting February 7th, is the “Year of the rat”. What I did not know about is how present these signs are in people’s lives. A lot of products are designed and purchased with the illustration of the zodiac sign of the year. Places are decorated with these illustrations, like these paper illustrations hanging in hallways and at registration desks in Xiamen airport… hundreds of them (photo above)!
Many articles are written. China Daily had a fascinating full-page article on the subject a week ago.
It explains that the rat/mouse is the first of the 12 zodiac animals in the cycle of 12 years (for the fascinating story of how the rat came first, read Mark and Tina’s blog).
The article also describes the 4000-year old emotional attachment Chinese people have to the animal. Images of the rat first appeared on bronze ware in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (4000 years ago) and then in the Han, Sui, Tang, Ming and finally Qing Dynasty (1346-1911). It also mentions how ancient Chinese actually had a love-hate attitude toward the rat, depicted in history as mean, greedy and disgusting, but also worshipped for its unusual reproductive capabilities. Images of mice or rats in households were a symbol of fertility and prosperity – even though people also feared them, as the rodents damage houses, spread diseases and spoil the food.
Well, the rat is still the symbol of fortune and prosperity and everyone, and even the US Treasury, is trying to cash in on the Chinese craze for “luck and prosperity”! The US Treasury has in fact issued some $1 and $2 notes with serial numbers that start with the lucky 8888 number to welcome the Year of the Rat.
And Hong-Kong Disneyland has designed the Chinese character for fortune (fu) in the shape of a little Mickey Mouse! Actually Hong-Kong Disneyland is trying hard to capitalize on the Year of the “Mouse”. Afterall, its famous hero Mickey Mouse is… a mouse! Hong-Kong Disneyland has not been as successful as anticipated in the past few years, and the park is hoping to connect Chinese culture to Disney for better success this year, and is launching a major promotional campaign of the park and its famous mascot.
If the rat is the symbol of fortune, it is also the symbol of leadership. The rat is indeed seen as a natural leader, hard-working, ambitious and energetic. Rats this year will be the kings of the world!
So, what can we expect for the Year of the Rat? “a seemingly quiet year on the surface, but full of tensions underneath” (says Raymong Lo, a feng shui master who has predicted the fall of Gorbatchev in 1991 and the Nasdaq crisis in 2000).
And who will be the next president of the US?... John McCain whose Chinese zodiac sign is… the rat! … interesting!
Some of the anecdotes in this posting come from 3 postings of China Books Blog and one posting from Tout sur la Chine (in French) on the Year of the Rat.
Post-scriptum: I am trying to know from my Chinese friends if the word for rat and for mouse is actually the same in mandarin… Anyone has the answer for me?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beijing - Getting ready for the Olympics

We watched a really interesting program on the Discovery channel two nights ago on how Beijing is getting ready for the Olympic Games. It was fascinating. It interviewed some experts who summarized traditions and symbolism in Chinese architecture, a lot of the things I had read here and there before. They discussed the symbols of the square representing the earth and the circle representing the heaven. You see these symbols in historic buildings such as the Forbidden City and it is interesting to see that the same symbols are used today in the design of the Olympic buildings: the two buildings you now hear about are the Cube and the Bird's Nest (stadium), a square and a circle... Actually, what they did not mention is "why a bird nest?". I suspect it is because bird's nest was actually an imperial delicatessen. Then they talked about the well-known "central axis" going through Beijing from South to North, through each important building from Tian'An Square, the Forbidden City to the Drum and Bell Towers etc. and now at its extreme North through the Olympic area, with the Cube at its left and the Bird's Nest at its right. They also talked about the "power of empty space" and the emotions such spaces create in people. Humm, this is what I was trying to convey when I was describing the Forbidden City courtyards in a previous posting. This is the feeling of the Forbidden City: the emotion doesn't come so much from the size of its buildings (not exceptionally tall or large) but from the huge empty spaces.
Well, another part of Beijing we really liked and which was presented in the program are the old private courtyard houses in the district of Hutong. Sadly, a lot of them are currently being destroyed as the city and its highways are expanding, and because Chinese people don't seem to value that much their architectural heritage, to our constant surprise. Interesting to know what governs the architecture of these courtyards: four buildings around the courtyard, the North building, the most important one, for the parents; the sons in the East buildings (for better sun) and the daughters in the West buildings. A similar preference for the East buildings is seen in gardens I visited in Suzhou and in the Forbidden City itself. Interesting...
Then we move from the subject of architecture to the huge challenge of the Beijing Olympic Games: will Beijing deal with its huge pollution problem in a manner acceptable to the Olympic committee? An extensive subject. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world (actually China has 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world!). It is so polluted that people notice when the sky is blue: these are called "blue sky days". And Beijing is desperately trying to solve the problem. We learned that they are moving a whole steel plant, employing 85,000 people, away from its current location, 16 miles from the city. They are policing the car exhaust fumes. They have a fascinating piece of equipment which measures exhaust fumes and automatically takes a photo of license plates, to fine car owners who don't respect the norms (you know, the same kind of equipment we have in the US for speeding!). You have to know that Beijing has already 3 million cars increasing by 1,000 every day.
And Beijing is doing a lot of other things to prepare for the Games: educating people on politeness and etiquette, such as not spitting in public places; building a brand new subway line to ensure athletes and tourists don't get stuck in major traffic jams; teaching English to taxi drivers and everyone interested to learn; renovating its historic sites; practising for the opening and closing ceremony and of course training its athletes to "be the best".
Oh, by the way... have you seen the 5 little mascots Beijing Olympics has? Do you know that their 5 names together mean "Beijing welcomes you!" in mandarin...
Well, Beijing is getting ready to welcome 2.5 million visitors for the 2008 Olympics! Reserve your hotel now if you intend to go! I hear a lot of them are already sold out. Or you may want to have an exotic experience in one of these Hutong private courtyards...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Emperor’s daughter residence

A hidden treasure in Beijing! The former residence of princess Hejing, the third daughter of a Qing Emperor. A place you won’t find in the guide books! Oh well, let me rephrase that: a place you won’t find in the main pages on Beijing but somewhere in the list of hotels of some guide books. Our own adventure all started because of two small lines in our DK tourist book on China. The Hejing Fu Binguan hotel was listed there. “A courtyard hotel, the result of extensive and meticulous renovations, with intricate carvings, luxurious suites and traditional trappings that reflect the house’s Imperial pedigree” the guide said. Sounds great, right? Now, I had to go. You know me, anything that says “history” and I am “in” for the adventure. We had already stayed in a royal palace in Paro, Bhutan, so I was fascinated by the perspective of an imperial room in Beijing. Further internet search confirmed that the place was going to be exceptional. The Frommer’s guide was discussing the fascinating story of the place. It had been the home of the third daughter of Qianlong’s emperor (another guide says Yongzheng emperor, but in any case they are both from the 18th century). It had exquisite stone statues of camels, lions and mythical beasts, ornate wooden carvings… and well-sprung mattresses! These were “some of Beijing’s most spectacular courtyard buildings” and they had been spared during the Cultural Revolution because the Chinese “CIA” (Central Records and Investigation Committee) had their offices there at the time. Quite a story indeed. This was definitely going to be an adventure. And it was! When we got there, we drove by the ornate buildings to a modern, square and plain 4-storey building in the back, where the reception was. To our surprise, our room was on the 4th floor of that building. It had unattractive black leather seats, one of these really hard beds, typical of pure Chinese hotels (far from the promised well-sprung mattresses!) and very strange pillow cases. They were filled with round little grains, nothing really soft and comfy there! (The next day during our visit at the silk factory, our guide proudly explained that everything coming from the silkworm is used, even the dry silkworm pooh which is used as pillow stuffing. Ah, that’s what it was. I am so glad to know that I probably slept on dry silkworm pooh!) We were definitely in the most Chinese hotel we ever stayed at. No other westerner there. Nothing familiar on the breakfast menu, not even coffee… No English spoken. However, you can visit the courtyards even if you are not a hotel guest. There are accessible by anyone coming from the street. And they are amazing. It is almost like a miniature Forbidden City, with a series of courtyards, stone statues like we have not seen anywhere else and delicate paintings on the roof lines. Sadly they seem all abandoned, but it is definitely worth the visit and the little detour when you are near Tian’an Men Square.
Hejing Fu Binguan Hotel, Beijing
7, Zhangzizhong Road, Dongcheng District

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is indeed a remarkable place to see. And it is definitely at its best now, with all its recently renovated golden and red painted buildings, and its contrasting white stones, in preparation for the crowd of visitors during the 2008 Olympic Games.
For us, while we spent 3 days touring Beijing, it was definitely the highlight of the trip. I would recommend however to go to the Coal Hill before visiting the Forbidden City. The Coal Hill is located just north of the Forbidden City and gives you a great perspective of the size and the organization of the city. It is actually interesting to know the reason why the hill even exists: in the Feng Shui tradition, a home needs water in front of it, and a mountain behind it - for good luck. The location did not allow it, so man labor was used to achieve Feng Shui perfection and a mountain and a river were created. The Golden Water River can be seen in the first courtyard.
There is indeed a lot to understand about the design of the Forbidden City: the Outer Court (for visitors) and the Inner Court (private quarters of the imperial court); in the Outer Court, and just in the center of the city - the Hall of Supreme Harmony used by emperors for special occasions (the city walls were actually destroyed and then rebuilt later so that the Hall would be right in the middle); in the Inner Court, the Western and the Eastern palaces and the palaces of the emperor ( Palace of Heavenly Purity) and of the empress (Palace of the Earthly Tranquility) with the Hall of the union between the two, for them to meet; the repetition of the number 9 for luck, in all architectural details, in the number of brass studs on doors (81), the number of rooms in the city (9,999), etc…
The Forbidden City is indeed impressive. It is actually the world's largest palace complex. Everything is impressive about it: the sheer size of its successive empty courtyards and buildings, the large steps with stone balusters and carved stone bas-reliefs. And there is such a mystery associated with the place, as you walk through it, thinking that such a huge place was kept close to the world for centuries, hidden behind these thick walls and these huge heavy doors.
It is fascinating to imagine an emperor with 3000-4000 concubines and a similar number of eunuchs, living in such a space; fascinating to imagine the English ambassadors discovering its grandiose structures, as the heavy doors opened in front of them, and as they walk through the main courtyard, discovering these majestic stairs leading to the emperor, a little more at each step they took; fascinating to see the room where the emperor was receiving his guests, where the emperor signed his orders, where the empress Ci Xi was supposedly imitating the emperor’s signature to sign some orders for him, to see the silk screen between which she was hiding and giving her orders indirectly.
Definitely the most fascinating to me, as I mentioned in a previous blog, was to see all the places where empress Ci Xi had governed, just as they are described in the recent book Empress Orchid, I read a few months ago. So, my humble advice: read Empress Orchid (see my book list for details) before coming to Beijing, come in the spring before the crowds of the Olympic Games (it is going to be simply insane then!), visit the Coal Hill first, and enjoy this very unique place.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Aromatic hotsprings


On this Sunday afternoon, I had almost finished writing my next posting on the Forbidden City, when we left with our Taiwanese partner to the Riyuegu Hotsprings. Well, guess what... It was such a unique experience that you will have to wait a few more days to read about the Forbidden City. The hotsprings are not quite as sophisticated as the website would lead you to believe (nope, I did not see the rose petals shown on the photo) but it is indeed something you probably never experienced! Imagine 60 little swimming pools surrounded by bamboo trees and palm trees. Imagine all these swimming pools made of large stones and filled with water from the natural hot springs, all at different temperatures, from warm to unbearably hot! Imagine people going from one swimming pool to the next and experiencing each one. But the best part of it is that each pool has a special scent, from rosemary and lemongrass, to several kinds of tea, lemon, curry, milk, and yes, beer, red wine and rice wine or coffee! And they have those wonderful names: lemon burst, coffee pot. "Would you join me in the coffee pot?" Funny, no? And I am convinced that in your life, you have ever taken a hot bath with a few glasses of red wine mixed into it... Personally, I can add the following to my list of exotic things I have done in Asia: "I relaxed in a sake-scented jacuzzi!". Pretty crazy... Then, after walking around and experiencing the therapeutic benefits of these aromatic pools, we finished our visit by laying down on a nicely warm granite slate, with a little bamboo box pillow, and relaxed there for a while... We could have had a massage there, or a pedicure (and even, yes, have our eardrums clean... not a Chinese thing I would ever want to do but Chinese people seem to like to have strangers do this for them, as I saw it before at my hairdresser). The funny thing is that our host felt deeply asleep for about one hour, so guess what, we had no other choice than just lay there and enjoy the moment. A nice way to spend Sunday afternoon, and may be a new idea of something to do for some of my friends expats in Xiamen... I am not sure it is an attraction which many Westerners here know about...

Monday, January 14, 2008

The greatest places on earth!

There are books listing the 1000 places to see before you die. And this Christmas, I received a calendar on this theme. So, I started thinking about the places I have seen which I found remarkable. Not easy to select. There are the somewhat obvious ones, and then there are the ones which seduced me even though they were very simple and pretty unknown... A few of these places are in Asia, so I decided to share them with you. So here they are. For me, the top 2 have to be the Taksang Monastery in Bhutan, an unbelievable place right in the middle of a 1000-meter cliff and the Angel's falls in Venezuela. The two places are hard to reach. I am sure it makes them so much more desirable and charming. You reach the Taksang Monastery after a good 3-hour hike and the Angel's falls are in the middle of the Amazon, at the end of a 6-hour ride in a pirogue, which starts at 4:00AM in total darkness. It is a beautiful high and thin waterfall which you look up to see, as high as your eyes can take you. Then I have fond memories of so many other nice places: the Forbidden City in Beijing; walking along the Seine in beautiful Paris; downtown Stockholm with its reflections on the water; hiking in the Swiss Alps; skiing on a sunny day in Lake Louise, Alberta; listening to Carmen opera at the opera house in Vienna; walking the streets of Quebec city in December at night, with its snow banks and its Christmas lights; watching the tide go down on the beautiful pink granite of the small Brittany island of Brehat; taking an helicopter ride above the cliffs of Kauai, Hawai; and staying in the smallest and cutest harbour in the world, on the English Channel island of Sark. So many very fond memories. I could also add the Palace of Versailles and the castle of Chenonceaux, the magnificent abbey at Mont Saint-Michel, the ocean view from the American cemetery at Omaha beach in Normandy, the Bayeux museum with its georgeous medieval Bayeux tapestry - actually an embroidery of 230 feet/ 70 meters of length, little fishing ports along the coast of Brittany or Normandy, like the one of Honfleur, all of these in France; the interior courtyards in the ruins of Pompei, Italy; a concert of classical music in the impressive cathedral of Montreal, Quebec; a night in the London theater district; Langkawi island, Malaysia, with its rock islands raising from the ocean and its old malay houses; the city of Marrakech, Morocco with his fortified walls, his suuqs, mosque and busy square. And much more. Forty years of memories! So, what is the best place on earth for you?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Polluted China

I have been living in China for 4 months and have wanted to write such a post for at least 3. And the recent discussions in Bali and particularly the reaction to the Canadian position, which is simply that “it wants all countries to be part of an agreement, including developing countries such as China and India”, have made it impossible for me to delay writing about it any longer. China has a HUGE pollution problem and anyone who believes that the world can be effective in dealing with global warming without including China in the treaty doesn’t understand the reality of the problem China currently has… and it is going to get worse before it gets better, because China also has the huge challenge of maintaining its economic growth to “feed its people”. The good thing is that it is starting to be discussed in great articles such as this 2006 article of the New York Times (the best I found on the subject). But let’s forget the stats for a minute, and just share a few very personal notes. The photo above is the view from our apartment in Xiamen, a 3-million habitant city on the coast of China, across from Taiwan. In the middle of the day. And not on the worst day we had there. On the worst day, the photo would have looked like a white-grey piece of paper, with nothing on it. And trust me, this was not fog!
This second photo is the way it looked on good days in September. We live there with the air conditioning on and the windows closed even when the temperature is perfect outside (25ºC) because the air smells bad. And it is likely not the worst city in China. A Time Magazine article was mentioning that: “The World Bank calls China home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on earth”. In a Wall Street article on “expat” living around the world, journalists from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong were all stating that a negative aspect of living in those cities was “pollution”. You may have heard that Beijing is getting ready for the Olympic Games and plans to shut down factories around the city and limit car traffic for a couple of weeks before the Games to improve air quality during the Games, but you may not have heard that already now when an important dignitary visits Beijing, factories are closed and car traffic is limited. Beijing needs to hide the reality of its situation to the world.
When flying from Shanghai to Beijing recently, we also had a chance to see a little bit the magnitude of the problem: for the whole duration of the 2 ½ hours flight, the only thing we could see below us was smog...
The problem is so critical that it is now felt outside China: Hong-Kong, Korea, Japan and even the US, where it has been said that “as much as 25% of the air pollution in Los Angeles comes from China; at certain sites in California, as much as 40% of the air pollution comes from Asia.” (Los Angeles Times). I will let you read the revealing article from the New York Times, but will simply extract 2 quotes from it: “The increase in global-warming gases from China's coal use will probably exceed that for all industrialized countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks.” and “Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.” … PS: Let’s not forget that China’s pollution is the developed countries’ responsibility too, as we all benefit from China’s low-cost exports to such a large extend… Food for thought… I would love to know what you think! Send me a comment.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fascinating silk factory

Suzhou is the capital of silk in China, located one and an half hour from Shanghai. There, I visited the renowned Humble Administrator's Garden (from the 16th century) and the very nice water village of Zhouzhuang (the Venice of the East) but even more interesting, a silk factory. Fascinating. I learned a lot there from the legends of silk, to its history and finally its production. There is an actual production line where you can see how they sort out the single silkworm cocoons and the double cocoons – the latter ones cannot be used for silk thread and are used for stuffing silk quilts, because the threads from the 2 silkworms inside are intertwined; how they steam the cocoons to soften their sticky gum; how they extract the silk strands from the cocoons (simply by brushing the cocoon with a little wooden broom); how they unwind the cocoons and gather several strands together to have a strong enough thread for weaving. You can also see a weaving loom in action, the production of the silk stuffing and of course numerous silk products. In conclusion, a great visit! In Beijing, I also had the opportunity to visit a silk factory, which had gorgeous copies of emperors’ silk robes, but unfortunately doesn’t have a production line. So, if you are in Shanghai, take the time to drive to Suzhou, I think it is worth it! Probably as interesting as the factory visit, is the history of silk and the legends associated to it. There seems to be several stories on the origin of this exceptional Chinese discovery. According to Confucius, the Chinese princess Xi Ling was the first to reel a cocoon of silk, after dropping it in her cup of tea. Another legend (told by our guide in Beijing) is that the princess thought it was a fruit, but was disappointed it was so hard and tried to soften it by boiling it in water. Both stories definitely have their charm, and of course both talk to the true process of steaming the cocoon to extract its strand.
Silk is indeed quite a discovery (dating 2640 B.C.) which remained China’s secret for as long as 3000 years! The Romans even brought back silk products from Asia, but did not know anything about their making. Finally after 3000 years, silkworm eggs were smuggled by refugees to Korea and Japan and the silk industry started developing there. Another story claims that a Chinese princess who married the Prince of Khotan secretly brought silkworms with her as a gift for her husband. Then the western world learned about its secret by two monks who hid silkworms in bamboo sticks. And it all starts with a special little worm eating mulberry leaves!