Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

Hangzhou, a philosopher’s view.

December 15th, 2014

A philosophers POV

Again shooting with the slightly malfunctioning Alpha 65 with the wide angle lens, and supported by the small RX100, we headed of to explore Hangzhou.

Our guide there was David. His mother is a philosopher and this was evident in his approach to life and the way in which he showed us around Hangzhou, his hometown.

As he explained to us, in questioning the meaning of existence, philosophers always look to the opposite side, never taking anything for granted. When things are good they look to see what bad things are just around the corner and then when things are bad they look to find the good.

David was a student of history, both ancient and modern. He was cynical about people’s motives throughout history and had many interesting stories to illustrate his cynicism.

From what we have seen so far, China is a prosperous, vibrant and ever expanding country. David didn’t share our optimism and believes that the country is on the verge of another revolution.

David explained to us that Hangzhou is the centre of software development in China. This isn’t writing original programs but rather hacking out vast amounts of code for software companies and even the big animation studios like Pixar.

Apparently there are tens of thousands of these ‘Digital Farmers’ working in the city. David was critical of this lack of originality and and the resulting exploitation.

On our first morning in Hangzhou we visited the Lingyin Temple, Six Harmonies Pagoda and the Dragon Well Tea Plantation.

The Lingyin Temple, originally founded in 328 AD, is a wealthy, large Buddhist temple with a variety of pagodas and grottos. The name Lingyin, roughly translates to mean ‘Temple of the Soul’s Retreat’.

The Six Harmonies Pagoda is on the edge of the Qiantang River and one of the most impressive in the city.

The temperature was still high and the humidity heavy but the walk to to top of the pagoda was worth the effort. The views were vast, even though there was a thick blanket of mist hanging over the river.

Or was it really smog?

From the pagoda is was a short car ride to the Dragon Well Tea Plantation. Tea farmers are amongst the richest citizens in Hangzhou. Their plantations are situated very close to the city centre and their tea is highly regarded in China.

The Dragon Well Plantation produces some of the best tea in the Hangzhou region and the water from the Dragon Well is said to possess magical powers.

We of course had a brew but to the surprise of our ‘Tea Lady’ didn’t buy any.

Hangzhou is a small city, of only 11 million people, and the geography is dominated by hillsides, covered in tea bushes and Westlake, a huge natural freshwater lake in the heart of the city.

In the afternoon we paid a visit to the Sony repair centre in Hangzhou. They were very helpful but weren’t able to work out what the problem was with the camera and lenses. They felt that the larger repair centre in Shanghai would be our best option.

David was amused by my two cameras, one large and the other small, he likened it to carrying a rifle and a revolver.

Overcoming equipment malfunctions seems to have become a pastime of ours.

We are lucky, in a way, that the internet is so poor that we haven’r been able to spend hours posting our blogs. Instead we have spent our time tracking down Sony repair centers or retail stores.

We then took an electric taxi back to the hotel. These ultra quiet, yellow boxes are becoming very popular in China, especially as the impact of pollution and the consequences of global warming becomes more evident.

Another very ‘green’ mode of transport in Hangzhou are the free bikes. There are over 3,000 bike stations throughout the city with 70,000 bikes.

Our hotel was situated on the edge of Westlake, so we had a long evening walk along part of the the east side of the lake.

We weren’t the only ones, as the banks were brimming with sunset strollers. The difference between them and us was that they had already eaten.

It appears most Chinese like to get the evening meal over early and the majority of local restaurants are shutting up by 8pm.

Westlake is the upmarket part of Hangzhou and commands prices to match. As David explained: “The closer you live to Westlake the more expensive it is, no matter if it’s a cup of tea or an apartment.” 

On our final day we had a boat ride on Westlake. This was in a craft that was built especially for Richard Nixon when he toured China in 1972.

Our next stop was a shop of traditional Chinese medicine. This is the second largest ‘pharmacy’ of its kind in China and was a potpourri of amazing aromas. There are countless staff concocting preparations from all varieties of animal, vegetable and mineral ingredients.

It was started by a very wealthy Hangzhou merchant who, when trying to get medicine for his ailing mother, was so disgusted by the lack of quality and service that he decided to DIY.

Or next stop was the former Residence of Hu Xueyan and the Yuyuan Garden. Hu Xueyan (1823-1885), was a leading businessman of China in the late Qing Dynasty.

The garden was built in 1559, during the reign of the Ming Emperor, Jailing. There are over two hectares of classical Chinese garden architecture with water features bridges, even an opera stage.

We were then taken down to the Hangzhou station to catch the Bullet train to Shanghai. We used the Bullet Train extensively Japan and I was interested to compare.

There was no comparison.

The art of queue jumping in China is a sly one.

Forty minutes before the train was due, people started to queue. Slowly, as the departure time got closer other passengers started to hover near the edges of the existing line and then subtly merge in. Then, with five minutes to go, those people who weren’t happy to be at the back of the queue, just move down to start a new queue of their own.

There is Yiddish word that beautifully describes this situation: shemozzle.

I had a feeling that we were going to be in many more shemozzles before this trip was over.

There is a Doctor in the house. 

December 12th, 2014

Dr. Stainsby

Last night Hayden defended his PhD thesis to an adjudication panel at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

His paper was titled, ‘Triangular Basis of Integral Closures’ 

I didn’t understand a word, however the panel seemed to, and now Hayden has a Doctorate in Mathematics.

Needless to say we are very proud of him.

What price progress?

December 4th, 2014

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One hours flight from the calm of Guilin is the mega city of Chongqing, the starting point of our Yangtze Cruise.

Built on the banks of the Yangtze this regional capital is home to 34 million people.

It’s one of the fastest growing cities in China.

We were met at the airport by our new guide, Chris, and soon found ourselves in the midst of the Mid Autumn Festival celebrations, in Ciqikou, the old town area of Chongqing.

This area was a labyrinth of crowded, winding streets, full of vendors selling everything from grilled octopus on sticks to fortune telling on cards.

In the afternoon we visited the Three Gorges Museum. It’s dedicated to showcasing the history and culture of the local area. A history that goes back over two million years.

There is also a degree of political spin that justifies the building of the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

It was then down to the quay to board the Century Legend for our three day cruise of the Yangtze River.

As we slowly sailed north the scenery alternated between rural and urban. One constant was the development – China is very much a work in progress.

Late in the afternoon of our first day we ventured off the ship and visited the Shibaozhai Pagoda. The base of the pagoda was originally constructed in the Ming Dynasty (1364-1644) while the top tiers were built in 1956.

The Shibaozhai Pagoda has suffered from the rising Yangtze waters and now has a huge levee bank to stop it being reclaimed by the river.

The next day we had an early start, to visit the White Emperor City. It was originally built on a peninsula, now that peninsula is an island.

Another victim of the the Three Gorges Dam.

White Emperor City is also known as the City of Poems, as there are over 70 poems, carvings and cultural relics of the Sui, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties at the site. So important is this part of the Yangtze that the view from the temple is featured on the Ten Yuan note.

Later we started to move through the first two of the three gorges, Qutang and Wu. The air was still hazy, a combination of smoke and fog.

Qutang is the shortest and regarded as the most spectacular of the three. Measuring only eight kilometers in length and 150 meters wide at its narrowest point, with mountains rising to 1,200 meters on either side.

The Wu Gorge, sometimes called the Great Gorge is formed by the Wu River and is 45 kilometers in length.

Late in the day we made a side trip up the Shennong Stream and it was here that I had a major camera malfunction. Both my 70-300mm and 18-55mm lenses stopped working.

Oh no, not déjà vu again.

A similar thing happened to me last year in Japan and I was forced to buy a new camera. It looked like I was up for more distressed purchases.

Our last night on board was a celebration of the Mid Autumn Festival and we were given a Chinese banquet with more strange cuts of meat. Cuts that, if we were home, would have be relegated to the abattoir floor.

Whatever we were served it was very tasty.

The highlight of the night was passing through the five locks of the Three Gorges Dam. It was excruciatingly slow, taking 3.5 hours to descend the 100 meters from the reservoir to the Yangtze River below.

Our final morning was another early start, as we were to make a trip to the dam wall.

The fog had closed in, which isn’t surprising considering that his area has at least 100 foggy days per year.

As we were due to fly to Hangzhou, early in the afternoon, we had to miss the Xiling Gorge, the last of the three. The Xiling was once regarded as the most dangerous, with whirlpools and strong rapids. However since the building of the dam the water level in some areas below the dam has increased from 3  meters to over 100 meters. This is the largest of the Three Gorges, taking up nearly half the length of the entire Three Gorges region.

The airport at Yichang is the smallest in China, and the quietest. We arrived far too early and had to wait for hours for our flight.

We could have seen the Xiling Gorge after all, that’s of course if it had been visible through the smog.

Rivers, lakes and mountains.

November 27th, 2014

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Surrounded by spectacular Karst mountains and spread over two rivers and four lakes, Guilin certainly made an attractive start to our Chinese adventure.

The rivers and lakes are joined by a series of canals. Some of these were started over a thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty.

In fact Guilin has a history dating back to 300 BC.

With so much water it’s not surprising that bridges are a big feature of the cityscape.

Guilin was all but destroyed by the Japanese during WWII and there has a been a lot of reconstruction since then. The bridges were originally planned to be Chinese in design but that was regarded as impractical, as they are too steep for contemporary vehicles.

The answer was to design each bridge as a copy of fa amous bridge around the world. There is Neoclassical Roman, Classical Venetian, San Francisco’s Golden Gate and London Bridge. There’s even a bridge that goes nowhere, that’s not even based on a bridge at all but a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

During the day the space beneath many of the bridges becomes impromptu rehearsal rooms for the local Guilin musicians and singers. The spounds of flute and Chinese opera can often be heard as you walk along the river banks.

The other unique feature of the Guilin landscape is the surrounding Karst mountains. These geological formations are so important that UNESCO have set up a centre for Karst research in Guilin. Building regulations in Guilin prohibits the construction of tall buildings, within the city centre, so as not to interfere with the views of these, all important, tourist attractions.

So important are the karst mountains, and the unique landscape that they create, that heavy industry has been moved out of Guilin. The result is a green, pollution free city that relies on tourism for its survival.

We very quickly discovered from our tour guide John, that due of the sheer size of the population, everything in China is a measured in millions. For example, Catholics make up a tiny minority of all religions, yet there are over 10 million of them. We also discovered that there are four million farmers living in the mountains outside of Guilin.

This is a very rural area and homes are built three stories high to accommodate three generations of one family.

The old people live on the ground floor because they can’t climb the stairs. The middle generation live on level two and their kids live on the top floor. That way they have to go past their parents if they want to leave the house.

John took us on a city tour of Guilin, however it was more a tour of natural sites close to the city than a tour of the city itself. That we did the day and evening before, walking around the lakes, rivers and canals.

Our first stop on the City Tour was the Reed Fute Caves. These are enormous limestone caves, set in a karst mountain, with stalagmites and stalagtites so thin that they are reminiscent of flute reeds. In fact we found that imagination, in interpreting shapes, was part of the game tourist are asked to play in this area. John was constantly asking us to see an owl here or a flower there in the limestone formations.

The cave tour concluded with a rather amazing sound and light show. Projections onto the ceiling of the cave were used to visualise its geological history.

Elephant Trunk Cave was our next stop, again we were asked to imagine an elephant drinking from the river.

This wasn’t hard as the similarity was very obvious.

Our final activity for the day was to climb to the top of Fubo Hill to get a good view of Guilin. It was a good view and a hard climb, especially in the 30 degree heat with 80 percent humidity.

Electric scooters are the main mode of transport for the Guilin locals. They are so quiet that you can’t hear them coming, so we very quickly learnt that traffic drives on the right in China. Well that’s the plan, most of the time they drive on whatever side they like.

The next day we took the Li River Cruise to Yangshuo. The river winds its way through a spectacular karst mountain landscape, the sort depicted on the 20 Yuen note.

The skies were typically hazy but this just added to the atmosphere of the area.

As soon as we arrived in Yangshuo John hired three bikes so we could go cycling around the countryside. Without hesitation we were launched into the middle of the Yangshuo traffic. This was light compared to what we had experienced in Guilin and nothing compared to what we had been told about in Beijing.

We very quickly escaped the the urban area and found ourselves in rural China. We visited an old farmhouse and a lake where the locals go punting on bamboo rafts.

Many of the tourist activites are run by the local farmers. They are the only group who own land. The plots are so small they can’t support the family, so they supplement the farm income with other ventures.

After two hours in 30 degree heat we were exhausted – and thirsty. We found a quiet bar that served cold beer and rested our tired legs and numb bums.

In the evening we were taken to see a local performance. ‘Impressions of Sanjie Liu’ is a spectacular open air live show, set against the backdrop of the Li River and surrounding kasrst mountains.

Six hundred local children and farmers perform on this picturesque outdoor stage. It’s reminiscent of an Olympic games opening ceremony. This isn’t surprising considering the director of this production also created the opening extravaganza for the Beijing games.

Thus spake Zarathustra.

November 19th, 2014

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Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whether real or mythical, was the founder of the faith that preceded Islam in Central Asia and Iran.

He possibly lived sometime between 1000 BC and 1500 BC but no one really knows.

Zoroastrianism was the first faith to propose the concept of an invisible, omnipotent god.

It is also known as a fire worshipping faith, as the followers were asked to pray towards the direction of light.

Fire was a light that they could control, more than the sun or moon, so their temples always contained continually burning fires.

We have seen many examples of Zoroastrianism throughout our travels in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and we have heard many interesting ideas about its origins.

This faith is still practiced covertly in Iran and more openly in India.

Many Zoroastrian temples and buildings are adorned with a base-relief carving of a winged figure known as Fravashi or Guardian Spirit. He was regarded as the spirit who reached their deity Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism is also known as Mazdaism and as Magism from the name of their ancient priests, the Magi.

The Three Wise Men were thought to be Zoroastrian and to come from Kashan, south of Tehran.

Zoroastrianism is said to have influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I find it amazing that all these religions appear to be at odds with each other, yet they have so much in common.

A land of shopkeepers.

November 13th, 2014

A shopkeeper in Buhara

Uzbekistan and to a greater extent, all the former Soviet states along the Silk Road have a huge unemployment problem.

After the breakup of the USSR in 1990 the fabric of the socialist system started to disintegrate. The one thing the Socialists did was provide employment. The work may have been hard, mundane and poorly paid but it was work and it did put plov on the table.

Many of the indigenous inhabitants were nomads, who had been encouraged to come into the cities to work in the Russian and then Soviet factories. Once the factories closed they had no way of earning an income. They were untrained, all but illiterate and no longer had land or stock.

They turned to small business.

Many of the markets we visited are the main supplier of goods to these small family owned businesses.

If you have a table, a chair and something to sell you are in business. You don’t even need a table, as we saw one chap selling bottles of soft drink from a ground floor window.

Another enterprising woman had set her stall up, on one side of a pedestrian crossing, just across the road from a supermarket. She was selling cigarettes and her customers were those who had forgotten to buy their fags when they were shopping for groceries.

In Bukhara there’s a chap who rides the streets with a bike load of bread. He doesn’t make his money from selling the bread but from tourists who pay to take his photo.

On all the main roads leading in and out of cities and towns, vendors line the way. Close to the towns are the main markets with well presented stalls. The further you move out, the more you find the opportunists selling a lesser quality product at a cheaper price.

Then you have the black market money changers, buying foreign currency at a far better rate than you can get in the banks. Their profit comes from on-selling Dollars and Euros to the locals. They prefer to have their savings in a currency that’s not wildly fluctuating like their own.

You also have the Gypsies who make their living by holding their hand out. One of the pillars of Islam is giving to the poor, so they are always assured of a handout.

It was once said that Britain was a land of shopkeepers, I think that mantle has now move to Central Asia.

The tastes of Central Asia.

October 30th, 2014

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The food in this part of the world is unique, not just the recipes but also the ingredients.

The Silk Road was the melting pot of eastern and western cultures so it’s only to be expected that their cuisines also amalgamated to create something distinctive.

Lagma, a dish of noodles and meat, really begs the question as to where Spaghetti Bolognese came from and did pasta come from the east or west?

We ate dumplings that looked more like ravioli and Plov that’t somewhere between fried rice and Risotto.

The vegetables, herbs and spices combine to reward the palate in a way that I have not experienced before.

I am sure that this comes down to the fact that most of the food here, especially in the country areas, is unspoiled by herbicides, pesticides and other man made interventions.

We have been to countless markets and been overwhelmed by the aromas of the spice stalls and the faultless fruits and vegetables.

This perfect storm of taste and aesthetics results in meals that are both simple and remarkable in their delivery.

Their salads have been influenced by Chinese, Korean, Russian and European cuisines, yet they are nothing like you would find in Shanghai, Seoul, Moscow or Madrid.

The tomatoes are deep red and so full of flavor that all you need is a touch of salt and a drop of oil to create a mouth watering delight.

We were told by our guide in Khiva that it’s due to the high salt content of the soil that the Uzbek tomatoes are so sweet and flavorsome.

The herbs come fresh from the market, where they are expertly blended by the stall holders to your exact requirements.

Fruits, both fresh and dried, are in abundance.

Sultanas, apricots, raisins, melons, plums, figs, dates, pomegranates and berries are piled high in the market stalls. The vendors are very happy for you to try whatever you like and rarely pressure you to buy.

We were offered walnuts straight from the tree and strawberries fresh from the field.

The delightful result of this bountiful harvest ends up in the local restaurants, so you don’t just get to see and smell it in the markets, you get to taste it on your plate.

A fly on the wall.

October 27th, 2014

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We are tourists and no matter how hard we try to integrate into a new culture or country we are still sitting in the audience – we are never on the stage.

We were in Uzbekistan for sixteen days and had been invited to at least five weddings.

Our guide in Samarkand told us that it was common for foreigners to be invited to join the celebrations.

It’s easy to understand why, as you are treated like a celebrity, wherever you go. This isn’t because you are, it’s just that the Uzbeks want to make you feel welcome.

Weddings play an enormous part in social life and are grand affairs. A small one might have 300 guests but it’s not uncommon to have more than a thousand. This is a huge expense, for all concerned, yet there is no hesitation in inviting a few more, especially if they’re Westerners.

Groups of school and university age kids want to be photographed with you and also want to take your snap.

The same groups are just as happy to spend time practicing their English.

Even when you approach older citizens they rarely refuse the opportunity to have their photo taken.

We can only sit on the sidelines and enjoy the view, but what a great and entertaining view it is.

On our last night in Samarkand we went to one of their best restaurants. This wasn’t full of tour groups but packed with locals, determined to have a great night out.

One of the by-products of the Russian, Soviet eras was the introduction of alcohol into a predominately Muslim society. On the whole they choose moderation over excessiveness, unlike their former colonial masters. The result is good humoured fun.

The venue was a huge palace with a large ground floor area full of party goers. The band was loud and the atmosphere vibrant.

There were no seats on the main floor so we went up to the first floor, where there were small rooms on a surrounding balcony.

The waiter thought that we wanted peace and quiet and insisted on shutting the door.

We opened the doors and had a wonderful Dress Circle view of the spectacle below.

At the end of the night we returned to our hotel and the locals went home.

The show was over for us but for the people of Samarkand, it was just another Friday night.

Adventurers not tourists.

October 20th, 2014

Alone but not lonely

In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we met two travellers who proved to me just how easily we do our touring.

One was at the Ala-Archa Gorge. He was a Spaniard, from Alicante, who was cycling, yes riding a bicycle, from South East Asia to Spain, via the Silk Road.

He had set up his tent and was settling down for the night, with a bottle of water and some food.

The temperature was dropping and we were heading back to our warm car that was taking us back to our warm hotel, where we would be able to get a cold beer.

We must have looked worried, because as we walked away he called after us:

“I am alone but I’m not lonely.”

The other was a Brit, who had just ridden a motorcycle from Bergen in Norway to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

We met him at dinner and he was celebrating having a comfortable bed, a good meal and a cold beer.

Something we take for granted most nights.

He had left his bike in Osh with the intent of returning next year to continue his travels.

I am absolutely humbled by their spirit.

They are adventurers, we are just tourists.

Our trip so far.

October 12th, 2014

I have written 14 blogs and taken over 3,000 snaps, but not been able to publish a thing.

The internet has been so poor in Hong Kong, Guilin, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Yangshuo, Turpan, Urumqi, Almaty, Bishkek, Cholpon-Ata, Arslanbob, Osh, Fergana and now Tashkent, that I will have to resort to this map, from iPhoto, showing where we have been.

Hopefully we will get a good connection soon and I can start to post for real.

Our trip so far