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April 2006


April 25, 2006

I’ve been in the countryside for a few days. I’m catching a train tonight to Kunming. I’m posting this just in case anyone reading this might also happen to be in the Kunming / Lijiang area.

Can’t write properly now: this internet cafe is among the most dimly-lit of places, and my eyes are screaming at me to leave! leave!

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April 19, 2006


I’m in Yangshuo – a small town a little way south of the more famous town of Guilin. It’s a nice place, though with a slightly strange atmosphere that probably comes of a small Chinese town being filled with shops and bars aimed at Western backpackers. The scenery is incredible, but it would be much better to put up some photos than try to describe it (unfortunately, though, I can’t do that right now). Postscript: back in the UK, now I can add pictures!

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a word of explanation

April 15, 2006

16th January 2007: This has been sitting, unpublished, in WordPress’ mind for eight months now. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I intended to edit it at the time. Anyway, I publish it now because the alternative would be to delete it. I will slot it neatly into April 2006. That is one of the joys of non-chronological journalising.

Now I think about it, I never did actually explain quite what I’m doing…

For a while I’ve had two essentially unconnected, but mutually compatible travel plans brewing in my head. Firstly, ever since I visited Jess in China the year before last, I’ve been planning to go back and travel in the south of China for a month or so (in fact, two years ago I came back from China so excited that for a few days I seriously considered using almost all my annual leave to go straight back the following month).

Secondly, I’ve been thinking since I-don’t-know-exactly-when that I’d like to return from Japan (specifically the small island in Okinawa that I lived on for my first two years) to London without using any planes. I have two reasons for wanting to do this: firstly, since I have no deadline to be back in the UK, I can’t see any reason to use a form of transport that is much more environmentally destructive than the slower alternatives. I think human beings have a stunning ability to mistake ‘socially acceptable’ for ‘morally justifiable’ (I’ll have to stop here, lest this turn into a somewhat beside-the-point-at-hand tirade about the way most public ‘moral debates’ seem to concern what rights minorities deserve, and are conducted by people who see it as an unfortunate necessity that their affordable footwear is assembled by people in distant countries who work fourteen-hour days in horrendous conditions for just enough money to stay alive…)

Anyway, I’ve flown far too much while living in Japan, and it has left a bad taste in my mouth: how can I, knowing how destructive and wasteful flying is, legitimately claim to be concerned about the environment while continuing to do it, entirely unnecessarily, several times a year? “Yeah, I know it’s bad, but how else do I go on holiday?” doesn’t cut it any more than “Yeah, it’s unfortunate that these shoes are produced in inhuman conditions, but those other shoes are so much more expensive.”

That aside, my other reason for wanting to travel overland is: because it’s fun.

Travelling very long distances by boat and train can be a bit trickier than catching a single flight, but it’s actually much more straightforward than I’d expected (even getting my Russian visa – a notoriously frustrating one to sort out – only took a few days via a travel agent in Hong Kong who specialise in trans-Siberian travel). I’ve also found Seat 61 a very useful source of information, too – it has nice, clear guides to travelling by train and boat from London to just about everywhere.

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hong kong

April 13, 2006

[May just pointed out that comments weren’t working. I’ve fiddled with the settings and it seems they should be now (though I now have to delete 45 spam comments a day – pshk). Sorry about that.]

[However: now I seem to be getting bombarded with comment spam. I hope whoever is responsible suffers extremely awkward social situations and serious inconveniences and setbacks almost continuously until they stop. I’ve turned up my spam filter settings again, but please do let me know if your comment gets swallowed.]

This week I am in Hong Kong. Good God, though – Hong Kong is pretty good. It’s a huge, beautiful skyscrapered city, like a condensed, livelier version of Tokyo, set on a cluster of small and pretty semi-tropical islands. It feels like an imaginary city: like someone has thrown together all these random bits and pieces of other cities and cultures to make a place that isn’t quite Chinese and isn’t quite European. “Trams? Yeah, let’s have some of those. And skyscrapers. And steeply sloping pedestrian-only streets full of cafés – yeah, like in Paris. And let’s have old nineteen-thirties-style ferries and a pristine subway system. And let’s run an 800m escalator up that hill.”

And then, you can get on a boat, and in forty minutes you’re on a lush, forest-covered island where only a few thousand people live, with a giant buddha looming out of the mist.

It surely can’t be China: in all the stations there are people protesting about [deleted]* and handing out leaflets denouncing the Chinese government. Which would get you in a lot of trouble only a few miles north of here. And yet it is…

I could live here, I think.

Only… hot! It’s only April, and it’s already like June in Okinawa. I can just about handle Okinawa’s August now, but I suspect HK might be too much for me.

The other thing I’ve done while here is buy my trans-Siberian ticket. So: I will be leaving Beijing on the 10th of May, on a direct train to Moscow. Which will mean five days on a train. Which (I realise now) will mean five days without a shower. If you happen to be in Moscow on the 15th May, avoid me.

* deleted – because it just occurred to me that it would be pretty stupid to use a word that meant this site got blocked by the various filters and prevented me accessing it once I’m back in China proper. The deleted word is the name of a religious movement that is, to say the least, not popular with the powers that be in Beijing.

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things I have seen in shanghai

April 5, 2006

Man drying tea, Yuyuan Ming gardens, Shanghai

  • Chinese acrobats – possibly the actual most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Imagine being able to do a backflip ten feet into the air and land perfectly on the upraised feet of someone else who’s standing on their head! You would surely be tempted to do it in public just to startle people.
  • Whole skyscrapers used as TV screens.
  • A number of Germans in medieval costume, including a man in full chain mail, trying to hail a taxi.
  • A man putting his jumper on the pavement in front of a bus stop and setting fire to it, for no clear reason I could make out.
  • Toilets with no cubicles. Shock! After two years in Japan, with its onsens and rotenburos (hot baths), I can now do public nudity, but public shitting (even by other people) is still frankly too avant-garde for me.
  • Beautiful Yuyuan Ming gardens. Apparently designed for hide and seek – full of winding paths between (and over, and under) big rocks, hidden passages and crevices, little wooden follies, and dividing walls, not to mention tiny ponds and bridges.

Hmm, I wonder how I can put up the photos I’m taking…
postscript: I can’t.
post-postscript: now I’m back in the UK I can…

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April 3, 2006

Shanghai skyline

I’m in China!

More specifically, I’m in Shanghai!

Kyoto was freezing, and although the cherry trees were in bud I didn’t quite catch the blossom. I did get snow to make up for it, though. In my last few days in Japan for some reason I developed an inexplicable craving for ‘omrice‘ – rice wrapped in a thin omelette, which is odd in that it seems to be a Western-style dish that is Japanese. For almost the whole time I was in Japan I hardly ever ate it, and then right at the last minute I realised that it is brilliant and ate it at every opportunity.

I met up with Graeme and Kasumi for a last wander round Kyoto, and then on Friday morning I went across to Osaka and boarded the boat for Shanghai. I’ve ridden three boats so far (Okinawa – Kagoshima, Fukuoka – Osaka, and Osaka – Shanghai), and each one has been better than the previous one. The one to Shanghai was great – very comfortable, and much more sociable than plane travel. The only downside is that 36 hours after I got off the boat, I’m still swaying slightly, though that’s more strange than unpleasant.

Last night I wandered up and down the Bund – the grand European-style riverside in Shanghai – ate a big Chinese meal, and then went to a bar to see a great jazz band for free! I haven’t been to that sort of gig in Japan at all, and have missed it. The bar was full of people of probably at least a dozen nationalities, but had none of the artificial, limbo-like feeling that ‘foreigner bars’ in Japan tend to have – probably because foreigners are much less out of the ordinary here. The city is a crazy mix of ramshackle and futuristic. I didn’t really plan to come here, but I’m glad I have, and I’m considering staying a couple of days longer than I’d planned before I catch the overnight train to Hong Kong…

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