(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Xi’an and views from a slow train.


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

It may be touristy as it gets, but I’m a fan of Xi’an. It’s famous for it’s ancient city walls which aren’t actually that ancient anymore (big chunks were rebuilt in the early part of the 20th century), and the infamous terracotta warriors.

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and also the centre piece of the city, the Drum and Bell towers.

The city could also be considered where China begins to turn into western China, where the country begins to have stronger Muslim influences. For me, the city’s Muslim district is the best part of Xi’an.

Xi’an is one of the former capitals of China and perhaps this is why despite being very much a modern Chinese city, there are still remnants of an ancient past. The problem with a lot of China is that ‘ancient’ is really rebuilt or replica, yet Xi’an does have the occasional genuine feeling temple and such. The wall, rebuilt or not, also gives a sense of grandeur which the non-walled cities of China lack.

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I’m a big fan of the contrast between ‘old’ and new. Nothing shouts China more than sweeping rooftops and consumerism.

The walls encircle the centre of the city, running for over 8 miles.

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Someone up on the wall had made use of the tiny amount of snow that lay dotted about it, and had made a few mini-snowmen. In true Chinese style, one of them even had a cigarette..

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The chain shows clear dedication to snowman making.

For me, as I said earlier, not the wall but rather the Muslim district is what makes Xi’an. Yes, it’s touristy and extremely busy, but with smells and smoke wafting madly through the air, and enough bustle to rival the liveliest of the world’s cities, This part of town really hits the senses.

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The main street in the Muslim district is essentially a food market, especially at night – with a special bias towards all things sweet.

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These guys were hammering out some sugary looking mix that eventually ended up looking a bit like nougat.

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The west of China is known for pulled noodles, but apparently also pulled sweet confectionery.

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Many of the restaurants on the street have their kitchens open to the street, so as you walk down, seeing flames at the edge of your eyes from the extremely high-powered hobs is a normal sight.

I wouldn’t want to cook on what basically looks like an open furnace…

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Amongst the hanging flags and neon signs, you might just come across a pretty terrifying looking character. It’s actually the name of a kind of local noodle: Biang Biang Mian.

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It is, depending on your view, the most complicated character in the Chinese language. The other view is that it’s technically not a Chinese character, because the sound ‘biang’ is a dialect word, and not in standard Chinese.

Also the further west you go, the more likely you are to see middle-of-the street butchery work going on. It’s pretty common place in the Muslim district to see this kind of thing.

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And in the end, it’ll probably get cooked like this, out on the Chinese style barbeque.

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The area round Xi’an can look pretty bleak in the winter; a fact that was very clear after leaving the city and hopping on the train to the next city.

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You can almost imagine the early CCP holding out in the hills after the long march.

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I was thinking this repair work was a bit close to the tracks…but China can do what it wants.

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My friend looking out into the dusty brown Shaanxi countryside.

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China is dotted with this kind of huge tower block development. Many never get finished, and those that do often will never have anyone live in them.

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And to finish, here’s a train guard breaking his own train station’s rules and littering. Probably looks like he’s going to pick it up, but nope, he’d just placed that there.

Next stop, Changsha.

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(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Back to Xinjiang


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

The far west of China, Xinjiang.

Scorching in the summer; Arctic in the winter; desert to the north and south; lush green grass lands between; towering mountains all around: It is an impossibly diverse place, and that’s just it’s geography.

 

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above is what a frozen desert looks like. This trip I only saw the countryside from a train window, so I’m  bit limited in photos showing the stunning scenery of the region.

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As my train drew closer to the Province’s capital, Urumqi, Tianshan, the heavenly mountains came more clearly into view.

I used to have a view of this mountain range from my flat window. It was something special to see them again.

I used to live here, and my main reason for coming back was to see my old friends. Because of this, I was based in two cities the whole time and didn’t manage to get out into the region’s beautiful countryside.

The -20 degrees C temperature (warm for this time of year) also helped put off any desire to get out into the mountains.

Luckily, if not as beautiful as outside, inside the cities have plenty of interesting bits and pieces. Admittedly Urumqi is now mainly just a generic modern Chinese city, but it has it’s parts which are still unique.

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That’s generic modern Urumqi. Enough of that.

The interesting side of Urumqi comes from the influence of the minority groups in the city… actually you could argue that the generic modern bits are the influence of the now majority Han Chinese, but…

…Xinjiang is one of the regions China considers and ‘autonomous region’, meaning the local government here is slightly increased powers.  The predominant minority group in the province are the Uighurs, and as such, Xinjiang is the Uighur autonomous region.

These days however the majority of the city’s population are not Uighurs, but rather Han Chinese. Down on the south side of the city, there is a much stronger Uighur feel to the city.

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority (as are some of the other minority groups in the region), and because of this some characteristics of Urumqi are the large number of mosques, people in Muslim clothing and halal meat stalls.

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You probably also noticed that the signs appear to in Arabic as well as Chinese.

That’s half true – Uighurs use a modified Arabic script to write the Uighur language. As well as that, I spotted a few examples where Chinese language was actually being written in Arabic script. Since seeing it, I’ve heard that some Hui people (another Chinese Muslim minority) sometimes write Chinese with Arabic script.

In fact, aside from mosques, Uighur parts of cities generally have a strong central Asian feel anyway. After a while it becomes clear that Xinjiang essentially is the easternmost part of Central asia – it is after all home to Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik people as well as Uighurs and Han.

One of the most famous buildings in the city is the grand bazaar, and although now unfortunately just a really naff tourist trap inside, the outside building is still quite impressive. It’s also full of Central Asia feel.

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Yes, someone did decide to build a carrefour in it. China…

So, aside from China putting supermarkets in old buildings, I think I mentioned the place gets pretty cold. It’s normal to go below -30 in the winter, and I’ve felt it reach 40 in the summer.

Pretty big contrast from back in the UK where if it’s below 20 degrees C people call it too cold, and above 21, too hot.

Below is what cold looks like.

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Another thing which I found very interesting on this trip was something I’d missed when I lived there…and I have no idea how I missed.

There is a ridiculous amount of propaganda in Xinjiang. I won’t go into detail about what, because it’s not good for me to do so.

But what I will say is, almost every bare space at walking level had a propaganda poster – that is way more than Beijing.

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用中国的力量,成就你我的梦想-“Use China’s strength to achieve our dream”

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A never ending wall of propaganda posters.

You might well ask what makes the minority groups of Xinjiang actually minority groups. Although the question itself is possibly a bit controversial, in short the area is very ethnically diverse. Most Uighurs clearly do not look like Han Chinese, their culture is very different, and a large number of them do not consider themselves Chinese.

There is a lot of unrest in the region due to tensions between Han Chinese and minority groups, but I think it’s best that I don’t go into detail here.

I will however share with you some pictures of the people on the south side of town.IMG_3368IMG_3364

Xinjiang food is also fantastic – it’s my favourite in the whole of China. I don’t have many pictures, mainly because I usually want to eat Xinjiang food when it’s in front of me. I do have this one of 抓饭, or Pollo to give the Uighur name. IMG_3366

Traditionally eaten with your hands, pollo is considered to be the base dish of Uighur cuisine. Other local specialties include pulled noodles, naan bread and anything with lamb.

And just to finish, I said right at the start that my main reason for coming back to Xinjiang was to see my old friends. Here’s a picture of one of my best friends in Xinjiang and his family.

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I miss you guys; I’ll see you again in the future.

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If you’re interested in finding more information about Xinjiang, I can recommend the fantastic blog “FarwestChina”-No one shows off how stunning Xinjiang is better than there!

 

(reblog from 2016 for archiving) Art of the State


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

Art galleries: institutions essential to the celebration of culture, ideas, art…and propaganda?

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statue representing the 56 nationalities considered minority groups in China

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I went to the Beijing national art gallery to check out an exhibition focussing on the varied minority groups of China for part of a museum project I’m working on. Naturally I got to see my fair share of artwork, but through the brushstrokes there was a clear message showing through.

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The exhibition, titled ‘National Exhibition of Fine Arts for Great Unity of Chinese Nation’ (中华民族大团结全国美术作品展) was concerned at its heart with expressing the view that each of the many groups of people in China are in unity with each other and in support of the ruling Communist Party.

Chinese museums like to have an almost essay-like structure. They have prefaces and conclusions as if there were only one way to interpret their contents and each section will act as an argument towards that final conclusion.

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In the art gallery’s foreword, you might spy upon an interesting phrase – The Chinese Dream (中国梦). I won’t go into it in much detail right now, as I’m likely to write fully about it in the future, but for now it should suffice to know the basics. The phrase became popular after Chairman Xi Jinping used it in a speech in 2013. It is associated with China’s current development goals of becoming a ‘moderately prosperous’ economy and rejuvenating the nation. It pops up around Beijing far too often.

This Chinese Dream is closely related to the exhibition, as are a number of Beijing’s museum exhibitions. Development is associated strongly with the Governments claim to power, and unity across the massive country – the exhibition’s focus- is essential to both.

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“Unity is power. People of all nationalities are making progress together with joint effort, destiny and objective on the way of fulfilling “China Dream””

Why then, are the ethnic groups of China important to development? One element is a group’s possible ability to slow the Chinese image of development. Despite such exhibitions painting a happy, united image of the country’s minority groups, there is unrest amongst some of them, especially where their traditional ways of life are threatened.  On the opposite side however, active support of minority group would surely result in smoother development.

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Territory also comes into question. Most westerners are for example aware there is controversy over Tibet and whether or not Tibetans are Chinese or not.  The region is a territory of China, but by depicting Tibetans as an essential group within China’s many minority groups, they lay claim to them. If Tibetans then, are ‘owned’ by China, so is their territory. The celebration of minority groups in part secures borders.

Those views are rather cynical, and there are more opinions that could be drawn. The people celebrated in the exhibition do live within the borders of China, and it is in the interests of a country to look after its people. One could view the exhibition as embracing its minority groups and their rich beautiful cultures. In exhibiting cultures, they can be preserved. China is changing so rapidly that much of the old will disappear. One could see such events as being an expression from the government, so as to say ‘we will respect and preserve all culture in China’.

The slow knocking down of Kashgar says otherwise, but never mind.

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Aside from the politics and intrigue of Chinese exhibition spaces, much of the exhibited artwork was beautiful and those pieces which weren’t beautiful were usually very interesting.

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The military trades education for education, teaching the only thing they know – national defence.

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Young Kazakh riders

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Tibetans somehow gaining huge harvests in barren places

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These last two depict multiple minority groups standing together in apparent unity, along side all things CCP.

(reblog from 2016 for archiving) China by train – a month trip to the West, the South, and back.


First posted on TVG in China, 2016. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

For the last month, I’ve been on the road – or more accurately, the train track – out of Beijing, over to the far West of China, and down to the far south. The next few posts are concerning each place in turn, but firstly this is a short overview for the following blogs.

Leaving Beijing on the 27th December, I boarded the train to Xinjiang, China’s western frontier, and formerly my home for a year. 32 hours later (it was a quick train) I was back.

I was mainly back there to see old friends rather than travel; friends who are like family.

That said, the west is in many ways one of the most beautiful parts of China, varying dramatically from scorching (or freezing in winter) deserts, towering mountains, and lush green grasslands.

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I woke up to this in the morning of my train to Urumqi. As Xinjiang is three times the size of France, despite having arrived in the province by the morning, the train hadn’t arrived in the capital until the evening – even though Urumqi is only the centre of the province.

What you’re looking at, is what a desert looks like when covered in snow. That there is the Gobi, one of the largest deserts in the world.

Many might not think of cold and desert in the same sentence, but in the winter that’s exactly what the Gobi becomes.

Urumqi, where I spent most of my time this trip, is surrounded by mountains.

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Hard to get a good photo out of a train window, but the mountains nearby Urumqi are stunning. They make up part of 天山, tianshan, or the heavenly mountains. This range spans the majority of the province, splitting the Gobi from the Taklamakan desert.  It might not look like it from those brown looking peaks, but in the spring, hidden in the mountains, the region turns lush green, a belt of nature splitting two huge swathes of arid land.

I risk going into too much detail over Xinjiang in this intended overview post, so I’ll just describe a few more photos then move on.

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Xinjiang is home to a number of minority groups, some of which use Arabic script to write their languages. Because of this, you see a lot of Arabic script on the buildings. For anyone who knows Arabic, you’ll notice straight away that it is a slightly modified version.

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Many of the people in the region are Muslims, and much of the architecture reflects that.

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I think I said that it’s quite cold over there in winter.

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Here’s a good example of Arabic script and Chinese characters on the same signs. I’ve always thought that when they’re put next to each other, Arabic script does end up looking more elegant than the sometimes blocky 汉字.

I’ll write about Xinjiang in more detail in the next post, but for now, let’s move onto Xi’an

Xi’an is the city known for the terracotta warriors, a sight worth seeing, but not seen by me on this trip. I’ve been here before, and didn’t intend to see the ancient guards again (they’re not surprisingly pretty expensive).

I was mainly using the city as a good base to head further south, but there are some bits of the city worth exploring more than once!

Perhaps the symbols of the city itself are the drum and bell towers in the centre.

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Next to the Drum tower is my favourite part of town, the Muslim district. It’s unfortunately a bit too touristy, but it does have a good atmosphere, especially in the evening. When it get’s dark, barbeques fire up, and a huge selection of street food appears.

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The other main attraction in, or more accurately around, the city is the city wall. Although it’s not the genuine ancient wall it’s claimed to be, it is still impressive. It encircles the whole of the city centre.

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My next stop was Changsha, the home city of Mao Zedong, or at least, the city where he studied after he left his village of Shaoshan.

I had intended to only stay here for a day, using is a base to see Zhangjiajie – the inspiration for the mountains in ‘Avatar’- and the old village Fenghuang. My plans changed however, and I ended up staying in Changsha for the whole time of my stay in Hunan province.  It just means I have to come back to Hunan at some point.

The biggest sight in the city, and big is the right word, is a giant statue of Mao’s face on the Orange Isle, a park in the middle of the Xiang river which runs through the city.

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To put into perspective how big this statue was, I could see it very clearly from my hostel, which was a very very long walk from the park.

My aim of going to Hunan was always to get out into nature for a while, and although this made being stuck in a city a bit of a loss, there was a mountain in the city. Yuelu Shan is a little bit of peace in the middle of Hunan’s capital.

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It was too foggy at the top for a view, so I had to be content with the forests, beautiful as they were, running up to the top of the peak.

After Changsha was my main stop on the trip; Hong Kong.

I have to say straight away, Hong Kong is fantastic. The thing I was looking forward to most was simply getting away from the mainland for a bit – it can be stressful here – but it was so much more than that.

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and now, I’m back in Beijing. Part of me wants to hop over to Japan or Taiwan, but flights mean big costs.

Look out for the more detailed posts on each town soon!

(reblog from 2015 for archiving) The Confucius Temple and Guozijian


First posted on TVG in China, 2015. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

There are many temples in China. Beijing alone has a huge number, and the confucius temple is but one amongst them. I think however that this temple was a little different, and perhaps it was simply because it seemed less touristy than, say, the lama temple across the road, but I like to think it was more than that.

Part of the same complex is Guozijian, the ancient imperial college where the highest level of the imperial examination took place.

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The story goes that the trees leading up to the temple itself will attack evil people. They didn’t go after me, so I’m happy about that.

The inside of the temple is very beautiful. Sadly it feels like it isn’t in permanent use, but the advantage of this was that there were none of the usual ‘no photo’ signs.

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Confucius may have passed away many centuries ago, but it hasn’t stopped him from adapting to new technology. Although I don’t think it was the intention, I couldn’t help but find that Confucius backed with flashlights and cameras summed up modern China quite well. IMG_2939

The gate leading away from the temple and into the former imperial college.

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The entrance to Guozijian

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I hadn’t noticed how cold it was that day, until I saw that the fish swimming round the central part of Guozijian (where the Emperor would present his lectures) were under a layer of ice.

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When the emperor was giving his lectures, he would do so from this rather grand room.

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I actually don’t know what they were, but I was very interested by these red cards which were hanging up on side of the college. I will try and find out exactly what purpose they serve.IMG_2992IMG_2994IMG_2998

There was also, in the side buildings of the college, an extensive exhibition on the imperial examination which I have written extensively on, but I won’t talk about that for a while as it’s part of my museum project. Perhaps in the future..

 

(reblog from 2015 for archiving) Snow in Beijing


First posted on TVG in China, 2015. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

I distinctly remember people getting angry at the decision for Beijing to host a winter Olympics, under the ground that there  is never snow there.

Well, as it happens, Beijing can get pretty snowy.

I used the snowy days as an excuse to go explore the Olympic Forest Park. As it happens, a fair few people desperate for making snowmen and snowball fights shared my thoughts.

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I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using an umbrella for snow…I think it just emphasises how little we get in the south of England.

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My lack of a working auto focus didn’t do me any favours on close-ups.

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So yes, There is snow in Beijing.

(reblog from 2015 for archiving) Wondering in Chongwen District


First posted on TVG in China, 2015. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.

I’ve missed the blog for a while due to being very much bogged down with work, so there are going to be a number of posts in quick succession, spanning a few months of neglection…sorry about that.

First up is Chongwen, and area south of Tiananmen Square, which as far as I know isn’t exactly known for it’s touristy spots. My guide book on China even said – in different words – that you would only really go there if you were after the cheapest of the cheap in accommodation.

And as it happens, yes, it’s not the most exciting part of town for particular attractions, but what it does offer however is a very different feel  to the north side of Beijing.

*edit, I have discovered that Chongwen technically stretches all the way down to the temple of Heaven, a place that is worthy of mention, but not part of my Chongwen wonderings*

There have been clear attempts to renovate the area to bring back an old glory that the area possibly once had, (it does after all lead directly up to the forbidden city), but other than a very grand looking gateway, the main street is just a shopping street…I’m not selling this area very well, I know, hold on a bit…

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I believe the area was once an important financial and trade district, given that Dashilar shopping street is part of the area – which is to all intents and purposes now, whether or not in the past, a generic shopping street with an extra lacquer of paint.

So why am I even talking about this area if i have so much apparent disdain for it?

The answer lays in its winding side streets, which have such a different feel to the hutongs in the north.

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The narrow streets with neon signs reaching for the sky make me think of how I imagine Hong Kong to look (will hopefully find out in the next few months!

The mad, jumbled appearance doesn’t just come from the haphazard signage, but also from every element of the side streets.IMG_2615

Take the local electricity network for example. It’s a bit of a mess. But even in this knotted mess, I spotted surprisingly nice looking supports for the lines..

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Electricity line trees.

 

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This stall which I found down the side streets i found very interesting. The current leader, Xi jinping (left and centre) is considered to be developing a personality cult, very much like Mao’s before him. This market stall shows, in my opinion, the strength of his cult. He’s hardly Mao, but he certainly gets more space than Mao does at the moment.

Aside from the politics, China’s leaders surrounded by wooden masks is just a surreal image.

Now, despite how narrow these streets are, the favoured form of transport seemed to be moped. On the narrower streets, it’s hard to jump out of the way when there is nowhere to jump.

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Just to finish on,  this guy looked very much like he was trying to copy the police, even if that wasn’t his intention. I wonder what he was really up to…

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