We met Mr. Chang when we were standing outside his house near the Forbidden City, admiring his squashes. He asked us some friendly questions – do you play music? (a bit) Speak French? (seule un petit peu) What’s the English name of these squashes? (bottle gourds) – and ended up inviting us inside. We’d finished our touristry for the day, we didn’t have any urgent reason to be anywhere else, and he seemed nice enough, so we took up his invitation.
Inside he had more squashes and other plants growing with the help of an impressive amount of natural light, along with a large number of dried bottle gourds, or calabashes, that he’d grown. He’d clearly moulded the space over the decades, with a surprisingly labyrinthine system of steep, narrow stairs, walkways and small rooms tucked away around a courtyard-like central living room.
He showed us some of his daughter’s artwork – she was off studying art – as well a painting of his own, a fairly accomplished landscape with birds in the classical style. Then he told us about the ballet school he was setting up in Beijing, the first of its kind, with French ties – he was a dancer along with everything else, and he’d lived in France for many years. He spoke better French than English, lapsing into it when he couldn’t remember the word for something, so our conversation was in an odd mix of English, French and occasional Mandarin. He had a day job working for a big company.
After we’d been there for a while I reached to get a card to write my contact details on, only to realise I didn’t have my wallet. I ran back to where we’d come from in case it had somehow fallen out of my pocket, but eventually realised it must have been taken by a pickpocket among the crowds thronging out from the Forbidden City. I came back to Chang’s to cancel my credit cards; we swapped emails, and he gave us ten calabash seeds to take home.
Shanghai is a long way south of Beijing – about 750 miles, the distance from Dundee to Paris, which still only gets you half-way down China’s coast. It’s even hotter than Beijing in the summer, and it’s even bigger, too – in fact it’s now considered the biggest city in the world, depending on how you count it. So we travelled south from the capital, already vast and overheated, with some trepidation.
Our train pulled in at the tail end of a thunderstorm, which was a good start – the air was cleaner than any we’d tasted in weeks, and cooler. Beijing’s air pollution is uniquely terrible, largely thanks to industry in the surrounding countryside; despite its even bigger population and comparably congested streets, Shanghai’s air never got so bad. Being wetter, it is also better able to sustain greenery, without teams of people regularly watering every roadside verge and replacing all the tufts of grass in neat lines at least once a year, so many more of the streets are lined with trees to provide shelter from the sun.
One of the first things we did on arriving was visit a sculpture park with many large, inventive and varied sculptures and a remarkable number of outdoors-living but evidently well-fed cats. Bowls for them were scattered throughout the park, and we passed more than one person in the process of feeding them. Shanghai turns out to be a pretty cat-rich city.
Another thing the city is well endowed with is tiny, oddly specific shops, whole neighbourhoods crammed full of them: plumbing pipe shops, one selling only fans and fan accessories, one selling a wide range of fruit and veg – but only ones which are green, white or both.
We happened across a bridge where people were fishing by reaching down from above with nets on enormously long poles. I found it hard to believe they would catch anything at first, but with the help of a small crowd of people who shouted and pointed when they spotted something coming, they soon netted several turtles and a fish or two.
It’s the giant commercial buildings that everyone notices, of course. Shanghai has the biggest, shiniest business district I’ve ever seen, Pudong – endless rows of towering skyscrapers clad in coloured glass, and frequently topped by something round with a spike sticking out of it. The biggest tourist attractions are the Oriental Pearl Tower, a particularly tall building with a notably long spike at the top and two big round bits; and the Bund, a well-maintained waterfront area that seems to exist mainly to offer a view of the big glass buildings across the river, and their giant animated ads and light shows.
I recently listened to a fascinating episode of the Sinica podcast on ‘Shanghai and the Future Now‘, which filled me in on some of the background to the city centre’s aesthetic, which is so determinedly modern that it verges on retro-futurism. Most of that has come about since the 1990s, and the city is still very visibly under construction.
We stayed on the edge of the French Quarter, which still has a lot of old colonial buildings, with some pretty nice cafes, in a skyscraper with quite nice views, mostly of other skyscrapers.
In the evening we met Sonya’s friend Oli at a pretty good vegan restaurant before going to KTV, where I experienced a karaoke booth for the first time. They’re a huge thing there, rivalling bars for popularity. I sang two or three songs; most of the songs were in Chinese, half of our party being native speakers. I enjoyed the singing, and seeing the characters while they were sung, but it was a fairly disorienting experience overall.
On our second day we went to the Insect Museum. It has a lot of wonderful insects with rather scant information accompanying them, mostly about their popularity as pets. Downstairs they have turtles in too-small boxes, sad snakes and a workshop where kids get to stick insect specimens on cards, with fake flowers, and put them in frames.
We visited a couple more vegan restaurants, the best of which turned out to be three floors up in an electronics mega-mall in Pudong, ‘If Vegan‘. We had truly excellent smoothies and Vietnamese-influenced food there, and marvelled at the audacity of the couple who sat down at the next table with a bag of barbecued meat to go with the few vegan dishes they ordered, and munched their way through their chicken while one of the waitresses valiantly tried to convince them this was unacceptable.
We stuck around in Shanghai for a few days – visited the mostly quite good science & technology museum and some the main tourist traps, got lost trying to find a way over the river, mostly just explored. After that we took the opportunity to go somewhere with fewer people and more interesting tea, heading a hundred miles southwest, to Hangzhou.
On our first full day in Beijing, partly by way of helping me get a feeling for the city’s geography, we climbed up Jingshan, the large artificial hill in the historical dead centre of Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City. The views are stunning from the pavilion at the top of its highest peak, but it’s one of those spots which somehow manages to attract more locals than tourists. We arrived a little while before sunset to find it crowded, but with a relatively peaceful air.
Once the highest point in the whole city, it is still the highest point for a couple of miles around thanks to strict controls on building height in the city centre. Outside the official city centre seems to be a free-for-all though, with the result that from the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring, you get uninterrupted views over the whole of the oldest part of the city, and beyond it a seemingly unbroken wall of skyscrapers. Beyond those, on a particularly clear day – and this was one of them – you can see rolling hills out to the west.
As the sun goes down, swifts swing lower and lower in the sky till they are swooping right under the arches of the pagoda, chasing the evening’s insects. Big butterflies settle on photographers too focused on distant views to see them.
Once the sun was fully set, we set off down the hill to explore more of old Beijing.
This summer gone I had the rare chance to spend almost two months in China with Sonya – mostly in Beijing, but with some travel towards the south.
We arrived in Beijing exhausted but not exactly sleepy. While we waited for our sleep deprivation to catch up with the difference in time zones, we went for a walk in the local park, Xitucheng (literally ‘Western Earth City’, more or less). It’s a long thin park that runs along a canal, incorporating an embankment that was once a city wall. When we visited it was around 9 at night, but it was busier than most British parks get even during the day time – the only times I’ve seen that kind of concentration of people in parks there would be things like Festival fireworks or New Year, but this was just an ordinary Saturday in June.
Still, most of the park wasn’t exactly crowded, just… busy. Most of the people seemed to be congregating for the purpose of public mass-dancing, with groups of about thirty to fifty locals assembling around small sound systems, moving with varying degrees of synchrony. Once I’d ruled out that they were doing Tai Chi, I first assumed they must be actual classes, but they don’t seem to have anyone leading them; it’s more like everyone just copies everyone else in a seemingly self-organised fashion.
They were dancing in a range of styles, but nothing I could really pin down – one group seemed to be doing ceilidh dancing with elements of ballroom thrown in, while others were arguably doing line-dancing, but probably only by the broadest definition, ‘standing in lines, dancing’. We suspect that anyone who turns up in a park with their own music and just starts dancing will soon attract a crowd of people trying to learn their moves, but we haven’t put this hypothesis to the test yet. It may be that it would only work with bad Chinese pop music. Further research is required.
Besides the dancers there were also an impressively large number of bats; at least two choirs, one of them singing a selection of well-known revolutionary hymns; several groups of people playing Chinese hackey sack, which uses a shuttlecock rather than just a weighted bag; one group practising percussion; and just one old guy doing Tai Chi on his own.
We returned to the park on our very last afternoon, which is why the photographs here are all taken in daylight. It was less busy than on that first night, perhaps mainly because public mass-dancing is a night time activity. With the benefit of sunlight it became clear what a carefully sculpted and generally well-maintained park it is, and I also had the opportunity to read more of its fascinatingly odd signs.
This November I posted 30 finished pieces of writing on Everything2, on whatever I felt like writing about at the time. By doing so I completed the Iron Noder Challenge, which has been running every November since 2008. This was the first time I took part in earnest – making the effort to write and re-write for an hour or two almost every day, in order to average at least one post a day that I could be happy with. Continue reading Iron Noder→
I’ve been a little slow to start going through my photos from this Summer’s two-month trip around the Iberian peninsula.
I stayed for about two weeks in the town of Carballo, which is 35km from A Coruña, 45km from Santiago de Compostela and 10km from the nearest beach. It’s a small, quiet town full of empty buildings, half-finished or abandoned, slapped together with an obvious disregard for any kind of building code. Most of the bars are mostly empty most of the time, and presumably they couldn’t stay open at all if they had to pay the kind of rent you have to pay for premises in places where people want to live. There is life and music if you know where to look, though, and it’s an easy enough journey to the beautiful beaches.
A clear stream runs through Carballo, past the bus station. close to where I was staying, with fish and bats and dragonflies. It leads quickly out of the bricks and concrete, into the woods, like an artery. The air is fresh, and the hazelnuts you can pluck from the trees in late summer are like a taste of heaven.
The last night I was there, I was woken by a mighty rainstorm battering against the thin roof of my attic flat. It’s the rain, above all, that makes Galicia so gorgeous, once you get outside of its depressed not-quite-seaside towns – the rain that feeds its lush forests and sustains its wide green fields. The countryside throughout northern Iberia is stunning; you might miss the sunshine, but it’s worth getting wet for.
I spent much of this summer travelling overland around the Iberian Peninsula – the parts of the world commonly known as Spain and Portugal. I was teaching and looking after kids at a summer camp in the Basque Country for two weeks, and then I had about a week and a half travelling in a south-westerly direction before turning north to attend the ‘Bridges‘ conference on maths and art, in Coimbra, Portugal, where I was showing my interactive exhibit known as ‘Kenneth‘ and a large canvas print of one of my generative artworks. Finally I headed further north, to Galicia, and spent about two weeks there before looping around to the East and spending a couple of days in Bilbao before going on into France on the way back to Britain.
All of these places warrant proper writing about, but here are the major stops of my journey, in inevitably-misleading bullet-point, key-word form, in any case – if nothing else, this will act as memory aid for me:
We get up early in the morning to meet Sunayana and Kenji from Calcutta Walks, at Shovabazar1 Metro station2 in North Calcutta3. They are to show us around some of the old houses and narrow streets of this part of the city. It’s uncomfortably early for me, but it’s worth it to be able to walk around in the mild heat of the morning, rather than the scorching sun of mid-day.
This is where the richer Bengalis mostly made their homes in the time of the Raj, and thanks to this it is one of the few parts of Calcutta with a visible history of secular Indian architecture, going back more than a century or so. From the street itself upwards, everything man-made here looks and feels more Indian than most of Calcutta, where nearly all the public buildings (temples aside) are obvious Colonial hangovers, and newer developments are so often so obviously modelled after their Western equivalents.
Here we see why Kolkata was known as the ‘City of Palaces’ – an unlikely number of spectacularly grand old palatial homes are clustered here, built by rajas and nawabs to show off their status and house their families for centuries to come. Their wide courtyards are surrounded by beautiful arches with expansive rooms beyond, and since we are there in the lead-up to Durga Puja, most of them also have particularly impressive shrines set up in them, each in the house style of the family that owns them. Although many of their proud residents are quite happy for us to pop in and look around in wonder, very few of them allow photography.
We briefly visit a very small press, printing packaging on letterpress machines older than independent India. Many such tiny industries exist here, where the old families often find themselves with more property than money, and rent out the odd room to make ends meet.
Our guides buy us some ludicrously cheap, very tasty and reasonably safe fried street food, served in disposable little bowls made of leaves, and take us to see traditional sweets being made. It is fascinating to watch these vast pans of curds and syrup being skilfully manipulated into tiny confectionery treats, but preferring to avoid dairy, I only allow myself a taste.
Another highlight is the maze of narrow, twisty streets of Shovabazar, where dacoits and resistance fighters alike could vanish as required. The sheer number of available alleyways would fox pursuers, and the tiny space between opposing walls would keep out any vehicles, and in many places it would make it easy for a competent climber to vanish in seconds. With sympathetic residents on your side you could melt away here like nothing, and never be found again.
Best pronounced ‘Shobabajar’ – Bengali doesn’t actually have any v or z sounds, but they’re often used in transliteration of words and names out of deference to their Sanskrit or Persian origins [↩]
for no very good reason I’m spelling Kolkata as Calcutta throughout this; both spellings and pronunciations are in widespread use by residents, and I tend to use the other, but our guides use the old-fashioned/English spelling in their name, and ‘North Calcutta’ is an English phrase – if I’m talking about Kolkata, should I call it Uttor Kolkata as well? [↩]