My lightning tour of Shanxi: Mount Wutai

My lightning tour of Shanxi: Mount Wutai

The road up to our hotel, high on Mount Wutai, was a whole town, with hotpot restaurants and souvenirs and print shops, consumerism nestling comfortably in the valleys of a great natural mountain. It seemed thousands of people live here at the bottom of this mountain (monks or otherwise!) and only a faithful few would make daily prayers at the most sacred temples in Shanxi Province. Mount Wutai (Five Plateau Mountain) is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China, in other words it has been an imperial pilgrimage site for ages past.

We were due to hike up,, but were somewhat inhibited by torrents of rain that soaked the afternoon, so we went straight to the sites we’d come for. The first wasYouguo Temple, where narrow balconies enclosed a small quadrangle of prayer rooms, study rooms and shrine rooms, too similar to other Buddhist temples I had come across. My spirits became as damp as my clothes as we darted between the covered corridors to stay as dry as possible, and  I felt thankful we only really had time for a quick look. That was until we reached the exit. Suddenly, a strong breeze drenched my face and the claustrophobic corridors became a sheer flight of slippery marble steps plunging downwards into the valley below. Beneath scopic hills, the roofs of several holy temples and the White Pagoda of Wutai Mountain looked meekly up at me. To the left and to the right, the rumps of low clouds settled on rocky outcrops and rainy fog swept over the whole scene. (Silly me, I lost the photo that I took so you’ll have to imagine it!) I could have looked a little longer, had I not been jostled out of the way by two old ladies with pink anoraks…

I don't have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)
I don’t have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)

Mt-Wutai-2Youguo

I was being beckoned by one of the group, so I started the steep climb down the steps, hoping that I wouldn’t have to slide half the way. Thus, we reached the second temple. Xiantong Temple. I suppose it were almost as interesting as the first temple really, except that the traditional buildings were mixed up with the added grandeur of gold plated pagodas and miniature towers. Here, the rooms did not seem to have any particular order. Shrines, staircases and cells were thrown together as if the architect were desperate to fill up every available space.On the four corners of every roof, a small parade of animals had been carved. It is not uncommon to see dragons, birds, or lions stand proudly atop a pagoda, but I was surprised at this temple to find only horses. Why horses?

WP_20150717_006Youguo temple

We visited one or two other spots on the way down, but they were so unremarkable I can hardly bear to talk about them! There was one shrine which was particularly lavish, and it seemed to be filled with hundreds and hundreds of gold ornaments, and plenty of fresh fruit. The wealth of the Buddhists who had inhabited this temple was, as always, very obvious. We commented on the nature of modern Chinese Buddhism, a religion which strives for independence from material objects, but gathers so many riches.

One last observation: I saw a fight between two monks! The two holy men nearly came to blows, had a third man not come to stop them. I asked oneguide why they were fighting, and she claimed that one monk had stolen the other monk’s chair! That made me laugh, until another tour guide told me that the little he’d heard suggested the monks were of two different sectors of Buddhism…

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A Plane Crashes In My Hometown: I saw it for myself

A Plane Crashes In My Hometown: I saw it for myself

My condolences to the poor families of the victims of today’s deadly crash at Shoreham Airshow. I know this is totally unrelated to all the other topics on my blog (all China related) but I felt this was an important experience for me, and so here it stays.

This afternoon, a 1950s Hawker Hunter warplane crashed in my hometown, Shoreham-By-Sea, near Brighton killing eleven people and injuring fourteen more. The whole airport was put on lockdown for several hours, and I kept thinking about how I needed to write this down. I’ve never been at the scene of a disaster before, and I won’t forget it in a hurry, so I thought I’d tell it to you.

Clear skies, hot weather, a strong breeze and smiling families promised a fun, light-hearted Shoreham Airshow . Parents, grandparents, small children, teenagers and (naturally) pet dogs reclined in deckchairs and grass chairs eating homemade picnics, ooh-ing, aah-ing, wow-ing and OHMYGOD-ing at the antics of acrobatic warplanes.  My mum and our friends idly made light conversation beside me, and I dozed off with my hat over my face in the cosy summer setting, untouched by the loud whir of fighter planes,

Suddenly, like when one car collides with another, but a hundred times worse. there was a cacoophonous CRUNCH.  Next, an abrupt silence of the sort where a crowd can feel what has happened, before they really understand what they are feeling, and a chorus of exclamations returned in higher pitch. Countless voices recounted the crash, pointed at the smoke, or quietly embraced each other, and for a few moments everyone was sharing shock and grief.

My mother and I squeezed hands, and then she bravely said ‘I should go over there and help’ (she is a paramedic). As a child would, I tried to persuade her not to leave, but luckily she would not listen to me, and she disappeared into the crowd. Childlishly, I ran after her and tried to follow, but of course it was fruitless.A few minutes later, I decided I would like to leave the airport now and I tried to make my way to the exit. All around I heard useless exchanges which people spoke to cope with the situation ‘It was there, and then it was gone’, ‘How could this happen?’ and ‘I need a drink now.’ But, the exit was totally locked down so that the emergency services could get past easily. Most people stood around passively, but one man argued with the stewards: “I don’t want to go and look, I want to take my nephew home!” he shouted. The stewards yelled at him to “Have some respect!” and it almost came to blows, if the policeman had not told everybody to calm down. It seemed even the officials were in shock.

After that, I felt very depressed and went to sit on my own for a few minutes before going to find our friends.Every conversation I heard was about the crash, recounting stories, speculating causes, and passing on rumours. I found out two cyclists had been killed, and of course there were more to come. It was so tragic for them, and it could have been anyone cycling past. The smoke billowed behind us at the scene for a good ten more minutes, swathing Lancing College in putrid black smoke.

We found my mother in First Aid, helping the victims who had walked away from the accident the entire afternoon. Although we tried to take our minds off it by staring at trucks, gliders and motorbikes, we could not stop discussing the incident for the rest of the day.

Homesick?

Today, something is on my mind. I feel homesick, homesick about China! I was as surprised as you are.

Today, I wandered around Brighton with a good friend, and enjoyed the independent galleries, vintage and fancy dress shops that make up the best part of Brighton, North Laine. Despite having fun browsing the place, something kept nagging at me, which I couldn’t quite put into words. (If you know me personally, you know I can talk rubbish sometimes!).

I felt something was missing, I was conscious that most of the people here were tourists, and that the shop assistants and waiters we met were unwilling to talk. When a person speaking Chinese walked past (quite a few!) my ears cocked up, and the peddlers selling handmade jewellery made me grin. Otherwise, the lively backstreets felt inexplicably lifeless. If you’ve ever been to Brighton, you’ll understand why describing North Laine as ‘lifeless’ is unheard of! It’s one of the most colourful places in the South, not to mention incredibly open-minded. And yet, beyond all expectation. I missed Beijing.

In Beijing, I felt I had a purpose. That purpose was to explore, to practise the language and to absorb enough Chinese culture to blab about on my blog. Could this be culture shock, a sign, or an omen? Could it just be the pain of losing the thrill of being in a new place? I can’t say. I can say that being back in Brighton right now, I’m not really sure what to do with myself. I couldn’t speak it out loud, what I’m feeling. The word that springs to mind is ‘aimless’. I feel passionless, unskilled and , most of all, bored. If you were to ask me what I liked, I could not tell you. If you were to ask me what I felt strongly about, I would say ‘nothing’. It is for this reason that I feel homesick, as if I were in a new place, rather than the other way around. I wouldn’t go so far as to say China is my ‘home’ but I would say that I feel more ‘at home’ there at the moment. Perhaps it will pass, who knows?

I truly believe I could not express what I have just expressed in speech! Thank god for blogs!

My lightning tour of Shanxi: Western Pingyao

My lightning tour of Shanxi: Western Pingyao

[ASIDE: Before I say anything else, I want to give my condolences to the families of the one hundred people who died in Tianjin last week and wish the best for the injured. I went to Tianjin- it is a lovely place full of lovely people. I hope they quickly control the disaster and will be able to prevent similar accidents happening in the future.]

To be honest, I had this post mocked up on my laptop weeks and weeks ago! However, I was reluctant to talk about the Pingyao part of the trip before my little travel article was published in China Daily. In my opinion, the ‘historical relics’, ‘ancient civilisation’ and ‘intangible cultural heritage’ of Pingyao were about as authentic as the fortune cookies at your local ‘Happy Wok’. 

 Once upon a time, a visit to Pingyao would have been a delight. The old Ming Dynasty (1644-1911) town is sheltered by ancient city walls, and a crisscross of ‘hutongs’ (胡同 : alleyway) twist, tumble and huddle together.It truly is a beautiful ancient town and a popular travel destination for those living in Beijing or surrounding areas, but has been wildly Westernised.

However, our tour guides had us walk twenty minutes through the hutongs, and the reality was quite different to how it sounds. We were taken to all the crowded spots, the high end restaurants, the souvenir streets: in short, all the fakest sites they could cram in.  Instead of noodle cafes, there were tens of European style bars crouching under imperial roof tiles. There were no fruit stalls or peddlers during the day, and every ‘Old Shanxi Goods’ shop for miles around was selling the same tourist tat.  Every Pingyao person we met on the main streets was either yelling at us to buy things, or feverishly buying things themselves. Occassionally, we’d find a small snack stall that looked halfway decent, but seemed to be selling burgers and hot dogs  ( at least, a close approximation). Daytime Pingyao was a place I felt absolutely no connection to at all. 

Night time Pingyao was different. Once we were out of the clutches of our tour group , we were free to walk around and explore after dinner. Once we stepped outside the city walls, a very different Pingyao appeared to me. But, you’d have to read the article for that!

Okay, there was one good thing about daytime Pingyao. We ate at a very, very posh Ming style restaurant named De Ju Yuan. The place was a maze of ornamental fountains, curtained banquet halls and windowed courtyards. I’ve never been anywhere like it! It was like a museum, except that all the artefacts inside were brand new. It looked spectacular, but I was very conscious that the food was not altogether different from the street stalls outside, if we had only had a chance to visit them. Cat’s ear soup (left) and ‘Mountain Noodles’ (right) are Pingyao specialties.

cat ear soup plato-de-steamed-mountain

That’s all for now. One blogger I met recommended I keep my articles to about 500 words so…oops, out of space!

Area Shines After Sunset: Shanxi after sundown, my published article

Area Shines After Sunset: Shanxi after sundown, my published article

A while ago I mentioned I had written an article for China Daily. Just today, it was published both online and in the newspaper! Here is the link below.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2015-08/13/content_21585540.htm

I haven’t written all that much about this trip on my blog, so here is a brief summary of the story behind the article.

I was invited, along with thirteen other foreigners from twelve different countries, to take part in a China Daily ‘Discover Shanxi’ trip. We weren’t sure what the trip would involve before participating, only aware that we were to write a short article about our feelings towards Shanxi province.

We visited many beautiful places, including mountain temples, Ming Dynasty courtyards and the houses of noblemen,  the ancient streets of Pingyao ancient town, glorious five star hotels and intricately decorated restaurants, the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong.

However, most of us felt that the places we visited had been somewhat overtaken by tourism. Old hutongs were replaced with tourist streets. holy relics replaced by Chinese ‘tat’ (as my mum calls it). 

For me, there were two highlights of Shanxi province. The first was the people I travelled with, who came from all walks of life and were really interesting people. The second was the brief glimpses of authenticism we spotted in the midst of all that tat. We started to take walks after dinner, night walks after the schedule of the day had finished. This was the closest I got to the real Shanxi, and naturally this is what I wrote about in my article!

Hope you enjoy! I’ll write more about this Shanxi trip soon, as I haven’t talked about the most interesting parts yet! 

‘Chinatown’ in London

‘Chinatown’ in London

They say every city in the world has a ‘Chinatown’. Near Trafalgar Square in London, Asian restaurants, pharmacies and massage parlours transform a few pedestrian streets into something that (vaguely) resembles an East Asian shopping street. The Chinatown of London used to be alien to me, but now it feels familiar too.

As with most major tourist streets in Beijing (Nanluoguxiang or Dashilar in Beijing, for example), the first thing you encounter is an impressive gate. Just like in Beijing, the tall gate stands freely with round red pillars and a curved blue roof, and frames the street behind it. However, a closer look reveals the gate to be simple and metallic. It is not painted as in China, and the motif is not as intricate. The street it frames is ‘shinier’ too. So, ‘Chinatown’ begins to feel both familiar and alien at the same time.

The street is full of people. That’s pretty similar! An East Asian man performs a traditional instrument in the street, just like the busker round the corner from my university. Also, restaurants are everywhere, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and British pub specialties are crammed together on Gerrard Street, just like the huge variety of Western and Chinese eateries in Beijing business hubs like Zhongguancun.

On the other hand, there is much more blonde hair and more dark skin, and the man playing the traditional instrument has made up a great dance to go with his playing, which an old blind busker in China probably wouldn’t do! The staff I hear talking outside the restaurants mostly aren’t speaking Mandarin – I think I heard a lot of Cantonese and some Southeast Asian languages too. I’ll admit I was hoping to find someone to show off my Mandarin and it was really difficult to find them! When I (try to) read the Chinese characters around me, I forget I am in central London, and get a little jolt of surprise when it registers.

‘Chinatown’ was a lot more multicultural than an actual Chinese town to be honest. There were many more Southeast Asians, Japanese and Koreans than in Beijing or Xi’an, and the food came from Hong Kong, Japan and everything in between. It was a strange experience to feel I was in one place (China) while it was really obvious I was in another (London). I feel like a foreigner in my own country these days!