The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge

Zhaozhou Bridge / 赵州桥


Hebei Province

The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge
The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge

The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge in Zhaoxian County, Hebei Province, about an hour from the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, is a stunning reminder of just how sophisticated Chinese engineering techniques were, more than one thousand four hundred years ago. That is the amount of time the Zhaozhou Bridge has stood spanning the Jiaohe River.

The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge
The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge

The bridge is the work of the engineer Li Chun who had to overcome numerous technical difficulties when designing and building it. First of all, it had to be high enough to avoid damage from frequent flooding, but at the same time it had to be flat enough to allow trade caravans and the imperial army to cross. Li Chun’s answer to this engineering dilemma was a segmental bridge, the world’s first, and Continue reading “The Extraordinary Zhaozhou Bridge”

Hacking for Fun and Profit in China’s Underworld

CHANGSHA, China — With a few quick keystrokes, a computer hacker who goes by the code name Majia calls up a screen displaying his latest victims.“Here’s a list of the people who’ve been infected with my Trojan horse,” he says, working from a dingy apartment on the outskirts of this city in central China. “They don’t even know what’s happened.”

Read the rest of this article of David Barboza for The New York Times

ON THE RAILROAD Lhasa to Beijing

ON THE RAILROAD: Lhasa 拉萨 – Beijing 北京

Thursday, September 20, 2007, on the famous train at last!

ON THE RAILROAD: Lhasa 拉萨 - Beijing 北京
ON THE RAILROAD: Lhasa 拉萨 – Beijing 北京

ON THE RAILROAD Lhasa to Beijing


5.45: Our alarm goes off at this barbaric hour, so that we can finish our monster packing, trying to stuff all our Tibet souvenirs into our backpacks, which are straining at the seams.


6.50: Since Lhasa, like the whole of China, is run on Beijing time, it’s still dark when we leave the hotel and go looking for a taxi. Even so, we can dimly make out the silhouettes of the pilgrims, as they quietly make their way past us, turning their prayer wheels and softly murmuring sacred mantras, headed for the Barkhor Circuit.


7.15: The mammoth station is virtually deserted at this time, as the first passengers are only just beginning to arrive. We are let into a huge marble hall with shiny floors and high ceilings, but nothing inside: no shops, no cafeteria or restaurants. There is nothing to do but sit in the waiting room, instructed and lectured by uniformed staff with megaphones who tell us not to put luggage on the seats, not to smoke, to fill in our boarding cards, etc. etc.


7.50: We are told to line up and marched onto the train. This is always a crucial moment, when you find out who your travelling companions are going to be. As it turns out, we are sharing with a group of two women and a man, Chinese tourists from Xi’an, who frantically snap and record everything in sight from the moment they get on the train. Number six is a quiet, arty-looking man, possibly Tibetan, who chain-smokes and therefore has to stay outside in the hallway most of the time. Among the passengers further along the corridor, a stocky Tibetan monk stands out, due to his friendly, yet serious disposition.

Continue reading “ON THE RAILROAD Lhasa to Beijing”

Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇

Jingdezhen: the Porcelain City

Jingdezhen: the Porcelain City 景德镇

porcelain traffic lights in Jingdezhen: the Porcelain City
Traffic Light Jingdezhen (not our photo; have lost original source).

Jingdezhen: the Porcelain City 景德镇. Imagine a city where the street lights, traffic lights and just about any other public amenity are made of porcelain: this is Jingdezhen, one of China’s foremost Porcelain Cities!

porcelain speakers in Jingdezhen: the Porcelain City
Our photo

kilns belch black smoke into the sky

Here, crowded street markets flog almost anything imaginable, from plain crockery to huge, tacky vases and life-size Buddha’s, all made of porcelain, while the chimneys of the kilns belch black smoke into the sky.

Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇

Porcelain from the Imperial Kilns is what converted Jingdezhen into a household name in China and worldwide too; at least for those in the know. Production dates back well over a thousand years.

potter at work in Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇

the finest pieces

In times past, the finest pieces would be sent to the palaces of China’s emperors and the ruling elite. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe discovered the quality of the porcelain produced at Jingdezhen and, as a result, a huge export market sprung up, which only added to the city’s prestige.

potter at work in Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇
Cramped conditions

While location and river transportation may have contributed to Jingdezhen’s growth, it is the reputed quality of the eponymous clay found at Gaoling village, just a few kilometres outside the city that has turned it into the centre of China’s porcelain industry.

 Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇
Porcelain bowls

business is still thriving

Today, the business is still thriving with factories continuing to pump out a haze of dirty smoke. While most of these factories have now been moved to the outskirts, the occasional hidden kiln can still be found in what remains of the dwindling, historic old town.

Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇

Street markets sell the bulk of the cheap and roughly made porcelain goods, while plusher shops deal in the more exquisite pieces. If you are not an expert, the rule of thumb is caution, as there are apparently many fakes that abuse the trade mark ‘made in Jingdezhen’. However, there are plenty of cheap curios that make good souvenirs.

Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇
Huizhou style house

Jingdezhen is well worth a visit

Whether you are interested in buying porcelain products or not, we certainly weren’t, as a backpacking overland trip to Tibet is hardlybusiness is still thriving the ideal way of transporting a fragile vase, a visit to Jingdezhen is well worth it. For one, it offers plenty of opportunities to see porcelain production from beginning to end.

Continue reading “Jingdezhen Porcelain City 景德镇”

JingJing 警警 ChaCha 察察

Jing Jing and Cha Cha. Sounds kind of cute doesn’t it? They certainly look it. However, behind these innocent looking images lies a more sinister message.
“We’re watching what you’re looking at, and we don’t like it”.
This is the warning that Chinese authorities want to convey to internet users who might be tempted to stray on to “unhealthy Websites”. Unhealthy might be anything that has the word “Tibet” followed by any other references such as “freedom”. Or “Taiwan” and words like “independence”. As you navigate so called “unhealthy” sites these cuddly images appear to let you that while you’re looking at the site someone is watching you looking at it.

The Jing in Jingjing is the Chinese character 警and the Cha in Cha Cha is the character 察. Together they make Jingcha 警察 the Chinese word for police. I must admit. It’s simple and clever and definitely sinister. Here is a review of Jingjing and ChaCha on the China Digital Times

“The main function of Jingjing and Chacha is to intimidate, not to answer questions,” our reporter was told by officials in charge of The Internet Security and Surveillance Division of Shenzhen Public Security Bureau. The Internet has been always monitored by police, the significance of Jingjing and Chacha’s appearance is to publicly remind all netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet, self-regulate their online behaviour, and maintain harmonious Internet order together.”

Source: China Digital Times » Image of Internet police: JingJing and Chacha online – Hong Yan

The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun


An unlikely gem if ever there were one

The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun, Xixuangbanna, Yunnan Province; an unlikely gem if ever there were one, Menglun’s dusty main road is a mishmash of small restaurants, cheap hotels and motorbike shops. Pretty it isn’t! But then one doesn’t come to Menglun to see the town, but rather the fabulous Tropical Botanical Gardens that begin after crossing a suspension bridge over the Luosuo River, only a few meters from the unglamorous main road. To really experience Menglun, stay at the atmospheric hotel set in the middle of the gardens; an oasis of serenity and a rare treat in modern- day China. The Gardens are huge, which is why you really need two days to explore.


Menglun should be a must for anyone embarking on a long trip around Asia. The Tropical Botanical Gardens are home to all the species you will become familiar with when travelling around Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, or the rest of China. Highlights include the Tropical Rainforest and the colourful Tropical Plants area. The Rainforest gives you a pretty good idea of the vegetation you will come across if you are doing any trekking in Xishuangbanna or in Laos, especially the Nam Ha Protected Area near Luang Nam Tha. Be prepared for extreme humidity.

Other areas of interest are the Medicinal Plants, including the Dragon’s Blood Tree that is reputedly able to heal wounds. The Palm Section has more different species than you could ever imagine. The Arboretum harbours some amazingly tall trees and Indiana Jones- like jungle foliage. The diverse types of Bamboo and the amazing Water Plants add to exotic ambience of the park. The highlight of the water plants is the “King of the Water Lily” a disk- shaped Lily growing up to a meter in diameter. The immense size of the gardens means that even if noisy Chinese tour groups do turn up, their presence doesn’t take away from the experience, as it can do in many other major sights.


Besides being a tourist destination, the Tropical Botanical Gardens are also a major research centre where scientist investigate how to protect biospheres and plant species, create seed banks and carry out the commercialisation of plant products for medicine, cosmetics and other areas. A number of Chinese companies have research centres in the park. Some of the Chinese professors and research workers speak English and are happy to tell you about their work.


Staying overnight in the Gardens’ accommodation is the best way to maximise your experience in Menglun. The evenings are particularly wonderful when fireflies, bats and other strange, flying insects come out. The hotel has a wide choice of rooms . The cheaper ones are damp and musty, while the 240 Yuan rooms are spacious with balconies. However, this might just be one of those places where you might want to splash out a bit more. There are two suites for 320 Yuan (32 Euros). The enormous rooms have nice bathrooms, private terraces and even fridges to keep your beer cold in the evening when everything closes up. Unfortunately, the hotel’s massive swimming pool was closed at the time of our visit in August.

Staff at the park entrance will be able to tell you whether there are any rooms available, or phone on your behalf. It is a good 1 km walk from the entrance to the hotel. One added advantage of staying inside the park is that the 80 Yuan entrance ticket only has to be paid once. Your room card will allow you to come and go as you please.



There is a good, though slightly pricey restaurant on the hotel grounds. They mostly cater to tour groups, serving exotic dishes made from the trees, plants and flowers in the gardens, such as fried banana flowers or bamboo ‘eggs’. You may need to order in advance and/or speak a bit of Chinese to persuade the cooks to serve up similar delicacies. Failing this, they have a fairly extensive menu of common Chinese dishes.

We had lunch in the restaurant while the torrential downpour that had been going on for most of the morning continued outside. It was interesting to observe how the Chinese tour groups seemed unfazed by the weather. Eating, drinking, toasting and playing cards, the groups from Ningxia and Sichuan were determined to enjoy themselves and make the most of their, undoubtedly, short holiday. We always feel that the Chinese’ resolve to have a good time, regardless of the weather or adverse circumstances, is one of their most endearing characteristics.

Apart from the restaurant, there are a couple of small shops on the premises, selling instant noodles, snacks and drinks.

Outside the park, there are many decent, cheaper restaurants near the market and on the main road.


Coming and Going

New highways have made Menglun quick and easy to reach from Jinghong, Mengla and Kunming. Buses run throughout the day. Unfortunately, the new highway between Menglun and Mengla (for Laos) bypasses the stunning jungle scenery the old road used to traverse. It now takes a mere 2 hours to Mengla.

“Tofu Buildings”

Doufu Jianzhu or Doufu Zhengfu?

Doufu is the Chinese word for Tofu. It is sometimes used metaphorically to describe something that, like tofu, looks strong and hard on the outside, but is soft and weak on the inside. Following the huge earthquake in Sichuan and the subsequent collapse of so many shoddily built schools killing thousands of school children and students, the local press in China has been labelling the schools, Tofu buildings (doufuzha gongcheng). The actual meaning implies a complete botch job, combined with official graft.

With the expression doufuzha gongcheng flying all over the Chinese media, it now seems that the government has had enough of this open criticism and is reining in the local press, most likely because the truth hurts. In the people’s minds there is no doubt that official squeeze in collusion with business interests led to those poorly constructed state schools. The extent of the repercussions of local party corruption for the Chinese Communist Party as a whole will be known much further down the line. For now it is a case of damage limitation.

If you can read Chinese, here is an interesting link confirming what I have said above:南方周末 – 【学校之殇】建设部专家认定聚源中学是问题建筑——聚源中学倒塌悲剧调查

It now appears that the above article has been removed from the web. I wonder why????????????

Zigong / Salt and Dinosaour City

Zigong: A Gem.

As you approach Zigong, sculptures and posters of dinosaurs announce that you’re arriving in “Dinosaur City”, as the city is known by the Chinese. Zigong is a pleasant modern city, built along the banks of the Fuxi River that has so far managed to maintain large areas of traditional and interesting architecture, despite its recent development and prosperity.

Besides Dinosaurs, Zigong has an abundance of sites, and is definitely worth spending a couple of days. The city owes its prosperity not so much to dinosaurs, as to salt and, in particular, the important role this product played during Imperial times. The salt mining techniques developed at Zigong were among the most sophisticated in the ancient world. They included building precision drills,…….

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