Pingle and Songji are two traditional ancient towns in the South West of China. The first, Pingle, is a couple of hours away from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, while the second, Songji, is a mere two hours from the metropolis Chongqing. The architecture in both towns is similar: the houses have black slate roofs and white walls supported by dark wooden beams; the streets are narrow and cobble- stoned. Moreover, both towns share a riverside location: while Pingle is built along both banks of a river, the streets of. Songji run downhill towards the Yangtze. As for village life, drinking tea and playing board games are still the favourite pastimes of the locals. However, after that the similarities stop. Pingle has become a hugely popular tourist destination for Chengdu residents and domestic tourists visiting Sichuan. As a result, it is full of souvenir shops, its streets lined with teahouses, inns and restaurants. Songji on the other hand is a slightly melancholy, time- forgotten town without a single souvenir shop, just one hotel and a few local restaurants and traditional teahouses. We visited both this summer and here are our impressions, taken from the Diary:
… First impressions aren’t good. The toilets at the otherwise modern bus station that necessity has forced us to use are high up on the ‘Worst in China’ list: they are piled high in shit, there’s no water and the stench impregnates the station and beyond. Outside a steady drizzle is falling. The next realisation is that Pingle is far from being a hidden gem; in fact, Continue reading “A Tale of two Towns: Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉”
In recent weeks a number of articles have appeared in the international press, warning us about the imminent destruction of the old historic quarter of the city of Kashgar. Kashgar is an oasis town in the Western province of Xinjiang, inhabited by Uyghurs, Muslims of Turkic origin. Historically, it was one of the most important stops for the caravans on the Silk Route, and its Sunday Market was, and is, renowned.
According to these articles, the Chinese Authorities’ pretext for demolishing Old Kashgar is to protect the residents from the risk of earthquakes and generally improve their living conditions. The mayor of Kashgar has deemed the old buildings to be unsafe and decided that the residents should now live in new ones. The New York Times sums it up perfectly with the title ‘To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It’.
The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces: Longji Titian how will these incredible teraaces survive? This piece looks at the issues raised in the article “Drinking Their Fields Dry”, written by Xiong Lei and published in the China Daily on 12 -7-2007. The article focuses on the effects tourism is having on the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (Longji titian) near Longsheng in the Zhuang Autonomous Region in Guangxi province.
The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces: Longji Titian
On that beautiful late summer’s evening in 2003 the dynamite went off at regular intervals, with a thud that echoed around the entire valley, shattering the silence of an area without cars and very little electricity. I looked on as a crowd of local Zhuang from the village of Ping’an gathered to watch how huge swathes of the beautiful terraced mountain side were blasted to pieces to make way for a new road that would eventually arrive at the very centre of their village.
I wondered then what changes that road would bring to their lives. I never imagined that they would be so quick and so damaging.
The historic city of Dali, situated on the shores of Erhai lake in China’s Southwestern province of Yunnan, has died and risen again several times during its long history. Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies raised it as part of their destruction of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Chinese Imperial troops put the city to the torch when crushing a Muslim rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. And an earthquake destroyed it again in 1925. After the earthquake, Dali was rebuilt in keeping with its traditional style, a mixture of large Bai courtyard mansions and small wooden shops and stores. Its layout within the old city walls remained the same, and the city was criss-crossed by beautiful flagstone streets. This was the Dali that we found in 1990 and liked so much. But Dali has died again and this time the enemy is probably much more dangerous than anything that came before. The enemy is called Shangri-la Tourism. My reaction on revisiting the town after 15 years was: Benidorm!
It has to be said that Dali was fairly touristy even in 1990. Hordes of local Bai women used to pursue the newly arrived backpackers down the streets, trying to flog batiks, earrings, hairpins and change FECs (the Foreign Exchange Certificates that foreigners got at the bank instead of the local currency). Restaurants offering the dreaded banana pancake and other so-called Western food were ubiquitous. It wasn’t the ‘real’ China; not even then. However, the businesses dealing with backpackers were generally family affairs run on a small scale, and once you had settled in and the grannies had given up on you as a lost cause, Dali became a pleasant place to chill out, recharge your batteries and recover from the considerable effort of getting there. Moreover, the scenery around Dali was and is spectacular, the surrounding villages beautiful, the local Bai culture (see Xizhou) fascinating and the markets pretty amazing.
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.Continue reading “The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun”
It’s not often I make forecasts on what will happen in China, usually they leave you with egg on your face. However, this time I’m going to venture that China is going to face a big post Olympics hangover. Below are my thoughts.
There will be big rise in Inflation due to the governments efforts to artificially keep inflation in check before the Olympics will be removed. As a consequence interests rates will have to rise to keep inflation in check.
Even long before the Olympics there has been a housing boom in Beijing and other cities. After the Olympics thousands of hotel rooms are going to converted into flats adding to an already saturated market.
The Stock Market
All ready more than 50% down on its peak, it will continue to fall as inflation rises and global growth slows down. Many small investors are being seriously burned.
Jobs and Output
China’s industrial model based on low wages appears to be stalling. In the industrial heartland of Guangdong factories are having to deal with a number of increasing problems that are cutting profit margins and seeing record factory closures.
Some of those factors are:
Falling global demand
Higher wage costs
Difficulty in recruiting new labour from the provinces
New environmental and labour laws
Dislocation by foreign and Chinese companies to countries with lower costs.
Up until the 1950s, Beijing was an architectural wonder, an almost perfectly preserved metropolis from the pre-industrial era. Many ancient towns and cities exist around the world, but Beijing was enormous: 62.5 square kilometres (25 square miles) large including lakes, parks, palaces and of course the Forbidden City, the emperor’s home. Surrounded by some of the greatest fortified walls of antiquity, it was a microcosm of ancient China, a city that symbolized the political and religious ideals of a system that had existed for twenty – five hundred years. Ian Johnson, Wild grass, p. 101
Stepping out onto the concourse outside Beijing railway station into the sharp winter sunlight we saw the number 20 bus pulling in. “That’s the one!” I shouted to Margie. We stormed it with the rest of Beijing. The descending passengers didn’t stand a chance as the mob rushed the opening doors. I tried to use my backpack to annihilate any opposition in my quest to get a seat. However, despite my efforts, the old ladies with their jabbing elbows still managed to get on before us. But we did get our bums on those precious seats in the end. Two foreign tourists getting off the bus looked at us in total shock and disgust. But, hey, we had already been out in Western China for 2 months, and when in Rome… Welcome to Beijing 1990.
It’s a long time ago, but Margie kept a diary, so the memories come flooding back every time we reread it. I remember a cold, hazy city. The sun, though occasionally glaring, was more often weak and blotted out by a polluted sky (worse than now). When the clouds covered the sky, snow sometimes fluttered in the air, but mostly melted before it had time to settle. The people looked pretty poor, though there were some inklings of an incipient urban sophistication we hadn’t seen elsewhere in China. Something was happening but we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it…..
Hotan is remote. It is one of those end of the world places beyond which begins one of the world’s largest deserts, the Taklamakan, an enormous area of sand dunes and barren rocks forming some of the most hostile terrain on earth. Boiling in summer, freezing in winter, towns like Hotan hang precariously to the desert’s outer ring, hemmed in by the looming Kunlun Mountains that rise up to the Tibetan Plateau. Over the centuries, many other once thriving oasis towns like Hotan have succumbed to the advances of the Taklamakan, and their half hidden remains lie buried in the sand, a poignant testimony to the harshness of the environment.
Doufu is the Chinese word for Tofu. It is sometimes used metaphoricallyto 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 schoolskilling 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.