If you fall off the eastern edge of the Himalayan mountains, the first major city (population 4.1 million) that you come to is Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province. You’ve heard of it from the spicy Chinese food, called “Szechuan” in the west.

Rosemary and I spent 5 or 6 days based around there. A few of those were visiting a Buddhist holy mountain, and the largest Buddha in the world – I’ll write about them in another post.

Chengdu itself was like every other large Chinese city – endless streets with few distinguishing features. My fault for hoping it might be a bit better than that. It has some super parks, but you have to deliberately go to them, you couldn’t stumble upon them by accident.

We saw real Giant Pandas at the breeding centre outside town – they’re super cute, mainly because they have a sixth thumb-like finger so they look like people as they eat bamboo. The Red Pandas are even better. I hope somebody domesticates some soon. They were running round playing, happy like dogs, but cute like cats.

The surprise attraction in Chengdu itself was Du Fu’s “cottage”. Really a whole complex of buildings and gardens (photo right), originally where an 8th century poet lived in a thatched house. There was lots of good bonsai trees, and also calligraphy of Du Fu’s poems. Those are the two arts which I’ve seen that are both still practiced properly in China, and are uniquely Chinese.

Quick post

Just a quick post to say what’s happening. Rosemary is flying back to Shanghai tomorrow, and then home later in the week. I’m in China for another 10 days, heading tomorrow into Northern Sichuan. I’m writing some more about things we’ve seen in the last week, but won’t put them up until I get some more photographs out of my camera.

Hope in the air

We took the magical modern teleport from Xi’an to Chengdu. 18 hours in a train a bit too much for Rosemary, and saving a day was useful.

I wandered round the airport looking for an English language newspaper. A shiny glossy building with high ceilings, much nicer than Heathrow. Clear layout and signs, clean toilets. Well, I guess Xi’an is the capital of a province of 38 million people, so I don’t know why I was surprised. But I was.

These are the railway stations of our times, as spectacular as the London stations of 150 years ago. And as remarkable in the social change that they are bringing about. Our discounted tickets were about the same price (300 yuan or 20 quid) as the soft sleeper train. Everyone will be flying all over China before we know it. Well, OK, round about 2022.

To try to stop this seems to me impossible. And to have hope without action is pointless. So I wept a bit, hoped that what I’ve read about climate change is wrong, but didn’t believe it. I can take some more Climate Care as a palliative when I get home.

In the end, I managed to find an Asian edition of the Economist.

Warriors or pigs?

Two emperors, roughly 2000 years ago, supervised the creation of their own burial treasures before they died. One (called Qin Shi Huang) created an entire pottery army, in formation, with infantry, cavalry, chariots, archers and a command section. The other (called in various places Han Jing, Liu Qi, or Jindi, I can’t quite work out his name) created pigs, horses, goats, carts, pots, peasants, managers of food supply and representations of judicial functions. Han Jing the yin to Qin Shi’s yang. Which would you take?

Rosemary and I have just taken a lolloping rail route from Shanghai round past the Yellow river in northern China. We passed through Kaifeng – still with bicycles, men playing chess, puppy dogs for sale in the street in cages, OK tourist attractions. The photo of the square by day above, after dark turns into a night market, with hundreds of food stalls selling freshly grilled kebabs, stir frys, geletinous desserts from elephant kettles, freshly rolled filled pastas and thousands of people.

Then Luoyang. In the cliffs of a river near Luoyang, Buddhist emperors and empresses had Buddhas as high as 15 story buildings carved deep into the face of the rock. The photo on the left below is of the river Yi nearby, and the photo on the right of a Heavenly Warrior. Bigger than he looks, 15m tall I think.

We’re in Xi’an at the moment, site of numerous ancient capitals of China. It’s in terms of development all that I had expected Shanghai would be. It feels wealthy, with valuable cars. But it’s also just that bit cleaner, and more relaxed than Shanghai. Bell Tower Square at night feels like an evening square in Italy, well dressed people enjoying the balmy night. The old city walls are still complete, and together with the gardens where the moat used to be form both a landmark and a sense of space.

“These tiles are clean! I wonder if the plaza there pays for them to be scrubbed every day?” “Oh no, it’s because they’re brand new, look even though it’s the evening, the workmen are still laying them.” I was shy about photographing them, but once I did they all started posing with their shovels (photo below left). It looked somewhat ad hoc.

It seems that if you dig a hole more than few metres deep, you’ll stumble upon buried treasure anywhere in Shaanxi province. The cute little lamb on the right is a couple of thousand years old, and was recently found by the Xian Lightbulb Corporation during construction of a new building.

And those two emperors, planning for their afterlives?

The famous Terracota Warriors, found accidentally by peasants digging a well in the mid 1970s, were the treasures of the first yang emperor, Qin Shi. Well worth going to – make sure you see the movie there, which was filmed with a 360 degree camera and gives more useful historical information than the broken English signs. The surprise hit (found via the most recent Lonely Planet, and only discovered at all in the early 1990s) is Han Yangling, the mausoleum of the second emperor, Han Jing. It’s in many ways more fascinating than the Warriors. Much less busy, with time and space to linger. Glass floors going above burial pits, you can see the excavations of all the animals and people close up.

It’s difficult to decide which emperor I’d follow while preparing my afterlife. It’s much more in my character to follow Han Jing, and take enough peasants, animals, equipment and administrative functions to form a new civislisation. But, alas, I know that Qin Shi’s pottery invasion force would plunder it all as soon as we got there. So, on balance, I’d have to defect in this prisoner’s dilemma, and take the army.

Penguins in Shanghai

Most people wouldn’t have seen it, but it instantly caught my eye. I saw this (picture left) last week in Shanghai, on the corner of Shaanxi Lu and Huaihai Zhonglu. It’s an animated advertising hording, which as you can see was mostly black with a cartoon Penguin and the words “Welcome to”. The mirror writing gives away that the Pepsi logo is a reflection of a sign opposite, and is only noticeable in my photo. The Penguin wasn’t moving at all.

I don’t think Rosemary had any idea why I suddenly stopped and whipped my camera out to photograph it. It’s a brand thing and a cultural thing. To a whole group of idealogues in the computer industry, the Penguin logo represents freedom, community, and control. All valuable things, in a world exponentially screaming out of understanding. Unfortunately, the logo also means that something had gone wrong with the hoarding. Not exactly a great advert for Linux, the computer “operating system” which the Penguin represents, to see it rebooting on one of the busiest intersections in China. But encouraging that it is being used as an embedded operating system there.

We went past again a few minutes later, and animated adverts were spinning over the display once again. Optimistically, I thought maybe it was just starting up for the evening. However, I think I saw it a few days later in the day, and it runs all the time.

Chinese family history

Almost as soon as we got off the plane on Wednesday, Rosemary (my mum) dragged me from the tourist trap of the Bund, into some overcrowded, grimy backstreets hunting for the derelict cathedral where her parents were married and she was christened. The magnetic levitation train from Pudong Airport was great fun – not because it travelled at 431 km/h, the fastest train in the world, but because at some points the earth around us seemed to rotate at what felt like, but could not have been, an unnerving 45 degrees. It turned out that we were tilting, but so exactly as we cornered that you couldn’t feel any force.

In 1842, shortly after a war about opium (which sounds too inocuous, let’s just call it heroin but with fewer laboratories), the British and other western countries gained effective territorial control over parts of China. In 1923, short of work, my grandfather came from Dublin to Shanghai by slow boat to work as a chemist for Shanghai Municpal Council. In 1930, short of adventure, my grandmother flitted through Canada and Japan before settling in Shanghai to teach Physical Education at Thomas Hanbury Public School, just north of Soochow creek. There’s a love story here, but I’ll tell that another time (probably if I ever catch the trans-Siberian express).

We found the cathedral, where they later married, in a pretty bad state, which upset Rosemary (the photo, right, sets it off in a good light, so as not to distress too much). There were small trees growing out of the brickwork, and junk piled up in the entrance. Buildings and walls set closely round it, ruining the grand space it occupied originally. The guard was friendly and let us poke about, we’ve found them much less hostile than Rosemary did 24 years ago when she was last here. There was a posh Chinese language Christian bookshop near the entrance, and the junk turned out to be for renovation work.

We also found the old council building (photo left), and nosed inside. It’s lucky that the guards are friendly now, as it seems Rosemary won’t let any fear stop her from access to family history. It was grand inside, and there were lots of old framed photos of the building under construction, and of speeches from the balcony (see photo) to celebrate when the Communists took over rule of the city in 1949. My grandfather worked in here. He did lots of different things, mainly to do with water pollution, but also, for example, helping to develop tarmac suitable for the local weather.

Everyone puts their own interpretation on places. To the signs made by the government, everywhere is a Communist memorial – where the first party congress was, how much they are doing to clear up the environment. To my mum, everything is the old Shanghailander in her – architecture from a grand age, bridges that Japanese soldiers marched them over, streets where her mother used to shop. I’ll give my take on Shanghai in another post.

東南西北 (DongNanXiBei, EastSouthWestNorth)

A week on Tuesday I’m going to China again. Starting in Shanghai, which is on the East coast in the centre, at the mouth of the Yangtze river. I’m travelling with Rosemary, my mum (who I spent a few weeks with in Japan three years ago; see the last few articles here). We’re going to head for Chengdu, route still to be decided. Email me or post comments if you have suggestions, particularly if you know anybody living in China who could show us around.

Think for a minute, what have you read about China in newspapers and magazines recently? It’s almost certainly very distorted, a Western view of this rapidly changing, ancient country. I’ve been watching out for better sources of Chinese news. The best best place is EastSouthWestNorth (scroll down to “section 3 of 3: Blog posts” for the meat, and for the RSS feed). A guy in Hong Kong translates important mainland Chinese news stories and blog posts into English. Highlights from the last few months:

Roland Soong, who provides this vital, tenuous link between the Chinese and English language Internets, has also translated an article about himself. (Also thanks to Dan O’Huiginn for reminding me that it is easy to spend too much time reading in English. He proceeded to investigate Mongolia, South Korea and the Czech Republic more thoroughly).


Just a quick post, as internet access is expensive here. Or at least it feels expensive as you have to put coins in a slot. I’m in Kalambaka towards the north of Greece. The attraction here are the impressive Meteora, huge pillars of rock topped by 14th century monastries.

The Byzantine empire was collapsing, and as the surrounding lands became more dangerous the monks fled further upwards. They used retractable ladders and windlasses to climb to their retreats; now you can go by bus on a tarmac road, and climb steps hewn into the rock. I took the much more enjoyable route on foot, which involved scaling winding paths through the trees between the rocks, suddenly to emerge next to huge greek coach parties and stalls selling refreshing water and slightly dodgy spinach pies.

The monastries are spectacular anyway, the more so for their location. Very impressive paintings, and in one an almost cathedral like vaulted ceiling. I sat watching the views across the plain below, suddenly realising just how big the European Union is. And that’s before the new countries join next year. I can legally and with no visa application get a job here, and yet the landscape seems as vast and far away as China.

Hitchhiking to Christ’s Grave

When I was a child there was only one thing considered more dangerous than taking sweets off strangers. It’s so ingrained in me by the ambient protection of society not to hitch hike that I have never even considered doing it. All sorts of unclarified bad things might happen. For example, people might have conversations with other people that they didn’t know already, or (gasp!) who belong to a different social class. Perhaps, like in China, people might learn to start paying each other for lifts, thus creating a more efficient and more capitalist transport economy, with the added side effect of being better for the environment. The consequences both for society, and in increasing everyones standard of living, could have no end of positive implications.

To make the inconvenient pilgrimage to Christ’s Grave at Shingo from Lake Towada you cannot use public transport. There isn’t any. Taking a taxi is plausible, but we suspect only very rich Americans would be willing to fork out the necessary hundred quid. So we decided to hitchhike. My mother would be shocked, except it was her idea and she was with me…

We took the bus round the lake to the road junction for Shingo and waited a couple of minutes for the first car to make the turn off. Rosemary held up a sign saying Shingo in Romaji – we didn’t know how to write it in Japanese characters, and figured we wanted someone happy enough with English to at least be able to read the alphabet. Amazingly the first car contained the sweetest of young couples on their honeymoon; she was four months pregnant. They took us not only all the way to Shingo, but on to our exact destination Christ’s Grave which is just outside the town (not that we ever found the town, it must have about one house in it, and only be ambiently different from the houses which are scattered anyway along the main road).

The grave area is very well maintained, with a surprising reverence. There were freshly cut flowers, a donation box, and a small museum which you could pay to visit. The explanatory sign reads thus:

When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33, and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucity him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.

Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106.

On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.

The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.

This is a sweet story, and I’ll leave it to the curious to research the truth of the matter. Make sure you check up on any other alleged Christ’s graves in the world, and that when you are done you properly undermine any other beliefs which you have that are held on just as flimsy yet plausible evidence, but you didn’t notice this before. Our journey back was somewhat more arduous, but after about an hour of waiting two holidaying women took us all the way back to lake Towada.

(The picture is actually of Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps further south, but it is a much prettier photo than any I took of Towada, and you would never have rumbled me if I hadn’t said anything.)

Inland Sea and Hiroshima

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. – President Truman, announcement on Hiroshima

Japan has a sea with no waves, where only narrow connections to the vast Pacific add salt and stop us calling it a lake. It’s an enchanting place, the distinctive shape of the islands a familiar romantic myth from much Japanese art. Rosemary and I spent much of last week travelling from Kansai along the north coast of the sea to Hiroshima and back. This picture is taken from a hillside temple at the fishing port of Tomo no Ura; it gives a good feel for the dramatic but cosy views across the sea in the sun. Even better was the Sete Ohashi bridge which we crossed on a day trip to Takamatsu. It was a dreadful foggy day, and all we could see from the train was white mist with peaks of the islands coming in and out of view. Only seeing the tops made them all the more mystical in shape.

It’s tricky to go to Hiroshima without visiting the peace park and museum there, if only to try and convince your brain that this thriving city really was wiped out less than 60 years ago. I spent several hours looking at models of the city before and after the first atom bomb strike, reading to what degree and at what range buildings were destroyed by the heat blast, and studying in too much detail how people were damaged both with immediate death, and long term radiation sickness in those who went to help the injured. Nevertheless, standing near ground zero in the peaceful sunlight, my senses were unable to believe what my mind knows it once looked like.

I’ve grown up with the existence of atomic bombs, and so hadn’t realised before just what a dramatic, surprising and omnipotent-seeming move their first deployment was. The research project which created the bomb was in secret, and the one test run had taken place only three weeks before, also in secret. For this was the phrase “shock and awe” really made. The Japanese did not know what it was, until they found completely exposed X-ray film in the sealed vault of a hospital. Terrifyingly this bomb is but a mere trifle compared to those with which we are armed today.

The politcally correct question to debate at this point is whether the US was justified in using it. This is besides the point – the functioning of the war machine of a country made its use inevitable. One argument goes that ending the war quickly and with less total loss of life was the motive, but I feel that was just a side issue. More important was to test this new device in real action, and to show the world just how strong the US had become. Would any functioning military, a structure by its very nature designed to kill, surprise, shock and awe, really have missed this opportunity? Was the Rape of Nanking by Japanese occupying forces a few years earlier, which needlessly tortured and killed perhaps the same number of civilians as the bomb, less or more evil for using only conventional technology?

The inevitability of the US using their new device does not justify the action but it does explain it. It shows that in order to stop such things happening again more extreme measures are needed than just protesting “they should never have used it!”. Measures that affect how all wars are fought, and the very motive force of all armies.

The bomb also had a useful geopolitical function, giving Japan to America rather than to Russia, who may have claimed it had the war continued. With those terrifying reds of the USSR and China so close by its defense served the US well during the cold war, and continues to do so. Sometimes as I walk past Starbucks in modern Japanese cities I think of Japan as simply a large US naval base, albeit one with the richest of artistic heritages for its very own.