Sand and clay

For three years now I’ve subscribed irregularly to a box of fruit and vegetables from Cambridge Organic Food Co. On Sunday or Monday, If I’m going to be at home enough later in the week, I leave them an answer phone message. Then on Wednesday afternoon there’s a knock on the door, and a friendly man gives me a crate of freshly selected seasonal goodness. (Photo right is illustrative and actually in New Zealand, it is licensed for free reuse by darren131)

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday, Mark and I went on their organic farm tour. We had Duncan from COFCO as our guide, and there were two stops. I didn’t take notes, so any truth below is damaged by the forgetfulness of the mind, or the dangers of fact checking with Google.

LEAFs and Clover

Russell Smith Farms is 2000 acres nestled around the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. His posh country clothes, accent and manner, along with the fighter jets passing overhead, led me to stereotype Robert Smith as a Tory farmer gentleman, in the nicest possible way.

Until the late 90s they were a conventional, that is to say industrial, farm. Amazingly, it is Waitrose who persuaded them to start converting to organic. There was me thinking they were a posh, expensive supermarket, when actually they’re leading a national food revolution. OK, same thing. Waitrose also promote the, new to me, LEAF marque, which indicates that a farm is nice to skylarks, and counts how much pesticide it uses. This is quite separate from being organic, and something to watch for.

When the current set of field conversions are finished two fifths of Russell Smith Farms will be organic. I think Robert said it takes 5 years to convert a field, during 2 of which it produces no produce at all. Instead you grow grass and clover, and plough them back into the soil. To my surprise clover is nitrogen fixing, a legume. That is, bacteria in its roots magically turn the most common gas in the air into what an industrial farmer would get from fertilizer.

Robert Smith was fascinatingly excited about his farm. He talked about modern hoeing machines used to clear weeds from between rows of organic crops. He constantly gave costs in thousands of pounds per acre, of how much was lost one year when a crop was blighted, or how much is spent on Polish labourers. He talked about bore holes and building reservoirs. Of badger banks and field margins. He was glad they had converted parts of their farm to organic as it made his job much more interesting, dealing with living breathing, rather than sterile fields.

Loam and bumblebees

Most of us think of organic farming in the negative, by what it doesn’t do compared to the industrial farming that we’re used to. So, organic farms use no pesticide or fertilizer. Put like that it can sound foolish, mad, inefficient. Actually, organic farmers think of it in the positive, as a totally different way of farming. Organic farming is about soil, growing crops in sustainably maintained, high quality soil. It’s not about exact control of nature, but about manipulating nature to our advantage, while working with the grain of her needs.

Our next stop was at Adrian Izzard (who we didn’t meet, but photo of him right, taken from COFCO’s website), a small organic farm in an area where every house has a huge plot of land. Most of them now are used as paddocks for horses, but Adrian’s is a thriving business. Greenhouses full of the most delicious cherry tomatoes, forests of cucumbers surrounding us. We walked through them snacking, and looking at the curious insect pods. You can buy, in packets in the post, little pods of insect eggs. These hatch, and eat the pests which you would otherwise have used pesticides on. There were also tiny hives of bumblebees, it was most curious.

One last thing that Duncan showed us at Adrian Izzard’s farm. Soil, put simply, is a balance between sand and clay. A quick way to test quality of soil is to grab a lump of it and then pretend you are a small child. Roll it into a sausage-shaped lozenge, and then try and bend it. If you can’t even roll it in your hands, then it is too sandy. If when you bend it, it breaks up, then it is just the right mix, known as loam. If you can bend it round, and mould it into whatever shape you like, then there is too much clay.

In conclusion

The nicest thing about getting an organic box delivery? I can’t remember exactly why I originally started ordering one a few years ago. Perhaps it was for ethical reasons – to treat the countryside better, to reduce food miles and hence carbon emissions by buying local food. But actually, the best thing is this. It is good being given seasonal fruit and vegetables, without having to select them yourself. An antidote to option paralysis. It is good being forced to work out how to cook things whose name you don’t even know. Tasty, fresh and fun.

In March the gypsies returned

I have a rule, implied in the text at the top of this page, not just to post links to other stories and websites in this blog. But these crazy American artists are too much fun not to.

“This summer we are building rafts and floating down the Mississippi River. Here’s the plan: We meet in Minneapolis in late July with sections of our raft in tow. We piece together our pontoons and fill them with salvaged blocks of foam. We make it beautiful and tie on anything that floats, adding it to our junk armada, our anarchist county fair, our fools ark. Our precious cargo is everything we hold dear: pieces and parts of the culture we are already creating. Our zines and puppets, sewing projects and poster campaigns. Mutant bicycles and punk rock marching bands. Plus our thoughts and dreams and irrepressible energy. Together we float down the Mississippi river, as far as we can — anchoring here and there to perform, give workshops, and create the big huge spectacle we wished would have stopped in our hometowns. And at each place we invite anyone to contribute performances or workshops of their own.” – Miss Rockaway Armada

I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and this reminds me of the start of that. A quiet distant place, no contact with the world. Until the gypsies returned.

Great firewall

China has a new great wall, which blocks parts of the Internet from its citizens. This is partly done by absolute blocks, for example banning the BBC because it has a Chinese language news site. But it is also done by more subtle means – letting the companies who run forums know that they might be shut down if they don’t remove unacceptable posts, but never quite defining what unacceptable is. That way the companies have to err on the side of caution, and require less direct supervision and enforcement.

Sites I couldn’t access from within China: BBC News Online, Google News UK, Chinese Google News on google.com, Wikipedia, any WordPress.com blog. An expat told me in seconds how to get round some of these. For example, by searching Wikipedia at A9.

In contrast, I was surpised I could access: CIA World Factbook and EastSouthNorthWest (a Hong Kong run blog about China). The restriction really does seem to be only on Chinese language content.

For all that, the most physical censorship I found was of English, in the Economist I bought at Xi’an airport. There was an article about the Cultural Revolution. Curiously, I could read the leader which said “this editorial will probably not be read in China”. Then I turned to the main article – suddenly in shock. Pages 29 and 30 excised with a neat tear. As well as the Cultural Revolution article, one on the back about Japan.

Visions of factories full of censors, desperate to ship the Economist to educate businessmen into booming the economy, eager not to see China insulted by revision of Mao. Carefully turning the pages of the foreign magazine, one by one removing the offending page.

Four more photos of old Shanghai

(For background, read my posts Chinese family history and Child of the atom bomb first)

In Shanghai, Rosemary and I went to a few more places related to our family history. Shanghai has undergone massive development, knocking down of whole areas, building of new skyscrapers. Amazingly, everywhere we went was still there. A hundred year old colonial buildings, with quite different architectures to those surrounding them. And still used in modern China. It was also great that the guards and porters would let us in. When Rosemary went 20 years ago, all she managed to do was peer from a distance. China is opening up, and relaxing.

The red building on the right of the left photo is the school that my grandmother used to teach in. She was a Physical Education teacher, and it was a school for Eurasians, people with one Western parent and one Chinese parent. The date above the entrance says 1893/1894, and it is now the Shanghai Installation Engineering Co, Ltd. The men on the left were arc welding some metal railings together.

The photo on the right is of the back of the hospital where my mother was born. It’s still a hospital. At first they wouldn’t let us in, I think because I’d been taking photos too obviously. Rosemary insisted she wanted to go round the back, I wasn’t sure why. Eventually a kind Doctor who spoke English was summoned, and escorted us round. The gardens were beautifully kept, and the rear of the hospital (photo) better architected. You can see the tall tower of the new wing rising up on the right behind the old building.

The bottom left photo is of the former Jubilee Court, where my grandparents, mother and aunt lived before they were interned by the Japanese. There was a sign on it saying “Monument under the Protection of Shanghai Municipality”. It’s still residential, we chatted to a woman whose mother lived in one of the other flats.

The right hand picture is of Yuyuen Rd camp. It’s where they were first interned before being taken to the Yangtzepoo camp at the end of the war. The camp used to be a school, and now is again. It’s called the Shi Xi High School, and had very well kept grounds. There were some kids playing basketball, even though it was the weekend.

Holy mountain

(Just to explain, I’ve been back from China for a couple of weeks now, but still have blog posts to make about it, which I’m gradually catching up on)

When we were in Chengdu we went on a trip a couple of hours south to Emei Shan. This is where the religious thread of the holiday met the family history one.

My grandmother went on a journey up the Yangtze river to Emei Shan in 1936, with her friend Gracie. She’d been in Shanghai for six years, and in her summer holidays had already visited Peking, the Philippines, Saigon, Angkor, Bangkok, Korea and Japan. So by 1936 there wasn’t much left – they had to go to inland China. At the time, this was a very adventurous thing for two unaccompanied English ladies to do.

This verdant mountain is an ancient place of pilgrimage, both for pious Buddhists, and for seemingly millions of Chinese tourists. But as soon as you take a hard route away from the temples near the road, it becomes quiet and calm, you can watch the dragon flies, and be at peace.

We walked up the long route, but only went half way up. Even so it was very steep, so for some sections Rosemary got herself carried (photo). This was following her mother – who went up the mountain carried by 7 men! “3 to carry me – 2 Gracie and 2 baggage”

We stayed the night on the mountain in a Buddhist temple, in a surprisingly luxurious room. I’d hope for something a bit more down with the monks (I’d accidentally been to a service with some at the monastry in the town at the bottom of the mountain the night before), but Rosemary needed as much luxury as we could find. It was peaceful wondering round the glen in the twilight, with lakes and bridges. I went up onto the roof garden, watched and briefly played cards with a monk and some of the lay workers.

On the way back down (via foot, cable car and bus) in the morning we saw two donkeys struggling their way up the steps from the valley below. They were both loaded with panniers containing fine rocks for building. Panting all the time, they would sometimes stumble. Their two minders had spades, which I saw one beat his donkey with when it had fallen down once too often.


That afternoon we went to see the largest Buddha in the world as Leshan, carved in a rockface by the river. I climbed down the steps to his feet, and looked up in awe (photo). The Chinese tourists hardly looked, as ever busy snapping souvenir photos of themselves in front of him. I put my camera away. I thought about impermanence. He looked down at me and told me that life is change, and that I would never see him again. In the end, that’s the way it is with everything in this fragile world.

And my grandmother? She stayed five days at the top of the mountain, sleeping in a temple on their own camp beds, and eating tinned beans and pork they’d brought with them. The weather completely failed to clear, so she never saw the rarely visible fantastic view, and had to set off on the weeks of journey home.

She never mentioned the Leshan Buddha in her letters, even though her boat must have gone past it. This had puzzled my mother. But now we know. It is actually quite hard to see the Buddha from the river, you’d have to happen to look when the boat was right next to him.

Holy island

Even though I’m an atheist, it’s fun and moving to seek out pious people and watching them going about their business. A few years ago I used to do this in the UK via Cambridge Interfaith, who organised such things as a visit to the synagogue on a Friday evening, and a day trip to the Hari Krishna temple George Harrison paid for in Hertfordshire. And I saw lots of religious places with Phil in Burma (see parts of this post and all of this one).

China’s religions are in resurgence, as things continue to loosen up following the Cultural Revolution. Numerous temples have been rebuilt recently. Just before leaving Shanghai, Rosemary and I went on a two day trip to Putuoshan. It’s a Buddhist holy island, a few hours journey by bus and boat south east. We spent the first afternoon going up to the top of the mountain and exploring temples. There were pious people there, lighting incense (photo left), and praying to Guanyin, goddess of mercy. Some pilgrims were even climbing the 1200m path of steps up the hill by prostating themselves forwards on the ground. They would stand up, step forward to where their head had been, and bow forwards flat, again and again.

The photo on the right is of a food area in one of the temples. You could pay a few yuan to a monk at a counter on one side of the temple, and get led off down side passages to the food area and dining room at the other side. There a lay assistant would fill a bowl with excellent vegetarian food, tasty aubergines and mushrooms and more strange Chinese vegetables. You help yourself to rice from a big vat of it, eat as much as you need. I think this is the same food the monks and their assistants ate, made available for anyone.

As well as Chinese pilgrims, there were also lots of Chinese tourists, most of whom we found in the morning down by the coast, coming to look at the brand new (well, 1998) shiny statue of Guanyin. She is golden, holding a small ships wheel in one hand to bring luck to fisherman. She towers what must be 30m above you, you climb up steps to her, flanked by guardians. She rests on a tower of two halls, on a promontry with almost 360 degree views of the sea. One hall contains amazing detailed wood carvings, and another 400 statues of her past lives. A stone carving frieze encircles the halls, skillfully carved with scenes of Guanyin helping locals. I’ve seen quite a few spectacular Buddhist statues, and this one was pretty good. Not to be diminished because she was new, she was awesome.

What I really want to know is how she was funded. The Chinese government have, I remember being told a few years ago, paid for lots of temples to be rebuilt, if only to attract tourists. But are there also rich Buddhist benefactors, paying millions for new statues? I haven’t found the answer, but here is a description of the Guanyin statue and some photos of her.

Buried in the sky

Tibetan sky burials sound very odd, exotic, macabre. After being shown a sky burial ground by a native who takes part in them, my mind began to twist round and see them as normal. Just as many Tibetans do – I don’t know figures, but it is widespread. A sky burial goes like this.

The funeral party meets at the house of the deceased and his or her family. They have some sort of a gathering (I’m imagining, similar to an Irish wake). Then the friends and other villagers take the body of the deceased to the sky burial ground. This is a gentle grassy place, a little way up on the edge of a hill just outside the town or village. Close relatives of the dead person stay at home.

Vultures approach from rocks across the valley. See photo – for obvious reasons I couldn’t photograph the burial ground itself, but those are the rocks where the vultures live in Langmusi. The burial ground is behind the camera.

The body is lain down, the head placed on a special stone. Monks from the nearby monastry look on from further up the hill. The body is chopped up by the friends, using knives and similar. Bones are smashed up. The flesh gouged out of the face. Hundreds of vultures flock round, getting in the way and pecking at those who are cutting up the corpse. Other villagers watch from nearby.

The vultures eat all the flesh. Burying it in the sky. Afterwards, the funeral party returns to the relatives in the house, for a further gathering – again, I’m assuming much like after a cremation in Britain.

You’re taught to do this when young, 10 or 12 years old. Older men give you a severed arm to chop up. It’s hard at first, but a few years later you do it easily, and do a clean job. Later again, you teach the young how to do it.

It was a very messy place. Fragments of bones. Clothes – everything of the deceased is left there. Burning these things isn’t allowed, as the smoke could go anywhere and is thought to spread bad luck. A sock. A knife. One blackened, part torso, picked clean. Left by a funeral party who did a particularly lazy job. Prayer flags nearby, tied up haphazardly in large numbers. But also a calm place, green, airy, sheep nearby, nature.

The vulture is perceived differently to how our folklore sees them. They’re perceived as both a good and an evil creature. Evil, as they are sometimes horrific – taking live babies from nomads in the grasslands. Good, as a creature of cleanliness, purity, renewing the physical body into nature.

I’d read about sky burials before, although probably just in a sidebox in Lonely Planet a few years ago. Environmentally friendly, yes, but I have concerns about disease. My guide pointed out a dead vulture on the ground, he said made ill by its food.

Actually seeing the grounds, and talking to someone about it, made me realise how normal it is to Tibetans. It’s an everyday thing (well, once a week in Langmusi, population 3000), ancient and ordinary. It’s only macabre if you have an excessive attachment to the human body after death. And for a Buddhist, or an Atheist, that makes no sense.

Tibetan language

On the bus from Zoige to Langmusi, I met a girl who for all the world looked Han Chinese, but turned out to be Tibetan. She had reasonable English, and was well turned out in the fashionable way that city Chinese are. She was an accountant in a government-run Tibetan medicine hospital in Zoige, on the way to visit a friend for the day, it being a Sunday.

Two interesting things. Her first language was the Amdo dialect of Tibetan, but she was only taught to read and write in Chinese at school. Now, in her mid 20s, she was finally starting to learn the Tibetan alphabet.

Secondly, she got a text message (seemingly, the worst bus routes have the best mobile phone masts, it makes coverage on English railways look pathetic) from the Tibetan friend she was visiting. He asked “Where are you?”, in English. This because you can’t write in Tibetan letters on a mobile phone, and she couldn’t have read it anyway. He didn’t know any Chinese characters, so they had to communicate in English.

He was another Tibetan educated in India. I haven’t got a number on this, but lots of them leave as teenagers over the mountains. There the Tibetan government in exile give them free education, and they return in their early 20s, embued with Tibetan culture. For this reason – more contact with English speaking foreigners – Tibetans seem to have much better English than Chinese.

The other foreigners who had been on the broken down bus the day before also got off at Langmusi (photo). It’s a town of just 3000 people, I think half of whom are monks in the two monastries there. The monastries were run down, disappointing places. Perhaps underfunded, but also just unclean. I wondered round hopelessly in the morning, at lunch was approached in the cafe by an English speaking Tibetan guide, who I hired in the afternoon.

Building a new highway

Everywhere in the People’s Republic of China there is building. In Shanghai, deep foundations of new skyscrapers. In Songpan, new apartments paid for by the government to relocate people from slumy areas. And north of Songpan, a newly upgraded highway across into Gansu province. The only problem is, it isn’t finished yet.

The bus left at about 7am. The first part was easy, and after one last stop to pick up passengers in another small town, we entered the area where they’re rebuilding the road. Rebuilding it, that is, as we drive along it.

Kilometers of drying road surface, covered with a white material held down with rocks, while we drive along the other bumpy incomplete carriageway. Small, tortuous detours round unready bridges, the bus lurching over rough earth. Cement factories, with stores of different granularities of stone powder. Folorn clusters of individuals, miles from anywhere, slowly pounding and fixing verges in place with rocks, just clinging to the surface of the earth. Tractors carrying metal girders, gangs locking them down to hold the edge of the carriageway. Tent villages, signs telling new arrivals to report to the office first, nomad shops. Winding precarious tracks down round and up valleys, us looking up enviously to the skeleton of a dramatic new bridge that will take the new highway straight through. New tunnels boring into the fabric of our world.

The bus stopped for a while, the driver’s assistant refilling water in the radiator. I’m glad, because I needed a piss. We drive on for a bit longer. And then the bus stops again for an age. Everyone urinates again.

Two ages.

I chat to the other three foreign tourists on board, from Sweden, Switzerland and France. There’s a field of yaks. It’s cold, desolate weather. I get a second jumper out of my main luggage.

Three ages.

The shack we’re next to, built of brieze blocks, a corregated metal roof sloping in one direction, turns out to be a restaurant. Well, she has fresh vegetables to stir fry. The Frenchman, an entertaining rogue of whom more in a separate post, helps ourselves to tea from the hot stove. She doesn’t even charge me for my noodle soup, when I find a spider in it. The yaks get taken up the hill to graze elsewhere.

The Chinese bus passengers play a strange game, with long thin cards I’ve never seen. They play another with normal playing cards, and I spend a while trying to work out the rules. I get out the novel I’m reading, which I haven’t touched for weeks. The sun comes out, the place seems cheery. (Later I find my nose flaking, having not accounted for the extra power of the sun at high altitude). We start trying to hitch lifts onwards to Zoige from the meagre passing traffic.

Eventually a minivan with a mechanic or two and some tools arrives, and they start working on the engine. These buses have the engine at the front between the driver and the door, you get to it by lifting up the cover that normally has luggage and extra people on it. Several people get very oily hands, and more hours pass.

Only the worst buses get put on roads like this. The new ones are being saved for a year or two, when the tarmac is good, the surface sweet. This morning (a couple of days later) I took a bus from Langmusi to Hezuo, along a beautiful finished new road. It was a lovely shining white bus, the TV flat screen, the windows large and clean. I almost wept each time we passed over the smallest of bridges without detour. The new highway even has roadsigns at junctions, and giving distances to places. In Chinese characters, and also, a pleasant surprise, in Tibetan. (And not always in the Roman alphabet).

Back by the spider restaurant shack, none of the other passengers really seem to mind or complain about the delay. A few have managed to catch lifts on to their destination, so by the time the bus starts again there’s a bit more room in it. We’re broken down maybe 4 or 5 hours, and arrive at our destination of Zoige at 7pm. Far too late for the afternoon bus onwards to our actual destination Langmusi, or even to take a taxi between us.

All this turned out to be a bonus in the end, as an unexepected stay in Zoige is much more interesting than the guidebooks imply. The roads approaching it are straight, along endless grasslands at 3000m above sea level. Grassy hills protrude out of the planes, and people herd black yaks. There’s a fascinating village we quickly pass through, of unusual wooden houses with moss rooves, each with a Tibetan prayer flag in the garden.

Zoige itself is indeed a grid of concrete buildings, but lovely ones painted delicately with Tibetan art. The people seem friendlier, I buy water and snacks in a small family shop, and the man gets his young girl to give me the change. Some adults are playing outside. School finishes, strangely at 8pm (maybe something to do with International Children’s Day) and hundreds of friendly kids burst out, practicing their excellent English on me. (Later I learn that their teacher is Tibetan, educated in exile in India, so has good English.) Small children guide me to an internet bar, but it’s full. I eat home style tofu, attended carefully and courteously by the owner of a new Chinese restaurant.

When the new road opens it will bring new trade, new tourists, new immigrant Han Chinese. To Zoige and to Langmusi. Everything changes.

Tibet, horses, water prayers

At the moment I’m in Tibet.

No, I don’t mean the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), I mean historic and ethnic Tibet. TAR is the province occupied by China which contains Lhasa, and which we lazily often refer to as “Tibet” in English. Tibet proper also includes all of Qinghai province, and parts of several other Chinese provinces. Tibetan people making a political point refer to themselves as living in Tibet, even if they don’t live in TAR. As a tourist this is good news – it is much easier to visit the non-TAR parts of Tibet, than suffer the complex web of permits and travel restrictions in TAR itself.

I took an all day bus ride north of Chengdu, a dramatic drive up into the mountains along a river lined with electrical pylons and filled with dam after dam, arriving in Songpan (population 70,000). Immediately the contrast with large Chinese cities was clear. It is nestled amongst low green mountains, with old city walls still giving it shape. I felt immediately much happier.

The thing to do in Songpan is to go horse trekking, which basically means a 3 day hike with camping, only all the uphill bits you sit on a horse. It’s too dangerous on steep downhill parts. This is hard work, back or knees aching after 6 hours riding in a day. Guides did all the real hard work, like erect tents and cook us dinner. The photo (right) is of a horse loaded up with feed, near a Tibetan prayer for peace, which involves putting arrows on the top of hills and mountains.

On the way we saw a Tibetan prayer water wheel (photo below). A small stream was channeled by rocks into a thin open pipe, where it landed on a simple and inefficient water wheel. This was housed in a little hut, and spun a prayer wheel. That, in turn, was octagonal, and had a chant written round it in the Tibetan alphabet. I assume that the idea, which is slightly mad if quite sweet and fun, is that by this means the river says your prayers for you.