Nov. 16th, 2012

darthfar: (Default)
I’m back from vacation. Electronic avalanche follows. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


To China. Specifically, to a bunch of places in the Fujian province, half of which I never even knew existed (and most of which you will probably not have heard of since they’re not wildly popular in the Western world. If you have, well, hats off to you ;)).

Why all these places that I couldn’t even find on the map at first? Well, partly because I’ve already been to most of the popular places, and partly because I was assured that the Wuyi Mountains was breathtakingly beautiful and I’d be an ass not to go. Also, I was curious to see how well I’d be able to understand *real* Hokkien* (or to be more technically accurate, the Quanzhang Division of the Min Nan language), as opposed to our mangled, Malaysianised variety, and if I might be able to communicate with the locals without major disaster.**

*I never thought I’d see the day when I understood Mandarin better than Hokkien, but as it turned out, every time our guide switched from the former to the latter, I was reduced to gaping at him in total incomprehension, with what I can only assume was a painfully asinine expression on my face.

**Which is easier than you might think, since the Chinese language is fraught with peril. It is, for example, entirely possible to change the meaning of a sentence by mispronouncing part of a word, or simply getting the phoneme tone wrong. Mistakes can range from the humorous [confusing “Have you eaten yet?” with “Have you died yet?” (Cantonese)] to the shockingly lewd [accidentally saying, “How much to spend the night together?” instead of “How much is a bowl of wonton?” (Mandarin)].


Cold Nights and Fish Porridge

Our first day was spent plane-hopping and generally waiting around, and reading most of Michael Boulter’s Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man (my idea of fun reading material). Was also pleasantly surprised to discovered that, by airline food standards, the food served by Xiamen Airlines wasn’t bad at all.

You will please compare this to what Eastern Airlines inflicted upon us en route to Shanghai last year:

By the time we arrived at Xiamen, it was already dark (although, as I would later learn, it gets dark by 6pm at this time of year), so we only had time to stop for supper (fish porridge…) before checking into the hotel and grabbing some shut-eye.

[Note: Our home for the next two days, Xianglu Hotel, was apparently built by some Hong Kong fellow who’d borrowed vast sums of money from the government and then absconded to China. My room was tastefully furnished – complete with a comfortable chaise longue** – but also sported an exhibitionist’s bathroom and suspicious stains on the carpet.]

* No, I’m not kidding. I’ve seen them selling cat meat on skewers at the Uyghur food street in Beijing. It’s pink, in case you were asking.

**Anyone who attempts to tell me that it's supposed to be 'chaise lounge' will receive a smack to the face with a haddock.

A Zombie in Atlantis

I inadvertently made a zombie of myself today by failing to ingest sufficient quantities of caffeine to keep me animate and articulate (translation: I had none). It was my own fault: the coffee served at the dining hall was bloody awful, and I decided to make my own in the comfort of my hotel room – only I somehow managed to forget. Thus the day was spent shuffling around disjointedly and growling at various persons, and entertaining a massive headache that had decided to move into my noggin mid-morning, and could not be persuaded to leave.

Our first stop for the day was the South Putou Temple, which was founded in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and is nestled at the foot of the Wulau Peaks mountain range. It was an exercise in boredom (since one Buddhist temple pretty much looks like the other, and I’ve already seen half the temples in China) until I discovered paths up the mountain, and had a pleasant time climbing and exploring until it occurred to me that I might already be halfway to the next province, and beat a hasty retreat.

I discovered this shrine wedged in the rock while exploring the mountainside.

An ‘obligatory’ visit to one of the many factories – this particular one specializing in various textiles made from bamboo fibres – followed. In the interest of keeping costs down, guided tours like this make trips to certain sponsor factories and stores. It’s a trade-off: We’ll charge you less per head if you bring your sheep to our shops. Never mind if they keep their purses clutched in their tight little fists.

And then after lunch we went to Atlantis.

All right, I kid. It was to Gulangyu, an island off the coast of Xiamen, which rose from beneath the waves one day,* and which is nicknamed ‘Garden of the Sea’, presumably because it is – and this is probably a strange term to be linked with China – emissions-free. (No fossil fuel-powered vehicles anywhere on the island; the only ones we saw were battery-powered buggies for walking-disinclined tourists). It boasts a large number of very picturesque banyan trees, China’s only piano museum, and Victorian architecture: when China lost the Opium War, Xiamen became a treaty port and Gulangyu, an international settlement. Nowadays, it’s crawling with tourists and couples taking wedding photos. Oh, and on the day we visited – dancers filming the Xiamen variant of Gangnam Style. How’s that for international.

A view of Xiamen from Gulangyu.

Wen Xin International Travel apparently consists of a bunch of beached boats.

One of the many banyan trees on the island.

This is how Chinese restaurants display their fare.

The remainder of the day was spent staggering around in a semi-conscious stupor, sleeping through most of the visit to a Chinese medicine shop (to the amusement of the presenter there), and drowsing through most of the Magic of Min Nan night show.

An actual offering at the restaurant where we had dinner. Who the hell actually eats this stuff?

*And, presumably, like the prehistoric island that appeared somewhere between Spitsbergen and Norway 35 million years ago, will probably sink beneath said waves again at some point in the future. What a bright little ray of sunshine I am.

In Which Far Attempts to Steal A Tunnel

I finally returned to the land of the living, after braving the hotel coffee, and being subsequently wired for the rest of the day. Which, by the way, was spent on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen. Once a military reserve and the site of the Battle of Guningtou during the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the island retains much of its military fortifications (including its bunkers, tanks and anti-aircraft guns), and many of its old houses still bear scars from having been shot at by the Communists and the Nationalist army.

An anti-amphibious landing beach.

Anti-aircraft guns outside Jhaishan Tunnel.

The gem of the island, for me, was the granite Jhaishan Tunnel, which was built in the 1960s for boats to bring in supplies. With a mere total length of 357 metres and a maximum ceiling height of 8 metres, it initially failed to generate much interest in me, even if the track-light illumination did make the rough granite walls and ceiling rather pretty. I was wandering aimlessly and shooting pictures of interesting rock formations when I reached the end of the tunnel (which opens out to the sea), turned around and saw this:

Holy shit.

Claustrophobe or not, I wanted to live down here in this tunnel. The tour guide, sensing that my appropriation of the property would do local tourism no favours, hurriedly whisked us off – first to Juguang Tower (the symbol of Kinmen, and modelled after the city wall tower of Beijing’s Forbidden City) and then a bunch of sponsor shops where we mooched an obscene quantity of free food (first candy, then string noodles with a disgusting heaping of various condiments), thereby ruining our appetite for dinner.

Juguang Tower.

A phone booth outside Juguang Tower. I thought this was rather clever, really. For those of you who don't read Chinese, the white embellishments actually read, "Golden Door."

The exterior of the War Memorial.

Charge of the Red Brigade.

A woman gathers dried string noodles that had been left out in the sun.

The Western-style Mo Fan Street prospered during the years of Japanese rule. The photographer, on the other hand, narrowly prospered from collisions with several motorbikes and a car while taking this picture.

Thanks to the extensive shelling of Kinmen during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, the island had an abundance of artillery shell remains – which the people industriously put to good use as material for cleavers. Which they then sold to tourists. I don’t suppose Chairman Mao was very pleased.

Eventually, we got back on the ferry and almost suffocated during our journey back to Xiamen, the air-conditioning system having died a tragic death. Dinner came soon after (which we partook rather little of), followed by a short shopping session at Zhongshan shopping street.

Sieging An Earthen Fortress

One of the problems with travelling in China is that it’s so goddamn big. And, in the case of the Heritage Hua’an Tulou (earthen building), the wretched thing was hours from everywhere else. I realise now that, having previously confined my travels to the more popular parts of China, I have become seduced into thinking that all of the country’s roads are smooth and well-maintained – a deluded notion that I quickly became disillusioned with as we bounced painfully down a series of roads that seemed to have been thoughtfully resurfaced with the help of a great many dynamite charges.

Wandering out into the backyard of the restaurant where we had lunch, I was suddenly confronted with the sight of this, err… gourdian knot. No place too small for growing veggies and fruit in rural China, I guess.

The ancient Chinese architects are to be commended for their design of these earthen buildings – each almost a small town, really. Constructed as far back as the 11th century, these fortified tulou were built to protect the communities they housed against armed bandits who marauded southern China. The walls – made of stones on lower levels and rammed earth on higher ones – were astonishingly resistant to assault by both fire and projectiles. (Story has it that the army peppered one of these buildings with 19 cannon shots in 1934 but only succeeded in dinging the wall slightly). You couldn’t dig out the stones in the walls, since they were arranged with the smaller ends pointing outwards; tunnelling was equally futile since the stone walls extended deep into the (also rammed earth) ground. Want to try breaking down the door? Good luck: said door frames were made from solid slabs of granite, and the doors were fire-resistant and heavily framed – and anyone who thought burning the doors down was a good idea would’ve quickly realized otherwise once the tanks above the doors discharged their content. You couldn’t sneakily cut off their water supply because they had wells – and even if you somehow managed to poison them, well, the residents apparently kept piscine companions said wells, so the only one who’d wind up dead was Mr. Fishy. (The guide never explained what the residents were supposed to do for water in that case, however).

The exterior of a Hua’an tulou.

Because of the insane travel time, we only had time for that one tourist spot – and we very narrowly didn’t even make it back into town that evening. An inexplicable jam on the ridiculously narrow road (with ditches on both sides, a drop down to the river on the right, and no lighting) left us stranded in the Middle of Nowhere for over an hour. It turned out that a trailer had broken down, causing traffic to clot halfway up to Mongolia.* Eventually, our driver, who evidently had Nerves (not to mention Balls) of Steel, successfully manoeuvred our coach around an oil tanker and around said trailer with mere millimeters to spare. We broke out in applause.

*So I kid.

Driven Up A Wall

Today saw me awkwardly taking photographs with popsicles for fingers. Between Xiamen and Taining, the temperature had dropped by several degrees, turning what had been deliciously cool weather into gah, I’ve got icicles hanging down my nose.

Taining County is a quaint little place with plenty of old buildings, and just as many new ones that attempt to couple traditional Chinese architectural styles with contemporary ones, with strange results. There wasn’t very much to see in the town itself, apart from its giant water wheel and riverside promenade collection of bronze statues. What most people go to Taining to see, however, is the incredibly scenic National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site), with its large Golden Lake and surrounding mountains. Especially its mountains. Of course, photographing said gorgeous scenery while cruising around the lake comes with a cost: if you foolishly forsake the warm comfort of the boat’s interior to brave the outdoors at this time of year, the wind will find you. And, if you’re someone who’s from someplace where it’s over 30 degrees Celsius year in, year out, you will be reduced to a pathetic, shivering wreck. Obviously I’m not speaking from personal experience because let’s be honest, who’d be crazy enough to stand near the bow, dangling halfway out of the speeding boat just to get a shot of some ducks?*

They let us off the boat at a number of tourist sites around the lake, the first of which was Ganlu Rock. Getting there meant trekking through the forest and risking getting touched by over-gregarious greenery, but once you get to the clearing, there’s the glorious scenery to admire:

And then you go around the bend, to be confronted by this looming cliff, and you happen to look up and – WTF, why is there a temple right in the middle of the rock face?

Irrefutable proof that the Chinese are crazy.**

Sans nails, sans souci.

I missed the next attraction because it was apparently a steep climb and nobody on board the boat wanted to go – and well, as for the next, which I gather was a cultural show of sorts… this was what I was up to while everybody else was watching it:

Waterfalls are much more fun than enactments of wedding ceremonies.

*What a Far-fetched notion.

**I should know. I’m one. It’s genetic.

Popsicles, Coffins and Tea Parties

The day before, my fingers froze to popsicles. Today the rest of me followed suit. Periodically, I thawed just enough to shiver uncontrollably before turning into a frozen block again.

Another long drive took us about 300 kilometres northeast and several degrees Celsius lower into the Nanping county of Wuyishan, another of those beautifully scenic UNESCO World Heritage places in the heart of The Frigid Nowhere. Wikipedia informed me that said mountains acted as a ‘protective barrier against the inflow of cold air from the northwest and retain warm moist air originating from the sea.’ Yes, I see how well that worked, Wiki.

All these years I’d always wondered just why the majority of Chinese paintings featured misty mountains. Having visited Taining and Wuyishan, I now understand why. Hell, you’d be compelled to paint them if you were surrounded by all those mountains too.

This was the highlight of our trip: rafting down the nine-bend Jiuquxi brook and soaking in the incredible atmosphere: the clear green waters, long stretches of mountains and steep red sandstone violently thrusting upwards amid verdant foliage. (But you hate plants, Far! Why are you even waxing lyrical about them? …. Oh, I don’t mind them at all – as long as they have the decency to refrain from touching me).

Yunu hill. Nature’s erection. That didn’t come out right.

Yes, the water was really that green. No, it wasn’t deep; in fact, you could see the bottom of the brook, and maybe even paddle around in it if it hadn’t been so cold.

Another example of utterly bizarre places to put a temple.

And of course, the famous hanging coffins. Two of these mysterious objects (carved from whole pieces of wood) belonging to the ancient Guyue people have been dated back to some 3,000 years ago, and are supposedly among the first of their kind to appear in China. (The Guyue people held mountains in high esteem, and certainly had a very curious way of showing it). There have been various theories on how the ancient Chinese managed to deposit these coffins in the middle of a sheer wall of rock, but recent investigations have found telltale marks of rope on the stone, indicating that they – and the people who prepared the wooden stakes upon which the coffins rested – had been lowered from the top of said cliffs. (Of course, how said people even got to the top of said perilous cliffs is probably another matter…). At least, that’s what they said about the hanging coffins of the Bo people in Gongxian. Who even knows how these ones got to where they are.

I couldn’t even actually see this coffin site when our raft punter pointed it out, but dutifully aimed my camera in the general direction anyway. To my delight when viewing the photos at full size, I found that I’d managed to capture it on camera after all.

After a minor fiasco involving the inadvertent stranding of one member of our group at Wuyi Palace, we were shuttled back to the hotel for a rustic dinner which included a dish of mystery meat. After arguing whether it was fish or chicken, the local guide was finally consulted. It turned out to be frog. Some people at our table probably wished they never asked. (I, however, happily had a second and third helping. Ribbit).

The remainder of the night was spent being victims of exposure as the elements had their merry way with us. Okay, so I exaggerate. Slightly. It was only for about two hours, and that was because the show we attended (Impression Da Hong Pao*) was played on a grand 360-degree outdoor stage, with the audience seated on a rotating platform. I will say this: only the Chinese could possibly conceive a high-tech live-action musical spectacular about drinking tea, and get away with it. And draw large crowds at that. (Apparently, the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony director Zhang Yimou was responsible for the show**).

The Chinese throw a much better tea party than the Bostonites.

*Not to be confused with da hong bao (big red money packet)! Apparently, legend has it that the prestigious Da Hong Pao oolong tea was responsible for curing the mother of a Ming Dynasty emperor and, in gratitude, the monarch sent great red robes to clothe the four bushes*** from which the tea had been harvested. Just why an emperor would feel the desire to dress up his foliage – which probably weren’t particularly concerned with fashion – is unclear.

**The local tour guides aren’t particularly happy with him, by the way. Initially, the show failed to make waves (seriously, who'd think, Hey, this is a show about people drinking tea; it sounds terrifically exciting!?); it was only through the valiant effort of the tour guides that people started getting interested. And now that it’s a success, what is their reward? Having to fork outthe full ¥218 to get in with the rest of the crowd.

***… Actually, ‘clothing the bushes’ sounds suspiciously like some kind of sexual euphemism.

Too Many West Lakes

I suspect that we only stopped by at Fuzhou so that we’d be reasonably close to an airport, because there really wasn’t much by way of tourist attractions there. (Unless you count its profusion of temples, none of which we visited). There was its small, artificial, West Lake (not to be confused with the enormous one in Hangzhou. In fact, there are a number of lakes bearing the same name in all of China, which goes to demonstrate Chinese creativity when it comes to naming places), at the middle of which was a small, equally artificial, island. (The lake was built in AD 282. Apparently the local monarch of the time decided he wanted a body of water in which to swim and go boating, and savour tea on said boat). And there was the historical San Fang Qi Xiang (Three Lanes Seven Alleys) street, dating from the late Jin Dynasty (AD 936-947), although I’m guessing that the traditional-style buildings lining the street were erected far more recently. But that was about it, basically.

A group of senior citizens socialising at the West Lake park.

San Fang Qi Xiang street.

A man attempts to attract custom for his peep show. No, not that kind of peep show.

Apparently, helmets are more a novelty item than a necessity in China.


Our last day in China was spent grabbing a hasty, badly digested breakfast at the hotel lobby before spending the rest of it shuttling between airports and on planes and – thanks to the incompetence of the check-in clerk – my nearly getting left behind in Xiamen.


It’s fun travelling to tourist hotspots and seeing the attractions that everybody’s heard/read about. But even the lesser-known regions have their own treasures to offer, as I’ve discovered on this trip. Was it a good one? Definitely (well, maybe we could've done without Fuzhou). And it helped that I already knew everybody in the tour group so we got along just fine, and even managed to astound our guides by being punctual for everything. (Malaysians? Punctual? Surely you jest!) . Would I go back? Yes – but only if it means I don’t have to bounce all the way there and back. Build some better roads, China, and I’d be quite happy to explore the rest of Taining and Wuyishan.

One last note. Here’s a picture I took with my phone at the airport on my way home:

Girls! Why would you wear such ridiculous footwear to board an airplane???

Want to see more photos? Click here.

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