No nudes is bad news

The Shennong Stream is one of the smaller tributaries of the Yangtze River. As with all the other waterways in this area, the water is now 100 metres deeper as a result of the Three Gorges Dam, with a resultant loss of old townships and other ancient sites.

It still attracts tourists, however, who come to see those relics that have survived the flooding because they’re perched high up the steep walls of the gorge. These include coffins that were suspended in cracks in the rock face many centuries ago, and post-holes marking the route of a Han dynasty wooden road across the cliff face.

One other ‘attraction’ that is still talked about but not currently available to see is the naked trackers.  For many centuries these guys would walk along towpaths pulling boats through shallow or turbulent sections of the river. But because their work was hot and sweaty and involved jumping in and out of the water all the time, they quickly decided that it was more practical for them to work naked.

Those were the days! Going to work in the nude - until the tourists showed up!

And so it remained for many, many years – until the arrival of tourists.

The authorities, in their wisdom, decided that the tourists would be put off by this uninhibited display of male nudity. And, so it was that we were rowed up the river by fully-dressed boatmen.

One very staid female passenger on our trip surprised everyone by commenting that, “they’d probably get more tourists here if they worked in the nude”. And there were clearly many who agreed.

It is somewhat heartening to be able to report, therefore, that that possibility is apparently being given very serious consideration by the authorities – and precisely because it will bring in more tourists. And who am I to argue against reinstating ancient traditions. (Pity I won’t be there to see it!)

This ancient tradition gets my wholehearted support

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Voyage of the Dammed: Three Gorges Cruise

"The largest concrete project in the world."

Chinese people are told that the Three Gorges Dam project stands as a monument to Chinese drive and industry. And the huge numbers of people who flock to see it at Yichang indicates, sadly, that many of them actually believe this.

To me (as well as the million or so Chinese whose lives have been totally wrecked by this enterprise and the many other Chinese whose ‘anti-social’ views have been suppressed) it’s a monument to the mindless social and environmental devastation being foisted upon the world under the guise of ‘progress’.

As we undertook our three-day cruise down the Yangtse river from Chong Qing to Yichang we saw nothing to convince us of the merits of this project.  The statistics alone are extremely depressing.

More than a million people were re-located from their ancestral homes to accommodate the rising waters. Some people tried to make a stand but were ‘talked out of it’ by the authorities (including at least one old man who sat on the roof of his house for several days. He died less than a week after being moved.).

The adoring masses admire the shiny official model of the Dam (submerged villages and historic sites not included).

The authorities claim that this is the largest concrete project in the world – a title that hardly inspires enthusiasm in the first place. But, of course, it gets worse: in order to acquire that much building material they literally demolished an entire mountain.

As the water began to rise upstream from the dam many ancient villages and historic monuments and sites were flooded. Most are now under 300 metres of water. Interestingly, none of the displays we saw – such as those in the Three Gorges Museum in Chong Qing – showed ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs (indeed, none of the photographs indicated whether they were before or after).

Those who were re-located from their homes have been re-housed in endless rows of bland apartment blocks that line the Yangtse river. The overall result is far from glamorous: for me it looks like Sheffield on steroids!

Sheffield on steroids. Much of the view during the Yangtse cruise was like this.

When the project was first mooted it was claimed that the Dam would provide one-ninth of China’s energy needs. By the time it’s finished it will, in fact, meet barely 1% of demand. To help make up the shortfall there are plans to build another 16 dams on tributaries of the Yangtse and 22 nuclear power stations in South China alone.

What is particularly galling about this is the massive waste of energy that is evident everywhere. For example, every Chinese city is lit up like a hyperactive Christmas tree. Chong Qing – the starting point of our cruise – is no exception. Not only is every building overly illuminated with a plethora of signs and searchlights but a long section of the riverbank is also adorned with strings of flashing neon lights.

If they spent only half as much effort on energy saving as they do on energy production China (and, indeed, the planet) would be a lot better off.

Another breath-taking view of the riverbank

But the river continues to rise and a few more sites are set to go under yet. And as the water continues to back up another problem appears to be in the making.

It would appear that the Yangtse is home to all of the sewage produced by the vast population that lives along the riverbank. So, as the water backs up, so too does the sewage. Add to that the inorganic rubbish that is dumped so freely and obviously into the river by the numerous boats that ply their trade thereon, and it’s all shaping up to be one long, large cesspool.

We’re still in two minds as to whether or not it was good to do this cruise at the end of our holidays. If we’d done it at the start then things would only have got better thereafter. But, since we did it at the end, we didn’t have the depressing memory of this sad situation hanging over us for the rest of the trip.

Either way, we know we’ll never do the Three Gorges cruise again.

Entering one of the Three Gorges



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See Nine Horses, Become President of China

How many horses can you see? It could change your life (apparently)

Can you make out nine horses in this cliff face? Very few people can, apparently (unless you take a very creative approach to the shape of your horses and aren’t particularly fussy whether they have heads, legs, etc).

But for those who really can see nine horse-shaped horses, life promises great things. Apparently the President of China had no problems whatsoever (although you can’t help wondering whether any of his lackeys would have dared challenge his claim.) And legend – if not hard evidence – suggests that great success awaits anyone else who shines in equine identification.

In my case, the mediocrity that is my life is set to continue because I can only see two horses (plus a selection of elongated bulls, inflated pigs and a headless goat – but there are no prizes for biodiversity.)

Imagination is something that comes in very handy as you cruise past the extraordinarily shaped mountains along the Li River. Admittedly, it’s not hard to see why they named one of them the water snail (below).

Ok, OK. Water Snail mountain does look a bit like a water snail.

But the names of some of the others suggests more about people’s mental state than the actual shape of the rock. My particular favourite in the strange interpretation stakes is the ‘Yearning for Husband’ Rock.

Yearning for Husband Rock (the tiny little rock projection in the centre of the picture)

The necessity to give such a sad (and sexist) interpretation to a small projection on top of a hill intrigued me. It may well resemble a human figure but why attribute such a dismal story line? Perhaps there’s some deeper social meaning behind it; a reflection of a period when men went out to do dangerous things and weren’t always guaranteed a safe return.

Or it could just be sad and sexist.

Either way, it prompted me into creating my own interpretations of the rock formations thereafter. Admittedly our guide didn’t seem particularly convinced when I pointed out Hedgehog on Lawnmower mountain, or Grasshopper Opening Tin of Beans Rock – but you’ve got to start somewhere!

And it did seem such a waste to let all those beautiful rock formations go un-named!

Whatever they're called, they were absolutely stunning.


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Encounter with a bee farmer (well, almost)

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Roadside 'bee farm outside Guilin

As we passed one ‘bee farm’ after another on the highway outside Guilin in China, it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to do a spot of international networking.

The bee farms in question appeared to be little more than a row or two of hives lined up at the roadside, with a little table from which the ‘farmer’ sold his or her produce. On our two-hour drive to the rice terraces outside Guilin, we passed at least half a dozen.

I made a mental note to ask our guide to stop off at one on the way back so that I could do my bit for international cooperation on beekeeping. I’d ask how long the season was: even though it was autumn it was still 32°. I’d ask about pests and diseases: I’d read somewhere about the gross misuse of treatments by large-scale producers. Was it the same with these small operators?

And, of course, I’d offer ongoing contact in the hope that it may be of some value to us both.

With that in mind, we continued on up into the mountains and spent our morning admiring the scenery.  After lunch we started on our way back and I lodged my request with our guide. There was only myself and my partner, our guide and a driver in our little party, so it was easily accommodated.

Or so I thought.

We approached our first bee farm – and drove straight past. And then the second – and, again, straight past.  By the time we’d passed the third I’d given up hoping that the driver was simply looking out for the best one of the bunch, so I reminded them again.

Then the next one came into sight and our driver pulled swiftly off the road – and parked right across the front of the farmer’s stall.

As the farmer blinked in amazement at this sudden intrusion, our guide jumped out of the van, slid back the door of our vehicle and ushered out one very perplexed Westerner – me.

It was all done with such intimidating drama that the poor farmer could only  have imagined the worst. A surprise inspection perhaps? The Chinese Mafia? And what about this foreign bloke, around whom this all seemed to be focused? Whatever it was, the arrival of this strange entourage did not bode well.

And so it was that, having scared the man into shocked silence, my guide looked to me to begin the interrogation.

Typical hive in bee farm

It’s really hard to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to relaxed banter in those circumstances! Nor is it helped by the fact that you don’t know what your interpreter is actually saying to the other party: it all came across as quite demanding.

I asked the guide to explain that I was a mere amateur beekeeper, who just wanted to compare notes on beekeeping in our respective countries. The farmer just looked at me; he obviously wasn’t well prepped for a bit of a chat.

So I tried to think of some of the questions I had formulated earlier in the day. They were proving incredibly difficult to retrieve. Meanwhile, the farmer anxiously watched my partner Patrick as he walked towards the hives with our camera. Finally, he spoke – in Mandarin, of course.

Some of the occupants of the bee farm

“He’s worried that Patrick will get stung,” translated our guide.

Neither Patrick nor I were that much closer to a hive than any intending customer would get but I did my best to allay his anxieties. I explained again that we were beekeepers, that we were comfortable around bees and, in any case, if we did get stung we’d fully accept that it was our fault.

Then I blurted out something about the length of our productive season in the UK and asked him how long it was in China.

“He’s still worried that Patrick will get stung,” translated our guide again.

And so I asked Patrick to move away from the hives, which he did – meaning that there were now four of us standing around the man seated at his table. You don’t need to be an expert on body language to work out just how intimidating the situation now was!

With the mood sinking faster than the Titanic, I asked Patrick and the driver to get back in the vehicle. Then I asked the guide to apologise to the man for any inconvenience and reassure him that we were leaving.

“He says the bees don’t produce honey from December to March because there are no flowers around then,” replied the guide.

The man still looked incredibly anxious and I wasn’t at all confident about the interrogative style of our interpreter. Under those circumstances I decided it would be unwise to move the conversation on to the management of pests and diseases. So, I apologised again and got back into the vehicle.

The farmer gave an uneasy smile and a wave as we drove off.

“He said they tried using English bees in China once but they killed the Chinese bees,” said our guide.

Brilliant! Now that we were actually speeding away from the bee farm the conversation seemed to be taking off!

I let the matter drop. If we had gone back the poor man would probably have had heart failure. And it would, of course, have involved turning our vehicle around. Given the insane manner in which the Chinese drive, I think I would have had heart failure too.

And so it was a bit of a lost opportunity – for me, at least. I would have liked to have exchanged notes with this man  – if only to find out more about the pests and diseases they face and how they manage it. I obviously didn’t get that far.

One thing I did learn, however, is that they obviously take a different approach to quality control to us. The honey on sale at every stall that we went past was offered in a variety of recycled containers from plastic soft drink bottles to jam jars. Good for the environment but possibly not so good for the health! Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to talk to us!

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In the park with the people

My over-riding sense of China is that it’s gone from being a buttoned-up Communist society to being a buttoned-up consumerist one. Just about everything seems a bit laboured and false, as if people feel they’re supposed to act in a particular way in order to demonstrate how good life in China really is.

Assembling for a bit of a group sing-song in the shade

It came as a bit of relief, therefore, to be able to see the mask slip and witness one or two occasions when people simply focused on doing what they wanted to do.

For us that happened when we walked through the grounds of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing one Sunday.

Despite signs stating very clearly ‘No Music’, the area was full of groups of ordinary people who were variously singing, playing musical instruments or dancing.

And then there were others practising Tai Chi and other martial arts or playing group games with shuttlecocks or balls.

Each group is trying to keep a large shuttlecock in the air using only their feet

What was particularly impressive was that people of all ages were out there doing something.

In some cases, such as the singers and the Tai Chi, the groups were of mixed age and gender. In others, all participants were of the same gender (the dancers were all female, for example) or a particular age range (determined largely – but not always – by the level of activity required).

Actually, I think what I found most encouraging was the fact that these people were just going to get on and do what they enjoyed no matter what the signs said!

These two gentlemen were using water and a large brush to practice their calligraphy

For me it seemed to me that the message here was ‘we’ve been doing this forever and we’re going to keep on doing it no matter what your sign says!’. Hardly a statement of revolutionary significance but, in this buttoned-up world that is China, an important line in the sand nonetheless.

It’s harmless, it’s traditional, it’s sociable and it’s also very healthy. And it’s reassuring to see that, no matter what this year’s regime is in China, the people aren’t going to let these things come to an end.

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Beijing: City of 10 million former bicyclists

Moped rider weighs up his chances

When I told my cousin I’d been to Beijing he said,”Oh, the city of ten million bicycles.” I suspect his comment sums up the disparity between the Western view of China and the reality.

Beijing is as friendly to cyclists now as it was to pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989: ending up under a heavy vehicle is a strong possibility in both cases.

As China continues down the road of rapid modernisation, car ownership has become the number one status symbol. In Beijing alone an extra two thousand cars a day hit the roads (it’s 1,700 in Chengdu, 1,800 in Shanghai and so on across the country). That doesn’t leave much space (or oxygen) for cyclists.

If sheer weight of numbers isn’t dangerous enough, then throw in the Chinese ‘freestyle’ approach to driving.

Rule number one would appear to be, ‘Don’t stop under any circumstances’. If there’s an obstacle ahead just go around it. If that involves crossing to the other side of the road, then so be it; the car’s big enough so people travelling in the opposite direction should be able to see you coming!

All of these vehicles are moving forward at speed- including the car I'm in!

Rule number two appears to be, ‘Don’t indicate’. After all, what’s the point – you might want to change your mind halfway through the manoeuvre and that would only confuse everybody!

Rule number three seems to be, ‘What rules? If I see a bit of space somewhere I’m taking it – whichever side of the road/footpath it’s on!’ It’s not uncommon to see drivers travelling at speed on the wrong side of the road in an impatient attempt to by-pass one of the many traffic jams in town centres. In Guilin we saw a people carrier simply do a three-point turn then speed off in the direction – and the same lane – from which it had come!

Once you get over the shock of such insane motoring, the next thing that goes through your mind is, ‘What happens when there’s an accident?’ How do they apportion responsibility when there seem to be no rules in the first place (or, more realistically, no one adheres to them)?

According to another tourist couple we met, it’s a very drawn-out process. They watched the whole ritual unfold outside their hotel one morning, while they were inside having breakfast.

The incident they witnessed involved a bus and a taxi. So, Round One began with the respective drivers shouting at each other. Round Two required their respective bosses to turn up and continue the shouting match. Resolution was reached in Round Three when the police arrived and, after much activity with a tape measure, determined the guilty party.  Then they all went on their way.

If it took that long to resolve a two-vehicle accident then I’d hate to think how long it took to sort out the five-car collision we passed. They’re probably still there now!

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Chinese ideas of the afterlife

The Good (Jiuzhaigou)

Xiang Xiang the Spirit Bird surrounded by some pretty heavy looking demons

In Jiuzhaigou, a theatre company has been created specifically to perform a show about Tibetan culture and Buddhist beliefs. It centres around an old woman (Old Mother), who is on her annual pilgrimage. Not wishing to give the plot away, but she dies en route, and the show documents her experiences as her spirit attempts to enter ‘The Pure Land’. She’s helped in her trials by Xiang Xiang, the spirit bird.

As part of her ordeal, Old Mother is judged by a bunch of mean-looking demons. Fortunately the good guys – in the form of lamas – come to the rescue.

And it’s a happy ending as, amidst much noise, colour and general celebration, Old Mother ascends to the Pure Land (that’s her mid-air, back of the stage).

The Bad (Xian)

In 210 B.C.E. Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (the guy responsible for the Great Wall of China) died. He was not a popular man – and he knew it.

After all, he did have a habit of having people buried alive or otherwise killed for pretty minor reasons. So he reckoned that, when he died, he’d be meeting an awful lot of his enemies in the afterlife.

And for that reason he had the vast terracotta army constructed in order to protect him when he got there.

Sadly for him, he had so many enemies that there were still millions of them alive when he passed on. And within a very short time after his death, they’d broken into his tomb, smashed every single warrior (with one known exception) and set fire to the place!

The Emperor's army all went to pieces after his death

And that’s how the Terracotta Warriors were found when they were accidentally discovered in 1974. They estimate there could be up to 12,000 warriors still to be excavated. If you multiply that by the number of pieces they’re all in, that’s one hell of a jigsaw puzzle!

The Ugly (Fengdu -Ghost City)

If you thought the Catholic Church had the monopoly on ‘fire and brimstone’ notions of the afterlife, then think again! What’s even more surprising is that these images are taken from a temple that is, supposedly, Buddhist.

Not that I can claim to be an expert on Buddhism, but it does seem to conflict with the usual serene, meditative figures that adorn every other Buddhist temple I’ve ever been to.And as for these guys: if they’re typical residents of Nirvana then I think I’ll just stay on the wheel of life for a few more turns!


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