Thursday, 1 December 2011

Earthquakes and toads...

It’s been a few months since I last posted – been busy doing talks on the Grand Canal of China and polishing off the manuscript to Chusan: the forgotten story of Britannia’s first Chinese island. Still, no excuse, but when I was lying in bed listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning and heard an item about some scientific research about toads and earthquakes it rang a bell in the Ancient China gland of my brain (a little to the left/east of my cingulate cortex, if you’re interested).
Zhang Heng's seismometer from 132AD - put that in your pipe and smoke it, The West!
Apparently researchers have found evidence of a mechanism to explain the phenomenon whereby toads flee their watery homes before an earthquake: charged particles created by rocks under tension are concentrated in surface water near the epicentre (or something), and the toads clearly find the extra charge unpleasant. I imagine it’s rather like the icky feeling you get when you lick the terminals of a PP3 battery, but over your entire body.

To get to the point, the Ancient Chinese, as with most things (electric toothbrushes and fragrance-changing air-fresheners aside) had noticed the link between toads and earthquakes and had used it in their scientific endeavours while we were still living in trees (or under the Romans to be precise).

In 132AD, so the biographies of the Book of the Eastern Han Dynasty record, the astronomer Zhang Heng invented a seismometer which could tell when an earthquake had occurred, and in which direction from the capital. It worked by means of a vertical rod which was displaced by the transverse waves from the quake, and which triggered a ball to be dislodged from one of eight dragons’ mouths. The ball then fell noisily into a receptacle below, the interesting bit being that the receptacle was of bronze cast in the shape of a toad. “When the mechanism was set off, a ball was spat out, and a toad caught it in its mouth” (机发吐丸而蟾蜍衔之 in the original classical Chinese if you’re interested). I can’t see this choice of animal being a coincidence – the Chinese were eminent nature-watchers and must have observed the flight of toads before earthquakes. Hurrah for Zhang Heng.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Romantic Cowherds, Goddesses and Giant Pythons...

The centuries-old Chinese festival of Qixi 七夕 will this year be celebrated on Saturday, August 6th.
Giant Python Emerges from the Mountains - yes, it does look a bit like a winkie...
Qixi literally means “the evening of the sevens”, and refers to the date in the traditional lunar calendar on which it falls - the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. There are various stories about the origins of the festival found across East Asia, but most of them are based on the legend of Niulang the Oxherd and the Weaver Girl.
To cut a long story short, the mortal Niulang falls in love with Zhinü, the daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, who otherwise spends her days at the loom, and they marry. When the Goddess of Heaven finds out that her daughter’s been dating a human behind her back, and has even jumped the broomstick with him (she was, it seems, preggers), she grounds Zhinü, which involves making her sit at her loom weaving clouds for eternity. Bummer. Meanwhile, Niulang’s ox tells him to slaughter it and ride up to heaven wrapped in its hide, which Niulang duly does. This is proving to be a pretty weird trip for Niulang so far. The Goddess of Heaven, finding that Niulang has come to look for her daughter, sets the Milky Way across the sky to divide them once and for all, Niulang forever on one side and Zhinü on the other. Niulang and Zhinü - the stars Altair and Vega to be precise - are fated to be apart for eternity, but all the Earth’s magpies (which in Chinese symbolism are ideals of marital bliss) once a year fly up to heaven to form a bridge across the Milky Way which the two lovers cross to be together for the night. August 6th is that night. 
Assuming the story’s true, then round about midnight Beijing time (5pm BST) you should see all Britain’s magpies flying off to do their bit. Where was I? Oh yes, Qixi festival. The authorities whose job it is to publicize the Sanqing Mountains in Jiangxi province are, as usual, tempting lovers all across China to visit them (they’re an official scenic area, and really are beautiful) to soak up the atmos and to do luvvy-duvvy things.
The Sanqing Mountains are associated with romance through the legend of the goddess Sichun and the mortal she fell in love with while bunking off from heaven, which was dullsville, to take a look at the human realm. To cut a longer story even shorter, Sichun ends up as a rock in the shape of a woman, and her lover ends up as a rock called Giant Python Emerges from the Mountains. They’re forever separated by a valley, and now romantic Chinese lovers travel to the Sanqing Mountains equipped with locks with their names engraved upon them, which they solemnly shackle to the handrails in the hope that they’ll never be parted.
So there you have it.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Don't be Fooled by Fake Donkey-Hide Gelatin, You Idiot!

The most culturally bewildering story on the Xinhua News Agency wires today is titled “Handy hints: Three steps to telling real donkey-hide gelatin from fake”. I had to investigate...
"She gets the blokes, because she drinks donkey-hide gelatin"
In traditional Chinese medicine, donkey-hide gelatin or ejiao 阿胶 is used to improve your blood supply, especially if you’re a lady. It’s often eaten with almonds and sesame seeds, presumably to disguise the fact that it’s basically the rendered-down hide from dead donkeys.
The world of traditional remedies, though, is being upset by the practices of unscrupulous practitioners who are selling ejiao that’s in fact been made from the skins of horses, mules and even pigs (which, let’s face it, can’t even pass as donkeys). This fake ejiao, apparently, affords no health benefits (no shit!) and can even be bad for you. Ejiao consumers are being advised to follow three simple steps to see if they’re getting Eeyore (good) or Shergar (bad). Whenever you buy donkey-hide gelatin, always remember the Donkey-Hide Gelatin Code: See, Snap, Sniff.
Real ejiao is a tan colour, smooth and lustrous, with semi-translucent borders; the fake crap is often much darker, matt, and sometimes pitted. Real ejiao is also very brittle, and if you snap a piece off it doesn’t bend; the fake stuff is flexible, its broken faces sticky. As for smell, gen-yoo-ine ejiao has a faint whiff of soybean oil and a slightly sweet taste; fake ejiao apparently stinks of rotten fish.
If you don’t want to use the Donkey-Hide Gelatin Code (a name which, to be fair, I just came up with), or can’t remember it when it comes to the crunch, you can always try crushing up the ejiao and pouring boiling water on it (the article doesn’t advise as to what to do when the shopkeeper objects). Real ejiao melts into a clear liquid, while fake ejiao goes murky. 
Donkey-hide gelatin is contraindicated for people with coughs and colds or diarrhea. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

China's Most Romantic Summer Getaways...

With China in the grip of heatwaves and torrential rains, the Yangtze Evening News has published a not particularly timely guide to what it thinks are China’s top six romantic places, summer holiday destinations where tourists without the sufficient kuai to fly to Vegas might meet Mr or Mrs Right. 
Copping off at the Seven Immortals Mountains
  • The Wuyi Mountains. Sitting on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, 1,000 km² of eroded volcanic cones and sandstone peaks are carpeted in subtropical forest and cool groves of bamboo. The best way, they say, to appreciate the cool is to climb as high as you dare on the narrow mountain paths, offering plenty of opportunities for singletons (“bare branches”, as they’re called in Chinese) to give each other a helping hand. A raft trip down the famous Nine Bend River is the best way to see the scenery, though I fear that being squished in beside a chain-smoking middle-manager from Shanghai who constantly bellows into his mobile phone would be a sufficient turn-off for any would-be Casanovas. The Yangtze Evening News is kind enough to recommend local delicacies for tourists searching for a soulmate in Wuyi Shan: snakes, wild rabbit, mountain goat and muntjac deer lead the way, along with freshwater fish, birds’ eggs, fragrant mushrooms and bamboo shoots also popular.
  • The bamboo forests of Sichuan. At 600-1,000m elevation, the bamboo forests of Changning and Jiang’an counties are blissfully cool and also the place where some of the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. For the romantically inclined botanist, there are 58 varieties of bamboo to lose yourself in with that girl off the coach who’s been giving you the eye, from the nan bamboo which can grow up to 20m tall in two months, to the jet-black “crow bamboo”, the dead-straight “chicken-claw bamboo” and the slightly creepy, gnarled “human-face bamboo”. Delicacies: Yibin sliced lung, Chungking hotpot, poached fish, and “hairy duck’s blood luxuriance”. The duck’s blood dish is a spicy Sichuanese street snack, with beansprouts, eel, pork, sausage, bamboo shoots and all kinds of yummies, while the “Yibin sliced lung” is made from ox cheek, ox heart, ox tongue, ox tripe and lean beef, but not lung, oddly enough.
  • Yinchuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region. Bit of an odd choice, to go to the deserts of the Ordos region in the great bend of the Yellow River to escape the summer heat on a romantic break, but most savvy Chinese will recognise this as the place where the romantic comedy A Chinese Odyssey was set (Westerners might recognise the set of the 1987 Chinese film Red Sorghum). Yinchuan, guys, is where you can meet your very own Violet Cloud Immortal. The other big romantic attraction in this, the capital of a region populated mostly by China’s native Hui Muslims, is an oasis called Sand Lake, where you can see the “Big Five”, i.e. sand, water, reeds, birds and fish. Delicacies: lamb pilau rice (a big thing in this Muslim region), red-braised camel’s hump, white-poached Yellow River catfish.
  • Yellow Island, Qingdao. It gets into the 30s in Qingdao in summer, but the sea breezes keep the city cool, especially after sunset. For young singletons looking for love, the Yellow Island district across Jiaozhou Bay from the city is the place to be. The sandy beaches are less visited than Qingdao’s, and bigger - for example the 3km Golden Sands Beach - and perfect for romantic walks. Then there’s Pearl Mountain National Forest Park with its clean air, a rarity in eastern China. Delicacies: the beachside stalls do all manner of barbies, fresh seafood, and local fish dumplings.
  • The Seven Immortals Mountains, Hainan. Two hours’ drive from Sanya, the forests and warm mineral springs of the Seven Immortals Mountains are in the cool uplands of China’s tropical Hainan Island. They’re supposedly the spot where seven immortal goddesses descended to earth to have a bathe, a point not missed by the organisers of the recent Miss World pageant in Sanya. Delicacies: they don’t list any. Spit-roasted immortal, anyone?
  • Wolmi-do, South Korea. The reporter clearly misunderstood the meaning of “domestic” when he chose a seaside resort in the Korean city of Incheon. Knowing nothing of Korean culture beyond their love of chillies, cabbage, the occasional spot of dog, and their enviably fast broadband access, I’m going to call it a day.... Delicacies: see above. 

    Monday, 4 July 2011

    China's Top Ten Foods for Thirty-Something Women

    The China Food Science & Technology Net has just posted its top ten list of foods for women in their thirties.
    Pig blood - recommended for anaemic female bus drivers
    Just as in the British media, there’s no shortage in China of articles telling women how to stay looking young and beautiful by choosing the right foods. A big difference, though, is the kinds of food that health experts recommend, and the reasoning behind those choices, which says a lot about how food fits within Chinese culture. 
    Here’s the list in full, with edited highlights of the justifications for each choice.
    1. Honey. This moistens the lungs and promotes healthy bowel movements, is an antiseptic, and good for the complexion. Drink a cup of honey-water each morning on an empty stomach to cleanse your system and make you beautiful.
    2. Carrot. The Chinese call the orange carrot the ‘barbarian radish’, as it was unknown in China until introduced from Europe. It’s prized for its ability to attach itself to lead and mercury ions in the bloodstream, and is recommended for women  who suffer from skin blemishes caused by using cosmetics with too much heavy metal content. This says as much about the danger of using Chinese cosmetics as it does about the properties of the humble carrot.
    3. Seaweed. Rich in iodine to expel unwanted substances from the blood, and sulphate polysaccharides to rid the body of cholesterol.
    4. Tree fungus. These “wood ears”, a kind of crinkly, black mushroom, contain highly absorbent plant colloids which soak up dirt and debris in the gut and excrete them. They’re said to be very good for women who work in environments with lots of air-borne dust pollutants. Legislation might have put an end to this in the UK, but there are millions of women in China who work in very dirty, unregulated industries where this is a real concern to them.
    5. Bitter gourd. Very good for the complexion. These very knobbly, very bitter-tasting cucumbers are believed to contain proteins with anti-cancer properties, which boost the immune system and rid the body of dangerous toxins. They also help regulate and ease menstruation, which mean they well deserve their place on the list.
    6. Lychees. The ideal food for relieving internal heat and stopping diarrhoea, lychees are also good for detoxifying the blood and improving the complexion. They nourish the kidneys, improve liver function, and keep skin supple. Women, the article notes, often suffer from rough, dry skin caused by weak kidneys that result from too many late nights.
    7. Pig blood. Think of it as black pudding without the added fat and rusk. The Chinese eat this in soups and rice porridge as solidified cubes with the consistency of an opaque, pale-brown jelly. It’s actually quite tasteless, and personally I can take it or leave it. Women, though, will definitely benefit from its high iron levels. It also gets broken down, apparently, by human stomach acids into byproducts which detoxify and cleanse the gut and help the body to excrete metals and debris. Like tree fungus, pig blood is recommended for women who’re exposed to lots of pollutants at work, for example drivers who spend their day breathing in China’s appalling traffic fumes. 
    8. Mung beans. These detoxify the blood and promote the metabolism. Many women these days eat too many fatty, fried foods, which can give them itchy, blotchy and spotty skin. Mung beans are good at counteracting this, and also lower cholesterol, strengthen the liver, and dampen the allergic response. Try mung beans with honey for a detox beauty treatment.
    9. Tea. No surprise that the Chinese recommend their national drink for female health! It’s good for alertness and bright eyes, and is refreshing and thirst-quenching. Tea polyphenols are natural antioxidants which detoxify the body.
    10. Cucumber. A bit of a left-field choice, these are said to contain what I can only translate as “cucumber acids”, which are said to be good for metabolism. They have high vitamin C levels, which give women a beautiful, white complexion and elastic skin, and which inhibit melanin production (in the Far East in general, a tan is a sign of being a peasant, while pale skin is an indicator of leisure and wealth). Cucumber acids are also claimed to inhibit the metabolism of sugars into fats, to keep you slim.
    Bon appetit! Qing manyong!

    Friday, 1 July 2011

    CNN blunders over Chinese eggs

    An ill-conceived list compiled by CNN of the world’s most “revolting” foods has led to an outpouring of bile across China.
    pidan - they taste better than they look
    The list contains delicacies (which, oddly, all hail from the Far East) such as dog meat and cicadas, most of which the various CCN reporters actually thought were quite tasty, but the controversy surrounds the short piece which the hapless Danny Holwerda put together on “century eggs”.
    For those whose knowledge of Chinese food doesn’t yet extend beyond Blue Dragon sauces or the Lucky Fortune Chop Suey House on the corner, “century eggs” (also known as “thousand-year eggs”, or pidan 皮蛋 in Mandarin) are eggs that have been steeped in an alkaline solution until their proteins and fats are completely transformed. The albumen turns into a translucent, firm, brown jelly while the yolk turns into a grey-green creamy goo. If you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, they have a very complex flavour with a tang of ammonia, salty, with a rich creaminess that’s used in Chinese cuisine to add depth to otherwise plain dishes; if you’re being Danny Holwerda, though, they taste “like the devil cooked eggs for me.” 
    This has unsurprisingly led to little short of an internet hate campaign against CNN’s list and particularly poor Danny, who seems (I can only assume) to have eaten his pidan as a Westerner would, taking a spoon, an eggcup, and a good old mouthful. This, though, is like offering someone a glass of Worcestershire sauce or a tablespoonful of Colman’s English mustard - pidan are more a condiment than a snack, and aren’t generally eaten by themselves (though the Cantonese and the Taiwanese do really dig them). Instead, they’re usually chopped up into small bits and stirred into  plain rice porridge, or piled up on soft but quite tasteless tofu, or else you might dip the end of your chopsticks into the yolky goo and then use them to scoop a mound of rice into your mouth.
    I feel rather sorry for Danny Holwerda - a quick background check on him doesn’t bring to light any particular experience of China, and he probably thought that his editor was looking for the kind of light-hearted, hundred-word piece that makes a couple of cheap points at the expense of what to most Americans is an alien and bizarre cuisine. But while the other reporters were either locals or travellers who’d actually visited the countries in question, Danny apparently bought his eggs in an Asian supermarket in Texas and seems to have had no real clue what to do with them. His editor was then naive enough to include his short report nevertheless, even putting it at Number One on the list. 
    China’s Xinhua News Agency has been reporting the brouhaha, and you can sense its glee at being able to portray the US as a nation of uninformed gluttons who mistake the Big Mac for food yet call other people’s delicacies “revolting”. The words “racist”, “ignorant” and “arrogant” litter the online comments. 
    You should never assume that what you consider delicious is going to be delicious to people with a very different take on tastes and textures. I remember being stuck in a Suzhou youth hostel with a Chinese bloke once, who’d travelled across Europe and who thought that European food was disgusting. He didn’t know what many of the things he’d been offered were, and described how in France he’d been presented with what sounded like a superb continental breakfast - croissants, preserves, bread rolls, butter, cold meats and all that jazz - but couldn’t bring himself to eat “any of that dog shit!” Beyond what you can sometimes buy in foreign-owned supermarkets in the big cities, the Chinese don’t eat baked bread, jam, sliced cold meats, and they don’t do butter unless they’re Inner Mongolian. Bread, butter and strawberry jam is as exotic and scary to most Chinese as preserved eggs are to Danny Holwerda, a point which CNN just doesn’t get. I can’t wait to read Xinhua’s list of the Top Ten Revolting American Foods: corndogs, Oreos, American “cheese”, hotdogs, Big Macs, Hershey “chocolate”, Reese’s peanut butter cups...

    Thursday, 30 June 2011

    Fares, please! for Chengdu's women-only buses

    From the start of July, the city of Chengdu in China’s southwestern Sichuan province will be providing a women-and-children-only bus route. 
    The driver of the No.905 gets the Dinoprostone suppositories ready
    The No.905 from Xiyu Street to Chengdu’s Central Hospital for Gynecology and Pediatrics will cost 2 kuai (19p) and will run every 45 minutes from 7am until 4.45pm. Like the designated bus-stops, the two buses on the 905 route are to be rose-pink, and have the charming slogan “All for the Women and Children” on their flanks. They do that thing where the bus lowers itself to make it easy to get on and off when you’re about to sprog, and have free, on-board mineral-water dispensers. The drivers are female, which is expected to make it easier for them to help passengers in need. The 38 seats are all upholstered, and there are more of them than there are in your average Chinese bus. 
    Having on many occasions seen pregnant women practically trampled under foot by crowds of commuters desperate to get a seat on what are invariably suffocatingly overcrowded public transport services, the idea of a dedicated route seems a stroke of genius. Buses in Taiwan have for years had seats set aside at the front (just as we have “elderly and disabled” seats in Britain) called the Bo’ai Zuo 博爱座 or “Universal Love Seats” (“Universal love” is a concept that can be traced back in traditional Chinese philosophy to the Confucian and Mohist thought of the Warring States period before China was even unified). Elsewhere on the mainland today you find a sign reserving seats for “old, weak, sick, disabled or pregnant” passengers, but then sixty years of communism have left most of the population so obsessed with their own personal gain that there’s normally a young, strong, healthy man sitting in them.

    Last chance to visit the unspoiled Guangxi coast

    For a couple of months now, the authorities in China’s coastal provinces have been announcing that they are, in effect, going to sell off nearly 200 uninhabited islands to the highest bidder.
    "Ooh, I like what they've done with the garden. Can we afford the mortgage?"
    The Territorial Water Islands Management Bureau in Guangxi, which lies squished between Canton (the bit foreign business travellers mistake for the rest of China) and the tip of Vietnam, has just said that 16 of its 500-plus islands, islets, sandbanks and shoals are to be sold off for “tourism and leisure”. They range from little more than hunks of mangrove to much larger islands that could, if you wanted, take 25 football pitches (albeit rocky and on a slope). The coast is heavily indented with estuaries and minor archipelagos, and the islands are mostly within a few hundred metres, or at most two or three clicks from the shore.
    Guangxi’s interested in hearing from foreign capital in particular, and want foreign investors to apply with their plans to develop the islands as resorts. Investors will need to show, it has been stressed, that they intend to develop the islands with due regard for Guangxi’s environmental regulations before a certificate of land use is issued. One suspects, of course, that the “due payment of the relevant land-use fee” also mentioned by the bureau will in practice be the deciding factor.
    Guangxi, which is most famous in tourism terms for the stunning karst mountain scenery of Yangshuo and Guilin, has in recent years been promoting growth in the number of scenic areas and in tourism infrastructure elsewhere in the province. They’re hoping to see a big rise in areas like leisure resorts and food tourism - Guangxi’s coast is after all within the tropics, with good seafood and tropical fruit a-plenty.
    IMHO, though, their hope to become a destination to rival nearby Thailand and ’Nam for overseas visitors will stand or fall (okay, fall) on the quality of the overall experience. Western tourists, and those from Australia and NZ, can very cheaply and easily get to Phuket, Chiang Mai or the Vietnamese coast, and the general hassle of transferring from Hong Kong to Guangxi and then through vast expanses of rapidly modernizing countryside to what will, let’s face it, be a half-arsed resort full of Chinese middle-management simply won’t be able to compete. Domestic tourists, who are more canny and on home soil, will flock to places like this on cheap packages, but backpackers will find themselves being ripped off by a system which encourages tourism to see visitors as one-offs who need to be fleeced at every opportunity. The luxury market, meanwhile, won’t even touch Guangxi when it has so much else to choose from.

    Wednesday, 29 June 2011

    China's remotest village not so remote anymore

    The Heilongjiang provincial news media re reporting that workers are toiling to build the first proper road from Xilinji (the county town of Mohe County), to Mohe itself, the “Arctic Village” at the very tip of China. When it opens in September, the route will bring coachloads of domestic tourists to the banks of the Amur River, facing the Russian village of Ignashino, so they can say they’ve been to China’s most northerly point. (The fact that there’s another, tiny settlement named Wusuli a few miles further north and forty miles downriver is immaterial - Arctic Village is where the fun’s at, and it’s officially China’s most northerly point. The Chinese don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story.)
    Liam's private jet approaches Mohe airport
    I’m very fond of Mohe, as in 2001 it was my final destination in the journey I made around the far-flung points of the Chinese compass for Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior. It took a rail journey on what was then the old lumber trail to cover the final, white expanse of 600 miles on the map between Qiqihar and Xilinji, from where I rode a battered old minibus through Scandinavian pine forests fifty miles to the Amur River. It wasn’t even tarmacked in places, where now tourist revenue has funded the new highway. I found a bed for a few kuai in a “hotel” where the toilet wasn’t even a hole in the ground, as the earth’s frozen most of the year. Instead it was a pile of poo below a raised wooden plank. For dinner I had all there was on offer - boiled aubergine with garlic and coriander - which was better than it sounds.
    That’s all changed now that the Chinese have invested in an airport for Mohe. Yes, an airport. I live in Kenilworth, a town of around 30,000 people, which keeps getting its plans to reopen its railway station turned down. Mohe has thirteen and a half inhabitants and three dogs, one of which is blind, and it has a bleeding airport.
    During China’s eleventh five-year plan, Mohe County invested 1.2 billion RMB (£116 million) in its tourism infrastructure, including five-star hotels, the new airport, and (for pyromaniacs and the more mawkish tourists) a memorial hall for the massive fire of 1987 that wiped out the town of Xilinji and much of the county’s forest cover.
    I’d recommend the trip to anyone with a few weeks on their hands, especially as it’s now a lot more pleasant than it was a decade ago. Of course, I can always boast I visited it before it got all commercial and sold out to The Man.

    Tuesday, 28 June 2011

    £11.25 for a train seat to Beijing.

    The Chinese Ministry of Railways is gearing up for the start of the new high-speed service between Beijing and Shanghai on Thursday 30th, and has announced more details.
    tickets for the first service thanks to the nice people at Wikipedia Commons
    There are going to be 90 trains a day on the new line, 63 of them running at an average speed of 186mph and the rest just a teensy bit slower at 155mph.  These fast services will have a daily passenger capacity of 154,000, and anybody who’s ever travelled in China will know that they’ll be running at full capacity around the clock from day one. The old Jing-Hu railway line will go on operating its 141 trains, some stopping, some slow, some fast, some direct, and carrying another 319,000 passengers every day. That’s 473,000 passengers pretty much every day of the year (China’s transport system doesn’t do bank holidays and Sundays), on just one single route.
    As for choice, there’ll soon be everything from high-speed business class to stopping-service hard-seat class, with the cheapest tickets set at 158 kuai (£15) for what’s an 819-mile journey. Even the first-class tickets are set at 935 kuai (£90), which makes the walk-up prices for train journeys in Britain look more laughably unjustified than they already do. On top of these low prices, the Ministry has also announced that students are to receive a 25% discount on tickets, meaning that a student will be able to get from Shanghai to Beijing for £11.25. That’s mental.
    Meanwhile, I yesterday posted off my copy of the consultation document for the British HS2 high-speed rail link, which come 2026 will shave a few minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham (once signal failures, strikes, the wrong kind of leaf/snow/air etc) have been taken into account. The tickets still won’t compete with flying, a swathe of countryside including dozens of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty will be bulldozed, and even then it’ll produce more carbon dioxide than at present because passengers will be forced to travel to fewer rail hubs to ride a train that soaks up electricity. Here in Kenilworth we’ll have to travel 30 miles to Birmingham to get on the HS2, which won’t stop at Coventry five miles away. China has no Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the new high-speed rail line. If anything, having travelled it many times, I can confirm that it’s pretty much one, big, long Area of Outstanding Man-made Ugliness for 819 miles.

    Sunday, 26 June 2011

    Yangshuo flush with tourist success

    The tourist administration of Guangxi province has announced that its going to be upgrading all nineteen of the public “tourist toilets” in Yangshuo, in order to, as they put it, “take a step forward in raising the tourism service capability of the mountains and waters of the Li River”.
    (the kind of toilet that’s had its day...)
    For those of you who don’t know it, the town of Yangshuo is set in one of the most beautiful parts of China, surrounded by near-vertical, pine-clad “jade hairpin” mountains and with the cormorant fishermen of the winding Li River running through it. It’s incredibly popular with both Chinese and Western tourists, and has long been a laid-back travellers’ hangout.
    The nineteen toilets in question were built in the seventies and eighties, and they’ve have got a bit dated, it seems. According to the province’s renovation plan, all the new toilets will have wheelchair-friendly entrance ramps, water-saving cisterns, anti-smell technology, braille signage and blind-persons’ tactile floor tiles, baby-changing facilities and Corby trouser-presses (okay, I made that bit up). They’ll be better, in fact, than practically anything you’d find in a British city, where you can either (a) go for a McPoo, or (b) find a public loo with blue lighting (to stop drug addicts finding a vein), no paper, felt-tip adverts for gay prostitutes, an unnerving sense of impending violence, and the tang of stale piss.
    The Yangshuo Toilets will be star-rated, like hotels, from two to four stars, and will be free to use, funded by the tourist administration. There’ll be staff on hand around the clock. “Tourists coming to Yangshuo will not only be able to enjoy the unsurpassed beauty of the scenery, but also enjoy the high-class service of a star-rated loo,” said a tourism spokesman.

    Thursday, 23 June 2011

    The Yellow River's looking gorge

    Been away on the road for a week - all the way from the sirens and stabbings of Sarf Lahndan to sunny North Yorkshire, so travel’s on my mind right now. 
    2011 has been designated Great Yellow River Tourism Year by the Chinese government and, browsing the latest travel industry news, the trip everyone’s doing right now is the pilgrimage to Xiaolangdi Scenic Area in Henan province. 
    The Yellow River has until recently been an underused resource for tourism in China, mainly because it flows through some very poor and inaccessible countryside, and also because it’s not itself navigable to shipping. Sitting atop a strip of silt tens of metres higher than the surrounding countryside, deposited over the millennia, the river has breached its levees and changed course dozen of times, flooding the plains and drowning millions. The Yellow River dam at Xiaolangdi was built in the 1990s to try to put an end to the bother of having a river that keeps changing its mind about how to reach the Pacific. The Scenic Area includes not just the vast dam but a host of mountain gorges (lesser-known but very attractive versions of the more famous but now-flooded Yangtze Gorges), and it has some truly very impressive scenery.
    Each June, the 296 sq km Xiaolangdi reservoir gets flushed through to scour out the silt, and the enterprising locals now hold a wildly popular Watching the Waterfall Festival from June 22nd to July 10th. The river cascades through the open sluices of the 500m-wide dam, and the level of the reservoir drops by 30 metres, which is really quite a lot when you think about it, to reveal the old scenery of the now-flooded valleys. For any communists remaining in China, commemorative civil-war scenic spots such as “The Chen Xie Army Group Crosses the Yangtze” have been marked out, and for everybody else there’s a food festival of locally caught fish, an exhibition of weird-shaped stones from the river (“Ooh! This one looks like a willy!”), and a photography competition. 
    Local government has been quick to cash in on the festival by organising the kind of massed-rank, all-singing-all-dancing opening ceremony that would make Kim Jung-il jealous. Bow-tied choirs sing Yellow River Elegy, the most famous and patriotic of songs, and other popular hits like The Yellow River Boatman. They don’t do Christie’s 1970 Number One hit Yellow River, which is a shame, but apparently it’s about a different Yellow River. 
    Anybody thinking of going needs to be at the Kowloon Hotel in Luoyang for 8am. Tickets are 78 kuai, and for that you get the bus ride to the dam and entrance to the ceremony. It comes highly recommended to anyone with a love of close-harmony singing and hydroelectric power generation.

    Saturday, 11 June 2011

    All aboard! for China's newest railway

    The Ministry of Railways has announced that it will be revealing next week the ticket prices for the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway. 
    It’s been just over three years (three years!!) since the Chinese started work on the 819-mile railway, and they managed, in fact, to finish laying the track last November. The original plan had been for the railway to be a Maglev, similar to the literally terrifyingly fast train that now links Shanghai Pudong Airport to the city in just eight minutes (a journey that used to take well over an hour by bus). The impracticality of such an enormously long Maglev (Shanghai’s, at 19 miles, is currently the longest in service anywhere) made the Chinese eventually choose traditional steel rails, otherwise we’d be looking at a journey time of under four hours. As it is, the new trains will still be running at up to 186mph, making Beijing less than a five-hour trip from Shanghai, compared to at least twice that at present.
    The carriages, for any train nerds out there, are a variant of the CRH380 “Harmony” class already in service in China. In recent tests they’ve reached almost 303mph, and they’re two full Earth feet wider than Virgin’s fancy-pants Pendolino trains (the ones that crawl along the west-coast line because someone’s forever stealing the copper signal-cabling outside Rugby. Anybody trying to steal the cabling from the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway will of course be summarily shot). 
    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve travelled by rail between “The Big BJ” (having written my new nickname for Beijing down, I can see why it hasn’t caught on) and Shangers. Each time, because of high demand for tickets on the 10-hour service, it’s been an overnighter, and occasionally it’s taken the best part of two days - morning on day one to the evening of day two. The new railway will make it feasible to get from city to city and back within a day for a business meeting, whereas at the moment it can take hours just to get from Beijing Capital Airport through the hellish traffic of however many damn ring roads the place now has. 
    The Beijing terminal, the new Beijing South Station, is reputedly the biggest railway station in Asia. When I first used it in 1991 it was a tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice way out past Yongdingmen, surrounded by unmetalled roads plied by donkey carts. It now makes Heathrow look ancient. Actually, the tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice made Heathrow look ancient, too, come to think of it.
    The Chinese are managing to modernise their country at such a dizzying speed it’s hard to know whether to be impressed or scared. Ten out of the top thirteen longest bridges in the world are in China. The very longest, part in fact of the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, is said to be so long I fear I’ve translated something wrong: the raised section of this Dan-Kun Ultra-Long Bridge between Danyang and Kunshan in Jiangsu province is over 100 miles long. Now that’s mental.