“Tuut, tuut,tuut”, the repetitive drone of destruction continues day and night. From my office window I can see the enormous metal teeth of the orange prehistoric monsters as they gnaw away at the bricks and mortar of what was once “my village”. (see blog November 2011)  Their appetite is insatiable. In just over two months they have virtually demolished the entire area. The carcasses of a few houses and shops remain, picked clean by scavengers, waiting patiently for the inevitable.

Gone are the narrow, winding streets bustling with life and colour. Gone are my favourite street food stalls of bang-bang mien and tofu. Gone are the fruit and vegetable carts selling what was freshly in season – ginger, dates, melons, walnuts and a variety of teas. Gone are the children busy with their homework on make-shift tables or playing up and down the alleys. Gone are the hundreds of families who lived and worked there.

It all happened with surprising speed. I returned from my Yunnan trip and asked what the blaring loud speakers were saying, hour after hour. Apparently it was the police announcing the closure of the village and informing the public at large that protests were illegal and that the villagers were all in agreement with the order to obliterate their livelihoods.We were assured that they would be compensated and re housed. Guards were posted at all the entrances to the village and looked so menacing that I didn’t dare to take any photos at street level. I have no idea where all the people went, but within a week or two they had cleared out all their belongings, stripped the buildings of any valuable materials and disappeared into thin air.

The whole area has of course been bought by a property developer who will turn it into a huge residential campus similar to so many other construction projects up and down this vast country. I can envisage it in a few years time with ten to twenty identical high rise apartments clustered  around some artificial water features and gardens. Xi’an’s skyline is filled with giant cranes and half finished tower blocks. Since the 1990s, when the construction of housing and offices took off big time, millions of old homes and buildings have been demolished and tens of millions of people have been forcibly removed from their homes to make way for construction projects. There is big money in real estate and in some cities, the prices of apartments are comparable to top-end properties in New York. Most state owned giants and even some CP newspapers have real-estate subsidiaries. The building frenzy does not seem to have subsided, despite fears of the bubble bursting. The recent woes of Western countries has not deterred local government from borrowing money and using “creative” accountancy to hide the true nature of the debt. In 2010 China used 8 times as much cement as the world’s second largest consumer, India. It also leads the world in its consumption of steel and other industrial materials by a wide margin.

It is a difficult dilemma and one I’m glad I don’t have to solve. Where do people live? About 13 to 21 million people migrate from rural areas to the cities each year and they need to live somewhere but the construction bonanza has changed the very social and economic fabric of Chinese society. On a personal level, it has changed the area where I have lived since I came to Xi’an. I no longer have cheap, convenient places to shop and eat. I no longer sit and watch the vitality of street life being played out in front of me. The soul has gone out of the place.

Today is Ghosts’ Day here in China, the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar.  It’s when the deceased ancestors are believed to be visiting the living.  I gaze down at the site of the village now from my office and there they are, hundreds of them, floating around the rubble and dust, completely disorientated. They are looking for the empty chairs usually placed for them to sit on and the specially prepared food.  One or two hover by a partially destroyed house revealing the inner walls of a once private bedroom.

“Is this where we used to live?” I hear them ask the orange monsters. But they have no regard for decency or sentiment. They have no past memories and nothing must get in their way. There is a commotion down there. Someone must have alerted the guards and they come charging in, wielding their batons and shouting, threatening and ugly. None of the ghosts dare to defy them and they sadly waft over the village for the last time and take their leave.

To view the photos that go with this blog, click the link.



It’s All Relative – Minorities in China

I’m becoming used to it. Thinking BIG, that is. Here in China everything is big and at first the statistics blew my mind. I have recently returned from a trip to Northern Guangxi, The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, to give its correct title. I thought I was going to pass through areas populated by small groups of minority peoples with interesting costumes and customs. I wasn’t really aware of the statistics.

The Autonomous Region is home to four main minorities,the Zhuang, Miao, Dong and Yao, although there are many smaller ethnic groups which have been given one of the four minority names by the government, even though many of them speak a different language and follow different customs. Most of these minorities are dispersed across more than one province.  Now for a few figures:  officially, there are 55 ethnic minorities in China making up 7% of the total population, about 70 million people in all. In the UK, ethnic minorities make up 7.9% of the population which is about 4.6 million people. The population of the whole of the UK is 62 million, less than all the minority peoples of China put together. Since 1949, many minorities have been allowed to live in “Autonomous Regions” and given preferential treatment by the government. They are allowed two children for example. Education and health care have improved considerably. They do not, however, have any rights of self determination, need I go on?

Our guide was from the Dong minority, with a population of 3 million. His language belonged to the Kam-Sino-Tibetan group and he explained that in 1958 a Latin alphabet had been used to record it. However, it is not used much and most of the younger population speak and write in Chinese. He was acutely aware that the Dong language and culture was under threat with the migration to the cities . With roughly the same population as Wales, his concern about loss of language struck a chord. He took us around his village of Chengyang and other Dong villages, pointing out the unique architecture. The Dong are skilled builders and carpenters and construct large, two storey wooden houses without using a single nail. The famous “wind and rain bridges” are also unique to the Dong style of building and are used as a place to take cover from the elements and to socialise.

The second area we visited was not on the tourist trail. We trekked in sweltering heat, up through beautiful rice terraces to Nudu. This was a Cao Miao village but they  spoke Dong so our guide could communicate with them. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the South West – nearly nine million. We continued on small winding paths to the next village made up of a mixture of the minorities – Dong, Miao and Yao. The latter (population of 2.5 million), seemed very poor in the area we visited but we met more from this ethnic group later in the trip and got a different perspective on their life style.  Our guide made a few enquires and led us to the local store. Within minutes, we were made welcome whilst vegetables were collected from the fields and lunch was prepared over a small fire.  Soon a crowd of villagers gathered at the store to gaze in awe at the group of foreigners. We were enjoying our freshly cooked meal, totally unaware how challenging the next couple of hours were going to be.

It should have taken us an hour to reach the main road again but after two, we were still slipping and sliding our way down hill. The mud paths through the woods and rice terraces were treacherous and steep. Anything we encountered after this, in hiking terms, was easy. I could see why the villagers wanted a road and I noticed one was being built. It might mean that the remoteness of the area would be changed but who could blame them for wanting an easier option for getting in and out of their villages.

We moved on from this beautiful area to a more touristy part of Guangxi, the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, home to the Zhuang minority. This is the largest minority group in China – over 16 million –  the population of Australia, living in an area the size of New Zealand. Their language has Dai linguistic roots, related to Thai, but they are well integrated with the Han Chinese. These people have been building rice terraces for nearly two thousand years and they are an amazing feat of generations of back-breaking work. They rise 3,000 feet from the floor of the valley and are fed by a complex system of bamboo pipes. Our guide was a  farmer, so we became quite educated about rice growing  by the end of the week.

As we continued our walking east around the rice terraces, we encountered the Yao minority women who were very different from the   extremely shy and grindingly poor ones we had seen earlier in the week. With greater exposure to tourists, these women could be quite pushy,  especially as they had something to sell – their ground-length hair. They pestered our guide with,

” Tell them I am the one with the longest hair in this village” or ” do they want to pay to see my hair?”

The poor man patiently translated for us but we didn’t want to pay any woman for showing us the length of her hair. On one occasion, their persistence did pay off however, as one woman followed us for quite a long way on the trail. As we neared her village, her mother and sisters came to meet us (tipped off by the mobile phone perhaps?) and offered to cook us lunch. We accepted.

Living in the same geographical area, the minorities we met had many common traditions. Naturally, singing and dancing was an integral part of their cultures. The women were skilled embroiderers and weavers and wore belts and jackets with intricate, colourful designs. They  grew cotton, dyed it with indigo  and wove their own cloth. The Yao women  also wore heavy silver earrings, necklets and bracelets.

As we walked past crops and through villages, we noticed that their  diet consisted of rice, glutinous rice, maize, millet, pork and a rich variety of vegetables. Pomelos,  pumpkins and peppers were  seasonal extras. Unfortunately, our guide told us that his people also ate dog and I was unlucky enough to come across such an unfortunate creature being skinned in the market near Yangshuo. Meals can be washed down with oil tea or  rice wine (with a rather high alcohol content).

The state of ethnic minorities in China is complex. History, migration, government and ethnic tourism have all played their part in muddying the waters. The groups more willing to assimilate into Han society are seen as more feminine such as the Miao and Yao but there is friction in some minority areas where the people are less willing to assimilate. I do not need to spell out where those areas are.

Where I travelled, tourism was obviously increasing and the avaricious construction monster was in full swing. Five star hotels were being built high up on the Backbone Rice Terraces with cable car stations to ferry the elite guests up the mountains. How long will the less touristy areas manage to maintain their way of life?  I guess it’s all relative.



Most of the mountains I had climbed since coming to China had carved, stone steps from bottom to top and back again. After 8 months, I was desperate to find a trek that would allow me to walk on real earth. Not something I had written on my list of ” Things I will Miss in China”. So I booked a trek in Yunnan province in mid-May, which started with the most famous hike of south-west China –  Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The party consisted of our Chinese guide, a giant of an Aussie, two French women and myself. We met up in Lijiang old town and got lost on our first day trying to find our way out of the maze of narrow, cobbled streets.  Not an auspicious start. However, by 11.30, we were on the trail and I gave thanks for the feel of  stones, soil and earth under my feet. The trail was dusty and steep but we had views of  the towering snow-capped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the East and far below us, Tiger Leaping Gorge itself.

This is one of the deepest gorges in the world and is 16 km long.

After lunch, we hiked for another few hours, ascending 900 metres through the “28 bends”, a series of steep switch back loops on the trail. The Teahorse Trade Guesthouse was a welcome sight and where we were to spend the night.  The guest-house was aptly named as it was on the trail that followed the ancient mule caravan tea route to India, via Burma, to Tibet and Central China via Sichuan. Yunnan was one of the first tea producing areas over a 1,000 years ago and it was called the Teahorse Road because of the trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea. People as well as horses carried heavy loads, as shown in this picture of porters carrying tea bricks, often more than their own body weight in tea.

     Men Laden With Tea, Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908, Ernest Henry Wilson

The next day was again blessedly cool and there were very few walkers on the trail. We hiked down steep slopes, passing several primitive-looking Tungsten mines on the way.  Eventually, after negotiating steel ladders and almost vertical rocky paths, we  reached  Tiger Leaping Stone at Middle Rapids. Here the Yangtze was in full spate as the swirling, muddy waters were squeezed through the narrow confines of the gorge. It was worth the long trek down although my knees didn’t agree. Most people end the 2 day trek here and get a bus back to Lijiang. For us, it was just a warm up.

Up early the following morning for the 2 hour drive to Haba village, 2680m, where we met our local guide and horseman. Here the people were of Tibetan origin and the countryside was green and fertile with everyone busy with the harvest. The sound of Yak bells provided an accompaniment to our slow foot steps as we ascended through the pine forests where azaleas, rhododendrons and violets were in bloom. The 15km hike seemed endless and the altitude slowed our walking to a snail’s pace. Base camp, at 4100m, was a welcome sight as we emerged from the forest.  Closer inspection however, revealed a dirty, unkempt site. It seemed sad but not surprising that the fees people pay to get into the area do not appear to be spent on preserving it’s beauty. We were fortunate to have wonderful weather which allowed us spectacular views of snow-capped peaks. At night it was cold, around freezing, and if there was no room around the mean little wood burning stove, the only place to keep warm was in bed.

After acclimatising for a day in the surrounding meadows, we prepared to climb to Camp 1 at 4,600m. We were told that it would make the summit day more manageable because of the altitude. When we arrived at the camp site – the guides began to clear and level the stony ground for the tents. We were told to rest. As the tents were unfurled and the guy ropes secured with boulders, it became obvious that these men had no clue about putting up tents. Only one tent had a matching rain cover and the rest looked completely unfit for purpose. They didn’t have the right poles or covers and would certainly not have been water proof. I could see them taking off in the strong winds.

“So Jonathan” I said to our guide, “in terms of safety at this height, what percentage would you give this camp?”

“80%”, he said smiling.

“But only one tent looks like it might just about do for 2 people. What about the other 4?”

“Oh, don’t worry about the guides,” he said, “they can sleep in the rocks. I think two of us can manage in one of the tents.”

It was already 4pm and we had no food or water. The two local guides were supposed to be going  back to Base Camp to collect the food once they had erected the tents! It was beginning to look like a complete fiasco and so the 4 of us took matters into our own hands and decided to go back to Base Camp. Tempers flared and the Aussie had had enough. He demanded a refund and walked out of the camp in disgust. We never saw him again. The French women were scared, which left me, at 7pm, having to make a decision about going for the summit the next day on my own – that is, without anyone from our party. I dithered and tried to weigh things up. I was worried about altitude sickness and the level of competence of the guides but I knew I would not be back any time soon and age was not exactly on my side. Having lived in China for several months, I had  grown used to the lack of  “health and safety” regulations,  so I decided to go for it.

At 4am the next morning, I set off with Jonathan and a local guide. My worries seemed to fade into insignificance when, after about 2 hours of climbing, I switched off my head torch and laid back on the rocks to look at the sky.  I gasped at the closeness of the stars and the sight of the Milky Way weaving its star dust trail through the heavens. Climbing very slowly over icy rocks and snowy patches, we eventually reached the snow line. We put on ancient-looking crampons and prepared for the  the long slopes ahead. I managed to walk 5 steps before resting and kept up this pace for the remainder of the ascent. At 9.30am we reached the summit of Haba Shan at 5,396m/17,703ft – the highest I had ever climbed. I was exhilarated. The clouds swirled in and out giving brief glimpses of the surrounding peaks. A few photos and a brief pause was all I was allowed before the guides were ready to leave.

The descent was rather quicker than the ascent and we arrived back at Base Camp at 12.30 – a total of 8 and a half hours. Then I followed the French women and the horses back down to Haba village so that we didn’t have to linger any longer at Base Camp. It took about 4 hours to descend through the pine forests and the yak meadows. I had walked for 12 and a half hours either vertically up or down all day!

  Summit of Haba Mountain – 5,396m.

I certainly had achieved my dream of walking on real earth again and was rather pleased that I had lived to tell the tale.

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Mandarin,Putonghua or Zhongwen – it’s all Chinese

“Oh, you’ll manage to learn Chinese easily living there.”

“You should be able to learn Chinese, you’ve learnt Welsh.”

“You’re good at languages, you should be able to pick up Chinese in no time.”

These encouraging comments from friends before I left for China, almost seven months ago, haunt me daily as I struggle to make  headway with the language. Admittedly, I haven’t been a dedicated student, so I don’t want to make too many excuses, but it’s hard! I have practised the phrase  “I am a volunteer” over and over again and then tried to use it. As yet, only one person has understood me, the rest just shake their heads even though I think my pronunciation is as perfect as I can make it. So it can be a little disheartening.

With an estimated 885 million Mandarin speakers in the world, why is it that that I’m struggling? The grammar is fairly simple compared to most languages – verbs don’t conjugate, there are no tenses or plural words and numbers are logical. As far as speaking is concerned, the sound is unlike any other language I know. When I look at or listen to French or Spanish, I can recognise several words before I start but Mandarin is tonal and that makes it difficult for Westerners. Many words sound the same but the tones give them a totally different meaning. It’s difficult for me to “hear” the different tones especially when people are speaking fast but without the right tone you might as well be speaking Zulu. Not many Chinese make allowances if you get the tones wrong, they simply don’t understand you or misunderstand you, which can be very embarrassing!

With other foreign languages in the West, the reinforcement of the spoken word comes through reading words. There is no opportunity to reinforce words here. Chinese has no alphabet, only characters. I’d love to learn how to write them but I think I’d need to be here for many more years before I got to that stage. Pinyin, a romanisation system, was adopted in 1958 in mainland China to teach children the sounds of the syllables. In the office, people type in pinyin on the computer which is then converted into Chinese characters. It is a language of pictographs with 90% of the words having a “meaning” element and a “sound” element. The character for “to sit” literally means: people on top of earth 人=person   土= earth which makes  坐  as the character for “to sit”. Man literally means: strength in a field  田= field   力= strength  which makes  男  as the character for “man”.  A well educated person knows around 6000 to 8000 characters and one would need 2000 to 3000 to read a paper. I asked my teacher the other day how she learnt to write when she was young.

“Oh, it’s the same way today,” she replied. “I would have to practise for homework every night from when I was very young. I would have three pages of squared paper to write my characters over and over again. I would have to learn about 30 new ones each week.”

So my progress has been pitifully slow and having a translator in work has made me lazy. Translation is another interesting topic.  I thought I’d be able to keep up with the office QQ messages (Chinese version of MSM) by using Google Translate, but even that service has limited use. This is a Google version of  one day’s conversation:

“Shoes busy got the hall, got under the kitchen, climb a high mountain involved won reservoirs, the system had yogurt weight into the capsule, but also as a weapon, threwRen …”

Little wonder that I’m not always up to speed with what’s going on!

Another amusing side to this business of language learning is Chinglish. Since 1982, English has been the main foreign language in education. There are about 300+ million English learners but I can’t say I’ve met many of them apart from those who’ve studied it at university. I have had a look at some of the English manuals and exam syllabuses though and it’s badly taught and very old fashioned. Hence, the English signs are rather delightful. There are some obvious reasons for this –  the verbs in Chinese don’t conjugate and there’s no definite article but there are also a cultural differences. The best way to show you what I mean is to show you some of my “sign collection”.

Can you imagine what a nightmare it is when I am without my translator?  Taxi drivers shout at me, presuming that I’m old (that’s true) and hard of hearing, in the hope that I’ll understand better. I delete text messages on my phone in Mandarin only to discover that they were letting me know I had run out of phone credit and I can’t read messages on my apartment door warning me that they’re going to cut off the water for a few days!

Now I realise my Mandarin won’t get much better in my remaining four months but I’ll try not to “lose face” over it . As I’m not thinking of returning straight away, it’ll be “long time no see” before I speak to you all again in English or Welsh.

For further amusing signs, follow this link.


Chongqin and Dazu

Chongqin, the City of Fog and “as polluted as almost anywhere in China.” (Lonely Planet) How is it that I find myself here for the second time in less than two months?

My first visit was during the Spring Festival in January. Having visited an exhibition of Buddhist sculptures from Dazu at the museum in Cardiff during 2011, I was determined to visit the place for myself. After a 12 hour train journey to Chongqin and a 2 hour bus ride, I arrived at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dazu. There, at Treasured Summit Hill, were extensive cliff carvings and statues of great beauty. Dating from the Tang Dynasty (9th century) to the Song Dynasty (13th century), the carvings show  Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences. The central carving is a 31m long, 5m high reclining Buddha seen entering nirvana. Having seen individual sculptures at Cardiff museum, I was amazed to find so many fine carvings still in situ. I’ll let the photos tell the rest. They also include photos of Chongqin and AnKan.

So why a second visit to this city of 5 million people? I have been working this time. It is strange what one does in foreign lands. I was asked by VSO to give a two day training on Volunteer Management Systems to a group of local NGOs and here I am. Having worked in a Volunteer Centre for only 6 months, I have just delivered a two day workshop to over 25 participants. It was touching to meet so many young  people who run NGOs (charities) despite the frustrations of funding and capacity. Many of the NGOs worked on environmental projects and they certainly have their work cut out for them. Others worked with the deaf – there are over 45,000 of them in Chongqin – with special needs children, soldiers’ wives, children from rural areas, migrant workers and the elderly. They gave up a week end to come to the training and participated with enthusiasm and commitment. I was also pleased to hear that the British consulate had sponsored the week end. The training of course was free!

I will leave Chongqin tomorrow with fond memories of the time I spent here as a tourist and a trainer.

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Chinese New Year photos

I forgot to add a link to the photos. Here it is.

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Chun jie – Chinese New Year part 2

An acrid smell greeted my nostrils on New Year’s Day. Outside, the snow was stained red with the  debris of  World War 3.  I picked my way through piles of smouldering rubbish, keeping a look out for unexpected exploding crackers and made my way to the Small Goose Pagoda Temple Fair. What a delight.

Enormous dragons and mythical and religious statues welcomed in a freezing  New Year. Breath taking acrobatics took place on an outdoor stage. A young boy, no more than 8 years old, climbed up a never-ending series of up- turned chairs dressed in flimsy Lycra. It was a least -8 that day. There were shadow puppet displays, colourful dragon processions with Beijing opera characters following behind, lanterns with riddles posted on them, music and calligraphy. All the fun of a traditional Chinese fair.

I was unaware  how important the last celebration of the Spring Festival was. Known as the Lantern Festival, it dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when the emperor ordered lanterns to be lit in all the temples and palaces to show respect for the Buddha. Nowadays, it is another important time to spend with the family and visit the various lantern displays around the city. There are also some traditional rural festivals, one of which I was lucky enough to witness. Two Chinese friends invited me to the “she huo” festival in a village at the foot of the Chinling mountains. They said that there would be some dancing and festivities but I was not prepared for what we saw.

Traditional food was laid out on trestle tables at the entrance to the village and we ate spicy noodles with fresh coriander and honey filled dumplings to keep out the cold. Hundreds of villagers from the surrounding areas poured into Houguanzhai and took up their positions along the streets and other vantage points to see the procession. Whispers of “laowi” – “foreigner” – rippled after me as I made my way down the street. It is quite possible that some of the older folk had  never seen a foreigner before and I was the only one there. Costumed horsemen galloped wildly up and down the narrow streets in a dangerous attempt at crowd control.

At last the beating of the drums announced the start of the carnival. It was a “lord mayor’s”  type parade with a difference. Young children, some under two years old, were bound to long metal poles and dressed in Chinese opera-costumes with painted mask faces and ornate wigs. The floats moved slowly through the crowds with the children only being able to move their arms, draped in long-sleeved robes. The purpose of the floats was to make it look as if the  children were floating or balancing in trees or in clouds as they moved puppet-like through the streets. It was mind boggling.  The poor kids had been practising for weeks apparently but they were exhausted. Many of them fell asleep atop their lofty poles whilst their parents tried to poke them awake with long sticks. “Stay awake or I’ll beat you!” one mother yelled at her unfortunate daughter. Another very young child pulled off his wig and was crying but to no avail. It was obviously one of those occasions when parents, who kept popping up from the back of the float vehicles, were proud to show off their children.

she huo parade

My doctor friends in Xi’an kindly invited me out for a meal on Lantern Festival. They knew I had no family here and it is traditionally a family affair. It was great to see them all again (see Doctors on Tour blog). Our conversation was drowned out by even more thunderous bangs and booms than on New Year’s Eve.  We rounded off the meal with yuanxiao – glutinous rice balls filled with bean paste. Eating them denotes harmony and happiness for the family. My return bus journey was positively hazardous with rockets and crackers exploding everywhere. I watched a spectacular display near my flat and then beat a hasty retreat and repeated my actions from New Year’s Eve 15 days earlier.

So where ever you are, “May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth and the Star of Longevity shine on you. ”          xin nian kuai le.

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