Monday, 25 October 2010

The Big Smoke

Auckland, I take it back. I've always said I'd never want to live in the Big Smoke, but after the lovely long weekend we just spent up there I might consider it.
The weather was beautiful, it was a delight to see our friends and family, and for a change driving wasn't a nightmare.

Fish and chips at Mission Bay with Daniel, Jenny, Jess and Paul.

Traffic is, as every New Zealander knows, Auckland's worst feature. Fueled by Kiwis' dreams of a quarter-acre section, Auckland sprawls enormously. Because for decades urban planning just consisted of building more roads, the city's public transport (though recently improved) is woefully inadequate. Therefore you usually have to do a heck of a lot of driving to get around. Fortunately, on Labour Weekend many Aucklanders were off to the coast to enjoy the sun so traffic was light. We still managed to go the wrong way several times, but that's par for the course for yokels from south of the Bombay Hills.

It wasn't just Auckland that was great, the whole North Island turned it on for our road trip - the volcanos in particular
Having not had a proper visit to Auckland since going overseas, several things struck me as we were driving from Laingholm to Mt Eden to Mangere Bridge to Mt Wellington to the North Shore. Firstly, the place is riddled with volcanos. Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere. They give it a lot of character, as do the pohutukawa trees. Because I'm red-green colour blind I can't appreciate the beauty of pohutukawas when their red flowers blossom, but despite that I still think they're fantastic. Add them to Auckland's many gorgeous bays and you have one of the world's best urban coastlines.

Mission Bay on what felt like the first weekend of summer: pohutukawas, volcanic Rangitoto and many, many happy people.

So, while we have no plans to be JAFAs any time soon, I'd no longer prefer to live in Kabul.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Another brick in ...

A few years ago, a private Swiss company set up a massive global vote for the new seven wonders of the world, which ended up being Macchu Picchu, the Great Pyramid at Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal, the Colloseum, the Great Wall, Christ the Redeemer in Rio and Petra. The Pyramids of Giza (the only one of the original seven wonders still standing) were inducted as 'honorary' seven wonders.
Now, I've already grizzled that the Redeemer statue, while undoubtedly very impressive and in a fabulous setting, made it in rather than much worthier candidates on the shortlist like Angkor and the Alhambra (which have the added glory of being visited by us). Sadly, there's a lot more Brazilians and general fans of Jesus than there are Cambodians. Such are the flaws of democracy. You can see them in the shortlist for the seven natural wonders of the world - a random Taiwanese mountain and Korean island, but no Mt Fuji or Mt Kinabalu? And please, Vesuvius is cool, but there are three more impressive volcanos in New Zealand alone. Guess Ngaruhoe or Taranaki should have wiped out some Roman towns.
But the thing with the seven wonders lists is that they are lists, and lists of awesome things, and therefore we love them. The Great Wall was the fifth (counting the Pyramids) we've been to.

The Great Wall is Lauren's favourite out of the Wonders we've seen. I find it hard to rate them, as they're all amazing in distinctive ways, but the Wall is definitely the Wonder we had the best time visiting. It's the most interactive of them, because you can climb up it and walk along it for hours (or days if you wanted to). You get a real feel for it, with the bricks under your feet.

We had a particularly good time because we went to Jinshanling, a section some three hours drive out of Beijing, in steep, forest-covered hills. It was wonderful to get into the wilderness and even more wonderful to be somewhere with clear skies. The views were, well...

Lauren enjoys some solitude

To add to the atmosphere, there was not a massive amount of tourists as there are at Badaling - the site closest to Beijing - so you could take a moment to enjoy things. The wall, which dates from the Ming Dynasty, had also not been as heavily reconstructed as at Badaling. That made climbing it a bit more fun.

The Great Wall is a truly staggering piece of building. It stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, winding its way along ridgelines, up hills, down valleys, until it disappeared into the distance. It's possible to walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, which is about 10km away, but sadly the Simatai section was closed to we walked for about an hour then walked back. It was an unforgettable day.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Our commute

A break from posts about China - today was one of those rare, calm and clear days in Wellington and I finally remembered to bring my camera to work. So here's an entry about how we get to work.
We're blessed to live in Mt Victoria, a wonderful suburb filled with 19th century wooden villas and an eclectic mix of partying students, young professionals and wealthy older home owners. It's got the massive benefits of being a few minutes walk to the entertainment hub of Courtenay Place.  Plus, it's a mere half hour walk along the waterfront to get to work.

And on a day like today the waterfront is stunning.

A gull who knows a good view
It's a tonic on the way to work and, especially now that daylight savings has kicked in and it's light in the evening, a tonic on the way home.
We walk out the doors of our government skyscrapers, through the canyons of Lambton Quay and Featherston Street, then out onto the harbour.

It's past the posh restaurants, the heritage cranes and Fergs, the indoor rock climbing and kayaking centre.  Then it's the playground and the first of the poems that mark the Wellington Writers Walk.

The harbour is an ironing board
The rowing club and its pretty lagoon, the waka house that's nearly built, the mighty floating Hikitia crane, the bulk of Te Papa, and the Solace on the Waterfront statue, which always attracts people who like a nice butt.

Finally, it's Waitangi Park, with the ducks floating amid the reeds, the many games going on the grass, and the skaters and basketballers on the concrete.

Then its past the Art Deco fire station, the Embassy Theatre, more good restaurants, until we go up the hill to home.

Beats being stuck in traffic.

Friday, 1 October 2010

My Beijing-a-ling

Beijing is the new San Francisco.  Well, substitute hills around a bay for the North China Plain, the sea breeze for haze, gay-friendly liberalism for conformity-friendly authoritarianism ... alright, so there's not much in common. Except that I don't know anyone who's been to either city and not liked it.

Beijing is enormous, old, brand-new and fascinating.  It's been the capital of China since the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (of Marco Polo and 'In Xanadu did ...' fame), so it's packed with history.  The King Kong attraction is the Forbidden City, the exclusive palace/fortress complex that the emperor, his concubines and horde of eunuchs rarely strayed from.  It's the biggest star of the excellent film The Last Emperor, and is just bloody magnificent.  It's huge - like Pompeii, you can spend a day walking and not see everything..  There are endless treasures: rooms full of delicately carved jade, intricate gold pagodas, beautiful porcelain and a vast number of amazingly elaborate clocks.

 It's a wonderful place, with art everywhere - from the procession of beasts on the rooves to the marble walkways.  Naturally it's very popular, but fortunately because there's so much space everyone spreads out and it's possible to find some quiet spots to do what we do best - jumping photos.

Beijing has really had a facelift in the last decade or so too.  Opinion is divided on whether or not it was a good thing.  On the downside, many of the very atmospheric hutongs (the tangled alleyways of old Beijing) have been levelled.  On the upside, they've gained many a grand skyscraper and the mightly impressive Water Cube and National Stadium, the Bird's Nest.

On the whole, we found the city a great mix of old and new.  While the traffic is pretty horrible, the biggest downside is the haze.  Even on a fine day there's precious little blue in the sky.  The air pollution is so bad that, after spending most of a day walking around the Forbidden City and the concrete vastness that is Tianamen Square, I had a coughing fit that lasted half an hour.  So do go to Beijing, but just take it easy with the deep breathing.