Tuesday, 21 September 2010

China - Interesting Times

Shortly before we left for our holiday in China, I was asked why I was going. I was a little flummoxed. Why would you not want to go to China? It's the world's oldest continuous civilisation. Third largest country. Second biggest economy. The next superpower, with one fifth of the humanity as citizens.

Roofing end in the Forbidden City
But I can understand the question. For a long time I wasn't terribly keen on China. I pictured a few sites surrounded by wasteland of concrete, watched over by polluted skies and Big Brother. And there's more than a little truth in that image.

The Chairman: even after the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he's still a national icon

But the China that locks up dissidents, cuddles up to North Korea and Sudan, levelled much of its history to make way for motorways and apartment blocks, and sulks about the Dalai Lama is only part of the picture. The China we saw was a dynamic, often beautiful and always fascinating place.  We'll do a bunch of entries on where we went, but I'll start with a few thoughts on China in general.

You can see the tightrope the Chinese government walks when you visit the country. The Communist Party doesn't have two of the major advantages that a government in a democracy has - the legitimacy that comes with being elected and the pressure valve for public discontent that elections provide.

To get legitimacy it essentially has two tactics - emphasise how strong it has made China and keep the economic good times going. That's why Mao is still idolised (he's on all the notes).  He was a megalomaniac whose policies killed millions, but at least he made China a great power again - and the Party emphasies that they are his heirs. Of course, China has long since been Communist in name only - you can't move without running into Western consumer brands.  But the government has done an done an amazing job of keeping the economy growing and providing the jobs that allow people to buy their Audis and Lacoste shirts.

Huge LED screen at a new Beijing Mall. The image is (appropriately) a phoenix, one of China's favourite mythical creatures.
It deals with public grumpiness in differnet ways - allow it (to an extent) at a local level, stomp on it when it opposes national policies (e.g. Tibet). The media I saw was fascinating,  Coverage of other nations and local issues such as traffic jams is much like in the West, but all stories at a national level - such as a disputes over territory with Japan and with America the value of China's currency - are basically government press releases with an expert thrown in to back up the official view.

The economic boom is one of the reasons why China is such a terrific country to visit. The amount of construction is staggering - coming in to Xi'an, I counted about 30 cranes putting up skyscrapers. Contrasts are everywhere - there's Developed World roads with Developing World give way (ie non-existent) rules, and ancient temples nestle beside towering apartment and office blocks.

Temple of the Eight Immortals in Xi'an

Much of the old China has been demolished, but you can still see it in places like the surviving hutongs of Beijing, the Old Town of Shanghai or the wonderfully preserved town of Pingyao.

Street in Shangahi Old Town
Chinese tourists love seeing their heritage - 95% of the tourists in almost everywhere we went were Chinese - but there's also a real sense of pride in their recent accomplishments, like the Beijing Olympics or the enormous Shanghai expo.  Shanghai and Beijing are like showyards for incredible modern architecture, from the Bird's Nest stadium to skyscrapers like these.

It's like China is saying "seen all these cool old things, from when we were one of the greatest and most advanced states on the planet? Well, we're back."

They sure are.  There's a famous Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times".  Well, the times are certainly interesting in the Middle Kingdom.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


Tane's blog entry on Melbourne (and the very exciting use of the new tag "Travel in Australia and the Pacific") reminded me of another great trip I did back in 2005 to Tonga. I'd always been curious about Tonga, largely because of having Tongan family connections. My Grandpa was born in Tonga in 1914 as his parents were missionaries there, and my aunt married a Tongan man as well so some of my cousins are Tongan. As I hadn't been to Tonga before, though, these connections meant nothing to me apart from the fact that having an ancestor born there before the 1930s means that I could buy land there should I choose. That, and they fact that I know the Tongan word for 'spicy'.
In 2005, Ngaire and I decided to visit my Uncle and Aunt there, and it was a great week. It was especially neat having them to show us around, give us information about the country, and in the case of my uncle, cut open many a coconut for us to drink. Awesome.

It's true what Tane always says - visiting places where you know someone are always the best. In those trips you gain a greater level of knowledge and appreciation about a place - for example, that the frequent power cuts in Tonga were caused by the then Crown Prince stringing up his Christmas lights. Ngaire and I were talking recently about how glad we are that we went to Tonga when we did, as our Uncle and Aunt live in New Zealand now so we wouldn't have been able to visit them there if we'd gone later. And really, with regard to places when you know someone, that would have been a real shame. I certainly wouldn't have been able to cut open coconuts on my own.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

At last, across the ditch

Hello all,
Crickey, it's been a while since I blogged. To be honest, I've been thinking of blogging as time better spent working on my Great Unwritten Novel, which I've actually made a bit of progress on. Not much as I should of course. For instance, I'd earmarked last Sunday afternoon for writing but instead spent many hours disemboweling a dodgy vacuum cleaner. Such is our exciting domestic life.
Anyhow, we're about to get our backpacks on again and tackle China, which is very exciting. It's gotten me back in the mood for a long-overdue mention of my visit to Melbourne.

Melbourne is one of those cities, like Vancouver or San Francisco, that no one has a bad word for. And guess what? Neither do I. It's very multicultural, with an impressive cityscape, a pretty river, the best market I've ever seen and a stack of cultural attractions - including an excellent musuem (featuring wonderhorse Phar Lap and superb sections on Aboriginies and prehistoric beasts).
The best thing about the visit though - aside from the fact that the flights were free, as it was a work trip - was the mighty MCG, the second most famous cricket ground in the world. It's enormous, holding 100,000 people, but it's the history that really makes it a treat for sports nerds. It's the home of the Australian Sports museum, which I spent hours in (Shane Warne in 3D! Try your foot at kicking Aussie Rules goals!). There's a very cool tapestry of major sporting events that have happened there - Aussie Rules finals, Bledisloe Cup rugby, baseball and of course cricket, wonderful cricket. Almost all of the greats have walked out onto that pitch, including perhaps the greatest sportsperson of all time. This is hallowed ground.

The Don

This was my first visit to Australia, which is rather embarrassing given I've been to 30-odd other countries. It's like English people who've never been to Scotland, or the many Kiwis who've not been to either the South or North Island, but have travelled to the other side of the planet. You take for granted what's in your back yard, thinking you'll get to it sometime, that it won't be new and exciting. And it's true that Melbourne didn't feel exotic - it was rather like a New Zealand city I've not visited - but it was cool. I look forward to my next trip across the ditch.