Archive for the 'travel' Category

God and the State, Russian style (part II)

Spas na Krovi – the Church of the Saviour on the Blood – was built on the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

With its domes outside like brightly coloured twirls of ice-cream, and glittering mosaics covering every inch of wallspace inside that isn’t covered in polished marble, it’s as gaudy as the cloth of gold Lord Frederic Hamilton recalls as the only notable thing about the Tsar’s funeral.

In the later Soviet era, the building was used to store props from the Maly Opera Theatre. Appropriately, since the whole building looks like some over-the-top and faintly ridiculous piece of stage scenery. The scrolloping shrine over the cobblestones where the Tsar was blown up was once carved of marbles and jaspers from Siberia and the Caucasus. The top section is now an imitation, painted pasteboard, because the original got destroyed by some careless theatrical Communist…

(Or  played the part of an especially heavy and expensive prop in some long-forgotten Soviet-realist opera)

Alexander II got a gigantic overblown church as gravestone. His assassins got a gallows. In one of his books, Frederic Hamilton describes how he watched them being driven to their execution in open tumbrels, accompanied by brass bands playing incessantly loud and inappropriately cheerful marches. This was supposed to prevent them from addressing the crowds and inciting further revolutionary violence.

They considered themselves martyrs to the cause. The Tsar, meanwhile, was by implication joining the ranks of Christian martyrs depicted on the walls of Spas na Krovi.

The cause carried on; six years later to the day, a group of young revolutionists tried to assassinate Alexander II’s successor, Alexander III. They were arrested before they even got the bombs out of their pockets. The bombs they’d made were so amateur they would not have gone off anyway. One of them was Lenin’s older brother Alexander.

More than fifty years and the  revolution later, when the city had a name neither the assassinated Tsar nor hanged Alexander Ulyanov could possibly have guessed, during the siege of Leningrad the memorial church was used as a morgue for all the nameless dead.

On this Sunday morning the church is full of a different kind of worshipper than the Spaso-Preobrazhensky up the road. Tourists at the altar of history and luxury. I drift around from tour group to tour group, listening to the guides.

One of them is telling the stories behind the biblical scenes depicted in the huge wall mosaics. Her middle-aged Russian flock, deprived of religion through years of Communism, listen as dutifully as Sunday-school children.

Another describes the expensive and painstaking process by which the smalti glass mosaic tiles were made. A third is explaining why there are blank spaces on the iconostasis – the icons and decorations disappeared sometime during the Soviet era, when the church was looted by the heroic revolutionary proletariat/by dishonest amoral opportunists (delete as appropriate).

“And why hasn’t the museum returned these icons, you ask,” the guide says fiercely ( no one has asked). “Because we don’t know where they are, that’s why! They were stolen, these treasures of the Russian empire, and never returned, and maybe some rich person has them now in some private collection…”  she purses her lips and scowls, it’s clearly a personal affront, this theft of her heritage of gold-framed icons and crosses carved of rock crystal.

From high mosaic domes the sad-eyed saints and virgins look down at Putin’s citizens enjoying the splendours of Imperial Russia. The revolutionaries might never have existed. Light falls in through the high windows in pale, dusty blades. Outside, St Petersburg hums with sun and Sunday, the homeless and the impoverished grandmothers line up with their plastic cups and pathetic begging notices, while inside in gilt and smalti Jesus is feeding the five thousand.

All photos from 

Dreaming the revolution

Shushenskoye, in south Siberia, is where Lenin lived in exile between 1897 and 1900. Devoted Nadezhda Krupskaya came to join him, mother in tow, and married him here.

It’s hard to sympathise with revolutionary fervour repressed by a brutal totalitarian regime when you see where they lived. Large light airy rooms in a house with a pillared porch and a vine-covered arbour and flowers in the yard (sweet peas and pansies and marigolds – the same flowers still carefully planted and tended by museum staff). Inside, a desk, a bookcase, a samovar, a hunting rifle. They were even paid a monthly government pension to live here.

Here Lenin read his revolutionary books and wrote his revolutionary tracts, and Krupskaya worked as his secretary and tended the flowers, while her mother kept house for them, and all around the stable-owners and traders and beekeepers and prison officials – kulaks, rich peasants – lived as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had lived, snug as bugs in their flammable wooden houses, little knowing what spark burned in their midst.

Lenin’s room. Photo by Sayana Mongush

They are so lovely, these wooden houses (whole streets of them carefully preserved in Shushenkoye museum). So neat and cosy and perfectly designed for long cold Siberian winters;  the bunk above the stove and the fat brass samovar and the scrubbed wooden table under the icons, geraniums in the windows of the parlour, the sewing machine in the corner, birch-bark boxes and carved wooden spoons on the shelves with the teapot and the saucers for raspberry varenya. Outside the horses munched hay in long wooden barns; the families heated themselves to boiling point and sweated and scrubbed themselves with bunches of birch twigs in the banya. Even the poor peasant’s tiny one-room hut is bright and clean, with its flowered cotton curtains and the baby’s cradle hanging from the ceiling.

I have a whole imaginary picture of Shushenskoye in 1898, packed with romantic exiles, Decemberists and Narodniki and Polish nationalists with curling moustaches and old-fashioned aristocratic pronunciation, sitting round the samovar excitedly discussing poetry and art and war and revolution in French, full of the latest news from Petersburg (only four months late), while outside the thick soft snow falls, falls, falls, and the bears roam, and the wild unwashed Tuvans and Khakhassians beat their shamans’ drums round the ova on the hill; deep in the taiga the Old Believers study the bloodlines recorded on the front page of the family bible to see whom their sons and daughters may safely marry; in the snug one-room izbushka Masha and Vanya are curled up on the stove sucking their fingers as they listen to Uncle Petya’s stories…

And at the end of the street in his warm study sits Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will soon become Lenin; that new breed of revolutionary, not romantic at all, cold-bloodedly planning the wholesale destruction of this Siberian fairytale.

But I suppose in truth it was not like this at all, and it must have been hard enough to be sent away from urban industrial intellectual revolutionary St Petersburg to this remote backwater where the men drink and beat their wives, the streets are knee-deep in mud and the houses crawl with flies; the rich peasants exploit the poor ones, the village administration locks up whom it likes in the stockaded prison; in her unbearably cramped one room hut the woman worn out with bearing eighteen children knows she will never ever have anything nice for herself, never escape from this one room, and she sits unable to think, unable to do anything but mindlessly rock the cradle where the baby sucks on a rag soaked in pig fat and home-made vodka, the sores blooming round its mouth like a ring of roses…

And I have a whole other imaginary picture of Lenin and Krupskaya forced to attend the festival I went to in Shushenkoye, supposedly to celebrate the ecology and biodiversity of the Yenisei river and protect it from some unspecified environmental threat.

A dreary gathering on a concrete embankment of the Yenisei, adorned with graffiti and broken glass, in the rain. The ensemble of large Soviet matrons in their fifties, gamely smiling under stiff dyed and permed hairdos, knowing they look ridiculous in their turquoise satin gowns and headdresses hung with plastic pearls, singing (out of tune) songs about the water and the birch trees and friendship and smiling children and and United Are We by the Mighty Yenisei, all the cheap rubbishy sentimental rhymes that are so easy to make in Russian, here made up by the local bard, Vladimir Vladimirovich or whatever his name is, Vladimir Ilyich, and I think the original Vladimir Ilyich would absolutely hate it, the petty bourgeois self-satisfaction and aspiration thinly laid over a pit of deep anxiety and despair, the meaningless slogans, the cheap imitation of real culture, real tradition –

but it is all his fault, this ensemble, this scruffy concrete embankment, the crappy slogans (Children of One River, whatever that means, an annual ecological festival approved – of course – by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, tsar nebesny), the dresses made of cheap synthetic fabric from China, the dark-eyed children from the children’s home dutifully reciting rubbish poetry; orphans, abandoned – all this is the result of the revolution, this is what it made of Siberia.

Photo by Sayana Mongush

Just outside Shushenkoye is Lenin’s shalash, the birch-branch bender where he spent a few hours once when out hunting. As children, a Russian friend tells me, we believed this was where Lenin lived, poor Lenin, persecuted and sentenced to freeze his arse off for years in a birch-branch shelter in the middle of the taiga. We didn’t realise that really he was living in bourgeois comfort in town and went off hunting bears now and then for fun, like some rich oligarch.

Shushenkoye airport, where once plane-loads of pilgrims arrived to pay their respects at Lenin’s shalash, stands overgrown and abandoned now. In the museum, the visitors want to be photographed next to the samovar, carrying the milk pails, with the woman dressed up in traditional Russian costume selling painted wooden spoons.

No one takes a photo of Lenin’s statue. No one buys a Lenin mug.

Where the moon lives

“This here is a churn in which our Siberian forebears used to make butter…”

Thus the guide in one of the traditional Russian houses preserved in Shushenskoe museum in central Siberia. The chattering Russian tourists pose for photos beside the tall wooden churn, holding the paddle, just as they’ve posed pretending to carry the yoked milk pails, pull the plough, work the lathe.

I’ve just come from western Tuva, about 400 kilometers south of Shushenskoye, on the edge of Siberia. It’s a place few Russian tourists visit. There every winter wooden hut and summer aal (yurt) contains a tall wooden churn in which each day the whey (from yak and cows’ milk) is separated from the curds, and the curds dried and then pressed into hard, sour kurut, while the whey is heated over the stove and fermented into araki, milk vodka.

There three silent women in an aal place before us fresh bread baked in a flat round wok on the stove, topped with a dollop of butter-thick sour cream and sprinkled with sugar. The children watch us with wide eyes. We drink endless bowls of salty milky tea poured from the kettle.

We have scarcely a word in common – if the women can speak Russian they mostly choose not to. They are the most courteously taciturn people in the world, the inhabitants of Mongun-Taiga. We tell them who we are, where we are from and where we’re going (S. offering the local names of mountain passes and rivers like talismans to win favour or recognition), but they don’t ask. I can’t imagine what they really think of us, two strangers from Europe (where is it, this Europe?) with our rucksacks and hiking boots, asking for shelter.

With the toddler I play peep-o and tag round the aal; he takes refuge in his fortress (an upturned wooden crate) and shoots me with his gun (a scrap of asbestos roofing) as I attack him with the cavalry (the front half of a tricycle – one wheel and the handlebars). Back in the aal he shows me his one book, of illustrated Russian fairytales, and I learn the Tuvinian words for wolf and fox, bear and goat and sheep and rabbit. When we get to the stories about tsars and yellow-haired bogatyrs, he points to the horses (“aat, aat”) but he has no word for the golden-domed churches and white-walled kremlins, they mean nothing to him.

We sleep lying on the floor all in a row, the children sandwiched between the women under fat quilts of cheap Chinese satin with the stuffing coming out. All night we bake gently in the heat from the stove.

In the morning the air is like ice, and snowy Mongun-Taiga mountain trails swathes of blue and pink mist. Mongun-Taiga  is where the moon lives, in Tuvan folktales. These people wake up to this glorious view each morning; the vast shining golden plain, this loneliness, floating in crystalline air. Why would they comment on it when they are yaks to be milked, sheep to let loose from their pen, home and livelihood to inspect for the night-time depredations of wolves and cattle-thieves?

They say nothing, but when we leave, his mother brings the little boy to the door of the aal to wave goodbye.

Photo by Stanislav Krupar


Or: three days by train from Moscow to central Siberia.

The landscape outside is turning gradually yellower with autumn. Otherwise it might be a reel  rolling around and repeating, repeating, repeating itself. Birches and poplars and pines and larches; villages of square wooden houses with frilled window frames and gardens bright with pumpkins and dahlias; every six hours or so a larger town of Soviet tower blocks, rows of scruffy corrugated-iron garages, a vast river we cross clackety-clack on a metal bridge and then the endless pines birches larches begin again. The larches haven’t yet begun to turn; now the birches have brilliant hanging golden tresses among the green.

We’re already three hours ahead of Moscow time. The attendant turns off the carriage lights at night, the radio on in the morning, strictly according to local time even though the timetable on her door and the clocks at all the stations tell Moscow time.

The attendant’s cabin at the end of the carriage is adorned with strings of mushrooms hung up to dry.

At the bigger stations where the train stops for twenty minutes or more, stray dogs linger hopefully, a tentative foreleg on the step of the carriage as if considering hitching a ride to find a new life, a new kindly owner. A woman from the train walks her ridiculous trimmed poodle decorated with blue curlers along the platform.

A Khakhassian ex-army man on the lower bunk is teaching me to play the khomus (jew’s harp). Opposite a beekeeper from Novosibirsk treats us to spoonfuls of honey from a huge red bucket. “Don’t thank me, thank the bees. I only robbed them.” Further down the carriage a man in camouflage pyjamas is talking about gold and fishing, those two great Siberian themes. By the carriage samovar a baby-faced criminal graduate from a children’s home offers me instant coffee and tells me, in Russian that’s mostly swearing, his short and violent life story. We all sort of know each other by now.

Apart from me, no one has a book to read. Only cheap newspapers full of Putin propaganda. Putin is a constant theme. No one entirely likes him, but no one has an alternative. Only regret for the passing of the good old days of free housing (that you had to wait ten years for), free holidays (in dreary sanatoriums), free entrance to Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Georgia, those pesky republics that have inexplicably decided they no longer want to be part of the great Russian Empire. “Of course we lived more modestly then, but at least we were all the same…” They lie in their pink Russian Railway sheets, doing crosswords, drinking sugary tea, watching this endless Siberia go by, all the same, post-Soviet citizens.

Looking down the carriage I’m reminded irresistibly of a morgue; rows of bare feet and the occasional head sticking out off the end of stacked shelves.  If morgues had pink sheets and played Russian pop hits of the 80s and 90s. Oom-pa oom-pa; lyubov, lyubov

There’s a huge rose and turquoise sunset sky now, and patches of still, gleaming water between the birch trees. Behind us in the west we’re leaving a stripe of vivid gold. At a sedately rocking fifty kilometers per hour we chase the darkness.


I’m feeling traumatised. Lost. I’m having an identity crisis.

I’ve just bought a new rucksack.

Actually it wasn’t so much buying the new one that was traumatic, it was retiring the old one. I’ve had my rucksack since I was twenty. My granny gave me the money to buy it. And it’s been everywhere with me, ever since.

It’s the one that got lost the day I arrived in Prague for my first attempt at living abroad (and later turned up with the bus station police, thank goodness). It would have been new and shiny and bright red and blue then.

It’s the one that went with me by train to Ukraine for the first time, that went from Ukraine to Finland on buses and ferries, that went to Uzbekistan where I was nearly deported (for not having the right visa) and I had to fill it with gigantic torpedo-shaped melons to bribe the local police with.

It went to the top of a volcano in Kamchatka, looking a lot less brightly red and blue by that time. It was used to carry freshly (illegally) caught salmon on the Kuril islands. Kittens and once a Mongolian baby have used it as an impromptu bed.

In Tuva in 2010. Photo by Stanislav Krupar

A clip was replaced in Crimea, a new zip fitted on Sakhalin, one of the straps gave way half-way up a mountain in Tuva and my friend mended it with cobbler’s thread. A broken zip handle was fixed with a keyring from Georgia; in Tibetan China a new top was sewn on by an old man making prayer flags.

It’s a patchwork of where I’ve gone and who I’ve met there. It’s been my home on the road.

And now it’s in honorary retirement, in my friend’s attic in London.

Without it on my back, I’m not sure I know who I am. I’m on the road with a new, characterless, history-less rucksack.

(At least it’s a nice colour, i.e., not pink – can you believe that reputable outdoor/camping/trekking companies actually think women want their hardcore 70l+ rucksacks to be PINK????)

I hope it starts getting some character and history this trip. Or else I’m going to lose it at the next bus station or airport carousel because I won’t recognise it and will be waiting for my old, battered, faded, much-repaired red and blue rucksack to appear, and waiting in vain, in vain.

Save a library

Kensal Rise Library in Brent has been kept alive by volunteers and activists for over a year – the last chance to save it ends tomorrow. Please help the campaign if you can. I’ve blogged about it in more detail over on ABBA.

I’m not doing too well at keeping up with two blogs. Here’s the link I forgot to put up to my last post on ABBA. 

Off to Ukraine tomorrow, and then Siberia. Four days on the train and forty(ish) days in the wilderness…

The People’s Liberation Army shoe

I’m not sure there’s a better symbol for how far China has come, and how much further it may go, than the People’s Liberation Army shoe.

For a start, its name. There is something inexpressibly heroic and yet pathetic in a whole army marching the length and breadth of one of the largest countries in the world without boots.

Liberation Army shoes(解放鞋 jie fang xie*) are khaki-coloured canvas, with rubber soles. They are, even by Chinese standards, cheap: around 10 Yuan, or one pound a pair. They stink fishily after you’ve worn them a couple of times. They’re brilliant. I love them – lots of foreigners do, they’re so cheap and practical.

At my very rough guess, maybe around 600 million people in China are wearing Liberation Army shoes at any given hour of any day. So who is providing all this footwear? I didn’t think about that all that much until I had to do some research into HIV prevalence in China, and government laws regarding injecting drug use (which is the main route for spreading the infection). That led me to make another guess:

drug users, I found out, can be put into compulsory rehabilitation centres (they used to be called re-education through labour centres) where, among other activities which seem to include little actual rehab, they are put to work making shoes.

For up to three years, unpaid and unregulated.

I still wear my Liberation Army shoes, but with slightly less glee now. My friend Mr Zhou can’t bear them. He, along with most Chinese people, had nothing else to wear for years and years and years and years.

Nowadays, Mr Zhou’s city brethren are more likely to wear North Face and Merrell knock-offs. But in rural China (where you can still encounter the Mao suit) the Liberation Army shoe is ubiquitous. Nakhi people wear them to climb over snowy passes, Dong to wade through ankle-deep mud. I’ve been on hikes up mountains and through jungle and flooded paddy fields, all the tourists (Chinese and foreign) slipping and sliding in their expensive heavy hiking boots, while the locals twinkle past effortlessly sure-footed in their Liberation Army shoes.

In the cities, Liberation Army shoes are only for labourers – immigrants from the countryside – and I as a foreigner wearing them get laughed at. (It took me a while to understand why people kept finding my feet hilarious, I thought maybe it was just that they were too big or something).

In Hong Kong, no one gives my footwear a glance. Hong Kong has moved so far ahead, it no longer knows what the People’s Liberation Army shoe is.

*thanks Mr Zhou for the Chinese

Rosetta plays roulette

Macao believes in gods and in luck.

It’s full of stuccoed Catholic churches where the red votive candles flicker; of small, brightly-coloured Taoist temples packed with offerings: sweets and oranges and roast pigs and waxy lotuses, coils of incense filling the air with smoky sweetness, piles of paper money burning, burning burning up in smoke. It’s full of giant, brilliantly-lit casinos where to the click of the dice, ping of the bell, spin of the wheel, snap of the cards, the money figuratively burns, burns, burns.

It’s luck or it’s fate or it’s the hand of the gods.

“Of course I play roulette, I have to, it’s my name,” Rosetta tells me. Most Chinese people choose their English names themselves. I wonder which came first for Rosetta, the name or the game.

“Of course there’s a system,” she tells me in-between winning some, losing some. “Are you trying to tell me there’s no system in the universe? You’re English, from the same country as Newton. Newton had insight, he understood the order in the universe.”

I wonder if Newton was a gambler.

“I never found order in life,” Rosetta tells me, scribbling down numbers on pieces of paper. “But I found it in the casino.”

I wonder how much money she’ll take away at the end of the night – or day, or tomorrow night, because there’s no night or day here, no today or tomorrow. The croupiers change over every forty minutes or so but otherwise it’s all the same: the lighting, the music, the smoke-disguising smell, the free drinks, the smiling, sharp-eyed security guards, the cleaners picking up specks of lint from the thick thick carpets.

In Macao museum, I look at tombs for crickets. Miniaturely grand stone edifices for the erstwhile champions of Macao’s gambling obsession. Crowds used to turn out in their thousands to watch prize fights; to attend the funerals of heroes.

Cricket fighting’s out of fashion now. From micro, Macao has gone macro – casinos the size of villages, marooned in a vast building site where even bigger casinos are going up, looming like baroque battleships behind the glittering Venetian, the City of Dreams.

It’s luck or it’s fate or it’s the hand of the gods.

In the protestant graveyard are grey tombs of the people who lost. Who caught tropical fevers, who fell into the ship’s hold, who were shot by cannon, who gave up. They are so lonely, these graves. They’ve been put up by shipmates or office colleagues or succeeding consuls who don’t even know how old the dead man was (they are nearly all men). They’ve been carved by people who can’t even spell. The dead are defined by their jobs – soldier, sailor, company agent – and while there are some ‘esteemed’, some ‘regreted’ (sic), there are no Beloved Husbands, no Dearly Loved sons, no Deeply Missed.

I wonder why these colleagues and shipmates felt the need to state in stone who erected the grave. To show there was someone who cared about the decencies, about the deceased? In the hope that someone would do the same for them when they were swept away by fever or a fall, so far from home.

I stay a cheap night in a former brothel on Rua da Felicidade, the street of happiness (I didn’t win at roulette – so much for Newtonian insight). Partitioned rooms not much bigger than protestant graves and a lot more flimsy.  It’s full of Philippino workers chasing luck and employment, calling their families back home on mobile phones, being deeply missed and dearly loved.

In the morning the whole street smells of almond biscuits, and I’ve dreamed about a regreted, long dead ship’s boy called The Peunington.

All tomorrow’s parties

But what did you do in those Chinese villages? my city friends ask me. Didn’t you get bored with hiking about in the wilderness, and crave some society, some culture, some fun?

A lot of the time I was writing my book, and craved solitude and long hikes. But a lot of the time, I was going to parties.

The Bai, the Miao and the Dong, the Tibetans and Lissu – they do love a good party. Like followers of traditional calendars everywhere, they find endless occasion: sowing and harvest; full moon and flood; birth, marriage, death of people and of gods; house-warming and tomb-sweeping; arrivals and departures, beginnings and ends. And they are always happy to share the occasion with random visitors. If it involves said visitor making a total fool of herself, so much the better…

In the Bai region of Yunnan it’s the grandmothers who keep the world going, the calendar pages turning, the parties full of food, dancing, pageantry, laughter. They do love to laugh. To dress up the tombs and temples and houses (not themselves; it’s the old men who dress up in cardboard crowns) with bright flags and flowers and paper people and paper money. To dance around, tinkling cymbals and tapping drums. To feed, and ply with baijiu (rice wine) the five thousand.

Every month there’s a festival in one of the many temples scattering Shaxi valley, and it’s a fabulous and hilarious privilege to be invited to join in, to eat and eat, to sit on a tiny bench watching the performance, to be dragged up to dance with a huge bunch of paper flowers or a china bowl containing a lit candle – balanced on my head.

The locals are all so delighted, dashing about the temple, bowing to the gods, reciting prayers, gossiping and openly laughing when it all goes a bit pear-shaped… I’ve no idea of the religious significance of any of it, or why they made me dance with a bowl on my head. I suspect there was no significance, they were just making it up as they went along, propitiating the gods just in case, and having a lot of fun.

Rambling between villages in Guizhou province, we stumbled over a Miao house-warming party and were invited in for food and drink – drink – drink. Old men already so drunk they couldn’t stand up; aunties and grandmothers, those ones who keep the word turning, busy making everyone else drunk with their endless bowls of wine dipped from clay jars, which have to be drained to the bottom not once but twice; younger sisters looking after the babies. The family’s four sons were all there, even the one who was working in Fujian province, in the city, and who wandered off with his girlfriend to walk moodily hand in hand through the paddy fields; two modern children, not charmed by rural excess; a bit bored now they knew what else life had to offer.

Later there will be dancing; there will be bull-fighting, they promise, filling up our wine bowls yet again. I am kidnapped; carried off to the upper village and presented like a hunting trophy to various households, to a succession of shyly, sweetly smiling small girls trying out their few words of English and showing me their battered school books; more food; more wine; up to the village hall where the bronze drum is hauled out of storage and hefted down to the square and the former communist party leader begins to bong and blong, the giggling small girls and a few chuckling grannies begin to dance and laugh when I get the steps wrong, round and round we go or maybe it’s the world that’s going round and round, the strings of drying yellow maize and red chillies, the dark wooden houses jumbled along steep cobbled pathways and the pink pigs peeking out from their sties, the gigantic stairs of the rice terraces stepping up the mountain, peopled with hay stacks like shaggy giants wearing topknots of pine branches –

and now I’m in another little dark house, sitting on a miniature stool by the embers with another lot of people I’ve never seen before all chomping and slurping, staring at me with shiny eyes, solemn staring babies peeking over their parent’s shoulders, and I feel like a pink pig, like a giant puppet pig in a tiny puppet show, in a Miao Punch-and-Judy, and I really don’t want any more baijiu thankyouverymuch – and I tiptoe away when no one is looking and stagger back to the lower village, where I find my Chinese companion has been tucked up in bed by our hosts to sleep off the alcohol and I’m on my own where no one speaks English and everything’s broken…

Palaces for piglets

Kaiping, in Guangdong (Canton) province, was the heart of the piglet trade.

Around the turn of the 20th century, thousands of impoverished Chinese were tricked into going abroad in search of streets paved with gold, money showering down from trees. What they found instead: more poverty, exploitation,  heartless countries that did not love them, would not understand them, only wanted them to make money out of them…

Translation of a typical advertisement recruiting Chinese workers (from the Overseas Chinese museum, Zili Cun)

The same old story. Nowadays, it’s called people-trafficking.

But still, there were opportunities to be had. For every ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred who lost everything, who never came back, there were the few who returned to China with their pockets lined with money and their heads full of grand ideas. These are the ones who built the Kaiping diaolou (watchtowers).

Every village and small town in this area is a grey jumble of tall concrete towers and balustraded concrete mansions, all in a strange and forbidding sort of Disney architecture, a half-remembered or half-understood approximation of Scottish castle mixed with Italian villa.

They were villagers, these men and boys who went overseas and worked in laundries and building railroads; hard-working, single-minded, self-taught and self-made. You can see it in the style of their buildings. The diaolou have none of the elegance of traditional Chinese architecture, nor the frivolous charm or grace of the European classical or gothic or baroque, the romance of those castles they imitate. What they have got is a defensive boldness, a sort of single-minded self-confidence and determination. Fortified to keep out thieves and bandits, fancified to impress the neighbours.

They are very ugly, most of them, but incredibly atmospheric; each village with its fancy, falling-down front of grand buildings facing a duckpond where geese sit under umbrellas in bamboo enclosures, and narrow dark alleys behind threading between the high forbidding walls. Kaiping district must have been rich for such a short time, when the piglets, the overseas Chinese, came back. But then everyone who could afford to left again.

Now these towns and villages are frozen in the 1930s. They look like wild west towns after the gold rush has gone. Sleepy and crumbling, trees and cacti growing out of the grand facades, broken stained-glass window panes and cracked tile floors, rooms full of abandoned bedsteads and bureaus. Photographs of the owners still hang on the walls, a glimpse of that fascinating turning point, when the nearly 300-year-long Qing dynasty was coming to an end and China was giving in to the modern world, when men still had long plaited queues but wore western suits, when women bobbed their hair and dressed in fitted qipaos.

In a room at the top of every diaolou is the ancestral shrine, of carved and gilded wood and painted glass. A reminder that family is everything.

Childless (son-less) wives of the men who emigrated and never came home to them would adopt boys, to ensure that the family name carried on. And then there were the paper sons and daughters. Paper children born out of fire, because it was after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed all the immigration records that the city’s Chinese population could claim US citizenship and therefore the right to bring their foreign-born children into the country – or, after visits home, claim new births.

These made birthright ‘slots’ – children who existed only on paper – which could be sold to young people to enable them to come to America.

And that’s where they still are, leaving their (true or adopted or bought) ancestors’  pretensions to grandeur, a family life in the Old Country, to moulder and crumble into the palm trees and the flowered creepers and duckponds. Lots of the diaolou now are home only to ducks and geese – and piglets.

Mr Jiang, an overseas Chinese from Canada, wanders among the diaolou, lifting the trails of creepers, turning over the clutter of crockery and broken balustrades, looking for history, for beauty, for clues about ownership. “No one cares about the architecture,” he says sadly. “No one cares about the past of these places.” An old couple living alone in great echoing mansion (all they can find to fill it are a few tiny stools, a heap of firewood, some cooking pots) show us around its high empty rooms and grand staircases, delighted if bemused to have visitors.

Mr Jiang wants to buy one or several diaolou, to preserve them as museums or as holiday homes, if he can track down who to buy them from. It seems an impossible task to an outsider, especially since entire villages have the same surname. But the village is everything. Family is still, even overseas, even after all this time, everything. In Chinatowns all over Canada and the US, everyone knows each other, Mr Jiang says. He will ask about such and such diaolou in such and such village, and someone will know who it belongs to, will remember family.

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