Posts Tagged 'China'


OM The roads, the roads. Among the most beautiful roads in the world – at least, not the roads themselves, dustiest, bumpiest, potholiest engineering feats – but where they go. Winding and winding up the mountains like a thread round a giant spindle, stretched over the passes with their tattered forests of prayer flags, unwinding down the valleys; spinning together this tremendous landscape of peaks and gorges, the high plains, the wide shallow bowls of scattered boulders and slatey lakes, the steep-sided ravines so lush and bright and tree-filled, light through the leaves almost dazzling after the bleak spare grasslands where you can track the light for miles and miles, turning the clouds into fugitives, herding thunderstorms as the nomads herd yaks. Five o’clock rainbows drift across the hills, growing brighter and brighter; god’s own prayer flags.

MANI They look like spindles or distaffs, the little prayer wheels the pilgrims carry. That’s what they remind me of, turning with the momentum of the weight hanging from the drum of chased and patterned silver and copper. They’re like spindles spinning the thread of prayers from human doubt and hope.

In a tiny dark painted temple, almost too small for the giant prayer wheel it houses, a group of pilgrims is sitting on stools or on the ground, spinning and chanting in overlapping times and tones. You can almost see what they are spinning, almost sense it, the weft and weight of it. Dark faces framed in plaits wound with red wool and silver and bone rings, smiles gleaming as they sit in the gloom chanting and spinning so industriously; this is what they do, this is what they are making, but where does it all go, this thread? Has it a beginning and where is its end?

PADME Clustered on the hilltop, the vultures are so big I think at first from a distance they are yaks. Sitting round-shouldered and patient as bald-headed old men squatting on their heels, waiting for something to happen. They look as if they can wait till the end of the world. Till the end of this, small, world. At seven o’clock this was a solid, well-fed and muscled human being, dead purplish-pink on a green ground. And then when the monks finish chanting, the vultures are invited to descend. At seven o’clock this was a whole body, a complete world. By eight o’clock it is – nothing. His stripped bones have been taken apart and smashed and mixed with tsampa for the birds, and now he has gone utterly and his only memorial has spread its wings and lifted off to wheel round and round, higher and higher, life is ended, life is beginning all over again.

HUM They ride in from the nomad camps on horses, or on motorbikes pimped up like the horses with ribbons and tassels and bright rugs. Cowboys wearing Stetsons and gigantic round sunglasses, silver and coral rings in their long black plaits, walking around town holding hands. Gathered on street corners to trade in caterpillar fungus, that weird work of nature they have crawled over high hills to collect; that’s worth much more than its weight in gold. The red-robed monks stroll up and down, arms draped over each others’ shoulders. In the evenings they wrestle on the river bank; they play basketball without a basket in the square. The low sunlight lights the hillsides green-gold, kindles the prayer flags to luminous flames and tatters. Women in long skirts and sunbonnets walk by, silver knives and snuff boxes hanging from their belts. The street fills with long-horned yaks. The one-eyed dreadlocked dogs, which have slept all day in the bins, wake up to spend all night barking. Barking and barking under the stars; is it gossip, is it argument, just the dreadful unbearable joy of living?


I’m about as far as I’ve ever been, between the horizontal distance over the earth’s surface and the vertical 3700 metres upwards, from the sea. But the ceaseless flap and snap of prayer flags everywhere in this little town is like the sound of sails. The prayer wheels spin like unpinned compasses. The wind roars over the heaving swell and billow of endless grassland. At night I feel as if I’m adrift, far out, marooned in a deep dark ocean.

Cuckoo’s nest

‘Your pictures are a world away from here,’ writes my mum, about the photos I’ve sent her of Western Sichuan. ‘The rhododendrons look quite familiar though – if not their setting – as a result of their mass adoption as garden plants here. I presume cow parsley and may trees haven’t been taken back in return.’

Spring in England: frothing cow parsley and creamy, too-sweet-smelling may. Tall foxgloves and ragged robin and watery sheets of bluebells. Why haven’t these been imported to China?

Those intrepid European plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, carrying back home lilies and rhododendrons and tales of long-haired bandits and red-robed monks and levitating lamas; green tea and calligraphy and bones vulture-picked clean; outlandish customs in unbearably exotic landscapes.

I’m imagining intrepid Chinese and Tibetan plant hunters, carrying back home foxgloves and may trees and tales of – of – what? Satanic mills, stuffed Victorian parlours with piano legs prudishly covered, endless suburban streets of twitching curtains and privet hedges and bungalows named Shangri-La. Fish and Chips, Blackpool rock and salty rock pools, eleven o’clock TIME and beery fights on Saturday nights.

The rhododendrons in my parents’ garden, brought back perhaps by Ernest Henry Wilson (whose travels around here are the subject of various tours), are perfectly at home and, as mum says, hardly look exotic anymore.

I’m imagining bonsai may trees in pots in Chinese courtyards, cow parsley gone native along mountain rivers, grazed by hairy yaks.

And then I hear a cuckoo calling, and I’m transported  straight back to cool leafy English Spring, green and white, the dim lacy lanes. All down this mountain valley in Sichuan the call follows me, to the hot springs, into the snow and out again, up to the sacred lake beneath the glacier where devout Tibetans circle clockwise, balancing stones  in an expanding city of cairns and stupas.

It’s a world away from England. But the cuckoo seems utterly at at home.

Winter comes early in western Sichuan

I have nothing intelligent to say

Fortunately the park administration of the Chengdu Giant Panda Clinic have stepped into the breach:


Divine inspiration

While I’m on the subject of books and respect, maybe it’s time I wrote about the Literature God.

I’ve spent two months or so writing under his shadow, making the traditional sacrifice of blood sweat and tears (actually the blood is usually from a cock’s comb, and stuck with chicken feathers) and the result, I think – I hope – is good. Part two of a novel finished; part three begun and clearly outlined in my head.

In China since the earliest times, progress and success and the keys to the kingdom have depended on a firm grasp of literature. In the palaces of the rulers, flowery poetry and calligraphy written by the Emperor himself – not his weapons, his armed might – took pride of place hanging over the thrones and in pavilions as proof of fitness to rule.

And in distant valleys in Yunnan, a province to which officials who displeased the emperor were exiled, temples were built by village sons who successfully passed the imperial exams and became civil servants. The upper rooms of those temples contain shrines to the God of Literature, pen in hand, foot on a dragon’s head, challenging gaze looking forward to ambitious futures, to flights of fancy.

There’s something  surreal about this. China’s relationship with creativity and inspiration is far from straightforward. For further reading, I recommend ‘Five Letters from a Eastern Empire’ in Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

This is a country that has always had a double-edged respect for Literature, because it has always equated it with Power.

Lost [in] libraries

The peak tram was vertiginous fun. The temples beloved of police and Triads, full of huge hanging spirals of incense and piles of offerings, were atmospheric as Cantonese gangster movies. Riding the rolling Star ferries over the harbour put historic grubby glamour into a trip across town. But what I liked best about Hong Kong was the central library.

Nine wonderful modern floors of space and hush and books books books. Escalators gliding silently up and down; glass lifts. A great coffee shop. Lots and lots of people, from teenagers in old-fashioned school uniform doing their homework to pensioners reading newspapers to toddlers leafing through picture books with their nannies, from Filipino maids writing e-mails home to hopeful foreigners printing out their CVs to literature-starved travellers devouring novels as if there was no tomorrow…

Of course I’ve been starved of English books after eight months travelling. And then there’s the fact that on the shelves I found not one but two copies of a really quite obscure book I’ve been wanting to read for ages as research for the novel I’m working on. But it was clearly not just me who found it a comfortable, useful, inspiring, peaceful, educational haven from the madness of Hong Kong. I wanted to curl up under a less-visited shelf and sleep there.

It’s a legacy of the British in Hong Kong that I found so many English books alongside the shelves and shelves of Chinese ones. Meanwhile, back at home, the British are busy closing down half their libraries.

When I was living in Brent, London, I was lucky enough to have two libraries to choose from. One was small and cosy and friendly, full of mums and toddlers of numberless nationalities, and old people reading crime novels in big print. The other was big and I have to admit, I didn’t like as much; the staff didn’t seem to know much or really care about the books; and then they introduced an electronic loans system which didn’t work properly and which made it far too easy to just lose your loans and never return them. But that library was incredibly busy. EFL classes, workshops on CV-writing and job applications, extra coaching for school kids, launches for this that and the other. Always full of children of all ages who didn’t want to or couldn’t go home – and at least some of them reading books. Always a babble of a hundred different languages and accents (this library was never silent). From the point of view of pure, quiet, old-fashioned respect for books, I didn’t like it all that much, but I went there pretty much every week because as a microcosm of living and working and playing (and sometimes reading) Brent society, it was fantastic.

I’m a long way from Brent now but I am depressed and very angry at the decision of Brent council to close six of its libraries, with apparently only the most spurious logic to back up that decision and an arrogant disregard for what local people want.

What will happen to the spaces that were donated to the people of Brent to use as a community for free? What will happen to all the books?  Maybe they’ll be shipped out to China, where both councils and people still seem to appreciate them (and the power they have…)

Just over the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen is a vast new library, even bigger and busier than the Hong Kong one. Shenzhen has one of the youngest, most varied, and most upwardly-mobile populations of all Chinese cities. People come here from all over the country to get rich – and to get self-educated.

In the English language section of Shenzhen library I found worthy Communist Chinese literature translated into fairly unreadable English, whole sets of Classics, and a selection of very intriguing titles such as The Transvestite Achilles, The Empire of Stereotype, Dracula and the Eastern Question, Beyond Arthurian Romance

God’s gardens part II

I keep bumping into botanists and ethno-botanists and botanical artists in Yunnan, following in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, George Forrest and Jean Marie Delavay.

it seems such an innocently adventurous  life, tramping the world in search of lovely things that grow in wild places. And oh, there are some lovely things growing wild in Yunnan.

Some of them are edible…

some medicinal…

some are used to protect houses from ghosts…

unfortunately as a non-botanist I don’t know much about which ones…

(so if anyone else does, feel free to comment)

I only know that some of them smell as amazing as they look.

Market Day

Friday is market day in Sideng. Villagers from all over the valley come wending their way along the narrow paths down the mountains, in-between the terraced fields, walking single file with woven baskets on their backs to fill up with a week’s purchases, or herding along quick trotting pigs, dainty-hoofed donkeys.

They remind me of the shepherds walking to church in Samuel Palmer’s pictures. South China is a world away from Palmer’s visionary Kent but there’s something similar about the sudden round hills and steep narrow side valleys of Shaxi, the courtyard farms and wayside shrines, the clouds of white blossom, the long golden light of evening that seems to coat everything in dust and honey.

Back they go from the market, their baskets full of pea sprouts and pigs trotters, giant radishes and miniature mangoes, green canvas shoes and bright stripy skirts, mouldy tofu and flapping fish and fat pink incense sticks and whirling windmill toys for children…

It looks nicer from further away

All the travellers and tourists – both Chinese and foreign – I meet in Chinese villages end up talking about the same thing. How we are here just in time; how progress in the next few years is going to change and destroy these unspoiled places forever.

It’s easy to talk like that when you are slumming it for one night in a poor family’s house, sharing the very little they have but which they give so freely; perched on the tiniest stools in the world round their smoky fire (no chimney) and eating their sausage which hangs from the rafters only to be eaten on special occasions like a visit from you.

Peter Goullart lived in Lijiang, Yunnan, in the 1940s. In his book Forgotten Kingdom (a title rendered utterly ironic by subsequent history – Lijiang is now one of China’s top tourist destinations and is the yardstick against which the travellers I mentioned measure all other Chinese villages beginning to attract tourists) he describes nearby villages that are unimaginably poor. The people have no furniture at all; and practically no clothes. In one village the children sleep together in huge nests in the trees because, he was told, ‘ “We are very poor and have no bedding. At night it is very cold so the children sleep there for warmth.’ Indeed there they were – huddled in the dry leaves with only a rag between them to cover themselves.’

Progress in China has rescued these people from such unthinkable poverty. I think the poorest villages I’ve been to were in Nujiang, where there were children with no shoes walking along the stony old horse caravan route to Wuli, carrying baskets on their backs (slung from their foreheads) full of packages of noodles and bottles of rice wine. The coming Nujiang dam project might drown that village, but it might also mean that child’s parents will be able to afford to buy him some shoes.

“It’s not as nice as it looks from further away,” said Mr Luo, the retired school teacher from Wuli. From further away across the river, Wuli hovers like a dream of perpetual sunshine and emerald green grass beneath those high mountains and a sky so darkly blue you can’t believe it has so much light in it.

Close up, Wuli looks enchanting too. Faded pastel prayer flags snap in the wind, the wooden water wheels in the river turn slowly. There are thin rootling black pigs; the simple, dark wooden houses are adorned with bunches of drying gold maize and striped woven cloth hung from washing lines.

Outside Mr Luo’s house, two very pretty, very grubby snotty-nosed children stop their game to stare at us and finally smile. Later, over glasses of tea around his smoking fire, Mr Luo tells us they are his grand-daughters, abandoned by their alcoholic father because they are unwanted girls. Now both of their parents have left, and it is up to Mr Luo to somehow look after them. His wife died two weeks before we arrived.

It is a rare look, not from further away but from up close, of what life in unspoiled rural China can be like.

In the lovely Dong villages of south-east Guizhou, Mr Yang tells me he asked a woman what she does when her husband beats her. In the cities, she would have recourse to the courts, she could get a divorce. Here in the village, “I cry,” she replies.

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