Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shanghai heights

Arriving back yesterday after around 72 hours of marginally interupted travel meant that I was never going to get anything terribly productive done. Today has been suprisingly smooth, given the mosquito buzz filled slumber I got last night but I'm now flagging.

I did take the opportunity yesterday to go through a few photos from Shanghai, though I'm yet to go through my eclipse photos in the detail they need yet.

I was in Shanghai for around five days before heading West for the eclipse and had a good length of time to do all the very touristy things which I've never had a chance to do there before (last time I was in the city for 24 hours for a wedding). This included a trip to the top of the Jinmao tower, China's second tallest building, just next to the tallest building, the bottle opener (depending on who you ask - if you ask anyone in China they will tell you that the Taipei 101 is the tallest building in China).

From the top you get a good sense of the scale of this city of 20 million and the amazing variety of architecture, in the skyscrapers, in the Bund and in the burgeoning sprawl which goes on into the haze of rippling heat and smog-filled air.

From the inside the Jinmao tower is spectacular. Around half way up you'll find a hotel which can be peered at from the observation deck around the 80th floor and the seeming helix of mezzanine levels is hypnotic:
Inside the Jinmao tower
Looking out you also get a series of stunning views, of the river:
Panorama from the Jinmao
and of the buildings around:
Pearl tower panorama
One of my favourite views takes in this triptych of the sharp edges of the Jinmao, the towering reflection of the bottle opener, and the swathe of the city into the distance:
Shanghai triptych
All photos can be clicked for larger versions.

During the many hours of traveling over the last few days I was able both to read a great deal and also to make some plans for myself for the next few weeks and in general for the next year. For now there are things which I need to get finished in the coming days and so I'll get on with processing the rest of the photos either when the current tasks are finished or when jet-lag means that my brain is too mushy to do anything more academic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Ten hours on a train from Beijing to Shanghai, eleven hours in a plane from Shanghai to Frankfurt, an hour from Frankfurt to Heathrow, an hour and a half in a bus from Heathrow to Stansted, four hours on the floor overnight in Stansted airport, two hours stood in queues in Stansted, two hours from Stansted to Santiago - home, tired, happy, in need of nutrients, will update when lucid thoughts flow with less interuption from bodily needs.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Shanghai as it goes by

All good to in China though this will be a quick update.

Shanghai has been mind-bogglingly, roastingly hot, hovering between 35 and 40 all of this week with very high humidity. Luckily I enjoy the heat a great deal and when I don't have to wear long trousers feel very comfortable in these conditions.

Sadly the predictions for the next couple of days are not looking good for the eclipse so I'm going to be heading off tomorrow West to Wuhan by train where the sun promises to show itself not showing itself. Wuhan looks to be even hotter than Shanghai and the heat index for Thursday is set to be a completely unreasonable 64 degrees centigrade! The heat index is supposed to reflect how the air actually feels, taking into account the humidity and other factors which affect how well your body is able to cool down. I plan on being well out of the city by then, hoping currently to head up to Beijing or Qingdao on the afternoon of the eclipse.

Apart from that I've been hugely enjoying my time in Shanghai and while I don't know the city at all, I feel very much at home in a Chinese metropolis, with the chaos, the smells, the people and the food all making me feel very settled here as soon as I arrived. I'm staying with a friend of a friend in the French concession which is a particularly pleasant part of the city, with thin tree-lined avenues and European style buildings branching off little side-streets. The chaos continues here however and there is no lack of street vendors, dodgy KTV parlours and fake designer hand-bag shops.

I've been getting my fill of exotic food whenever possible, though the heat and a few days of stomach troubles have stopped me from devouring at full throttle as I had planned. I definitely expect to get back to some old favourites in Beijing if I do end up there.

Anyway, I hope to expand some more on my thoughts on Shanghai with plenty of weird and wonderful stories when I get back to Spain in a little more than a week, with photo accompaniment but for now we're off for a quick drink on the Bund and a view of the lights of the city at night.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

and on that note...

I leave in a couple of hours on my Shanghai adventure. I have almost no plans for the next two weeks which is perfect in my book - I like to travel with a blank slate in front of me. I will arrive in Shanghai tomorrow afternoon and am staying with a friend of a friend somewhere in the city and then who knows. I'll spend a while finding where is likely to have the best weather conditions for the eclipse on the 22nd and try and make my way there by train, bus or boat, depending on where it turns out to be.

I have a lightly packed bag, weighed down mostly with camera bits and pieces, and books. To this I need get hold of a guide to Shanghai as I've never spent more than a couple of days there and would like to spend some time getting lost in the city.

Current thoughts are of possibly heading in the directions of Huang Shan, Nanjing, Qingdao or back to Chengdu, depending on timing and trains, but I think I'm going to leave that until the moment I'm at the station and really have to decide.

Anyway, from what I understand, most useful internet means of communication are blocked these days, but I'll do my best to get online when I have a chance and update you with my latest traveladventures....

The Beijing of Possibilities - A review

I met Jonathan Tel back in Beijing around three years ago when he came to research his latest book. He contacted me as an expat to discuss some of my views on life in the city and we met for a meal in a Hunan restaurant on the North side of Haouhai lake.We spent a few enjoyable hours talking string theory, writing, travel and food (in a past incarnation Jonathan had been heading the way of the theoretical physicist).

Shortly after this I read Freud's Alphabet, Jonathan's second novel, which I now realise never received the full review it deserved. It's a dream-like look at the last days of Freud's life and the playful language alters as Freud's state becomes ever more influenced by the cocktail of cancer and morphine. The book, split into 26 alphabetically ordered vistas is well worth a read, both for the word play and for the slightly Joycian stream of unconsciousness which takes you through the book via a series of chaotic passages in one inevitable direction.

But that's not what this review is about. I was lucky enough to get a copy of The Beijing of Possibilities a few weeks ago and the fact that it has taken me such a long time to write this is a sorry reflection of life over the last few months.


Beijing is a land of unfinished stories. Every time you leave the flat you will see some loose thread of a scene which has a mystery behind it: the man wandering around in his pyjamas, the sullen girl at the bus-stop with empty eyes, the tattooed businessmen arguing at the table next to you, the Beijing goths in the I love kitty car. Everything has a back-story, but you are always left wandering.

When I met Jonathan back in Houhai he was researching the iceberg beneath the water that filled in the rest of these tales.The Beijing of possibilities is a book of short stories about the depth of Beijing life, mixed helplessly between ancient and modern, these are the windows into the split second pieces of action you see every day on the streets of any big city, but in Beijing more than any you know that the truth is much more interesting than what your imagination can muster.

The stories combine these events with ancient Chinese folktales to give a real sense of the Beijing which people who don't know the city well have real trouble understanding - the metropolis simply has too many layers of history, culture, pain and change to get a real idea of the diversity and complexity of life there, from the migrant workers to the modern couple living their dreams in a small Haidian apartment, from the factory worker to the opera librettist, Jonathan has captured the strange mix of brilliant colour with smudges of black and white without which it is impossible to think of Beijing.

In addition to the stories themselves, there is a more subtle play. Milan Kundera likes to put himself firmly in the middle of his stories, and sometimes you don't know on what level the narrator is with you as novel and commentary intertwine. Jonathan Tel pulls the opposite trick and sits in the shadows of his book making the pen seem to move without an author, and I have to say that I enjoyed this a lot. It influences the book only subtly but adds to it Jonathan's own style and character.

This book of short stories can be found at Amazon UK and Amazon US and I'd highly recommend it for anyone wants to see behind the door into the Beijing of possibilites.

See also the review at Timeout Beijing, where this was book of the month not long ago.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rapa Das Bestas - hairdressers sans frontieres*

In a country where bullfighting is still commonplace, I really didn't know what to expect when I received a text from a friend saying: "Tomorrow is 'rapa das bestas' in Sabucedo - very spectacular fights between humans and horses"!

Indeed it turned out that the Rapa das Bestas was probably the last thing I would have thought of and it turned out to be a fascinating day.

In Sabucedo, the horses, though owned by the villagers, are free to live in the woods on the hill during the year. However, with my limited equine knowledge, I wasn't aware of the hairdressing needs of such beasts. Every year the villagers round up the horses, drive them into a corral, and cut their hair.

Surprisingly, semi-wild horses don't stand still when you come at them with a pair of shears, and so the event is an incredible competition of horse versus hairdresser. Luckily, it turns out that the hairdressers in Sabucedo are about the manliest bunch of men and women I've ever seen, and getting into a ring with 200 horses, kicking and brawling, and running after them until you have them under control enough to wield a pair of horsehair clippers is all in a day's work.
The event actually goes on for four days and draws such a crowd that there is a whole festival built around it, with camping over the weekend, music, and pulperias selling fantastic octopus all over the place.

We only went for the haircutting though, missing out the massive hangover that I presume 90% of the people there seemed to be suffering from (the other 10 percent still being heavily under the influence). We got into the seating around the corral a little before midday, and soon enough the 200 animals where herded into the arena. 200 animals in a space that size was presumably quite a culture shock for animals which are used to roaming freely and so there was a lot of angry neighing, biting of neighbours, kicking and the occasional reared brawl. This was about the most inhumane part of the ordeal, but it seemed that apart from the odd nibble, none of them was really hurt, save for the feelings of a few alpha males.
First was the children's turn and the kids, I guess as young as 10 or so, ran around, getting hold of the fowls, as the adults tried to keep the larger horses at bay. The fowls, though small, are extremely tough and gave the kids a run for their money, but it seems that with one on the ears, and one on the tail, they could usually keep them under control enough to steer them out of the corral and to their own, personal salon.
Once the foals had all been safely taken out, the main event began. Three main groups of men and women would walk around the arena, sizing the horses up, and on choosing one to go for, one member of the team would take a run up and jump on the horse, holding onto the mane. Unsurprisingly the horses would not have any of this and would attempt to race through the crowd, with the rider on its back.
Rapa das bestas
Rapa das bestas
Rapa das bestas
By this time there was usually another man holding on at the back to the tail, trying to keep the horse from throwing the rider off. After some powerful coercion, and attempting to get the horse into a free space, the rider would leap off again, holding onto the head off the horse, with one arm over one eye, and gripping at the bottom of the jaw, while another man would be the other side, with his arm over the other eye, grabbing the other side of the jaw.
This generally seemed to calm the horses down enough that with three people holding on, they would stand still and the hair cutting would commence, with a couple of men with big pairs of scissors snipping away at the tail hair, the mane and the fringe, getting the style more in line with this years equine fashion.
Rapa das bestas
Quite frequently the horses really didn't want any of this game and the teams would have to wrestle the horses to the ground in order to calm them down, three or four men lying on the horse to keep it from jumping up and trampling those around.
Rapa das bestas
Amazingly, with 200 horses, nobody was seriously hurt and only one man got the tail end of a kick, limping off briefly but coming back a few minutes later. Although the horses would occasionally kick each other it seemed that the shouting from the men and women really was enough to get them out of the way when they needed it, and stop them from kicking the people in the ring. It was truly a remarkable sight.

After a couple of hours and perhaps half the horses shawn, the groups called it a day and the horses were led back out of the corral.
Rapa das bestas
It was truly a spectacular event, and if you want man versus animal without the bloodshed of a bullfight, I would highly recommend checking this out.
Rapa das bestas

(* The title of this post is in reference to a Mitchel and Webb sketch, and not of my own making)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Empty sets

The lack of updates recently is due to being sucked slowly into an application black hole. I have a lot to get done in the next couple of weeks before going to China, including a whole lot of admin which has kept me up until 2 tonight (at least I found myself a nice new cafe in which to scribble) and a couple of projects which really deserve to be finished before people disappear for the summer. They're looking promising but still have a little way to go to completion.

I may come back here every now and then to vent stress, but don't expect too much from me over the next couple of weeks that fits into the categories of coherent or meaningful. I'll attempt to write when I'm back in England for a day, just before heading East on the 14th of July.

Until later, over and out.