From October 2008

Yangshuo

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If you’ve ever spent 12 hours on an uncomfortable bus then you may have some sympathy for my travels last weekend when I visited Yangshuo. Coupled with the discomfort of 5ft long metal bunk beds and poorly surfaced freight roads traversing China’s southern interior then you know you’re in for an unpleasant journey. Experiencing this twice in 3 days was verging on the bounds of my tolerance and I certainly wont be in a hurry to repeat it. That said the destination was just about worth the discomfort!

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Surrounded by karsk peaks the spectacular back drop of Yangshou is located in Guilin, Guangxi Province, Southern China. My company had arranged a weekend trip there so about 70 of us from various departments piled into two buses on Friday night after work which took us on the tortuous journey arriving the next morning (having got stuck in heavy traffic overnight). Our first destination was a trip on the famous Lijiang River which is featured on the back on of the 20 Yuan bank note. With everyone fairly bleary eyed this was the perfect way to begin the day with the scenery certainly being an eye opener.

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Although the area now clearly caters for the tourist industry as it’s primary source of income it is still significantly poorer than the larger cities which was a new side of China to me since most of my time has been spent in the massive mega-cities. The main thing which still resonates with me everywhere I go in China is the rapid development going on, often at the expense of the natural environment and done at such a pace that the quality is pretty bad.

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Whilst our boat (along with about a hundred others) slowly meandered down the river most people were busily snapping photos of each other and the landscape in predictable Chinese style. The weather was a bit overcast but I think my pics came out OK.

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To be continued…

I ♥ MTR

It’s no secret that I love system map design. There’s something intrinsically beautiful in being able to represent a complex network of lines, interchanges and stops in a simple map which just about anyone can easily follow. As I found out last weekend Hong Kong doesn’t have a huge metro system but it does have a very nice map which concisely represents both the lines and the land masses which it spans (encompassing two islands and soon to be connected to mainland China) as well as providing duel language labels (Cantonese and English).

It appears to be based on the same design principles as employed to create the original London Underground map but has so far avoided the pitfalls which have ruined its older counterpart. They seem to have found the perfect balance between providing not enough information and just enough.

If you like this sort of thing you may be interested to see that the 2002 classic “Atlas of Cyberspace” book which chronicled the history of visualisualisation and the design of maps which explored the digital landscape has now be released under a Creative Commons licence as a free PDF download. I remember first reading this book when I was at school and being fascinated by the amazing new world it depicted. Although some of the content is now a little dated it’s well worth a read, if only for the amazing pictures! [via]

Hong Kong Moments

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Continuing on from my previous posts here’s a collection of pseudo-random shots from my Hong Kong trip last weekend starting with a shot from the waterfront on the Avenue of Stars looking towards Hong Kong Island and the amazing vista of skyscrapers which line the shore. Later I’ll stitch all the photos together into a panorama. It’s quite a sureal sight for a newcomer to the city.

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On the tram… they travel so close together you could almost reach out and shake the hand of the person in the one infront! Travelling by tram is a great way to see the island, costs next to nothing ($2 HKD per trip), and has a certain charm to it compared with the bus or MTR.

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Weirdly enough there’s a whole market dedicated to the sale of goldfish on Tung Choi StreetMong Kok. Presumably with such tight living space a goldfish makes a perfect pet!

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Godzilla takes on a new appearance for the 21st Century in down town Admiralty, much more appealing!

Sheung Wan

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The first area I headed for in Hong Kong was Sheung Wan on the far north-western side of Hong Kong Island. It attracted my eye as being one the last remaining vestiges of “old Hong Kong” retaining a much older and chaotic character than the gleaming central district which neighbours it to the east.

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Along with expensive antique shops the area also boasts many traditional retailers and three small temples, one dating back to the 18th Century (Man Mo Temple). Probably the most interesting shops can be found on Des Voeux Rd West which is lined with dried seafood outlets piled high with all sorts of strange smelling goods.

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The area is best explored by foot although there are plenty of trams and buses along the main street. It took me a little over two hours to explore the area, following a suggested walking route in my guide book (Lonely Planet City Guide). For lunch I grabbed a simple meal at a small restaurant, I don’t remember the name but was cheap and delicious! One of the most convenient things about HK is that most people speak fairly good English and menu’s will often have duel languages.

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Even though change is an inevitable fact in China hopefully Sheung Wan will survive a bit longer to continue life as a living museum and a thoroughly facinating place to enjoy.

Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak

I just got back from a great weekend in Hong Kong. This was the breathtaking view I enjoyed from Victoria Peak last night looking out over the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour beyond. I’ll post more in the next couple of days about where I went etc but sufficed to say I loved it! Even though it’s just an hour from Shenzhen, Hong Kong is a world away from China and the British influence is clearly still in evidence.

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I’ve only just scratched the surface of what HK has to offer but I’m sure it will become my haven for times when I get fed up of China!!

Witopia Personal VPN

Last year I talked about using Tor to bypass the internet censorship in China but the problem is that it’s painfully slow, almost to the point of being unusable. There are other options such as anonymous proxy servers (again slow) and corporate private networks but for most individuals these are not an option and fiddly to configure.

I have however discovered another alternative which provides both security, stability and speed – it’s not free but certainly isn’t expensive either. Enter Witopia personalVPN – costing $59.99 per year this basically creates an encrypted tunnel out to Witopia’s secure internet gateway giving you unlimited access to the internet without any blocks or restrictions. Set up is simply a matter of installing a simple piece of software which is sent to you pre-configured by email (there are clients for Windows, Mac & Linux).

Establishing a connection takes a matter of seconds and then you’re good to go. No messing around with any computer or internet settings as you would with the other solutions. What makes this even better is that the speed is fast, in fact I’d swear its faster surfing international sites using the VPN connection than without it normally making me extremely happy!

This of course will work world-wide once you’ve subscribed and can be useful in other situations where you want to ensure your connection is secure. Although I’ve only been using it a short while I’d thoroughly recommend it, especially if you’re in China.

N.b. as a side note if you use Mac OS X I’d recommend using the Viscosity OpenVPN client, rather than the included Tunnelblick application as it has a much better interface. It will import the connection settings automatically the first time you run it.

Update: for those in China blocked by the great firewall you might also like my guide to the various other ways of bypassing it.

Namhua Monastery

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During the National holiday last week I took a brief trip out of Shenzhen for a couple of days to the small city of Shaoguan, a 4.5 hour journey inland, to visit a friend at the university there. On the way out I took the train which was a first for me in China. Despite all the dire warnings people had given me about trains in China (dirty, unsafe, crowded…) the one I was on was actually quite pleasant, albeit a bit slow. The family I sat next to was even kind enough to give me some of their food for lunch – not something you would ever find in the UK (although it might have had something to do with me practicing English with their child!).

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Shaoguan itself is an unremarkable city that frankly I found dirty and chaotic; not particularly pleasant. One of the students there remarked to me that it was the same as thousands of small cities across China which I found a rather depressing prospect, if not for me, but for their inhabitants. That said, there were a few bright spots and I really enjoyed visiting Namhua Monastery there. As it was the holidays it was crawling with curious devotees and was clearly a good day for the Monk’s finances!

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Along with the usual burning and praying there was a man who was methodically going around the entire site and flinging himself to the floor in some sort of ritual every couple of steps. He looked a bit manic and I couldn’t quite work out if he was a Monk or not.

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Aside from this there isn’t much more to report about the city. I ate in manly very small and very local restaurants of varying in quality (and probably cleanliness). What I wont forget about the food is probably the most spicy noodle soup I’ve ever tasted – I was quite literally crying from the intensity of the heat and had to give up about half way through. Turns out my friend had asked them to make it extra spicy!!

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My lasting memory will be getting locked in a shower with the door jammed and nobody outside to help – I ended up cutting my hand trying to get it open and then in my white rage kicked the door in. It was probably actually a good thing nobody was around to see that and no doubt returning students will wonder why there is blood splattered over the wall!

Home Sweet Home

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Apologies for being offline the past few days – I moved into my new apartment but had an unexpected delay in setting up the connection (China Telecom failed to deliver on their 24 hour installation promise but at least the installation good) as well as taking a short trip outside of Shenzhen (more on this in the next post).

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Aside from this hiccup the new place is pretty nice. It’s the first time I’ve truly had my own apartment, not sharing with anyone else, and it feels good! Located on the 9th floor of an apartment complex in the up-and-coming “Coastal City” area of Nanshan it has 2 bedrooms, large living room, balcony, kitchen and bathroom. Plenty of space for me to get lost in! The communal garden below even has a swimming pool and tennis court for the eventuality that I ever decide to improve my fitness ;)

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I’m still exploring the local area but there are plenty of shops and restaurants with just about anything you want available around the clock (for some reason there seem to be many Korean restaurants nearby also). I’m still finding it hard to believe just how much my life has changed in the past couple of weeks but hopefully its a change for the better and an experience to remember in the future.

Wutong Shan Mountain

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On the first day of the National Day holidays in China I was invited by some of my colleagues to climb Shenzhen’s tallest mountain – Wutong Shan, standing at just under 1000 meters. After travelling nearly 2 hours to the outskirts of the city on a crowded bus our climb began under the canopy of the extremely verdant mountainside. Even though it was a relatively cool day it was still in the high 20’s and tropically humid – not the most comfortable weather for hiking but invigorating nevertheless!

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Because of the heat and the steepness of the ascent we needed to stop every 20 minutes or so to catch our breath and have a drink. It was a good thing everyone brought lots of water because I reckon people were loosing it just about as fast as we could drink it. Every now and then a short breeze would blow through the trees bringing momentary relief.

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The climb itself took a bit over two hours and was one of many false peaks which when reached presented another. The summit itself was inconspicuous but the view it bestowed was pretty special. Mile upon mile of lush green canopy opened up to reveal the city below on one side and a harbour on the other, the clouds only just obscuring Hong Kong.

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Descending the mountain was much easier than going up, made even more so by the fact that we took the tourist route down (basically steps). Once we reached the foot of the steep section we then followed the winding road the rest of the way down taking another hour to complete. Unfortunately I had neglected to sear any sun cream and ended up a little burn on the back of my neck and arms which has left me looking a bit like a lobster!

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A fun day out but I’m still feeling it in my leg’s nearly a week later :)