You may have noticed that the output of Randomwire has been a bit low this year to date. I have a huge backlog of interesting things and places to write about but, without wanting to make excuses, have been too stressed and busy to put pen to paper (more on this in the next couple of weeks). Read more
If you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing holiday then Bangkok probably wouldn’t be your first choice. What with year-round heat and frenetic streets which require your full attention just to navigate, the city assaults your every sense each time you step out the door. It barely lets up unless you manage to escape to one of its quieter quarters, of which the historic center of Rattanakosin (รัตนโกสินทร์) is not one. Read more
My third port of call on my journey around Zhejian province was the ancient water town of Wuzhen. Located a little off the usual tourist trail Wuzhen is famed for its Venice-like canals, ancient stone bridges, wooden buildings, and delicate carvings. It’s said to be over 1000 years old and while its roots may lie in trade and agriculture the town is almost completely focused on tourism today. China and tourism usually equates to ultra-tacky souvenir stands and bus loads of noisy tour parties but in stark contrast this was surprisingly tasteful with the restoration not being over-done and enough room for the crowds to mingle in relative tranquility.
I arrived in the afternoon from Suzhou after one of the most hair-raising bus rides I have ever experienced in China whereupon we were unceremoniously dumped in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. A short walk and taxi ride later we arrived at the entrance-proper of the town. Here you checked into a guest house and paid the entrance fee (80 RMB) which I imagine is what partly keeps the masses out. A room in one of the traditional houses cost 450 RMB per night (more if you want one overlooking the water) which is pretty good value for what you get and included an interesting take on the traditional English breakfast (albeit the portion seemed to be sized for a midget).
If the town is picturesque by day then at night it really shines with subtle lighting accentuating the old wooden buildings and calm waterways. Walking along the 2km+ of canals is a wonderful experience on it own with endless buildings and courtyards to explores. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the food which was over-priced and nothing to write home about. This is probably due to the town being controlled by a single organisation.
Around the town you could see various examples of traditional crafts being demonstrated by local people such as basket making, wood carving and silk dying. The above shot shows cylindrical vats of a special black sauce being brewed – it looked a lot like Marmite but with a totally different taste.
Of all the places I visited on my previous trip Wuzhen was definitely the best. Highly recommended for those seeking a taste of old China in an accessible location not far from Shanghai.
Note: I wrote more about silk production in Wuzhen in a later post along with a video detailing the process.
I spent the latter part of my Xiamen trip on the small island of Gulangyu, just 5 minutes away from the mainland by ferry. As a place of residence for Westerners during Xiamen’s colonial past, Gulangyu is famous for its European architecture and today is a popular holiday destination, although not strictly on the main tourist map. The focal point of the island is Sunlight Rock (above) which can be ascended by way of a rather more modern concrete staircase providing a wonderful panorama of the whole island (below).
The island itself covers an area of 1.78 sq km and is home to around only 15,000 permanent residents. The streets are pedestrianised making it a nice place to get away from some of the hustle and bustle of everyday China and luckily it’s not been totally overdeveloped (yet). Once you’ve left the main ferry terminus its easy to find yourself alone and free to explore. If you’re lucky you might even hear the sound of piano playing as the island has more pianos per-capita than anywhere else in the world (there is even a piano and organ museum)!
Below Sunlight Rock can be found a small temple with picturesque views out over the adjacent rooftops leading to the sea which on a nice day is perfect for a quick paddle. Further down can be found Shuzhuang Garden which was originally conceived by a Taiwanese business man as a private villa but opened to the public in 1955. It contains many elements of traditional Chinese design which exhibit the art of hiding, combining, and borrowing from one’s surroundings.
Alas many of the Victorian style mansions are now in a state of considerable disrepair and are badly in need of restoration. Some have been turned into nice hotels and restaurants but you can’t help but feel that time is running out for many of the remnants of the colonial occupation. If buildings could talk I bet the one above would have some interesting tales to tell and you can understand why there are more than a few ghost stories floating around!
One area where the island disappoints is in its food. Unless you like seafood then there really is little on offer in the way of cuisine and what there is is mediocre at best. During my time there I mostly snacked on street BBQ and ice cream which was fine, if a little insubstantial. Accommodation wise there are plenty of cheap hotels to stay in, most of which are clean and comfortable, if a bit basic. I stayed here a little over one day but would recommend at least two to explore everything fully.
For the first time since its completion I finally had a chance to see Beijing’s centrepiece National Stadium dubbed the “Birds Nest”. On both of my previous visits to Beijing in 07 & 08 I had wandered around the perimeter of the building site to get a glimpse of this striking steel lattice structure but had never been inside before. Getting there is pretty easy using the subway line 8 spur.
After purchasing a ticket (50 RMB) though a gap in the iron railings which surround the stadium you’re basically left to wander around the stadium freely, which has been left pretty much as is was, complete with thousands of red and white seats sitting expectantly in neat rows. It’s an awe inspiring structure which is as impressive in the flesh as it was on TV but you have to wonder what on earth they can use it for now, other than a tourist attraction.
It was evident by the somewhat haphazard approach to the way in which the area has been opened up to tourism that the Chinese authorities didn’t really have a plan about what to do with the stadium and other facilities once the 2008 Olympic games were over. Right now it’s a bit of a white elephant, albeit a beautiful elephant!
I’m sure someone could think up a creative idea about how to bring the place back to life. For starters they could so easily play highlights of the games on the enormous screens which still hang dormant at either end of the stadium and give a little history about the construction process etc. Even better would be if they were able to put on some sort of daily re-enactment of the opening ceremony which I’m sure would pull in even bigger crowds.
Sadly the chances are that it’ll be allowed to slowly mould or be turned into a gigantic shopping mall which is the mainstay of modern Chinese urban planning. Whatever the future holds the Birds Nest and the neighbouring Water Cube are triumphs of creative and imaginative architecture and I only hope they wont go to waste.
Below is a short video I put together from shots I took during my trip to Beijing last week. It’s nothing fancy but hopefully can give those who’ve not visited a small taste of the grandeur of some of the main sites there. As the country’s cultural and historic centre Beijing is not to be missed if you visit China and a good place begin exploring the country as a whole (although somewhat misleading if you expect the rest of it to be like this).
I’ve not had much time to pay attention to the technicalities of shooting video yet but hope to improve in the future. Like taking good photos it needs time and patience which are often lacking when you’re travelling with others hence why I sometimes prefer to go alone. In this way you also have a bit more space to soak up the atmosphere and go at your own pace although in general I’d prefer to share the experience with others.
…whilst for most the scenery is spectacular for others it was nothing special!
Every night at 8pm in Hong Kong the buildings along the Victoria Harbour waterfront are illuminated in a vibrant light show known as “A Symphony of Lights“. Even without this novel spectacle there is nowhere else in the world where you can see such a astounding scene of the same magnitude. I never get bored of gazing out over the water to the endless line of twinkling skyscrapers clinging to the edge of Hong Kong Island which appear so calm yet are a hive of activity for its 7 million inhabitants.
There is something truly magical about this city which conceptually lies between East and West, torn by its turbulent history and aspirations for the future. Perhaps my Britishness and it’s colonial roots are what draw me here but every time I cross over from mainland China into the SAR I can’t help but feeling that it’s a special place and a testament to human accomplishment.
The best place to see the show is from along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront between the Avenue of Stars and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The view from Victoria Peak is also spectacular but best seen on a clear day/night.