Wednesday, 28 April 2010
Governor Yu's garden
Shanghai, the final stop on our tour of China and the last port of call on our round the world adventure! What a trip it's been! We've been to some fantastic places and seen some amazing things. It's been a trip of a lifetime and Shanghai is our final taste of a different culture, as we prepare ourselves for going home to Britain and all that that entails. We're looking forward to some good British food, like a roast dinner or even a good ham sandwich, on proper bread! And a good cup of British tea. I know China is the land of tea and they do do a mean cup of green or jasmine tea but they kill their black tea by stewing it for ages, making it too bitter. We'll miss the excitement of not knowing what our next destination will be like and the buzz we get when we find we're able to navigate the local public transport system, or we're able to have a successful conversation with someone! We'll definitely miss the variety of scenery we've encountered and the journeys themselves, mostly by bus and car, where we've watched the countryside of different nations fly past us. It's been a great life experience and has taught us a lot about the world and the ways in which different people live. It's also made us very grateful for the lives we lead in the UK and the privileges that living there brings us. I'm sure we'll appreciate Britain more than we did before we started travelling. There are many lovely places to visit in Britain and a whole lot of history which, I'm ashamed to say, I'm yet to have a full grasp of. It's my aim though, to learn more about the country I'm from, just as I've given my enthusiasm to learning about the countries we've visited.
Shanghai is a fitting place to end our tour because it's the most cosmopolitan Chinese city and has a rich history of foreign trade with Europe, resulting in many examples of British and French building styles. The Bund, as it's known, is the street which runs alongside the river in Shanghai and boasts magnificent European buildings from the 1930s and 40s, including a Big Ben clock tower. Shanghai was a buzzing treaty port city with incoming foreigners setting up businesses and trading with the Chinese. Much investment occurred in the 1930s and led to a booming economy playing host to all the fun and frivolity of the age of jazz, dancehall and a new freedom of style and expression. The city now is the most contemporary and forward thinking we've come across. Most of the skycrapers and defining architecture has sprung up in the last ten years only. They're very adept at tearing down old neighbourhoods to build flashy apartments for high class living! We've arrived just before Shanghai Expo 2010 opens in a few days time and the final preparations are underway for the six month long international fair to showcase new design and technology from countries around the world as well as China. The city is being cleaned up to perfection, there are garden displays and expo adverts everywhere. It should bring a lot of attention to Shanghai and boost its power as a leading international city. The city still does have some older treasures too, in amongst the ultra modern tower blocks. Apart from the famous Bund, there is the exquisite garden of Governor Yu, which exemplifies the beauty of Chinese horticulture. The garden is designed in a series of sections including an enormous rock fountain, pavilion gardens, lake and small river all divided up by ornate curving walls with giant stone dragons flying across the top. It's not on the scale of the parklands of the Summer Palace in Beijing. This is a private garden in the middle of the city and covers an area of about 500 square metres. We especially enjoy it because, from every angle, there is the perfect photo opportunity for a snapshot of a traditional Chinese scene.
Shanghai is the most busy city we've been to on the whole of our travels. There's a street that's been pedestrianised and when we walk it on a Saturday afternoon it's like how busy it would be at New Year in London or if a huge festival was taking place. It's hoaching with people. And there are a huge number of Chinese tourists in tour parties, all wearing the same colour of baseball cap, being led by a guide with a microphone and speaker hooked on to their back. I hold on to Greg for dear life as he leads me through the throng! But it's very safe here. There are police and traffic wardens on every corner helping pedestrians cross the road and making sure no one causes any major disturbances. The only major disturbances are the Chinese themselves! They do have a way of talking very loudly and the very nature of the language makes it sound like they're having an argument, even if they're not!
So, this is the end. Tomorrow we go home and soon our memories will fade. At least we'll have our pictures and this blog. Thank you for reading.
- If you are resident in a city, you are entitled to a level of social security. However, if you're a farmer or live in the countryside, even though you also pay taxes, you are not entitled to any social security. This is why many rural dwellers strive very hard to get permanent jobs in the cities in order to become 'city members'. A mass movement is taking place into the cities,
- All land is owned by the government and therefore the people. Farmers rent the land from them. More than half the produce that comes from the land is collected from the farms, tea plantations etc. by gorvernment workers. The government sets the price they'll sell these goods at and it's ten times what they pay the farmers. However, if there is a crisis in one part of the country, for example a lack of rice production because of drought, the government will support that area with goods from the other areas, at a much reduced rate.
- Facebook, blogs and any other websites which could potentially have people grouping together and becoming vocal against the government are banned. It just comes up, Internet Explorer cannot find this page. If you write an email, there's a noticeable delay in sending as it's censored by central government.
- Lack of freedom of speech is a definite issue for the younger people especially and it's a frightening thought to think that if you speak against the government you'll receive death threats and, if you persist, you'll 'disappear' as they say.
- On the flip side, respect for authority, especially police, is much higher here, as punishments are a lot more severe. For the crime of peddling drugs in China the punishment is death. As long as the trials are fair and just, some people would go along with the idea that the punishments do sometimes fit the crime. The death penalty is a pretty adequate detterent to stop someone ruining hundreds of thousands of peoples' lives by supplying them drugs.
- Having said all this, we've heard that there is corruption on every level here, from the police right up to the government. As it becomes more open to the world things may change, but it remains a pretty dark place in certain respects.
Jiantsu Ancient Village
Guilin is the third poorest city in the whole of China and is much smaller than the likes of Chongqing and Wuhan, two of China's new megacities. Guilin is a tourist mecca because of it's starting off point for the Li river cruise through the amazing karst scenery. The sight of white people in our hotel suggests to us that this is a stop on most peoples' travel itineraries.It rains heavily while we're here and we're lucky we sailed up the Li on the day we did, because the day after, the cruiseboats cancelled because there was too much water in the river! It had flooded the banks of the city and was flowing too fast to sail on. We enjoyed our half day cruise up the Li, even though it was drizzling. The mists provided an atmosphere of traditional Chinese landscape paintings which are always executed in greys and blacks with daubs of grey mist cloud hanging over the peaks. The karst scenery was really spectacular and if we'd known how amazing this was going to be and how poor in comparison the Yangtze turned out to be, we'd have stayed here longer. The highlight of our time in this part of the world was the two hours we spent cycling in the countryside around Yangshuo. Yangshuo is where the boats dock on the Li and has been transformed from a sleepy country town in the middle of some very impressive karst scenery to become a foreign tourists' souvenier town selling all kinds of Chinese tat. The countryside around Yangshuo is, as yet, unspoilt and remains a rural haven of water-filled rice paddies with farmers in straw hats working in their fields, sometimes ploughing up the mud using a traditional hand plough and water buffalo (the fields are too small for any kind of mechanised plough). It's a dreamy scene when the soaring cliffs and odd shaped rock mountains are reflected in the waters below. It's nice how our guide, Tracy (her English name) is in her element too, as we cycle through the countryside. She comes from a rural village near Guilin where her parents still live in a traditional Chinese farmhouse and now she lives in a simple room in the city of Guilin. But you can tell she's a country girl at heart as she speeds off on her bike and nimbly hops off and on (she used to ride everyday to school and back). While in Guilin we're driven to an ancient Chinese village called Jiantsu where people still live very simply in old fashioned courtyard style brick houses with pantiled roofs and cobbled streets. We walk round the picturesque alleys and peer into the houses, spotting an elderly group of mah jong players and a few clucking chickens. The village's temple was unfortunately severely damaged by the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution although they did leave one building standing. In this building there is a portrait of the village's forefather, the first of the Zhou family. In China, each child, boy or girl, takes the father's surname even through marriage, so now every family living in Jiantsu has the surname Zhou.
We have discovered, in our brief time here, that although, in general, the Chinese people believe that us Brits have a lot more money than they do and a better standard of living we've seen evidence that China is booming and it won't be very long before the Chinese standard of living is equivalent to the UK. There is so much more development of better infrastructure and buildings here than in Britain. In all the major cities here they have an underground mass transit system and an elevated railway. In Britain these types of development are virtually non-existent. We have one underground system in London and no monorails. These systems tend to be better designed, cheap to travel on and reliable. Still, our tour guides we speak to complain their wages are lower and they cannot afford the expensive clothes in the shops. Perhaps this is a ploy to incur a decent tip! but we reason that, a inflation increases in China, peoples' wages will realign also and in the not too distant future there should be more fairness in the employment sector. Of course they are jealous of us being able to afford to travel and we feel ourselves to be really lucky. When the yuan increases and sits alongside or even overtakes the dollar, they will become a nation of travellers, holidaying in countries outside their own. There is still today a huge gap in the wealth status of the rich and poor in China however. The rice farmers of the countryside still live in rundown, inadequate accommodations and there isn't a system of social care to look after people when they lose their income, become sick or grow too old to work. Children are expected to look after their parents when they reach old age and this can often prove a big ask. Because of the one child policy introduced by the Chinese government to curb the country's population growth resulted in so many only children, this puts a great burden on them as they are required to look after both theirs and their wife's or husband's parents.
- The common people don't bury or cremate their dead. They leave them out for the birds, the vultures.
- A custom when someone dies is to paint a white ladder on a mountainside for their spirit to rise to the heavens.
- The Guylipa (sp?) sect of the Buddhist religion is popular and monks can be identified by their yellow hats.
- Tibetan people are most often named after a famous buddha or high lama.
- In the monasteries the monks hold debate sessions where they discuss their ideas on the various teachings of buddha. If a monk slaps his other hand in a violent motion using his whole body this means he disagrees and has his own idea to say.
- When young children under ten or non Buddhists visit the temples, because they are not knowledgable, they receive a special blessing of a mark of black ghee across their noses.
- We recieved a silk scarf as a welcome gift when we arrived at the airport. This is a customary greeting for everyone.
- Tutuchanay (sp?)= Thank you
- On traditional Tibetan houses and buildings the windows are framed by a thick black paint which is said to help retain the heat for the house.
- The women wear these lovely stripy woven aprons over their long black skirts and braid coloured threads into their hair plaits.
- The traditional offering fruit is the peach.
- Symbols include the 'infinity' geometric design to represent a joining together of peace and harmony. The wheel of life with its six human phases, heaven gods to hell. The yinyang for protection and the reversed swastika as a sign of the Buddhist religion.
Tibetan prayer flags/ Norbulingka garden
entrance to Jokhang Temple/ Norbulingka garden
traditional Tibetan door with silk scarves decoration
Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Norbulingka, Sera Monastery
Tibet Autonomous Region, in the southwest of China, has a population of only 2.8 million with it's largest town being Lhasa, at a few hundred thousand. Two hours south of Lhasa lies the border with Nepal and the Himalayas. Tibet has eleven peaks over 7000m and five over 8000m, the most famous being Mount Everest, at 8848m. The plains around Lhasa are vastly unpopulated and very dry at the present time. All over China there have been droughts and water shortages this month. There are oasis' of greenery in the plains however, with willow trees and green marshland. Our guide Gyatsuo explains the need for the marshland to produce some humidity in the otherwise dry mountain air. Most of the winter snow has gone and the sun is very strong now, warming up the afternoons to 22 degrees. In winter, the temperature can drop to -17 degrees Gyatsuo tells us. He introduces himself as a practising Buddhist who is very willing to inform us of all the Tibetan culture, religion and customs but will not discuss the Tibetan political situation. He claims to be no politician and doesn't want to attempt this subject. He does prove himself extremely knowledgable on all things Buddhist and takes us through each and every deity, buddha image and symbol meaning in the temples we visit. There is a lot for us to take in but by the end of our Lhasa tour we've got the jist. In Tibetan Buddhism, which is different to Thai Mahayana and other types, the three buddhas, one from the past, present and future are worshipped. The current buddha, Shakyamuni, was born in 500BC and before him there had already been six more buddhas but he was the one to found the Buddhism religion. Many buddhist influences came originally from India, which borders Tibet and we observe that the design of the sculptures and the use of very bright colours are similar to those of Hinduism. In Tibet, Buddhism was rejected by the people for 300 years from the 11th century onwards and a king overtook the ruling power. The Kingdom of Tibet lasted until the 14th century when the 5th Dalai Lama replaced him and built the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa. To explain about the existence of the Dalai Lama- he is the chosen one who is the highest lama (master), the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. To be chosen by the high lamas, the boy (they were often very young) should demonstrate high levels of wisdom and represent the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He can be chosen from anywhere, any background. The 5th Dalai Lama built the Potala Palace on the site of an ancient Buddhist temple from the 7th century and it was for the Dalai Lama to spend the months of winter- the Winter Palace. It sits atop a sacred hill called the Red Hill in Lhasa and dominates over the town with its red and white buildings. Inside the palace there are chapels to the buddha, a seating room for the Dalai Lama to receive guests, a teaching room for him to pass on his knowledge and many funerary stupa tombs for the previous Dalai Lamas, of which at present there are eleven. The current Dalai Lama, who is presently in exile in Nepal, is the 13th. All the inner rooms of the palace are small and cosy. Cosy is a strange word to use for a palace but this is because there are many silk textiles in the form of garments on the statues, patchwork lanterns and coverings for the poles and furniture. The walls are all heavily decorated with rich painted colours and murals. Each doorframe and ceiling edge is richly painted with flower motifs and simple gold designs. The thing that hits you the most is the colours. Tibetans believe the colours of red, yellow, green and blue symbolise the natural elements, the earth, the sky, the water, the vegetation. That's why they use them everywhere on the inside walls, decorations and the prayer flags, like bunting, which they hang on every available pole or tree. Gyatsuo takes us through the three most important manifestations of buddha, the compassion buddha (with its thousand arms and thousand hands to reach out and touch people), the protector buddha (who has a fierce, puppet face to symbolise strength) and the longevity buddha (because a long life is the ultimate goal for buddhists- apart from enlightenment of course!) There are many other deities in the distinct Tibetan form of Buddhism, some which represent the giving of good advice, healing for the soul (the ten medicine buddhas) and some of the statues represent the scholars who wrote the scriptures and the 108 commandments. Each and every one is gold painted and lavishly clothed and has their own chapel for worship.
Although Gyatsuo tells us a lot about the buddhas and the deities, he explains that everyday practising buddists will never reach the status of nirvana and do not have the wisdom to practise meditation. Chanting occurs throughout the temples we visit and there is the possibility to practise yoga meditation but normal buddhists cannot achieve the proper meditation technique. They do not have the correct teachings. It takes 45 years to study to become an elite scholar to be able to meditate. This is because the studies comprise the five elements of Buddhism practise including the rejection of desire from one's life and the ability to live without anger and be at peace. The essence of the Buddhist teachings is about learning to be at peace and pray for peace to be throughout the world and give compassion to all living things. It teaches to always be calm and patient, giving forgiveness and understanding to people who oppose you. Never to get angry, as this anger only breeds bad thoughts and leads to bad karma. If you choose to do good things and think about other people more than yourself you will receive good karma in return and good things will happen to you in this life or the next.
There are many interesting features in a Tibetan buddhist temple, like the agregate stone floors which are beaten down and compacted using hammers, then polished by the monks using butter ghee as a treatment and 'skating' around with cloths under their feet. The butter ghee is also used as an offering and pilgrims bring it in large flasks from which they pour the liquid into metal bowls to make candle wax. Butter ghee comes from yak's milk, Tibet's answer to the lama, from which they take the meat and the fur also to use. Aswell as ghee, people donate money by placing it in the hands of the buddha statues or stuffing it into door crevasses or anywhere they can find a suitable place. We get to taste the traditional Tibetan drink of sweet butter tea when we visit a local family's house just outside Lhasa. It's like drinking milky caramel and is very fatty, but very tasty. Traditionally they take this every morning. Tibetan people look similar to the Peruvian people of the Andes mountains. They share the same weather beaten faces and darker skins that come from living at high altitude (Lhasa sits at 3600m). The lady of the house welcomes us through the main door which is heavily decorated, as is the custom, with large brass door knockers and silk scarves tied round them. Inside the whitewashed walls is a courtyard, then the main building leads off from there. The front sitting room is impressive with its large painted dresser showing off all the important offerings of food, sweets and fruit which were laid out for the celebration of Tibetan New Year last month. An adjoining room houses the family chapel with places for local monks to sit. The interior decoration is ornate and colourful, similar to the richness of primary colours in the temples.
Tibetans have their own language originally derived from Sanskrit and its characters look very similar to Indian writing. Not at all like Chinese kangi. When Gyatsuo speaks he sounds Mongolian or even Turkish. It's a very different sounding language to the tonal ups and downs of Chinese. These people are in no way shape or form Chinese. There is a small Han population in the town, meaning the main ethnic group from China, their skins tend to be paler. I can notice in Gyatsuo's speech pattern when he talks about them though that he perhaps doesn't give them the same respect as he does ethnic Tibetans.
We are fascinated by the Tibetan people in traditional clothes spinning prayer wheels as they circumbulate clockwise round the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple. Some of the little old ladies and men have such characterful faces. They make the pilgrimages from the countryside villages once a week and in particular on a Monday. Outside the main door of the Jokhang Temple in the main square, we see the extraordinary act of prostration performed as a sign of prayer to buddha. The people bend and lie face down, slap their hands, in which they hold wooden blocks to slide along the ground with, then push themselves back up to standing, repeating this I don't know how many times. As we make the clockwise walk round Barkhor Street which encircles the Jokhang Temple, Greg nearly falls over a man prostrating, as he collapses down just behind where Greg is walking!