Sunday, 28 December 2008

Thoughts on Hong Kong

Five weeks is quite a while to spend anywhere as a transit point on your travels. It feels a bit different, making a run at setting up a life in a city and seeing how settled you can get. It's been exciting, and has helped me get ready for what's coming up - at least 22 flights, 10 countries and three months before I can think about going home.

What's struck me the most - and Soleil has picked up on it too in the week she's been here with me - is the pureness of the city in terms of function. Everything's thought through perfectly in terms of A to B. Covered walkways for the rain, which pass through shopping malls on the way to your destination. Escalators for the hills. An elaborate one way system. A lot of your paths feel very set, so much so that even when we tried to get lost, we found ourselves back on the way home before we had time to wonder where we were. In terms of logical thought, this is a marvel. I can see why this place is conducive to business, and the palpable workhard-playhard ethic seeps out of the streets.

The flip side of this is that it's a hard city to feel creative in. Early on I went to a arts networking event. There was a lot of talk there about how amazing it was to find something like this in Hong Kong, which I largely took for slightly childish backslapping at the time. I see something in it now. I'm finding it harder to express myself in writing here, harder to think emotionally rather than logically and harder to go beyond the functional. If Shanghai as a city felt characterised by aggression and anger, Hong Kong feels steeped in cool logic and dollar signs, exciting, dynamic but (I worry) soulless. The effort to set up an artistic, collaborative movement here may have seemed unimpressive at the time, judged by London standards (or even possibly Cambridge standards), but in hindsight I can see how difficult a challenge it must have been.

This is probably my last chance to say this, since I'm going to Thailand tomorrow, but I've never been in a place where prostitution is such an obvious and accepted occurrence. Local women go to check out the prostitute bars out of curiosity, there are accepted nights of the week when they can enter posh Lan Kwai Fon, while the area of Wan Chai is synonymous with them. It's barely even shrugged off, it's just a fact of the city. In Beijing and Shanghai you may be offered a girl by a dodgy leather-coat wearing pimp on the street, but you rarely ever saw a working girl. It's a shift I'm not entirely sure how to contextualise.

Finally, this city is a lot of fun. With so many people passing through, so many hardworking bankers blowing their cash in the evenings, so much energy, money and music crammed into so small a space, you're rarely at a loss for things to do. I've mostly gone out on my own, and the mix of people is unbeatable. For a traveller who hates backpackers - the kind of people who sit around in hostels drinking with other backpackers until it's time to switch cities - every night has brought something new, and usually refreshing.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Croc Shock

Last night I was in a photoshoot for Crocs shoes.What started off as a bit of a joke for me - I agreed to the shoot before realising who it was for - turned out to be a bit of a revelation. I'm hardly Crocs' biggest fan. I think the whole neon rubber swiss cheese look should have been strangled at birth actually. Still, the shoot took me by surprise. Not only were the shoes as comfortable as everyone has told me, a weak justification to slip them on in my book, they had some new and varied styles that were actually - I'll whisper it - pretty damn cool. For guys, material beach shoes that could go well with jeans or on my boat, for girls some credit-crunch beating rubber highheels, and several other designs besides. I can't help but recommend them, although the original designs still feel inextricably linked to hybrid-driving vegetarians with bald spots and greying ponytails.

The shoot itself was fun, if quite long, with long periods of waiting around, and there was a lot of joking around with the other models. It also gave me a chance to have a bit of a think about Hong Kong in general, and how I'm settling in here. What occurs to me now, after three weeks, is that this has been a sort of dry run for moving to a new city, a plunge-in experience with the safety net of a ticket out at the end of the month.

It's given me a chance to see the city as an outsider working in, making friends and contacts, using every night out as an opportunity to meet new people, hear new stories and places to go and try and get myself into new situations. It's also meant I've had a lot of downtime. I have three nominal jobs (interning at a literary agency and Time Out Hong Kong and tutoring English GCSE), but they don't take up too much time in the mix of the global financial meltdown and the run up to Christmas. Still, with three different potential bosses to be hearing from each week, I'm not rushing out to find more to do.

The thing I've had to learn to do most urgently is to try not to force too much, advice Soleil gave to me in the midst of a mini-breakdown. After about four days with nothing to do, noone to call and only the companionship of the TV and skype, I was feeling a bit lonely and done in. Two weeks of going out constantly, meeting everyone I could, getting phone numbers, facebook, business cards and, on one occasion, an unpronounceable female Thai name written on a bar napkin in swirly characters that may not be English, had left me with no real sense of a friendship group in the city, and I was too tired to try again. I broke down, called around and complained about how I had no friends. Soleil's answer was the most calming. "Just relax J". I shouldn't expect too much from just two weeks in a new city. We chatted a bit more and I felt a bit happier, but still slightly lonely. Just then my phone beeped.

"Sorry Sols, I've gotta run. Thanks for chatting, but I just got a text from a girl I met last week, I'm gunna go meet her in a club."

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. It was from another unexpected email the next day that I heard about the modelling job. Clearly Soleil was right, but it's a lesson that's going to take some work to make stick, especially for someone who craves attention as much as I do.

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Saturday, 13 December 2008

Santa Cruising

It will always amuse me that this was my most successful cold approach tonight...

Me: Hey, could you do me a favour?
Girl near the entrance to the club (wearing a daffy but cute fur hat inside): Um, yeah, guess so.
Me: Great. I'm just waiting on a friend. When he turns up could you let him know I'm in the other room?
Girl: Okay.
Me: Fantastic. Okay, he's about this tall, bit chubby. He'll probably be wearing a big red suit. He's got a large white beard. Umm... Oh yeah, he'll probably be wearing a hat, like you. His is red with a big white bobble.
Girl (laughing): Is his name Santa?
Me: You know him? Great. Send him along, I think he's got a gift for me.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Wan Chai

"The thing you have to understand about Asian women," I was told here, "is they have a different concept of love to Western women. Here, it's very pragmatic. 'You pay for my apartment. I love you. If you don't pay, I'll find someone who will, and love him.'"

Knowing this, I'm not quite sure how it was I found myself explaining my mildly feminist, mildly self-preserving views on gender relations to two Hong Girls, D and K, over wine. Try telling a HK lady that it is somewhat seedy, archaic and above all disempowering to women for men to always pay for a date and they'll stare at you like a dog that's been shown a card trick. What started as a night out was quickly becoming a dismissal of my character and chances out here.

"That may be okay in the West, but over here you'll have to change your views or stay single," was K's decided opinion. She should know. Soon after we left to find her current sugar daddy in a bar, before heading out to one of the pricier establishments in town. K's paying boyfriend, a Canadian pilot, seemed a nice bloke, and generous with his cash, buying drinks all night for D and me as well as his girlfriend. After a while he suggested heading over to Wan Chai, the red light district, to meet some of his friends.

This is how I found myself standing in the corner of Neptune, a bar famous for Thai girls on working holidays in Hong Kong, sipping a beer and trying not to catch the eye of too many of the prostitutes, as they all tried to catch mine. D stayed close, not out of any moral objection but because she genuinely feared for my safety. On the way in I asked loudly and indiscretely whether this was in fact the prostitute bar. Apparently this is a big no-no, and is the second fastest way to get beaten up in Wan Chai. The first, although it probably depends on stamina, is refusing to pay afterwards.

K, meanwhile, was dirty dancing with her date in the way that drunk girls think they can get away with. After a while he came over, clearly knackered, and asked me to take over. We moved and shook for a while, and then she put her lips on me. I tried to back away, aware of her man standing in the corner watching us. I can't remember his name now, but at the time I felt a small pang of loyalty for a number of Hong Kong's more expensive beers. Still, the pang was quite small. K tried again and I gave in. Her boy stormed off, and when she realised she went looking for him. D, anxious for her friend - who was far too drunk to be walking on her own round a hooker bar at this stage of the night - told me to stay exactly where I was and took off after her.

So now I'm standing slightly helplessly in the corner of Hong Kong's most famous prostitute bar, sipping the rest of my beer (which I'm savouring in the absence of K's kindly benefactor) and wondering what to say to the two Thai girls who are walking my way. Together they stand real close to me and proceed to give me what I can only describe as the 'hard sell', rubbing themselves against me as I try and protest (it only seems to spur them on). I drink my beer like this, wondering if I've ever been in a more seedy situation (and, okay, actually slightly enjoying it). Time passes. I finish my bottle.

"You want another drink?" one of the girls asks me.

"I'm okay."

"You want to buy us drinks?"

"Actually I don't buy girls drinks. You can get me one if you want."

This, as it turns out, is the fastest way to get two prostitutes to leave you alone. I never saw the girls again, and soon after was rescued by D, worse for wear perhaps but richer for the experience.

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Thursday, 4 December 2008

Hong Kong

I don't think I can begin to describe what an amazing time I'm having in Hong Kong. There are indications. The fact that I can compress all my stories into a list, and they still sound pretty damn cool, is a good one. The fact that I'm writing this at five thirty in the morning is probably another.

This is the place that everything feels like it's coming together. The last six weeks helped me shed my insecurities, self-consciousness and fears, but it is here, nurtured by the positive energy and hints of possibility I find coming my way from everyone I meet, that I really feel like everything has truly slotted into place, and I can feel myself embodying the person I want to be.

When I was wandering around Italy with Alisa in the summer, as we walked past the train station at night in Florence, we talked about traveling, and how you can develop through it and become a bigger person, but you are best off having someone next to you to witness it, and whose development you can witness too. It's a funny thing, but the place where I feel the strongest, happiest and most secure so far in my travels is the place where I miss the people I left behind the most, and wish they could see the me I've uncovered, the bolder and badder me who is unfazed and unafraid. Just as I'm surprisingly able to meet new people with apparent ease, I'm spending more of my spare time on the phone or facebook or skype, checking in on people half the world away.

Like I said, it's hard to let things worry me here, it's just funny to recognise this in myself. I think it's natural to have a blip of homesickness around the two month mark (53 days and counting), but it's also a nice feeling, I feel like there's something I can go home to when I do go back (not for a while at least).

As far as what I'm doing in Hong Kong?

- A few days a week in a literary agency
- Two nights a week studying Mandarin
- One morning (at present) tutoring a boy for GCSE English
- (Hopefully) an internship at Hong Kong Time Out (waiting to hear, otherwise I'll be in touch with the free equivalents)
- Several gym sessions a week
- Arts networking events (slightly self-indulgent, but fun) (although I kept losing at the last one by greeting new people with, "Hi, I'm new to this networking thing, how do you win?") (which I hoped would prick the bubble of their pretensions with a debonair charm, but frequently left me propping up the bar looking like a billy no-mates)
- Kraftwerk tomorrow
- Checking out what TimeOut says is cool

Finally, this blog's been accepted to appear on TravelBlogs.com. Check it out, it features the best of all aspects of blogging in relation to travel, exploring and backpacking.

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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Yumla, 79 Wyndham St

I'm pretty sure I remember when I realised I had to leave the apartment. It was around the time R, my landlady, put on "Don't You Want Me Baby" and said, "I remember loving this song when I was seven". Hong Kong's a pretty small place. I only know ten people, probably less, but on the two minute walk from my flat in SoHo to the bar I read about in TimeOut, I had run into R and her friends, and found myself in a progression of latenight hangouts - a cool south american themed bar, a street corner, the roof, and finally her couch. I knew though that that wasn't what tonight should be about, and with a jolt of musical apathy I tore myself away from the friendly group of 30-somethings and on to the bar I'd read about, the one that advertised the odd mix of 'breaks and techfunk'. If nothing else, my mission was to find out exactly what 'techfunk' might be.

The bar wasn't where it should have been, and noone seemed to know it. The more difficult it became, the more determined I was to find it, and here it was, down a sidealley and off a staircase. The heart shaking pulse from within told me I'd arrived before I noticed the chalkmarks on the wall outside, declaring 'Yumla rocks' among other slogans.

The music was great, although I couldn't tell you what separates techfunk from other types of techno (or funk). What I can tell you about is how liberating it is to enter a bar/club like this on your own. That's when the pressure's off, bizarrely. Since you don't know anyone, by definition you can't truly embarrass yourself. Moreover there's more of a necessity to be open to everyone around you, so you have a stronger chance of meeting people if you put yourself out there.

Okay, so that's not totally true. I did have one ally going in to Yumla. At about a foot tall and bright blue, an Elmo doll I'd somehow picked up in the previous hour was my new best friend, and he did a lot of the hard work for me. (Edit: What I actually had was a Grover doll. I'm now checking other things I think I remember from my childhood, just to be sure.) He chatted up the barmaid (she was very keen on him, and looked disappointed when I tore him away from her), danced with a hot Chinese girl (he told me afterwards she had a boyfriend, but she blushed and moved away pretty quickly afterwards so I think she was beginning to take a fancy to him) and stole a cigarette off a British girl who knew the DJ but never took her jacket off. Me? I was doing poorly in comparison, making small talk with a Canadian documentary maker (his subject? Water. I'm not waiting for a mainstream release). Then a drunk and (slightly) terrifying northern girl got keen on me, and I was doing my best to avoid the vomit breath coming my way as she pinched my bum and told me she loved me ("but you don't even know my name", "that's just because you haven't told me yet" "erm... yeah").

Luckily, between the foul breath of my new friend and the shiny fur of my old one, I started to get going. She tried to trade up, using me to get in with a tall, chiseled-looking actor-type propping up a barstool. She pointed at me and said, "Have you met my friend?" From his lofty height he gave both her and me a dismissive look and shook his head. "Ah," I said, "But have you met my friend?" It was at this stage I introduced him to Elmo. This he liked, and before long me and L (who turned out to actually be an actor) were getting on like a house on fire, rank northerner forgotten. Through L I met P, a director he'd recently worked with, who told me about a party in a few nights time.

It's funny how quickly things move. I spent the last few days hiding, because I'm beginning to get used to the pace of things when you start to meet new people in a new city. It's manic for a while, testing out how 'worth it' these friendships are going to be. Truth be told, I've spent a few days with a box set of the Office, hiding away from getting going. Still, a night like tonight, which sets you buzzing from your toes to your finger tips, makes you remember why it's all worth it.

Here's to Hong Kong.

Cheers.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008


Statue at the Nanjing Massacre memorial, commemorating the death of 300,000 civilians at the hands of the Japanese




The view from Sun Yatzen's Mausoleum, Nanjing




L-R Me, Charlie, Joyce at Armin, Shanghai




Glenmorangie, origami

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Monday, 17 November 2008

Welcome to China

If there's one story I've resisted telling about my travels, because it's just too much of a cliche, it's the "Welcome to China" story. One reason that I've steered clear is that it appeared in a book I hated (in fact it was a chapter heading), Polly Evans' "Fried Eggs with Chopsticks", a 250 page complaint about how awful travelling alone is (admittedly I only made it 80 pages in before I gave up). Another is that the story is pure surface, a nice little tale about a friendly interaction with a Chinese, hinting at some kind of depth without actually containing any. It usually goes that a few weeks in to your trip to China, once you're comfortable enough to seem approachable to Chinese people without understanding enough of the language to have a proper conversation, someone (usually a man, given how shy many Chinese women are) approaches you for a chat. You stumble through the few Chinese sentences you can manage - I come from London, I don't speak Chinese, I don't understand - and then there's an awkward, but friendly, pause, both of you out of lines of communication. You both smile at each other, wishing you could go further, and then he says (big grin for this one) "Welcome to China". It's easy to slip this into stories about traveling, since it seems so meaningful and relevant the first time it happens.

So if it's such a cliche, why am I - a hater of cliches wherever I notice them - discussing it here, on my own blog? Well, two reasons really. In part it's because I've had two such conversations today, enough to make me feel doubly welcome in a country I've been in for nearly five weeks now, but mostly it's because of the circumstances of the second occasion.

I'm in Nanjing still, leaving tomorrow for Hangzhou, and decided tonight to check out the bar district proper (having failed miserably to find a whiskey on the rocks last night). On my third attempt (The first place: sorry, you can't enter. No I can't give you an explanation; the second: please pay us 200 pounds) I found an R&B club with a nice bar, friendly staff and cheap(ish) drinks. Whilst I waited on a Glenmorangie, the man next to me turned and smiled. "Gambei" he said, the Chinese equivalent of "down it", and pointed at the shot of his beer the waitress had poured for me. I smiled, took the glass, maintained eye contact (important here) and took the shot. We chatted briefly, and I received my whiskey. In the meantime the prettiest barmaid had finished work and taken a seat on my left, and as I drank up I watched her engage in origami with fascination. She remained locked in concentration for a full five minutes, and at the end she presented the most perfect origami swan I'd seen.

I was not to be outdone. "Get me some paper" I said, and soon enough I had a sheet in front of me. "Watch this" I told her, and the watching barstaff. I honestly wasn't sure what would happen next. A few folds had me a decent corner. "Are you ready?" I said - I didn't care that they couldn't understand, they would get it soon enough. I placed the paper on my head. "It's a hat". The barstaff laughed, the girl took the paper from me, turning it into real origami, an amazing heart which she presented to me. I laughed and gave her the thumbs up, only to be interrupted again by the guy on my right.

"Gambei" he said again, and I obligingly downed the rest of my whiskey. We smiled uncomprehendingly at each other, and he pointed at my jacket - a tailored burberry style raincoat I picked up at the fabric market for 50gbp. He touched one of the buckles on the shoulders. "Yingguo shwo shenme?" he asked - how do you say this in English? I told him, and he told me that in China only soldiers had these, and how to distinguish verbally between an infantryman's epaulet's and a general's. Truth be told, between the speed of his slightly slurred Chinese and the MC's attempts at English (shake der tass, shake der tass) I wasn't following him too well. Finally he pointed at his chest, thumped it with his fist and smiled. He spoke Chinese, but I didn't understand, and when I looked back with confusion he repeated himself slowly in English. "The Chinese military welcomes you" he said, which put me on edge just enough to order another Glenfiddich, and down it in one.

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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Leaving Shanghai

It's funny how quickly your perspective can shift. It's hard to recognise when something's going wrong whilst you're inside it. I really thought I loved Shanghai, but it took ten minutes in Nanjing to flip that belief on its head. Shanghai is a great city, a fun city and, above all else, an alive city, dripping with energy - commercial, competitive energy oozes from every face and building. The flip side of this is an undercurrent of aggression that never really leaves you, flashing out in the overcrowded subway or flashpoints with cab drivers, reflected back at you in the phallic skyline (mine's bigger than yours) and gaudy neon used to promote corner shop. The taxi ride from the train station to my hotel started out as a typical Chinese experience, long queues at a bottle neck, pushy cab driver who picked up another passenger with me already in the car, but quickly faded into a pleasure, travelling down Nanjing's broad streets through quiet Sunday evening traffic (a marked contrast to the Sunday lunch traffic we'd fought through to get to the station in Shanghai). Walking the streets is easy, calm, and frequently punctuated by friendly smiles. Of course there are problems, and it's easy to see the positive when you first get to a city, but right now it's a welcome relief from the naked aggression that bubbles around Shanghai, and which was starting to boil up through me in the run up to my departure.

Another strange thing after Shanghai (considered by the Chinese the seedy underbelly of their country, the world's largest red light district) is the difficulty I had finding a bar. Several people on the street couldn't think of one nearby. Finally a young shop assistant (she looked fifteen at most) told me to try a place round the corner. I found it easily and started to enter, but was called back by as I went down the stairs. Unable to understand the Chinese fired at me, I tried out my own few sentences - I don't understand. I go drink beer - and pointed at the budweiser sign above my head. More men came running, and now I was surrounded, each trying his best shot at English whilst I kept trying to explain myself in Chinese. This impasse went on for a few minutes. Finally one turned to me and said "Men not allowed". I smiled at him, said I understood, and started to walk away. "Bye", one of them called. "Bye", I replied. "Bye", he said again, and when I didn't respond he said it again, and again, until I turned round and stopped, burst out laughing, completely overwhelmed with confusion. For the first time I noticed the bar's sign, next to this group of smiling, waving men, twelve foot of neon with the name and, underneath, a drawing, the outline of a busty female form and a pole. Could this be the first time someone's been rejected from a lapdancing club for being male?

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Saturday, 15 November 2008

Go to Pudong, the eastern financial district. Take a taxi to the Regency Hyatt. Let the footman hold the door open as you pay. Button up your suit. Walk past the first reception, smiling suited men and women with golden name badges and polished shoes. Hear the clip of leather soles on marble. Climb fifty four floors in the first lift, eyeing unshaven important western men, suit jackets over one arm. Don't catch sight of yourself in the mirror just yet. Switch lifts, walking past the dark gold ambiance of a second hotel lobby set against the dark night sky, the neon already far below you. Climb another thirty one floors with more businessmen, you can see them already looking forward to gentle sleep in a soft bed. Switch again, it's darker now up here but bright in the gold mirrored lift. Now examine yourself - there are three mirrors for the purpose. Tailored striped shirt, tailored grey jacket. Emerge out into the eighty seventh floor, soft neon the only thing holding back black and grey as you pass leather upholstered armchairs and black tabletops. This bar isn't for you tonight, the one where invisible Risk men are shifted over Friday night cocktails by the masters of the universe. You're going to the bar just beside it, you could watch and hear them from your table - these two bars are in the same room after all - but you won't. Your bar is personal, hidden away, just as dark on the inside - to be sure - but outside bright, infinite. In front of you a wall of glass and beyond lies the tops of sky scrapers so far below, the river, unerring neon and flashing lights to warn off planes, streets lit up by the red, yellow, white of headlamps and taillamps, the whole of Shanghai stretching out before you. Smoke a cigar, let the mist fizz up into your vision so it gives everything that dreamlike foggy air, and drink a cocktail, drink three, till the lightness near your neck and the top of your head makes you forget the glass, the bar, the money talk, until you aren't there at all but in heaven floating out over the night, the boats, the neon, the street vendors and the taxi drivers, since from up here everything is nothing but beauty.

They call this place Cloud Nine for a reason.

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Saturday, 8 November 2008

It's sort of hard to keep a blog like this one updated once you slip into some sort of routine. For two weeks now my days have followed a rarely varying structure. Each morning I wake up for the car into school, holding myself back in my room five minutes just to irritate the old Swedish witch we all detest, have a morning group class from 9 till 12.30, have lunch, as often as not in Subway because it's easy and I usually have chinese characters to learn for my afternoon class, spend the afternoon chatting with Wang Ling, my teacher, and filling in the blanks from my morning's class. In the evenings a bar maybe, or dinner with classmates, or Bond, or a trip to the fabric market. Home, character revision, a DVD, bed. If I updated regularly, this would hardly be thrilling stuff.

I've been writing a fair bit in the meantime, largely experimentally and nothing that I would deem interesting enough to go on here. Of course there have also been points of excitement, but they've largely been to do with people and discretion dictates that I gossip behind people's backs; this is just too public for my own wellbeing.

It’s hard to find myself in new or challenging situations. In fact, I’m back in a flow – what my Dad called a ‘datastream’ – moving in the same direction as other people. At Mandarin House everyone’s moving in the same direction – my newfound friends by definition have a limited knowledge of Chinese, and few know much about China. The odd thing is how travellers can’t help but view people through the lens of where they come from. This is something I’m guilty of more than the others, but nonetheless the Yank-Swiss-Swede jokes and cultural misassumptions are a kind of basis for group and one one one communication. For these reasons I’m getting on very well with Wang Ling, who’s a laugh and who can give me an insight into how the Chinese view things. Most notably, she told me that the popular view is that Boris Johnson is a disrespectful drunk who only pitched up at the Olympics to ogle Chinese girls. Which just goes to show how perceptive they are.

A few more things stand out. Actually tonight I just got back from Above and Beyond (dance DJs) playing an incredible set, so good I just stood blissfully for two hours or so, listening to the music with equally enraptured friends. Despite my best attempts to contract food poisoning, testing out the street vendors (as long as what they sell is identifiable as one food or another) and coming across some delights, such as crispy fried vegetable dumplings, I ended up getting ill the old fashioned way, eating a burger from an American themed diner. My gut's still processing the supposedly American meat, a lesson well learned I think.

I managed to avoid going to the best Drum and Bass night of the month last night. Apparently noone outside the UK - yanks, swedes, french or swiss - knows what Drum and Bass is (at the very least I thought the Swedes would go for it) so in the end I cried off making a lone trip.

I'm doing another week on my course, which I'm enjoying but frustrated by, since I'd love to be able to speak the language and know just how long that will take me to accomplish. So after this week I'm putting myself back on holiday, to experience, enjoy and destress as much as possible, since after all that is what this trip is all about. Being back in this data stream has sent me reeling back to the Cambridge job listings website, sending out applications and considering just how much Chinese I can justifiably claim on my CV. Whilst Mandarin is definitely something I want to continue, I'd rather enjoy myself here than go back to the place I was in September, panicking about what happens next with my life to the exclusion of everything else.

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Thursday, 30 October 2008

Zhongguo Uncovered

Today was a day of firsts. For one thing it was the first time I've seen live turtles for sale by the side of the street. This being China, I couldn't say for certain whether they were available as pets or as food, but my guess is probably both. It was also the first time I've encountered a Chinese transvestite prostitute, towering at about 6'3" in heels and advertising her dubious wares on a corner outside my hotel - which is in a very vibrant area indeed.

More importantly, today was my first glimpse into what makes this country tick. China's strength - the reason it can boast 9% growth in the midst of a global recession - is its industry, and particularly it's clothes factories.

Touring these enormous mass production lines was more than just an insight into the Chinese miracle, it was an insight into clothing generally. I assumed, not unreasonably I thought, that most manufacturing processes were automated these days, picturing a machine assembly line where a large bit of cloth went in and a polished and embellished tshirt, shirt or jacket came out, needing perhaps a bit of hand embellishing but nothing more.

I was quite spectacularly wrong. While some processes here are fully automated, such as the German knitting machines that produce garments to spec, needing no more manpower than a supervisor, most are full on, labour intensive and require large numbers of workers.

"This factory employs 7,000 people" my guide tells me, mostly migrants from China's rural districts who are housed on-site in dormitories. I don't pause to ask her, because I am gazing down line after line - as far as the eye can see and in all directions - of neatly lined up sewing machines, each manned and piled high with fabric. As you move down the line, watching each practice their specialty, from hemming to cuffs to buttons, you see the fabric go from rough material to finished product. The number of workers here alone is staggering, let alone the output. This is just one factory, and their are thousands like it dotted round Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and all over China. This microcosm of Chinese industry, cheap labour leading to mass production, just goes to show why so many of my clothes bear the 'Made in China' slogan.

On another note, the following extract from The Londonist's halloween listings caught my eye:

Join the anarcho-pagans and witchy-lefties in Docklands, gathering outside 25 Canary Wharf, the now cold, empty building of Lehman Brothers, to dance on the grave of capitalism. 5pm to midnight, but as it’s an anarcho, don’t worry about getting there too early. This event has a Facebook page.


That sounds like a party I'd like to go to.

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Monday, 27 October 2008

Ni Hao Capitalism

He kele

All five of us stare blankly at the pinyin syllables on the board as our tutor leads us through their pronunciation one by one. It's our first morning of Mandarin classes, and so far we've gone through the gamut of juh, chuh, zuh and qus, the oas and ous and all the other uncomfortable consonants and vowels which have left our jaws feeling just a tad worn out. Our teacher smiles at us with an impossibly friendly grin, which hasn't left his face all morning. It could be reassuring if it weren't so forced.

"You are about to speak the first Chinese sentence," he tells us, grin spreading wider. "Please repeat: hur kur-luh". Each of us tries in turn, until he is satisfied with our pronunciation. "Now", he says, "what does it mean?" We stare at him blankly.

"This one," he points to the 'He', "is a verb. It means to drink. This one is a noun. Kur-luh. What do you think this means?"

The girl next to me makes a timid suggestion. "Cola?" she asks.

"That's right. Cola. So what does this sentence mean?"

Noone answers, so he tells us.

"Drink Coke." Another wide grin.

Mao is presumeably turning in his grave.

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Friday, 24 October 2008

Market Passage

Noone needs to hear about how I spent a week reading and shopping. It's an odd thing about Shanghai, I love it here but it's very western, and completely unchallenging in the way Beijing was. I could be in any city right now, which is why there's so little I'm feeling the need to write about, but I'm having a fantastic time anyway. I've spent my days exploring the city, and especially the art street (50 Moganshan Lu, a set of gallery spaces in old warehouses) and the fashion and technology markets. The art street was interesting, but there was little that really grabbed me. The most engaging piece was a work by Liu Bolin at Eastlink Gallery, although the website sadly doesn't make any mention of him. His photographs of chameleon-like people, who are painted to fit into their background, are powerful and reflect a general sense of the removal or ignoring of the individual in a lot of the works I saw. Another, less successful, show featured 21 artists' self portraits, none of which featured the artist themself, at least not in any kind of obvious way. One featured a screenshot from a google search of the artist's name. I do want to return, since a lot of the bigger galleries were closed on the day.

Apart from time spent with Charlie and his Mandarin course friends, I've spent most of my time in the markets, bargaining and checking out what they offer. Shirts are tailored for about 12-15GBP, whilst a tailored suit is around 50. Wandering around is fascinating, and makes you entirely reassess the value you attached to clothes since everything is so cheap.

Walking through a market yesterday, a woman started to offer me her wares - watches, handbags and DVDs. Having not yet encountered a proper fake DVD seller, I was intrigued and asked her what she had. She led me through her shop to a back room. There, on shelves, stood stuffed animals, which she removed. She grabbed a magnet from the side and attached it to the back wall. With a 'click' the whole thing came away, revealing thousands of tiny plastic slips, each containing a fake or copied DVD, each costing a pound - and I'm sure I could have got them for less. Having looked through hundreds of options, and picked out five to examine, she asked me if I was interested in TV shows. China does not show most American shows on TV, so it is down to the fake DVD sellers to keep the eager Chinese market up to date with Gossip Girl, Heroes, Prison Break, 24 and the like.

"What do you have?" I asked.

'Click'. Back went the back wall, and off came the stuffed animals from another shelf. 'Click.' Off came another panel and here again stood hundreds of boxes, brightly coloured, each one containing full series of TV shows. I paid for my purchases and made to leave. "Better take this", the shopkeeper told me, handing me a black carrier bag and putting the DVDs inside. "So the police don't see."

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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Shanghai

I don't know what it is about Shanghai that made me immediately love it so much. It's probably the architecture. The crazy angles and impossible structures that made the Beijing skyline so interesting are here, and in greater numbers. In fact, entering in the taxi takes me back to entering New York, but here the buildings are more spaced out, less overwhelming. Each one can be appreciated for the marvel of engineering and aesthetic design that it is. Walking down Nanjing Rd., the main commercial street, with Charlie (a family friend doing a language course out here) makes me embarrassed at how excited I was to find Wangfujing. Every building seems to be a multi-storey shopping centre or a moody market, and everywhere people, excitement, full restaurants and busy streets. Taking the metro - despite the crowds - is a dream, clean, spacious, air-conditioned. The board counts down to the second how long it will be till the next train will arrive. And when the counter reaches 0.00, whoosh, bang on time comes the train. It's not a perfect city, but it's so energetic it's hard not to be sucked in.

There are pluses and minuses everywhere, and my hostel is providing two counterbalances. My room currently has no window. They assure me that tomorrow I can have a room with one, but they told me that yesterday too. Meanwhile the internet is sketchy at best, unable to deal with Skype or even internet radio. That said, the room is cheap, perfectly clean and pretty big, so I'm happy to have it as a base.

One thing that hasn't improved from Beijing is the driving. I don't think I've described just how manic Chinese driving is. First of all, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are treated as quiet reminders at best. When a driver decides to turn a corner, traffic signals are ignored completely. As for the roads, the main ones can be divided into as many as six or seven lanes, which doesn't take into account the drivers' habit of using the lane markings as an overtaking lane. In Beijing we saw a car get wedged as he tried to gain a few yards down the tenth lane of a once six lane road. In taxis it's best not to look at the road, or listen to the horns around you, as your driver is as likely to be guilty of these violations as any.

I'm starting a language course Sunday for two weeks, so I'm doing my best to get as much of Shanghai in before I do. Checking out the markets tomorrow, hoping to find that £40 bespoke suit I've been promised!

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Friday, 17 October 2008

Beijing

Today is my last day in Beijing. It's funny, I booked my flight because I felt a bit overwhelmed by the city, wasn't sure what else to do with myself. As soon as I did, I started to really enjoy myself. Walking around Beihai park today, visiting beautiful buddhist temples awash with fragrant flowers and incense, soundtracked by evocative bell-ringing and harmonising voices from mounted speakers, I felt fully at peace. Pockets of serenity like this one, away from the frustrated gridlock or manic manoevring of the crowded traffic system, where the smog that pervades the city today seems mystical once again, protective. From the highest point the city hides in clouds of grey-yellow fog, but the boats on the lake, the belltower, the temples, these become part of my little world. I sighed contentedly, and wandered back to the hostel.

Beijing has felt like the deep end for me. Outside of the tourist spots noone speaks English, people haven't been very helpful - even taxi drivers - and the place has taken me by surprise, exceeding and undermining my expectations. At the same time it's hard not to love the place, the constant activity, the noise, the beauty, the size - it's all so idiosyncratic. The pace of change here is visible, which is not an experience I've ever had before, but the history is palpable too, standing side by side with sheer modernity.

Several things will stick in my mind about this city, but there's one thing I'll never forget. In the Forbidden City there was a sign beside a relic which read, in inimitable Chinese style:

Please remember a moment's carelessness can cause the eternal loss of beauty.
The irony of this quote - in a country that underwent the historical reinvention of the cultural revolution, in a city that all-but-destroyed part of its heart (the hutongs) to make room for wider roads for the Olympics - did not escape me. But "The past is another country" does not quite fit in here. Rather there seems to be a coexistence between past and present. This plea is a stark reminder of the risks of such a fast rate of progress in a country with so rich a history.

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Thursday, 16 October 2008

Wangfujing

Just the name has something special about it. It reverberates around my head as I make myself down more wide boulevards, Wangfujing, the word itself enticing me to visit. Wangfujing, like Oxford Street, Rodeo Drive and 5th Avenue all rolled into one, something mega, beyond, the perfect home for a consumerist such as myself. The closer I get, the better I feel, like the sight of familiar shops, English and American brands and rampant consumerism will take me that little bit closer to home. Like so much I've experienced in these four short days (it feels like forever), I get exactly what I expected, and something else entirely.

Wangfujing is the highpoint of Chinese capitalism, a long street running parallel to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen. Walking down it from the top I pass rundown electronics shops and then, every so often but getting more common, like passing by ripples in a pond on the way to the heart of the disturbance, a designer store here, a five star hotel there. Boss. Burberrys. Smart shoppers laden down with bags, business suits, jeans and baseball caps, mobile phones. My hostel is in a traditional area of Beijing, full of hutongs, the idiosyncratic little alleyways alive with street vendors and tables crowded with chess players, at night lit only by the glow of their cigarettes and the moon. Where I am now could be a different country to those homely, dusty backalleys. This is a nod to western capitalism. Only it's bigger, better, cleaner and cheaper. As I enter the pedestrianised area, Wanfujing-proper, I am in heaven.

Noone needs to hear about how I went shopping for two hours, especially when the only thing I bought was a cheap (almost certainly fake) jade necklace. What is worth pointing out is just how big the place was. I wandered the main street to the very end, then popped in to check out the department store. This was how I found out that the street, which seems to stretch out for ages, is just a shop front. The department store itself merely takes up a part of an enormous shopping mall, which stretches the entire length of the street and climbing for six floors. Shops range from McDonalds to top-class restaurants, Nike to Giorgio, Starbucks to a multi-screen cineplex. And when you've explored that, you can cross the street and explore the next one, just two floors this time but occupying a whole block, underneath the Grand Hyatt.

I walked home elated, awe-struck by the containment of everything in one place, right at the heart of a major city. As I went, I noticed people eating what appeared to be candied chestnuts, and had my second following-the-ripples experience of the day, tracing the line back to the vendor of these sweet-smelling caramelised treats. It was only on my first bite that I realised my mistake. Not chestnuts, but miniature apples, softened but underripe, perfectly complemented by the crunchy toffee coating. Not tough like English toffee apples, nor too big. Each bite was warmly sweet and sour, a perfect balance of the two. As I reached the hostel again, I reflected on these symmetrical experiences which have made me fall in love with Beijing, if only just a little bit.

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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall of China and Home

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are like two sides of the same coin. Both are enormous, imposing. Both display the glory and power of their respective regimes, and reflect the egos of the men in charge of them. Standing side by side it would be easy to appropriate the one into the context of the other, a line of Chinese building which follows the same philosophy, if not the same aesthetic concerns. The Forbidden City is overwhelming, an overt display of wealth, a series of daunting, stunning courtyards and palaces dedicated to the glory of one man. 9,999 rooms make up the palace, befitting the son of god (whose palace in the heavens is said to contain 10,000 rooms). Tiananmen is similarly hard to take in all at once, barely a square, just a vast, open tract of concrete, with a statue in the centre and buildings barely hemming in the sides. From the gate towards the Forbidden Palace, Mao looks down upon his people. At the other end stands his mausoleum, queues of Chinese tourists backing up far into the square for the briefest of glimpses of the formaldehyde-preserved body of their former ruler. Yet there is stark difference between these two immense feats of architecture, and it is ideological as much as it is aesthetic. The Forbidden City was built to glorify the Emperor and was, as its name suggests, closed to the general public. Only the Emperor's wives, concubines and advisors, along with foreign dignitaries, were allowed inside. Despite the cult-like representations of Mao, Tiananmen was designed to be public, open at each corner, capable of holding 500,000 people in one go. Of course, it has fame for other reasons too, ones which my guide did not mention and neither - for fear of censorship - will I. Be that as it may, there is something in these two structures that draws hundreds of millions of Chinese tourists every year, flowing from one into the other, paying their life savings in some cases, just to see these two icons of Beijing before they die. Tiananmen may now have a reputation less conducive to the idea of a free populace, but this area is one of Mao's victory, Tiananmen being the conduit through which most visitors will enter, and judge, the excesses of a bygone age found in the Forbidden City.

***

In China, everything may not be for sale, but almost everyone is trying to sell you something. Our guide takes us to a Jade museum on the way to the Great Wall. Museums like this one are based in factories, so our tour takes in the different types and manufacturing processes of Jade as described with ruthless efficiency by a woman in a business suit and shiny silver trainers. Brief lecture dispensed with, we are dumped in the shop and told to address our questions to more semi-formal employees, ruthless salespeople who stalk us as we browse, always following a step or two behind. I buy nothing (despite the forceful attention of one of them). My guide, who appears to have a vested interest, notices this. At the next place, a ceramics museum-factory-shop, she follows me around making helpful suggestions. "This pen is lovely. Look, only sixty yuan. That's less than ten dollars... You could buy your mother a present. You like this teapot?"

At the Great Wall, our guide leaves us to explore by ourselves. My companion is a retired headmaster, a warm, kind man who appears to have a better idea of what my trip is about than I do. Our starting position gives us two options: an impossible looking steep climb to the top of a mountain and beyond, or a more leisurely path. My companion's air of hardy anticipation leaves me in no doubt as to which one we'll be following. I set off reluctantly behind him, knees aching from the initial two-foot-high steps. Half an hour in and I'm gasping, desperate for an exit strategy. Irritation and anger set in. In this impossible challenge, I'm beginning to see the rest of my trip stretch before me. Long days, difficult journeys. And for what? I don't care if I reach the top of the mountain. I don't care if I keep travelling for a day or a week. Why not just give up when it becomes hard?

The surprise comes at the last hut we stop at before turning back, a sweaty hour straight uphill in bright sunshine. We enter and decide to check out how much further there is to go. Every time we'd reached a hut we'd found it had hidden much of the path beyond, and more misery awaited us (or me at least, since my companion seemed delighted to keep going). This time, though, there is no more. Even if we'd wanted to go on, we couldn't. The wall ends in a miniature balcony over the hill. It is only on the way down, noticing how many more people there are at the bottom than the top, watching people falter a quarter or halfway up the path (at points where I paused and then struggled on) that I begin to feel really good about the whole thing. My legs are shaking with adrenaline, sweat's pouring from my back and legs, but I'm buzzing, my mind racing, my body stronger than it was a moment before. Walking down the hill I start to see the benefits of travelling clearly, how stepping out of my comfort zones may be awful at times, but will serve me well in the long run. How much stronger I can feel from an uphill climb. And how much better the world looks from the top of a mountain - but only on the way down again.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Culture Shock

I wake at 3 pm, having slept solidly from midnight. A night on Dom's floor and snatched sleep on the plane left me dead on arrival. Yesterday was tough, but it seems miles away now. When I arrived, the hostel was empty, I didn't understand the language, everything seemed too big or too fast. At junctions, cars seemed to race across, people ran. From a distance it felt like watching a stop-motion video, unnatural and disconcerting. Jingshan park was crowded with Chinese tourists. I paid my 2yuan entry (20p) and wandered in. From the top of the hill, hidden by trees, I could hear singing in Chinese, beautiful harmonising voices. I started to climb, passing a man standing on the roof of a hut, engaging in a painful-sounding self-tapping ritual. At the top I reached a gazebo-type structure. Two women had erected a tape deck and speakers. This is the music I'd been hearing. Disorientated, I started to walk, passing through more gazebo-type huts decorated in red and gold. I reached the largest one, the highest, with an enormous buddha statue inside. Tourists queued up to bow, but I turned back, worried I'd get it wrong. From here the city looked overwhelmingly endless, shrouded in its low lying off-yellow cloud.

I kept walking, getting my bearings. I finally got back to the hotel hours later, mildly wet, moderately underfed and exhausted. Entering my room again, reviewing the small oppressive corridor with two sets of four poster beds, I burst into tears. For half an hour I couldn't stop crying, letting fatigue and fear flow out of me. Speaking to Alisa and Soleil calmed me down. I got into bed and watched a film, forcing myself to stay up until I could barely see with tiredness and my ears started playing tricks on me.

Today is different. I feel fresh. I head out of the hostel, past a crowd of young Americans and Canadians who I've been vaguely aware of from my room laughing and drinking since midday. I want to talk to them, but right now I need food. I reach a main street and stop in the first restaurant I come to. After so long the meal - kung po chicken and salty vegetable dumplings with the most fantastic chewy-crunchy texture - brings me fully back. In good spirits I return to the hostel. This time I don't know how to approach the group of people, still sitting around a load of bottles of beer. I sit down at a computer to check my emails, and smile at the girl.

"Would you like to join us?" She smiles in my direction as she asks, and I gratefully take a seat amongst them. This is my first exposure to travellers' banter, and it's fun. Ben always said it's like speeded up friendship, and it's clear that noone has the barriers up in the way they do when you meet people at home. They know that they'll be gone in an hour or two, as do you, so you can say what you like. There's nothing to hold you to them or them to you, so you are completely relaxed, and nothing is taken too seriously. We rinse each other mercilessly. It feels pretty good.

Later I head out from the hostel to meet a woman called Ashley I met on couchsurfing.com. It's a website that advertises beds in cities for travellers - usually on people's couches. I just want to meet some people who know Beijing, so I am seeing Ashley for a drink with some of her friends. I give the taxi driver the google map address of the place we're drinking, carefully transcribed by a helpful woman from my hostel. He drops me off, and a man immediately offers me a "Lady bar".

"You want sex? What, you don't like sex?" he asks.

I brush him off irritatedly, and start to walk. A moment of panic sets in - I can't see the place we're meeting, the Pink Loft. He approaches again.

"You need help?" Gratefully I show him my directions. Luckily his profession gives him a goodish grasp of English. "This is North street. You want South street. You go there, cross, keep walking. You find it." I thank him, setting off in the right direction and brushing off more people offering me sex.

When I meet Ashley she leads me to a bar. "This is a pretty authentic Chinese bar experience," she explains to me, guiding me into a hotel lobby. "You have to go through a seedy dive, where they charge for rooms by the hour, to get there." We get in the lift and she takes us to the top floor, where I meet her friends. The crowd is largely American, friendly, with a reminiscent scent of home befitting the conversation of expats. We discuss the city, my travel plans and childhood tv shows. Leaving, I get John's number. The party is given in his honour, as he's moving to Shanghai next week. This gives me a valuable contact in the city, which I'll be travelling to in the next week or two, and makes me feel even happier. Tomorrow I have to be up early, I'm taking a tour of the city. I just need to work out how to get to sleep first.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

First Impressions

There's a thick smog over Beijing this morning. Whether pollution or just fog, it's difficult to tell. Either way, it casts the city in a bright yellow haze, making everything seem brighter than it should, adding an aetherial tone to the skyscrapers and highrises. Beijing airport is immense, steel and glass as far as the eye can see and in all directions, especially up. Everything is efficient to the point of precision, and I am told off by the passport control officer for standing out of position. At baggage reclaim an attendant stands by, his sole job to set the cases upright and neatly ordered as they come off the conveyor belt. It seems pointless, passengers keep knocking bags over as they grab their own, but he keeps setting them right none the less, staring half-heartedly around him as he contemplates the Sysiphean monotony of his task. The taxi ride is in turns calm and terrifying, the driver nonchalantly weaving between traffic at 100kph without signaling or looking. The smoothness of the journey makes me forget that he is overtaking on the inside, until a particularly harsh bit of braking or the too-fast approach of a nearby car make me jump. Getting in to Beijing, everything just feels too big. Long, wide boulevards run five lanes deep (both ways) between the impossible architectural angles that make up more glass-and-steel behemoths on all sides. At first fascinating, I begin to lose interest until we turn off into the district I'm staying in, right next to the Forbidden City. My hostel is down a maze of side streets, messy half-built brick and tin shacks pepper the area. The hostel itself is nice, airy and comfortable, with bright red walls and paper lanterns hanging from the ceilings like a cheap Chinese restaurant in London.

I have a new mobile number, on an international sim card. The number is +447872259008. It's free to receive calls in China, and from the UK it's the cost of a local call. I'll also be on Skype from time to time. Until next time. x

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Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The countdown begins...

His departure was getting closer now, and still the fear hadn't hit. He was excited, but there was a part of him that felt nothing at all. China was just another place, another scene for him to contemplate whilst introspecting and feeding himself a diet of trashy narratives from American TV. This was the part that had learnt not to be afraid, that had kept him in his safe zone through university, the part that was always fighting his urges to the risky. Nothing new in it, but the excitement, that was keener, sharper than he had experienced before. He found it difficult to sit still, needed music, writing, constant movement. Not nervous, not anxious, just ambition and adrenaline. Standing in line at the visa office these two sides came against each other for the first time.

The process had taken weeks, with bureaucracy interfering at every step of the way. Now, finally, after two and a half weeks and with four days until his flight, he was about to hear the answer. His restful side was reassuring him – what does it matter if you don't get it? Don't worry about it. It was this side that directed him to read the farcical play that he keeps glancing up from, checking whether his number has been called yet. His excitable side, what's does it think? He almost doesn't ask. A week ago it was this side that he had let take over, lying in bed trying to get some sleep, so he could put his application in. This side had been running questions too, but they were stopping him sleep, palms sweaty beneath thin blankets, boiling shivers of anxiety that made him uncomfortable however he lay. What if you don't get the visa? What will you do? What will your family say? They already think this is a foolhardy, badly planned scheme, what about your flights? Endless. Endless questions, fears. He had lain in bed, trying every tactic he knew to stop the tape running in his head. Music, radio, tv, nothing helped. He’d snatched two hours of waking sleep and set off to put his visa in.

With this in mind, he embraced his comfortable side this morning, thinking about London, Starbucks and McDonalds, panda cars and zebra crossings. He looks up at the desk in front of him. There is a commotion, a man shouting. His wife was denied a visa and he, close to tears, asks what they are going to do. The powerless desk clerk, she's just a saleswoman, she can't help him. There's a helplessness in them both that he recognises as his own, recognises but no longer feels. Tentatively aware of this he finally listens to his adrenaline. To his surprise, he doesn’t start to worry, he doesn't care about his visa anymore. Now he just wants to get away, to get into new situations, take new risks away from watchful eyes. If not China, then India, Venezuela, Africa, anywhere. This side has liberated itself, isn’t locking itself into an idea but is open to all suggestions, and he knows this is the stronger side. He waits calmly. His number is called. He approaches the desk with enthusiasm, a smile breaking despite the sleep between his eyes and the morning-sick feeling he gets when he doesn’t eat breakfast. Whatever happens he will be travelling this Sunday, he knows it. The woman at the desk, she smiles back at him. It takes him by surprise, he has watched her deal with the people in front of him, miserable and disinterested. He feels a further surge of energy as he banters with her, passing comment on the other jokers travelling halfway round the world. When her stamp says 'APPROVED' he's really buzzing, because he is going to China, there’s nothing stopping him now, he’s taking himself into unknown territory, and he just can't wait.

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Monday, 6 October 2008

One small island to another

A bit of semi-creative writing from Belfast International Airport to Stansted:

He sits in the airport departure lounge, senses gouged by over bright strip lights, children's chatter and the pungent aroma of nearby monster munch. The darkness outside is held back by the reflections of pinball machines' flashing lights and the glow from fast food convenience stands. His head hurts, but only slightly. His eyes ache mildly. His stomach feels hollow, though just twenty minutes before he had felt ill from overeating. Nothing is wrong, really. Four words that fully sum up the extent of his despair more than purple prose ever could. Nothing is wrong. Nothing to complain about, no real reasons for sadness. In fact, in a way, he feels quite happy. And yet... The empty feeling won't quite go away, the aloof disconnection from the surrounding world, a quiet desire to escape. And yet to desire escape is to feel trapped, and he doesn't feel trapped in anything he hasn't constructed for himself, his own small neuroses and confusions that add pressure to a blessed life. He doesn't want saving, he isn't lacking anything he really wants, but he doesn't really want anything. To define your own goals when they have always been set for you is a learning step, and at the moment, he has no goals.

His fingers start tapping, his mind racing through options in a cycle. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? He refuses to be trapped by these thoughts again, let himself wind down without an answer. He must decide. He must choose a path, and pursue it to a logical conclusion.

So who does he want to be in twenty years?

He lets his mind wander to the first thought, and declares himself a forty year old photographer. He sees the advantages. He sees his images in magazines, newspapers, on books. He hears the acclaim of those who respect his work. He feels the pride of an expressed vision recognised by an adoring critic. What's wrong with this picture? He can see the acclaim but not the work. In fact, he recognises something in himself now. He enjoys taking photographs but does not have the respect for the work that he wants from others. He doesn't admire the effort, in fact he thinks it should be easy. Even if it isn't, it's too simple. He doesn't want the acclaim. He wants to be something more worthwhile.

He sees an author now, tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard with a wife and children in an adjacent room. He finishes his chapter, wanders in to the kitchen to take a swig of milk, helps his daughter with her maths homework. That night he attends a party given for a friend of his, and tells an eminent politician they do not understand the human impact of their own policy. Returning home, his conversation has angered and inspired him and, sipping on the leftovers of last nights wine and lighting up a cigarette, he starts a new short story. Or a play. Or a film. It doesn't matter at this stage, the idea just has to get out there. Two hours later he looks up. He hasn't realised how long he's been writing for, and he looks over the pages that have appeared on his screen. His trance-like state has left him calm. When he wakes up in the morning he'll turn it into a treatment and send it to his agent, then get back to work on his novel. Now it's time to sleep

but he knows it'll be a peaceful life. Looking up, he notices it's his turn to board, but this vision has made him calm. He takes his seat at the front of the plane, lingering on the threshold to let the last of the cool night air and the fresh wetness of Ireland soothe his unwashed face, blinking his heavy eyes in the dark of the cabin at take-off. He doesn't let up now, he feels like he's getting somewhere, maybe.

The lights come on around him lending a harsh overexposed aspect to the fixed-false smiles on the over-made-up, over-medicated stewardesses. She turns away, but from the side he notices the break in her smile, the hardness of her look as she shows her back to her customers. He crosses air-stewardess off a mental check-list and turns to his next considered profession.

He sits across a table from a pin-stripe suit and a briefcase, and tries to remember why he got into politics. Suit's going through budget figures, restrictions, health and safety. Nothing gets done, he twiddles his pen between his fingers and tries to pretend he's listening. This is the downside of being a cabinet minister, but he knows in an hour or two he'll be done with meetings in his plush Westminster office, dark wooden furnishings lending an academic air to an already austere collection of literature and non-fiction. Attractive as his surroundings are, it is the meeting he has organised with a distraught constituent that he's really looking forward to. It may take place in a dingy pub where his suit and tie will draw attention soon enough to his wallet and mobile phone, the precise matter may be trivial to the point of being a waste of his time, but he will feel helpful. He will regain his sense that what he's doing, in however minor a way, is making things better, incrementally, salving the world's problems one oversized house extension at a time. Tonight, afterwards, he will attend a fund-raiser for a prominent cancer charity and pledge his commitment to increasing funding for the important fight against this disease. Next week, on the arrival of a foreign dignitary, he will conduct meetings to put pressure on the country's incipient dictatorship to release political prisoners and remove curbs on freedom of speech. In his infrequent periods of inactivity, or frequent periods of travel, he will re-read Chomsky, Pilger and Klein, or there future equivalents, and form judgements based on opinion pieces (never news reports) from a range of sources and newspapers. He will act for his beliefs, for his party, for his country, and for the common good of humanity, and he will stand tall when asked to go against what is right – because he knows the good he does is only worth it if it does not come out of a contract of doing bad. He...

He runs out of fresh things to say, but he gets excited rereading his own ideas and hopes. As the plane begins to descend and he is forced to hibernate his laptop, he stares out the window at orange pinpricks of light over London and wonders if the last two options are mutually exclusive. Why can't he be a politician and a writer? Why can't his politician have a wife and family? Why doesn't he see plaudits for himself in anything but photography? He considers making amendments when the plane lands, but he feels he must stay true to the goal he has set himself. When he hits the ground he starts running to get out of the terminal and onto the bus, to keep going and keep thinking. As he goes, his ipod blares in his ears and Santogold makes him pause for thought: Got no need for fancy things, all the attention that it brings.

He takes his seat on the bus, eyeing the seat in front suspiciously. Is it reclined? (Am I sitting in the wrong seat, could I get more seat-bang for my seat-buck?) Deciding it isn't, and that the blonde who occupies it is just attractive enough not to offend by moving anyway, he reconsiders the line he has stuck in his head (Santogold's still blaring at this point, but he doesn't pay attention to it). He was won over by the idea of not wanting fancy things, but hadn't considered the second part, the attention part. He doesn't care about not getting attention. If anything, he craves it, craves to be the best and to win. So he ignores that bit and asks himself whether he needs fancy things, or just wants them. And if wanting something, and being able to have it, is justification enough to take it.

So he thinks about Venezuela, an adjunct to the political career path he is setting out for himself, and tries to work out the feasibility of pitching up and asking for a job in the government. The idea excites him but smacks of colonial arrogance, so he imagines again learning Spanish, studying Latin America, possibly leaving London forever and never coming back. The images from John Pilger's documentary, The War on Democracy, flash through his mind – mansions and barrios – and the questions that present themselves start to veer into the realm of where he would live, and whether he'd be robbed in the first month. He clears his thoughts.

He is fat. Really quite fat. Not obscenely so, but enough to merit a ticking off under the conservatives 'blame fat people' campaign (and they hope the nanny state will die with Labour). The reason he's quite so plump is immediately obvious, the rich plate of desert that sits in front of him on a pristine white tablecloth. He sips a rich red wine and starts to make a pompous observation to his younger, female companion. He tells her that to run a successful restaurant Рlet alone a high-end chain Рyou really need to care about the quality of your food. He can tell she isn't listening, isn't really falling for it, is really thinking about the paps outside and the exposure it will give her modelling career, and whether she'll really have to sleep with him for him to introduce her to his fashionable clientèle, but he doesn't care because he knows she will sleep with him Рthey all do Рand anyway this qualifying isn't for her benefit anyway. He listens to himself talk, approving the self-congratulatory tone and the flavour of his restaurant's signature dish, rich in his mouth from a flatulent burp. He stretches a venal hand to envelop her malnourished fingers, and suggests they leave. No need to wait for the bill in his own restaurant, and he wants to make sure they get decent press coverage (that'll show his ex-wife) before the paps flash round the corner to stalk reality TV stars snogging last year's Vanity Fair cover queen at the latest 'latest thing' nightclub, which subsists on those too stupid or not famous enough to avoid paying the exorbitant cover charge and drinks prices.

He shudders and smiles at the thought, confident that whoever this character is – and he can't help admitting there's something delicious about his caricature – it won't be him. Possibly an acquaintance, possibly an enemy, possibly the ex-husband of an equally parodic (but far thinner) older woman he'll have a temporary affair with, but certainly not him.

He feels alive, sharp, warm, passionate and almost teary eyed. This exercise is teaching him one thing, as he takes quick glances at the bitter, or gormless, or impassive, or downright bored faces that pepper the seats around him. Sometimes it doesn't matter what you write, whether you write it for yourself or for everyone to see, or if you write it for publication. Just writing is enough to give him energy, to excite him, to make him open his mind to new ideas, and he feels like maybe, just maybe, he's answered his question.

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Saturday, 4 October 2008

This is not a rant...

There are some things that put me off a writer instantly. The most damaging is if you simply can't empathise with their position, especially when they go on about it. H once gave me a manuscript to read. It started with the line "This is a rant, so hear me." I put it down after ten pages of meandering complaints, usually centring on how customers at B&Q kept asking the narrator where the lugnuts were, the selfish pricks. I was clearly meant to see the meaningless futile angst of it all, but I just ended up thinking the writer was an arsehole.

The same thing put me off Paul Theroux, despite everything great I've been told about him. His book about travelling in Africa didn't so much set the scene of the journey as start mid-whine about how noone thought it suitable a man in his 70s travelling alone from Cairo to Cape town. I gave up on page 80, with some reservations - I did want to hear about his trip, but not when it was all viewed through the prism of sticking it to his wife and fellow concerned parties back home. I don't do teenage rebellion, especially not from a septagenarian.

So it is with this in mind that I make the following statement: people don't seem to entirely understand the concept of this trip. I am going on an adventure. Safe, secure, planned - within reason, these are words I'm trying to dispense with when I think about taking off around the world. For people in my family this is an odd suggestion. Over Rosh Hashana dinner my mother got herself into a panic ('He's not even going to get to China!'), my uncle took me under his wing ('I'll phone my travel agents') and my grandmother just waved a hand and told me it didn't matter that I'd 'done it all wrong' because I'll have 'learnt for next time'. As far as I'm concerned, I couldn't be doing this better. This messy, half-schemed trip gives me a chance for a real sense of freedom, and a real sense of adventure. It's only half about the places I go, the sights I see and the comfort of where I'm staying and how I get there. The exciting bit is taking off into the unknown, testing out new things (even if that's the queue at the Indian embassy in Beijing). I couldn't have planned it better.

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Monday, 22 September 2008

Things to do before I go...

Find out when A gets to Shanghai, and whether he's still coming. My excitement about traveling with him is fast becoming excitement about traveling full stop. How do I get from Beijing to Shanghai? The plane's the most boring option. LonelyPlanet tells me I can go by train via Tianjin, Qingdao, Ji'nan and Zhujiayu, which sounds exciting even without reading what those places involve. If I read it cover to cover I could make an informed decision, but I'm in two minds. On the one hand, I'm taking someone else's opinion before I experience the place myself. Not much is personal about that. On the other hand, I can hand pick the places I find exciting. Both are attractive, but I definitely think it's a good idea to travel alone for a while before meeting up with A.


Read, watch, learn. Wild Swans, Empire of the Sun, Raise the Red Lantern, On the Road. Find, read, pack. Films, flickr pages, columnists' views, anything's a resource. Lonelyplanet obviously. Going to Uganda, I read one book, which helped me understand and contextualise what I was shown. If I expose myself to more ideas, opinions and images then I can start to find my own way to explore the country.

What do I take? 
Clothing:
2 x trousers
1 x shorts
2 x shirts (non-designer, obviously)
2 x t-shirts
2 x sweaters
4 x boxers, socks
overcoat
trainers

I don't want to leave my camera at home, this is why I bought it after all. I'll have to risk losing it, it's worth it. With a new prime lens and an extra memory stick, I should be sorted.

Books - three fiction/non-fiction books and two lonely planets

Toothbrush
Toothpaste
Face wash/liquid soap
Towel

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Sunday, 21 September 2008

A booked flight changes everything...

Nothing stifles adventure faster than bureaucracy. When a single flight to China costs almost twice as much as a return and the Chinese government won't issue a visa without an address for your stay it's easy to wrap yourself in a comfort blanket. Then there's fear. Two days ago I was looking at a wonderfully middle class, safe trip to Beijing, a six week language course, with a return flight booked (optional, but it would be easy to take it) for early December.


Luckily I spoke to A, who suddenly got keen. He had a plan to get from Shanghai to Bombay via Nepal. A is no big risk taker, but this is exciting. If I have to apply for a new visa to get on my return flight, then suddenly my return date is as free as I want it to be. I can push on from India, visit the Maldives and teach English, spend a month in Hong Kong bars, ski with S in Japan.

"You're not as conservative as you think you are". Lunch with my Dad opened me up in ways I really hadn't anticipated. I met him in the middle of a panic attack. I felt directionless, unsure of myself, panicked at every possible career move. I tried to remind myself that I had a good degree from a good university, but it wasn't working. Growing up in protected North London, with an emphasis on being the best student and a stigma attached to any form of non-achievement, it's easy to see yourself as cushy, safe, risk-adverse. He was right though. I am switched on by this. My stupor is gone, I cannot wait to get out of London. I'm not telling too many people either, I hate the long goodbye thing. When S left she spent a month comforting the people she was leaving, or being comforted by them, because she wouldn't see them for a year. If I don't see my friends till next year it will be sad, but spending the next month being reminded of what I'm 'missing' is worse. I've got to look forward right now, focus on what I'll do when I'm away. 

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