Thursday, 20 July 2017

Beijing ! July 2017

What can one say about Beijing? A city shrouded in history, pop-culture, and importance. All my life I have read about Beijing, and wanted to visit, now in July 2017 have finally achieved this!

Overall, I feel truely pleased and happy to be here. Both for the city and my ESL students who I have met, in particular Jeff, Kevin (and his parents), Lydia, Tom and Holly, and Silence (cool name).

Beijing, it is big, more than big, it seems huge and uniform over a large area. By this I mean travel a dozen stops on the subway, exit, and things look the same, tall buildings, shops and so forth. Big. It is also a little bland in design. The same style of buildings, condos, and the like all over the city. Not exciting architecture.

The key reason I travelled to Beijing was to experience the historical sights of the city. It was a wonderful feeling to see these sights, the forbidden city, the museums, the ancient artefacts. After seeing them on tv! Also appreciating their longevity. I did feel great being there. So much too see. Many of these sights I have read about my entire life, to finally see them was a revelation. Having said that…

40 degrees north, surprisingly hot in summer, mid-30s. Also, darkness, in summer it is still bright at 20.00. Pollution, not that bad during my stay, but a little haze. I saw several times the amusing sight of skyscrapers invisible due to haze, but there lights visible, an outline in the sky.

The Bad
The entire ‘Forbidden City’ area is badly organised. If you join an expensive tour, not too bad, but I noticed the tour guides all spoke Chinese, even those few tours with foreign tourists. Also, the tour groups moved quickly, not enough time to appreciate what they were visiting. The guards (lots), and staff spoke bad English, no real clue. In essence, Beijing and China are poorly organised, and bureaucratic. Slow and slower. It is annoying.

I was surprised that most tourists were Chinese (or Asian). Hordes of students following their teacher and a guide, however, I was in Beijing at the start of the summer holidays, therefore crowds not unexpected.

The Good!
The Great Wall of China! Yes! Ever since I was a primary school student and read a book about China I have wanted to see the Great Wall, and I finally did.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

My Thoughts on China - 2017

My thoughts on China fall into two categories: good and bad. 

The good is the people, culture, historical sights, and most importantly my students. Seeing my students in Shanghai and Beijing was wonderful. I just wish that I had more time and opportunity to see more students. Next time! Other people—I found helpful people everywhere I went, from a Kunming bus station guard who spent half an hour showing me to a cheap charlie hotel for an unplanned overnight stay due to a transport screwup (my own fault), plus many other locals who helped me, even taxi drivers. The sights, were many, varied, and endlessly pleasing. I visited museums, art galleries, and a myriad of other tourist destinations. Simply seeing the Shanghai ‘Bund’—the pre-communist buildings along the foreshore, the Hong Kong nightlife, and of course the famous historical sights in Beijing. I want to go again!

The bad is subtle, essentially the Chinese government is fascist and dictatorial (to make a distinction where there is none). This is all too apparent everywhere in China. Public spaces, there are few public spaces and even fewer spaces where individuals can gather in groups. Something not immediately obvious, but public parks have seats, grassed areas, but no large open spaces. Bus and train stations have KFCs, ticket counters, lots of shopping, but no seated areas. No public spaces—No future Tiananmen Squares! When travelling long distances ID cards are required, and of course, the big problem, the blocking of foreign websites. Why indeed does instagram need to be blocked in China? It is a sign of a paranoid ruling class that is attempting to control the population by regulating access to information. Many Chinese, even senior Chinese government officials regularly circumvent ‘The Great Firewall of China’, but institutionally it is omnipresent. In 2017 the Chinese government is making further attempts to limit foreign access by preventing the usage of VPNs, ignoring the fact that VPNs are necessary for confidential (e.g. banking) transactions.

The humorous side of this, to the extent that it is humorous, is that the tech people, who work towards maintaining the firewall, are often the same people who sell the tech means to circumvent the firewall. Their customers, amongst others, are senior party officials who wish to sample the delights of the west. Hypocrisy, inefficiency, and a general short-sightedness stupidity rolled into one, with a large dash of ineffectualness.

The problems with this firewall are clear, to the extent that the Chinese business community are quietly muttering their complaints. Lack of access to Facebook does hinder business. Also the Chinese people do want to be part of the world, not locked away as obedient workers and quiescent citizens.

I will certainly state the the firewall makes travel just that more difficult. Google maps is blocked, the single most used app by travellers. Yes, it is possible to get around the firewall, but that is just one more hassle when you don't need hassles, and sometimes you just cannot access maps. Etc.

Education, Chinese students are up to scratch, to make a general statement, however, for all its success the Chinese education system suffers from several inherent failures. Essentially, it is a top-down, teacher focused system, that rests upon rote-learning and repetitiveness. This is of course one more generalisation, but as with at least some generalisations, it is generally true. Classroom study involves listening and writing, little discussion or debate. Homework, there is lots of homework. All the time, not merely school nights, but weekends and even holidays. The goal seems to be to fill every spare moment with homework. The flip side to this is that the homework is largely a rehash of the classroom work, no alternative required, and that teachers rarely check the homework—essentially, pointless and useless.

You may well ask therefore why Chinese students succeed, well, in fact, many don’t. There are schools and colleges, and universities which issue spurious results, results that give students a higher score than their level of attainment deserves. I have been told stories of teachers who teach superficially during the day, but at night run their own special classes and tutor the same students, for extra payment of course—sadly. However, how do Chinese students reach the high level of accomplishment mentioned previously? This is produced because, first the system as it is does work, albeit mediocrely. Second, many students, certainly the better students study in their own time and in their own fashion.—the saving grace of Chinese education is not the education system, but the students themselves. The third point, Chinese culture that values education and holds getting the job done, success (hard work) in high regard.

This leads to the conclusion of my thoughts on China. Over the past generation it is undoubtedly true that China has made great strides forward. Strides, developments, and progress that the Chinese people can be proud of—and foreigners can admire—however, to put all this into perspective, the progress has been to copy and implement 20th century technology. The building of roads, dams, and aqueducts, is all well and good, but little is of a revolutionary nature. With this China has developed all of the all too familiar trappings of fascism, of an oppressive state, albeit more efficient than most. What it has not done is move forward into the 21st century, it has not embraced human rights or democracy, its progress has been economic not social. This must change. The idea of a 19th century ruling class is obsolete in the 21st century, and will only hurt China and the world. A lesson we should all learn in all countries.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Hong Kong to Shanghai, by Train! — July 2017

Always preferring the more civilised form of travel, train over plane, I decided to make the 1,300 kilometre journey between Hong Kong and Shanghai by train. Overall, a pleasant and easy experience.

I booked a ticket at one of the three train offices at the Hung Hom Rail Station. This station is near the city centre, and is also a subway (MTR) stop, so easy to get to. The cost for a second class ticket was $467 Hong Kong dollars (us$60). A fair price. Apparently, there is no online booking service offered by these offices. Limited English spoken, but enough to communicate my simple needs.

The day of departure arrived. With my two bags I took a taxi from my hostel to the station (hk$40 and 15 minutes). Then, wait, and then follow the crowd into a waiting area, with a duty free shop (I thought all of HK was duty free?). Then, more waiting, then into immigration. The HK office only checks you out. The inward China immigration is at Shanghai. 

The trip, comfortable. I had a cabin with 6 beds, 3 high. The top bunk was a bit of a climb, but it actually had more space. I would recommend the top for future travel. I shared my cabin with two Chinese ladies, who had 0 English and chattered continually during the trip. Outside the cabin was a tiny seated area where one could sit and gaze out of the windows at the passing scenery. On this trip mostly green farm land interspaced with passing towns and cities. A direct trip, we did not stop.

I had a second class sleep, speed about 120kph. A fine choice. I bought the ticket at the station a few days before, though there are several online services—not the office itself, who told me that they have no online service—but private dealers.

Arriving in Shanghai, immigration was fairly fast and polite. The search was less intrusive than in Kunming and GZ. No idea why, but there were drug sniffing dogs. 

Anyway, the greatest delay was getting a taxi from the Shanghai Train Station to my hostel! I waited half and hour or so for a taxi. As always I had the Chinese name of the hostel written into my notebook. The taxi driver looked, muttered, and then off we went!

Great fun.

* cannot post photos while in China, will post later.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Hong Kong !

I only spent 5 days in HK, but I loved it. A different culture from mainland China, and I want to return, maybe for a month.

The city has a rich culture, a myriad of small shops and businesses, and an active outdoor social life. HK is an interesting city to explore. A mix of west and east, impressive architecture, tiny shops, and it is a tourist town.

The subway (MTR) is a great to get around. As usual, I believe making it free and removing the obstacle course of turnstiles etc would greatly increase its efficiency. There is such a thing as an “Octopus” card. This is a prepaid swipe card that can be used on the subway, and in many other retail outlets. Interestingly, it is anonymous. No id needed to buy. You can get one on arrival at the tourist office.

Coincidentally, today, my last day in HK is the 20th anniversary celebration of the reunification of HK with the PRC. I spent the day wandering the city. There is a lot of not entirely happy about the decision. There were in fact lots of protestors in the streets around the Chinese President hotel. The cops were out in force, but they looked sympathetic. From the local HK people in my hostel, few outbursts of happiness. HK has a distinctive culture to mainland China. One which I prefer.

I stayed at the YESinn in Kowloon. I saw many of the local attractions, and found a great veggie restaurant nearby! Kowloon is fun, however, I am contemplating living in HK itself next time. I will check the details and prospects for accommodation.

I have been using for booking. My first time to use this service, and have found it useful. I will use it again.

One other good aspect of HK, no vpn needed to access essential services such as google and Facebook. yippee!

As I said before, the culture between mainland and HK differs. The latter is a freer society. As a sign of this, women wore sexier clothes, and a noticeable number of sex shops. Great fun. I hope that HK retains its distinctive character.

On to Shanghai. I hope to meet several students and explore this new city.