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China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.

The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.

Karst peaks and rice and water-chestnut fields near Yangshuo

In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.

Tea shop in Guilin
Making chili-garlic paste

The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight.  Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.

The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.

Dressing up at Elephant Trunk Hill

One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.

Building boom, Guangxi-style

But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.

The “20 yuan note” view of the Li River near Xingping
Elephant Trunk Hill in Guilin
“Lion watching the nine horses” on the Li River
China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

If China’s first bucket list destination is the Great Wall, the second is most surely the Terracotta Army: the 8,000 soldiers of the army of Qin (pronounced “chin”) Shihuang, the first emperor to unite China, each exquisitely sculpted to match the features and accoutrements of an individual soldier, their ranks accompanied by chariots and horses. The site is a much more recent addition to bucket lists than the Great Wall: although the existence of the tomb was written in historical records, the first discovery in modern times was made in 1974 when a farmer came across pottery fragments while digging a well.

Pit 1 – the largest of the three areas excavated

There are delicate ironies at work here. When Mao undertook the wholesale destruction of ancient Chinese culture, his prototype was none other than Qin Shihuang, whose drive to expunge Confucianism and impose an even more rigid “Legalist” system included the wholesale execution of the intellectuals of his time (Mao boasted that he was repeating Qin’s work but on a massively greater scale). One can only imagine the thoughts of Zhao Kangmin, the official in charge of the local cultural centre, at gradually realising the importance of the find at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in progress, albeit in its last throes.

Faces of the infantry

The fate of the whole enterprise is an irony in itself: Qin thought he was creating an immortal monument to the creator of an eternal dynasty, but only a few years after his death, his heir Fusu was dead and the Terracotta Army had been smashed to pieces by peasant rebels. So far, if I heard this right, only one kneeling archer has been recovered unbroken: the remaining figures on show so far have been reassembled from fragments; the zone of partially assembled figures is known locally as “the hospital”, including the “intensive care” unit for the most difficult cases. A high percentage of the army remains asleep underground, awaiting the day when archaeologists get round to awaking them and making them whole once more. It’s like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, with added clues provided by proximity but with no certainty that there aren’t pieces missing. These days, computer imaging and matching is used to help the solution, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of restoration from slowing in recent years due to resource constraints (as well as, presumably, a certain amount of fatigue).

Pit 1: the vanguard seen from the rear

The whole site reinforces the two main themes about China to emerge from our trip so far: scale and craftsmanship. The scale is vast from your very first moment when you enter the aircraft-hangar-like structure that covers “Pit 1”, the largest of the three pits excavated so far, and see the massed ranks of soldiers (and of visitors, anything up to 60,000 a day of them). But that pales into insignificance when you open Wikipedia and read that the whole necropolis has been estimated at 98 square kilometres – a not-much-scaled-down model of the imperial compound. This includes Qin’s tomb itself, which has not yet been excavated, ostensibly because of fears over the difficulty of the task and contamination from the two rivers of mercury which flowed through it, although I wonder whether superstition plays a part here somewhere.

Kneeling archer

However much you’ve heard in advance, the artistry and craft of the sculptures take your breath away. The facial features are so vividly rendered that at any moment, you expect one of the soldiers to step out and start a conversation with you: apparently, this actually happened a few years back when a young German, suitably clothed and face-painted, stood motionless in the army, unnoticed for several hours until a visitor was spooked out by seeing a pair of eyebrows move (the impostor refused to go quietly and had to be forcibly removed by security guards). Armour, clothing and body shapes show gradations in status: particularly notable are the ribbons, upturned shoes, expensive fish-scale armour and generous pot belly of the senior officer (the Chinese call it “corruption belly”). But perhaps the most telling detail of all is the perfectly reproduced pattern of stones set into the sole of the kneeling archer’s foot to provide grip – “Qin Dynasty Adidas”, as our guide put it. The detail of the archer’s hands is also extraordinary.


In the absence of the Terracotta Army, most Western visitors probably wouldn’t bother to visit Xian, although it has some other interesting features. The inner city is one of only a few in China whose ancient city walls survive (like Pingyao, only an order of magnitude bigger), and it has fine examples of the ubiquitous pairing of drum tower and bell tower (the former would be used to tell the time in the morning, the latter in the evening). As the head of the Silk Road, Xian was the jumping off point for many of the travellers who visited India and brought back Buddhism, so there are a couple of significant pagodas: we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, thirteen stories high and unbroken in a millennium and a half of earthquakes.

Making biang biang noodles
Jewellery vendors in the Muslim Quarter

There’s also a thriving Muslim quarter, which throngs with food stalls and which provided the first three stops on a food tour provided by some people called “Lost Plate”. This turned out to be brilliant: we were spirited around various food venues in the city by tuk-tuk (an electric motor-cycle with a carriage on the back just about capable of holding four people, and able to navigate the tightest of back streets). They chose exactly the kind of places you would never find on your own: a specialist in “biang biang” noodles, whose name comes from the noise made as the noodle-maker bashes the dough while hand-stretching it, an elderly retired man who produced skewers of sumptuous barbecued meat, an amazing place serving “soup dumplings” (think of a large raviolo whose filling has released liquid so that you bite the parcel open and suck the soup out before eating the rest of the dumpling).

Chinese Muslim Barbecue

Part of the reason that you wouldn’t find these places on your own, it was explained to us, is that Xian is becoming a victim of its own success: with the large number of visitors and a growing economy, rents on the main food streets are skyrocketing, forcing smaller traders into the side-streets or, as in the case of our noodle makers and the barbecue man, back into their own homes. Certainly, Xian shows more signs of being settled down than Beijing does: there isn’t the same manic pace of construction everywhere, the air pollution felt far less severe (to the surprise of our guide, who expected everything in the capital to be better) and the roads far more in harmony with the number of cars: they’re astonishingly wide, many of them with four lanes in either direction. When I suggested that bits of the city must have been flattened to make way for them, I was roundly disabused: apparently this kind of road width has been a feature since ancient times. And the modern world is definitely visible: the road our hotel was on was cellphone city, lined with dozens of shops.

If Qin Shihuang has made it to his idea of the afterlife, he is undoubtedly filled with dismay at having to do so with an army that is a shattered, minuscule remnant of its original glory. But perhaps he can take heart that he is still considered the founder of a modern, united China. And he would surely be amazed at the 12 million people metropolis that his capital Xian – the city whose name means “Western Peace” – has become.


China blog 1 – Beijing

China blog 1 – Beijing

There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.

Panjiayuan Market - calligraphy materials
Panjiayuan Market – Calligraphy materials

They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.

Panjiayuan Market - painting
Panjiayuan Market – painting

The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

Houhai lake - training for rowing race
Houhai Lake – training for rowing race

An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.

Houhai lake - family with bike
Houhai lakeshore

The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.

Temple Heaven - Hall of Prayer for Harvest
Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven - interior
Temple of Heaven inside

The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.

Summer Palace- Lotus Garden
Summer Palace – Lotus garden
Summer Palace - kites
Kites at the Summer Palace. Try to spot all three kites in the picture: the black shark is very high!

The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.

Summer Palace - marble river boat
Summer Palace – marble river boat

You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takes  a trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.

Forbidden City-8
Forbidden City: Hall of Supreme Harmony

Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.

Forbidden City, from Jongshin Park
Forbidden City – from Jingshan Park

You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.

Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel
Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel: story of the frog, the crane and the turtle (not in shot)

Ekaterinburg (or Yekaterinburg)

Last month, I made my first visit to Russia, and on a first look, Ekaterinburg could be any European city. There are shops, cafés, banks, office blocks, advertising hoardings, people going about their business, dressed in sensible warm clothing against the chilly autumn weather. The most immediately obvious difference from what I’m used to is the prosaic fact that everything is in cyrillic script.

Sevastyanov's House
Sevastyanov House

There are differences in culture and architecture, of course: the glitter of golden onion domes from many of the churches, the Wedgwood-china plasterwork of the Sevastyanov House. And there is a lot of land: Sverdlovsk province has a population of 4.3m the size of (half the population of London) in a land mass of 194,800 km² (nearly as large as the whole of Great Britain). The result is a preponderance of wide boulevards and  generous green spaces – albeit not at their best in grey-skied drizzle of early autumn, before the trees have turned properly to gold. Ekaterinburg is a steel town, and those wide boulevards are well used by a lot of cars, with seemingly less congestion than that number would cause in an older, narrow-streeted European city.

There are, however, visible signs that all is not well with the economy. I saw two building sites, one of them huge, where work simply seemed to have stopped altogether, presumably from lack of funds, their giant cranes simply sitting there. The city’s trams look like they haven’t been replaced in many decades, and the cars are notably older than I’m used to. There’s virtually no sign of Russian-made vehicles. There are some fine looking shops, but nothing approaching the retail density that I’d expect in the centre of a Western European city (to be fair, this might be because the retail has all migrated to shopping malls that I didn’t see).

Chandelier at opera HDR
State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

One institution was definitely thriving, which was the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, my hosts (who paid for my trip). They seemed to be at the centre of things in a way that’s unthinkable for an opera company back home: Thaddeus Strassberger, the American director of the opera I saw, was bowled over by the fact that the lead up to the production received significant news coverage and that random strangers in the shops knew who he was. Wages are low for singers – a third, I was told, of their equivalents in  Moscow, I was told – so the theatre has a large roster of singers under contract. The evidence of my ears says that the quality is consistently very high; the equivalent singers in Western Europe would undoubtedly be travelling from their homes to get the best work; job mobility is presumably lower here.

Russia isn’t really making a big effort to welcome international tourists. The visa process works well enough, but is demanding and inflexible – for example, as a company director, I was required to submit three months worth of personal bank statements and a list of all countries travelled to in the last ten years, and to specify precise travel dates and address in Russia. Immigration officials don’t speak anything other than Russian (or don’t admit to it, anyway) and airport signage is erratic. Ekaterinburg doesn’t feel as if many foreigners go there. Even figuring out its latinised name is confusing: the cyrillic Е is pronounced “ye”, so it’s fairly random as to whether it gets spelt “Ekaterinburg” or “Yekaterinburg” (the cyrillic letter for an “e” sound as in “Edward” is “Э”). There are, however, plenty of visitors from elsewhere in Russia, with two notable historical sites.

Yeltsin Presidential Center

Sverdlovsk province is the birthplace of  Boris Yeltsin, and Ekaterinburg contains the Yeltsin Presidential Center, modelled on the concept of Presidential Centers in the US. Behind the massive statue of Yeltsin and the very up-to-the-minute (and somewhat overpowering) multimedia displays lurk some fascinating artefacts: for any child of the cold war who lived a teenage-hood in fear of a nuclear holocaust, it’s quite a jolt to see the suitcase with the nuclear trigger that was handed from Yeltsin to Putin on 31st December 1999. Yeltsin’s handwritten letter of resignation to Gorbachev is also on display – or, at least, Yeltsin’s personal copy.

The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site of the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. The house was destroyed in 1977 (on Yeltsin’s orders), but after the Romanovs’ controversial canonisation in 2000, it was decided to build a church on the site: this is now the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land” (or, more commonly, the “Church on the Blood”). It’s a bizarre place to Western eyes: we are well used to seeing the Romanovs in standard fin-de-siècle garb, so seeing them transplanted into ancient Orthodox iconography, with its robes and massive gold backgrounds, strikes a strange note.

church-of-the-blood-towerBoth the Yeltsin Center and the Church on the Blood are more notable for the things they don’t say than for the things they do. The Yeltsin Center is conspicuously free of vodka bottles or references to his handling of privatisation and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs: the hagiography of the man as the proud standard bearer of the long march to freedom must not be disturbed. The Church on the Blood is equally free of references to the fact that Nicholas was a weak tsar who repeatedly failed to take action that could have reformed his country and avoided the revolution and the subsequent Soviet rule. Neither site shows any intention to give a nuanced view of complex events, and talking to Russians confirms that such a view is not what they are taught in school (not, I hasten to add, that we in Britain can hold ourselves up as models of this).

But while it may not be an obvious place to visit, the city looks very liveable. The picture of a lone kayaker on the river Iset will stay with me as an image of a calm in a bustling, industrial city.

Kayaking on the Iset river

And here are just a few more pictures:

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First impressions of Malta

In Malta, there is a unique sense of continuity over a very long time. Look at the Ġgantija and Tarxien megalithic temple complexes, over 5,000 years old, then go into downtown Valletta and see the newest construction or restorations, and you’re looking at the same creamy sandstone, fashioned into imposing structures. In the countless changes over the millennia of who’s been in charge, you can’t suppress the feeling of a resilient people that sticks to its traditions.

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Malta is strategically placed to command the key shipping route between Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so much so that it has been a fortress island for much of its history. The mediaeval battlements were made obsolete by the arrival of heavy artillery, so what you see today is largely a product of the 17th century, the apogee of the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St John, tasked by the Vatican with defending the West against the Turks. Malta’s unique topography – fingers of land jutting into the ocean enclosing deep water harbours – combines with the impressive military engineering and the continuity of architectural style to produce spectacular views from a plethora of viewpoints and angles in the city. Angled walls, staircases, bridges interweave to provide patterns that would do Escher proud, outlined in sharp contrast against the hard light of the Mediterranean sun.

To describe the Order of St John, three words spring to mind: Catholic, rapacious and rich. And the baroque era being what it was, that means gold in the decorations, in prodigious amounts. St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a riot of ornate gilt. Whether you consider it magnificent glory or gaudy frippery, there’s no denying the outstanding workmanship or the sheer scale of the effort that went into its creation. St. John’s is by no means the only example: if you try to navigate by seeing a giant dome and assuming that it’s St John’s, you’re doomed, because there are several of similar size.

Take the half hour ferry to Gozo and head for the Citadel, a typically Maltese mix of religion, military and scenic setting: the cathedral in the middle of the stronghold is another ecstasy of gold, together with glorious painting. You walk on an imposing array of tombstones, each inlaid with its particular marble version of a memento mori – a scythe, a skull, even a full skeleton. Back on the main island, stop off at the fine botanical gardens that adjoin the St Anton Presidential Palace, step into the (curiously unguarded) courtyard of the palace itself and take a moment to look inside the Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar to admire the frescoes. It’s a tiny baroque gem.

Each of the congregations of these churches seems to have its own identity, which it delights to celebrate with its own feast day. If you ask the question “when is the feast?”, the answer is either “which one?” or “every day”, the correct question being “which village has a feast today?”. Feasts seem to be characterised by (a) multi-coloured fairy lights on the front of the church/cathedral and (b) fireworks, both night time and in daylight – we were somewhat spooked on our first arrival in Valletta by what sounded for all the world like a re-run of a World War II raid but was in fact the one-week-ahead pre-feast feast in honour of St Joseph, at the cathedral in the suburb of Msida.

A word for the unwary. Malta is without question the most difficult place I have ever tried to navigate around by car. It’s partly because of the language: Maltese is what linguists call a “contact language”, an unfathomable mixture of Arabic and Italian, with bits of Spanish, French and English thrown into the pot for good measure. The result is that road signs tend to have two or three different names for the same place. The difference between Mdina, Medina and L’Imdina is just about navigable at speed; the difference between Victoria and Rabat (in the middle of Gozo) is not, especially given that there’s another Rabat on the main island. But also, the Maltese share the Italian penchant for lulling you into a false sense of security by providing a series of road signs to your intended destination, only to abandon you at some critical junction where a mistake can take you ten minutes out of your way. For a laugh, by the way, switch on a Tom Tom sat nav system and enjoy its attempts at pronouncing Maltese names.

But for me, the defining term for the Maltese is “resilient”, and the place to see it is the National Military Museum in Fort St Elmo, at the tip of Valletta. State of the art A/V tells the story of survival through a series of sieges of ever-increasing ferocity. Like much of Malta, the buildings around you are a strange juxtaposition of immaculately modern and somewhat ramshackle, with outbreaks of  just plain derelict. But remember that this is an island that was collectively awarded the George Cross for its fortitude in surviving month after month of intense German air bombardment. Malta may be most often seen as a sun-and-sea destination, but it’s a place full of history, a place to make you think.

What the EU referendum says about our democracy

I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, and I’m extremely upset that we voted to leave. But the fact of leaving isn’t the thing that’s most depressing: far worse is what it has told me about our democracy. Successful Leave campaigners should be every bit as worried as I am about some of the things I’m about to discuss.

The first thing that alarms me is the way the referendum was allowed to operate. Anyone on either side of the argument was able to make any statement, however outlandish, however false, with total impunity. After a parliamentary or local government election, voters can punish a false campaign promise by voting against the person who makes it (or at least against their party) at future elections. In the referendum, campaigners could tell whatever lies they wanted to in the knowledge that all they had to do was to get 50.00001% of the votes on the day, and that once that was over, nothing else mattered.

Both sides indulged in outrageously indefensible rhetoric. I happen to think that the Leave side’s was particularly egregious, but that’s not the point: the problem is that a major decision that will affect our country for decades and maybe more was made after a campaign characterised by a tissue of lies.

I’m also disturbed by the referendum’s reduction of the highly complex matter of our relationship with Europe to a single In/Out question, without in any way defining what “Out” meant. Are we talking about “the Norwegian Solution” of remaining in the free trade agreement while continuing to comply with EU regulations? The “Swiss solution” of continuing to contribute to the EU budget? Or a total withdrawal from the free trade zone? Whichever of these options is chosen, the Prime Minister who implements Brexit risks a huge backlash from whichever part of the leave constituency had assumed either (a) we’re going to have fewer rules from Brussels, (b) we can stop contributing to the EU budget or (c) we can continue to be in the free trade block. Because truly, if anyone thinks we’re so important to the EU that they will continue to grant all of our former privileges while releasing us from all of the rules an obligations, they are living in a delusive state. All this means that far from resolving the EU debate, this referendum has merely fired its starting gun.

Why was it constitutionally OK for a political party in government to propose such a simplistic referendum? Of the reasons for doing so, it is now reasonably clear that (a) Cameron had no intention of putting out EU membership at risk and thought he was taking a safe bet; (b) the principal intent was to resolve tensions within the Conservative party and (c) Cameron and his aides didn’t think the electorate were intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced set of questions (I’m guessing on this last one, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess). I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that Cameron called the referendum because he genuinely believed that “the people deserved their say”: I’ve never yet seen a referendum called for that reason and I don’t expect to.

Having spoken to a lot of people in the days leading up to June 23rd, I don’t think the majority of voters made a serious attempt to research and understand the facts. The most intelligent conversation I had with a probable Leave voter was with a doctor of African extraction who is deeply unhappy with EU policy in Africa, which she had checked out in a great deal of detail. Every other conversation showed rampant confirmation bias: people were simply not interested even in discussing their reasons for voting in detail and certainly didn’t want to understand the views of anyone on the opposing side.

One of the important arguments on the Leave side is the idea that outside the EU, we can regain total control of our democratic process. But that’s small comfort when you see the immediate effect of the referendum on that process. The first thing that is going to happen is that from around October, the country will be run for close to four years by an unelected Prime Minister – and probably, in the circumstances, by a Prime Minister of a very different complexion from the one who we voted for a year ago. How was it OK for Cameron to omit to mention that he would be resigning if he lost the referendum?

Early on Friday, I was pretty much in the #AshamedToBeBritish camp, living in the wonderful, open city that London is, but surrounded by a country full of racists. I’ve calmed down from that view, but I still fear greatly that most people who voted leave (not all, of course) did so because they were looking for someone to blame for twenty years of stagnant disposable incomes and ever reducing job opportunities. And the easiest people to blame were “everyone except us” – the immigrants and the foreigners. How much easier to blame a Brussels bureaucrat than to accept that we’ve lagged the world in productivity improvements, that a rash of people got into debt they couldn’t afford, or that the Blairite expansion of university places wasn’t fundable without either increasing taxes or making the students pay for it.

Indulging in arbitrary blame without being prepared to debate the facts isn’t a good way to make important decisions. Allowing a party’s internal issues to have such a huge and immediate impact on our future is worrying. So is having an unelected Prime Minister at what will now be a critical moment in history. And our permitting of demagogues – racist or otherwise – to tell a pack of lies with impunity is the scariest of all.





Gaijin view 3: Hiroshima


Atomic Dome
Hiroshima Atomic Dome

As one would hope, visiting the Peace Museum in Hiroshima is a deeply moving experience. The horrors of the atomic bomb are told with an icy clarity. The sheer magnitude of a single blast is shown by a scale model of the flattened city and the fireball that caused the damage. Real portions of damaged building attest to the unnatural power of the weapon. Most tellingly of all, the human stories are told by charred fragments of clothing accompanied by the stories of the people who wore them. A child’s much beloved tricycle, buried with the child by his grieving father, tells the tragedy as strongly as the recording of a mother who describes walking every day, for years, down the usual road to work of her daughter, whose body was never found. Model of Hiroshima destroyedMessages of peace and goodwill from a plethora of world leaders provide a thimbleful of soothing balm, while just down the road, the Children’s Peace Monument tells the story of the girl who hoped that if she could make a thousand origami cranes, she might survive her A-bomb related leukaemia. She did not.


And yet.

Once I’ve choked back the tears and got rid of the lump in my throat, I’m more disturbed by what’s missing from the Peace Museum than by what’s in it. The problem is this: at the end of my visit, my emotions have been stirred and I’ve dutifully  signed the petition to call upon the world’s leaders to discuss nuclear weapons reductions, but I haven’t actually learned much that matters – merely a bunch of details about an event of whose horrific nature I was already utterly aware.

Children's Peace Memorial
Children’s Peace Memorial

What I wanted to learn was some insight into how the A bomb dropping came about, from the Japanese point of view: what is their view of the causes of World War II and what made things escalate to the point where the US even considered such desperate measures. And perhaps even from the American point of view: I’d have loved to see the briefing papers given to Truman on the day the decision to drop the bomb was made, or to Roosevelt when authorising the Manhattan Project.

Rather, in this museum, the start of the war was glossed over by a single sentence in a single panel, saying that “tensions arose” after the Manchurian Incident in 1931. Later events – until the bomb itself and its aftermath – get little or no attention.

I can’t help but compare this with Berlin’s Museum of German History, which devotes considerably more space to the question of how Hitler could have risen to power in the first place as it does to, say, the plight of the Germans ethnically cleansed from Pomerania after the war. I came out of the Berlin museum with a clear feeling that the Germans have taken a good, hard look in the mirror and understood the place of Hitler and World War II in their history. I did not get the equivalent impression in Hiroshima.

Saying that “this must never happen again” is, of course, the best possible starting point. But it’s not enough. The burning question is the one of how these wars happen and how the chance of them can be mitigated.

The museum is being renovated, with the new facilities due to open in 2018. Among what is promised is an exhibition floor devoted to the dangers of nuclear weapons, which may well address some of these concerns. I hope it does so. As I gaze at a clear blue sky – just like the one on 6th August 1945 from which such horrors emerged – I can hardly contain my gratitude for having been born into what is now seventy years of peace for my country. Hiroshima should be an ideal site for focusing minds on maintaining peace as best we can.

Origami cranes at Children's Peace Memorial
Origami cranes

Gai-jin view 1: bureaucracy, shrines and cedars

As soon as you hit the immigration queue, you realise that things are different in Japan: the people managing the queue are brisk, friendly and efficient: guys are moving the tapes around so that you don’t have an interminable zig-zag through empty lanes, a single girl dispatches each traveller to one of ten kiosks, checking paperwork for gross errors as she does it. The briskness and efficiency continues with the lady at the JR (Japan Rail) desk at Haneda Airport, who, in spite of limited English, sorts out our rail cards and various reservations, including getting us seated in the right places, telling us which side of the train we need to be on for Mt Fuji (not something I’d realised was an issue) and so on.


Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district

Having said which, they need to be: this country still does bureaucracy – on real paper – in a big way. Every train reservation took several pieces of paper, innumerable stamps and a bewildering number of different screens. The railway network isn’t integrated, so reservations outside the JR East region require the use of a whole different set of processes, including timetabling printed out on an ancient tractor-fed impact printer (anyone remember those?). The banking IT isn’t exactly integrated to global standards, either: lots of places don’t take credit cards, there are fewer ATMs than any city I’ve been to for years. In Nikko, a couple of hours outside Tokyo but still a major tourist site, there appears to be only three ATMs, none of which take foreign credit cards.

But the brisk, friendly, get-things-done kind of attitude seems to pervade everyday life: the everyday virtues of politeness and kindness to strangers are continually apparent. When we asked the way to the correct platform at Tokyo’s large and confusing Shimbashi station, perish the thought that the thirty-something man we asked should merely tell us the answer: in spite of having looked in the tearing hurry that characterises most users of the Tokyo subway, he turned round and accompanied us a goodly long way to the correct ticket gate for our line change.

We were expecting the high population density in Tokyo – it’s pretty well charted knowledge, after all, and we all know that the subway at rush hour is a serious crush. But it’s other things that bring it home to you: the amazing network of canals as you arrive from Haneda are a tell-tale of land reclamation from Tokyo Bay on a large scale, and when you’re at the Edo-Tokyo museum, well out of the centre of town, you’re still on the kind of density of high-rise building that you would normally expect only in downtown city centres. And when you finally take a Shinkansen train out of the capital, the dense urbanisation continues, only slightly abated, for just about the whole of the hour or so trip to Utsonomiya.

IMG_1610We all know that Japan’s cuisine is very separate from those of the rest of the world – different flavours, super-high quality fish, etc. The striking thing we weren’t expecting was the attention to how food looks. At the kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant in our ryokan in Nikko, we must have used some 20-30 items of crockery each, every one carefully chosen – sometimes to match some particular seasonal theme such as, in our case, plum blossom.

This is also the country of food packaging. The sweets/biscuits/general goodies shops pack everything in individual portions (down to a single biscuit or piece of crystallised fruit) before arraying it neatly in a box so beautifully that you could hardly conceive of gift-wrapping it: special see through model boxes are provided so that you can see what you’re buying. And it’s not the factories that go for multiple packaging. When the rice course at one of our dinners had utterly defeated us (rice is typically eaten at the end of a Japanese meal, which in this case meant about the tenth course), our leftover rice dish was given to us to take away in four individual portions, each in its own tray and lovingly wrapped in four layers of cling film. (We didn’t ask, by the way, it just appeared in a bag when we paid the bill).

DSC01375Nikko epitomises some of the contrasts in the country. The town is famous for its major shrines of the Tokugawa shoguns (the first of whom, Ieyasu, was the single most important figure in making Japan into the single country that it remains today). The Tokugawa shrines and temples are in a sort of Japanese baroque – gigantically ornamented to the point where it’s quite hard to get your head round the sensory overload of different themes and motifs. And – on a holiday week end, at least – they are packed rigid with visitors. It’s all very well organised, but Buddhist calm and Ieyasu’s own rather austere-sounding personality are very much submerged in the throng.

DSC01389But step just a few yards off the beaten track and the world changes. In the blink of an eye, you find yourself in the utter serenity and clear air of the mountain cedar forests; as you tread the well tended path through giant, ancient trees, you pass ancient shrines which don’t attract the big restoration funds: there might be a single brazier of incense burning, but the tiny stone buddhas with fractured limbs have not been tended. Yet amazing carvings can await you, and these are places of deep spiritual calm.

Back at the ryokan, the onsen bath is utterly seductive: a tub with continually circulating hot water, the perfect way to soothe limbs aching from a day’s hiking on mountain paths. There’s plenty of ritual attached – as in all Japanese things, there’s a precise schema of what order you’re supposed to do everything in – but the ritual works. In one of the busiest, most crowded countries on the planet, we finish the day more relaxed than I can remember.

Three questions you should ask your cloud-based software provider

Back in the day, if you were a software company pitching to investors, the first questions they asked you were much the ones you might expect: your turnover, margins, how many customers you have and so on. Smarter investors asked about things like retention rates and cost of customer acquisition. Around 2005 or so, all that changed: the question at the top of the list became “What’s your SaaS strategy?” A couple of years later, that morphed into “What’s your Cloud strategy?”

A few years later, I run a business which is small (9 employees) but complex (multi-currency, multi-lingual, multi-country). And indeed, pretty much everything that isn’t on our own server is run in the cloud: I finally moved our accounting system from Intuit’s Quickbooks desktop to Quickbooks Online eighteen months ago.

The move to Online has resulted in some small wins. The main one is that I don’t have to run a Windows Virtual Machine any more (I run Macs because I develop software and the tools require a Unix-family operating system). And it’s occasionally but infrequently useful to be able to get some of the accounts done at home in the evening. But the truth is that most of the product works very similarly and, broadly speaking, going cloud hasn’t affected things much either way.

Except that I’m now terrified. For three reasons.

What happens, it’s fair to ask,  if I do something really stupid with a transaction – of the sort that can’t be reversed. I’m accident-prone, after all, like anyone else. On the desktop product, it was easy to deal with: I would simply have reverted to the previous night’s or previous month’s backup and re-input a bunch of transactions. On the online product, backup and restore isn’t an option that’s provided. This isn’t unique to Intuit, by the way – the norm seems to be that most cloud vendors simply don’t offer this.

Lest you think this is unlikely to happen, I can tell you that when you advance payroll a month, there’s a large warning saying “This cannot be undone”: any mistakes and you’re toast. And when I have needed to work around bugs or omissions in Quickbooks, their technical support people have recommended with gay abandon that I do things that affect transactions in now-closed periods (i.e. would potentially make my VAT return illegal).

The next question for your vendor concerns their attitude to bugs. Not “technical support issues,” not “stray transactions that can be corrected,” but bugs – the real thing, where the system isn’t working. Perhaps intermittently, and perhaps just on your database. In desktop days, you had the option to simply not upgrade. Or to roll back an upgrade if it all went pear-shaped. In cloud days, you don’t. You really, really want your vendor to be completely committed to doing whatever it takes to bring you back on-line and running. And the truth is, these vendors are not. A missing feature deep in the multi-currency handling of Quickbooks Online kept my ledgers out of balance for most of a year until someone clever in Intuit figured out a workaround. Problems with my online banking interface are approaching their second birthday: the software worked fine when I evaluated it; two months in, Intuit deployed a rewrite which broke it. And there is no sign of them showing any commitment to getting it fixed: they work on it for a bit, and then give up. Fortunately, it’s only a time waster rather than a complete showstopper: because remember, I don’t have data portability of any viable sort. I have no easy way of exporting my data such that I could rapidly start again with another vendor.

The scariest problem (albeit the least frequent) is what happens if you or a vendor messes up your login credentials. You can all imagine the situation: you try to log in one morning and you get told that one of your passwords is wrong, or the software asks you to re-authenticate using one of your “memorable phrases,” and your phrase turns out to be less memorable than you thought.

With one of my cloud service vendors, that’s just what happened: I got locked out of certain areas of my account, and the vendor refused point blank to take the required steps to re-authenticate me. I was unable to satisfy them with the data they required in their online form, most probably because I couldn’t remember the month and year in which I originally joined the service, around a decade earlier, or which of my many email addresses I used at the time – but I can’t be sure.

And no, this wasn’t a small, fly-by-night operator: this was Microsoft. I actually had to stop using my old account (which still exists, by the way: they are unable/unwilling to delete it) and open a new one. Now losing a Skype account wasn’t the end of the world. I shudder to think how I would deal with the situation if this happened to my accounting system, or web host, or Gmail.

And that, by the way, is without considering the possibility of criminal malice: although, thank goodness, I’ve never personally had my identity stolen, I’ve watched it happen to one of my employees (who had a common first name and whose surname was Smith, which didn’t help) and I can assure you that it was a truly horrific experience.

So before you dive into the Cloud, here are three questions you should ask:

  1. What strategy do you support for me to back up and restore my data? (And while we’re on the subject, if I wish to move my data to another provider, how is that supported).
  2. If I hit a bug in my installation, what guarantees and timescales can you provide me that you will (a) provide a fix to get me up and running, and (b) fix the problem permanently?
  3. What, if any, data do you require me to hold to guarantee that, in the event of my being denied access to the system (whether because of identity theft or just my own forgetfulness), you will accept or replace my user credentials ?

The chances are that the answers to these will be something along the lines of (1) you don’t need to back up your data because we guarantee you 99.999% uptime; (2) our technical support team is available to help you 24/7 but we don’t provide specific guarantees and (3) we don’t publish security-sensitive information of this sort.  If they are and you’re a large organisation, you will need to write a set of large, ugly items into your corporate risk register.

Or, if you’re a small business, just lose some sleep.

Hello, from Polything

I’m lucky enough that writing is part of my job description. But on Bachtrack, I get to write strictly about opera and classical music. This blog is for all the other stuff: politics, software, business, cooking, the general randomness of living in London and anything else that I presume to think someone might want to bother reading.

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