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On the Trail of Deng Xiaoping in the French town where he embraced Communism

Baoding is a sizeable city in central Hebei province, in north China, and synonymous with heavy industry and its attendant ills. Its hardy people – mostly of the country’s Han majority – wear no-nonsense expressions and display a hard­headed­ness born of stoicism. A showcase city Baoding is not. Yet neither is it poor. As I...
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Mining the Zeitgeist

I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a...
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China’s Bike Sharing Bubble has Burst

Imperial China’s four great inventions – papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass – were milestones in the long march of human progress. Last year, China’s state-run media highlighted the nation’s “four great new inventions” of modern times, but astute readers were quick to point out that high-speed trains, mobile-phone payments, e-commerce and shared-bicycle schemes had...
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Changing China: photo show focuses on impact of Wenzhou’s economic success story

For three days, attendees of the Lishui Photography Festival have been shepherded from gallery to workshop to seminar. The itinerary has been packed with talks, banquets and trips to the surrounding countryside. In my free time, I have lost myself in the old winding streets of this small city in the south of Zhejiang province,...
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Halong Bay’s Cat Ba: a jewel in Vietnam’s island crown

I spend the journey from the Chinese border lying on a bed, softly rocking with the motion of the overnight train. The air conditioning hisses overhead and the carriage smells of the wood that bedecks the interior. Outside, bats are navigating the purple sky as the world slowly turns invisible. A fellow traveller is snoring...
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Chinese Photographer Captures ‘horror and beauty’ of modern China

Li Zhengde lives on the edge of Mount Wutong National Park, in Shenzhen. His one-bedroom flat is on the fourth floor of a forlorn, reform-era tenement building, beside some shabby farmhouses that date back a century or more. The interior is decorated with Li’s own photography and brimming with enough books for a small library....
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The first Chinese-built railway, the enthusiast trying to save it and his hero…

It’s a little after 6am when the sun rises over Changping, a nondescript district in the northwest of the expansive Chinese capital. Flanked by the Mangshan hills, which form a natural limit to Beijing’s urban sprawl, Changping North railway station is small and devoid of distrac­tions. With no cafeteria or convenience store in which to...
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Marinduque: The Heart of the Philippines

I walked through a rusty gate and stepped down the rocks onto the chalk-white shore. Two bleating goats, white as the sand, scurried by. Down the bay I could see children making playhouses of bangkas – outrigger canoes that are ubiquitous in the Philippines. “Helloooo!” they yelled at me, laughing and radiating with the geniality...
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In Deepest Yunnan

A night train connects Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, with the popular holiday spot of Lijiang. Climbing 500 metres above Kunming, the 500km journey takes 10 hours, making the K9602 one of China’s slowest commercial trains. But a second-class ticket buys you a cosy bunk bed in a carriage bookended by bathrooms and hot-water dispensers. A flask...
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The Big Picture

The 2017 Lishui Photography Festival  丽水摄影节 in Zhejiang Province was held in November with the kind of razzmatazz one has come to expect from a large-scale Chinese event bearing the official seal. Festivities began with the obligatory opening ceremony comprising predictable song-and-dance routines punctuated by vaguely jingoistic speeches from local honchos. The pomp set the tone for a festival gigantic...
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Snap Judgement

China’s second tallest skyscraper, the Ping An Finance Centre, was completed in the center of Shenzhen in 2017. The 115-storey superstructure is a testament to the city’s remarkable, four-decade ascent since its origins as a fishing village. Hong Kong has nothing as tall. Walking around mainland China’s third wealthiest city, Shenzhen feels rather well-to-do. Residential...
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On the Trail of Taiwan’s Hakka

As the train cruises toward the coast, the conurbation of greater Taipei dissipates into small towns and fields sandwiched between Taiwan’s mountainous interior and the sea. Soon enough Hsinchu hones into view, a city established by Hakka Chinese in the early 1700s. The Hakka are an interesting bunch. They’re not an ethnic minority per se, but...
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Taiwan’s northern tip: weird nature, wonderful street food

Two ports flank Taipei and both played a role in forging what is now the Republic of China. To the west, Tamsui stands alongside a well-sheltered and thus strategic harbour and has become something of a suburb of the capital, connected by the metro. I find my guide, Mathias Daccord, who recently moved from Shanghai...
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How China’s Shangri-La earned a name for craft beer after 2014 fire

In 2014, a fire blazed through Shangri-La, reducing more than half of the Old Town to dust and ash. It was a savage blow to old Zhongdian – a poor Tibetan city in a remote corner of Yunnan province that had spent a decade rebranding itself as the Himalayan paradise depicted in James Hilton’s 1933 novel,...
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The Hotel Beijing

I. Life is getting complicated in the capital. Here’s how: I’m presently living in a 150 kuai-a-night, no-questions-asked hotel overlooking a vacant industrial lot somewhere beyond the fourth ring road. A few gigs I had lined-up toppled like Mao-era tenements confronting the wrecking ball, forcing me out of the bedroom window. There was simply no...
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The Lunatic Express

“Belt and Road Cooperation for Common Promutual Benefit,” proclaims a large street sign suspended above Beijing’s ever-congested second ring road. China is investing massively in its 21st-century reimagin­ing of the Silk Roads, even if the budget for fluid English translation remains insufficient. This rekindling of ancient trade routes is President Xi Jinping’s signature project and,...
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The Rise and Fall of Luoyang, China’s forgotten capital

My photographer and I alight from our taxi in the centre of Yanshi, a shabby township straddling the Luo River, our presence eliciting curious stares from the locals, many of whom are employed at a nearby power plant. The only visible distractions in this part of Luoyang, in Henan province, are a few massage parlours,...
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M2B

If there’s one thing more common in Beijing’s labyrinth of hutongs than a bearded foreigner, it’s the tricycle. The former tend to be bohemian castaways taking advantage of the capital’s creative climate, the latter, low-cost vehicles first imported from British India and immortalised in novelist Lao She’s homage to Beijing, Rickshaw Boy (1937). The common incarnation today...
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The New City

The first thing you should know about the new city is that it was dreamed up by a little old man, locked up far away in his fortress. The old man was an important man and people listened to him when he spoke, even when all he had to discuss was his dreams. The old...
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The Magic Mountains of Guilin

An eminent poet and scholar-official during the golden age of Song dynasty China, Fan Chengda was also something of an early travel writer. One of his diaries recounts a four-month journey from Suzhou to Guilin on what was then the Middle Kingdom’s southwestern frontier, where, in the spring of 1173, he took up a post...
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Frescos on the Frontier

The Monk Xuanzang is known to almost all Chinese. As one of the key characters in the classic Ming dynasty adventure story A Journey to the West, he features in everything from advertisements to blockbuster movies. But the real Xuanzang was a Tang dynasty scholar who embarked on a 16 year expedition to retrieve sanskrit...
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Holistic Haven

One enters Baimo Cave through a small, water-curtained orifice. Once inside, a lofty vault in the limestone is revealed – an illuminated chamber decorated by evocative natural rock sculptures. While our tour guide points to a tangled stalagmite, observing with classic Chinese symbolism, “This one is called Peacock in his Pride Worshiping Avalostesvara,” I find...
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Guizhou’s breathtaking scenery and historic sites

The cities of eastern China are regularly wreathed in smog, so for pastoral scenery and fresh air, many Chinese head south-west. Going on holiday is increasingly common for city dwellers, thanks to new airports and a growing motorway network. But this has put a strain on classic destinations such as Guilin (famous for its karst...
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Kompong Cham – Cambodia’s East Gate

Phnom Penh is ground zero in a reawakening Cambodia. Gleaming SUVs navigate streams of tuc-tucs and motorcycles. Outside celestial Wats vendors hawk hats, sunglasses and “something special sir” on litter blighted streets. And in the riverfront bars, men reddened by too much Cambodia Beer and the fierce Cambodian sun, cavort like beasts freed from the...
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The Ancient Towns of Xiangxi

Shen Congwen was a prominent Chinese writer in the 1920s and 30s before war and chaos enveloped a generation. Though Shen hailed from a remote region in Western Hunan – a mountainous, ethnically diverse place known as Xiangxi – his stories concerning “the human spirit” found wide readership with the urban young in places like...
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My Life: Wu Qiang

RED DAWN I was born in 1967 in Zigong, Sichuan province. That was just after the Cultural Revolution began. I can recall red flags and mass movements. It was dazzling but the more intense things got, the poorer people became. You had to quote Chairman Mao even when you went to buy food. For example, if you...
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Rhythm & Xues

Beishan’s Zheng Road is anything but idyllic. It may be the main street in this part of Zhuhai’s Nanping town (about three kilometres northwest of the Macau border) but it is really no more than a lane, with a cracked pavement and soupy pools of black rainwater through which litter drifts. A makeshift abattoir-come-butcher shop...
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Goodbye Old Canton

                  It’s hard to miss the Canton Tower. At 600 metres, it stands high above Guangzhou and represents all that is new in ol’ Canton. After an ear-popping ascent, one can savour macarons at the Lutece French revolving restaurant and, from the world’s second-highest observation deck, look...
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Shenzhen’s craft beer brewing scene takes off

In July, Shenzhen independent craft brewery Bionic Brew celebrated its second anniversary. A horde of thirsty expats and local beer enthusiasts descended on Bionics’ tiny backstreet bar to listen to live music and down made-in-Shenzhen lagers, ales, stouts and pilsners, as well as a commemorative pink ale, created by master brewer Dmitrii Gribov. Although American...
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The expats living the quiet life in rural southwest China

Trading city life for remote villages in the South China Karst region might seem an unlikely choice for expats but, as Thomas Bird discovers, some wouldn’t have it any other way. The South China Karst is a region of extraordinary topography – a land defined by limestone crags, seemingly otherworldly in their gravity-defying composition. The...
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Mao-stalgia: red tourism in Zunyi, China

Gazing over a map of China, Zunyi appears far from the fray. The city is situated in the middle of landlocked Guizhou province, in the remote, mountainous and ethnically diverse southwest. Yet despite its obscurity, almost everyone in China has heard of Zunyi. This is because in early 1935, the battle-weary Red Army held a...
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Calling the shots: photography festival lights up Lianzhou

Lianzhou is not on many tourist itineraries but, thanks to the efforts of one woman, once a year it becomes a hive of activity, as photographers from all over the world descend on the Guangdong town, writes Thomas Bird. In Yuexiu, Guangzhou’s historic centre, is a jumbled neighbourhood of villas, some predating the Communist revolution...
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Back to his roots: Chinese-Jamaican Leo Lee

Jamaican-born reggae producer Leo Lee remembers the bucolic Shenzhen countryside as he traces his Hakka heritage, writes Thomas Bird....
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