China’s First Standard Gauge Railway

Standing a few blocks east of Tiananmen Square, Beijing Railway Station is one of the Ten Great Buildings constructed in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China.

In 2019, at the tail end of the Lunar New Year, entering this faux-Ming eulogy to so­cial­­ist liberation proved almost as challenging as getting into the Forbidden City during the actual Ming dynasty would have been.

Our IDs were checked every 100 yards or so by security person­nel managing New Year human traffic.

Once inside, railway enthusiast Wang Wei and I attempted to warm up in the main hall of the station while admiring murals of communist grandeur and their contemporary equivalent: a big screen playing videos of trains racing through dazzling landscapes.

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Digital nomads find opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic, and adjust to living in one place rather than travelling

Hannah Maussang worked in commercial advertising for five years before setting out to see the world. “I arrived in Malaysia in February,” says the Parisian. “I was going to travel around Southeast Asia before heading to Nepal, India, Bali and then on to South America.”

However, when Malaysia introduced a movement control order (MCO) to slow the spread of Covid-19, Maussang’s grand tour seemed doomed. “There were police patrolling the beach, everywhere was closed,” she says.

While stuck in a hostel on the holiday island of Langkawi, Maussang realised Anne Hallaert, a lockdown buddy and freelance translator from Belgium, was continuing to work by sourcing jobs via websites such as Upwork.

“I saw Anne and other friends making money throughout the MCO while I was doing nothing except spending my savings,” Maussang recalls.

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Pandemic travel: 4 wanderers discuss visas, quarantine and staying on the move during Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned many lives into minor versions of the movie Groundhog Day, but for a few who are unwilling, or unable, to live in suspended animation, continued travelling has proved challenging, bizarre, scary even.

When the crisis began, wayfaring translator Bruce Humes found himself close to the epicentre. “I was in Taiwan, working on a translation of a book about the Mogao Caves, in Dunhuang, on the Silk Road,” he explains.

Humes grew nervous as his 90-day visa-free status neared expiry, with the virus spreading around the world, but Taipei moved fast. 

“Measures were quickly introduced and well publicised. All tourists were given automatic 30-day extensions and the government welcomed tourists to quickly apply for a change of status to student visas or work permits. Two friends applied for the latter and obtained them easily.” 

Humes was granted several 30-day extensions to his visa. But when the government announced these renewals would end after an applicant had been in Taiwan for 180 days – a policy that ultimately wasn’t enforced – Humes, a polyglot keen to master Turkish, headed for Istanbul.

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Travel to Singapore, India, Malaysia, Greece, China and more from home with these book recommendations

Xu Xi is in the habit of dividing her time between New York, Hong Kong and, well, the world, and has long advocated a “transnational approach” to literature. Sequestered in upstate New York during the pandemic, she hasn’t found adapting to sedentary life easy. And, she says, she longs for Southeast Asia.

“Although I was born in Hong Kong, I travelled for years on an Indonesian passport, which was funny because I couldn’t speak the language. I decided to address that in 2018 and started studying Bahasa Indonesia in Yogyakarta. During the lockdown I have been doing my classes online. If I make a trip [back to Indonesia] I’ll do it via Singapore and Malaysia, places I love.”

Until that is feasible, Xu will be wallowing in regional fiction.

“Over decades travelling, I saw the changes [in Southeast Asia] and I’m mostly reading novels that are set in those transformative moments. I’ve been reading Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors (2019). He’s interesting because he writes not just about the glamorous world of the transnational but of the ordinary world of Malaysians. He describes place, geography and background very well, so you get lost in this world. Even though he’s based in London, he has a kind of Southeast Asian sensibility, he shows us […] there are a lot of worlds woven into it. He doesn’t just describe the region, he actually makes you feel it. You get inside the characters and that’s why I feel like I’m there with him.”

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Hiking the Yuanyang rice terraces

Many of northern China’s migra­tory birds winter in bucolic Yunnan province and, as the mercury dropped in Beijing in November, I followed suit.

A journey south from the Yunnan capital, Kunming, trades kilometres for degrees and I’m in short sleeves by the time I reach Honghe Hani and Yi auto­nomous prefecture.

The air smells as rich as the claret hills that define this land, hemmed in by the Red and Mekong rivers. It’s the local dress sense, however, that tells me I’ve reached Zomia – an academic term denoting the uplands of Southeast Asia and Southwest China inhabited by minority peoples. The female commuters in Nansha township, where I transit from air-conditioned coach to mountain-bound minibus, are all sporting the flowery costumes of their tribe, be it Yao, Miao, Dai, Hani or Yi.

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How Disease Has Fed on China’s Progress

In 1999, while most people were anticipating what the new millennium might bring, American academic Jared Diamond cast his gaze back 10,000 years to question whether the agricultural revolution that had germinated settled society had really been such a great leap forward.

Writing in Discover Magazine, Diamond contended, “With agri­culture came the gross social and sexual inequal­ity, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.” Significantly, epidemics that “couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp” spread only after humans began to grow crops and raise chickens. “Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming; measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.”

Yet for the Chinese, the idea that agriculture was the wellspring of civilisation is seldom, if ever questioned.

From the revolutionaries that settled the Yellow River valley thousands of years ago, Chinese history is often framed with Long March gallantry, leading step by step from paddy field to palatial shopping centre. Chinese civilisation, the story goes, outlasted all its rivals and triumphed over the vagaries of nature, stoically enduring episodes of turmoil to arrive at the current age of abundance. It is a tale of great and ongoing struggle, soaked in blood, sweat and jingoism.

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Langkawi: The Curious Island of the Strange Colugos

You don’t have to travel far before the hotels of Malaysia’s “honeymoon island” are supplanted with the colourful low-rise farmhouses of the verdant interior. This is rural Langkawi at its most bucolic; the domain of swamp buffalo gently grazing in company of their faithful companions, the cattle egret. Heading north-west, the lowlands give way to the jagged ridges of Machinchang Cambrian Geoforest Park, a 500-million-year-old product of geological activity now carpeted by lush rainforest.

Some of the holiday island’s elite properties are sandwiched between this rainforest and the north coast. Though these resorts are usually only open to guests, my guide, French primatologist and passionate conservationist Priscillia Miard, has forged relationships with the resident naturalists and we were granted access to wander through the grounds of The Andaman Resort unsupervised.

“They’ve constructed paths through the rainforest, which makes perfect ground for spotting night mammals,” Miard explained with an Attenborough-esque tone of barely supressed excitement.

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Johnson Chang

Hong Kong born: My father, Chimou Chang, hails from Shangyu, not too far from Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, where my mother, Paochu Chou, comes from. They both went to school in Shanghai, where my grandparents had businesses. My father studied civil engineering. After the revolution, in 1949, they came to Hong Kong where my father set up a factory producing nylon products, a new and fashionable clothing material.

I was born in 1951 and grew up in Kowloon.The factory was located in Hung Hom and as a child I often went to watch workmen operate the machines. But the magic of mechanical objects did not inspire me, drawing did. After school I would go to book­shops to browse the art section. I took traditional ink painting lessons and became interested in modern art when battling adolescent despair and confusion.

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Making Tracks Through China

The mustard-coloured Kunming North railway station, in the capital of Yunnan province, integrates with the surrounding high-rises like foie gras at a vegetarian dinner party. Although its wooden window shutters and clock tower hint of French inception, this incarnation dates back only to 2015.

Explaining the French facade, the station houses the Yunnan Railway Museum, which com­memorates the French-engineered, 855km-long (530-mile-long) Kunming-Haiphong Railway.

Les Chemins de Fer de L’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan was controversial from the start, as placards in the museum document with textbook Marxist aggrievement. The French “war of aggression against China in 1883” provoked the “stupid Qing government” to sign an “unequal treaty” and give up Chinese suzerainty of Vietnam. After the first Sino-Japanese war ended, in 1895, the French “blackmailed” the “weak and incom­petent” Manchu rulers into consenting to the construction of a railway from Vietnam into China “under threat of war”. Ouch!

Adding to this “national humiliation”, the railway claimed the lives of thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese coolies, tasked with working in three climate zones and mountainous terrain.

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Chinese Artists Locked Down By Cornavirus Got To Work

As much of the world locks down in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing the boredom and uncertainty that was the province of mainland China during the initial outbreak, a period now popularly dubbed “zui chang de guonian”, or the longest spring festival.

For those quarantined in their flats, it was a time when bad news, local and national, had to be digested over long days living in the shadow of this terrifying new disease. Some found light relief playing dinner-table ping pong or living-room badminton, videos of which have since gone viral on social media. But for China’s creative classes, the worry, anger, horror and hope inevitably mani­fested into works of art produced in the confines of their homes.

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