Halong Bay’s Cat Ba: a jewel in Vietnam’s island crown

Street1I 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 gently as I dip into my guidebook and the prospect of Hanoi, enticed by the urban delights – the cool boutiques; Dong Xuan Market, where, apparently, everything that breathes (or once breathed) is on sale; and Hoan Kiem Lake, overlooked by the moss-manicured Turtle Tower.

The Vietnamese capital proves faithful to its contrarian promise – a fiery, contempor­ary city still awash in history. There’s enough great food to clog the most efficient of metabolisms yet the galleries, from hipster haunt Manzi to the prestigious Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, are widely distributed, providing worthy partitions to those belly bulging banquets.

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Chinese Photographer Captures ‘horror and beauty’ of modern China

Ziriver2Li 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. It smells of Hunan chilli peppers.

Outside, tropical storm Ewiniar is menacing the mountain­side, rousing a nearby river to burst its banks while shrouding Shenzhen’s highest peak in continually shifting mists.

“Look how clear the water is,” says Li, pointing out of the window at streams snaking down the slopes. “Mountain fresh!”

Removing a beer from the fridge and lighting a Hongtashan cigarette, Li settles into an easy chair to discuss his epic photo­graphic project, “From the Zi River to the Yangtze”, for which he began shooting images in 2009.

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The first Chinese-built railway, the enthusiast trying to save it and his hero…

6.Nankouw, KMT-chinaIt’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 kill time, I settle myself in the spartan wait­ing room and stare at the clock. Most of my fellow travellers are asleep or fiddling with their smartphones.

Eventually, a green train with a yellow stripe along its flank – No 1458, from Changping North to Zhangjiakou South – slides into the station. I board, find my third-class seat and wait for the engine to shudder back to life. We depart at 6.46am, navigating the last tumbledown extremities of the city before concrete is replaced by jagged hills and steep ravines.

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Marinduque: The Heart of the Philippines

Santa-Cruz7I 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 I’d come to associate with Filipino island folk.

In the distance, the cylindrical rim of the island’s tallest volcano, Mount Malindig served as the backcloth to nature’s soft theatre. Notwithstanding the fishing boat bearing the designation No Woman, No Cry, there were few suggestions of a human world in my viewfinder.

Behind the treeline I came upon a line of makeshift shacks and ordered a coconut. If I’d had the skill, I might have picked one myself. After quenching my thirst, I endeavoured to explore Poctoy White Beach, a coastal strip of Torrijos municipality developed for tourism. It proved a humble affair. There were two ragtag eateries, a few thatch beach huts, and a bar hawking Red Horse beer.

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In Deepest Yunnan

Bruce-R1-00-1 smallA 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 of tea and a good book preceding an eight-hour nap – there are worse ways to travel.

When Hong Kong-based photographer and publisher Magnus Bartlett visited Lijiang in 1985, journeying behind the bamboo curtain wasn’t so easy: “It was like time travel; the only vehicles in the cities were bicycles, PLA jeeps and limos with red flags for officials. The people we met were nervous, often astounded. But the country was virgin, really untouched.”

That year, Bartlett accompanied late British travel writer Bruce Chatwin on a trip into deepest China, and when we meet during the Beijing book fair in August, the photographer arrives brandishing film of unpublished photographs of the journey. He holds the film up to the light and I’m treated to a full colour storyboard of Chatwin in motion; getting a shave from a village barber and looking at a map in a peasant’s home while sporting a pair of Nike jogging pants, a camera dangling around his neck.

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The Big Picture

duziThe 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 in scale: More than 1,500 exhibitions infiltrated all quarters of Lishui 丽水, from North American exhibitions curated by New Yorker Jim Ramer to community photography projects peppering the alleyways of the old town. Legions of volunteers equipped with high-school English were on hand to point lost festival attendees in the right direction, while public buses were free, ensuring visitors could get from photo seminar to workshop to bar with as little bother as a third-tier Chinese city might otherwise cause.

This mammoth effort was part of Lishui’s aim to cast off its image as the ragtag industrial town documented in dispatches by Peter Hessler almost a decade ago. This historic, prefecture-level city — whose name literally means “Beautiful Water,” earned during the Tang dynasty — eschews heavy industry in favor of developing culture and tourism these days, according to those I spoke with in the organizing committee. Lishui even landed a “Chinese Town of Photography” designation from the China Photographers Association 中国摄影家协会 in 1999.

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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 blocks have replaced the labyrinthine urban villages formed when high-rise buildings were hurriedly built in what had been countryside. A vast metro system has supplanted the old fleet of mini buses, while cars, not motorbikes, dominate the city’s six lane boulevards. The seedy border town once renowned for knockoff designer wares and sweatshop factories has given way to homogeneity and affluence.

To the east of town, Luohu district marks ground zero of China’s “reform and opening up” period in the 1980s. It was here that Deng Xiaoping is said to have proclaimed “to be rich is glorious” in 1992. But the rest of Shenzhen has caught up with its early prototype. China’s first tower blocks are now weathered and worn, while around the railway station vestiges of Shenzhen’s sleazy past linger on.

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On the Trail of Taiwan’s Hakka

East-GateAs 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 a Han subgroup, sometimes referred to as “Chinese gypsies” because of their migratory heritage. They’re found in pockets throughout southern China and Southeast Asia and are known for their distinctive architecture, cuisine, and rituals; in Taiwan, they make up about 14 percent of the total population, concentrated mostly in and around the neighboring counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli. Which is where I’m headed. Having begun my career in China a decade ago with a rite-of-passage teaching gig in Huizhou, a Hakka town in Guangdong, I’m keen to get a taste of Hakka culture, Taiwan-style.

Hsinchu City, as it turns out, is a superficially modern place, made rich since the 1980s by a high-tech Science Park that is often dubbed Taiwan’s Silicon Valley. Nowadays, the city is known as much for its software as it is for its Hakka heritage, though the identikit high-rise suburbs accommodating the tech-heads have yet to fully eclipse the riches of Hsinchu’s past.

I disembark at Hsinchu Station, which is said to be the oldest transport hub in Taiwan; the Japanese built it in 1913 during their occupation of the island, when much of Taiwan’s formative industrialization took place. From here I advance on foot, heading northwest past the old moat—now a lively public garden—and well-preserved East Gate. This double-eaved portal is all that remains of the 19th-century city ramparts; today, it’s the centerpiece of a busy roundabout.

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Taiwan’s northern tip: weird nature, wonderful street food

JiufenTwo 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 in search of a “less toxic” life, at Tamsui station, sporting a pair of aviators and designer stubble circa 1985. With an assuring wink he hands me a helmet, then races us through town, exhibiting the reverence for safety one might expect from a Parisian on a scooter in East Asia.

We pass churches and temples, new apartment blocks and heavily weathered tenements. Approaching the coast, we continue alongside the swampy estuary, lined with mangroves, banyan trees and seafront cafes, until, at Fisherman’s Wharf, we stop and settle on the concrete sea wall. Over 7-Eleven lagers, we watch the sun sink into the deep blue of the Taiwan Strait

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How China’s Shangri-La earned a name for craft beer after 2014 fire

C&PIn 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, Lost Horizon.

Restrictions on logging had turned the local government’s nose towards tourism: the city’s name was changed, guest houses set up shop and hiking companies supplanted the ailing timber mills. Although nobody perished, for all who witnessed the inferno, the scent of cruel irony must have wafted among the embers.

Entrepreneur Songsten “Sonny” Gyalzur lost his restaurant, Soyala, in the fire. Instead of rebuilding, the loss catalysed the develop­ment of the brewery he’d established to produce small batches of beer for Soyala.

“I started with nothing, we didn’t even have electricity or running water,” the trim, sharply attired 42-year-old explains, as we tour his facility, a 15-minute drive south of Shangri-La. “We had the machinery made in Shenzhen, then assembled it up here.”

When one considers that Shangri-La stands some 3,200 metres above sea level, that was no mean feat.

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