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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The Lunatic Express

Ken1 copy“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, in the year of the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, the banners are flying the message of globalisation with Chinese characteristics.

Deals have been brokered from Vientiane to Vilnius, provoking critics to cry, “Empire!” and advocates to applaud vital infrastructure heading to countries most in need of investment.

Many of those countries are in Africa and, in May, an unveiling in Kenya highlighted the fact that China’s inter­nationalist wheels are already very much in motion.

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The Rise and Fall of Luoyang, China’s forgotten capital

Luo1My 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, a smattering of pokey noodle joints and an inconspicuous museum.

There’s some confusion about how to admit a foreigner and a Hongkonger, neither of whom have a Chinese ID card, into the Shang Museum. Evidently, they don’t get many visitors from distant lands. We are eventually granted access with a shrug, protocol presumably not worth the paperwork.

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M2B_Eiffel-Tower-Paris_Niko-de-La-Faye_photo-Vinciane-VerguethenIf 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 is the sanlunche, a pedal or electric-powered trike used to traffic wares through the hutongs (and get in the way of pedestrians).

Remarkably, these quirky commonalities of life in the capital have forged a partnership that has travelled the world.

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The Magic Mountains of Guilin

guilinAn 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 governing the mountainous and ethnically diverse Guangxi region. Though banditry and a backward economy plagued his time there, Fan couldn’t help but be inspired by the surreal scenery around him. “I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw,” he wrote. “There is no point in arguing with them.”

It’s easy to see why Fan’s pals in the Song literati were incredulous. There is something almost supernatural about Guilin’s craggy karst landscape, even to a modern-day traveler armed with the knowledge that these limestone pinnacles were created by millennia of water erosion. When confronted with the magic of the region, I swiftly fell into a more poetic state akin to what Fan must have felt when he described the topography as “like jade bamboo shoots and jasper hairpins, forests of them extend without limit.”

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Frescos on the Frontier

Mogao4 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 scriptures from India. On his return to China he passed through Dunhuang, a border town at the mouth of the Silk Road. The monk prayed in Buddhist temple-caves dug into a cliff face just outside the city, a place called Mogao. At the time, the area was flourishing with unprecedented spiritual and artistic activity. Each “grotto” was adorned with exquisite Buddhist frescos and sculptures that alluded to the fine artistry of the Tang period.

Xuanzang left behind several hundred sacred scrolls before returning to the capital Chang’an to spend the rest of his days translating the remaining scriptures. Soon his exploits would be incorporated into Mogao art, notably in Cave 204, where a mural depicts the monk’s epic pilgrimage.
Over 1,000 years later an adventurer from a very different place would arrive in Dunhuang. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian born British archeologist had far more pragmatic motivations for straying so far from home. He was in search of fabled Silk Road treasures.

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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 myself distracted by the sound and sight of water bursting out of every crack and vent. It drips from the ceiling, while subterranean streams surge underfoot, suggesting just how Bama County’s cragged landscape has been shaped, inside and out.

Deep inside the cave’s sanctum we come upon several people sitting on rocks, some meditating, some merely lazing around, others bartering prices for local produce from nagging Bama farmers. But all, my companion explains, are bound by a belief in the healing properties of the cave stone.

“They buy monthly passes,” says Zhang Xingyuan, a kindly local businesswoman who is showing me around, “and come here daily from nearby Poyue Town. Sometimes they even hold events in the cave.”

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