Thursday, 30 June 2011

Fares, please! for Chengdu's women-only buses

From the start of July, the city of Chengdu in China’s southwestern Sichuan province will be providing a women-and-children-only bus route. 
The driver of the No.905 gets the Dinoprostone suppositories ready
The No.905 from Xiyu Street to Chengdu’s Central Hospital for Gynecology and Pediatrics will cost 2 kuai (19p) and will run every 45 minutes from 7am until 4.45pm. Like the designated bus-stops, the two buses on the 905 route are to be rose-pink, and have the charming slogan “All for the Women and Children” on their flanks. They do that thing where the bus lowers itself to make it easy to get on and off when you’re about to sprog, and have free, on-board mineral-water dispensers. The drivers are female, which is expected to make it easier for them to help passengers in need. The 38 seats are all upholstered, and there are more of them than there are in your average Chinese bus. 
Having on many occasions seen pregnant women practically trampled under foot by crowds of commuters desperate to get a seat on what are invariably suffocatingly overcrowded public transport services, the idea of a dedicated route seems a stroke of genius. Buses in Taiwan have for years had seats set aside at the front (just as we have “elderly and disabled” seats in Britain) called the Bo’ai Zuo 博爱座 or “Universal Love Seats” (“Universal love” is a concept that can be traced back in traditional Chinese philosophy to the Confucian and Mohist thought of the Warring States period before China was even unified). Elsewhere on the mainland today you find a sign reserving seats for “old, weak, sick, disabled or pregnant” passengers, but then sixty years of communism have left most of the population so obsessed with their own personal gain that there’s normally a young, strong, healthy man sitting in them.

Last chance to visit the unspoiled Guangxi coast

For a couple of months now, the authorities in China’s coastal provinces have been announcing that they are, in effect, going to sell off nearly 200 uninhabited islands to the highest bidder.
"Ooh, I like what they've done with the garden. Can we afford the mortgage?"
The Territorial Water Islands Management Bureau in Guangxi, which lies squished between Canton (the bit foreign business travellers mistake for the rest of China) and the tip of Vietnam, has just said that 16 of its 500-plus islands, islets, sandbanks and shoals are to be sold off for “tourism and leisure”. They range from little more than hunks of mangrove to much larger islands that could, if you wanted, take 25 football pitches (albeit rocky and on a slope). The coast is heavily indented with estuaries and minor archipelagos, and the islands are mostly within a few hundred metres, or at most two or three clicks from the shore.
Guangxi’s interested in hearing from foreign capital in particular, and want foreign investors to apply with their plans to develop the islands as resorts. Investors will need to show, it has been stressed, that they intend to develop the islands with due regard for Guangxi’s environmental regulations before a certificate of land use is issued. One suspects, of course, that the “due payment of the relevant land-use fee” also mentioned by the bureau will in practice be the deciding factor.
Guangxi, which is most famous in tourism terms for the stunning karst mountain scenery of Yangshuo and Guilin, has in recent years been promoting growth in the number of scenic areas and in tourism infrastructure elsewhere in the province. They’re hoping to see a big rise in areas like leisure resorts and food tourism - Guangxi’s coast is after all within the tropics, with good seafood and tropical fruit a-plenty.
IMHO, though, their hope to become a destination to rival nearby Thailand and ’Nam for overseas visitors will stand or fall (okay, fall) on the quality of the overall experience. Western tourists, and those from Australia and NZ, can very cheaply and easily get to Phuket, Chiang Mai or the Vietnamese coast, and the general hassle of transferring from Hong Kong to Guangxi and then through vast expanses of rapidly modernizing countryside to what will, let’s face it, be a half-arsed resort full of Chinese middle-management simply won’t be able to compete. Domestic tourists, who are more canny and on home soil, will flock to places like this on cheap packages, but backpackers will find themselves being ripped off by a system which encourages tourism to see visitors as one-offs who need to be fleeced at every opportunity. The luxury market, meanwhile, won’t even touch Guangxi when it has so much else to choose from.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

China's remotest village not so remote anymore

The Heilongjiang provincial news media re reporting that workers are toiling to build the first proper road from Xilinji (the county town of Mohe County), to Mohe itself, the “Arctic Village” at the very tip of China. When it opens in September, the route will bring coachloads of domestic tourists to the banks of the Amur River, facing the Russian village of Ignashino, so they can say they’ve been to China’s most northerly point. (The fact that there’s another, tiny settlement named Wusuli a few miles further north and forty miles downriver is immaterial - Arctic Village is where the fun’s at, and it’s officially China’s most northerly point. The Chinese don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story.)
Liam's private jet approaches Mohe airport
I’m very fond of Mohe, as in 2001 it was my final destination in the journey I made around the far-flung points of the Chinese compass for Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior. It took a rail journey on what was then the old lumber trail to cover the final, white expanse of 600 miles on the map between Qiqihar and Xilinji, from where I rode a battered old minibus through Scandinavian pine forests fifty miles to the Amur River. It wasn’t even tarmacked in places, where now tourist revenue has funded the new highway. I found a bed for a few kuai in a “hotel” where the toilet wasn’t even a hole in the ground, as the earth’s frozen most of the year. Instead it was a pile of poo below a raised wooden plank. For dinner I had all there was on offer - boiled aubergine with garlic and coriander - which was better than it sounds.
That’s all changed now that the Chinese have invested in an airport for Mohe. Yes, an airport. I live in Kenilworth, a town of around 30,000 people, which keeps getting its plans to reopen its railway station turned down. Mohe has thirteen and a half inhabitants and three dogs, one of which is blind, and it has a bleeding airport.
During China’s eleventh five-year plan, Mohe County invested 1.2 billion RMB (£116 million) in its tourism infrastructure, including five-star hotels, the new airport, and (for pyromaniacs and the more mawkish tourists) a memorial hall for the massive fire of 1987 that wiped out the town of Xilinji and much of the county’s forest cover.
I’d recommend the trip to anyone with a few weeks on their hands, especially as it’s now a lot more pleasant than it was a decade ago. Of course, I can always boast I visited it before it got all commercial and sold out to The Man.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

£11.25 for a train seat to Beijing.

The Chinese Ministry of Railways is gearing up for the start of the new high-speed service between Beijing and Shanghai on Thursday 30th, and has announced more details.
tickets for the first service thanks to the nice people at Wikipedia Commons
There are going to be 90 trains a day on the new line, 63 of them running at an average speed of 186mph and the rest just a teensy bit slower at 155mph.  These fast services will have a daily passenger capacity of 154,000, and anybody who’s ever travelled in China will know that they’ll be running at full capacity around the clock from day one. The old Jing-Hu railway line will go on operating its 141 trains, some stopping, some slow, some fast, some direct, and carrying another 319,000 passengers every day. That’s 473,000 passengers pretty much every day of the year (China’s transport system doesn’t do bank holidays and Sundays), on just one single route.
As for choice, there’ll soon be everything from high-speed business class to stopping-service hard-seat class, with the cheapest tickets set at 158 kuai (£15) for what’s an 819-mile journey. Even the first-class tickets are set at 935 kuai (£90), which makes the walk-up prices for train journeys in Britain look more laughably unjustified than they already do. On top of these low prices, the Ministry has also announced that students are to receive a 25% discount on tickets, meaning that a student will be able to get from Shanghai to Beijing for £11.25. That’s mental.
Meanwhile, I yesterday posted off my copy of the consultation document for the British HS2 high-speed rail link, which come 2026 will shave a few minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham (once signal failures, strikes, the wrong kind of leaf/snow/air etc) have been taken into account. The tickets still won’t compete with flying, a swathe of countryside including dozens of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty will be bulldozed, and even then it’ll produce more carbon dioxide than at present because passengers will be forced to travel to fewer rail hubs to ride a train that soaks up electricity. Here in Kenilworth we’ll have to travel 30 miles to Birmingham to get on the HS2, which won’t stop at Coventry five miles away. China has no Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the new high-speed rail line. If anything, having travelled it many times, I can confirm that it’s pretty much one, big, long Area of Outstanding Man-made Ugliness for 819 miles.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Yangshuo flush with tourist success

The tourist administration of Guangxi province has announced that its going to be upgrading all nineteen of the public “tourist toilets” in Yangshuo, in order to, as they put it, “take a step forward in raising the tourism service capability of the mountains and waters of the Li River”.
(the kind of toilet that’s had its day...)
For those of you who don’t know it, the town of Yangshuo is set in one of the most beautiful parts of China, surrounded by near-vertical, pine-clad “jade hairpin” mountains and with the cormorant fishermen of the winding Li River running through it. It’s incredibly popular with both Chinese and Western tourists, and has long been a laid-back travellers’ hangout.
The nineteen toilets in question were built in the seventies and eighties, and they’ve have got a bit dated, it seems. According to the province’s renovation plan, all the new toilets will have wheelchair-friendly entrance ramps, water-saving cisterns, anti-smell technology, braille signage and blind-persons’ tactile floor tiles, baby-changing facilities and Corby trouser-presses (okay, I made that bit up). They’ll be better, in fact, than practically anything you’d find in a British city, where you can either (a) go for a McPoo, or (b) find a public loo with blue lighting (to stop drug addicts finding a vein), no paper, felt-tip adverts for gay prostitutes, an unnerving sense of impending violence, and the tang of stale piss.
The Yangshuo Toilets will be star-rated, like hotels, from two to four stars, and will be free to use, funded by the tourist administration. There’ll be staff on hand around the clock. “Tourists coming to Yangshuo will not only be able to enjoy the unsurpassed beauty of the scenery, but also enjoy the high-class service of a star-rated loo,” said a tourism spokesman.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Yellow River's looking gorge

Been away on the road for a week - all the way from the sirens and stabbings of Sarf Lahndan to sunny North Yorkshire, so travel’s on my mind right now. 
2011 has been designated Great Yellow River Tourism Year by the Chinese government and, browsing the latest travel industry news, the trip everyone’s doing right now is the pilgrimage to Xiaolangdi Scenic Area in Henan province. 
The Yellow River has until recently been an underused resource for tourism in China, mainly because it flows through some very poor and inaccessible countryside, and also because it’s not itself navigable to shipping. Sitting atop a strip of silt tens of metres higher than the surrounding countryside, deposited over the millennia, the river has breached its levees and changed course dozen of times, flooding the plains and drowning millions. The Yellow River dam at Xiaolangdi was built in the 1990s to try to put an end to the bother of having a river that keeps changing its mind about how to reach the Pacific. The Scenic Area includes not just the vast dam but a host of mountain gorges (lesser-known but very attractive versions of the more famous but now-flooded Yangtze Gorges), and it has some truly very impressive scenery.
Each June, the 296 sq km Xiaolangdi reservoir gets flushed through to scour out the silt, and the enterprising locals now hold a wildly popular Watching the Waterfall Festival from June 22nd to July 10th. The river cascades through the open sluices of the 500m-wide dam, and the level of the reservoir drops by 30 metres, which is really quite a lot when you think about it, to reveal the old scenery of the now-flooded valleys. For any communists remaining in China, commemorative civil-war scenic spots such as “The Chen Xie Army Group Crosses the Yangtze” have been marked out, and for everybody else there’s a food festival of locally caught fish, an exhibition of weird-shaped stones from the river (“Ooh! This one looks like a willy!”), and a photography competition. 
Local government has been quick to cash in on the festival by organising the kind of massed-rank, all-singing-all-dancing opening ceremony that would make Kim Jung-il jealous. Bow-tied choirs sing Yellow River Elegy, the most famous and patriotic of songs, and other popular hits like The Yellow River Boatman. They don’t do Christie’s 1970 Number One hit Yellow River, which is a shame, but apparently it’s about a different Yellow River. 
Anybody thinking of going needs to be at the Kowloon Hotel in Luoyang for 8am. Tickets are 78 kuai, and for that you get the bus ride to the dam and entrance to the ceremony. It comes highly recommended to anyone with a love of close-harmony singing and hydroelectric power generation.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

All aboard! for China's newest railway

The Ministry of Railways has announced that it will be revealing next week the ticket prices for the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway. 
It’s been just over three years (three years!!) since the Chinese started work on the 819-mile railway, and they managed, in fact, to finish laying the track last November. The original plan had been for the railway to be a Maglev, similar to the literally terrifyingly fast train that now links Shanghai Pudong Airport to the city in just eight minutes (a journey that used to take well over an hour by bus). The impracticality of such an enormously long Maglev (Shanghai’s, at 19 miles, is currently the longest in service anywhere) made the Chinese eventually choose traditional steel rails, otherwise we’d be looking at a journey time of under four hours. As it is, the new trains will still be running at up to 186mph, making Beijing less than a five-hour trip from Shanghai, compared to at least twice that at present.
The carriages, for any train nerds out there, are a variant of the CRH380 “Harmony” class already in service in China. In recent tests they’ve reached almost 303mph, and they’re two full Earth feet wider than Virgin’s fancy-pants Pendolino trains (the ones that crawl along the west-coast line because someone’s forever stealing the copper signal-cabling outside Rugby. Anybody trying to steal the cabling from the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway will of course be summarily shot). 
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve travelled by rail between “The Big BJ” (having written my new nickname for Beijing down, I can see why it hasn’t caught on) and Shangers. Each time, because of high demand for tickets on the 10-hour service, it’s been an overnighter, and occasionally it’s taken the best part of two days - morning on day one to the evening of day two. The new railway will make it feasible to get from city to city and back within a day for a business meeting, whereas at the moment it can take hours just to get from Beijing Capital Airport through the hellish traffic of however many damn ring roads the place now has. 
The Beijing terminal, the new Beijing South Station, is reputedly the biggest railway station in Asia. When I first used it in 1991 it was a tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice way out past Yongdingmen, surrounded by unmetalled roads plied by donkey carts. It now makes Heathrow look ancient. Actually, the tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice made Heathrow look ancient, too, come to think of it.
The Chinese are managing to modernise their country at such a dizzying speed it’s hard to know whether to be impressed or scared. Ten out of the top thirteen longest bridges in the world are in China. The very longest, part in fact of the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, is said to be so long I fear I’ve translated something wrong: the raised section of this Dan-Kun Ultra-Long Bridge between Danyang and Kunshan in Jiangsu province is over 100 miles long. Now that’s mental.

Monday, 6 June 2011

China's computer whizz-kids prepare for war

I remember watching a film once, where the Communist Chinese drilled under the Pacific to invade the US. It came to mind again recently when I read about the various cyber attacks the Chinese are accused of launching against foreign websites: what could be more “yellow peril” than an enemy disabling you by stealth from their comfort of their padded armchairs in the luxury section of an internet cafe in Hefei?
So, I had a peek at how the Chinese are looking at their compatriots’ derring-do, and found a fair amount of pride in the achievements of China’s army of heike (heike is Chinese for “hacker” - it’s a straight transliteration of the English, but with the added bonus that the characters mean something like “black assassin”). This, for example:
Q: How powerful exactly are these Chinese heike?
A: We stick a Chinese flag on the White House website, and you can doubt how powerful we are? That stroke of brilliance might have been a flash in the pan, but whenever our country needs us we’ll be ready to attack the enemy.
Q: How do I get to be one of these Chinese heike?
A: Study English. Learn how to program. Read up on internet security.
Another exchange discussed how a well-respected heike who went under the name Lao Ying had been behind the White House Chinese flag incident, but lamented how heike will now do pointless things like attack the Chinese social networking site QQ. Real heike culture, said one poster, is about defending China - this is its most basic “moral characteristic” - you’re only a real heike if you’re doing it for the sake of China’s national dignity.
As to who they are, bloggers agree there are only a very few of them, and they’re relatively young - they range from middle-school students through to the first couple of years of university, have started with an interest in assembler language, and have then spent a lot of time studying computing. The vast majority of kids who start out with an interest find it too much of a challenge and give up, and you’re considered an old-timer if you’re the wrong side of thirty. This, though, rather assumes that the Chinese government isn’t actively orchestrating hacking of foreign targets, hothousing talent and providing them with the technical wherewithal.
Anybody who’s spent time in a Chinese internet cafe will know exactly where heike talent is fermenting - even the smallest towns and villages have a wangba on every corner, and inside each one are dozens or even hundreds of teenagers for whom computers are a way of life. Add to this a pinch of Chinese nationalism, season with a heavy dose of anti-Americanism, and even if China only creams off the top one percent of talent when it reaches high school or university we’re still talking hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy, gifted programmers eager to crash Google, stick a flag on the White House website, or hack into the US military. With MI5 and SIS recruiting and training computer talent at a higher-education level, and no comparable body of nationalistically inspired, self-taught hackers to dive into, it’s little wonder that we don’t hear official complaints from China of Western cyber attacks on Chinese websites.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Tip for the day - £10 e/w on Shanghai to secede by 2161.

Today’s the 22nd anniversary of the suppression of the student protests in Beijing. I remember watching the events on TV, having just been accepted as an undergraduate to start studying Mandarin that autumn, and not having a clue how things would pan out in the coming four years. Two years later, instead of spending a couple of terms in Beijing, we were sent off to Taiwan to study at Shida’s Mandarin Training Center. The CCP, sadly, are still “in charge” of China.
The release today in the Daily Telegraph of leaked diplomatic cables which show that the PLA didn’t enter Tian’anmen Square with all guns blazing isn’t in itself a real surprise, since commentators back then quickly started backtracking on initial reports that tanks had quite literally rolled into the square to crush the students’ tent village, tempering them with an admission that the killings had taken place in the surrounding streets and avenues in the coming hours and days. 
But one phrase from the leaked cables set me a-thinking: there was mention that the students had been portraying their demonstrations, and the fact that the widely announced martial law had not in fact been forcibly imposed in Beijing, as indicating that the Mandate of Heaven - the intangible, moral ‘right to rule’ perceived throughout Chinese history - had been revoked from the Communist Party.
How long, though, normally passes between the first signs that the Mandate of Heaven has been lost and the actual fall of a Chinese dynasty? Chinese history isn’t particularly helpful in predicting when the Communist Party will eventually be replaced, but there are a couple of clues as to how it might happen.
The Qin dynasty fell just four years after the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, died, but his rule had been especially repressive, and his political successors especially weak. The Yellow Turban rebellion that’s generally seen as marking the beginning of the end for the Eastern Han dynasty kicked off in 184, but it was 36 years before the Han finally fell. It took four years for the revolts against Emperor Yang’s wars in the Korean peninsula before the Sui dynasty fell. The Tang, by contrast, limped on for anything from 30 to 150 years after the rebellions that most damaged it, depending on where you count from, while the Yuan lasted for around 17 years after the Red Turban rebellion.
But perhaps the most interesting historical models for the eventual end of the People’s Republic are the Southern Song and the Ming. The Southern Song lasted for 150 years after the entire north of China down to the Huai River valley was occupied by the Mongol armies in 1127, though the Ming plodded on for just a couple of decades after the Manchus in the far northeast stuck two fingers up and declared themselves independent. Both involved a dynasty surviving in a rump form, one in a new capital because its old capital had been captured, and the other in its existing capital, having to cope with the fact that its writ no longer ran in part of its own territory.
If I were a gambling man, which I’m not, I’d put a couple of quid each-way (each-way, mind, not straight on the nose) on the big movers in one of the big coastal cities like Shanghai or Canton staging what amounts to internal secession, realizing that they have a brighter future being able to elect able leaders in democratic elections than being constantly stifled by the corruption and entrenched interests that come with Communism. Think Hong Kong, but on the mainland - a city where foreign investment feels more secure and where the citizens feel as though they have a real stake in their city rather than just being told to “be proud of our Shanghai” or some such tosh. It needn’t even take a military coup, just enough balls from the Party machine in whichever city to call municipal elections and see if Beijing is willing to risk sending the tanks in to stop it. Even the arrival of PSB goons to remove the prime-movers from office would cause economic jitters, not to mention causing a jostling to be seen in the best political light, which in itself could spark democratic change if somebody in a position of real authority thinks they can cement their hold with a legitimate vote.
After my purely theoretical municipal elections, the PRC would start to resemble China in the early seventeenth century, with an enclave in the ascendant still paying homage to the centre but in reality drawing power away until the dynasty finally loses its grip.
Right, that’s that, then. £10 each way on Shanghai to secede and the PRC to fall some time between now and the year 2161.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Step away from the Lucky Tree Fruit Juice, sir

It’s not just Russia who takes the food safety of its otherwise drunken, dying-at-the-age-of-forty, mafia-befuddled citizenry seriously. China Food Quality, essential reading for anybody who wants to keep up to date with all the latest melamine-in-milk-related scandals, is reporting today that China’s snappily named General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) has announced an immediate suspension of imports of a range of Taiwanese foodstuffs. The Taiwanese authorities had in recent days told AQSIQ that some manufacturers had been adding banned, non-food-quality phthalates to clouding agents that then went on to contaminate all kinds of products down the line.
The affected products consist of sports drinks, fruit juices, tea drinks, fruit purees, jams, jellies... Those that can’t provide a test certificate to prove they don’t contain the banned phthalates will be denied entry to the PRC. This is, of course, a far more subtle and justified response than the Russians’ blanket ban on anything green or red that comes from the EU, which is patently just protectionism in a different guise. It seems that almost half a million bottles of very specific brands have been targeted and removed from the shelves.
But why on earth would you want to add phthalates to food anyway? It seems to be down to price: they’re cheaper than palm oil and citrus fruit extracts, but produce the characteristic ‘cloudy’ quality associated with so many East Asian drinks products. I’ve probably drunk the bloody stuff myself, come to think of it - I’ve always been partial to those slightly cloudy, sweet fruit juice thingies, especially on a roasting hot, Chinese summer’s day.