Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chinese flashcards

I've created a little webpage which displays Chinese character flashcards. It began as a project to help me with my own Chinese character learning, but if anyone else finds it useful too, so much the better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Birmingham public libraries

Taking a brief break from the cycling, I was looking for a map showing the location of all the public libraries in Birmingham, and couldn't find one.

So I made one. Here it is:

Map showing location of public libraries in Birmingham.

Any feedback and suggestions for how I could improve the map would be welcome.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Jiang Zemin and his Three Represents

Poster in Anhui province, China.

Text reads: Study the "Three Represents". Put into practice the "Three Represents".
(Pinyin: Xue2xi2 san3 ge dai4biao3 . Shi2jian4 san3 ge dai4biao3.)


"In Wuyuan," my middle school conversationalist informs me as I slurp fried rice noodles for dinner, "many people say that the sky is blue and the water is clear."

This information may once have been true, but is surely at least 50 years out of date. Nowadays, as any fule kno, nowhere in eastern China is the sky blue or the water clear.

The day's main event was a flying visit to Jiangwan. The houses in the all other villages on the road were low, old, dark and pre-modern, but in Jiangwan, everything is tall, new, and freshly-painted. Everything is in straight lines and the people are dressed smartly. The reason for this is announced on a banner at the far end of the village: "Welcome the tourists both at home and abroad to come to visit Jiangwan, the ancestral home of the President Jiang Zemin".

There is a tarted-up high street that you can walk down, if you want (though this will cost you 50 yuan), and buy Jiang Zemin themed keyrings. About 25 girly guides are hanging around the entrance, waiting to show people round. This morning there were no paying customers. Perhaps when JZM goes up to the big Jiangwan in the sky they'll do better business. I doubt it though. Jiang is never going to be a folk hero like Mao, for all his Three Represents.

It's a pretty valley with rice crops in various stages of planting, growing and harvesting. All around are sharp, sheer wooded mountains; in the fields, t-shirts and hats on sticks scare away the birds. Huge water-buffalo wallow in streams.

A man ploughs his field with buffalo, shouting commands as he turns his single furrow. What does the buffalo think? Does he understand the point of ploughing? Why does he consent to walk up and down all day? Does he think that human beings have some pretty strange ways of having a good time?

There are praying mantises and bats, dead on the road, and little bright green snakes. I wonder: if there are this many dead snakes, how many live ones must there be out there? Later, I see a biggish one, grey brown, limping off the road at the sight of me, if snakes can be said to limp.

Cycling to Huangshan in Anhui, China

From my diary, Sunday 11th September 2005

Laoban tells me he gets 25 yuan per jin (1) of hickory nuts. That's what he charged me for bed and dinner. His son studies in Beijing, he says. The villagers line up to wave to me in the morning, mums and dads encouraging their toddlers to say "bye-bye".

Climbed all morning up to the Lu Ling Guan pass, between Zhejiang and Anhui provinces. An old gate-house fort stands guard at the top - as you move toward the provincial border all civilisation fades away and the land gives way to wild forest. The banner over the highway says "Chinese history and culture city. The Shexian county is welcome you."

Bananas and moon-cakes for breakfast, the bananas pretty standard but the moon-cakes unusual, stuffed with orange jelly. Perhaps it was they that got me thinking about Sir Edmund Hillary. A less modest scaler of the Earth's highest peak might have called himself Mountainary.

And then for some reason I couldn't get Bronislaw Malinowski out of my mind - yes, he who missed his stop at Warsaw Central and got off instead at the Toblerone Islands (or was it Chateaubriand?). And then along came good old Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, another anthropologist, who decided to settle the long-running dispute between the structuralists (who wanted to build a better mousetrap), and the functionalists (who thought there was no point unless it caught better mice). He declared that in future everyone could call themselves structural functionalists (but not functional structuralists) - until a bunch of denim-clad Frenchmen led by Claude "Levis" Strauss showed up and started making a fuss, for reasons no-one could properly understand, about Tristram Shandy (or was it Tropicana?).

But this is by the by.

Up at the pass it was cool and the air in the high villages smelt buttery, but the road dropped quickly into Anhui and soon it was warm again. I left the nut-growers behind me; now I am back in rice country, with aubergines and peppers growing in the gardens. Further on there was maize, too, and cotton. The rice harvest was underway, stalks of rice laid out on the road to be threshed by the traffic, of which there is virtually none. Sheaves of beans drying at the roadside.

Tried to camp out tonight, but eastern China follows the "3 Unders" policy: everything is either under concrete, under cultivation, or under water. (This is a little-known precursor of Jiang Zemin's "3 Represents" policy, which in essence states that everybody falls into one of three categories, and the Party represents all of them, so be quiet and get on with your jobs, while we get on with governing you."

In Shexian town there's a huge PSB (2) building with a banner that says "Mankind are harmonious with Nature. She Xian County are mixed with Beautifulness", and there's more on this theme a little further down the road: "Warmly welcome the 34th Miss Intercontinental to She Xian. Well-known town. Civilisation. Charm. Signed by: She Xian Committee of the Communist Party of China, and The People's Government of She Xian County." A picture of a beaming Miss Intercontinental, Miss Peru, and Miss Columbia, accompanies.

Out of town, past the the toll station, this: "She Xian County, the capital of Ancient Hui Zhou, greet the Beauties all over the world with a smile".

Oddly, no-one in She Xian smiled at me. What can this mean?

Anyway, I wind up here in Tunxi, the relatively unlovely town which serves as the railway depot for travellers to Huangshan Mountain. Grander hotels in town are trying to re-brand the place Huangshan City - they think it sounds better. It does. I book into a tiny hotel room in the middle of the bus station, brothel and sex shop zone. Definitely Tunxi.

(1) 1 jin = 0.5 kg
(2) PSB = Public Security Bureau (gong an ju) = Police

Zhejiang province, China

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New roads in Zhejiang (diary reprise)

Saturday 10th September 2005. Jiakou, Zhejiang, China

Starting to rediscover what distance really means in China. No longer is Huangshan just a day's drive away on the expressway, or Beijing an easy overnight on the soft sleeper express. Coming face-to-face with China's mammoth road-building programme, some of which, nearly-complete but not yet open to traffic, provided perfect riding, at least until I came to an unbridged chasm and had to slip and slide down a fifty-foot embankment to get back on the old road.

Of course, once they are open, these wonders in concrete and asphalt are deemed too smooth and stylish for mere bicycles, who have to pick their way along rotting old village roads, which roll up and down every hill available; the new motorways are miraculously flat even in the hilliest terrain.

Beekeeping is big business round here. One truck came past me stacked high with wooden bee-hives - and with hundreds of tired-looking bees struggling in its wake to keep up.

A boy at the side of the road, holding a huge snake by the neck. I suppose a snake is all neck, really. Unless you start at the other end, in which case it's really tail all the way.

On top of the buzzing of bees, the hills are alive with the sound of nut-huskers. That's what everyone around here who isn't keeping bees does: husks nuts. Hickory nuts, in fact, I discover. (Forget bamboo-stripping, that's yesterday's game.) You rake them out on terraces to dry, you soak them (I may have got the order wrong here), you feed them into some kind of shelling machine, you load them onto trucks. The roads run red with washed out nut-husk juices.

There are a lot of dogs round here but no-one seems to have told them about chasing bicycles yet. It is, surely, only a matter of time before they catch on to the fun that their doggy cousins around the world are having.

I'm sitting in laoban's TV room because he's too busy to check me in to his grotty mosquito-pit upstairs. He's doing something noisy, I expect that means nut-husking. The TV is playing "The Hills are alive with the sound of music" and "Doe a deer".

Aha! Laoban has just re-appeared, bearing glad tidings, no less. He has upgraded me to a much nicer - and apparently mosquito-free - room in a separate house across the road, with my own personal roll-down garage door.

Wander round a rather lost-looking supermarket (in this tiny one-street village), playing hide-and-seek with my appointed follower-around on the second floor.

Mrs Laoban cooks me yu xiang qiezi(1) with lashings of rice. Marvellous stuff.

(1) "Fish-flavoured" aubergine. This is the best thing you can do to an aubergine, and it doesn't taste of fish.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mr Bean at the Da Jiu Dian (diary reprise)

Friday 9th September 2005. Changle, Zhejiang, China.

All along road people, old grandmothers especially, are stripping bamboo with beaked hatchets, tying up bundles of bamboo leaves, stacking and sorting canes, feeding them through metal stripping machines, loading them onto little trucks which disappear under their loads.

Some people are making good money out this, to judge by whole villages being rebuilt with huge gaudy Disneyland houses, pink Corinthian columns supporting gothic castle turrets on the roofs.

Later I pass a sign to Anji - "The Hometown of Bamboo". Irridescent blue and black butterflies in the bamboo forests.

This little village, Changle, doesn't seem to have hit the bamboo big-time yet, though it has at least two places to stay. At the first, I meet a very enthusiastic guest, singing the praises of the place. The laoban(1), though, is more downbeat about the idea of my staying. So I head across the road to the Long Feng Da Jiu Dian, where I find a room upstairs in a 5-bed dormitory.

Prowl round town, hunting my essentials: juzi(2), bananas, biscuits. Dinner downstairs at the Da Jiu Dian, spinach and tomato with rice. Mr Bean's steak tartare sketch is on the TV. Outside, the karaoke/disco is really thumping, someone hooting into the microphone with more gusto than talent. Good for him, I don't even have gusto.

Man tells me: "you know, you look really like a laowai(3)." I don't think he believed I am a real laowai. (Here in Changle!)

(1) Boss, owner, man-in-charge, person in authority, man with key.
(2) Tangerines, clementines
(3) Foreigner, especially westerner

On the way to Huzhou (diary reprise)

8th September 2005. Huzhou, Zhejiang, China

On the TV, Beijing beat Shanghai on aggregate, after extra time, last night.

Breakfast: bananas in room.

At Pingwang, a bridge takes the G318 over the Grand Canal. Last year I turned south here, towards Jiaxing and Hangzhou. This time I follow a small road to Hengshan and from there to Miaogang. This must be the only quiet road in eastern China. I can even hear the birds and cicadas.

Along the south bank of Taihu, duck farms with flotillas of white ducks, bright sun, clean air, no traffic, beautiful riding. Fresh smell of marshes coming off the wide, shallow lake, which stretches weedy and reedy to the horizon. A convoy of small boats chug along in line, collecting lake weed. Crab-fishermen mending their nets along the shore. At a little restaurant at lunchtime they offer me freshwater crayfish, which share a tank with a pair of sad-looking condemned fish. I go for my usual, fanqie chao dan(1). A mother ba-ing(2) her baby on the steps.

Tableau: peasants in straw hats cutting reeds and grass with scythes. What we pay our visa fees for.

Road runs along levee, with the lake on right, and garden plots full of cabbages and onions below on left. Warblers and egrets all along the shore. Rice fields glow green and then gold in evening light.

Outside zhaodaisuo(3) is a street of point-and-shoot fry-em-up stalls, you name it, they've got it - from bags of jumping frogs (live) to pig nostrils (dead). Up the road is a throw-the-hoop-over-something-ghastly game. There is no shortage of customers; the lucky ones don't win anything. The more unfortunate have to take some astonishing tat home: miniature hands made of plastic, and little china figurines that make garden gnomes look classy. The only prizes worth winning - mobile phones - are actually impossible to win because they are too big for the hoops.

Cricket: first day of final Ashes test. England wobbling at 115/3 at lunch.

(1) Fried egg and tomato.
(2) Potty training, without potty.
(3) Guesthouse, hotel

Leaving Shanghai (diary reprise)

7th September 2005. Jin Ze, China.

Sit for a Russian-style farewell with Aliona. Leaving hurts; I feel tight-throated. Ride the way I seem to know well now, past Hong Qiao airport, out onto the Huqingping Gonglu / G318. "Develop highway and vigorously develop Shanghai" encourages a sign above the road.

In Jin Ze, not only do they remember me from last year, they still have my registration sheet on the desk. They ask where my beard has gone. Noodles with a fried egg in a Lanzhou Noodle joint. Fat orange sun sinks in the haze and a tiny sliver of dark yellow crescent moon appears. Hotel room floor is concrete red splattered with yellow splattered with grey.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Zhutang, Yunnan province, China. 11th January 2006.

Laoban at hotel is a nice bloke with one arm. He shares the vice of many by wanting to engage me in conversation while I am brushing my teeth and my mouth is full of foam and bristles.

From the diary...

The first in what I hope may become a series of snippets from my diary.

12th January 2006. Shang Yun, Yunnan province, China

Funny little hotel room: two-tone walls, green and dirt, and a rotting arm-chair. But you don't expect much for 10 yuan. The laoban tried to get me to take a 20 yuan room on the grounds that I am "too tall" for a 10 yuan room. I think this is not in fact the case; time will tell.