Tokyo is one of the great world cities that few people have never heard of. But perhaps it’s because Tokyo is such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between. I stayed in a rather old but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history and which I liked.
Asakusa's main attraction is Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple that has a massive front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small but very busy shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple grounds. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. Despite a slight drizzle on the afternoon I went there,the temple was busy with worshippers and tourists while the shopping street was packed.
Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for kitchen utensils and restaurant items like fake food dishes. I did walk by and I saw a few stores, some of which had giant colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.
Besides Tokyo's oldest temple, Asakusa also has its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, because I planned to go up another skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. The Skytree doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a functioning TV tower and only a small part is used for regular human activity, basically the observation deck. I'm sure the view was great though.
When it comes to Beijing, everybody knows about the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace and the hutongs. Those places are all deservedly famous and good to visit, but there are more sites that have interesting history but are not so well-known.
These include the Marco Polo Bridge/ Lugouqiao, the Yonghegong Lama Temple and the Capital Museum.
The Marco Polo Bridge is called that precisely because the great 13th-century Italian explorer visited it during his time in China. The bridge is also notorious for being the site of an attack by Japanese soldiers in 1937, which would then lead to Japan’s full-scale invasion on China.
The bridge is kind of simple, but it boasts two unique attributes. One, it was visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century. It was built in 1192 but rebuilt in 1698 (though it may have been renovated and altered in the 20th century after the Communist victory in 1949).
Second, its stone rails are topped with dozens of stone lions, each one with a different facial expression and pose. These lions are also covered with smaller lions, so in total, there are hundreds of lions.
Before you get to the bridge, you pass the Wanping Fortress, a Ming Dynasty walled fort built in 1638 with old sentry towers at the gates. People still live in it, making it resemble an ancient living settlement.
Inside the “fortress” is the Japan resistance war museum (which has a really longwinded official name) that commemorates the fight against Japan. It’s quite decent, with weapons, clothing and equipment used by Chinese troops, photos, and some vivid audio-visual displays of battle scenes such as Chinese troops firing from a cliff onto a Japanese column below. There’s some propaganda too, though interestingly, the flag of the Republic of China (the government of China before the Communist victory in 1949) is displayed in the exhibit about the surrender of Japan. In fact, in that area, the flag of the Republic of China hangs near the flag of the People’s Republic of China, probably the only place in the mainland where you can see this.
The Temple of Heaven is probably Beijing's most famous temple, but the largest one is the Yonghegong Lama Temple. As its name infers, it is a Tibetan Buddhist temple that was created in the early 18th century during the Qing Dynasty, and you can see still maroon-colored Tibetan monks walking around today. It features several shrines and halls and a large multi-level main hall, as well as a small museum. Nearby is the former Imperial Academy or Guozijian, the nation's highest institute for training government officials that was built in 1306. The Confucius Temple also lies inside the same compound.
Located in Xicheng, the Capital Museum is in a large gray rectangular building that doesn’t give much indication about the historical treasures and fantastic displays inside. It's a museum about Beijing's history, but with more interactivity than most Chinese museums.
Inside the museum’s large open interior, on one side are the main exhibits on several floors. On the other corner is a green multi-level cylindrical structure that houses more exhibits, coated in what seems to be green jade tiles. Indeed jade is what it features inside, as well as calligraphy and paintings.
The museum features historical artifacts like weapons and coins, as well as calligraphy, pottery, and bronzes. That’s to be expected and it’s nice, but there are cooler things, such as erotic Buddhist statues featuring explicit nudity and even fellatio. On the top floor, there’s an impressive mock hutong neighborhood, with the “homes” featuring exhibits showcasing the folk customs and daily life of old Beijingers, from weddings to funerals, as well as art pieces.
The mock hutong is something that many Chinese museums, even good ones such as the Xian and Nanjing museums, don’t have – interactive displays, combining photos, artifacts, videos and sound recording as well as life-size settings. Chinese museums tend to focus strictly on history but neglect contemporary history and interactive aspects.
The basement features more exhibits, usually special temporary ones. When I went, the special exhibit was about ancient kingdoms in the northeast, including the Tungur people, the predecessor of the Manchu, and the Jin Dynasty, who ruled parts of Northern China in the 12thcentury and established their capital in Beijing.
The Chinese New Year holiday is underway this week so first, let me say Happy Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. This year is the Year of the Monkey according to the lunar calendar and while the monkey is a playful and curious creature, the year has been predicted by some to be very challenging. Indeed, despite the festivities or holiday relaxation for many of us in East Asia, the new year started off with serious tragedy.
First, the historic city of Tainan in southern Taiwan experienced an earthquake early Saturday morning that destroyed several buildings and led to hundreds of injuries. At least 40 have lost their lives and over 100 are still missing. The quake was measured at 6.4 which doesn't seem that strong but it was enough to topple several buildings including a massive apartment complex in which most of the victims and missing lived. There is increasing suspicion that substandard construction in that building (not much has been reported about the other ones that collapsed) played a big role and the latest development is that three executives of the company that built that apartment have been arrested (see the link above).
Meanwhile, Hong Kong saw some shocking scenes Monday as a violent street riot broke out over a police crackdown on street vendors in a Kowloon neighborhood. Fifty people were arrested and about 100 were injured, including both police and protesters. It's something that was initially a mystery though some observers are saying it wasn't just about the vendors but an outbreak of anger over problems in Hong Kong in the last few years. I can't say for now whether the violence was justified but I'll accept that there were deeper reasons behind the riot. There is a growing schism between many young people there and the authorities, especially over the heavyhanded influence of China, and this anger will not go away anytime soon.
These two instances are reminders that tragedy can always strike when unexpected and that dissatisfaction in society can continue for a long time until they erupt suddenly. Hopefully, the rest of the year won't be too turbulent but it is good to be mindful of issues around you.
Last year, I took a trip to Myanmar for two weeks, during which Yangon was the starting and ending point. Scroll down to the end for photos or go to my Yangon gallery.
As Myanmar's largest city and commercial hub, Yangon, or Rangoon, represents the country's progress, which is most apparent in the tremendous number of cars everywhere on its streets. But while the heavy traffic represents economic progress and modernity, the city's architecture still shows the country is very much a developing country. It also reflects the country's British colonial heritage and its cultural diversity. Colonial-era buildings are apparent everywhere from regular apartment buildings to the gated villas by the city lakes, but the most impressive examples are the former Victorian-era government buildings and hotels located downtown near the riverfront. Yangon is said to have the most existing colonial buildings in the region, which might be true and impressive given the competition - Saigon, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur etc. Yangon exists specifically because of the British since they were the ones who built it in the mid-19th century. Yet ironically but also fittingly, the city's main landmark, besides Shwedagon Pagoda, is Sule Pagoda, very much a Burmese building and which sits prominently at the center of a roundabout. South and East of Sule Pagoda are where the most impressive colonial buildings are.
Besides colonial buildings, Yangon has many different types of religious buildings. There's a towering immaculately-maintained cathedral, mosques, Chinese temples, and Hindu temples adorned with tall colorful mounds covered with engraved deities above their entrances in the South Indian style. Yangon is also multiracial, with the Burman majority (from which the country's former name Burma was derived) coexisting alongside Mon, Rakhine, Indian and Chinese minorities. The street where I stayed in when I flew into Yangon was part of the "Chinatown" district and my hotel manager was a local Chinese who spoke Mandarin to me.
The combination of British colonial buildings, the noticeably multicultural population and the use of English makes Yangon look and feel very different from say, Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, and I wonder if it resembles South Asia, given Myanmar borders India on its west.
Besides Shwedagon Pagoda and the colonial buildings, other places of interest I went to included the national history museum, which was interesting but not too well maintained, and whose main attraction was the impressive Lion Throne, a large golden throne filled with exquisite carvings that Burmese kings used to sit on.
I also went to the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India who was exiled by the British to Yangon after the failed Indian Mutiny in 1857. But, I did not get to see the actual grave because when I visited the site, I found out it was a shrine and being Friday afternoon, there were services going on. Hence why the site is called a Dargah, an Islamic shrine built over the grave of a saint, which in this case is Bahadur Shah. The guy by the gate was kind enough to wave me in when I told him why I was there, but I saw that the actual grave was in the basement where the women were (men and women worship separately in Islam). I could have still gone right in and played the dumb tourist because I was so close, but I decided to let discretion and common sense prevail and I walked back out without seeing the grave.
At night, the streets near "Chinatown" are filled with locals sitting by roadside food vendors having dinner. It might be called a night market except that it is a lot more casual and informal. The downside is that there aren't much restaurants so I did end up eating fried rice from these vendors which came up to something like 50 cents US. When I came back to Yangon from Mandalay, I stayed on the other side of the city in the eastern side and there were more formal restaurants. I had a very good lunch at an Indian restaurant featured in the Lonely Planet, but I had worse luck when I had a mediocre dinner at a relatively modern restaurant.
I have to say Yangon is not the most attractive city I've been to and a lot of its buildings are in need of a good scrubbing. Even some of its most grandest colonial buildings were abandoned or rundown. The ones that were maintained look fine and remind me of Trinidad, which was also a British colony and has some decent colonial buildings albeit in a more tropical climate. In general, the city lacked the charm and the attractiveness of even Phnom Penh, which boasts a nice riverside walkway and clean, tree-lined roads with not as much traffic, and I certainly erred by spending almost four full days there.
It's a new year but some things just never change. There's some murky stuff going on in Hong Kong in which a bookstore employee Lee Bo disappeared and ended up in China right before New Year's Day. According to phone calls and a faxed letter from him to his wife, he is helping in an investigation and is alright. Which doesn't sound suspicious right? There haven't been much updates on the case but there is a high likelihood that it has something to do with the fact the bookstore in question sells Chinese-language books that are very political and feature criticism and gossip about China. And that four of Lee's colleagues disappeared back in November, one from Thailand and the others in China or Hong Kong. It would be a very sad day for Hong Kong if it turned out that these disappearances were conducted by state agents in HK, despite clear laws that mainland police cannot operate in HK soil.
Whatever the reason, this disappearance cannot be left unsolved or ignored.
Happy Boxing Day.
I've updated the travel galleries on this site, so the Seoul, London, Bangkok, and Shanxi, China photo galleries are up now. The galleries feature some of my favorite photos from my travels to those places. You can also find the galleries for these places and more on the Travel page. Please enjoy them!
Jinan is the capital of Shandong province, one of China's oldest provinces. It's called the city of springs for the many springs in and around it. The most famous of these springs is Baotu Spring, which also features the most attractive garden I've ever seen in China. Jinan also has a decent history museum and a lake smack in the middle of it. Jinan isn't one of the more famous cities in China, but it is rather decent in some parts. The air was very bad when I went there for a weekend earlier this year, even worse than Beijing, otherwise I would have gone to Qianfo (thousand Buddha) mountain, a hill in the city that features countless Buddha statues on its slopes.
I'm trying to keep busy during my "break" and one of those ways is to read a few books.
The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
Theroux makes an ambitious journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city in what is to be Theroux’s last in Africa and would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.
He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.
Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.
Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.
There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.
The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a bit shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.
While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.
The Lower River by Paul Theroux
The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.
Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.
The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.
He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.
Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.
From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia) by Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a respected non-fiction writer from India who has written several nonfiction books about India, South Asia and Asia. From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia), the first book of his that I’ve read, is a sweeping historical account of several major Asian intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century who challenged European imperialism at a time when its power loomed over much of Asia. Asia was largely subordinate, with India and most of Southeast Asia colonized by European powers, China defeated in the Opium Wars and bullied, Iran subdued, and the Middle East ruled by the Ottomans, who themselves would see their empire torn up by the Europeans after World War I.
Several of these intellectuals, besides challenging European domination and trying to revive their ailing countries, also shared a vision of pan-Asian unity. Mishra is a bit liberal by including Turkey as an Asian country because if anything, Turkey has been trying hard to become part of Europe via EU membership. That aside, the historical account of various countries across Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Iran, is compelling.
One of the more intriguing Asian thinkers profiled is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who traveled across the Islamic world -Egypt, Iran, Turkey – agitating for a pan-Islamic sphere. Due to recent events, I couldn’t help think of ISIS while reading this part though al-Afghani seemingly had a more benign vision that alternated between tradition and modernism or democracy with Islamic elements. However, the desire to modernize while being able to retain Islamic characteristics is a struggle that is still true today throughout the Arab region (I admit I am not an expert on the Middle East or the Arab region).
Other major thinkers/activists include Chinese Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who is admired in China and Japan. Mishra does well to bind the stories of these disparate individuals by linking them to a similar purpose and a common foe (Western powers). The end of World War II saw European colonization brought to an end in Asia and the “rise” of China and India and Japan makes for a tempting vision of Asia rising. There is a trace of sympathy and admiration for China, who Mishra sees as having risen to a power, though he is also aware about the injustices in that country. Mishra concludes with the thought that Western dominance is short-lived but admits that deep challenges remain, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Personally, I think he is too optimistic about Asia and the end of Western dominance, but the book is still a fascinating and informative read.
As this year comes to a close, it's likely I'll be ending it in Taiwan. Having spent the previous two Christmases in China, it's nice to be back here and not have to bother about smog or the various complications and nonsense one always faces in daily life in China.
Of course, Christmas is also not a public holiday here (it's a regular work day) but the commercial and non-religious aspects are very much present. So Christmas trees and decorations, restaurant staff wearing Santa hats, and even Christmas songs will be seen and heard throughout Taipei.
This is my first blog post on this website as my usual blog is hcyip.wordpress.com. I'll be posting here from time to time, hopefully more often than not, and moving some posts from my other blog to here.