Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Election night

I was in a state of nervous excitement all day yesterday. To distract myself from the wait for election results, I made apple chutney from my mother's recipe - a favorite task at this time of year. I went to Yonkers to renew my driver's license, figuring that most people would be at the polls - which they were, I was in and out of the licensing office in fifteen minutes. And of course I voted, the first time I've had this privilege in over twenty years of living in the United States. 

On Sunday, I'd driven down to Pennsylvania with two Bronxville neighbors to help get out the vote for Obama in a hard fought corner of Philadelphia. It struck me then that new Americans like us might help tip the balance on election day. As we went door to door, we found Obama's most vigorous supporters among extended families of Indian and Middle Eastern origin, upwardly mobile new Americans who had populated a neighborhood of spanking new semi-detached homes. In nearby streets of older houses and shabby apartments, we saw as many lawn signs for McCain as for his opponent, and even the registered Democrats seemed much more equivocal. I haven't seen figures on how new citizens voted, though we know that the Hispanic turnout was much higher than usual and more Democratic, and this must have included many naturalized Americans. I hope that we had some impact, underlining Obama's appeal across so many ethnic and social groups.

The other kind of new voter is the young voter, and my daughters' generation turned out in droves for Obama. Young people haven't gotten this involved in an election since the 1960s. Some persuaded Republican parents to support Barack. And young people led the way in celebrations last night. Roxana, who's a student at George Washington University in the heart of DC, sent me this photo of the crowd outside the White House at midnight. Thousands of students streamed off the GW campus to Lafayette Square a few blocks away for a totally impromptu celebration of Obama's epic victory. Our younger daughter, Gina, who's on a gap year in Australia, insisted that we texted her the minute we knew who the next President would be, and she followed up with an excited phone call.

For Brits, accustomed to snap elections, American presidential campaigns seem interminable. But last night's astonishing result leaves me a believer in the benefits of a lengthy process. It is a process of education, not only of the candidates, but also of the voters. After months of traveling the country and meeting its people, a new President takes office with first hand knowledge of almost every corner of the United States. In this watershed election, we've also needed the time to change the political landscape - to register voters who hadn't turned out before, to test the candidates, to discuss the issues and above all, to energize the electorate.

Now Barack has done that - and the hard work really starts. But it's fantastic that he comes to the White House with a decisive and historic victory behind him, celebrated by the rest of the world as much as by Americans.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Home for Halloween

I've been back home in Bronxville, our small town in the New York suburbs, for nearly two weeks. This is a particularly beautiful autumn - sunny days showing off the fall colors, and roses still in bloom alongside the Halloween pumpkins. At the school field, a stone's throw from our house, three or four different teams jostle for space every afternoon as the fall sports season reaches its climax - football, soccer, cross country and field hockey are all taken seriously here. It is strange to recognize fewer faces now that both our daughters have graduated from the Bronxville School. (It's 4:10 on Halloween day and I've had my first trick-or-treater at the door - they get earlier, and younger, every year).

Of course, this fall there are only really two topics of conversation: the election and the economy - and the effect of one on the other. I left New York in September, a week before the financial crisis hit home. Returning six weeks later, the mood is palpably different. Kurt Andersen wrote in New York magazine (October 27th) that for New Yorkers the economic bad news of the last two years - the bursting of the housing bubble and the sub-prime mortgage crisis - was something happening elsewhere. "Our chronic New York exceptionalism was nicely affirmed by the fact that our super-prime housing wasn't losing value". Now Bronxville's local news website is running barely reassuring articles about how Bronxville real estate is relatively safer than that in Connecticut towns like Greenwich and New Canaan (hundreds of spec MacMansions unsold), and about how this compares to the last housing bust (took 3 or 4 years to recover). And we daren't look at the state of our retirement savings accounts. People are losing jobs, canceling vacations, or looking for cheaper restaurants when they eat out. Our cleaning lady has been laid off by one of her other families, for whom she's worked for twenty years. Everybody fears that this is just the beginning of a dire recession - the Wall Street job losses will multiply, affecting the whole economy of the region (for, as Kurt Andersen says, in New York Wall St is Main St). 

On the other hand, many of us are cautiously optimistic about an Obama victory at the polls next Tuesday. Friends and neighbors who usually vote Republican are so disenchanted with George Bush, and dubious about the McCain/Palin ticket, that they are voting Democrat for the first time. Not that New York is a swing state, but on Sunday I'm off to help canvass for Obama in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.

A couple of days ago, I was glad to have a break from today's twin obsessions by refocusing on Chinese history. I attended a discussion at the Asia Society on "Assessing the Lasting Legacy of China's Cultural Revolution", moderated by Orville Schell, director of the Society's Center on US - China Relations. Among four panelists with varied perspectives there was more of a search for understanding than any outright condemnation of Mao for leading his people into the Cultural Revolution. There was consensus though that this history is not taught in schools in China - there is 'official amnesia' - and the country has not come to terms with this aspect of its recent past. One Chinese panelist reminded us of a moralistic slogan popular with the Red Guards in the early days of the Revolution: "Doubt everything". Perhaps a good motto for these dizzying times.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


And on Friday morning we begin our homeward journey, reluctantly leaving Ringha, where a crunchy frost heralds another blue sky day. We are flying to Beijing, via Kunming, for our last weekend before returning to New York. My heart sinks when I see the haze of pollution from the window of the plane - a stark contrast with the clean mountain air we've just left. We've booked into the Cote Cour, a new boutique hotel in one of Beijing's hutongs - the ever-scarcer neighborhoods of narrow lanes and old courtyard houses. My heart sinks lower when one of the reception staff drops Mike's computer bag with a thunk - not a good first impression. The hotel has carried out a painstaking, chic renovation of an ancient courtyard house, which is quite an achievement in Beijing, but for us it never quite lives up to its promise - or its price tag of over US$330 a night for the best rooms. We're staying in one of the largest of the 14 rooms, a superior suite, but it's not exactly vast and, annoyingly, is missing basic amenities, such as a kettle to make tea or coffee, or information packs for guests. Our room faces the main courtyard, whose focal point is an attractive goldfish pond, and guests can sit out here (at least until it gets dark, because there's only the dimmest of lighting).

Fortunately, we're soon heading out to dinner. Taxis don't like driving along the hutong, either to pick up or drop off, so we walk for a few minutes down the lane to get to a main road. If you don't mind the inconvenience, you certainly get an insight into old Beijing life by staying in a hutong - all around, people are getting haircuts, having clothes and shoes repaired, and (in housing without modern sanitation) taking their chamber pots to communal restrooms at either end of the lane. This particular neighborhood isn't within walking distance of Beijing's main attractions, but we're on our way to another hutong district which is near the Drum Tower. There we meet up with an English friend, Lewis, to eat at Dali, a celebrated restaurant which is run by his girlfriend Vivian. This has a magical setting - another restored courtyard house - and we eat outdoors under strings of red lanterns. The food is Yunnanese, but beats most dishes we've eaten in Yunnan hands down. A dish of crispy greens lightly fried with shrimp is my favorite.

On Saturday morning, one of Mike's colleagues has nobly volunteered to help us buy a rug and she leads us to an obscure but wonderful warehouse which is a treasure trove of carpets from inner Mongolia and other distant provinces. We choose a dark blue and beige rug with an abstract but distinctly Chinese pattern, which we'll put in our dining room. Mike (also nobly) agrees to carry it home in his luggage, and later we negotiate at a local hardware store by means of theatrical gestures to buy a checkered plastic sheet and tape to wrap the rug - Mike will travel looking like a bag lady.

But first we dress up for an evening at The Legation organized by Simon Elegant, TIME's Beijing bureau chief. The Legation Quarter is a cluster of ultra-fashionable restaurants and bars in five stately stone mansions, originally built around 1903 to house the American Embassy. When American diplomats withdrew from China after the Communist victory in 1949, the complex languished. Recently, it was completely renovated - not for the diplomats, who long since returned to a new embassy, but as a uniquely grand social quarter. We begin with drinks at a rooftop bar, overlooking the elegant mansions and just a stone's throw from Tian'anmen Square. Then we go next door for dinner at Maison Boulud, opened this summer by Daniel Boulud - the first global celebrity chef to try his luck in China's capital. Simon has put together an amazing group of Chinese and Western Beijing friends - artists, politicians, publishers, academics. We dine at a long table in a high-ceilinged room with a polished tile floor - certainly a setting fit for an Ambassador. The free flow of conversation (not to mention delicious food and wine) is a small indicator of how far American/Chinese relations have come in the last thirty years, since diplomatic recognition of the PRC in 1979.

It is a wonderful finale to our month in China, but of course a far cry from the desolate villages of Guizhou or from the urban poor, living right next to our hutong hotel and throughout the country. I've delayed posting this until days after our return to daily life in New York, wanting time to reflect on all we've seen. It was all, to borrow my mother's words, 'absorbingly interesting', and yet how to make sense of a country as vast as China? I may come back to this in later posts, but just say now that it's impossible to exaggerate the huge disparities between rich and poor, urban and rural in today's China. Reading a New York Times article on October 23rd, I'm reminded that in this land of 1.33 billion people, 800 million are still classified as peasants and 500 million live on less than $2 a day. This year China has celebrated not only the Beijing Olympics but also the best thirty years in
 its modern history, in terms of peace, stability and economic growth. The soldiers are no longer dead and dying by the side of the road, as witnessed by Max and Audrey. The elderly villagers of Guizhou eke out a living on the land, while their children work as migrant laborers in the cities, but many of the grandchildren (who are being raised by those grandparents in the villages) will be going to college.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


We have one more day at Ringha, and begin it by watching the final Obama/McCain debate on TV over breakfast in our room - bringing us back to a dose of reality. Then we take a leisurely walk around the ancient Ringha monastery, which is surrounded by highly colorful prayer flags and inhabited by two Buddhist monks, sent out by the larger Songzhalin monastery in Zhongdian. It's another picture perfect day, and we explore more of the nearby villages and pastures, enjoying the glimpses of the age-old rhythms of Tibetan daily life.

We also enjoy a superb hot-stone massage at the Banyan Tree spa to ease the aches and pains of trekking, and another evening at the resort's restaurant. Since we're not keen to go into town, we are rather tied to this (a complaint some people have had). The Thai dishes on the menu are the best bet, and there's enough variety to keep us happy for three days. We will be back in cities soon enough.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

R&R in Shangri-La

On Tuesday we part company with Max and Audrey's trail and take an early morning flight up to Zhongdian, an ethnic Tibetan town in the mountains of northern Yunnan province which is China's official Shangri-La. We visited the region in May two years ago, on a cultural tour from Hong Kong, only to be disappointed that we had so much wet weather that we never saw the peaks of the mountains emerge from the clouds. This time we're much more fortunate. On the short flight from Kunming we glimpse the snow-covered peaks that rise to over 14,000 ft. - the closest we'll get to the sensation of flying the Hump - and a spectacular sight.

We bypass Zhongdian (with its phony 'old town' developed for tourists) and head for the Banyan Tree Ringha, about 30 minutes from the airport. We're spending three nights here, our indulgence after a week on the road. The Singapore-based Banyan Tree group opened this luxury resort three years ago, naming it Ringha after an 800-year old Buddhist monastery which sits on a nearby hilltop - Ringha means 'five wisdoms of Buddha' in Tibetan. The remote valley is an inspired choice of location for complete relaxation. We're booked into a 'Tibetan Suite', one of 32 two-bedroom lodges and one-bedroom suites which make up the resort, and quite the largest hotel room I've ever stayed in. Each suite is part of a reclaimed, traditional Tibetan farmhouse and is on two floors - the upper floor is a vast bedroom/living area with a balcony overlooking the river valley (see photo), and the lower floor (where Tibetans used to keep their livestock) is a bathroom and dressing room, leading out onto a private terrace. The farmhouses, which were disassembled and moved from local villages, are exquisitely restored and adapted, with wide plank floors and carved wooden shutters. But with a lot of dark wood, and underpowered lighting, the rooms could be gloomy in poor weather - we are very happy to wrap up in the chilly air and sit out on the balcony for a pre-dinner drink, watching the sun set over the hills.

We've earned our glass of Chardonnay by taking a long walk along the valley on our first afternoon, passing yaks, cattle, pigs and village houses. This is just a warm-up for our major adventure the next day - we've arranged to take an all-day trek from the resort base at 3300m to nomadic summer pastures at a daunting 3800m. When I booked this, I was warned that the altitude and the possibility of light snow on the ground could make the trek pretty challenging - but I was relieved to discover that we'd be followed by horses in case we got tired! We wake to a thick mist in the valley, and a hard frost ( no snow at least), but thankfully by the time we set off about 9:30 the sun has burnt off the fog and it promises to be a gorgeous day. Our guide is a young Tibetan, who speaks good English and is great company. Two local women, with bright pink headscarves, follow along leading our horses. For the first hour, we climb gently past the monastery and through a valley bordered by yellow-leaved aspens and pine trees - it could be Colorado in the fall, except that both the animals and the local people are more exotic. Then we begin a stiff climb along a beautiful wooded trail, and I take a couple of breaks on horseback, which is great fun, though Mike valiantly makes it to the top on foot (benefiting from all that running he's been doing!). By midday, our vista opens up as we reach a high alpine plateau. This is the summer pasture for yaks, as well as a common crossbreed of yak and bull, and sheep. The plateau is dotted with the rangers' wooden huts, and we find some are still in residence with their livestock - including a very friendly old woman. We wander across the plateau (think a Chinese Brokeback Mountain), and our guide sets about colonizing an empty hut and lighting a wood fire to cook our lunch. As the Famous Five said, food tastes better in the open air, and we savor a plentiful picnic of soup, beef stew and dried bananas sitting around the camp fire.

Then it's time to head down, and we take a different trail which is a logging road. We meet a guy whose pair of yaks are pulling three large tree trunks downhill - villagers are allowed to fell trees to use in building their own houses, which may explain why houses in this area are much larger than those we've seen elsewhere. The views are still superb, the air unbelievably clear and the sky a deep blue. Apart from hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (thanks, Willkies) this is the most unforgettable trek I've done. We make it back to the Banyan Tree around 2:30 - impressively fast, according to our guide, but then the horses did help. And we are definitely ready for hot baths in our room's huge antique wooden tub.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Kunming and the Flying Tigers

On Monday morning we have a pre-arranged meeting with the committee of the AVG Research Association, a Chinese group who keep alive the memory of the American pilots who flew for China before the U.S. entered the war against Japan, the famous Flying Tigers. After the volunteer force disbanded in July 1942 (Max was at a farewell banquet given in their honor by Mme Chiang Kai-shek), many of the Flying Tigers continued to fly on the Hump airlift or to serve with the US Army Air Force in China under their charismatic leader, Col. Claire Chennault. Our meeting with the President and other members of the Kunming group is something of a setpiece affair, in a formal conference room with Sun Ying acting as interpreter. They are able to answer some of the questions I've had about flying the Hump, the hazardous route over the Himalayas which was the only way for people and supplies to reach free China while Japan occupied China's east coast. Audrey arrived in Chongqing in 1943 by flying the Hump from Dinjan, near Calcutta, and Max was already a veteran of the route. When Max and Audrey reached Kunming after their road trip in April 1944, they spent five days in 'the city of four spring seasons' before getting spots on an RAF Dakota to India. 'We flew over the Hump at 21,000 ft.' wrote Audrey, 'which is no joke without oxygen. We both sat gasping for breath, thinking our last hour had come. They generally fly at about 14,000 ft. but there was a lot of cloud about it seems.' This, the AVG researchers confirmed, was a common experience. Only the pilots had an oxygen supply, and if passengers felt ill, they just had to hold on in the freezing cold until landing in India - where they sometimes felt even worse when they stepped out into the unexpected heat! The flight took about four hours, conditions were always uncomfortable and there were (as has been well researched) an extraordinary number of fatal crashes. The most dangerous part of the journey was flying through the Nujiang Gorge, an area which was dubbed 'aluminum valley' for the number of aircraft wrecks along it.

The greatest pleasure of our meeting is getting to know an American-trained Chinese pilot, now in his 80s, who was selected in 1943 to spend two years training in the U.S. and still speaks some English. He talks of Kunming in the war years as a place swarming with Americans, and with British nurses, who enjoyed dances and parties at the weekends - just as they did in Chongqing.

Mike, Ying and I spend the afternoon visiting the lovely Xi Shan, the Western hills of Kunming. Max and Audrey much enjoyed exploring the area during their stay - seeing both a lower temple by the lake, and walking to an upper temple. We follow their footsteps - stopping first at the lower, Buddhist temple which is a tranquil spot, set against a backdrop of tree-covered hills. We are traveling by taxi, and ride halfway up the mountain, to a point which you can also now reach by cable car from the city if you don't mind being suspended high above the lake. Then we walk for twenty minutes to the upper, Taoist temple (pictured below). This consists of eleven pavilions which cling onto a rock face facing the lake. Then a very narrow path along a ledge (Mike opted out of this!) leads on to the Dragon's Gate, another shrine and a highly decorated arch carved into the rock. It is well worth the climb for spectacular views over the lake and back to the city. We hear from our taxi driver that Kunming is taking the unprecedented step of enlarging the lake, by tearing down an aging industrial area and some lakeside housing - reverse reclamation for the sake of greening the city.

Kunming is already one of China's most livable cities, popular among Chinese and expats alike for its mild climate, beautiful setting and general cleanliness. It has a thriving university quarter, and on the way back to our hotel we stop at a French cafe for excellent pastries and ginger and honey tea. It is full of students who are clearly digging in for the afternoon, with their laptops and iPods - it could well be Boulder, Colorado, and it's certainly a far cry from the villages we've driven through in the past few days. We hope that a taste of France is a nice transiton for Ying, who flies back to Beijing tonight to continue her French language training, after giving up a week of precious family time to travel with us - thanks a million, Ying, we couldn't possibly have done it without you.

Mike and I have dinner at a novel vegetarian restaurant, which prepares dishes in the shape of their animal equivalents. Then for our final stop in Kunming we track down the Hump bar - a dive which looks as though it's been around since the 1960s, but which we're told is only 8 years old. It's an incongruous mix of Flying Tigers' memorabilia on the walls, disco balls, Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd soundtracks and a young Chinese hostess in a silver lurex minidress! It's in a neighborhood full of youngsters' bars and clubs - I'm sure the American pilots would have fitted right in.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Qinglong to Kunming

There's nothing edible for breakfast at our modest hotel in Qinglong, but we want to make an early start anyway since we have nearly 400km to cover today in order to reach the final point of our road trip, the Yunnanese capital, Kunming. Our driver, Mr Huang (pictured here with Sun Ying and me), plans to begin his return trip to Chongqing as soon as he's dropped us off so we don't want to get to Kunming too late in the day. We set off at 8:15, navigating a narrow road crowded with trucks full of pigs being brought to market. A young man from the hotel is with us, since he's offered to show us a viewpoint for a legendary 24 hairpin bend road, which was built during the war as part of the northern extension of the Burma Road. The exact location of the 24 bends was a mystery for many years after the war (most people thought it was in Yunnan not Guizhou province), until a Kunming historian named Ge Shuya identified it recently. It is now a listed historic site, preserved though long since replaced for everyday use by a less dramatic road. Audrey wrote that 'you look down from the top of a hill and can actually see 24 hairpin bends below you'. Our local guide unfortunately leads us on a wild goose chase to get to this viewpoint - we climb up an extremely rough road, itself very windy, and the clouds are hanging so low this morning that there won't be a view anyway. We give up and instead get the guide to take us to the unmarked starting point of the 24 bend road, pictured above. It is a packed dirt road but Mr Huang is game to drive it, and so we do - heading steadily down exactly 24 hairpin bends which weave around with metronomic regularity. It is a quite lovely drive, though undoubtedly less terrifying than it was in 1944 since the landscape is much more wooded - looking at the old photos the bends really do stand out because there are hardly any trees on these hills. We are very pleased we've found the road (which took some painstaking research on Sun Ying's part) and got down it.

From the bottom we climb up again towards the highway, expecting to join it quickly, but we are informed by a surly toll-taker that the southbound lanes are closed until Pu'an because of a road collapse. So it's back to the old national road, which of course is more interesting but much slower. This stretch of high mountain country is especially desolate, dogs lie in the road, men stand around in bleak coal-mining villages along the way. About 60km beyond Qinglong we can join the highway and resolve to follow this for the rest of the day. We pass by Panxian, where Max and Audrey had another night stop and by the village of Pingguan Zhen, where Max noted that the elevation was 6800 feet - the highest point on our route, and close to the boundary with Yunnan province. Tunnels run through several of the mountains now, but in the open air there's thick fog and little visibility. As we descend onto a plateau, I can see why Audrey commented that 'the last part of the journey is not so interesting. The country is very barren and mountainous and scorched looking. The villages you go through seem pathetically poor, and the dogs lying in the street are nothing but bones'.

Our three days driving through Guizhou province have been astonishing. There is a Chinese saying that Guizhou is a land where there are "no three days without rain, no three hectares without a mountain, and no three coins in any pocket". Our experience has certainly born that out. We've had rain for at least part of every day and we literally haven't seen the sun since Tuesday, our first full day in Chongqing. The mountainous landscape is phenomenal, but the impression of rural poverty is indelible. At one point, Mike said rather provocatively to Sun Ying that he hadn't seen anyone going barefoot. She was a bit taken aback, and remarked that China wasn't Africa. But we have seen plenty of people wearing the shabbiest of clothing, doing their laundry in the nearest stream and, I suspect, never truly drying out or feeling fresh and clean in this damp climate where they live in dwellings without running water or toilets. World War II was a temporary engine of development for the province, since it lay in a vital position between the Allied supply base at Kunming and the capital, Chongqing. Afterwards, things slipped backwards again and now the policy is to develop tourism to take advantage of the area's many natural beauties. I hope this succeeds and that one day, the villages will thrive, that young Chinese professionals will be proud to have weekend homes in this stunning province and to remember their roots in the rural villages.

At midday, we get off the highway to stop for lunch in the city of Qujing, which was another night stop for Max and Audrey - one where they stayed with the Friends Ambulance Unit, a Quaker volunteer force, who 'called for volunteers after supper, to take the Chinese dead to the cemetery. Otherwise they would be left in the [army] camp and on the road.' Well, things are much better now but modern Qujing is yet another ugly Chinese city, where we have a typical Yunnanese lunch of 'across the bridge' noodles - a broth with noodles and helpings of thin slices of various meats and fish cooked in it (some of them less than appetizing).

Then we're on the home stretch to Kunming and the sun finally comes out, the country turns flatter and sandstone replaces limestone. We're very pleased to reach our hotel, the Green Lake, at 4pm after a journey of 1150km - remarkably close to the distance of 1129km recorded by my meticulous father. And unlike Max and Audrey, whose truck had six tire changes and numerous breakdowns and refueling stops en route, we have arrived without a scratch or mechanical problem with our sturdy Buick minivan - largely thanks to the skillful Mr Huang.

After we bid farewell to him, Ying, Mike and I enjoy our best meal of the trip - a Yunnanese dinner at 1910 Gare du Sud, a chic restaurant in a restored French colonial railway terminal.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Guiyang to Qinglong

We leave Guiyang at 10am on Saturday, after a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs with decent coffee at the Shengfeng Hotel. This has been a perfectly comfortable place to stay. We get onto the national road, heading southwest towards Yunnan province. The landscape evolves again - we pass through an area of lakes, Hongfeng Hu, and then of more and more bizarre karst hill formations. They pop up from the plateau for no apparent reason, too steep to be cultivated, though many are used for grave sites. 60km out of Guiyang, we stop at an old village called Tianlong and, to our delight, discover an ancient Buddhist monastery clinging to a rocky hilltop. It also served as a fortress, and there seem to be enough fields enclosed by the stone wall at its base to feed the whole village in times of trouble. The present day village has become something of a tourist stop, but it's worth the RMB40 entrance fee since it has an unusual collection of stone houses, on either side of a stream spanned by pretty bridges. It's a lively place, with a school, shops and plenty of residents, some dressed in a blue minority-style costume though we hear that they are in fact majority Han Chinese.

After lunch at a dingy tourist restaurant, we head on to our main destination for the day - Huangguoshou Falls, the largest waterfalls in the whole of Asia. Max and Audrey noted a stop at a waterfall in this area, which must have been Huangguoshou. They were doubtless the only visitors in April 1944, but we have to share the falls with a few Western and rather more Chinese tourists. Amazingly, it took until the 1980s for Guizhou province to exploit their biggest natural wonder. Now, it's totally commercial with an entry ticket at the steep price of RMB180, aggressive touts at the entrance and lots of souvenir shops. But once inside the gates, we enjoy a walk through a Bonsai garden before descending a steep path to view the main falls. You hear the roar of the water cascading down before you get a glimpse of it, and the spectacle is indeed stunning. I'd say the falls are as much as half the width of Niagara, and that the drop is every bit as deep. As we get close the spray drenches Mike, since his free mac has fallen to bits, and he hates being pestered by the salesladies into buying a better one. Luckily it's a warm, though not exactly sunny day. We climb back to the top, thinking that it's only the remoteness of Guizhou which saves this spectacular spot from larger crowds. With the province rapidly developing its highway system, they will be there soon.

A few minutes away, we make a quick stop at another old village - Shitouzhai, known for the quality of its stonework. Some of the houses wouldn't be out of place in the south of France, but we hope that the village's modest entrance charge will help to renovate others which are falling down. Outside the village gates, couples are having wedding photos taken - not surprisingly, since the setting with a duck pond and hills behind is the prettiest I've seen on this trip. It's 4:40pm, and though we only have about 100km ahead of us before our night stop at Qinglong, our tireless driver Mr Huang seems a little anxious to get back on the road. We soon discover why.

We'd hoped to make some headway on the new highway that will connect Guiyang to Kunming, but a key section is still under construction, and we have to drive along the old national road down one side of a valley and back up the other - looking up wistfully to a half-built suspension bridge which will take at least an hour off the journey time. The bridge is an awesome feat of engineering, with an immense, high span - like the new bridge at Millau in France, which I believe is the longest suspension bridge in Europe. We really enjoy our slower drive through the twists and turns of the old road, since this is a majestic valley coming down to a broad river. On the opposite ridge we rejoin the highway for a few kilometers, but it peters out again at Yongning, a particularly desolate, isolated coal-mining town where Max and Audrey spent a night. Probably the place where they had to lean hard on the driver to find somewhere for them to stay, since the next stretch of road was going to be dark and dangerous. Well, we have a county hotel booked in Qinglong and press on. It is very foggy and the light is fading, as Mr Huang negotiates a million hairpin bends on this mountain road. We pass through endless hardscrabble villages, and watch people walking their cows along the road - a kind of rural promenade. I wouldn't have missed these sights for anything, but we're getting anxious as darkness falls and we still can't find Qinglong. Finally, we arrive in the town (now known as Liancheng), but have a very hard time in complete darkness locating the Haixin Hotel, which turns out to be by a lake on the edge of town. We're so relieved to be there that we don't mind that the rooms are basic and the dinner simple.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Chongqing II

This is out of order, but I want to fill in our second day in Chongqing. This was just as fascinating as the first, but the weather was atrocious - sheets of rain, and low cloud. At least it gave us a sense of the drab and humid climate which is more typical than the previous day's blue sky.

We began the morning at the Chongqing City Museum, which also houses the new Three Gorges Museum in a splendid modern building. Ying and the British Council had arranged for us to view a collection of wartime photos taken by Michael Sullivan, then a volunteer International Red Cross truck driver in west China. He married a young woman he met in Chongqing and is now, at 92, a distinguished art historian and emeritus professor in Oxford - where we'd had the great pleasure of meeting him a couple of weeks previously. He'd shown us some of his photos then, but the Museum has a much larger collection in the archives, though it hasn't yet been properly catalogued. We spent a tantalizing hour poring over them - unique scenes of bombs raining down all across the city, of the victims and the firefighters, as well as of the rural areas. We also took a look around the public displays on Chongqing in the war years - very good, but no English signage. There's a tunnel which you walk through that represents the caves used as bomb shelters - with gruesome carvings of people trying to escape from a collapsed tunnel in a tragedy which killed thousands.

Next we drove along Zhongshan Si Lu, the leafy street where the historic headquarters of the KMT as well as the residences of their Communist party liaisons, Zhou Enlai and (occasionally) Mao Zedong were situated. The Zhou Enlai residence was a handsome grey brick mansion, with appropriately simple furnishings and a fine view down to the Jialing. We stopped for a bowl of noodles in a local dive, and then met up with a researcher from a still-recognized wing of the KMT, Mr Lei. He had offered to spend the afternoon showing us some important wartime sites, and we began by looking down to the Yangtze at the dry season airfield, Shanhuba: I'd read a lot about this dramatically situated airport. It was on a sandbank in the middle of the river, and pilots had to navigate a tight flight path between the mountains and along the river to land. Mr Lei told us that passengers then crossed a pontoon and climbed up the cliff to the makeshift customs house.

We then drove over one of the now-numerous bridges across the Yangtze and into the South Mountains to visit Chiang Kai-shek's wartime estate, Huangshan. The weather was against us, absolutely pouring with rain, but we could still appreciate the magical mountain setting of the Chiangs' villas - one each for Madame and the Generalissimo. It was at Madame's villa that my parents first met, both guests at a tea party she gave for a visiting British parliamentarian, Irene Ward on Halloween Day 1943. It is east to imagine the guests congregating around the fireplace in Mme's elegant sitting room, still furnished with 1940s sofas and armchairs. Last time we visited, the issues of TIME magazine which featured Mme Chiang on the cover were hanging on the walls - rather to our disappointment, these had been put into storage! But on the plus side, the villas have been redecorated and attract about 30,000 visitors a year.

On our way back to the city we stopped for a (very pricey) coffee at a bar known as the Champs Elysees - this is in a restored French marine barracks on the South Bank, probably the best example of reviving a historic site in Chongqing. All along the South Bank there are remnants of the mansions and warehouses which the first European settlers built after the trader Archibald Little opened the way for Chongqing to become a treaty port around 1890. This was the district where my mother lived in a hostel for Embassy staff, taking a sampan or a ferry each day to cross the turbulent Yangtze to the Embassy on the other side.

We finished the evening as guests of our guide Sun Ying, enjoying a memorable Chongqing hotpot near her home - perfect for warming us up after a soggy day.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Chongqing to Guiyang

We checked out of the comforts of the JW Marriott in Chongqing the day before yesterday to begin a 1,000km road trip to Kunming, following an old road that my parents took in April 1944. Max and Audrey were driven in a dilapidated Ford V-8 pickup truck, running on alcohol which they had to carry with them and they reached Kunming after 6 nights on the road. We're traveling, like them, with a local Chinese driver but also with our bilingual guide Sun Ying and in a smart Buick minivan. We plan to spend 3 nights en route before reaching Kunming.

We left Chongqing at 11am - driving through endless, dismal built-up districts before reaching more open country after 45 minutes. We're following a road which, according to our driver Mr Huang, was built during the war to link Kunming to Chongqing - becoming a vital route when free China's main supply base was in Yunnan at the landing point for Hump air transport from India. The road climbs quickly into dramatic mountain terrain, and plunges down again into a narrow river valley dotted with villages. We stop for lunch in the nondescript county town of Qijiang, eating at a fast food restaurant attached to a supermarket that could be MacDonalds - but the food was much tastier, beef noodles in a spicy star anise broth. Then we climb higher and the country looks quite alpine with firs and high peaks as we enter Guizhou province. After scaling one of many summits, the road drops down through a narrow gorge and we reach the village of Songkan, which was where Max and Audrey spent their first night on the road. They stayed at an inn, where Max was plagued by bed bugs but which Audrey found 'not at all bad'. We asked around and heard that there was an old inn near the river. It's a pretty spot with the village strung out along the valley, in the shadow of the mountains, and as we drive on we see long tables of people gathered for a feast (like Palio eve in Siena).

We're pressing on to the city of Zunyi for the night, which should have a decent hotel, but we make slow progress, winding up and down the mountain road's many hairpin bends. Though the scenery is stunning, the light is fading in the late afternoon and we decide not to tackle a final summit famous for its 72 hairpin bends - Max and Audrey drove this after their night in Songkan, but we opt to join the new highway to take us on to Zunyi. Just as well, because it begins to rain (it's been cloudy and drizzly all day), and it takes us an hour from the highway exit to find the center of Zunyi and we don't get to our hotel until 8pm. It seems a dismal city of half a million people, most famous for being the site of the 1935 meeting which established Mao's position in the Communist leadership before the Long March. But we're not in the mood for sightseeing, and we grab a meal in the nearest restaurant to our rather depressing hotel (an equally depressing pizza place).

Breakfast the next morning is no better - when I ask for coffee in the hotel restaurant I'm told: "No, today not". We leave the hotel at 9:30, and ask our long-suffering driver to stop at a nearby 'European coffee shop' - not exactly Starbucks (who have now reached Chongqing, by the way), but a welcome cup of fresh coffee to get us going. Max and Audrey's next stop was the village of Shangji. On my map, there was no road marked in that direction but Ying and our driver have discovered an old road, which we head for, avoiding the highway which links Zunyi to Guiyang. This proves to be an entrancing drive, mainly through farm country with rice, maize, green vegetables and red chillies grown in abundance on every square inch of land. The paddy fields are golden-green and conical stacks of ricestalks (like little round haystacks) cover the fields that have been harvested (sorry folks, I can't upload Mike's great photos from here). The landscape is different from the day before - we're now into the curious landscape of limestone karst peaks which travelers always comment on.

The villages are dirt poor, and most people are probably subsistence farmers. Some farmhouses are old, half-timbered buildings with wooden shutters and doors, but there's very little attempt at the decoration or wood carving which I've seen in other rural provinces such as Yunnan or Shanxi. The highlight of the day is our lunch stop in Shangji. It's market day, and the county town is thronged with people, buying and selling food, clothes and every necessity of life up and down a long, narrow street. Mike, in his bright red jacket and standing a head taller than most locals, is a great object of curiosity. We are escorted by a helpful schoolgirl to the best noodle shop in town and have a delicious bowl of noodles with goat meat. The 'restroom' is another story...I'm shown out to the barn where goats are kept at night...say no more.

We leave Shangji just before 2pm, and soon reach a spectacular, deep gorge where the road crosses the Wujiang River. It's not mentioned in my guide books, but a couple of resort hotels are being built there - Guizhou province is trying to develop tourism. Then it's on to Guiyang, the provincial capital, through more lush country and pine-clad hills, and also through the ugly town of Kaiyang where we join a faster road.

Max and Audrey spent two nights in Guiyang (then Kweiyang), staying with a Major from the British Military Mission. I don't know how big it was then, but it's now a city of 1.2 million with numerous new highrises. We're at the Shengfeng Hotel, which is pretty good, and we enjoyed a Chinese dinner at a restaurant known by Sun Ying. Afterwards, we walk along the river bank - it could almost be the Paris quais, until we come across the enormous statue of Mao and the locals enjoying a Friday night dance in the open air in front of him.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008


We've had two remarkable days in Chongqing, the city where my parents met and married, the first exceptional for a clear blue sky, and the second for torrential rain. "It's filthy but fascinating" said Audrey when she landed here in 1943, and that's still pretty much the case. It has one of the most dramatic locations of Chinese megacities, with the central city jutting out like the prow of a ship (Han Suyin's metaphor) to the point where the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers meet. On a clear day like yesterday you can really appreciate the backdrop of mountains on both sides.

We've spent most of our time digging up the few remnants of the wartime capital city, and although I've been here before, I made some new discoveries with the help of our amazing guide, Sun Ying. Yesterday we began at the restored headquarters of the American general, 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell, who was sent out here by Roosevelt (bizarrely) to be chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek. They developed a hearty dislike for each other, and Stilwell must have hated trekking out from his residence, above the Jialing River, to pay homage to the Generalissimo at his estate in the hills south of the Yangtze - probably two hours away at the time. But he probably enjoyed living in his cliffside house - a handsome art deco style residence, with parquet floors, high ceilings and wood paneling. A long covered verandah runs the length of the house overlooking the river, and must have been good and airy.

Later we went in search of the residence loaned to the wartime British Ambassadors by Chiang Kai-shek, after the Embassy was damaged by Japanese bombing. It's called Feige, which means 'Flying Pavilion', and it's perched high up in Eling Park, also overlooking the Jialing River. It's a Chinese-style villa with a green tiled roof and upturned eaves. The main meeting room is hexagonal, and the dining room behind it is fan-shaped and the floor slopes away from the river - all features that provide good feng shui. This was certainly a happy spot for Max and Audrey, because it was here that the wife of Ambassador Sir Horace Seymour announced their engagement at a Christmas Day lunch for 100 or so guests. I found it hard to picture the original setting, because there have been lots of alterations - walls taken out (an original 14 rooms reduced to 6 or 7), windows boarded up, and the whole place decked out as a souvenir shop. Feige's young Chinese guide alternated between explaining its place in history (notable mainly to China for being the setting of a banquet given by Chiang for his rival Mao in 1945), and trying to sell us pricey antique artefacts - whose sale would apparently benefit people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam, from whose villages these artefacts came. Mike was particularly taken with the Qing dynasty 'sex education' jades of couples in various explicit poses!

After lunch and negotiations with a car rental agency, we explored Lingshi Xiang - Consulate Alley - the heart of the old diplomatic area which is now a shabby inner-city neighborhood. I'd walked around here with Sun Ying three years ago but we'd never found the British Embassy building. She didn't give up the search though, and this time she led us to a grand European porticoed mansion, tucked away in a compound owned by a Chongqing Supply Company. This was it - in just the right position, and large enough to be an important Embassy. Like most historic buildings in Chongqing, it is in a sad state of repair but still impressive. When my mother traveled out from England in 1943 to work for a senior diplomat, she was housed in temporary offices put up in the gardens below the Chancery - and known as the Cabbage Patch. These are long gone, and the land built over, but as we walked around inside the main building we could imagine all the bustle of the wartime days.

We headed downhill, rediscovering the old house where my father worked as assistant air attache - this has actually been done up a bit, saved from becoming completely derelict since my last visit. In the street nearby lots of people were gathered under an awning, a wake for someone whose flower-bedecked coffin lay at the end of the tent. We saw people walking uphill through a very narrow alley near my father's office, and decided to explore. The path led us down eventually all the way to the Yangtze - imagining the route that my mother must have taken after work, if she missed the Embassy transport and had to walk downhill to the ferry that would take her back to her digs on the south side. Our walk was quite a glimpse of old, poor Chongqing - past market stalls of shiny fruit and vegetables, raw meat and basic workmen's shoes and clothes, past cramped and dilapidated dwellings, and the thousands of people who still live and work in these neighborhoods. At one point, there was an overwhelming stench of sewage - turning a corner we saw a couple of men pumping raw sewage out of a blocked drain into the street - much cleaner than 60 years ago, but this city of 10 million still has its filthy spots.

Time to have breakfast and get going on our road trip, so more later.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Meeting old friends and new

It's now a wet Sunday in Hong Kong, and we're hoping that the weather doesn't delay our departure tomorrow for Chongqing. The last few days have been busy with seeing old friends, but most memorable for meeting for the first time twin sons of the Chinese Admiral Chan Chak, who was the cause of my father's narrow escape from Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, right after the British surrender. I'd read my father's account of the escape some years ago, and in researching my book I've pieced together many other accounts and met fellow offspring of the British survivors. We'd corresponded with a daughter of Chan Chak, but now thanks to a growing network of the offspring, I've had the great pleasure of spending time with his sons, Donald and Duncan. They are now in their seventies and have both traveled the world, had children and grandchildren, built successful businesses, and settled back in Hong Kong. The network of offspring has grown out of a web site run by Richard Hide, the son of one of the crew of the escape boats. With great timing, Richard also managed to be in Hong Kong this week, so we had a lot to explore together.

On Thursday, I met up with Donald and Duncan Chan, Richard and his friend Sue (who has her own memories of HK from being a nurse at the Bowen Road military hospital in the 1960s). We headed to Aberdeen on the west of the island, in 1941 a fishing village and naval dockyard from where our parents' escape attempt was launched. The escape plan went badly awry at the start because the navy's Motor Torpedo Boats which were expected to pick up the Admiral and his party were nowhere to be seen. So the 'VIP party' of a dozen Chinese and British intelligence officers, including Max and the future Colonial Secretary David MacDougall, grabbed the only available boat - the Cornflower launch - and set off down the Aberdeen channel, in the hope of finding the MTBs on the seaward side of the steep little island of Ap Lei Chau. It was broad daylight on Christmas Day, about 5pm, and Japanese who were still in battle positions quickly spotted the small boat and began firing at it, killing and wounding several men and disabling the craft. The survivors had to jump overboard and swim to the extremely rocky shore of Ap Lei Chau - their vivid personal letters tell of their exhaustion and near despair. The Admiral, already handicapped because he had only one good leg, got a bullet in his shoulder, but with the help of his ADC Henry Hsu unstrapped his wooden leg and somehow swam to shore. They had to leave behind a large quantity of cash kept in the wooden leg - money which would have eased their journey. Donald and Duncan confirmed a story I'd heard before - the Admiral promised Henry, who was Christian, that if he the Admiral survived he would convert to Christianity - and this he did on the anniversary of the escape in Chungking in 1942.

After some desperate hours on Ap Lei Chau, where the men were separated into several groups and each had adventures which I won't go into here, they finally saw hope of rescue in the shape of MTBs lying offshore and were picked up or swam out to the boats. Well after nightfall, a flotilla of 5 MTBs with a total of over 60 men, including the naval crew, Z Force members and the 'swimming party', revved up their engines and left the fallen colony behind them as they headed for the coast of mainland China and further adventures.

I've visited the scene of this drama before, with Mike and my sister and also with David MacDougall's eldest daughter, Ann Partridge - making a circuit of Ap Lei Chau in a sampan, and clambering over the rocks and up to the peak of the island. This time, it was amazing to take a sampan ride with the Chan twins, and with Richard who has researched the events in great depth, but had never been to Hong Kong before. We spent a lot of time talking through various possible scenarios of the long ago events, while Sue recorded us on video. The Chans then took us to a fine dim sum lunch aboard the Jumbo, Aberdeen's famous floating restaurant which happens to sit right in the channel where the Cornflower launch got shot up.

On Thursday and over the next couple of days, we met several more times - the Chans' daughters and their husbands treated us all to a wonderful dinner at the Aberdeen Marina Club on Friday night, and we exchanged news of our extended families. With such a warm reception from the Chans, it was like rediscovering a long lost family. We talked about plans which are taking shape for a re-enactment of the escape in 2009, and will all stay in touch about this through Richard's website:

The twins, Donald and Duncan, were seven years old in 1941 and I heard something of their own remarkable story. They were stranded on Hong Kong island with their mother after the Japanese takeover, getting away to China weeks later after a fraught spell in hiding, and making their own difficult journey to Kweilin. Months later they were reunited with their father who had ended up, like mine, in Chiang Kai-shek's capital Chungking. They asked us to look out there for the church where their father was baptized in 1942!

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hong Kong holiday

At 10 o'clock this morning, I walk out of our hotel, Hong Kong's original Mandarin, to get breakfast from the Starbucks a couple of minutes away. This is China's July 4th - National Day - and a major public holiday. Much of mainland China takes the whole week off work, but here in Hong Kong, business is only closed for a day. In the street outside the Mandarin's back entrance, the city's thousands of Filippina domestic helpers are already taking advantage of their well earned day of rest. They are beginning to gather in cheerful groups in every corner of the public spaces in the dense downtown area - Chater Road is closed to traffic for the day (as it is every Sunday and holiday), and I walk by gaggles of women who've set up camp on mats, in the shade of bus shelters, walkways or even on the concrete space under HSBC's Norman Foster tower. The HSBC spread is especially popular because it's shady all day and large enough to house hundreds of helpers. By midday, it'll be packed. Even at this early hour, I see women playing bingo, giving each other pedicures and practicing the tango. Later they will feast on elaborate picnics, chatter on cell phones to relatives back in the Philippines and show off family photos. And tonight there'll be music and fireworks over the harbor - I hope to have a good view of these since we're lucky enough to have a room on the twentieth floor with both water and city outlooks.

Mike is at the office (no rest in the news business), and I'll head out to the South side of the island for a swim and a walk around Stanley. Late afternoon yesterday, I took a ride up the Peak Tram - the island's funicular railway which has operated since 1888 and never ceases to amaze with its near-vertical ascent. Originally built for the British who lived in the colony's fanciest residences on the Peak, it's now so crowded with tourists that it's impractical to use it for a regular commute. At the top we have a favorite walk around the contours of the Peak, but yesterday I decided to follow a path I hadn't taken before - to walk all the way down the mountain to Central. I set off at 6pm down Old Peak Road, whose first stretch is car-free and drops down quickly through dense greenery. I'd forgotten how quickly night falls here, and by 6:30 it was growing dark but at least cooler, and quite a few walkers were out for their daily exercise. I knew I was approaching Mid-Levels because the apartment towers of this popular residential area were getting close. I turned right along Tregunter Path, which follows the contour towards May Road.

I learned from the GPS on my iPhone (there's a first for me!) that I'd soon be at Branksome Towers - an address of special significance because it was where my parents made their first home together after the war. Then it was a few stories high, and now of course it's a completely redeveloped modern tower but the position is unchanged - in a prime spot near the May Road station on the Peak Tram and (on a cool day) within walking distance of Central. I know from photos that Max and Audrey had an unobstructed view from their balcony down to the harbor - that has long since been sacrificed to the thicket of other buildings, but behind the apartments the hill is still green and nearby people still enjoy the pool and tennis courts of my parents' club, the Ladies Recreation Club.

Max was one of the first wave of British administrators to return to Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation ended in August 1945. He arrived in early October, to manage the restoration of civil air service at Kai Tak airport, and found a territory devastated by war and occupation, but one that would get back on its feet remarkably quickly. The very first British men and women to reassert control of the colony were those who'd never been allowed to leave, but had spent nearly four years interned in Stanley camp - sadly today I've learned of the death one of those great survivors, the father of a good friend. I'll be thinking of them as I go by Stanley today.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Tianjin to Hong Kong

Mike and I landed in Hong Kong last night, after a weekend in Tianjin where we attended the summer Davos - the World Economic Forum's get together of corporate leaders in Asia. Tianjin is the ultra modern face of China - a century ago the city was a trading port dominated by foreign concessions of the British, the Italians, the French and other western powers. Today the original port along the Hai River has long been supplanted by massive new docks at Tanggu, stretching out into the Yellow Sea on acres of reclaimed land. It's the closest port serving Beijing, now less than two hours away on a brand new expressway or even less by bullet train. TEDA, or the Tianjin Economic Development Area where the conference was held, couldn't be further from the winter Davos in the Swiss ski resort - this is a totally planned city, built at breakneck speed since 1984, on a scale that is difficult to imagine in Europe - efficient but soulless.

Tianjin is already the world's sixth largest port and has set its sights on overtaking Hong Kong and others in the top five. Right now, it doesn't have the unceasing traffic of the Hong Kong harbor but maybe the container ships are absorbed more quietly in Tianjin's vast expanses. Just as the conference participants seemed subdued in the cavernous new congress center, so different from the crush at Davos.

We were glad to get away, and reach Hong Kong, our home for two years from 2004 until 2006, for a week's stay before beginning a trip to a very different part of the mainland - the western region around Chongqing.

Let me explain what this, my first blog is about. As part of the research for a book I'm writing, I will be retracing a journey taken by my parents, Max and Audrey Oxford during World War II. They were a British couple who met and married in Chungking (as it was then known), the wartime capital of China. Each had reached the remote city, high up Yangtze river, by improbable and dangerous routes. My father, a former fighter pilot and RAF intelligence officer, landed in Chungking in January 1942 after escaping from Hong Kong under fire, on the day of the colony's surrender to Japan (more on this later in the week). My mother, Audrey Watson, who'd been a secretary for the SOE in London, decided in 1943 to accept a job at the British Embassy in Chungking and made a hair-raising eight week journey by sea and by air, skirting battle zones, and flying over the Hump of the Himalayas into free China. There she met my father, by then an air attache at the Embassy and after a whirlwind romance they were married in January 1944. My father was due to be posted back to England and in April 1944 my parents began another daunting journey, leaving Chungking by road to head south to Kunming in Yunnan province and then to fly again over the Hump and on to England. With my husband Mike, I'm revisiting Chongqing and retracing the 700 mile road trip to Kunming.