The occasional snap

On the grasslands

I’m back to reality, and blogging, after the alternative time-zone that is HSK.

Another surreal moment for me of late was on the Huitengxile grasslands of Inner Mongolia, two weeks ago. That Monday was qingmingjie, or grave-sweeping festival – when Chinese pay respects to their ancestors face to grave. My companions and I woke up full of adventure-lust, the only tourists in a built-for-tourists herd of Mongolian yurts.

How delighted we were, then, when the family putting us up suggested a ‘Mongolian activity’ for that morning. Sign us up! Will it be horse-riding? Churning Mongolian milk? Skinning a wolf? They were … noncommital. But driving out onto grasslands, in the midst of grazing horses and whooshing wind turbines, was a promising sign.

Out of the car, each of us was handed a pair of gloves and a canvas bag. It was at this point that the nature our Mongolian activity became clear: collect as much dried horse poo as you can in three hours. The family uses this for fuel, heating up their stoves and the platform beds (kang) used in the Chinese countryside – and we were three pairs of extra hands. Twice a year, they collect as many bags as they can stuff: once in the summer, once on qingmingjie. Not grave sweeping, but shit sweeping.

Here’s a picture of one of our ‘hosts’ for this activity. You’ll notice the wind energy farm behind him: over a thousand turbines were humming on these grasslands.

On the grasslands

In a desperate, last-bid attempt to offset the destruction inflicted on my body by Beijing air, I swim two or three times a week. In this respect, my move from Beida to Tsinghua campus was welcome: the latter’s swimming pool is where China’s Olympic athletes trained, and I enjoy it’s palacial feel, unnecessarily big clock and actually hot showers.

Sectioned off a the other end from the pool is a diving area, including some terrifyingly high platforms – off which terrifyingly young Olympic divers of the future jump, during their daily training. So my pitiful doggy paddle is to the sound of the (non)splash of 5-year olds hitting the water after perfectly executed backwards-double-tuck-twist-turns.

I took my camera in last time, thinking of sharing this impressive sight with you. But the powers that be thought otherwise: as soon as I took the lens cap off, a friendly if insistent old man emerged from his poolside office to mumble ‘eh! … eh! … eh!’ at me, putting his hand in front of the lens. “You can’t take photos here”, he frowned.

I asked to see where this rule was written down, whereupon he led me out the back-door of his office and down the corridor. I gave up after the third turning when I realised he was likely taking me to the administrative centre of Tsinghua in my swimming trunks, but I’ll take his enthusiasm as a sign that this rule really is written down.

Which begs the question: why is it forbidden to document diving practice? Is it another ‘state secret’? Are these kids in fact simulating dive bombing, for military application? Or did this man simply fear I was going to post a mocking video online with the caption “look at that 5-year-old’s lame third somersault – China sucks ass!”.*

As a petty act of rebellion, I went back later on, with my camera hidden under my swimming cap, and took this quick video before the man could stop me. Rage against the machine! These are older divers, but that first jump still scares me silly:


* pretty much every foreigner in China has a story about being stopped from taking a picture somewhere or other – it seems ingrained into the psyche of the Chinese security guard that every foreign devil with a camera wants to humiliate China on YouTube.


Heads up for a flurry of more substantive posts, but first … the concluding part of my trilogy of photographic triptychs (pretention alert!). The theme this time is cats, from Harbin’s Siberian tiger park and the snow-covered streets of Dalian. 注意安全!


(Those two characters mean ‘safety’. Indeed.) Next, a time-honoured riddle:

TIger and Chicken

“Which came first: chicken or tiger?” And finally, a chance encounter:

Running Cat

P.S. If you’ve any trouble seeing these pics, you’re not alone. Nor can I. I’ll fix it soon. Better?

… and white.

I’m off to Harbin tomorrow, so I will be thoroughly fed up with snow by the time I’m back. While I’m still in the mood, however, here are some more photos, this time from Beijing’s summer palace, in mid-winter. Sunset…

This tunnel effect is from using a wide-angle lens:

Finally, your humble author! (photo: Anastasia Maximchuk)

Green …

To welcome in the oneties, teenies or whatever moniker you fancy, I’m posting a few photographs which I took over the holidays. First, the theme is green from the stunning garden behind Beisita in southern Suzhou…

And if that isn’t green enough for you:

Next, give a big hand for push hands:

Six photos from the Yangtze

Today, Americans all over the world give thanks that the English invented them. Bu yong xie, it was our pleasure. In completely irrelevant celebration, here are six photos from a recent trip from spicy Chongqing down the foggy Yangtze to mind-crunchingly boring Wuhan.


Everyone has time for a noodle pit-stop in Chongqing. Your worth in this city is judged by your tolerance for spice. That night, eating hotpot with friends, I held back tears at the hottest lettuce I have ever tasted.

Chongqing’s reputation is of a smog-smothered Gotham. But not far outside the city, the scenery is worthy of a classical painting. I came across this vase standing on a wall in just such a quiet spot, at dusk.

On my boat downstream, I felt like a cow being herded through over-grazed pastures. Here you may take a photo. Here you may pay an extortionate entrance fee to a temple. Here you may chew the cud.

At Yichang, we make port and the Yangtze is shrouded in mist. Behind me, I overhear a Chinese fellow traveller boasting “look, I took 409 photos in three days”. “More than me”, someone replies, enviously.

In Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower museum, I come across the most obviously photoshopped photograph ever. Brazenly displayed, with others just like it at either side. Seriously, who do they think they’re kidding?

The pagoda forest at Shaolin monastery … the only place on the grounds where fighting is discouraged. The first monk I came across in Shaolin, by the way, asked me how to say ‘shopping’ in English.

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