Saturday, December 29, 2012

Knitting in China

Sadly, I saw no yarn stores in China and so had no opportunity to acquire any souvenir yarn. However, I'm sure yarn stores must exist because, once I began looking, I saw women knitting - in public - most places we visited. Often these women were tending small shops and waiting for customers, but sometimes they had simply chosen to knit in some outdoor location.

Chinese woman knitting 1

I feel somewhat uncomfortable asking people if I might photograph them, so I missed many opportunities for recording what people were knitting, but I did eventually pluck up my courage and, of course, like all knitters, they were only too pleased to show me what they were doing. All the knitting I observed was done in the round, usually on four long metal double-pointed needles (dpns). Some knitters seemed to use a single, long flexible metal needle. I tried to find out what people were knitting (lots of gesture and mime needed) and mostly it was sweaters or, surprisingly, pants and, in one case, stockings. All were knitting with very fine wool and seemed very competent.

Chinese woman knitting 3Chinese woman knitting 2

I loved this stylish woman knitting in a park in Shanghai while her companion read his newspaper. The yarn seemed to be an extremely fine angora mix and she was knitting her sweater in one piece from the top down. Very impressive.

So much for other people's knitting. What of mine? There's not much to tell, unfortunately. As socks are such convenient travel knitting I began the Chouwa socks from Judy Sumner's Knitted Socks East and West just before I left. (You might assume from the title of the book that my pattern choice was most appropriate, but given that the 'East' in the title refers to Japan, and that Japan is not regarded with great affection in China, the choice was probably inappropriate). The socks took more than my four week trip to the Philippines and China to complete. Most of the knitting was done on planes and waiting in airports as I was usually too exhausted to knit in the evenings after a day's vigorous touristing, and the sights were too engaging for me to knit on buses or in other places.

So, some not-very-good pictures of my Chouwa socks:

Red socks

The yarn is Wollmeise Twin in the colour Rosenrot - the most vibrant red you could ever imagine. It's impossible for me to capture the intensity of the colour. I like the socks themselves with patterning that busily mixes lace and cable stitches on the leg of the sock, and then has plain fabric for the feet. Very sensible and wearable.

Red socks 2

But there are other things to celebrate with these photos. The first is that the post-hip-replacement swelling has gone from my left leg so that I can fit the sock on...and the second is that I actually put the socks on and took them off all by myself. Such an achievement. Who cares if the resulting photos are not very expert?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Counting my blessings - again.

Christmas Eve seems like a suitable time to count my blessings. It's exactly four weeks since I slipped on a loose mat on my polished living room floor and broke my hip. Clearly, I'm not seeing this stupid accident as a blessing, but given that it happened, I have much for which to be grateful in its aftermath.

I'm grateful for the paramedics who came so promptly to my emergency call in the middle of the night and dealt with me with competence, compassion and good humour.

I'm grateful for the major teaching hospital that's my local hospital where they managed my pain until they could fit me into their busy surgery schedule. The wait was longer than I might have wished, but the surgery was done with competence and care.

I'm grateful for a medical service that enabled me to have expert surgery and a closely monitored stint in intensive care (because of some blood clotting) at no cost other than my taxes in previous years.

I'm grateful that I could afford additional private health insurance that has enabled me to have two weeks in a most civilised rehabilitation hospital with physio and hydrotherapy, as well as excellent medical supervision, to hasten my recovery.

I'm grateful that four weeks after the slip I have a brand new hip (because of some minor pre-existing osteo-arthritis a decision was made to replace rather than repair the hip) that is working extremely well. I have no pain and I'm already walking around the house independently and making small excursions outside with the help of a walking stick.

I'm grateful to my daughter who's taken time off work and interrupted her life to come and care for me on my return home.

And I'm particularly grateful to the many friends, from many parts of my life, who've made the time to visit, phone, send messages, and ply me with gifts of flowers, fruit, delicious snacks and even yarn. Not only the gifts, but the conversations that kept me in touch with all that was happening in the outside world have been greatly appreciated.

This evening I'm off to spend Noche Buena with old friends. I feel as if I'm slipping back into my life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A glimpse of the future

One of the reasons I wanted to travel to China is because I think our future for the next several decades will be bound up, for better or worse, with what happens in China. This is particularly true for Australia, where our economy is so dependent upon China's development, but the choices China makes about its future will also have an impact on the world more generally.

In visiting Shanghai, you glimpse the future - in many different ways. You can stand on the Bund,

Shanghai - the Bund

- the site of development by European colonial powers around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - and look across the Whampoa River to Pudong, the business and finance centre of Shanghai. This is what you see...

Shanghai - Pudong

Pudong's futuristic skyline has become the symbol of modernity for popular culture. All of this development has happened in the last twenty years. Some of the architecture is inspirational; some more mundane. What impresses me is the pace of the development and the aspiration that makes it possible. We went to the viewing area at the top of the elegant 88 storey Jin Mao tower (whose lift travels at a very smooth 9.1 metres per second - the Chinese love quantitative measures of their achievements).

Shanghai - Jin Mao Tower, Pudong

You feel as if the whole skyscape will have changed if you were to return in five years. The view of new Shanghai is impressive, but the inevitable pollution generated by such rapid development in one of the world's largest cities is also very evident. This is an immediate problem for modern China.

Shanghai, Pudong - view from Jin Mao Tower

Managing people's movements around such a large city is clearly challenging. When I first visited China in 1983 the roads were crowded with bicycles. By my next visit in 2001 every road seemed to be in a state of 'improvement' to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of cars, and the second of the subway lines in the still-new metro development had just opened. Eleven years later there's a complex and very efficient network of twelve subway lines (with more under construction) enabling people to travel easily by train under Shanghai. But the road problem remains. Outside my hotel window in Shanghai was an elevated six-lane highway with another six-lane road beneath. At all hours of the day and night it was thronged with traffic.

Shanghai freeway

Probably the most futuristic experience of our visit was a trip on the Maglev train that runs between Pudong Airport and a suburban metro station. The distance travelled is only 31 kilometres and it seems as if this development was a kind of vanity project for the 2011 Expo in Shanghai. But it does show what's possible. Given the rate of development in China, who knows where it will lead?

Mag-lev train, Shanghai

The train operates by some mysterious (to me) use of magnetism which minimises friction. Given the limited distance of the trip it reaches its maximum speed of 423km per hour for only a few seconds. Even so, the 31km trip takes only 7 minutes. In Australia, where our once-extensive railway system diminishes and deteriorates day by day one can only envy the possibilities of such developments.

Shanghai is such an exciting city. A glimpse of the future.

And finally... I said in a previous post that I would have difficulty choosing five favourite things in China, but I do have one very favourite thing. It's the river Li in the south of China. It's neither of the past nor the future. It's timeless.

The Li River, Guangxi 4

We visited Guilin on the Li, and then took a boat for about five hours along the Li River to the town of Yangshuo. Every minute of the boat trip was magical. The Li River is quite shallow and winds its way between karst (limestone) outcrops. Every view - particularly on a misty morning such as the one we experienced - is like a traditional Chinese watercolour or scroll painting. There are very occasional small villages, standings of bamboo along the banks of the river, and fishermen on simple bamboo rafts using cormorants to catch fish. I could show many photos, but all are variations on the same theme - the lazy river, sheer rocky outcrops, simple ferry boats, and graceful vegetation.

The Li River Guangxi 2
The Li River, Guangxi 3

I wouldn't have thought anything could rival the delight of our trip on the Li River but in the evening in Yangshuo we went to a performance of 'Impresssions' - an astonishing presentation of the traditions and cultural diversity of this southern region of China. The stage was the Li River itself and the backdrop was twelve of the karst mountains, most beautifully and subtly floodlit. There were more than 600 performers, all drawn from the local area. The beauty, scale, grandeur and sheer bravura of the production were partly explained when I discovered that the creator of this amazing performance was Zhang Yimou, well known epic film director (Red Sorghum, Hero)who later went on to devise and direct the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games.

So, Guilin, the Li River, and the performance at Yangshuo - my very favourite experience of my China trip.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A sense of the past

It's already a month since I returned from China - though so much has happened in the interim that it seems longer. Even so, I feel the need to write some 'summing-up' posts about my China trip. There are things I still feel a need to say about my tourist's experience of China that haven't so far been reflected in my comments.

Usually when I've travelled and blogged I've finished my posts about my trip with a 'five best things' post. I tried to do this for my China trip, but failed dismally. It's just too hard to distinguish and make judgments among so many diverse experiences. So, I've chosen to organise these last posts differently - around notions of time.

So, to begin - the past.

Almost everywhere you travel in China you are aware of the depth and richness of its history. Millenniums of history. More than a thousand years ago what we now call 'China' was not a nation state, but there were already centres of power and alliances and oppositions that lasted hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Such a sense of tradition and development and sophistication must shape the identity of Chinese people in a very distinctive way. It sometimes seemed to me that the past is less visible to visitors through museums than it is in some other countries - particularly in Europe. This is understandable. As well as the discontinuity of traditions of the Chinese dynasties, in the nineteenth century many artifacts were raided by colonial powers; in the mid-twentieth century many treasures disappeared from mainland China when the Nationalists removed to Taiwan; and then finally Mao's Cultural Revolution of the nineteen sixties and seventies destroyed much of the past grandeur in its swingeing attempt to build a new nation.

But fortunately, so much of China's past can be glimpsed through major constructions that were so grand they survived centuries of depredation - the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Suzhou's Grand Canal.

Main canal, Suzhou

And, perhaps most grandly, the Entombed Warriors outside Xi'an. The Warriors were additionally fortunate in that they were not discovered until 1974 and consequently missed the worst destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors

It's an extraordinary experience to enter the museum that houses the terracotta warriors and to glimpse the grandeur of the rule of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The warriors were buried near the tomb of the Emperor and their purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The life-size warriors and their horses date from 210–209 BC. I find this almost impossible to believe as the craft that's produced these figures is so perfect and somehow so modern. Maybe 'timeless' is a better word.

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors 2Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors 4

Even though they're not on every corner, we did visit some wonderful museums. In Xi'an there's the Shaanxi History Museum with splendid exhibits from prehistoric to current times. My favourites here are the tricoloured pottery figures from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There's an immediacy and charming everyday quality to these pottery figures that I find irresistible - literally, as I bought a small copy of one of the ladies in the museum shop.

Tang Dynasty camelTang Dynasty lady

And then there's the grandest of the grand museums - the Shanghai Museum.

The Shanghai Museum

Apart from the brilliance of its collection I was impressed by the busyness of this museum. It was thronged with local people, poring over the exhibits. I can only begin to imagine how moving it must be to see the such grandeur of the cultural traditions of your country's past. The Shanghai Museum is best known for its collection of bronzes - most of them more than 3,000 years old! Many of the pieces are beautifully decorated sacrificial vessels reflecting a sophistication of social organisation and artistic forms that I find mind-boggling.

Bronze container, the Shanghai Museum

Again, I loved the Tang Dynasty tricoloured pottery figures, and I was astonished by the timelessness of the painted scrolls - many of them (somewhat ironically) on loan from US museums. But I spent most time in the ceramics section. I'm not sure how you can improve on perfect forms and perfect techniques. The bowl below is from the Song Dynasty, roughly 1,000 years ago, but its simple, elegant form transcends any sense of what's old or what's modern.

Celadon bowl; Shanghai Museum

The Shanghai Museum also has a gallery displaying artifacts from its 'ethnic minorities' (their term) - the 10% of the population who are not ethnically Han Chinese. This collection includes fabrics and textiles from various non-Han groups, and, as these ethnic groups cross borders, particularly in southern China, they have similarities to textiles and craft practices in Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. The superb woven tunic below is from the Li People of southern China. Those of you who know me will know I spent lots of time in this part of the museum.

Woman's top with woven motif - Li people; Shanghai Museum

Tomorrow, a glimpse of the future.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Watch your step!

As we traveled throughout China we heard 'watch your step!' many times each day. Uneven footpaths; busy road crossings; paths through caves or gardens; the Great Wall, embarking and disembarking from boats; all were accompanied by the advice to 'watch your step'. Everybody did watch their step, and we completed the trip accident-free.

Victoria Katarina cruise ship

However, I didn't succeed in remembering this advice once I'd returned to Australia. After a couple of days back in Sydney I slipped and fell and broke my hip.

I'm now well on the way to recovery with a bright shiny new artificial hip. But I do wish I'd watched my step.