Monday, 27 June 2016

more door gods #3

I spent quite a lot of time over the winter searching for more examples of painted door gods in Hong Kong, but until a couple of days before I was due to leave for the UK, I didn’t have enough to justify another post on the subject. However, I came across the Shuen Wan Temple, located east of Taipo a short distance north of Ting Kok Road, quite by accident while checking out something else. If you’re not familiar with Chinese door gods, their origin and some of the conventions governing their appearance are described in More Door Gods #2.

shuen wan temple

This temple consists of three adjoining halls, each with its own entrance and door gods. As usual, because the doors were open, it was necessary to photograph each door god separately then montage them together. Photographing the door gods when the doors are open makes the glare that you see in these photos unavoidable. The following three photos correspond to the three doors in the above photo, reading left to right.

In these three pairings, both guardians are carrying the standard weaponry, a halberd by Yuchi Jingde (on the left) and a pole sword by Qin Shubao (on the right). However, the ethnicity of the two former generals in the Chinese imperial army is not obvious. Yuchi Jingde was a Uighur, but in all three of these photos he could easily be mistaken for Han Chinese, like his companion. Note also that the two figures guarding the central door are stroking their beards rather than grasping the handles of the swords behind their backs. This is definitely a nonstandard pose.

cheung shan monastery

It would be difficult to pick this building as a monastery from this photo—it looks more like a temple—but once through the doors you will see that the internal layout is unlike that of a temple. The first of the two photos below is of the door on the left of the photo above.

The figures in the first photograph look more like scholars than soldiers. Although Yuchi Jingde is carrying a short sword, Qin Shubao is carrying nothing at all and is grasping the belt around his waist with both hands. The figures in the second photo appear more threatening, but note that both are carrying pole swords.

ping shan
During the severe cold spell in January, Paula and I decided to travel across to the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, in the far west of the New Territories, rather than go cycling. The following photos are of the door gods on two ancestral halls, which just happen to be located next door to each other. The first photo is of the Tang Ancestral Hall, while the second is of the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall.

If you have been intrigued by these images, more photos of door gods can be seen in More Door Gods and More Door Gods #2.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

collapso calypso

The European Union (EU) is a moribund organization and is probably now on the verge of collapse. It was once a good idea. The European Coal and Steel Community, formed in 1952, was clearly an attempt to repair the ravages of the Second World War by bringing former enemies into partnership, but its successor, the European Economic Community (EEC), formed in 1958 by the same six countries—Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany—under the terms of the Treaty of Rome, was more than this. It was intended to create a ‘common market’ in goods and services (hence the popular name for the EEC), and it worked. The economies of the six founder members of the EEC forged ahead of the rest of Europe.

However, by the time the first new members had joined the EEC—Denmark, Ireland and the UK in 1973—global economic headwinds such as the oil crisis of 1973 had reduced these initial advantages. Nevertheless, the system still worked, although it was starting to creak. Greece joined the EEC in 1981, yet less than seven years earlier, it had been a military dictatorship. Spain and Portugal joined in 1986; these too had been military dictatorships only a decade earlier. More pertinently, all three countries were peasant economies with limited levels of industrialization, so they were, inevitably, subsidized by the richer countries of northern Europe, although with a community of only twelve countries, this was seen as a positive move, designed to bring the three new entrants up to the same level of prosperity as the existing members.

The rot really set in with the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, whereby the EEC became the EU, with its mantra of ‘ever closer union’. An economic bloc became a political entity. On this point, it is worth noting that the European Commission (EC), which should be the EU’s civil service, is in fact the EU’s executive arm. The current president of the EC, Jean-Claude Juncker, was prime minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013, while his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso, had previously been prime minister of Portugal (2002–4). The commissioners, who oversee the various departments within the EC, are also former politicians. It’s called riding the gravy train.

Three new countries joined in 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden. One wonders why they waited so long before applying for membership. I must assume that their leaders didn’t anticipate what would happen next. It seemed like a good idea to admit former members of the Warsaw Pact. For citizens of these countries, having lived under the yoke of communism for decades, it must have seemed like liberation. Instead of being shot by border guards, they could now board a train or plane and travel to any other EU country. It was always going to happen that many of these citizens would want not only to visit but also to settle in one of the EU’s richer member countries.

Meanwhile, among the earlier tranche of members rescued from an unpleasant history, Greece is now, economically and politically, a basket case, while Spain has a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. However, what made me think the EU was on the verge of collapsing was the sight of member states on the eastern border of the union closing their borders to keep out refugees from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. I don’t blame the governments of these countries for taking this step, because I have no experience of the threats from the east that the eastern edge of Europe has experienced for the past 2,000 years. I imagine that folk memories of these incursions were behind the decisions to close borders.

You will have guessed by this point that I’m not impressed by the EU. Policy is decided by politicians who have been appointed, not elected, and while it would have continued to work as a trade bloc, it has been a disaster as a political entity. However, my motive for voting for the UK to leave the EU tomorrow has nothing to do with the shortcomings I’ve discussed here. It is the prospect of further expansion. There are six countries in the Balkans that are not yet members of the EU, none of which are particularly prosperous, so they would need extensive support from the union’s richer members.

And then there is Turkey. The accession of Turkey is probably a long way in the future, and things may have changed by the time this happens, but as it stands I have no wish to be part of a political club, one of whose members routinely uses anti-terror legislation to jail journalists who criticize its government. Even worse, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge—it’s illegal even to discuss the subject—the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians between 1915 and the early 1920s as genocide. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed during this period, often in grossly inhuman ways. The excuse at the time—it is still trotted out now—was that the Armenians, being Christian, were ‘the enemy within’. If this were to be considered a reasonable excuse, Nazi apologists could use it to justify the Holocaust.

In fact, a similar thing is happening now. The Kurdish Peshmerga is probably the most effective fighting force against the monsters of Daesh, yet Turkey has been attacking it largely because it is also dealing with a Kurdish insurgency in the east of the country. The Kurds are the new enemy within, and they are revolting because they are not being treated by the central government with either dignity or respect. On the other hand, I could be persuaded to change my mind if Turkey were to get rid of the mountebank who is its president. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a megalomaniac who cannot stand criticism, who is anti-intellectual and who probably sees Christianity and Islam as mutually antagonistic. There is no place for such views in the modern world.

Monday, 20 June 2016

the year of the monkey

I’ve been reflecting on my recent sojourn in Hong Kong—unusual events and things I’d never seen or done before. Of course, the biggest impression was made by the weather: the warmest November since records began in the 1880s; the lowest temperature recorded by the Hong Kong Observatory for 59 years (Brrr!); and the longest and most intense El Niño event since 1950.

A major difference with previous years was Paula starting a new job in September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which meant that she could now cycle to work, a mere 16km in each direction. And I could accompany her before doing a circuit around Ma On Shan (the town not the mountain), which would add a further 16km to the ride. After the first week, it occurred to me that if we left home early enough, Paula could also do this additional 16km, although she did panic the first time because we seemed to be going further and further away from her workplace, and she had forgotten about the second cycle track, which allowed us to complete the circuit.

Then, in November, despite the heat, I set out to improve on my best daily, weekly and monthly mileage totals. Accordingly, on my first ride of the month, having accompanied Paula to work, I set out to do the journey to the west with 50km on the clock before I’d even started. This turned out to be a tough assignment, with the climb over Saddle Pass (30 percent gradient) coming around the 105km mark. However, at 114.7km, it meant that the first target had been reached. I eventually racked up 1341km for the month, improving my weekly total three times in the process.

Unfortunately, the weather turned decidedly grim in December, and I did less cycling in December, January and February combined than I’d done in November. However, for reasons clearly linked to the weather, magpie robins started singing regularly around Christmas—I had heard one as early as 8th December, although they don’t usually start until mid-March—apart from a few days in January when the unexpectedly cold weather shut them up for a few days.

I see monitor lizards quite regularly when I’m out cycling, but sightings of snakes are a comparatively rare occurrence. However, I did see a particularly large one (about 1.5m in length) slithering across the road in front of me once. It was probably a rat snake (a small constrictor), but because I’d misidentified a cobra as this species on a previous occasion (Close Encounters), I wasn’t about to take a closer look. On the subject of nature, I also saw a squirrel on three separate occasions in three widely separated locations—and until I saw the first one, I was unaware that there were squirrels in Hong Kong! I do remember that a few years ago Paula had looked out of the window of our house and shouted “Look! A squirrel”, but that was a mongoose.

Another new experience came when Paula and I attended a wedding banquet in May. At such events, it’s traditional to serve shark’s fin soup, but on this occasion we were served bird’s nest soup, which I’d never tried before. All the other dishes were standard fare for this kind of occasion (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

However, easily the most noteworthy experience of the winter came on the second day of Chinese New Year, the year of the monkey. Paula and I were doing the journey to the west; we’d just crossed the expressway and were following the perimeter path around an upmarket housing development shown in the photograph below when we encountered an old man sitting on the ground and an old lady trying, unsuccessfully, to help him to his feet. I estimate that both were in their late 80s. I believe that the old man had lost his balance while attempting to pick up something from the ground, although whether this was a found object or something he’d dropped I am unable to say.

I realized immediately that these people needed help. Paula, who was a short distance behind me, reached the same conclusion, and together we were able to get the old man back on his feet. I believe that any reasonable person would have done the same, so I was surprised to see the old lady press a small red packet into Paula’s hand (see above). It would have been rude to refuse it, but I said immediately that I didn’t want to know what was in it. It would have been money, of course, because the Chinese always give money in red packets at Chinese New Year. This money is regarded as ‘lucky’, and while I don’t believe in such superstitious nonsense, I do wonder if there is a connection between helping two people in dire need and the help that I received on my way home when confronted by a daunting flight of steps while lugging a 25kg suitcase (The Long Haul). That was certainly a huge stroke of luck.

Friday, 10 June 2016

nothing to see

Following the opening of the section of the former ‘closed area’ between Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau in 2013 (The New Frontier) the Hong Kong government opened up a second section at the start of 2016. And, despite the generally awful weather, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put together a coherent bike ride through this new area, which lies north and northeast of Fanling. Although I’m currently in the UK, I’ve decided to write this progress report.

My first foray into the area was along Kong Nga Po Road from the west (bottom left corner of the map below). The only reason for this choice was that I’d previously tried to follow this road several years earlier but had been turned back by signs telling me that I was about to enter the closed area, which would have been an arrestable offence.

It wasn’t long before I encountered quite a stiff hill, albeit not one stiff enough to deter me. However, I’d no sooner descended from the top of the first hill than I encountered a second hill. And another. I described this section at the time as a ‘six-hill switchback’, although I’ve since realized that this was an error. The sixth hill, no less gruelling than the previous ones, is separated from the others by more than a kilometre. And what I counted as the third and fourth hills is actually one hill with a slight dip between the two sections that is obviously a single descent when the switchback is tackled in the opposite direction.

Anyway, I followed Kong Nga Po Road until I reached Ping Che Road, which I followed as far as Sha Tau Kok Road. This led back to my starting point at the walled village of Kan Lung Wai. A few days later, I was back for a more detailed look at the area. After checking out a couple of side roads that led nowhere interesting, I decided to go back the way I’d come, which meant tackling the switchback in the opposite direction. It was obvious immediately that it was more fun in this direction: the first hill is the hardest, but the following descent is an absolute screamer where I had no trouble getting up to 50km/hr. This means that the ascent of the second hill, which matches the first in length and steepness, is made easier by the momentum generated on the descent. The second descent is also a screamer, and you might even consider switching to the large chainring, because the third and fourth hills are much shorter from this direction.

The following photograph shows the start of the switchback from the east. I consider this short incline to be part of the first hill, although once around the corner at the top, the road dips before the start of the first hill proper, as shown in the second photo.

The next photograph shows part of the first descent and was taken from near the top.

At this point, I had a basic route worked out, starting and finishing at Kun Lung Wai, but as you would expect, I wanted to add a few embellishments. An immediate problem presented itself: the dotted red line marks the approximate path of what will eventually be a major new road, and this continuous construction site cuts a wide swathe through what would once have been interesting countryside but is now just a mess. I actually cycled all the way from Ping Yeung to the Chinese border, but I would never do it again. The ‘road’ consists of roughly flattened angular blocks of stone, 10–30cm in size, that may have been okay for dump trucks and other construction vehicles but was distinctly uncomfortable on a mountain bike.

As you might expect, I was looking for narrow paths that I could link together to create a contiguous route. However, although the following series of photographs shows narrow paths that are likely to form part of the final route, at present the only way I’ve found to link them together involves riding up and down Ping Che Road, which I’d prefer not to do.

In order to reach the narrow path shown in the next two photos, it is necessary to pass through a village that has ‘keep out: private’ signs along its perimeter. Of course, I take one look at the streetlights and ignore the signs. A bigger problem has been a dog in the village that has already attacked me once. However, it no longer has surprise on its side, and if I get the chance to run it down, I will.

The next narrow path is that described in Ghost Alley, so I do not propose to discuss it further at this time. The next path to be included leads from the eastern edge of Ping Yeung to Wo Keng Shan Road and is shown in the next two photos. Unfortunately, it has been disrupted by the construction work, although it remains possible. However, the last time I followed it, the path was heavily overgrown, so I will have to see whether the vegetation has been cleared away during the summer. It may not be, because I suspect that this path is little used nowadays.

Once I’ve reached Wo Keng Shan Road, I can return by yet another narrow path, one that follows a small watercourse. I’ve included the next photo, of a footbridge over the stream, because it relates to something I do frequently whenever I work out a through route from one point to another—I try to follow it in reverse. Where there are a lot of junctions and turn-offs, this can be surprisingly tricky, and this path is especially complex in this regard. However, I managed to follow this path with no mistakes until I reached this footbridge. Here, I misjudged the steepness of the ramp seen in this photo, lost momentum and would probably have disappeared over the edge if there hadn’t been a safety rail on both sides of the bridge.

The next photo was taken from another footbridge across the same stream. The route comes down a path on the right bank of the stream, crosses the footbridge and follows the narrow path on the left of the picture.

The next two photographs show not a narrow path but what I’ve been referring to as a ‘cart track’. I’d followed a quiet road for a considerable distance before being confronted by a locked gate. I spotted this track as I retraced my steps and wondered whether it led anywhere. It did. The high-rise buildings in the distance are in Shenzhen.

There is another series of narrow paths that allows you to bypass the junction between Ping Che Road and Lin Ma Hang Road, but I currently have no photos of this section. Having worked out a way of linking all these sections together, I decided to ask Paula to check out the route with me. Her verdict?
Nothing to see!
While I admit that the route as it stands is a bit of a curate’s egg (good in parts), I regard this assessment as a little unfair. The next three photos show that there are things to see, although to see these buildings we had to detour from the route. The first photo shows some kind of fortified watchtower and is the only one of its kind that I’m aware of. The second shows what was once a village school; the building appears to be still in use, but I doubt that it is being used for its original purpose. There is also a declared monument, Cheung Shan Monastery, which is a short distance along Wo Keng Shan Road beyond the point where the route follows this road for a short distance. It is shown in the third photo.

The final photograph doesn’t do justice to what is quite a spectacular sight: a huge area of abandoned farmland covered in grass flowers. Of course, I cannot claim that this is ‘something to see’, because it is something to see for no more than ten days each year.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

the long haul

I’ve travelled from Hong Kong to the UK more than twenty times in the last forty years, and I’ve never regarded the journey as anything other than an ordeal. However, things have changed in a lot of ways during this time. Until the early 1990s, it was necessary to avoid the Soviet Union, so planes flew along the southern edge of the Asian landmass, stopping in either Bahrain or Abu Dhabi. In those days, passengers were allowed, even encouraged, to disembark and spend an hour in the airport transit lounge while their plane refuelled, but this practice seems to have been abandoned long ago.

You also had to pay for any alcoholic drinks and for access to the rudimentary in-flight entertainment systems of the time. Both are now free. Some changes have not been as welcome. Leg room has been reduced slowly over the years in economy class, and the impression I gained from my most recent flight, last weekend, is that the seats are now narrower. On the second leg of my journey, I noted that the Boeing 777 I was travelling in had ten seats across the cabin, the same arrangement as the Boeing 747. However, the 747 is 6.1 metres wide, while the 777 is only 5.82 metres, which means that individual seats are almost 5 percent narrower in a 777 than in a 747.

For many years, I used a huge hold-all with minuscule casters on the bottom, which was hard work to lug around. I eventually swapped this for a suitcase with two wheels, but this wasn’t much easier to haul around, because I still had to bear much of its weight. Nowadays, both my check-in case and my carry-on case have four wheels, making their transportation relatively easy, except on the odd occasion that I will come to later.

The first part of the journey is always straightforward. Our house is a 15-minute walk from the terminus of one of the many airport bus routes in Hong Kong, and only a small number of passengers board here, so it’s always easy to get a decent seat and stow your luggage. The route between our house and this terminus is completely flat, so wheeling my cases is easy.

Having checked in, I proceeded to immigration, where I discovered that my Hong Kong ID card wouldn’t work in the automated gates. I looked at the long line of passengers queuing to show their passports at the immigration counters with dismay—until I spotted a counter, with no queue, for Hong Kong residents. I suspect that it was there for people like me whose ID cards wouldn’t work in the automatic gates (I believe that mine malfunctioned because the chip it contains has become corroded).

As I waited at the departure gate, I noted with dismay that I’d been allocated a seat near the front of the cabin (I prefer to be at the back, so that the galley is close at hand when I want a drink). When I finally boarded the plane, I noticed that it looked pretty full, but the two seats next to mine were still unoccupied. Imagine my surprise, a short while later, when I heard a PA announcement that all passengers were on board, and the two seats next to me were still empty!

I’ve flown Qatar Airways for several years now, partly because it’s the cheapest but also because I prefer to have a break halfway—on the few occasions when I’ve taken a direct flight, I’ve found the experience of 12–13 hours on a plane almost unbearably tedious, although I haven’t flown direct since I acquired an MP3 player, which makes long plane journeys more bearable. I no longer bother with the in-flight entertainment, and why would I? I have 800 carefully selected tracks, from the 1950s to the 2000s, on my MP3 player, which I set to random play. Once the security video has been shown, it’s playing throughout the flight.

The other ingredient in a minimum-stress flight (for me) is plenty of drink, and Qatar Airways will give you as much drink as you want, just so long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself. I tend not to drink too much on the first leg of the journey, because I know I will have to navigate my way through Hamad International Airport. Until last year, because the airport terminal was still being built, passengers were embarked and disembarked a long way from the functioning part of the terminal, which was tedious. Arriving at the terminal this time, I was surprised not to have to go through any security checks before entering the main concourse, which was eerily silent and with very few people at 4 o’clock in the morning.

I was even more surprised not to be security checked before boarding my onward flight, although I did have to pass through one of those portals that are meant to detect metal—with my case, which contained quite a lot of metal! I did notice that two people were having their bags searched on a counter to my left, but I was waved through to the main seating area straight away.

I may have been the only person with three seats to himself on the first leg, but on the second leg I don’t think I’ve seen an emptier plane. Not only did I have three seats to myself, there was nobody in the seat directly in front or directly behind, so I really could relax. As soon as the seatbelt sign had been switched off, I was off to the galley for a gin and tonic, a trip that was noticeably downhill.

It’s not really a complaint, but a lot of cabin staff tend not to put enough gin in the glass, which means merely that I drink it faster. However, on my third trip to the galley, when I asked for a gin and tonic, I was asked whether I wanted a ‘light’ one or a ‘strong’ one. A strong one, naturally. On my next visit, I looked for the member of staff who’d served me earlier, but he wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I asked another staff member. There were several hanging around, because they have very little to do during the middle hours of a flight, so I thought I might address the whole group.

“This is how I like my gin,” I said, indicating an imaginary line halfway up the tumbler. “Only one piece of ice, gin up to there, and just give me the can of tonic.”

As I said, the staff on Qatar Airways will give you as much drink as you want, unlike some European airlines, which can be annoyingly stingy. The rest of the flight passed off very pleasantly, but I knew that I had a problem to resolve in Manchester. I always buy my train ticket from the airport to Penrith in advance, but I’d noticed a couple of days before my flight that I’d inadvertently bought an indirect ticket and would therefore not only have to change trains, I would have to change stations. There was a direct train departing around the same time, and I’d decided that I would take this instead, leaving my original ticket unused. However, the ticket clerk assured me that the transfer from Wigan Wallgate to Wigan North Western was straightforward, so I took him at his word.

Imagine my dismay when I got off the train only to be confronted by a long flight of stairs. However, just as I was about to embark on what was sure to be a herculanean struggle—my main case weighed 25 kilograms—somebody shouted out that there was a lift. Phew! The second station was just across the road, and it also had a lift up to the platform level. I had only one more obstacle to negotiate, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

My home town of Penrith has the only station on the west coast main line that doesn’t have lifts. This isn’t a problem when alighting from or boarding a southbound train, but when leaving a northbound train, the only way to reach the station exit is via a subway. And the only way to access the subway is by flights of stairs. It looked like I would have my herculanean struggle after all, except that someone offered to take my small case on the downstairs section. Naturally, I was grateful, but I certainly didn’t expect what happened next. The person who had helped me insisted that I took my small case, while he hauled my big, heavy one up the flight of stairs in the above photo. What’s more, I barely had time to thank him before he was gone. I can’t imagine that this person will ever read this account, but I’d like to say how much it meant to me. His actions turned what had already been my most comfortable journey ever from east to west into a perfect trip. I even had time to go down to the pub for a couple of pints with friends, once I’d dumped my cases at home, which is less than 300 metres from the station. The pub is even closer. Cheers!