Suzhou moat bridgeA few days later than planned, I boarded an overnight train to Shanghai (上海) and once again entered China proper. As I watched the countryside whizz by, the sheet scale and pace of construction staggered me – there was not a single kilometre we passed that did not have either an apartment complex, road or train line being put together out of steel and concrete. Needless to say, the land itself was a Bosch-like chaos of litter, discoloured water, mud, factories and half-demolished buildings, and my reacquaintance with China was quite depressing.

I arrived in Shanghai just before lunchtime, met up with Dan (whom you may remember from previous exploits in Korea) and proceeded to find the Propaganda Poster Art Museum just over the road from his apartment. After a quick tour through communist history, we went in search of lunch and discovered that the two vegetarian restaurants in the area had both closed down (presumably due to lack of clientèle in meat-ubiquitous China). Our wanderings were frequently punctuated by the machine-gun-like reports of firecrackers going off – at New Year, everyone gets hold of as many fireworks as they can and sets them off in the street. For days after the main events, the roads and pavements are awash with tattered red confetti from the wrappings.

Left: The southern moat bridge in Suzhou. Below, left to right: Bao’en Temple from Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou.

Bao'en from Beisi (1)Bao'en bridge

Bao'en gazeboI had an extra day before moving on, and we decided to go to nearby Suzhou (苏州) as both of us had seen quite a bit of Shanghai already. Unfortunately, several hundred other people had the same idea and we couldn’t get a train until the afternoon (though it did give us the chance to check out M50, an art collective in an old warehouse complex not unlike The Custard Factory in Birmingham). Pointedly ignoring all the taxi touts (perhaps a mistake, as things turned out), we walked over the river to Bao-en Temple and hiked up the nine-storey Beisi Pagoda to the rather precarious viewing balcony hundreds of feet above the city. Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East”, but the only water we could see was in the temple pond behind us. We picked our way down again and walked the few kilometres to the Master of the Nets Garden, a formal garden that turned out to be closed. As did all the others – the city more or less shuts down at dusk, and we were out of time all too soon.

Left: A gazebo in Bao’en Temple. Below, left to right: Candles in Bao’en Temple, giant incense sticks in Bao’en Temple; Views from and of Beisi Pagoda.

Bao'en candlesBao'en incense

Suzhou from Bao'enBao'en from Beisi (2)Beisi from Bao'en

Old Observatory (1)From Shanghai, I managed to get a train going north to Qingdao (青岛) despite the New Year-travelling masses still persisting (most people had Monday to Friday off, but had to work the following Saturday and Sunday as regular days) and presented myself at the brilliantly-used Old Observatory Youth Hostel for my final days in China. I spent most of my free time walking around the European-style streets and waterfront, though did not get to see the new Olympic facilities as they turned out to be sited several miles away. Such is the rate of redevelopment in China, I reasoned that there was a good chance I’d stumble across an abandoned building while exploring (and, indeed, I did find an entire neighbourhood in mid-demolition). However, the whole place is so derelict to start with that there is no sure-fire way to tell which buildings are abandoned and which are just dilapidated and still in normal use.

Left: The Old Observatory Astrodome. Below, left to right: Qingdao from Zhongshan Park, Qingdao from Gianxiangshan Park; A vine in Gianxiangshan Park, the Old Observatory Astrodome, teh French-built telescope in the Astrodome.

Qingdao from ZhongshanQingdao from Gianxiangshan

Qingdao vineOld Observatory (2)Old Observatory telescope

Weidong Ferry, the operator that runs the China-Korea passenger routes, has two near-the-middle-of-the-line ferries packed with useful facilities such as shops, saunas and eateries. Although a rough crossing would still inevitably mark me as a landsman, I was not particularly concerned about the level of comfort I would experience and prepared my ditty bag for the midshipman’s berth accordingly. I was therefore uncommon hipped when the shuttle bus pulled up outside that infernal slug, the Queen Qingdao – an ancient transport drafted in while the more opulent New Golden Bridge V was refitted. I quickly made my assessment of the new post: nothing in the convenience store except water, Tsingtao beer and Korean canned coffee; nothing in the restaurant except rice, soup and assorted Korean pickled side dishes; no entertainment facilities except a TV in the room; no bathing room; top speed several points off the wind so we would arrive at least five hours late; rust and holes in the deck commonplace; an exterior door wedged open with another door that had fallen off; broken structural supports fixed with Sellotape; all toilet paper used up before the ship was even out of the harbour (note: unfortunately, none of this has been made up or exaggerated). There were, however, three Nutmegesque consolations that made the voyage bearable: I had my own capsule-like berth and so did not have to sail sardine class; said berth had a working power point so I could at least use my laptop; the sea was extremely smooth and I barely felt any swell at all.

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Gansong BuddhaTwice a year, the Gansong Art Museum (간송미술관) in northern Seoul opens its doors to the public for a couple of weeks and allows a brief peek at some of Korea’s more reclusive national treasures. Tipped off by the Hub of Sparkle and inspired by Samedi, I hopped onto the subway after training (ever-thankful for not having classes on Wednesday mornings) and arived a few minutes before opening time.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I had assumed that the entire collection would be on display and was a little put out to discover that some of the more famous works (such as the Hunminjeongeum and Portrait of a Beauty) won’t be exhibited this year. The overall theme seemed to be nature and landscape, with plenty of looming mountains and abstract bamboo, and a few animal studies. Despite the crowds (the size of the museum means that more than ten people constitutes a crowd, and I’d managed to arrive at the same time as a guided tour and school group), I got a good look at some of Korea’s older art and felt suitably enriched for it.

Samilpo (삼일포; 三日浦)Gansong statue

Bourgeois spiders (1)Due to the ongoing travel photo upgrade and disaffiliation with hosting services less good than Ipernity, I didn’t go out specifically looking for things to photograph this weekend. However, we did happen to walk by the Samsung Leeum Art Museum (삼미술관) in Itaewon en route to Namsan (which turned into a multi-hour hike – first up the hill itself, and than all around the twisting streets of Haebangcheon hunting down a veggie burger) and saw a couple of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders (part of the Maman series) menacing the visitors.

Bourgeois spiders (3)Bourgeois spiders (2)

Paris from Montmatre

Paris was next on our European itinerary – paragon of Old World art and architecture, and drain on our funds given the still-appalling exchange rate (this would be a recurring theme throughout the trip). By an amazing stroke of good fortune – one of those things that rekindles one’s faith in people – we were taken in by a friend of our Normandy hosts, who gave us her apartment living room to sleep in for three of the four nights we spent in the city. Our professions of gratitude were typically met with laconic gestures of even greater generosity and it was only after some firm insisting that we were able to buy her dinner.

Wall-o'-bonesOn our first day of sightseeing, we lined up a few attractions within reasonable walking distance of our arrondisement and descended first into the catacombs (managing to get a teacher’s discount on the entry fee with our Korean ID cards, which show the visa type). The humidity assailed me immediately, fogging my glasses and camera lens for several minutes (with any luck, the internals were sealed well enough to avoid any ill effects), but after a bit of walking through access tunnels the heat was a welcome change from the sub-zero temperatures on the surface. We eventually came into the catacombs proper – miles and miles of quarry tunnels carved out of the limestone upon which Paris is built (and built with), capped over the centuries and then converted into an ossuary during times of rampant disease. There were piles upon piles upon piles of bones, more than one could reasonably take in, and after a while they just became like background decoration or texture. Regular signs exhorting respect for the dead or which graveyards particular sections had come from reminded us that we were walking among the remains of thousands of people, including such luminaries as Robespierre, the Man in the Iron Mask and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.

Mouldy skullsUneven stacking

Use all the available spaceFoucault's Pendulum

Panthéon interiorAfter the overwhelming scale and anonymity of the catacombs, we opted to see some more of France’s celebrated dead in the less stark surroundings of the mighty Panthéon. One of the first things we were confronted with after entering was the original Foucault Pendulum – a 28 kg ball suspended from a 67 m wire high up in the main dome, used to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, estimate the current time and knock skittles over. The upper (ground) floor was filled with carvings and works of art, while the more functional crypts below housed national heroes (number of women: 1; number of non-white people: 1; number of non-white women: 0) in suitably dignified surroundings. While most residents were politicians or leaders my (lack of) knowledge of French history did not allow me to identify, I was pleased to note the high honours accorded to Victor Hugo, Louis Braille (the only sign with a Braille translation) and Marie and Pierre Curie.

PanthéonPanthéon and Étienne

The bellsAfter a brief foray out to the Arènes de Lutèce (an ancient Gallo-Roman amphitheatre), it was time to follow the crowds and walk up to that whopping Gothic edifice that every tourist here has to see – Notre-Dame de Paris. We arrived just in time for a guided tour (French only, which meant that Amy had to translate every third word for me) and so got to see the places that most casual visitors don’t (not the rooftops, though, so there were very few Quasimodo jokes to be made). As expected, the whole place was bursting at the seams with history, symbology and hidden meaning and we absorbed a mere fraction of what people (presumably) write PhD theses on. I will share one neat insight we got – during the French Revolution, most statues and objects made of bronze, church decorations being no exception, were melted down to make cannons. The wily curators at Notre Dame managed to save theirs by covering them in plaster, making them worthless to your average metal-scrounge-cum-dechristianising-looter (they must also have been overlooked during the periods of iconoclasm which followed).

The chirps, the chirpsA seldom-used doorway

SanctuarySuspended flight

Grande GalerieAfter London’s Natural History Museum, we weren’t sure whether the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle would be worth seeing – displays of taxonomy and taxidermy are, after all, largely the same the world over – but it most definitely was (despite every building except one being closed for renovations or the winter). The Grande galerie de l’évolution turned out to be a large indoor market-style building with galleries and displays along the sides, and plenty of intriguing original rooms going off in the direction of the other (closed) sections of the museum. One of the more impressive displays was the room of endangered and extinct animals (some probably made more endangered by their presence as stuffed specimens), a dimly-lit hall in which one was surrounded by reminders that we aren’t doing too great a job at managing our biospheres.

Endangered and extinctHe is Spartacus

Sacré-Cœur (1)As most of the buildings were closed, we had plenty of time to spare and decided to head up to the north of the city to catch the sunset at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – a gigantic Romanesque monument and tourist magnet on the top of a small hill. Upon entering, we were hissed and gestured at by someone lurking at the back (possibly an employee, more likely a service attendee) and left shortly after, fuming with indignation at a) not being treated like a person (he wouldn’t use words with us, only noises) and b) being singled out when we were following all the posted rules and everyone else was taking photographs and mooching around with their hats on. We had hoped to escape to somewhere more serene, but quickly found that the Montmartre area is wall-to-wall souvenir art shops and portrait sketchers. Upon descending, we came across our first genuine scammers and thieves hanging around the subway station, trying their hardest to relieve people of their money and getting aggressive when rebuffed or ignored (I hadn’t been in the company of people like that since leaving Thailand).

Sacré-Cœur (2)Sacré-Cœur (3)

Photo opportunityWhile walking around is a pleasant way to explore the many side-streets and suburbs of Paris, we often had rather a long way to travel from our base in the 13th arrondisement. We were thus eager to test out the Vélib’ system – a network of several thousand bikes which one can just take from a nearby station and drop off at another one near one’s destination. It took an irritatingly long time to find a station with free bikes, and then a little while longer to sign ourselves up for the scheme and find bikes in reasonable states of repair, but we were off in short order zipping along alleys (we avoided the main roads) for a fraction of the cost of the subway (the first 30 minutes of each ride are free). As a cheap, zero-carbon mass transit system, I couldn’t rate it highly enough.

Flush with new-found mobility, we set a day aside and pedalled out to the vast Musée du Louvre and one of the greatest concentrations of art in Europe. Due to diverging tastes and goals, Amy and I split off for the morning exploration – I to the lower floors and statues; she to the paintings in the upper halls. We rendezvoused for lunch and the afternoon guided tour, which whisked us around the history and highlights, and then finished off the checklist of artists we wanted to see in up on the top floor. Naturally, we’d probably seen less than 1 % of the collections but felt appropriately enriched and able to leave Paris with accomplishment.

In the absence of any reasonably-priced direct flights to the UK, Amy and I opted to go to Amsterdam and avoid taking a slightly-more-environmentally-damaging-per-passenger-kilometre short-haul flight by making our way through Europe overland. We touched down in the evening, and discovered almost immediately that our hostel (despite excellent reviews) was situated in the middle of the main red light district. We rubbed shoulders with the loutish punters as little as possible, and took the first convenient train to Hoek van Holland the following morning. We were expecting a fairly rough crossing to Harwich, but were mercifully becalmed and arrived in London none the worse for wear.

With the best part of the day to spend in the region of either our hostel or Victoria Station, we took a short walk through Hyde Park and paid a visit to the incomparable Natural History Museum. Sadly the Darwin Centre tours weren’t running, so we couldn’t see the giant squid but did manage to test our knowledge of other areas of interest and attend both a puppet show (Christmas-themed) and lunchtime lecture (about the red and blue crabs of Christmas Island, including some live specimens). We then made our way to Victoria by an unintentionally circuitous route (having been given three different sets of directions), but arrived just in time to refuel and board the bus north to Wakefield. After a year away, little had changed and I suspect the fields and houses will be much the same the next time I go home, and probably for the next few decades after that.

The rural idyll

BertWith only a few days until Christmas and shopping still to do (Korea slightly lacking in the ethical/tasteful gift department), Amy and I absorbed the local delights of Halifax and Huddersfield and finished all our wrapping with plenty of time to spare. Amy quickly made herself an indispensable part of the household by baking hundreds of cookies, and we home-and-hearth-ed it up by decorating the tree, persuading Boris (the cat) that we were a legitimate addition to his territory and feeding old apples to Bert, a Shetland pony that had appeared in the field opposite. When not coming over hopefully when people appeared, he spent most of his time hobnobbing with the horse in the field behind and sending up small clouds of dust from his coat.

BorisThe traditional Christmas Eve service at the local churches in my area (and possibly all over the UK) is called the Christingle – it’s the usual Nativity and carols, but participants are given an orange (representing the world) wrapped with a red ribbon (the blood of Christ) with a candle (Jesus, a.k.a. the Light of the World) and four cocktail sticks with sweets and raisins (the four seasons and the fruits of the Earth) stuck in it. The address was on the significance of the aluminium foil (Christians). This was followed by a nativity production, put on (and almost certainly part-written) by the local primary school children and full of Yorkshire dialect and entertaining modern-day references.

Frosty webChristmas day was one of the larger family gatherings in recent years, as it was the first time I’d been home in December since leaving to travel over two years ago. As expected, we were overloaded with gifts and everyone remarked how (dumb?) lucky I’d been to meet Amy. We spent Boxing Day digesting, walking in the local valleys and trying some of the gifts out (i.e. my new lens, which I’d bought in Korea due to it being vastly cheaper and brought over without so much as opening the wrapping). Some thought was given to the practicalities of getting around ten kilograms of gifts back to Korea, but the final decision was put off (a mistake, as we later discovered that a single parcel would be astronomically expensive and it’s cheaper to send five packages, each weighing less than 2 kg).

Dove StoneAs we were just next to the Peak District, we decided to see some of it and took the train over the Pennines to Greenfield, from where we could access the Dove Stone area with relative ease. There are three reservoirs, the oldest dating back to Victorian times, with miles of walking trails and lots of archaic machinery and unfathomable water-directing structures. We had planned on following a clough up to the moorland proper, but ice made the path too dangerous and we had to mingle with the crowds of low-level daytrippers for the majority of our walk. It was bright and blustery, and surely the King of Tonga would have been just as enthusiastic about the place had he visited in winter.

Above Dove StoneBy a stroke of good fortune, P&P graduate and activist extraordinaire Matt was back in Huddersfield and so we went along to just-reopened Bar 1:22 to check out his latest project. Despite one of the worst possible locations in town, a small co-operative had succeeded in getting a decent live music, drinking and meeting venue together and was well on the way to making it a going concern. We quickly caught up with the activist network (as always, wonderfully factious, fractious and plagued by public apathy), checked off one of Amy’s goals for the trip (an English curry) and got members’ rates for the draught cider. We didn’t have time to stay for the open mic (being reliant on buses), but squeezed as much debate and reminiscence into the meeting as we could.

Dove Stone drainageOur plans for New Year’s Eve had initially consisted of making our way up to Edinburgh for Hogmanay, but other engagements in England plus rough seas near Ireland (possibly preventing one of our friends from making it over) ruled it out. We also had an invitation to the festivities at 1:22, but the lack of public transport on New Year’s Day versus the cost of coming back late at night contributed significantly to us being at home with a good supply of cider and an excellent DVD (another Christmas present). Consultation with friends over the next few days revealed that this, or something like it, had been a popular activity all round.

In keeping with years of tradition, we drove over to my grandparents’ house in North Yorkshire for a visit on New Year’s Day. As usual, the garden was full of birds and I hit upon the excellent idea of going over to the local animal sanctuary to say hello – the notice was too short, however, and we walked out to the woods instead for an afternoon constitutional.

Tufted duckBack in London with only a couple of days to spare, we made a beeline for the National Gallery and stumbled upon a free tour explaining things about the paintings that you would normally need higher degrees in art history to know. We returned for the second tour of the day, quite captivated by the depth of history represented (e.g. Rembrandt couldn’t paint hands) and the entertaining style of the guide (e.g. entirely from sales of their second most popular postcard – possibly Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, but don’t quote me on that – they were able to buy a new work, Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape – valued at around £7 million).

Throw your shoe and keep movingWhile Amy went to immerse herself in the Renaissance Faces special exhibition, I took to the streets with the intention of walking down to the river in case there was anything interesting to photograph. Instead, I ran straight into a huge demonstration to do with the invasion of Gaza (plus the usual Socialist Worker/Respect flycatchers) and casually walked into the press photography areas to take a look at people throwing shoes at Downing Street. I suspect that this will become a regular feature of demonstrations from now on, and hope that Oxfam (or a similar organisation) are ready for extended pairing-and-donating operations. I suspect that I stood out a mile in the midst of full-frame bodies and L-series lenses, but stood my ground before allowing the press of people to sweep me back into Trafalgar Square. From there it was a few short steps back to the gallery, safe from a possible George Galloway appearance.

As my parents had insisted upon it, we walked down to the V&A the next day for lunch, stopping by the Serpentine Gallery on the way and arriving in time to have a look round. The sheer scale of the cast galleries was quite a surprise, as was the size of the permanent collection given the existence of the National Gallery and the British Museum just up the road. We ate lunch as instructed in the William Morris Room, tiled to perfection and a feast for most of the senses (the noise didn’t encourage lingering). A brief look at the National Portrait Gallery concluded our flying (but surely not final) visit to London, and England as well.

ChanggyeonggungOne bright and sunny afternoon, I took advantage of some of Seoul’s major palaces being free to foreigners (a tourist board promotion) and had a look round Changgyeonggung and Jongmyo. They struck me as being kind of similar, though I’m sure there are a whole raft of subtle differences I’d be able to spot if I knew more about Korean history and architecture. The light was pretty bright and overbearing, which is why there aren’t any grand-sweep-type pictures here – I plan to do a return trip at a better time of day.

Pimping what?Before too long, Chuseok (the Korean harvest festival) came around and the whole country grudgingly enjoyed a three day weekend (typically, the holiday spans five days but the dates just weren’t auspicious this year). We had our usual delicious dinner and board games at Amy’s place, and then I went back to Seoul on my own to do a short course in photography (you’ll have to judge the results for yourselves). We had Sunday to walk around, and decide to give the Seoul Chicken Art Museum a try. Contrary to our information, it wasn’t open over the holiday and we ended up looking in at a minor royal residence before walking down to the city centre, where we stumbled upon a street magician swallowing needles and shuffling stacks of coins around. After bewildering the assembled crowd for a little while, he started promoting some miracle cream that would do just about anything – clean old coins, cover chipped paint, repair scuffed headlights and so on. Amy mused that demonstrating how good you are at tricking people by illusion before trying to sell some dubious miracle product wasn’t the best marketing strategy, but he did end up selling a couple of bottles.

No chickens over ChuseokJongmyo roof statues

Rice/milk drinkA student in my Korean language class had invited all and sundry to a Nepalese food festival over at a Nepalese Buddhist temple in the north-east of the city. Being no strangers to food from that area of the world, we announced ourselves and sat with a whole host of local Nepalese expats to find out what was going on. I turned out to be some kind of address by the ambassador to Nepal, the head of the temple and a couple of other people we couldn’t identify, followed by some food and entertainment (mostly karaoke). It was fun and interesting, though not a food festival as you or I might understand the term. Our Chuseok holiday ended with some more board games, and then it was back to work – the semester is almost a quarter over already.