Monday, December 15, 2008

The soul of modern China, a short journey along the East coast

December 5th, Hong Kong, China
It is 9.30 in the morning and I am standing in front of the 7-eleven next to the University metro station in Hong Kong. I haven't slept last night as I had to finish two geography papers. I drank the 5th cup of coffee since midnight and I met two of my fellow exchange students Hans and Theresa (both German). Together we went on Hong Kong's perfect MTR metro system to the border with Mainland China at Lo Hu. At the Chinese immigrations the border guard looked at my passport picture for quite a long time and then, while pointing at my picture, asked me: 'is this you?'. For a second I thought telling him: 'no its that Chinese guy over there, can't you see?'. But I kept my patience and said: 'yes, its me'. Than the border guard flicked through my passport and found my Hong Kong student visa. He asked me: 'are you a student?' After that long night of studying, I almost lost control and for a while I thought of telling him: 'no I am a terrorist who is going to make a suicide attack in your country'. But I stayed cool and said: 'yes I study in Hong Kong'. OK sir, welcome to China!

Shenzhen is a huge city directly after the border from Hong Kong. It is one of the 'Special Economic Zones', which basically means it consists of kilometers of factories and concrete buildings. I guess most people never heard of Shenzhen, but it actually is one of the largest cities in China, population wise it is with 8 million inhabitants even bigger than Hong Kong. For tourists there is nothing to see in Shenzhen really, but flying from Shenzhen's airport is cheap, that's why we went there. We catched our China Southern flight to Shanghai's Hongqiao airport and after arrival we took a bus to our remarkably nice hostel smack in the center of bustling Shanghai.
Next day I went with Hans and Theresa on a day trip to Hangzhou. From Shanghai we hopped on one of China's newly developed high-speed trains, which brought us to Hangzhou in less than 2 hours. This high-speed railway system is one sign of China's rapid modernization. Within the last ten years, a high-speed railway system has been built around Beijing-Tianjin, Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou and in the Pearl River Delta (around Guangzhou and Shenzhen). To compare, it took the Dutch government over 25 years to work on a high-speed railway track from Amsterdam to the Belgium border (which is less than 200km). Still it is not completely finished. Not to mention the reconstruction of Amsterdam's main railway station, which has been a construction site for the past 5 years and isn't finished yet.
Anyway, we arrived in Hangzhou, a large typical Chinese city and the capital of Zhejiang province. We met some of Hans' friends at Hangzhou's railway station and we strolled along Hangzhou's famous 'West Lake' (Xi Hu). The beautiful lake, the boats in the lake, the colors of the trees and the peaceful atmosphere made it a really nice walk and we rewarded ourselves with a nice lunch afterwards. In the afternoon we visited a tea plantation and hiked a bit up a hill for a view over the city. On the hill we saw a colorful Chinese wedding ceremony in a small temple. We warmed up a bit with coffee and went back to Shanghai.
Back in Shanghai I continued my search for China's modern soul. With the Germans I went to some of Shanghai's best clubs, where the newly rich and famous Chinese spend their Renminbi on expensive Tsingtao beers and cocktails. By coincidence I met Joanne outside a club at 3am in the night. Joanne is a Shanghainese woman who works for a PR-company. The very strange thing here is that I met her for the first time in Beijing .... 3 weeks before; the world is very small. The following days she would show me some more of what Shanghai is all about and I met lots of her friends.
The Germans left Shanghai a few days earlier than me, because I had to spend some extra days in an internetcafe in order to finish another geography paper. In the few hours I wasn't studying, I went into the Grand Hyatt hotel, one of the most expensive hotels in Shanghai. The reason was a to see Shanghai's impressive skyline from the rooftop lounge bar on the 32nd floor of the hotel. Modern China at it's best.
Completely different than Beijing, Shanghai really represents the modern soul of China. The open-mindness of the Shanghainese contrasts with the more traditional way of living in Beijing. The city is the economic heart of China, while Beijing has the role of being the political center in the country. The flip side of the coin is the enormous gap between rich and poor people, which is enormous in Shanghai compared with other Chinese cities. Dressed up in nice suits and driving around in new BMWs, Shanghai is home for the richest Chinese. On the other hand, the city is filled with beggars, prostitutes and a high number of poor workers from the countryside. The contrast between rich and poor or traditional and modern is nowhere in China as huge as in Shanghai. But that is exactly what makes it a very interesting metropolis. After 5 days already, I was a bit sad to leave the booming city, but I decided to continue my journey southwards.
Next day I met some guys in People's Park, who invited me for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, which turned out to be very nice. Afterward I rushed to the bus station to catch my relaxing sleeper to Quanzhou, 15 hours south of Shanghai in Fujian province. I arrived early in the morning and went to the city center on the back of a motorbike. I found myself some baozi for breakfast and strolled around the city. Quanzhou is for Chinese standards not a large city (population over 2 million....), but had historical importance in the time of the maritime silk road. In the days of Arabian traders, Quanzhou was one of the most important ports in the world and the Arab influence is still visible today in Quanzhou's large Muslim community and heritage. I visited the main mosque and strolled a bit through the old streets of the city. The chaotic streets of Quanzhou are filled with motorbikes, scooters and bicycles, which suit the subtropical climate of Fujian province. My walk brought me past some traditional houses to a temple with two beautiful pagodas. The area is surrounded by a park and made a worthwhile stop.
After several hours of sightseeing in Quanzhou, I hopped on a bus to one of China's major coastal cities, Xiamen. Like Quanzhou, also Xiamen is an important historical port, especially during the time of European trade when the city was called Amoy. Today, Xiamen still is one of China's major port cities, especially because it is (like Shenzhen) a Special Economic Zone. During my stay in Xiamen I went for a day to Gulangyu Island, which is just a 10 minute ferry ride away. The island had been a European enclave since the treaty of Nanking in 1842 and this is visible in the numerous European style buildings on the island. Walking on Gulangyu feels a bit like being in a mass of Chinese tourists somewhere in Portugal, as the island really looks like a Mediterranean town in Europe. I climbed a large rock in the middle of the island for a view over the Taiwan strait on one side and Xiamen city on the other. Afterwards I enjoyed a coconut on the subtropical beach and took a ferry to the city. Back in Xiamen I walked a bit around in the old part of the city and went to my hostel to get my backpacks. I walked to the bus station and catched a bumpy sleeper bus to Shenzhen, from where I crossed the Hong Kong immigrations.
In conclusion of this journey, all the cities I visited (probably with the exception of Quanzhou) are very much representing modern China. Skylines filled with flashy skyscrapers and the newly rich consuming their hardly earned Renminbi, it is very evident in China's eastern cities. On the other hand, the differences between rich and poor are much more vast here than in the West of the country. Totally different than agricultural based Western China, the East coast very much represents the ambitions of modernization. And Shanghai undoubtedly is the pearl of it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Studying abroad at Chinese University of Hong Kong

Some pictures of my four-month stay in amazing Hong Kong. I won't write a full story here as I was mostly studying, rather than travelling. I stayed on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which is located in the green New Territories. I putted some pics of the city, the university and the outer islands of Hong Kong.
Causeway Bay

In front of the skyline
My room

Cheung Chau Island
Hong Kong's best beach: Sai Wan
10000 Buddha monastery in Sha Tin
Fish market in Sai Kung
Tap Mun Island

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A glimpse of Kim's Juche dreamstate - part 2

After a long karaoke night in our rocket-shaped hotel, we went next morning to the 'International Friendship Exhibition hall', which is also located in Mount Myohyang area. This exhibition hall consists of two huge palaces which display all the gifts to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il from other countries. The presents to Dear and Great Leader are mostly from (former) socialist states like Cuba, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, etc. but still the site is impressive. Especially the exhibition hall of Kim Il Sung is absolutely huge with over 200 rooms. On the balcony we drank a nice coffee from where with had a beautiful view over the mountains.
From the Friendship Exhibition Hall we drove towards the mountains for a short hike in North Korea's nature. The paths were surprisingly well marked and the steep hike uphill brought us some nice views. The cold November weather made me appreciate the nice lunch back in the hotel and afterwards we drove back to Pyongyang.
Back in the capital city we visited the planetarium of 'Three revolution exhibition', which showed us some Cold War stuff. It was interesting to hear our guide speak about North Korea's satellite Pyongyang-1 and she explained us some things about the planet system. The next stop on our tour was more interesting to me however. We visited the 'Fatherland Liberation War Museum', which (obviously) shows the Korean war from their perspective. The Americans are named 'US imperialist aggressors' and South Korea a 'puppet state'. What mostly impressed me is how alive the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1930 still is in North Korea. While South Koreans live their life without caring to much about history, North Korea is pretty much stuck in their own interpretation of history. What North Koreans basically want is apologies from Japan and the US for invading the Korean peninsula. And walking around in the war museum really gives them good arguments to demand so. North Korea still sees the US military presence in South Korea as 'invasion', therefore they call South Korea a puppet state.
The creation of the European Union and the numerous apologies of Germany to the rest of the world brought stability in Europe and generally speaking most Europeans don't really judge Germany on their Nazi past. In East Asia things are very different as Japan never formally apologized for their cruelties in the first half of the 20th century. Although the average Chinese or South Korean people don't really seem to care much about it, like I mentioned, in North Korea it is very important.
On the other hand it is interesting that North Korea views itself as 'winner' of the Korean War in the 1950s (1950-1953). The material displayed in the museum suggests that Kim Il Sung almost solely beat the Japanese and Americans, but in reality (at least what I learned during history class) the military support from the Soviet Union and China brought the American army back to the 38th parallel. Concluding this history discussion, in my opinion both sides have strong arguments and I believe it is simply wrong to judge complicated wars like this one only by reading western history books. To me it was very interesting to hear the North Korean point of view, despite that they have different 'facts' and a bit naive way of displaying history.
After a hard topic like this, we visited an English language bookstore and we went to a bowling hall afterwards. It seems a bit strange to visit a bowling place during a tour through North Korea, but actually it was really nice to see how normal (read: wealthy) people enjoy themselves. We played a round of bowling and had dinner in a very good hot pot restaurant. Back in the hotel I played some games at the pool table.
Already the fourth day in North Korea started with a bus journey to Panmunjom, a small village in the Demilitarized Zone (the border with South Korea). The road towards Seoul is remarkably empty, it is a huge highway, but very few cars make use of it. On the way we passed some checkpoints and we stopped for coffee in a highway restaurant (we were obviously the only customers). The scenery on the way brought us a glimpse of North Korean countryside.
In Panmunjom we visited some meeting places where the US and North Koreans negotiated back in the 50s. Our guide (a soldier of the DPRK army) showed us the heavily guarded and fortified Demilitarized Zone (which ironically is one of the most heavily armed places in the world) and marched us at the actual border with South Korea. At the border we were able to visit one of the UN-blue colored negotiation buildings and I formally stand 2 meters in South Korea (inside the building). From a viewing platform we were looking straight at South Korea and we could see two huge flags weaving on each side. The flagpole with the North Korean flag is the largest in the world. This fact might explain a bit of the tensions I could feel at the Demilitarized Zone. Unfortunately I couldn't spot any South Korean soldier, but sometimes the North and South Korean soldiers are facing each other while guarding their side of the peninsula.
Back out of the Demilitarized Zone we visited the city of Kaesong, 15 kilometers back on the road to Pyongyang. In Kaesong we had lunch in a traditional restaurant, my lunch consisting of kimji (hope I spelled correctly) and dog soup (!). Korea is famous for its dog soups and although the thought wasn't so nice, the soup tasted really good. It has some spices and especially the cold winter day (the meter recorded -5 that morning) made me appreciate it a lot. After lunch we made a quick picture of a statue of Kim Il Sung and we drove back to Pyongyang.
Although this was the last full day in Korea, we still had some sights to visit. The first one is the reunification monument, again a huge monument dedicated to North Korea's wish of reunifying with the South. After that we drove to the Victorious Liberation War Monument, which has some decorations about soldiers during the Korean War. At the monument I spotted a group of young people marching passed us with a large red-colored flag.
The last stop of our tour perhaps is the most impressive one, the School Children's Palace. Inside we saw amazing performances by children who study instruments, sports or art. What they do is basically practising all day with enormous discipline. Some play ping pong, others learn to play piano and others practise calligraphy. At the end we went to an amazingly choreographed show with dancers and singers (all children up to 12 years or so). It is hard to describe their abilities, therefore a small video below (not the main performance). At the end of the show we gave some flowers and a crowd of kids weaved us enthusiastically goodbye.
We finished the North Korea 'winter tour' in a duck restaurant and a karaoke hall. Our guides from Koryo Tours Nick, Simon and Hannah proved that they all have been living in East Asia for a while with their singing skills and it was a nice last night in Pyongyang.
The next cold morning (again around -5) I said our lovely guides goodbye and hopped on the train back to Beijing. The 5 hour ride to the border gave me an impression of Korean life in the countryside, although I couldn't save a lot of that pictures, because the DPRK border guards deleted some on my camera at Dandong border. Back in China I stayed a few more days in Beijing, finishing a paper in the hostel. And I went to the Great Wall at Badaling together with a Swedish guy Fredrik, who was on the North Korea trip as well, before taking a train back to Hong Kong.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A glimpse of Kim's Juche dreamstate - part 1

Before hopping on the Air Koryo flight from Beijing's capital airport, I thought I had seen some weird countries. Belarus is definitely one of them, Qatar I found pretty strange and how about semi-independent republics like Abkhazia or Iraqi Kurdistan. But comparing with the country I was flying to from Beijing, these places would become rather normal. The Air Koryo flight didn't just brought me in another weird country, it brought me in another world. A very surreal world. A world called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). My visit to the DPRK is one of my most memorable journeys so far, therefore quite a long report below.

November 11th, Hong Kong, China
In order to get to the DPRK, I had to book a guided tour as it is the only way to get into the country. After some research in Hong Kong I found Beijing based Koryo Tours, which offers relatively cheap tours and has a very good reputation. I contacted them, subscribed for the 'DPRK winter tour' and booked a train ticket to Beijing. A Canadian friend from university, Mark, decided to spend 5 November days in North Korea as well and in the morning of the 11th November we hopped on the 25-hour sleeper train to Beijing. Some other friends from university joined us to the Chinese capital and the 3 days I spent in Beijing were together with Mark, Edouard, Stephanie, Sebastian and Tatiana. Also I met my Bulgarian friend Kalin in our hostel and I spent most of my time playing Chinese chess with him.
After three relaxing days in freezing Beijing, I went with Mark to the office of Koryo Tours for a final briefing of the tour through North Korea. We met our excellent guide Simon, who informed us about all the restrictions in the DPRK and gave us an impression on what to expect. The morning after we flew into Pyongyang.

November 15th, Pyongyang, DPRK
The very first contact with North Korea was already on the airplane from Beijing to Pyongyang. We flew on a very old-fashioned Russian-made Ilyushin-62 with an interior straight out of the 1960s. On the flight, the stewardess handed us North Korea's only English language newspaper, the Pyongyang Times, which propagates the DPRK's view on world issues. One article about two small islands in the Japanese sea, which are claimed both by Japan and Korea starts like this: "There are many countries in the world, but there is not such a shameless country as Japan which abuses history.......". The article continues summarizing the Japanese invasion of Korea during World War II and points out all the bad things the Japanese did in Korea. The page on 'International news' basically lists articles about people all over the world who burn flags of the 'US imperialist aggressor' and 'National news' mostly is about the success of the North Korean education system or other domestic industries.
The short flight brought us in Pyongyang airport, consisting of only a few Russian-made airplanes and a very simple concrete airport building. Prior to the customs and immigration checks we had to hand in our mobile phones, but the whole immigration process turned out to be much easier than expected (if you're looking for difficult border crossings try entering or leaving Russia). I walked out of the airport, talked a bit with my group mates and soon after we met our lovely local guides, mister Kim and the very charming miss Kim. We hopped on the bus which would be our transport for the following four days and the driver drove us to the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
My first impression of Pyongyang reminded me of my travels in the former Soviet Union. 'Uninspiring concrete buildings, rusty trolleybuses, a ridiculous amount of statues, and cabbage; every self-regarded socialist state has it all and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is no exception'. This description of a British traveller in our group pretty much summarizes my thoughts during the first minutes in Pyongyang as it really seemed like any Russian city.
The tour and the explanations of miss Kim however changed my opinion. First of all, North Korea is not a communist state, but has an ideology called Juche (meaning self-reliance) which is more like national-socialism rather than communism. And although Pyongyang seems like a Russian city, the people are very different. While Russians and Chinese enjoy freedom, economic growth and plan their future, North Korea is pretty much stuck in the Cold War and is too busy dealing with its history in my opinion.
The talks of miss Kim about Korean issues were quite naive, although honest. She talked about North Korea's food problems openly, but also stated that North Korea won the war in the 1950s and she believes Kim Il Sung (first president of DPRK) solely beat the Japanese and American aggressors. Marking this North Korean victory, the Arch of Triumph, is our first stop in Pyongyang. The Arch of Triumph is like the one in Paris, although a very proud miss Kim told us the North Korean arch is 3 meter taller.
From the arch we continued the city tour to the central Kim Il Sung square of Pyongyang. It is a huge square surrounded by concrete buildings decorated with slogans and symbols of DPRK. One of the buildings has pictures of Lenin and Marx on each side and another building carries a huge painted flag of North Korea. On the concrete of the square itself are lines of dots painted, which apparently mark positions for military parades.
From the square our tour continued to fountain park, where ironically most of the fountains aren't working (although this might be due to the November cold). And from the park, a short stroll brought us to probably North Korea's most important site, Mansudae. It is an enormous bronze statue of 'Great leader' Kim Il Sung and all visitors to North Korea come here to show respect for Kim Il Sung. Simon bought some flowers and as a group we made a bow for him. Showing respect for Kim Il Sung is very important for our local guides. Simon mentioned it is like putting off your hat when entering a church, the way how Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea might not be accepted by western minds, but his ideology is what people believe in and that is what I respect. By the way, there are some rules on making pictures of the statue, it is prohibited to make a picture from the back for example and also you have to make a pic of the whole statue (like you can't cut off the legs). Mansudae is a bit higher than the city center and we enjoyed a nice view over Pyongyang.
Back in the bus, we drove along Pyongyang's clean, wide and empty streets to the Sosan Hotel. It is a huge 30 floor concrete building in the suburbs of the city, which was quite empty during our stay. In the evening I played some pool and drank a couple of beers with my group mates before going for dinner in a nice Korean restaurant. The hotel has a few shops inside to buy souvenirs, some drinks and snacks. And although mostly empty, the Sosan was a pleasant place to stay with a nice view over the city from my room.

My ability to wake up early is highly underdeveloped, which meant that I didn't appreciate the 7am wake-up call from miss Kim so much. The reason of the early wake-up call is a fully planned schedule for our second day in DPRK, starting with a visit to Kumsusan memorial palace, which is the mausoleum of Great leader Kim Il Sung. In comparing Kim Il Sung's mausoleum with Lenin's and Mao's resting places in Moscow and Beijing, the latter two would become a big joke as the Kumsusan memorial palace is absolutely huge. There was a large crowd of North Korean people all waiting to pay respect to the body of the late Great Leader. As foreigner you can only get inside with a special invitation and everyone has to bow three times at the body of Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he was the leader of the DPRK since it's foundation in 1948. Interestingly, Kim Il Sung is officially still the president of North Korea, because he is regarded as the 'eternal president'. Kim Il Sung's son Kim Jong Il now is de facto leader of North Korea, he is officially 'General secretary of the Korean workers' party' (the ruling party of DPRK since 1948), 'Chairman of the national defense commission' and 'Supreme commander of the Korean people's army'. It basically means Kim Jong Il is the ruling leader of the DPRK, but not officially the president. Like his father is called the 'Great Leader', North Koreans name Kim Jong Il the 'Dear Leader'.
The mausoleum of Kim Il Sung actually was his former residence, rebuilt into a memorial palace by his son. Inside we noticed how Kim Il Sung is worshipped, virtually as a God. North Korean people believe in Kim Il Sung's Juche ideology and his 'incredible achievements' during World War II like Christians believe in the writings of the Bible or like Muslims believe in the Koran. People march in the palace with much discipline (our group had to do the same) and some queue up the whole morning just to pay respect to Kim Il Sung.
In continuing our tour, close to the Kumsusan memorial palace is our next stop, the revolutionary martyrs' cemetery. In total about 120 small statues of guerrilla fighters and 'revolutionary martyrs' who died in the war against Japan are displayed on the hill. The view from the cemetery over the city is really nice, especially due to the clear winter sky, and from the hill we could see our next stop in the sightseeing tour, the 'tower of the Juche idea'. This Juche tower is built next to Pyongyang river and the view from the top is really stunning.
From Juche tower we went to Kim Il Sung's birthplace and we had lunch in Sosan hotel afterwards. In the afternoon we visited 'USS Pueblo', which is an American spy ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968. It is one of the most important tourist sights in North Korea, because the ship is used to point out that Americans are the 'aggressors' and attacked Korea by spying on them. Although the North Korean arguments mentioned in the video we saw on the ship are not exactly objective, in a way the Koreans make a point. The Korean peninsula has always been the victim of foreign powers. It was certainly not Korea who invaded US, but the US and Soviet Union who invaded Korea in 1950. Furthermore, the US policy towards North Korea has always been very aggressive in my opinion. The US accuses North Korea for having a nuclear program, but what would you do if you would be the leader of North Korea? With aggressive speeches of the guys in Washington, 35000 American troops still in South Korea and the fact that the USA has over 10000 nuclear warheads, I certainly would make a nuke if I would be in the position of Kim Jong Il.
After all this political talks on USS Pueblo, it is time to see some daily life in Pyongyang. We went on the Pyongyang metro, which turned out to be very interesting. It seems stupid to include a metro in a tour schedule, but in North Korea it is definitely worth a visit. As foreigner it is very very hard to have contact with North Korean people besides our guides and the people in the hotel. To be on the metro, we had an opportunity to see how normal people life and go to work. We had a feeling to be a bit in touch with the locals, although just very little. Also the metro stations are nicely decorated and it was interesting to see the various statues of the Great Leader inside the stations next to colorful painted walls with Juche propaganda.
After our metro tour, we drove for 2 hours on an empty highway out of Pyongyang to Mount Myohyang. We stayed in a huge (and again pretty empty) hotel in the cold mountains. In the evening I played some snooker in the hotel and we enjoyed Korean karaoke (according to Simon the best karaoke room in Asia). As this story is getting very long now, I will continue this story of my trip through North Korea in part 2.

NB: Due to some problems with my camera, not all these pictures are mine. Pictures: 2 (Air Koryo flights), 3, 5, 6 and 8 are all made by Mark Knibbs.