Red and Gold


“Hey look, a museum about how great Mao is. You don’t see those too often around here!”


The Communist Party was engaged in an extensive meeting here. You may have heard about it. It took longer to get through than the Council of Elrond, and was about as interesting. The bright side, though, is that the shopkeepers’ doorways and community workers’ armbands aren’t the only thing turning the colours of the flag.

There are two reasons that I hadn’t been to Fragrant Hills (on the outskirts of Beijing) until last week: one is that this epic mountainside park is located literally the opposite side of the city to my flat; the other is that every other bugger in the Jing always seems to be there. It’s the sort of place, along with the relatively nearby Summer Palace, that any tourist simply has to ‘do’: a vast region of parkland that changes colour with the seasons. When the gf, probably hungering for the wilderness of Mongolia again, heard that the leaves were shifting into autumnal hues, we packed some snacks and set an alarm for 6am.

Neither of us are natural early risers (the morning shifts in Vancouver hostels used to wipe me out) but the two of us got out of bed on time. By 8 o’clock we had travelled a vast chunk of Line 7 and almost all of Line 4. At Beigongmen metro station we found the bus to Fragrant Hills, along with the central throng of other buggers. It took us two attempts to reach the end of the cattle-like enclosure that had been installed to deal with the endless flow of would-be mountaineers, listening to shouted instructions over a megaphone by a little old lady who had wandered in from the mysterious realm of Jim Henson’s subconscious. “Do not wait for seats,” she roared over a megaphone in Chinese, “you will find no seats here. Mwahahahaha!”*

The bus took about three chapters of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and almost every inch of my patience before we mercifully reached the gate at about 9.30am. Those of us who had woken at 6 were in no mood for the boiled eggs or jianbing being proffered by the street food vendors, nor for the public toilets that tried to rob ‘Smells Good Mountain’ of it’s otherwise deserved moniker.

Red and gold koi carp swam around the ponds of Tranquil Heart Garden and Tea Shop (the ‘and tea shop’ portion sadly revealing itself as a haggard old pagoda shuttered up in shame at having revealed its last legs). We were a little surprised to see that hardly any of the trees were sharing the colours of the fish or flags, most of them stubbornly clinging to their green summer shades under a slightly hazy sky.

A chair-lift style cable car system connects the lower rungs of the park to the mountaintop above. Despite looking rickety and bringing to mind images of Clint Eastwood kicking people to death in Where Eagles Dare, I felt it would be nice to ride to the top and then climb back down. Future visitors beware, however, the city spoils you: we got to the gates and realized that card and WeChat payments are unacceptable for this venture, and neither of us had brought any cash. Putting conspiracy theories about forcing the populace to exercise aside, we began our two way journey up the stone stairs hewn into the mountainside, travelling across terrain littered with green trees, discarded water bottles and torn popsicle wrappers.

Our journey, like the endless meeting of papa Xi’s, became long and arduous. At one point we stopped, like Sam and Frodo, to eat a sausage on a stick. I lost my British reserve and became Gollum at one point, telling some hippy-looking chap off for tossing a wrapper on the floor about seven inches from a bin, but he just shrugged and probably pretended not to speak English.

We made it otherwise unscathed, drawing our imagined swords in victory, sipping a lemon tea and eating some pork and pepper at the top. The journey back was made a little easier by stops along the way: temples, pagodas, pavilions, souvenir shops.

All told, we were at Fragrant Hills for several hours. We sprung ¥20 each for a taxi home, something we both agreed that none of our British friends would have done; instead they’d have tightened their sphincter and joined the two-hour bus queue. We soothed our barking dogs with a foot massage and had a well deserved BBQ dinner. All payed for via WeChat, of course.


*No, I did not make that bit up.

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Land of the Badasses


“I am Temujin. Barbarian. I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian” – John Wayne


Mongolia in autumn is witch’s tit cold. At 9am one October morn, our party of seven* piled into a Soviet era P.O.S. van and hit the badly paved road. Our tour guide was a female Mongolian hipster with a taste for beer and punk rock attire. We were also accompanied by a seemingly nameless (and seemingly clueless) driver dressed like Albert Steptoe.

UlaanBatar shrank into the distance as we began our drive to the east. Soon enough, badly paved became unpaved, and urban became a distant memory. I felt like Martin Sheen in the oft-referenced (by me) Apocalypse Now, travelling further and further back in time with each step of the journey. This was a landscape that bled history: home to an angry nomad so aggressive and rapey that he slaughtered about 22% of the world’s population and sired a bloodline that may well reach to about one in every 200 living men.

Knowing a photo opp when we saw one, we asked the driver to pull over at a Buddhist shrine near a gnarled, Tolkienesque tree between two peaks. Eventually our seven hour hemorrhoid-risking journey led us to Blue Lake. Conflicting legends have it either that the lake is where young Temujin was bestowed his fearsome new moniker of Genghis Khan, or that it is where he and thirty horsemen, smarting from defeat at the battle of Dalan Balzhut, settled for a decade or so and started making their plans for world domination.

We didn’t stay quite as long, just a single night in the ‘ger’ (aka yurt) of a nomadic family. By the look of it, our accommodation had been until very recently some bloke’s garage. Our host family kept themselves to themselves, mostly staying in their own yurt watching international TV shows dubbed into Mongolian.

We took a short hike into the hills to watch the sun go down. The mid-autumn moon was so bright that it cast our shadows on the frozen ground. The following morning some of us rose before the dawn to watch the sun rise once again over a dramatic landscape that brought back childhood memories of the Rockies and hallucinogenic daydreams of the ole rape and pillage.

Our wonderful guide (who had traded hipster hoodies and black leather for traditional pink pyjamas) cooked everyone a rice pudding-style dish for breakfast before we set out over more rough terrain. Our second night of yurt-ery was spent at a tourist camp in Terelj National Park. The family we stayed with seemed a little more open (one of them acquiesced to be interviewed for an article that a friend was writing for Leeds University), but the camp itself felt a little like Mongolian Butlins. We managed to keep our distance from other tourists, wandering through the woods amidst animal carcasses stripped bare by wolves, before retiring for the night.

No Mongolian trip would be complete without trotting about on a horse. We rode up to a monastery in the mountains surrounding the park. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, but these were well trained beasts who knew where they were going. Upon returning from the monastery we packed up the battered old van and drove to the Chinggis Khaan** statue, which presumably beat little competition from Guinness for the prize of World’s Largest Equestrian Statue. It is impressive, and almost impossibly huge. So huge that the World’s Largest Mongolian Boot (fashioned from 445 cow hides and four km of rope) occupies only a tiny fraction of its foyer. Beneath the statue’s hooves lies a wonderfully edifying museum on the history of the Mongol Empire.

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The contrast between the city and the countryside could not be stronger. Modern Mongolia is home to more than 3 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in UlaanBatar (and, bizarrely, all seem to drive a Toyota Prius). After dirt tracks on which we encountered not a soul, the city took a shocking hour-and-a-half to cross through gridlocked traffic. We had a short time in the centre before departing for Chinggis Khaan International, which may tie with Astana for World’s Least Overly Impressive International Airport (in fairness, they did have some nice hats and English language history books).

Our flight, lagging behind on its way from Seoul, left the airport late; and so by the time we began our two-hour flight to Beijing the sun had already set on another adventure.


*(we had lost the American chap. His flight home was the day before ours and he’d opted for a shorter, cheaper tour)

(**preferred Mongolian spelling of the founding father, complete with Shatner-esque pronunciation of “Khaan!”)

Python References on the Trans-Mongolian


“And now for something completely different.”


I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the  taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.”  So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.

The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.

Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.

At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.

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At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.

And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)

The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar  crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.

We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.

We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.

So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.

Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.

FADE OUT.


*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)

**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”

The Minotaur Lives in Beijing


“The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

– Albert Camus


When French writer, philosopher and proto-hipster Albert Camus was asked whether he preferred theatre or football he famously replied (backing the wrong horse) “football, without hesitation”. I’ve been working hard recently on the absolute fringes of Camus’s second choice. My latest semester as a teacher of drama to children is halfway complete. What better excuse to delve into the writing of this acclaimed French Algerian smartarse for the first time?

I often find inspiration in good writing, and The Myth of Sisyphus (And Other Essays) is definitely that. Not only did Camus’s descriptions of North Africa and Paris appeal to my wanderlust, but his intellectualization of the story of a man pushing a massive rock up a hill got me thinking: is it possible to find enjoyment and/or fulfillment in a laborious, thankless and seemingly meaningless task? As a teacher to dozens of hyperactive ESL users, I would argue that the answer is yes.


“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” – Alan Watts


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Anyone who travels knows that the purpose is not to get somewhere, it’s to be somewhere, and to be going somewhere in the first place. Alan Watts once pointed out the dangers of thinking of life as a journey towards some kind of goal, saying we should instead be dancing our way through it as if it were a musical composition.

The Chinese workforce, with its team building and motivational meetings, is not much different from the Western one: a little obsessed with positive thinking and self improvement and asking not what your company can do for you but what you can do for your company.

Mid-Autumn Festival is upon us. The weather is changing. People are trundling out the yearly Game of Thrones quotes. I’ve got several days off to do a bit more travelling and a little more reading, before returning to push that rock a little further up the hill.

The English Patience


“What y’all speaking Arabic for? Ain’t that one of them there dead languages?” – yes, seriously


There is a conspiracy theory that states certain foreign governments hire Americans to travel around the world making loud obnoxious nuisances of themselves in order to spread a negative international reputation of America. There is actually a slightly more believable conspiracy theory that states certain types of American are pretty good at this already, foreign employers or no.

I went to Paddy O’Shea’s* to shoot the breeze with a mate. We were approached by a group of Americans, possibly in the employ of outside governments, who wanted to take a photograph of the wall behind us (“Hey, d’you guys recognize me?” “No.” “I’m on… THE WALL!”**) They wanted to take a photo of the photo, which was put to us as a friendly suggestion that it’d be really great if we could move away from the wall for just a second to allow for this twice in a lifetime opportunity, which we politely did. Then another American arrived and it was suggested that hey buddy it’d be really really great if they could get just one more photo, at which point we politely pointed out that actually they were already in possession of a photo of the bloody wall and that we’d quite like to sit still and enjoy our pints in peace. Luckily these chaps took this as intended: as a move from the martial arts manual that I refer to as The Art of Telling People to Fuck Off Without Actually Resorting to Telling Them to Fuck Off (TATPFOWARTTFO).***

One of my friends, a long-haired poet from middle England, once took a road trip to visit our cousins across the pond. Stopping in a gas station in Kentucky he was told in no uncertain terms by the shotgun toting James Dickey character behind the counter that “We don’t serve faggots round here!”

I don’t really know why a certain type of good ole boy votes in an angry midget with a nylon head to run things at home and then immediately pack a rucksack to travel around (“I like to say I have a BLACK BELT in travel y’know!”) complaining about the service and acting agog when they discover an international reputation as ‘rather loud and a little on the irritating side’.

I do not, under any circumstances, mean to imply that every white American is bigoted, annoying and socially inept… but damn the ones who are ain’t doing y’all many favours are they?

 

 

*(in the running along with Flann O’Brien’s in Bangkok and Johnny Fox’s Irish Snug in Vancouver for World’s Greatest cod-Irish Pub)

*Not a Pink Floyd reference, apparently.

*** See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/the-p-is-silent/

Eternal Monkies


“It was the best of times it was the BLURST of times?!? You stupid monkey!” – The Simpsons


 

The gf was recently watching some sports drama thing: The tall, basketball-playing Asian hero eschews the pretty Asian girl in favour of the nerdy, homely Asian girl and finally sits down next to her. Her Asian friends giggle. His Asian friends shake their heads knowingly, irked that he is missing the big game but also happy that he’s finally gonna get some.

“This seems familiar,” I said, “haven’t we seen this before?”
I mentally added: and even then it seemed like it was nicked from Teen Wolf.
“No,” said the gf. “That was the film. This is the TV version.”*

It’s fair to say that I am less than excited about this current trend in television remakes of successful movies; from any country. I heard on the grapevine that next in the Hollywood firing line is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This sounds totally pointless and potentially disastrous to me, especially as no one from the original movie is attached to (or, presumably, remotely interested in) the new version.

I’m quite fond of Michel Gondry’s DIY visual style** and of Charlie Kaufman’s weird blend of comedy, science-fantasy and pseudo-philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a room full of American sitcom writers try to ape it for an extended period of seasons.

Even so, I recently put aside a little of my prejudice by watching a very different philosophical science fiction cash-in, the first season of 12 Monkeys. The opening episode did nothing to convince me that I had made the right decision. It was full of dumbass, tone deaf nods to the film: stolen lines of dialogue, a mental hospital named after the original screenwriters. It was The Walking Dead without the zombies, Heroes without the charm; a shaggy mess, lacking all of the psychological aspects, character development and visual flair that made the original film so intriguing. By the end of the season it had failed to grow a beard, but I admit that there was a small line of stubble poking through, like the ones worn by its cast of post-apocalyptic washouts.

I know it’s difficult enough to write anything, let alone something original; that there’s nothing new under the clichéd sun and all that. Maybe there’s some sour grapes on my part in that some writers are paid just to write Lego and Emoji movies, or to extend other people’s work into small screen bowel movements, while I turn up to a Chinese classroom with a mental folder of rejection letters from the likes of Amazon and the BBC.***

Modern storytelling is all about dressing up the old tales in new clothes, but if the clothes you’re using are charity shop hand-me-downs from another medium, then your script is going to look a little shabby. I enjoyed the first season of Mr. Robot more than I did 12 Monkeys, but even then I would have found the ‘plot twists’ in Elliot Alderson’s life more surprising if I’d never read Fight Club or American Psycho. Equally, 12 Monkeys would have been more suspenseful if I’d never seen Timecop or Pertwee-era Doctor Who (let alone a movie called 12 Monkeys, which it really is only distantly related to).

In the 1970s, Hollywood got an influx of Californian film students: beach bum philosophers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, etc. These were guys who’s movies were styled on the films of the past. A generation later there was an influx of indie film nerds like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, guys who were inspired by the filmmakers of the 70s. The current generation consists of blokes like Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie and Neil Marshall, who all know how to make a decent movie, but are mostly inspired by the video-store-clerks-turned-directors of the 90s. That means we’ve got films that are inspired by films that are inspired by films that were already inspired by other films! With those films being turned into TV shows, it just becomes those old photocopies that have degraded to grey: a copy of a copy of a copy (and yes, I’m aware that’s a line from Fight Club!)

Did you know that LA executives refer to novelists and game designers as ‘content creators’ now? As if everything that’s being written is just an adaptation waiting to be greenlit? Didn’t Marshall McLuhan tell us that the medium is the message? Surely adaptation instantly dilutes or alters that message?

Hollywood long ago became a shrinking stomach so starved of nutrients that it has started devouring itself. There are few enough filmmakers that are inspired by anything other than older filmmakers, but Terry (12 Monkeys) Gilliam and Charlie (Eternal Sunshine) Kaufman are two who try very hard not to be. Maybe that’s what makes their work so appealing to the remake merchants?

I refuse to believe that attention spans are shrinking to the size of emojis. Sure, there are people who want to watch three-second cat videos and get their news in sound bites, but aren’t they the same people who binge-watch entire seasons of Sherlock or Game of Thrones?

Not everyone wants the same crappy fast food that these people are serving up every single week: live-action Disney remakes, TV remakes, Lego remakes!! There must be audiences as hungry for good quality content as I am…


*Apparently, in a seemingly unrelated coincidence, there’s also a tv version of Teen Wolf.

**(even if some of his work really is the hippest of hipster shit)

***The first one stating that my script is so fantastical that the audience wouldn’t have a frame of reference, the second that my script is too derivative of other fantasy stories.

 

What Lies Beyond Jiangtai?


“Look I’mma spoil this one early on, okay. The answer is not much!”


I was curious, having recently been commuting to and from Wangjing, why so many bodies were stepping off Line 14 at Jiangtai metro station. “Do these people,” I quietly wondered, “know something that I do not?”

I walked two square blocks beyond Jiangtai trying to find out. I passed a handful of office buildings before reaching a dead-end hutong with a huge rubbish tip wedged in one corner. This is central Beijing in ‘rampant shithole’ mode. Forgotten back alleys strewn with stinky filth, full of unappetizing restaurants serving cheap and easily accessible bacterial dysentery.

The big surprise was that Jiangtai station lies near 751 D Park, a communist Santa’s grotto and the back passage (in every sense of the phrase) to 798 Art Zone. A lot of car and tech companies have premises here. More businesses nestle at the Universal Business Park across the road. Does this explain the mad morning and evening rush of the numb, commuting proletariat? Possibly. They certainly don’t seem to be sitting around any of the bars or coffee shops of the art zone itself, but some fan themselves in the factory shadows, resting at plastic tables outside cramped hutong residences. Most of the locals have a smile on their bewildered face as a foreigner strolls past, presumably having taken a misstep on his way to the Zone.

Inside 798, I encountered a couple of my colleagues on an excursion of their own. We exchanged greetings and idioms of the ‘small world’ variety. “Did you come from Wangjing?” One of them asked. I explained that, no, I had actually just wandered in from Dickensian Jiangtai, with no idea how close I already was to a decent pint of beer.