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MIFFed film goers

As the line to 10 Conditions of Love sprawled out the front of Melbourne's Town Hall and ran a full city block up to Russell St, China's decision to oppose the film's screening was looking like the best publicity the could hope for. Without allthehackings, this 54-minute film might have got a limited release and only appeared late-night on SBS. Instead the flag of East Turkestan appeared on nationalandinternationalnews, international film festivals are saying they'll pick it up and Australian politicians are supporting a national struggle they may not have heard of two months ago.

Festival director Richard Moore kicked the film off saying "How sweet it is to push play this evening". The film itself follows the life of the Uyghur's most vocal proponent, Rebiya Kadeer, who was imprisioned in China for her actions. It uses the limited footage that has come out of the western province of Xinjiang (New Frontier) intercut with interviews with Kadeer herself. One…

Melbourne International Film Festival hacked

Strange news today that the MIFF website has been hacked in response to their screening a film by Uighur film-maker, Rebiya Kadeer. It's made even stranger by recent Chinese government demands that the film be withdrawn from the program. The film is critical of the treatment of western China's Uighur people and has seen several Chinese filmmaker withdraw their films from MIFF, but MIFF says it will still screen the film on August 8th.

Is Bendigo in China?

Last weekend I hopped the train to Bendigo, a regional Victorian town best known for its 19th century goldrush that drew prospectors from all over the world. A large group of diggers came from Guandong in China’s south. They packed their culture with them which is so well preserved that it had me wondering if a ticket to China was worth it.

In the 1800s Bridge St looked very different. It was legal to import opium until 1900 and the street boasted no less than three opium dens. Today it’s home to the Golden Dragon Museum, named for characters like Sun Loong (New Dragon) the world’s longest dragon who romps the streets every year at the Easter festival. It’s studded with 90,000 tiny mirrors to repel evil spirits. Wandering the museum’s creepily lifelike wax figures you’ll see Buddhist and Confucian relics because these Chinese immigrants got out before the Culture Revolution crushed their beliefs in China. Further out of town there’s also the Joss House, a tiny temple to Guan-Di, a god …

Trans Mongolian Railway FAQ

Here's a few questions people have been asking since I got back about planning their own Trans Mongolian/Siberian trip:

Do I need to book a ticket on the Trans Mongolian?
If you're going directly with no hopping off, it's possible to book a ticket all the way from Beijing to Moscow, which will be almost a bum-numbing week of sitting on the train. It's better to hop-off and see things for a couple of days. This may mean that you get stuck in a town a day longer (which happened to us in Datong), but once you're on the Trans Siberian mailine (from Irkutsk to Moscow) trains are fairly regular.

Is a tour the only way to do it?
Booking a tour can be a good way to get it all sorted for you, but it's not necessary. We booked each leg as we went. This meant hopping off the train and buying the next ticket as soon as we got there.
Once you're in Russia, the train runs on Moscow time so you'll need to be careful not to muddle Moscow Time and Local Time. There's a g…

Erlian Border Crossing

China already seems to be behind us as we pull into Erlian. Already we’ve seen the landscape growing drier and stations have lost their grim institutional look. Actually crossing the border is a formality. Customs officials snatch up our passports and give us no idea of when we’ll see them again. We begin the long slow wait for the gauges to change. Mongolia is temptingly close but really it’s the distance between two gauges. And how long does it take to cross that distance? At least two hours as our bogie is lifted onto a new set of wheels. Swapping bogies makes trainspotters giggly, but it’s fairly dull for anyone else.
The guidebook chirpily tells you that once you get your passport back you should explore this “lively” border town. In fact it’s a plain train station that does duty free. To be fair I did ignore the instructions about getting your passport back and hopped off for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. I’m about to leave the terminal when I notice there’s now a guard on…

Yunguang and Heng Shan

Datong needs a marketing makeover. In the hills of Shanxi, it’s gotten a little lost of the last couple of hundred years and most Chinese know it for coal rather than culture. A friend in Beijing asked me before we left “Why would you want to go to Datong? It’s the sick bowl of China.”

The walls of this bowl are mountain ranges that both protected Datong and made it a stop for camel trains heading north. They traded religion as much as tea or spice. Datong has sheltered Buddhism and it’s best known for the Yunguang Caves, where thousands of sculptures were carved into the sandstone cliff faces that have survived centuries. This is why we hop off the train.

But first we visit the Hanging Monastery, suspended from Heng Shan (Heng Mountain), one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains. Taoists seek to climb each of these mountains making offerings as they go and as we approach Heng Shan small shrines appear in the hillsides. The monastery itself though is Buddhist so pilgrims gather here f…

Really going

When do you really know you're really leaving on a trip? In the middle of your day there's the realisation in a month/week/day I'll be in another country. For me there's usually a physical prompt - something that makes me realise I'm leaving.
This week I got the last of my visas, which usually acts as a good nudge. The Russian visa however is the most anti-climactic- grey scrub on your passport though. Oddly it's also the visa that cost the most and required the most organisation. Mongolia just shrugs and charges you next to nothing, while China's does take a little organisation but at least looks impressive once you have it.
Packing is the other big signifier. People are always wanting to know how to pack or what to bring. I have revolutionary method that consists of putting out a bag a week before I go and dropping things into as I think of it. It's best in the loungeroom so you can look over during a commercial break and think "I haven't got…

798 sellout or sucess story?

Is Beijing's famous art district Factory 798 overexposed or a shining light? A feature I did for Lonely Planet wanders through the art district puzzling over what happens when art goes mainstream. Plus one of my all-time favourite taxi drivers.

Beihai Breakfast

After a frantic day racing around Beijing heading out to 798 arts district in the morning then doing a travel writing workshop at the Bookworm in the afternoon, my last morning in Beijing should be tranquil. Time for some reflection by Beihai Lake, soaking up local life and seeing how everyday people start their days. Also when the pirate DVD stores don't open until 9, re-aligning your qi is the next best thing.

On a hazy morning Beihai Park is the centre for exercises from tai chi to hackysack as Beijingers converge to stretch and strain, shout and sing. Mostly it's group participation - a bossy instructor out the front with a headset telling people to lift their legs or how high to jump. There's traditional music played including old Party songs and slow-mo sword skills, but my favourite is the calligraphers with giant sponge brushes painting in water on the concrete paths. There's a huddle around the old gurus as younger guys try to perfect the fat-bellied curves or …

Visa & Valo

Aren't visas the biggest scam? You've just forked over several thousand for a ticket which then has taxes added to it, and then you get stung for visas. More than the bucks, it's the hassle of visas that always trips me up. For the upcoming Finland trip, I was going to go via China and while in Finland I'm going to be in Karelia, which is the doorstep to Russia. It would be rude not to pop in, right? But the fiendish nature of these visas means that not only do I need to come up with several passport photos but also an elaborate invite/visa support. With the constant moving of goalposts that is China's visa situation it currently requires that you need to have accommodation booked for your stay. This means a credit card shuffle and a quick booking in a place I know will give me a receipt that I can attach to the visa application. Then wait two days, which turns out to be four.

The Russian system is even more convuluted. Their visa support document isn't a hotel …

Beijing Takeoff

It was definitely a case of be careful what you wish for. After rhapsodising about Beijing's new airport I was destined to get delayed there. After slurping down a last supper of dumplings to hop a cab out to the airport in time, it was disappointing to hear that my 10pm flight wouldn't leave until sometime after midnight.

Still I did get a chance to check out some of the closed duty free shops. Staff still haven't got the hang of browsing. As I went around the store at least one staff member would follow me around and give me commentary on everything I picked up. "Peanuts," they would tell me and I'd nod politely. Then I'd pick up another tin of peanuts just to see if they had any new information. One particularly well-trained staff member was able to tell me the prices.

There were whole separate stores dedicated to the Olympics. Mostly they consisted fuwas - t-shirts, rulers, keyrings, mobile accessories, stuffed toys and pencils. The fuwas had similarly …

Pimp My Hutong

There's no doubt that the Olympic fervour is having a big impact on the hutongs of Beijing. Just as Melbourne is all laneways, the real life in Beijing is in these tiny side lanes usually slicing off main streets around the city centre. As you walk down a hutong you'll be beeped aside by cars (even on pedestrian only streets) and rung aside by speeding bikes and trishaws. All hutongs run east to west which a podcast told me was all about about the feng shui and they make a scenic way to amble between the frantic mainstreets.



Some hutongs are being pimped up for tourists. It starts with a backpackers then a cafe owner will stop sellling bbq snacks on sticks from their window because foreigners will pay more to sit down and before you know it you have cafes with Budweiser logos (and Coopers). Property prices soar and locals get pushed out to the suburbs. With shared public toilets (many hutong residents don't have their own toilets) and crowded living, some locals are happy t…

Grub's up

Yunnan is a big province with a wild mix of minority groups, so when the idea of Yunnanese restaurant came up it sounded worth a try. The Middle 8th wasn't too tricky to find (see map) and inside it was all modish minimalism and slick staff. Not quite as extreme as fiery Sichuan, Yunnan is known for spicey grub zinging with pepper and chilli. We played it cool with ordering and ended up with a whacky assortment: chilli-crusted mushrooms, bamboo worms tossed through pease and deep-fried cactus. The cactus was done tempura style with thick globby batter over tender chunks that tasted rather like broccoli, while the worms were protein bullets that were peppered out of any flavour. Perhaps we should have gone with the bee pupa.

tagzaniapaste
As any inflight magazine will tell you, there's plenty of good eating in Beijing (yep, I got to the Peking duck eventually - soft and good). We tried a few places mostly on recommendations of friends. We got adventurous at a local bakery using t…

All along the watchtowers

Everyone will tell you that you can't go to China without seeing the Great Wall and one of the most accessible stretches from Beijing is Simatai, less 150kms from the capital. It's 19km ramble of ruins that zags across the ridges like a dragon's spine. The stone sign at the trailhead says it's "most famous for five characteristics precipitous, dense, ingenious, peculiar and comprehensive". You'd think before getting something carved, you'd give it a quick proofread.

Even after so many images in films and books, the wall is still stunning. As we start to ascend I even have a turn that I attribute to MSG, heights and maybe just a sneaking bit of awe. Where the wall starts in Simatai and Jinshanling it's been renovated to look like the set of a medieval movie. At the start of our hike 3-hour hike there's even a flying fox that swoops over the river, making me feel the height even more. After a while the budgets of the regional authorities must hav…

Temple visit

It was strange day to visit a lamasery. Lhasa has been closed off and there were reports of gunfire and worse in the Tibetan capital. It was a surreal time to be marching past trinket and incense stalls with Buddhists buying up big to worship at Yonghegong.
A friend of mine coined the expression the llama face after the South American animal's habit of pouting and humpfing to show both discomfort and unhappiness. Many of the lamas we saw knew this face as they shuffled about attending altars and avoiding eye contact. I asked one about a photo and his besuited friend helpfully moved him out of the frame.
In one side temple an exhibition promised the whole history of Buddhism, but gave a random collection of dusty statues. The centrepiece depicts an older incarnation of the dalai lama who wore a wispy beard and had eyes that followed you around the room.
Still, it's here in Beijing that many Buddhists come to worship, bending low as the burn incense between their palms unaware of t…

Riding around

Feel the rush of the wind coming at you, then there's the hiss of doors and a shove from behind, beside, below and then above. This is the moshpit of Beijing's subway, seething, shoving and not a sign of "excuse me". It's not even rush hour and there's a crowd who hit the doors as the train is pulling in. The best way I've coped is to take the shoves and ride it like a good wave into the carriage. Getting out is harder as you need to start squirming towards the door and hope for another good swell to push you out. For only Y2, it's one of the best rides in town.

Every subway station is starting to have its own little character for me - hard working, gruff no posters or glammed-up princesses that want to tell you about their cosmetics, their hair products. Our station is my standard - seems normal, not tricked out too much and a few ex-pats because it's that kind of area.

Beeping car horns are drowning out the tinging of bike bells above ground, thou…

Beijing Touchdown

The superlatives start with the airport, the world's biggest has been built for the Olympic city and there's no way you could miss it. From the air it could be a sci-fi geeks design - all scimitar angles and sleek forms but once you hit the ground you appreciate its hugeness. My plane taxis to Gate 529 dodging through the field of neon lime and blue lights. It takes a while to get there.

Then the terminal. I've always felt like terminals had a universal decor, like hotels rooms, but this has a fluorescent futurism to it that you couldn't mistake for anywhere else. Even the escalators seem to be just out of the box and the new car smell pervades everything. It's stadium scale with silver rafters strapping out the sky - though there's a galaxy of lights embedded in the roof. Lightbulbs alone must account for a fair whack of the US$3.75 billion and there's not a shred of environmental guilt to this design. They reckon it will take over 90 million passengers a y…

Bring out the good China

I'm off to China for a semi-business trip and I'm reading the excellent book by Ouyang Yu , On the Smell of an Oily Rag in preparation. It's loaded with cross-cultural references and observations of what it is to be a Chinese Australian. My favourite cultural confusion so far is that the Yahoo! search engine is mixed up with the Chinese ya hu meaning an elegant tiger.

The introduction makes an interesting point about our cultural exchange: China purchases 50,000 titles from the West every year, while the West returns the favour by buying only 2000 titles. The imbalance is surprising. With the Chinese diaspora and the increasing interest in all things Olympic, you'd expect a few more titles to come our way. Apparently not.

Ouyang's book approaches both audiences and hopefully isn't an example of another of my favourite Chinese expressions: dui niu tanqin, which according to The Meaning of Tingo means "to play the lute to a cow".

Mirage that meets the eye

At the moment, I'm pretty flatout working on a China book - isn't everyone at a time when everyone's talking about the economic dragon or the rampant panda in the markets?
Mostly it's been fascinating to dig into China's history, but there's one phenomenon the guidebook doesn't explore deeply enough for me. In Shandong, there's a relatively small Chinese town called Penglai which is known for it's large-scale mirages. This one occured in 2001, but another in the 1990s lasted for over 5 hours showing two islands floating over the sea. There's a few scientific explanations, but I'd rather skip them and leave the whole thing some kind of weird mystery. There's too many easy pre-packaged experiences that are rationally explained.
In Scotland I was lucky enough to cover Electric Brae, a wholly odd sensation where my hire car appeared to be inching uphill. I don't recommend it with a hangover. Again there's an explanation that the slope …