28 August 2011

China - Between Revolutions

China is a country which fascinates me. Over the last few years I've been lucky enough to work in China, and have travelled to many parts of the country. It is truly vast, but it is entirely its own world. Much is being made of contemporary China and its current rise in the modern world – politically, economically, militarily. It's fascinating to see how China is changing – and, also, how it isn't. There is a huge difference between the city and the countryside. While certain metropolitan areas are surging ahead there is much in the rural areas which remains unchanged since Mao Zedong's Communist Party took over the country. But, as always in China's history, there is a great disparity between those who have and those who have not.

If you are interested in China's history there are any number of books, films, and websites which will give you chapter and verse on the rise of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman” – whose enormous portrait hangs above the entrance of the Tiananmen, looking out over Tiananmen Square towards his own mausoleum, where he still lies in State to this day. There are also countless books on China’s Imperial past too. One era which it is harder to find books about is the interim period between the revolution which did away with the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1910/1911 and the Communist "liberation" in 1949, when the Nationalist Government fled into exile on the island of Taiwan, where it remains to this day.

The United Nations continued to recognise the Nationalists as the legitimate Government up until the 1970s, after which many Western countries have maintained their support for Taiwan, but in more muted political and diplomatic terms, quietly supporting Taiwan through trade and cultural initiatives. Whilst cross-strait tensions have eased of late, Beijing would still like to see Taiwan return to the fold one day, as have Hong Kong and Macao. But only time will tell what will become of all these several versions of essentially one China.

The interim period of China’s history in the first half of the twentieth century is a period which has come to take over much of my recent research interests. I am currently researching the life of a British Consular Official who was stationed in China during this turbulent period. He is remarkable because he went against the grain of his time, especially for a man essentially in the diplomatic service of one of the 'great Western powers', by marrying a Tibetan. It was a move, which in part, cost him his career.

I’ve been undertaking this biographical research for the best part of six years now. Amassing all the relevant source material and piecing together various items of information to create a clearer picture has turned into a mammoth undertaking. But it has been and still is immensely interesting and rewarding of itself – not least because I have a family connection to the couple themselves. Their names are Louis Magrath King and Rinchen Lhamo.

Going in search of Louis and Rinchen's personal history has taken me to many different places. I’ve just spent the last two and a half weeks at the National Archives in Kew Gardens. I’ve also spent a lot of time working my way through archive material held at the British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and I’m hoping to look at further archive material in due course at the Royal Geographical Society, and, if needed, at the University of Bristol too. The search has also taken me on a number of journeys, both near and far. I’ve trekked down leafy lanes in Kent, along the bustling thoroughfares of Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, and even up remote mountain paths in western China, where the province of Sichuan borders with Tibet. I’ve also had to familiarise myself with the times in which they lived – not just the complicated and chaotic politics of the feuding Provinces and their various tin-pot warlord Generals, but also the sights, sounds, and smells of their world, to try and imagine what it would have been like to have lived their lives and seen that era as they would have known it back then.

I’ve found a couple of wonderful films on the internet which show, more evocatively than any dusty book or scholarly article, the bygone China which they would have found familiar.

The first is a short documentary made by Sidney D. Gamble (1890 – 1968), who made several journeys in China between 1908 and 1932. This film of a pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan, some twenty-five miles north-west of Beijing, appears to have been shot between 1924 and 1927. The costume, sedan chairs, and Nationalist Soldiers uniforms are fascinating to me – and whilst China has changed largely beyond all recognition there are some elements here which still echo down to the present day. It’s fascinating to see the Lion Dance – which I’ve seen performed twice, just the same as this, once inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, and once at a small village, called Kam Tin, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong.

The second very short film, from an unmarked reel, appears to be of a metropolitan area – most likely Shanghai or its environs during the 1920s. It shows what life was like for the native Chinese in the foreign concessions.

The third is a newsreel style documentary film about Peking in 1931, with a very sober-style of narration – but which says as much about its time as the pictures it describes. Two continuities between then and now I noted in this film were the split trousers of the small boy eating peanuts – nappies or diapers are a Western child-rearing custom which has never been taken up by China; plus the keeping of song birds as pets and promenading with them in the evenings, which continues to this day too. Happily the custom of female foot-binding has long since ceased, although there are still today a few exceedingly elderly women alive whose feet were bound in infancy. I saw one such woman in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province in 2007.

22 August 2011

Guam - Jungle Trekking

In the summer of 2009 I was living in Japan and went on a short break to the island of Guam. Guam is part of the Mariana Islands of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. Nowadays it is a territory of the United States, but is thought to have been first settled by people migrating from south-eastern Indonesia around 2000 BC. The island still has several sites of prehistoric remains from the early ancestors of the native Chamorro population. The Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521), was the first European to visit Guam. The island later came under Spanish colonial rule, and they administered the island until it was ceded to the U.S. in 1898. Guam, as an island of strategic importance, was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and today it is still characterised by a large U.S. Military presence. It’s also famous as one of the islands on which lone Japanese soldiers held out long after the war ended in 1945. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was one of the last of these surviving 'hold outs', who rather than surrendering had remained for years alone in the jungle. Remarkably he didn’t surrender until he was finally captured in 1972.

What follows is an account of a day’s jungle trekking I undertook to the San Carlos falls in the interior of the island.

“July, 19th 2009 … Our trek began on a highland ridge where we found lots of wild orchids growing. Our trail went on through tight arches of sword grass. We saw a waterfall in the distance amidst grasslands. Wending further on we came to a tree standing alone on a ridge that was gently whistling in the slight breeze. From here we descended down to a band of lush green which just suddenly seemed to appear before us. This was where the jungle began and immediately upon entering the dense greenery we found ourselves clambering down a steep slope clinging to a rope as we went. This was where the trek really began proper, as from here on it was increasingly tough going. The climate markedly changed too, from the cool temperate highland to the hot and humid verdant enclosure of the jungle.

We reached the first waterfall at its top and looked down to the pool below. It was a beautiful view of a tropical jungle scene. We climbed down ropes to the side of the falls to get to the pool where we swam and stood beneath the falling water. Here fish swam up around our toes and we could see freshwater shrimp scuttling over the rocks below the surface.

From here onwards we trekked down the river, walking in the river-stream itself, until we came to the point where our river joined another, we then trekked far up this other river, eventually back to the grasslands again, taking the whole day to do so.

Our second waterfall wasn’t so tall or so picturesque, but rather the falls, the overhang, and the pool were wider. The pool was also much deeper, which meant we were able to jump from the overhang into the water below. Everyone in our party made the jump. It was certainly a blind leap of faith for me, as without my specs on I couldn’t really see where I was going until I actually got there! Swimming in natural freshwater pools is a wonderful, enchanting experience. The water of the first waterfall was cool in temperature and so a welcome relief from the jungle heat; the second waterfall though, being wider and more exposed to the sun, was wonderfully warm, like a natural bath. Our jumping into the pool far below put me in mind of Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’. We stopped here for lunch.

After lunch we continued upriver, over seriously slippery rocks – all of us, including our guide, each took several slips along the way; one of my slips resulted in a purple toe and a sprained wrist which made going on all the more arduous (I later realised that I’d actually broken my toe!).

At one point along the river a large black monitor lizard with tiny yellow dots all over its body fell into the river between me and our guide, who was next up ahead. Our guide gently clapped his hands to encourage the lizard to swim down the narrow stream in our direction. The lizard reached to within a few feet in front of me before it saw the others coming up behind me. It doubled back and then slowly climbed out of the stream, and up the steep bank back into the jungle. The lizard must have been around 1.5 metres long from nose to tail. It was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen or experienced.

In several places the river made for very deep wading. Further up we came to a bend which was a tall, curving cliff in which the layers of a former molten lava flow could be seen. We stopped here a while to cool off in the stream. The heat certainly made things hard going.

The next big falls was our last. Here there was a shallow pool, but to one side was a very deep sink-hole. Here too one of our companions found a large pair of mating toads/frogs. After this we then continued by climbing up the sheer vertical face of the waterfall (like climbing a ladder!) and then, at the top and a little further on, we climbed a second vertical side out of the river and back up into the grasslands. The trail here lead up what looked like a steep dried up river ‘wadi’ on the Planet Mars because the earth was so richly red and dusty. We finally emerged back onto the grassland plain with its sword grass and orchids from which we’d started, now having seen the San Carlos falls.”

Also on 'Waymarks'

17 August 2011

Ring of Fire - An Indonesian Odyssey

The sources of our life’s inspirations can be many and varied. And while it may be a hackneyed cliché to talk of “the book that changed my life” - it’s probably only a cliché because, for so many people, that phrase is so often rooted in very real fact. A book can change your life, or, rather, it can inform it and perhaps even go some way towards shaping or determining its direction.

I have just re-read, after some twenty-or-so years, Ring of Fire by Lawrence Blair with Lorne Blair (Bantam Press, London: 1988). It is a book which accompanied a series of independently produced documentary films, charting a remarkable ten year odyssey around the Indonesian archipelago, which were first shown here in the UK on the BBC. I remember watching each of these episodes with awe filled admiration. I was twelve years old at the time. My abiding memory of these films was the simple fact that there were still wild and exotic places out there, far beyond the suburban confines of my own world, and these films left me with a yearning to see these places and have such experiences of my own. A year or two later and I watched enviously as my brother, almost a decade my senior, set off on his backpacker travels – a year long round the world trip. His letters and postcards, and even a video he shot and edited himself, which he sent back during his travels only whetted my appetite even further as I struggled on with the boring routines of my school work. My world couldn’t have felt any more removed if it tried.

In the first chapter, Dr Lawrence Blair writes of his time pursuing his PhD studies in “the northern wastes” of England where he “sustained [himself] through the dark times with dreams of the southern islands.” Likewise, I sustained myself by losing myself in books such as Ring of Fire and the National Geographic Magazine, and I would watch whatever history, travel, and natural history programmes came on the television. Horizon, Wildlife on One, and even, The Holiday Programme. One day, I vowed, I would sail out and conquer the world for myself. It is only now that I realise what a key part this particular book has played in shaping my life towards realising this particular dream. Re-reading Ring of Fire now, after so many years, I am amazed at how many of its passages – so familiar – have been lodged so long in my psyche. Reading its pages again has been an act of fond remembrance. What I had forgotten though was how Dr Blair is such an effortlessly engaging writer. His prose style is open and familiar, yet it never wavers from absolute, informed intelligence. Like a softly sentient voice whispering at your elbow, he writes with a wonderfully whimsical kind of authority which makes for a truly accessible and amicable guide. I am sad that he has not written more; however, he remains an active filmmaker today (his brother sadly passed away in 1995), and he still lives in Bali, where the narrative of Ring of Fire ends.

The book is a truly magical tale of modern day adventure. In some ways it seems rather quaint now to read of these two brothers struggling with their camera equipment and precious loads of film stock. One imagines that to repeat their journey today all this kind of kit could now be almost immeasurably reduced in size and vastly upped in terms of the quantity of footage that could be digitally recorded. But that would be to lose sight of the original aim of their endeavour – their journey was as much of its time as it was about capturing a rapidly fading era of ritual and traditional ways of life before they changed forever.

But life, as every anthropologist knows, is an ever changing flow. An evolving thread which is spun simply in its being passed from one generation to the next. Nothing remains frozen in time beyond what is captured in photographs and film canisters. The brothers Blair were committed to their urgent race to record what they believed to be one of the last parts of the world untouched by modernity. Sailing with Bugis pirates; living naked amongst a tribe of cannibal head-hunters, who may well have been the fatal end of Michael Rockefeller; documenting the lavish festivities and rites attending the funeral of the King of the Toraja people, a tribe who believe themselves to be descended from the stars; dodging huge, hungry carnivorous komodo dragons (a stunt which stayed in my memory and compelled me to search for hours around Ho Chi Minh City Zoo once, hoping to get a glimpse of these mythical creatures for myself, but, alas in vain); trekking up jungle rivers into Borneo’s still uncharted interior only to find an enchanting lost paradise at a riverine encampment of nomadic Dyaks, who were thought to no longer exist. The intended legacy of these films and this book may well have been to record all these wonderful things – but perhaps one of the most wonderful things that Ring of Fire has captured (something which itself one wonders might well now be truly lost), could be the simple and lovable, eccentric enthusiasm of two bright young British explorers – as the last inheritors of a great tradition.

Well, perhaps not the last – as the enduring popularity of the book and the film series certainly attests. Every exploration finds its inspiration in something that has gone before as the compulsion to seek something new. Ring of Fire was undoubtedly a significant part of my inspiration.

For more information on the book and films see these links:

Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey - by Lawrence Blair

Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey (1988) - BBC/PBS

10 August 2011

London's Burning

http://www.theguardian.com/wto/galleryguide/0,6143,196018,00.htmlThe last few days have seen London and other cities across the UK rocked by civil unrest. Seemingly coming straight out of the blue. A peaceful protest apparently hijacked appears to have gone viral. An anarchic spree of looting, spontaneously igniting in different parts of the country.

A few days ago no one could have predicted all this. There still seems to be no root cause or clear reason. Disaffection must run far deeper in our society than anyone had really realised. Some news reports are already labelling these as “the consumer riots” – like something out of an old 2000AD comic. The masses are uniting. Taking flat screen TVs and iphones. The appliance of defiance. Demanding commodities and modern conveniences as their right.

Each night I’ve listened as more police sirens than usual rise and fade beyond my windows. I’ve no idea why this has all started or what it is all about, but it is perhaps a reminder of one thing if nothing else: – how society can change direction on a pinhead.
As for me, I advocate non-violent protest. I’ve taken part in legitimate strikes, demos, and anti-war marches, but I’ve only ever directly experienced one riot firsthand. And that was entirely by mistake. I just happened to be there and was curious to take a look. In my opinion nothing can excuse unprovoked attacks, and, as I know from experience, there’s certainly nothing worse than innocent bystanders getting wrongly caught up in the confusion. The shocking events of the last few days have nudged me to dig this account out of an old notebook. It describes a clash with riot police in London which I witnessed that overtook one of several anti-global capitalism demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation on November 30th 1999:

“7:30pm … There were more people than usual at the bus stop and a steady exodus of feet were heading east from Euston to Kings Cross. Fire engine after fire engine, and ambulance after ambulance, were heading with sirens blaring in the opposite direction. I was stood waiting for a bus, leaning against a lamp post, but it soon became clear that no traffic was coming east. A police van belted past stuffed full of black-armoured riot police with an iron grill pulled down over its windscreen. That was the trigger. I'd never seen a riot before. My curiosity was piqued.
As a police helicopter moved in overhead, I walked up the road and soon found myself
standing in the yard of Euston Fire Station. Anti-capitalist demonstrators on the crossroads were taunting the police. Further up they'd stopped the traffic. An acrid smell of burning was filling the air. They’d managed to overturn a police van and set it alight, but it had swiftly been put out. Very little was happening now. Small scuffles were occurring on the crossroads as it became the frontline for a moment before fading again. At one point people broke into a panicked run of retreat. My heart was racing but I figured it was best to keep off the road in the fire station forecourt. Be passive rather than reactive. Half-hearted anarchists were wandering all around, mobile-phones pressed to their ears, a few with tatty paperback novels in their back pockets. A small enclave of protesters with drums beating had been encircled and held in the grounds of Euston Station itself. A bloke sitting up on top of one of the stone fence pillars of the fire station said he could see protesters being "processed out" of the area by form-filling policemen "one by one." 


After about an hour of getting cold and bored I decided to start walking. Wandering back up towards Kings Cross. Ordinary people, suits and other commuters, were all mixed up with police and protesters. Suddenly there came a band of withdrawing riot cops on either side of the street, all chanting "Full Metal Jacket" style. All helmets, jet-black body armour, shields and batons. Further on, as I drew nearer to Saint Pancras Station, I saw it break loose ahead. A teenage kid in combats and a black balaclava smashed a bottle on the pavement. The helicopter slowly moved back in. I ducked up the passage into the railway station and came back out onto the forecourt and went over to look down from the parapet, other people were already there doing the same. Below the anarchists were in the street. Thumping and throwing over litter bins. Rubbish was being strewn everywhere in the road. A very old man passing by stepped out from the kerb and carefully placed an empty paint pot from the spilt litter in the middle of the road, he then went back to the pavement again waving his fist in the air, his action rousing an amused cheer from those already “reclaiming the street”.
Suddenly riot police ran in from both pavements and a confrontation began. The kid in the balaclava picked up the beacon broken off a pedestrian crossing and threw it at the wall of riot police. It slammed straight into the line of plastic shields at chest height. The anarchists were backing up towards Kings Cross. Two policemen below started hitting and pushing an ordinary passer-by on a bicycle. But then a whole troop of riot police came charging up the Saint Pancras approach ramp and violently started pulling people back from the parapet, ordering everyone either: "Down the steps!" (i.e. - into the riot itself), "Or into the Station!" (out of the riot). Even though the people on the parapet were all innocent bystanders caught in the middle, the police were all pumped up aggression. Of the choice given I quickly chose the latter option and dashed into the railway station, stopping just inside the threshold with a young woman. Looking back we saw a riot cop in a luminous jacket with a plastic shield stood only a few feet away, he levelled his baton with its tip held just under my nose and yelled: "You're next!"
The girl and I exchanged startled and bewildered looks. Another cop pulled him away. Staying in a pack the police turned and disappeared down the steps. I gave it a minute, and then I followed them.
At the foot of the steps a line of ordinary policemen in their tall hats were blocking off the steps down to the Tube; the "state of emergency" lights were flashing above the closed gates and a siren was going full tilt. More armoured riot police were stood just off the kerb with large Alsatian dogs straining and barking frantically at their leashes. A drunk man in smart shirtsleeves and a tie came up and stood just in front of them, smiling stupidly at the dogs. The dogs instantly went mad at this affront, and twenty Officers started screaming at him: "Move! Move! Move!" and "Get back! Get back! Get back!" Eventually he turned as if losing interest and just wandered nonchalantly off into the confused throng of people.


I too moved off, trying to get through. I’d had enough of all this and now just wanted to get home. I crossed the street and found I was blocked from proceeding down Grays Inn Road by a solid wall of riot police in black fatigues and shields, so I ducked down a side street, skirting police and anarchists alike. Finding alleys and avenues out. Down Swinton Street and up an empty Pentonville Road, then onwards into Islington where the re-routed London buses are trying to contend with the stymied traffic and the great throng of displaced and disgruntled Londoners, an overwhelming pedestrian tide, all just trying to make their way home, like me.”

All photos are of the WTO Protest (November 30th, 1999) by Andrew Stuart, PA; Graham Turner, Guardian; Martin Argles, Guardian. Original image source can be found here

9 August 2011

Getting One's Bearings

I was seven years old when I first travelled overseas. It was a short holiday to Portugal in the mid-1980s. And it was enough to persuade me that travel was a fine and exciting endeavour. To this day I still have vivid memories of that first trip abroad. The sights, the sounds, and the smells are still etched in my memory. I remember the sandy beaches and the tall vertical walls of the cliffs along the coast. The brightly coloured wooden fishing boats. Suppers of grilled sardines and buttery boiled potatoes. The potteries and brightly tiled fountains in town squares. The deep red cast of the sunlight over the ocean at sunset. Orange trees. Old churches and chapels. Tall palm trees lining the boulevards of coastal towns, and the high, arid rocky scrub of the inland areas. The people too. All the various friends I made, fellow British holidaymakers, and local Portuguese alike. It was my first journey on an airliner. My first experience of that ear-popping descent which resets our senses ready for new experiences, the first thrill which never fades of looking out of an aeroplane’s window as it comes down to land in a place to which we’ve never been before.

The jolting bump and screech of the aeroplane’s tyres as they touched the runway was but the first of many such landings. And, in starting to think back over my travels here, it seems only right to begin with this, the first of those trips. I've since travelled to several different parts of Europe – Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Greece, to name a few. Many parts of Asia too – China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. America. Egypt. And also more remote parts of the world, some I’d only touch down in, others where I’d stay a while – Alaska, Guam, and Azerbaijan.

It seems fitting then that whilst staying in the Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal, we visited the windswept point of the Cabo de São Vicente, Cape Saint Vincent, with its sentinel lighthouse, the most south-westerly point of Europe – the place which the Ancient Greek Geographer, Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), believed was the most westerly point of the known world. A little further along the coast to the west is the Forteleza de Sagres, built in the 15th century on the high flat promontory of the Ponte de Sagres, the site of a famous navigation school – although it is thought to have largely been destroyed either in the 16th century during raids conducted by Sir Francis Drake, or, more likely, during the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The Forteleza de Sagres is thought to be the place where Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) taught navigation, perhaps using the still extant rosa dos ventos, or wind compass, a 43 metre stone circle, initiating the Portuguese ‘Age of Discoveries’. This was a place in which learning and art combined in refining the skills of cartographers, navigational instrument makers, and master mariners alike. I remember it as a bleak and wind-blasted place, high on a headland. Looking out from the walls, it was easy to feel the allure of setting out into that vast expanse of ocean, the great unknown of the heaving grey-blue waters of the Atlantic – as had Christopher Columbus before he set out on his most famous voyage of discovery. Perhaps, as the memory of this stark and desolate place has long haunted me, perhaps it was this place too which launched me on my own personal voyages?

6 August 2011


At the foot of our garden, when I was growing up, there flowed a shallow brook which wound its way through an overgrown patch of suburban wilderness. For me and the other children who lived in my street it was a lost world, hemmed in by fences. It was a private playground in which to build camps, fish for sticklebacks, and search for buried treasure, like some other unwritten version of R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, or even at times William Goldings' Lord of the Flies. I spent the majority of my summers out there, honing my "survival" skills in the bush, building camp fires (on which I'd cook lunch), whittling sticks, climbing trees - indulging in the exploits of an amateur naturalist, or fancying myself an explorer in search of some fabled lost city ...

At this time too I was losing myself in books on travel and history. Leafing through copies of the National Geographic Magazine. I loved to watch documentaries on ancient civilisations and far flung parts of the world. In time I began to volunteer in museums and go on archaeological digs. When I completed my A-levels I went on to study for a BSc in Anthropology. I was also fortunate enough to land myself a job in one of the UK's largest national museums whilst still only an undergraduate. My job has since allowed me to develop and indulge my own academic interests, whilst simultaneously giving me the great privilege of direct daily access to priceless and fascinating treasures of art and antiquity. And even more fortunately, my job has evolved over the years to include regular stints of travel for extended periods overseas, working in a diverse array of museums and galleries around the world.

I have published a few articles, and I'm also working on a large on-going research project relating to China and Tibet in the early twentieth century, which - I hope - will eventually become a book. My various researches and travels I have poured into numerous notebooks, taking snapshots as I go. It's always been my central belief that our world is worth recording in whatever shape or form that best suits ourselves; for this record is not just an expression of who we are, it is also a picture of the ever-changing world at a certain point in time.

Wherever we go, it's my personal credo that people, places, history, nature - these are all things which we should study and explore. There are wonders to be found everywhere - from the smallest corner of a suburban garden to the wide vistas of great mountain heights, to the vast expanses of the world's oceans, to the infinite space of the night sky overhead - if only we take the time to stop and look ...

Waymarks is intended to be a journal of sorts. An open notebook in which to jot down thoughts and impressions, in which to pursue themes and tangents of personal interest. It will be loosely focussed around my travels and personal research projects; the places I've been and the places I want to go to; the books I've read and the films I've seen - in short it is intended to be an exploration, a personal exploration of the world at large.