798 Art District, March 2010. Only in a city as wondrously contradictory and confusing as Beijing could a place like 798 Art District exist! Formerly a huge network of factories built by the East Germans in the 1950s, by the mid 1990s the entire area had fallen into a state of abandoned disrepair. It was around this time that The Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts setup shop here to take advantage of the cheap rent and vast working space. Soon after independent artists began trickling in and the community grew and grew…
The Summer Palace, January 2010. I’ve always considered The Summer Palace to be Beijing’s crowning achievement! For me you can keep the organised chaos of The Forbidden City and the anticlimactic expanse of Tiananmen Square. While these places are definitely worth seeing, China’s largest royal park has way more charm, with breathtaking temples, gardens, pavilions, bridges, a huge lake and dazzling hilltop views. This shot was taken as I closed in on the top of Longevity Hill for a look in The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Guarded by a selection of fearsome bronze animals, its focal point is a giant hardwood throne.
The Forbidden City, April 2010. Home to a succession of Chinese emperors; Beijing’s incredible Forbidden City served as the very heart of China for over five hundred years and is said to be Planet Earth’s largest palace complex! And right enough you’d be hard pushed to doubt this claim as you walk under The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the disapproving stare of Chairman Mao tracking your every step.
It feels very fitting that my fifth short story collection, Challenged in China, has been the biggest test to date of my so-called writing skills. My first year in in The Big Filthy was a culture shock like no other, an experience that made all my previous travels seem like a piece of cake in comparison. I kept an informal blog that year for family and friends, so I had a wealth of notes, thoughts, photos and emails to draw on. At a whopping eighteen chapters, this has also been my longest set of tales by quite some distance.
After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“Oh ****!” I cried, as S went crashing to the ground in a crumpled heap, a rising cloud of dust blocking my visibility as I skidded my bike to a crunching halt.
I sprinted over to her where she lay winded on the floor clutching her ribs, her bike wheel still spinning on the earth beside her. “Are you ok?” I asked, relieved to see that a section of the wooden fence lining the trail had succeeded in breaking her fall. “Yessssshhhh!” she gasped, half grimacing, half laughing as she tried to sit up. She’d grazed her leg a little in two places, but otherwise seemed to have gotten off lightly. “I killed the fence!” chuckled S as I helped her up, nervously glancing across the countryside half expecting to see some angry axe-wielding farmer striding towards us. “Well…” I said, brushing earth and grass off her jeans, “you certainly left your mark on Yangshuo”.
After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
The slow train from Beijing to Píngyáo was a long, plodding twelve-hour slog. We could have paid a bit more and cut that time in half, but it was the start of our trip and we figured there was plenty of time. Having gone for the overnight train, we also reckoned seven to eight hours of bunk bed sleep would wipe out most of the journey. And so it proved.
I was feeling awfully reflective as we chugged out of the capital towards the final chapter of our Chinese adventure. Although she was sad that I was leaving Enlightener, Tracy had been really gracious during my final weeks. She helped us sort out train tickets and threw a school party to ensure I was sent off with great fanfare.
Mount Tai, July 2009. Should one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist mountains ever find itself onto your bucket list, then look no further than the Chinese city of Tai’an in Shandong Province. It’s an intriguing little place of traditional markets, towering shopping malls and the unmissable Dai Temple Complex. But at the end of the day, a visit to Tai’an is all about hiking up Mount Tai (Tai Shan), a fascinating natural museum of temples, gardens, statues, scriptures, shrines, streams, cliffs and cypress trees. And let’s not forget the unforgiving stone slabs you’ll have to conquer to reach the top, all 6,293 of them! Like me, you’ll undoubtedly need a few breathers along the way.