I hadn’t succeeded in buying train tickets from Wuhan to Nanjing and back on the internet before coming to China, so I decided to go and buy them at the station. Immediately after checking into my hotel, I took the subway and reached the station. This turns out to be very convenient: subway ticket vending machines, like ATMs, in China can be set to English before you start. And of course, the subway is the fastest way to get from anywhere to a railway station.
Wuhan railway station
Passengers walk in
The main concourse
The arch over the entrance
The subway station
Wuhan’s new railway station was built in 2009 to serve the high-speed trains (G trains, 高速动车组列车, Gāosù dòngchē) on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Hong Kong and the Shanghai-Wuhan-Chengdu lines. Since these run on special tracks which allow speeds up to 350 Km/hour, these networks are newly built, and avoid older tracks and stations.
The 19th century was a great time for railways, as you can see even now if you go to some of the world’s iconic old railway stations: Gare (now Musee) d’Orsay in Paris or the Sirkeci Garı in Istanbul. Wuhan’s railway station, designed by the French company AREP, could become one of the iconic structures of the 21st century revival of railways. The sinusoidal roof is supposed to resemble a crane’s wings. The built up area with its third of a million square meters, can sustain a significantly expanded service in future. When I came back a week later to take the train, I found the boarding process very convenient.
China could once have been named Bicycle Country (自行车国, Zìxíngchē guó). Although the balance has shifted to cars, bicycles and electric scooters remain a significant fraction of what you see on roads. It is not at all unusual to see loads of bicycles parked on roads. As I walked along a road in Nanjing I paused to take a photo of the parked bikes.
One of the side effects of taking photos is that you notice more about your subject than you would otherwise. So I suddenly realized that there were very impressive locks on the bikes. In my experience China is crime free; there are cameras everywhere, and watchers behind them: either human or AI. So this looked incongruous. This can’t be a country like Germany, where the general level of safety from threat does not include bicycles. If any Chinese were to complain about a stolen bike, the police would almost certainly be able to trace who had taken it.
Nor is Nanjing special in this respect. I took a photo of a rank of parked bicycles in Wuhan, and saw hefty locks again. This will remain a mystery to me until I learn enough Mandarin to have a casual conversation on the road about why people lock their bicycles.
It is also interesting that there seems to be no cultural difference between electric scooters and bikes. They follow the same traffic rules, and park together. The only difference I noticed is that in this season the scooters came with warm quilted jackets, which you could slip into as you sat down in the driver’s seat. It’s a great idea, and one that could easily be adapted to protect against rain in India. You must have noticed that the jackets were not locked to the scooter!
Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have battled and got control of pollution in the city, but Wuhan has not yet. Added to the muggy heat of summer, it is at least as uncomfortable as Mumbai is before the arrival of the monsoon. So I should have been a little more careful about choosing to walk up snake hill to see the Yellow Crane Tower than I was. It was the most uncomfortable bit of tourism that I’ve done. But the view from above compensated a bit. The featured photo shows the Yangtze river, with the first Yangtze bridge of 1957, and the TV tower of Hankou on the far side.
The Yellow Crane Tower of today is a concrete structure completed in 1981 standing on top of the Snake Hill in Wuchang. The earliest references to the tower come from the 8th century, and agree that it was a watch tower on the banks of the Yangtze river. The rebuilding of a classical tower, famous in Chinese poetry, within five years of the death of Mao Tse-Tung, in the town where the first republican revolution took place, must have been a politically fraught act. I could not find contemporary writing about it, but it is interesting enough that I will continue to search.
The statue of Yue Fei (photo above) a little bit up the hill is a must see, if only because it allows you to stop and have a swig of much needed water from the bottle you remembered to take with you. Yue Fei was a 12th century general in the Southern Song dynasty, considered to be one of the great generals of Chinese history. His greatness has grown in the 20th century, as parallels were drawn between his situation and that of the communists in the war years.
I took the stairs up the tower and was immediately drenched in sweat. Fortunately, on the balcony on each floor there was a nice breeze. The interior was beautiful. I find it remarkable that even after the Cultural Revolution, China has managed to retain the skills of painting and calligraphy, sculpture and woodwork. In fact, not only retain, but create such a ferment that contemporary Chinese art is one of the most dynamic in the world.
This interior was not dynamic and contenporary, but more of a theme park. The two story high ceramic work of a yellow crane flying over a representation of the tower is a study in contemporary kitsch. Two women posed below it for a photo. One of the upper floors had a special room for visiting poets. I guess I will have to practice being drunk enough to mistake the reflection of the moon for the one in the sky before I am let into this room.
This kitschy park, a recreation of an imagined past, as unreal as the 19th century reconstruction of Carcassone in France, embraces its kitsch very openly. A huge bell can be rung for luck, and a man sits in front of it collecting money. Stone lions sculpted recently sport deep moss. Everyone knows that this concrete tower dates from decades after the destruction of the original site to make way for the Yangtze bridge, but thinks of it at the same time as a Taoist holy place. China shows how fungible human beliefs are. We just need to believe, and anything can come to stand for what we believe.
What could be surprising about Chinese food, you ask? Isn’t it all chop suey and sweet and sour chicken, spring rolls and sweet corn soup, chili chicken and gobi Manchurian? On my first visit to China a few years ago I was surprised at how wrong this is. Noodle soups were only a quick stop for lunch. After working my way through many pleasant surprises, I settled on stir fried veggies with slices of meat, lots of different kinds of veggies on the side, and a bowl of steamed rice as a default comfortable dinner.
For dinner with non-Chinese friends on my last visit to Wuhan, I walked into a nice large restaurant full of people. Negotiating a menu is no longer impossible, now that everyone is equipped with apps that look through the camera or translate speech instantly. It may still be hard to understand what the translation means (an example is in the photo above). One of the dishes we ordered was billed as a fish soup, and the lady who was taking our orders added that it had eggs. A little confusing, we thought, but let out order stand. The result was a complete, but pleasant surprise. It looked like a custard (featured photo) but tasted of fish soup. It came studded with mussels. It was one of most delightfully different things I’ve come across for half a year.
I forgot to take note of what it is called. Can an old China hand help me out with guesses about what its name might be? (Thanks to a fellow blogger, I now have an answer. It is called 蒸蛋羹, Zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg).
One of the great stories of the end of the 20th century is the lifting of about half a billion people from China into the world’s middle class. That is about ten times larger than the middle class in India. When I return from a trip to China, people are always curious about how the Chinese middle class lives. They commute to work in buses and trains, and sometimes cars. Their day’s commute starts at about 5 in the morning, and ends between 5 and 6 in the evening. Dinner is early, so that by 8 they are free to relax.
The video you see here was taken in Wuhan on a weekday night. In most cities in China, when you pass by a housing complex you see something like what I captured in it. Women exercise with dances (there are two groups in this video), parents are out strolling with their children, there is a lot of socializing in the neighbourhood. It looks like a nice and relaxed lifestyle. But, of course, I haven’t lived it from the inside.
Last week I was in a meeting in Wuhan, a city that tourists overlook. This powerhouse city in central China was the origin of the successful Republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911, and, in succeeding years, became the capital of the nation for brief periods. One of its sights is the Soviet-era bridge across the Yangtze, the first modern bridge to be built across the river. That was in 1957. Other bridges have come up since then. I find the third bridge very photogenic. The featured photo is a view at sunset, just as the lights came on.
Walking between two tall brutalist concrete blocks, I looked up to see the nearest tower of the three and a half kilometer long cable-stayed bridge, lit up by the afternoon’s sun on the day of the summer solstice. This was a lucky shot because it had threatened to rain all day, and the sun had just briefly come out as I walked out towards the bridge. This is not a very famous bridge, having been completed in 2000 during a period of intense construction. Its main span is 681 meters, which makes it only the 31st longest span among cable-stayed bridges today. Still, I liked the looks of it.
It passes right next to the Hilton. I crossed a road and walked out under the bridge where a little riverside promenade has been built up. This was a cheerful place with families walking around. A toddler inspected me carefully as I took this shot, teetering and nearly out of balance. His father smiled at me. In most other countries my bright red phone causes people to recoil a little. In China it does not draw a second glance. Red (红 = hóng) is a lucky colour, and very common. What a strange happenstance that the colour of the French revolution of 1789, found its way through the Paris Commune, and its adoption by the Communist movements of the world to this country where it is the traditional colour of joy and luck.
Ambush photography seems to be a phrase which should exist. I do it all the time. I’ve ambushed film shoots, models, even wedding albums in the making. As long as you keep out of the way no one minds. Wedding photo shoots have slowly become a thing in China. The couple is always in Western dress (though occasionally in traditional red), but the setting is usually not traditionally Chinese.
I think in a few more years I can create an album of the most touristy spots in China with ambush photos of wedding shoots. I liked the occasions in the album above for simple reasons: the light in the featured photo, taken in the top floor of the Canton Tower, the activity in several, but also because they show off some of Guangzhou’s (and Wuhan’s) iconic spots.
China’s ghosts are the ghosts of the future. After my first visit in 2011, it took me a couple of years to realize that I would often live in a ghost town. The featured photo was taken one morning in November 2011 from a hotel room in Wuhan, probably on the last morning before I left. Photos taken from the same window at night showed large patches of darkness with a few brightly lit buildings (photo below). The hotel was very good, priced very reasonably, but far from full. On the few nights when I was not at an official dinner I would walk ten minutes to a brightly lit mall nearby and eat at one of the many restaurants there. I never questioned why the roads were not as crowded as the ones in India.
In later visits I found that life on the streets can be quite as crowded and interesting as that in India; it depends on where you live. Other questions attached themselves to this bit of oddity. Why did colleagues speak of the difficulty of finding affordable housing when a fast train across China would pass town after town where very few people seemed to live? Search for “ghost towns in China” and you can piece together an intriguing story. My sources are secondary, so the story is probably more nuanced than I can tell, but bear with me.
More than a decade ago, the government decided to increase spending in housing a hundredfold. It created public and state controlled corporations which started building apartments at a very rapid pace. The industry created jobs, and fuelled the current explosion in the economy. (This has already improved living conditions: the pollution and haze that you see in the featured photo is not seen any longer.) Provinces converted some of the land earmarked for agriculture to construction, so earning part of this budget. In order to control land speculation, builders could not squat on land until the prices rose, but were obliged by law to build immediately. The result was a huge glut in the housing market. But people with money started buying up flats which they did not need as investment. This pushed up housing prices very rapidly. To curb speculation, the government created a class of housing which had to be occupied immediately, but the harm was already done; property prices had gone through the roof. Nobody could buy, so nobody could sell. The government can’t stop financing construction because then a very large number of people will lose jobs. The result is a speculative bubble which is simmering while flats lie vacant. This problem arises from precisely the same long-term planning that China is famous for.
Again, in a November seven years after my first visit to China, I stayed in a nice, very large, and awfully underutilized, hotel in Hefei, The hotel and the recreational area around it were well lit, and reasonably full at night. But when I took a taxi to work in the early mornings, or returned at dusk, I would pass kilometers of housing which seemed barely occupied. China is incredibly safe from street crime, otherwise they would be dangerous places to walk through.
I look at the lone lit window in the photo above and think of the hope which China has of providing housing to all of its people. This photo was taken on the hundred and first anniversary of the failed Russian revolution. The developed world is still living out the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare of shifting jobs, the Blair-Clinton pruning of alternative viewpoints. Has China truly discovered the middle path of publicly funded private enterprise with long-range planning by the government? These ghost cities wait for the future to answer.
I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.
How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.
That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.
I passed Wuhan’s museum of contemporary art on the way in from the airport. I’m extremely fond of contemporary Chinese sculpture, so I went to look. How wide is contemporary art in China? In Beijing and Shanghai I’d seen photography, paintings, calligraphy, as well as metal and ceramic sculpture. During a brief chat in Shanghai with a ceramics artist called Liu Ping, I discovered that the art of porcelain has been transformed by the new glazes which utilize the new high-temperature kilns.
My acquaintance with Chinese art is so new that I was sure I would find interesting new media in Wuhan. I was not disappointed: the ground floor contains a gallery of video installations. They ranged from the extreme abstract to ones which had the look of modern animation cartoons. I liked one in which a video was projected from inside on to a spherical paper lantern (photo on the left). A gallery on the second floor had beautiful lacquer work. This is something I don’t know much about, so I was not sure what was new about the pretty pieces which I saw.
The sculptures were as innovative as those I’ve seen elsewhere. There was a field of paper mushrooms (above) stretching out to great distances. It was a sculptural equivalent of calligraphy. The form of each of the mushrooms was fairly well fixed: the artist did not invent a new type of mushroom each time he rolled the paper. The art was in how the whole was put together. You could step back and look at the scale of the whole thing, in which case you did not see each figure. Or you could bend down and look at each mushroom, and lose sight of the whole.
There was a stunning piece of woodwork elsewhere: a long table with a steamship sailing through it. The wooden steamship belches out wooden smoke, and throws up a wooden wake as it plows through a wooden sea. My dinky little phone does not really do justice to the sculpture. Part of the fun is in the fact that it is a long table, which could be usable as a table. The far end of the piece (not seen in the photo) looks just like an ordinary, but good, piece of furniture. You might admire the grain and the polish, but you could just use it as a table. The other end of the long piece is the end in the photo above. The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the unexpected is part of the fun here.
I’m sure I have other photos. More about Chinese art as I discover them.