Six months to March 2011

Sunset over the forbidden city
Sunset over the Forbidden City.

Here’s what I’ve been up to these past six months:

Beijing October and November were mostly spent in Beijing studying Chinese — four hours every weekday, commuting from my hutong courtyard house in the center of town to the Beijing Language and Culture University, situated in the Wudaokou university district. My daily routine involved getting up early to beat the traffic, because the ring-roads come to a standstill by 7:15. By then I’d be in one of the university’s cafés having breakfast while doing my homework. Classes were from 8 until 12. About one third of the class consisted of extremely enthusiastic Italians, so breaks involved bonus refresher courses in Italian. The afternoons were spent exploring Beijing, often by bike, often ending up in some out-of-the-way place where I’d find someone to inflict my Chinese upon.

Beijing is a city that continues to transform itself at a rapid clip. In my neighborhood (The Dongcheng district, near Jingshan Park), my six months’ residence saw entire city blocks of hutong residential buildings demolished, and as I biked past them I could observe the daily “progress”. Between Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, hutong neighborhoods that have been condemned and mostly abandoned still flicker with the occasional act of defiance by an aged holdout; but what is soon coming in their stead is a wholly modern reconstruction, friendly to mass tourism and flagship stores. Judging from the crowds of domestic tourists coming to see the completed parts of this transformation, it’s what the people want.

During the autumn I managed three weekend trips: To Xi’an with my parents (who came visiting); back to Shanghai to attend the closing ceremony of the Swedish Pavilion at Shanghai Expo; and to Hong Kong, meeting up with friends.

Xi’an Xi’an boasts the Terracotta Army, but the Shaanxi History Museum and Emperor Jingdi’s mausoleum are also very impressive if less-known national treasures. The night market in the Muslim quarter is frenetic with energy — this was the Silk Road’s terminus, connecting China to Rome, India and Arabia.

Night market, Xi'an

Nearby, beneath the Drum Tower, entrepreneurs with telescopes on motorized tricycles peddled a look at the full moon, which vies for attention with kites high in the night sky.

Aiming for the moon

The Great Mosque of Xi’an is another gem, a sublime mix of Chinese and Islamic esthetics:

The Great Mosque of Xi'an

But the Terracotta Army impresses simply through scale. Here’s a panorama of the main hall:

Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an - panorama

Zoom in for the full effect. You can see the whole set on Flickr.

Hong Kong In November, it was my first time in Hong Kong, a city whose openness surprised me, and which provides living proof that Chinese culture thrives in a democratic environment. I even saw genuine protestors unharassed by police! (So no more excuses, mainland China.) In the evenings, my friends hosted some splendid dinners — I had my first-ever bowl of snake soup, which was delicious.

Japan Having passed my Chinese exams in early December, it was time for week in pre-quake Japan before heading back to Europe. Tokyo’s effortless individuality affords it a select place in the club of world capitals (together with New York and London). Tokyoites are perfectionists at being their inimitable selves. With a friend from Shanghai as guide, I found ramen noodles boiled to al dente perfection, ate kobe beef that had the texture of butter, and drank milk among the geeks at a manga bar. The newly re-opened Nezu Museum is notable for its garden and tranquil architecture; the Mori Art Museum was showing some impressive works by Odani Motohiko; and the National Art Center had a Van Gogh exhibition that attracted queues fit for rock concerts.

Tokyo panorama #1
The view from the Mori Art Museum. Zoom in.

Kyoto is even more of an expression of Japan’s meticulous attention to detail, in this instance focused on preserving its heritage. Kyoto has one of the highest concentrations of World Heritage sites anywhere, each temple and rock garden more splendid than the last.

Behind Kiyomizu-dera temple

Surprisingly, compared to China, very few Japanese dare to speak English, but overall I came away incredibly impressed with Japan and the wealthy cohesive society it has built in the post-war era. One more observation — they are some of the world’s best queuers:

Queueing, Tokyo style

This society-wide skill at playing positive-sum games will surely speed the rebuilding Japan now faces.

More Japan photos at Flickr. I also took a 360-degree panorama of Shibuya Crossing.

It was impossible not to make comparisons between Japan and China, and how their paths have diverged in the post-WWII era. If China’s leaders make no further mistakes in the next half century, then that country too will finally reach Japan’s standard of living, but not without first having to multiply productivity tenfold. Every Japanese worker is still 10 times as productive as their Chinese counterpart.

Belgium, Sweden In late December it was time for a family Christmas reunion in Belgium, followed by a move to Sweden in early January, where I am still officially a resident. After four years of living in three of the world’s most polluted megapolises (Cairo, Shanghai, Beijing) it was time to reacquaint myself with the fresh air, pure snow and clean tap water of the sub-Arctic… and to reconnect with good friends over a coffee in Stockholm cafés — something which no amount of Facebooking can replace.

Egypt Luckily I found a place to rent that had cable TV, because I would soon find myself glued to Al Jazeera, following the Arab revolutions. Having lived in Cairo, I had great sympathy for the Egyptians’ cause, and very much wished I could be there to see history in the making. The uprising was unexpected — during my time there in 2007-2009, every demonstration no matter how small would be roughly suppressed, and the Egyptians I knew were resigned to their fate. But the events in Tunisia were a psychological blow to the self-censorship of their courage, and that set in motion a process which led to victory over the Mubarak regime and the system that underpinned it.

By Friday February 11, Mubarak was gone. A few days later, there was news of a massive celebratory street party to be held the next Friday on Midan Tahrir. I and a friend booked my tickets immediately for a 48-hour trip to Cairo. In part, my motivation had to do with 1989, and my failed attempt then to head to Berlin as the Berlin Wall fell. This time, I would be there.

Obligatory photo op in front of a tank

The joy and hope and pride on the faces of Egyptians as they celebrated on February 18 is unforgettable. Over a million people descended on the square, and in the course of a day I saw perhaps just 10 other foreigners. Everyone was exceedingly friendly; we were frequently thanked for being there.

Midan Tahrir - 63 megapixel panorama

Here’s a video I made of the impressions of that day:

I also used my time to meet up with old friends, and to hear their stories of the previous weeks. See more photos from Egypt on Flickr.

London In early March, it was time for another visit to London, to stay with my sister and her husband, and their two great kids. Not to be missed in London right now: The Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum, and Ai Weiwei’s 100 million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern:

Ai Wei Wei's Sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern

I’m back in Sweden now, for once with no trips planned, and looking forward to spring.

2 thoughts on “Six months to March 2011

  1. Pingback: 2011: Q2, Q3, Q4 | BLOG@STEFANGEENS.COM

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