Thursday, 20 December 2012

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000)While the kind of short-term memory loss suffered by our main lead Shelby is rare, but a condition we're all suffering from time to time. This happens when we walk into a room and couldn't recall why we're there. And while this condition of short-term memory loss is temporary for young people, this condition deteriorates when we get older. This is shown by the fact that a 70 year old person would have no problem recalling what happened to him/her some 60 years ago, and would repeat the same childhood story they just told you 10 minutes ago. While they have little problem with long-term memory, their short-term memories perform at a fraction of their youth. Old people have others to take care of them, but not our hero, who has to do it on his own.

I love the writers' idea of using a photograph to preserve his memories (and it's the theme for the movie poster). This is the opposite of photographic memory to describe somebody with a phenomenal short-term memory. Quite ironic.

What makes this movie groundbreaking is its narrative structure. Traditional narrative is linear and chronological. Sometimes with an occasional flashbacks that deviate from that simple structure. For viewers who have problem following the story, the following explanations may help.

In this movie there're 2 narrative threads: one is older than the other. To help the audience to tell the difference between the 2 threads, it's colour coded. To be exact, the old narrative thread is shown in black and white (as usually the case), while the newer narrative thread is in colour. The 2 narrative threads are then told in parallel. Because it's physically impossible to tell the 2 narrative threads in TRUE parallel, they're told alternately (the only way they could be told in TRUE parallel is to have a split screen and shown the 2 narrative threads in each halves of the screen. This is ridiculously hard  - if not impossible - for us to follow the story).

To complicate this 2 thread narrative structure even more, the newer or coloured narrative thread is told in reverse while the old narrative is told in chronological order.

Actually, it's much easier for me to show you graphically than to explain it in words.

A book is typically made up of chapters while films are made up of scenes (it's more accurate to use the term 'sequence' instead of 'scene'. I'll use these 2 terms interchangeably in this article).

In a normal movie with traditional narrative style without any flashback, the scenes will be shown as follow with Scene 2 occurs before Scene 1 in time, and Scene 3 occurs before Scene 2 in time, etc. I think you get the drift:
 
Guy PearceScene 1
Scene 2
Scene 3
.
.
.
Scene 12
Scene 13

Pretty straight forward, isn't it?

In Memento, the narrative structure is much more interesting. The older narrative thread that links Scene 1 to Scene 6 are shot in black and white while the newer narrative thread that links Scene 7 to Scene 13 are shot in colour. And then if you interlace these 2 threads, i.e. show the scenes from 2 threads alternately, you end up with the following rather convoluted narrative flow:


Guy PearceScene 13 (Colour)
Scene 01 (B&W)
Scene 12 (Colour)
Scene 02 (B&W)
Scene 11 (Colour)
Scene 03 (B&W)
Scene 10 (Colour)
Scene 04 (B&W)
Scene 09 (Colour)
Scene 05 (B&W)
Scene 08 (Colour)
Scene 06 (B&W)
Scene 07 (Colour)

Of course, the movie might have more than 13 scenes (I'm quite sure it does). It doesn't really matter the actual number (I didn't keep count. Even if I did, my short-term memory will make me forget). Where was I?

Ah Yes. In the opening scene - Scene 13 above - where our hero flips his Polaroid photo, and the scene is being fast-rewind, signalling to the audience that this narrative thread (in colour) is going to be told in reverse all the way until the end of the movie.

Note the last 2 scenes - Scene 06 and Scene 07 - are actually in the correct chronological sequence. This is indeed the case in the movie. Scene 7 is important because this is where our hero makes his critical decision that would govern how he acts in the rest of the story, which didn't end at the end of the movie! It end in the begining.

In one sense, this narrative structure is revolutionary. There's no question about it. On the other hand, this kinda of all jumbled up, out of sequenced scenes are actually how a movie is typically shot. Movies are rarely, if ever, shot in the same chronological sequence as the story. Think of the following story:

Scene 1 - takes place in NY.
Scene 2 - takes place in Paris.
Scene 3 - takes place in NY.
Scene 4 - takes place in Paris.
.
.
.
etc.

It would be pure madness  - and huge time and financial budget overrun - for the director to shoot Scene 1 in NY, and then move the whole crew to Paris to shoot Scene 2, and then back to NY to shoot Scene 3...you get the drift. They shoot all the scenes in NY, and then all in Paris. And let the editing room put all the whole mess in the desired sequence. And Scene 1 isn't necessarily shot before Scene 3 either even if they're in the same location. The 2 scenes might be in different seasons, time of day, weather conditions, and other considerations, for example. The point is, every movie is made with the kind of jumbled mayhem that viewers have to tackle in this movie. In fact, there's logic in this movie in its apparent chaos that lacks in the movie making.

I had involved in a few big budget Hollywood production like Superman Returns as studio extra. :-)

Now that we understand this somewhat complicated narrative structure, the question is why? Oh why? Are the writers - the Nolan's bros - trying to screw with our heads? Nah...

It's actually done, as far as I can see, for 2 valid points.
  • To get a feel of what our hero feels, which is total disorientation of events, because of his loss of short term memories. This complicated narrative structure is quite bewildering for us at least in the beginning as we figuring out the narrative structure. This is what our hero deals with everyday with his medical condition. Also, we're better in understanding the story as the movie progresses just as our hero is getting better at coping with his memory condition.
  • The story is a mystery for the audience to constantly guessing why our hero does what he does. It isn't revealed until Scene 07 above. If the story is told in a linear chronological order, the mystery reveals itself in Scene 07 will leave the rest of the movie - Scene 08 through to Scene 13 - rather uninspiring to watch because there's no more mystery to solve.
 So what's the mystery?

For readers who want to keep their suspense of mystery about this movie as much as possible, skip the rest of the paragraph, even though I won't give that much away anyway. Simply to say that the mystery in this story is in a sense not too different from Shutter Island (2010). You could even say Shutter Island (2010) is a simplified version of Memento (2000) with traditional linear chronological narrative structure. After you have watched Memento (2000), you won't find anything too original in Shutter Island. But if you've seen Shutter Island (2010) and enjoy it, you would find this movie more meaty.

This movie is also for the fans of time travel movies. After all, time travel narratives contains all kind of flashbacks where the movies showing events out of the normal chronology.

The narrative structure of the Chinese made movie The Man Behind the Courtyard House (2011)  is probably - I said probably - borrowed from this movie because of its striking similarity. I have a feeling that it isn't going to be the only one in the future.



Saturday, 10 November 2012

6 Days Datong, Pingyao and Taiyuan Tour

6 Days Datong, Pingyao and Taiyuan Tour
Yungang Grottoes, Huayan Monastery, Nine Dragon Wall, Hanging Temple, Pingyao ancient town, Qiao Courtyard, Jin Ancestral Temple
Tour Code: TCT-Datong-02
Tour Type: Private Tour
Best Travel Time: Suitable for the whole year, best from April to November.

Day 1 Arrival Datong
Arrive in Datong, you will be greeted at the train station by your tour guide and transferred to hotel.  In ancient China, Datong was a place of strategic importance and a place where the Han people frequently exchanged with the ethnic minority peoples in north China.

Meals: No meal
Accommodation: In Datong

Day 2 Datong 
Today, enjoy your city tour famous Buddhist sites including Yungang Grottoes-- one of World Culture SitesHuayan Monastery--the largest and best preserved monastery of the Liao Dynasty in existence in China and Nine Dragon Wall--the oldest and largest glazed screen in China.

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Accommodation: In Datong


Yungang Grottoes 

Day 3 Datong  Pingyao Today, you will take a driving to the famous Hanging Temple for a visit there, and then continue your drive to Pingyaoancient town. Pingyao was the home of a powerful trading family with significant commercial influence even beyond Shanxi, as they were in the trade sector, a nationwide business.

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Accommodation: In Pingyao


Hanging Temple


Day 4 Pingyao 
Enjoy yourselves in this ancient and relaxing town - Pingyao. Rishengchang Exchange Shop and Ming Qing Streetare two main attractions in this town.

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Accommodation: In Pingyao

Pingyao Ancient Town



Day 5 Pingyao  TaiyuanAfter breakfast, take driving to Taiyuan, on the way, you will have a visit to Qiao Courtyard, an enclosed castle style construction, which can be dated back to 1756. And it was once the home of a powerful trading family with significant commercial influence even beyond Shanxi, as theirs was a nationwide business.

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Accommodation: In Taiyuan


Qiao Courtyard

Day 6 Departure Taiyuan
Today, you will have a visit to Jin Ancestral Temple, the oldest wooden structure in Taiyuan. After the tour, be transferred to the airport for your flight to next destination.

Meals: 
Breakfast, Lunch

Jin Ancestral Temple

Service Ends

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Beijing Day 12 - Beijing Ancient Observatory

The World's 2nd Most Famous Scientific Cat. Timekeeping for Nocturnal Party Animal.

sunny 11 °C

The Beijing Ancient Observatory locates above Jiangoumen subway station, which is right next to Yonganli station where Fraser Suites is located. It takes me 12 mins to walk from Fraser Suites to Yonganli Stn, but with a sub 10°C temperature and windy condition, I decided to take a cab straight to the Observatory. It cost  ¥12. The flag-fall fare (¥10) just ticked over.

Beijing Ancient Observatory
Beijing Ancient Observatory from the Highway
I do have a great  interest in astronomy, but more in the theoretical (and much more entertaining) aspects like Black Hole, The Big Bang, Twins Paradox, white dwarf, pulsars and whatnot (anything that helps me to understand Hollywood sci-fi flicks).

I'm not so much into astronomical instruments, which are bland and unexciting (I have yet watched a movie about astronomical instruments). Still, since it's in the neighbourhood, it's well worth the little trouble.

This is the oldest observatory in the world. And it built like 1 of those watch towers (only much bigger) that you would see in the Great Wall with the various instruments sit on top of it. You can easily spot these rusty ancient antiques from the streets.

Beijing Ancient Observatory admission ticket, Beijing, China
Admission ticket: ¥20

One thing that the astronomy enthusiasts would be glad to hear, this place is very quiet as it’s not your usual sightseeing spot (probably busier in peak tourist season. Still, I doubt it would ever be very crowded). I spent about an hour there, and saw no more than 6 visitors. Nothing unusual about that in other countries. In China, it's noteworthy.

Sundial, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Sundial with Arabic numeral markings
(click to enlarge)

The upside of sundial is that it’s green as it ‘powered’ by the sun; the downside is that it too big to put it in your pocket, and too heavy to wear it on your wrist. The sundial says 2 o'clock while the timestamp of the photo says, wait for it, 1:59pm. It still keeps pretty accurate time after a few centuries. If you look in the back, would you find an engraving of "Made in ancient China"? I wondered.


Sundial with Chinese time markings, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Sundial shows 2 o'clock

This Chinese sundial has Chinese time markings. The 2rd or middle ring marks the time of day. Chinese divides the day into 12 "hours". Each Chinese hour is represented by an animal zodiac. The same animal zodiac that marks each year. The innermost and outermost rings divide the Chinese hours into 2 halves, which equals to the duration of the hour that we use today.

The 2 sundials above are photographed within a minutes of each other. So they both should say 2pm. I read this as 3pm. But I think I just read it wrong.

While both China and Greek both came up with sundials independently, it took Chinese to come up with the moondial.

Ancient Egypt is a Sun culture because of its prominence in the dessert. It worship Ra the Sun god and built calendar using it.

Ancient China is a Moon culture. It uses a lunar calendar. It celebrates Mid-Autumn Festival by eating moon cakes (I love it), and entertained by the folklore of the Jade Rabbit (Yutu 玉兔), and the story of Moon Goddess Chang'e or Chang-O (嫦娥). Both of them live in a palace on the moon.

By the way, the Chinese lunar mission is called Chang'e in keeping with the myth of her flying to the moon, and its unmanned lunar rover is called Yutu.

The moondial was handy for all the nocturnal activities. It was not just for the benefits of nocturnal party animals, it was also for the many sanitary workers who disposed the city's wastes in the dead of night. A good timekeeping is important for a proper running of a city.

Ancient Chinese moondial
Moondial, Beijing Ancient Observatory
In ancient China, every night somebody would walk around the city streets, announcing time. It would go something like this, "It's 3 o'clock. Watch out for fire hazard". And the time-announcer would strike the gong a number of times that represents the hours. Any long-time movie fan of the wuxia genre would know exactly what I'm talking about. Where did they get the hours from? Moondial, I presume. What about moonless night? You got me there. They probably used something that doesn't rely on either sunlight or moonlight like the steelyard clepsydra. It's basically a water clock. In reality, I imagine they wouldn't just rely on a single tool, but used all these different tools for cross references.
  
Steelyard Clepsydra, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Steelyard Clepsydra in the exhibition hall of Beijing Ancient Observatory
Why do they put a bunny in the water clock? It's probably Yutu...Moon culture, remember?

This is probably the most well known scientific cat in Beijing. Maybe in the world after Cheshire Cat. Ok, this is just a physicist's joke. I see photo of this Beijing pussy a few times on the web.

It didn't seem to grin at me, if anything it looked half-apprehensive half-please to the attention of my camera. I'm uncertain about its mood. Apology for another Quantum Mechanics joke. Maybe. You can never be sure. Can you?

The exhibit halls that highlight the Chinese astronomical achievement is of the most interest to me, as well as the Western influence on the development of Chinese modern astronomy.

Armilla or armillary sphere, Beijing Ancient Observatory, China
Armilla or armillary sphere

Astronomy is a science that occupies a special place in history. It's a science that dated far more ancient than the Scientific Revolution that started in 1543 when Nicolas Copernicus published his book titled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. So astronomy not only predates the Scientific Revolution for many millennia, it also marks the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

In the West, this Scientific Revolution came about because Copernicus dared to challenge the Church, which held state power in Medieval Europe.  Copernicus said that it was the earth that revolves around the Sun, not the other way round. For the Medieval people, it's hard to imagine that the earth could spin around the Sun without getting really dizzy. In fact, not only the earth spins around the Sun, it also spins on its own axis. In fact, it spins in more directions, and thousands of times faster than a ballerina. The Church found all these explanation dizzying.


Astronomical instruments, Beijing Ancient Observatory
Astronomical instruments, Beijing Ancient Observatory

Science is an enterprise of making a fool out of "common sense". The so-called "fact" gets in the way of the truth. Why didn't we understand it? And why don't we feel dizzy? The answers to both questions is that we're slow. Very slow. And why don't we fly off the earth as it spins? Because the earth sucks.

The rise of the West marked by the Scientific Revolution. Similarly, China as a leading scientific and technological pioneer was also marked by its achievements in astronomy. Astronomy was important in all major cultures because astronomy was an instrument (no pun intended) of religion, ironically. It was also astronomy that spearheaded by Copernicus, and then further developed by Galileo that eventually led to the downfall of religion in the West, which brought an end to the Dark Age. Borrowing a popular Chinese proverb, "water can support boats, as well as capsize them" = "水能载舟,亦能覆舟".

 Never mind light pollution that all modern observatories concerned with, with day like the one on the 1st day I arrived, you couldn't even see more than a few streets from here, let alone outer space.

Just as ironic, it's the progress of science and technology that causes light and air pollution.




Saturday, 3 November 2012

Beijing Day 9 - Sanlitun & Yashow Clothing Market

Was planning to go to Sanlitun (三里屯) sometimes during this trip. It was a perfect day for it because it was raining cats and dogs (we forgot to bribe the weather god with food offering).

After a quick obligatory tour of the high-end shopping mall with designer label shops, we went to the next door downmarket Yashow or Yaxiu Clothing Market (雅秀服装市场) for the actual shopping. Beijing had a few of such designer label knock-off shopping areas. We went to the Silk Street 2 nights ago. None are bigger than the Shanghai's Qipu Road. Still it's big when comparing to similar markets in other countries.


Sanlitun, Beijing
Sanlitun Shopping Centre

Seasoned shoppers recommend to bargain down to 75% of the shoppers' offer prices. We bought a parka for our coming trip to Datong next week. Their asking price was ¥400, and we haggled it down to ¥200. We could have driven the prices down a bit more, but that last ¥50 takes too much effort.

Such bargaining isn't for everyone, especially tourists who got used to buy things off the pricetags. Some of the price haggling got a little personal, and out of hand. It's not uncommon to see heated bargaining that looked more like an argument. It's quite funny to watch if it doesn't happen to you. Since I had zero interest in shopping, these "trade shows" bought me some measure of boredom reliefs.

These shopkeepers have no problems if you ignore them as you're walking past, showing little interests in their merchandise. When you started to make enquiry with eagerness and making some efforts in bargaining, it would get their knickers in a twist if you suddenly ignoring them and walking away.  I saw a couple of examples of this category of customers being hurled a few colourful Chinese expressions as they walked away, ignoring the repeated loud cries of "How much you say? How much?" What followed automatically sounded like a barrage from an automatic rifle of Chinese name calling. Well, if you dangle a carrot so close to the mouth that somebody can almost taste it, and then just snatch it away, you're being a teaser customer. Nothing riled these shopkeepers up more than teaser customers.


It rained even heavier when we decided to call it a day. Caught yourself in this weather would be nightmarish, but Lady Luck decided to give us a break. We was able to catch a taxi within 3 mins, which was hard in Beijing any time of the day.  In this weather seeed like a absolute fluke.

Beijing cabbie are in general stressful, and this weather wouldn't help. Well, like I said, Lady Luck was also on our side, and gave us an exceptional cabbie. He was humming a relaxing tune as we got into his taxi, quite a contrast to the inclement weather. And greeted us with "Ciao". He explained that's "Hello" in Spanish and Italian. To find a cheerful Beijing cabbie is a rare sight. And next to impossible in this weather.

At the traffic light, he took out 1 of his 5 Rubic Cubes of various sizes and shapes on top of his dashboard, twisted and and rotated in blurring speed, the Cube was solved with the same colour in all sides before the traffic light changed. He told us this took 9.2 sec as he stopped the timer on his dashboard. When asked, he told me that his record is 8 sec. Seems like he was 1 of the very few Beijing taxi drivers who was able to cope with stress with diversion and right attitude.



Friday, 2 November 2012

Beijing Day 8 - H5O & the Great Firewall of China

Trying to Peer through the Murky Mist of Great Fire Wall of China of the Chinese Internet and Media Censorship.


Great Fire Wall of China
Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist
After a week of touring Beijing, I finally had a well earned rest. A break from holiday break.

Turned on the TV, and as I channel surfed, my eyes were caught by an episode of H5O (the old Jack Lord series of Hawaii-Five-O. The new series is written as H50, not H5O).

"Déjà vu!" I thought to myself.

I remembered vividly watching H5O (Season 2 or 3) in AXN in another hotel room in HK while I had a break just like today. And wrote a diary entry/post HK Day 4 - Hawaii-Five-O, The Fed & China after the viewing.

Here I'm, in another Fraser Suites hotel room in Beijing, resting, gracing by another episode of H5O Season 4. Once again, the H5O's arch-nemesis Mr. Wo Fat wearing his - supposedly the sinister Fu Manchu - moustache was at it again, up to his usual tricks of attempting to destroy the Free West, especially Uncle Sam. They don't make innocent (or silly depending on your viewpoint) enterainment like that any more.



Media Censorship in China
No, I'm not having another dig at the writer of H5O as I had done in the above linked post. What I'm thinking this time is TV - and media - censorship in PRC. Like many countries, Chinese authority censored films with moral values that they don't like. In addition, they also censored and ban films that paints a negative portrayal of PRC. A good example of this is  Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) because it dares to be critical of the Chinese Communist party. Or indeed any negative portrayal of China as a nation would be banned.

It was viewed in this light that I slightly surprise - not shocked - that H5O are allowed to be aired in Mainland China. Perhaps I had to rethink about PRC's censorship. And from that day onward, I begun to watch all TV programs in my hotel with an eye towards censorship.

First off, I also subscribe AXN in Singapore, and as far as I could tell, the programs that aired in Singapore and China are identical. Never mind the R rated movies on Cinemax (like “When Stranger Calls” that was shown when I was there). And having watched different TV channels with various programs since, my only conclusion was, there’s no censorship of what could be shown in the hotel I stayed in.

For example, during that time, I watched a BBC report that was quite critical of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) for concentrating too much on economic reforms, and too little on political reforms in the last 3 decades in order to keep their power grip firmly on the country. BBC is known for their independent voice.

The topic of China was coming up a bit because of the upcoming change of leadership in the CCP (only a week after Barrack Obama's re-election). Well, BBC was actually quite politically correct. In contrast, a Taiwanese channel showed even more juicy stuff like speculating on the next Chinese leader and the rather unflattering expose on the hidden face of the powerful elites behind the Politburo; the kind of personal stuff that any politician in the West wouldn’t want their public to find out. Yes, I've seen it on a TV in Beijing, China. The Taiwanese program is naturally spoke in Mandarin.

If I watched this program in, say Taiwan, I wouldn't give it another thought. After all, they made this program. I wouldn't want to jump to conclusion about PRC's censorship one way or another too quickly, so I asked James - a Singaporean who has been working in China for 18 years - about censorship on TV in China. He applied, "very little". I asked if he could remember a specific instance where he suspected censorship, and what did it look like. He couldn't recall. I got the impression that there was none.

I had previous experience that made me surprise to James' reply.  I stayed in Etta's dad's place in Guangzhou earlier this year. His favourite channel was TVBJ that broadcast directly from HK into China. In one news report, in the middle of president Hu Jintao's sentence, it was abruptly cut to a TV commercial. And just as sudden, the TV commercial was cut before it finished, and returned to the previous news program, but at a slightly later time because President Hu had done talking.

I was confused what was going on, thinking it was some kind of technical glitches. In a dismal voice, Etta's dad explained that what I witnessed was censorship in action, Chinese style. The broadcast was censored live, I think, but with a delay. Let's say the program is delayed by an hour, so whenever the authority didn't like what was on the TV, they cut to a TV commercial and resumed after the censored section. Thus they have an hour - or whatever amount of time delay - to evaluate what was to be censored.

Under the "1 country, 2 systems" policy, HK is given the enviable position (in Mainlanders' eyes) to retain the political freedom that they enjoyed as British colony. This includes freedom of the press, which is more open than many Asian countries, including Japan, for example. Chinese authority isn't going to let this freedom of expression in TVBJ news reports to enter Mainland unfiltered.

One tentative conclusion I could make out of all these observations was that there're double standards being applied to hotels and local residential TV program subscribers. After all, the hotel guests are foreigners, and they have been watching all these stuff all along. What's the point in censoring them? The censorship were aiming at Chinese, not foreigners. Mind you, any local, in this case Beijinger, could also check into any international hotel and watch these TV programs to their heart’s content. They could go overseas and watch these programs. Well, they could go overseas and never come back. And many do. I have more to say about this last few points later.

One has to be very careful in jumping to conclusion too quickly about anything in China. I had done so a number of times. Shame! Shame! Shame! When there's no transparency, the whole censorship - indeed many government policies - is like a black box. We couldn't do anything but to speculate what's inside the black box. Quite often, we got it wrong.

Another conclusion about the censorship is that the central government leaves it to the provincial government to do what they please with the censorship. There maybe other reasons that escape me too...

H5O was coming to the end while I busily brainstorming (that happened a lot), I quickly grabbed the laptop and launched my investigation on the censorship in the internet. One good idea leads to another...


Internet Censorship in China
While they may apply double standards on foreign TV channels in hotels and Chinese citizens, only 1 standard is applying to the internet. And not all the censorship is purely politically motivated. In fact, many censorship are economically based, and other are moral ones.

For example, I can't access some of the globally most visited commercial websites like Face Book, IMDB, Twitter or Blogger within China. Not that the government fear these products as they're dangerous politically if they're in the hands of the people. No. These are paranoid people (usually have never set foot in China) who think PRC is a totalitarian state. They're not as democratic as some countries, I agree. Totalitarian...nah...

Let's look at this list with US internet companies versus the Chinese counterparts.

US Companies Chinese Companies
www.facebook.com www.renren.com
www.imdb.com www.douban.com
www.ebay.com www.alibaba.com
www.amazon.com www.taobao.com
www.twitter.com www.weibo.com
www.youtube.com www.youku.com
www.google.com www.baidu.com
www.blogger.com www.sina.com.cn

These very popular US' websites are being blocked in China so that the local private internet companies wouldn't be crushed by US' internet giants. And they're thriving under the state protection. Indeed, 4 out of the 15 top websites globally are Chinese. Russia has 1, and Japan has 1. This wouldn't have been possible if they didn't create barriers to protect them from the onslaught of foreign corporate titans.

There's little question that the products are copied along US' products' lines. Youku even sounds like youtube. I guess this is done on brand association basis.

All the smaller US websites like Tripadviser, however, would be able to get through the Chinese firewall unscathed.

While I expect my blog would be blocked in China, I was surprise that by using following URL, it came up!

http://ramberwithoutboders.blogspot.sg

(I haven't checked out Wordpress, but I suspect they don't get preferential treatment. I could be wrong. If they aren't blocked in China, this suggests they don't pose a threat, as far as PRC goes).

I felt like I repeated David Copperfield's performance when he did his great publicity stunt by walking through the Great Wall of China. The reason why I would even type this Singapore country domain site address is because in Singapore, google automatically redirected me to this country selective address, whether I like it or not. Both of my .com and .sg blog sites contain identical content. I'm thinking, it's as if Chinese internet watchdog is saying, "If it passes the Singapore Censorship, it's good enuff for us!" I was thinking that, but I didn't really buy the idea. Censorship in Singapore and Elsewhere Sillypore - a nickname locals give Singapore - is well know for heavy censorship. The Sin City - another nickname for Singapore - is a straitlaced society with spotless streets and clean information superhighway. They tend to be more like Australian government where they’re hard on the moral issues like hardcore porn sites, but soft on political ones. At least in Singapore, if a website is censored, this MDA message would come up when you try to visit there. While in China, you get a blank 404 error page. You don't know if you have reached a blocked site, or the site is down, or some other technical isues. This is what I meant by being not transparent, or a black box. And another thing, these 2 web pages about censorship in Singapore and Internet Censorship in Singapore aren't blocked in Singapore (don't laugh. And don't take things for granted). This shows that Singapore is more sensitive to moral issues than political ones. You can freely express your displeasure about government's blocking of certain porn sites in Singapore. I know for a fact that some Gulf States - Bahrain ad Dubai - would block many political websites like that. These are 2 of the most 'liberal' GCC states. I had been to both countries, and lived in Bahrain for nearly 3 months. I had nothing to do but surfed on the net, and ran into internet walls frequently. You could read my travel diaries for these 2 countries here. I'm not defending Singapore's censorship, but saying censorship, like governments, in many countries couldn't either classified as total autocracy or modelled democracy. They filled the whole spectrum in between the 2 extremes. Actually. the appearance of http://ramberwithoutboders.blogspot.sg page shouldn't come as a total surprise. My blog's GA stats shown page views from China averaged once or twice a week before I went to Beijing. The joy of accessing my blog was short-lived. In the next day, the google ads was gone, and the day after, my blog had gone completely (the cat is out of the bag, and got killed). My blog site was out of reach by Chinese netizen. My snooping alerted the Chinese authority, and the loophole is now plugged. Or using a Chinese expression, "beating the grass and startle the snake" (打草惊蛇). I should smoke it, instead of beating it. Oh well, I was never a hit in Chinese blogosphere anyway, going by the page hits I got. Not in the same league as Han Han (the most popular Chinese blogger in the world. His blog has over 30 million hits). The dream of conquering the Chinese market like millions before me was dashed. Jokes aside. Regardless of the technical issues, very low percentage of the Chinese population could understand English. One can argue that I could install a translator on my blog to solve the language barrier, but Chinese netizen still have to do a English search to get to my site. I suspect the few visits to my site I got from China previously came from foreigners in China. So sorry laowai. Ok, they might get here by googling '打草惊蛇'. Chances are, they would type that into Baidu. I don't know if Baidu sent their spiders to crawl my blog. I wonder. I wonder whether my website was viewed by a human operator before it was decided to block it. Elsewhere, they may use some computer algorithm. Human capital is cheap in China. There're other reasons too why I think my blog was reviewed by somebody. After all, my blog's GA stats showed that it averaged only a few page views per week before. So why didn't it get blocked until now? It was so happened that when I accessed my blog from China, the post on the home page was my Gender Inequality & Imbalance in China article. Bugger! I guess they don't like this article, understandably. They decided to put me on the blocked list. Another thing. When I got back from China, I checked my blog's GA stats and it showed 55 hits in the week when I accessed my blog in Beijing. I could only account for a maximum of 10 of those hits. Somebody must have been busy reading my blog, and decided nobody in China should read it any further. I could be wrong. Since that 55-hit spike on the Richter scale in my stats chart, I get zero hit from China for the 3 weeks since. An absolute silence. Zilch! Or should I scream, ouch!    While what I wrote in this article isn't to China authority's liking, but much more critical things about Chinese government are being said by Chinese netizen everyday. Especially on weibo (Chinese twitter). The name weibo these days are synonymous with exposing corrupt Chinese government officials. A number of officials were arrested as a result of weibo's expose. In fact, the weibo now almost functions like a unofficial supervisory body for monitoring government officials. Just google "weibo exposes corruption", and you won't get a shortage of search result. It isn't just the Chinese citizen who are crying foul. President Hu Jintao in his farewell speech - a swan song if you will - stated that if the CCP doesn't clean up the official corruption, it willl be the end of the party. And the netizen scoffed at his speech that you could read in this article China web users greet Hu speech with derision. So what could I say about China that could be worse than Chinese web users? The weibo and blog sites are places that fill with criticism of the government for years, and their voice weren't silenced. It's wise that they don't suppress this voice of discontent, the voice of the people. They listened pretty closely. Is there political freedom of speech in China? Depending what yardstick you use. Maybe the blocking of my blog is simply based on commercial consideration. Chinese authority moves in mysterious ways. If you try to make any blanket statement about China, you're likely to be wrong. Especially today. I should know. I had accomplished of making a fool of myself many times before. Google in China Yes, internet users in China does have access to google search engine. It isn't blocked. Well, not www.google.com.cn, which doesn't exist. It simply takes you to the HK google URL, www.google.com.hk. With the HK google search engine, you could search using English, or in either simplified and traditional Chinese in Mainland China. It's good for users who want to search websites outside Mainland China. Simply put, as far as internet users in Mainland China go, google search engine exists. What google failed to accomplished in China was to establish www.google.com.cn. For internet users, it doesn't make the slightest difference between .com.hk, and com.cn (if it exists). What google.com.cn does is giving higher rankings to Mainland Chinese websites. But one could do that with local Baidu search engine. David Copperfield's Great Wall's Magic Act I didn't want to give up so easily. Besides, I wanted to confirm if I could use anonymizer to tunnel through the Great Fire Wall of China. I tried HideMyAss, it didn't work. If at first, you don't suceed, try, try again. I applied this motto a few times. Eventually, I tried a less well known one like online-anonymizer.com, and it worked! I had duplicated the David Copperfield famous act. And I was able to reach all the sites in the list above. Seems to me that HideMyAss is too successful for its own good, and it get blocked by the Chinese authority. While online-anonymizer is too small for the Chinese radar. When a forbidden plane fly into China's air space, it will be shot down. Something as small a a bird would go unnoticed. One word of warning. I have to stress this. Anomymiser, like antibiotics, is powerful and should be used sparingly. When you abuse antibiotics, it actually makes it less effective for the rest of the population until it loses all its effectiveness. Similarly when you use anonymiser too often, it suffers the same fate as HideMyAss, it got blocked, and loses its function. So only use it as a last resort. Let's not spoil it for the rest of us. I only did it to understand the Great Fire Wall of China. A great cause.    Lifting the Mist? I hope all this would clear up some of the mystery of the Great Fire Wall of China. There're still plenty of mystifying mist hang around. Clearing everything up is impossible. It remains a mystery wraps in an riddle inside an enigma. Does Censorship Work? Taboo increases the people's desire for something even more because we're blessed with curiosity. The best publicity for a book, a movie, a photo, or anything is to ban people from getting it. Isn't that the Biblical fable in the story of the Garden of Eden tells us? Don't eat the Forbidden Fruit. Guess what happens? It got eaten. This is human nature. The best real life example is Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which got a great publicity boost when a segment of the Church told people not to watch it.  Ironic, isn't it? People had to watch to see what the fuss is all about. They, at least, I was disappointed. I wouldn't watch it if the Church didn't tell me not to.  Similarly, the most popular Chinese art house films are those banned in China. Of course, many Chinese would be able to watch those banned movies. Taboo just increases the desire for it. Unless the authority have absolute control over it. That's not possible if you open your national borders. Such control is possible in DPRK today or China in Mao era. Censorship worked well before the globalisation facilitated by jet travel, and the invention of the world wide web. In those days, people spent most of their lives in their own countries - indeed their own cities. Travelling weren't so affordable (or comfortable, or speedy), and there was no internet. And so we obtained all our info from media like TV, magazines and newspapers. Censor that, and you control what people are allowed to know. When you open your borders, and let people travel in and out of your countries, information and ideas flow with it. And the internet further breaking down all these barriers. They move at a speed of light, far faster than the supersonic jets we once thought was fast. Now countries try to control the internet. Unfortunately for them, the internet crosses national boundaries, extremely complex, constantly evolving, and web users are increasingly savvy. In fact, Singapore is the most computer savvy in Asia according to this study, which ranks Singapore as 11th place for 2012 (way ahead of Japan, and even South Korea! Perhaps, proficiency in English helps). Living here for 3+ years, I could relate to this figure. Singaporean embraces IT technology keenly as evident by their 4 annual IT shows. Those shows are always packed. The web users enjoy generous bandwidth because of the size of the island country. E.g. I've a 2MB bandwidth (jealous?), which is quite common in Singapore even with their basic plans. I was in fact somewhat surprise that Australia actually ranks higher than Singapore in the web index. The Singapore Information Minister pointed out in this news article Ban on 100 Websites  in Singapore is just a symbolic move. I guess symbol is important in politics. The have to do something. You can't be seen as just giving up. That's quitter attitude. I thought internet censorship is as outdated as prostitution prohibition. And prostitution is legal in the Lion City (yet another nickname for Singapore). So we go on playing the game of let's the governments do what they please, we the people will do what we like. UPDATE (11/2/2013) As I explained in this article that my blogspot site wasn't blocked until I visited the site while in Beijing, and alerted them this loophole.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Beijing Day 6 - Fraser Suites & CCTV Tower

4 Star Security Embassies. I Found my Missing Lego pieces.

sunny 8 °C

Fraser Suites is located in about 600m East of CCTV new headquarter site, 600m NE of World Trade Centre 3, and 600m West of the Temple of the Sun (not Temple of Heaven where every package tour takes you to). In other words, it's located @ 666.

Hugging the SE corner of the Temple of the Sun is the Embassy district. It's a off-limit area like Area 51. And like Area 51, they're populated with aliens. All the embassy buildings are decked with beautiful coiling barbwires up the top of wall. And about 1.5m away from the perimeters of the embassy buildings are surrounded with a very nice 3m tall wire fence like a maximum prison. In the space in between, let call it shoot-to-kill corridors, stood the motionless solders. The embassy staff know they're in safe hands, and electric fences.

Well, I didn't really go there with the camera. If I start shooting, 1 of them security guards that disguised as statue might spring back to life and shoot me with something more easier to operate than a DSLR. No, I was driven past from Novotel to Fraser Suites, and inspect the area from the comfort zone of a passing taxi. Yep, except from the air, the area passed my security criteria. I award it 4 stars for security. I hold back 1 star because the security's weapon isn't measured up to John Rambo's.  The embassy staff might feel like staying in a penitentary, but it also frustrates suicide bombers to no end. Better safe than seared?

Fraser Suites usually locates in expat area. Here's a list of things to keep your eyes out to spot for an expat area: a high concentration of high fashion shops, upscale multicultural dining, trendy cafe - sorry café, how clumsy of me - where Beijingers can be seen with their laptops, or smart phones. Look, I'm tapping into wire-fi. If all that can't convince you, there's the EtonKids Kindergarten to add weight to the evidence.


sky screen, The Place, Beijing, China
The LED sky screen @ the Place, Beijing

sky screen, The Place, Beijing, China
Floating rock castles


sky screen, The Place, Beijing, China
Chinese pheonix goddess

One of the typical high fashion shopping mall just across the Jintong West Rd from Fraser Suites is The Place (世贸天阶). The reason why this place - or The Place - grabs attention is its large canopy that could easily be mistakened as just a slightly odd looking ceiling in the day time, but by night time, it reveals its purpose as a giant LED sky screen. I don't know exactly what time it switches on (and off) the LED sky screen, it shows some animation for 10 mins every hour on the hour. This structure is a drawcard for The Place. It's popular with the (expat) families with kids. There aren't too any interesting restaurants there to blog about. Another good thing about this place is that no cab driver knows about Fraser Suites, I use it as landmark.

Logo, The Place, Beijing, China


I tend to go to the World City to grab some grubs while I stayed in Fraser Suites. The World City is The Place's immediate northern neighbour with multicultural eateries lining 2 sides. This is high-end eat street. At least it looks upmarket while it also has Pappa John, and other Chinese fast food franchises. Mind you, some American fastfood outlets like Papa John (and Pizza Hut) are rebranded in China (and other countries) to higher end.

After dropping the bags in Fraser Suites, and recharge my own battery with my fave brew of Iron Guanyin tea, I made my way to the CCTV Tower that's the headquarter for China Central Television. It was then that I found my missing Lego piece that I lost a long time ago. It's always the last place you look.

CCTV News Headquarter, Beijing, China
CCTV News HQ

CCTV News Headquarter, Beijing, China
Look! It's a plane! It's a giant reversed number 7!
It's my missing Lego piece!




Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Beijing Day 5 - Yonghe Lamasery & Confucius Temple

Mulitculturalism, Chinese Ancient Style. Let's Get Alone.

sunny 15 °C

The windy condition in Beijing remained more or less the same as yesterday. We were slightly under dressed, thinking the wind would die down by at least somewhat. And we already packed everything into the luggage to be shipped to Fraser Suites, so we just had to grin and bear it. Ok, no grinning, just wincing.


Yonghe Palace




yonghegongWe decided to take the subway to get to Yonghe Palace, or Lama Temple, or Yonghe Lamasery. So which is it? Palace or Lamasery. Well, it was a palace that turned into a Tibetan temple. Why? This name plaque or sign at the top of the front gate should give clues.

This plaque says Yonghegong (雍和宮 = "Yonghe Palace") in 4 languages of the Manchus, Han Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian (not in any particular order).

Apart from Chinese, the other 3 ethnic groups all worship Tibetan Buddhism (Chinese has their own version of Buddhism).

Also, except for Han Chinese, I can't the tell other 3 ethnic languages apart, and it's all Greek to me (I could tell Greek from other European scripts, however. In fact, Greek letters stands out from the rest of the European alphabets much like Chinese writing stands out in this plaque).

You don’t need to be a Chinese speaker to tell Chinese from the other 3 writings because Chinese is the only ideogram while the other 3 columns of scripts are more or less made up of 'alphabets' that run together (written from top to bottom). So I will make educated guesses as to which other 3 'cursive' scripts are by judging from their relative positions. Since Chinese (and other Asiatic, including Arabic, are written from right to left), therefore the rightmost column would be Manchurian writing as the Emperor and owner of this palace was Manchu. The 3rd from the right is Tibetan writing as this is a Tibetan Temple. And by process of elimination, the leftmost column of script would be Mongolian. I believe my conclusion is correct.

Tibetan monk in Yonghe Palace, Beijing, China
Tibetan monks

If you have heard Paul McCartney's "Ebony and Ivory" (duo with Steve Wonder), the 1st 2 lines of lyrics goes like this,

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony.
Side By Side On My Piano Keyboard, Oh Lord, Why Don't We?

So instead of piano, we have name plaque on a gate; and instead ebony and ivory keys, we've 4 languages. Instead of "Oh Lord, why don't we?", we have "Oh, Buddha, why the hell not?"

Like the theme of the song, this temple captured the spirit of or embodied the ideals of Chinese ethnic harmony. In particular, the ethnic harmony of the 4 major Chinese ethnic groups (not the largest in numbers, but the most powerful and influential). When the Jurchen ruled over the Central Plain (中原) - ancient name for China - in the Jin dynasty in the 12th century, they answered the Han Chinese’s discontent with brutal military oppression. When Genghis Khan promised to help the Chinese to overthrow the Jin Dynasty[4], the Han Chinese said "You're so kind". And when the Khan got rid of the Jin Dynasty, they applied the same medicine to the Han Chinese. "Sucker you Han people!" (in Mongolian, of course).


yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China

yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China


Both the Jin and Yuan Dynasty didn't last long (100 years isn't a long time to the Chinese). Among other things, one of the factor of their downfall was their Rule by Force, which the Qing Emperor Yongzheng judiciously realised was a bad idea. So he devised various policies to rule by conciliation. And this policy of harmony was extended by his heir to the throne Emperor Qianlong.


The Book and the Sword by Louis Cha
Louis Cha, better known to the Chinese
by his pen name Jing Yong
In Louis Cha's 1st novel The Book and the Sword (1956), Emperor Qianlong turned out to be the son of a high ranking official of the Han Chinese (I hope I don't spoil it for people who haven't seen/heard the many adaptations of the novel into movies/TV series/radio dramas).

Louis Cha is the most popular wuxia writer in the Chinese speaking world. Among many other reasons, one is because many of his novels are a masterful and an entertaining blend of historical facts and fiction. 'Facts' that are sometimes embellished with more decorations than a Christmas tree (we all liked to be dazzled by symbolically loaded meaning).

In this book, he suggested that Qianlong was a Han Chinese. I don't believe that he was the only one, indeed the first to do so. This was because of how much affection Qianlong had for the Chinese people and culture.

I have little doubt that other Chinese historian before him must have done that. He just made use of their controversial, thus delicious, historical hearsay into his book. "The Book" in the title refers not to the the Bible, but another sacred text, the Koran. The Koran belonged to the (probably) Uygur tribesmen from Xinjiang[3] in this novel.

The novel is in fact about the secret organisation called the Red Flower Society who tried to overthrow the Manchu-led Qing Court to restore the Han Chinese rule. So the last thing the Qing Court needed was more enemies from other ethnic groups like Mongolian and Tibetan.

Both the Muslim tribesmen and Han were discontent with the Manchu's rule, and so logically the Red Flower Society and the Muslim tribesmen formed an alliance. The Yonghegong also plays a part in the novel. When the member of the Red Flower Society are invited in Yonghegong for a feast[5], the Tibetan lama, under Emperor Qianlong's instruction, torches the temple for the expressed purpose of turning them into barbeques.

Two of the recurring themes that Louis Cha's many novels dealt with are conflicts among the various Chinese ethnic groups, and nationalism/patriotism. And not just Han Chinese patriotism. In fact, in The Book and the Sword, the Muslim tribesmen are being portrayed as honourable people, defended themselves to the very tragic end as their tribe were massacred by the Manchu army.

The name Yonghegong was derived clearly from the 1st name of the Emperor Yongzheng (雍正) and the word "He" ("和" = Harmony, should be pronounced more like "Her", not "He" as most English speakers tend to do). Remember this is the Chinese character that popped up (literally) in the performance depicting the Chinese movable printer in the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Performance that depicts the Chinese invention of the movable type printer
during the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2008
This scene depicts the Great Wall of China

In the following youtube video of the dance performance, you can see the ancient Chinese character "He" (和)  popped up @ 3:24 and the word appeared and re-appeared for more than 2 mins during the performance to re-iterate its importance.


If there's ever 1 word that captures Chinese culture, "He" (Harmony) would be it. This word is, in essence, what Confucianism is all about. Although the Harmony Confucius referred to is between persons, and between persons to state, not peoples. I think Confucius would say that his principles - borrowing IT terminology - it's totally scalable.

China is one of those country that got bigger as it was conquered by others. The neighbouring foreign conquerors ruled over China, and then got absorbed into it. Various neighbouring countries had reigned over China: Tibetan captured and sacked Chang'an (modern day Xi'an) in 763 AD; a confederate of Turkic peoples (whom were called the Toubas[1] founded a Kingdom in Shanxi named Northern Wei with Datong[2] as its capital (AD 386 - 534). As the Mongol took over the Middle Kingdom (or the more literally translation "Central Country"), Inner Mongolia eventually became part of China. After Manchus toppled the Ming Dynasty, Manchuria eventually became part of China.

This temple was a concrete symbol of that policy of harmony of the 4 major ethnic communities. The Qing’s Dynasty lasted much longer than their ancestors the Jurchen people, or the Mongol rule. Their downfall was due to far more complex circumstances, not just the enemies from within, but threats from without. In short, they couldn’t keep up with the time. They didn’t take a leaf from Emperor Meiji in Japan, and eventually led to their failure to prevent the Imperial Japanese invasion.

I entertained the idea that what would happen if the Imperial Japanese had successfully annexed China during WW2? In time, it too would become a Chinese province. "This time it's different", some historians might argue. Maybe. But that famous last words had been echoed through the ages of Chinese history by different ethnic conquerors and the outcome is the same with NO exception, so far.

While this Sinicization of the different conquerors of China is typical in Chinese history, it isn't unprecedented. One example is the Norman. They were pagan Viking who conquered France, but in turn, being turned into a French-speaking Christian.

It makes even more sense for the conquerors of the Middle Kingdom to undergo this cultural absorption because China is far bigger; its history far longer, and its culture far deeper than any of its conquerors.

For example, today people - both within and without China - don't think of qipao as a Manchu dress. It's thought of as a Chinese dress.

Towards the end of The Book and the Sword, Louis Cha seemed to tell us - using Qianlong's mouth - that while the emperor was a Machiavellian incarnate, under his rule China achieved peace and prosperity. It really didn't matter what ethnic group was running the imperial court.
The word "Harmony" (="He") may very well synonymous with "Assimilation".

Speaking of Confucius, or what I would like to call, Chinese Jesus, has a temple named after him just opposite Yonghe Lamasery. We spent an hour there. Kinda makes sense that this 2 temples are locating next to one another considering what I said above.


yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China


yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China yonghegong, yonghe palace lamasery, Beijing, China


Read this travel article for more on Chinese ethnic minority.


Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple entry ticket, Beijing, China Confucius Temple entry ticket, Beijing, China


Statue of confucius. Confucius Temple, Beijing, China Bronze bell, Confucius Temple, Beijing, China Burner, Confucius Temple, Beijing, China




________________________________________________________
[1]  They descended from the Central Asian Huns (Xiongnu).
[2]  I"ll there next week.

[3]  In the novel, Xinjiang was refered to with its ancient name Huijang. Literally, Xinjiang (=新疆) is "New Territory" while Huijiang (=回疆) literally means "Hiu Territory". "Hui" is Chinese for Islam. The word "Hui" in terms I suspect either came from the Uyghur or the Hui people.

[4] The most well kown of Louis Cha's novel - The Legend of the Condor Heroes - is based the historical conflicts between the Jin, the Mongol, and the Han Chinese.

[5]   In the novel,  this makes sense because one couldn't imagine this bunch of Han Chinese would be allowed to enter the Forbidden city, rebels or not.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Beijing Day 4 - Jinshanling Great Wall & Tiananmen Square

Mistifying

semi-overcast 13 °C

We had been to the Great Wall twice, both times as part of the packaged tour. And they tend to take you to the popular Badaling section because it's the most well maintained section of the Great Wall. It's also the closest to Beijing (for the same reason that it's the best maintained section). We decided to go to see a different section of the Great Wall, one that not too crowded and more original. Jinshanling Great Wall fits the bill.

The temperature of Beijing plunged from the early 20 °C in the last 2 day to 12 °C today. This came 1 day early to signal the start of winter.


Jinshanling Great Wall entry ticket, Beijing, China Jinshanling Great Wall entry ticket, Beijing, China


The drive started at 8am from our hotel to Jingshaling took about 2 hours. It begun to drizzle when we left the hotel. We arrived about 10am, hazy weather made the visibility rather low. As we got up the top after a cable car ride, most of the mountain was covered in fog. While it's atmospheric to look at, most of the Great Wall was shrouded in it.

Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China
The Great Wall shrouded in heavy mist about 10:30 am

There were only a few local tourists; most are laowai ("foreigners"). Being Monday probably had something to do with this too. This way you could take photos of the Great Wall, and the mountains, and not at the Chinese "people mountain, people sea" (人山人海 borrowing a Chinese expression). Not that it isn't a spectacle in itself. But if you like a quiet atmosphere in China, this is perhaps 1 of the very few tourist spots left. So get it fast while it lasts. In the whole 3-hour climb, I saw less than 50 tourists altogether. A rare sight in more ways than 1.

It's certainly less well maintained than the Badaling section. In some sections, there're no wall, so you could take a very short cut to the bottom by accident (I wasn't in a hurry). Because of that, more fitness and dexterity would be required to climb some of the broken staircases. I'm told that we could start from the Jinshanling Great Wall and finished up in Simatai Great Wall. I'm game, if I'm 20 years younger.

Crumbling stairs at Jinshanling Great Wall section, Beijing, China
Crumbling stairs

While it's in higher altitude than Beijing city, so we would expect it would be colder. It's in fact not that cold because of the total absence of any wind. The climb quickly raised my heart rate and body heat, and the cold was vanished within 15 mins (for the average person like Etta, and 50 mins for me. I've a reptilian circulation. Look at the bright side, chocolate never melt in my hand. And it could keep fresh in my stomach a long time).


Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China
Jinshanling Great Wall, Beijing, China Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China
Jinshanling Great Wall, Beijing, China Jinshanling Great Wall, Beijing, China


As we started to head back about 12:30pm, the fog had almost completely dispersed with the autumn colour of red, yellow and brown leaves intensified, and Great Wall emerging from the mist. I imagine the autumn colour would even more vibrant a few weeks earlier as we were in the tail end of autumn.


Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist, Beijing, China
Mist had slowly lifted by 12 am

A local female villager in her 40s tagged along with us the whole climb, offering to carry our bags, giving Etta a hand in negotiating challenging staircases, etc. At the end of the trip, she tried to sell us a few travel books on Jinshanling. Her asking prices weren't higher than the RRP printed on the books. We decided to buy 1 of her books, which Etta liked because it got many pretty pictures of the Great Wall. We didn't have to. It was hard to turn down under the circumstances.

Lunch was included in our private tour. We asked our driver to drop us off at our next destination instead of our hotel. We were dropped off at Tiananmen Square about 4pm, so we had about 1 hour of sunlight left at this time of the year for photography.

The temperature in Tiananmen Square is probably higher than Jinshanling, but it feels about 3 times colder because of the strong wind.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China
Tiananmen Gate, which gives the square its name


Monument to the People's Heroes, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China Qianmen Gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China Guard, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Sculpture outside Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Mao Mausoleum, Beijing, China
Sculpture outside Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

I don't remember when they had been removed, but the giant portraits of Marx, Hegel and Sun Yat-Sen were gone. In the middle of the Square were a couple of giant LED screens being installed. Can't say I like this is a symbol of looking towards the future. Tradition and technology don't mix so well in this case. We tried to get into Qianmen, but it was too late. We walked around Tiananmen for a while until The Man Upstairs dimmed the lights out that it was time to call off the day. I got the message, you needn't tell me twice.


zero kilometre from Beijing
Zero marks the spot
The Qianmen Gate, the Archery Tower, Tiananmen Gate, Meridian Gate, etc all lie on the Celestial north-south axis. The most important point, in a sense, on this axis is marked by this unassuming brass plaque on the ground just in front of Qianmen. The numeral '0' marks the centre of Beijing, a kilometre zero for all the highways of China. In other word, the naval of China.

It also contains the 4 compass points (in both Chinese and English letters), and the 4 animals that represent the 4 cardinal points.