A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Disappointment in Fuxingmen

Sometimes you know you are beaten before you even start. You know what it’s like. You turn up at a place, having already pictured in your mind what you are going to see, and what is actually there bears no resemblance to anything you could have imagined.

I experienced a very definite case of this recently when I went to visit the Cultural Palace of Nationalities (民族文化宫), located in Beijing's Xicheng District. It was built in September 1959 and is one of the Ten Great Buildings.

The Ten Great Buildings (十大建筑) – for those who don’t know – are ten public buildings that were built in Beijing in 1959, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. They were part of an architecture and urbanism initiative of the Great Leap Forward; and most of the buildings were largely completed in only ten months, by the deadline of 1 October 1959. In addition to their construction, there was also an expansion of Tiananmen Square, and a campaign of art commissions to decorate the majority of the buildings by the time of their completion.

The structures were designed by members of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, who combined three basic styles: modernism in the international style, Socialist realism as typified by Stalinist architecture, and a form of historicism based on traditional Chinese architecture.

The best known of these, of course, are the Great Hall of the People, located on the western side of Tiananmen Square; the National Museum on the eastern side; Beijing Railway Station; the Workers Stadium; and the Military Museum.

But do you know anyone who has actually BEEN to the Cultural Palace of Nationalities? It’s a medium rise building incorporating traditional Chinese design elements, and has apparently won a number of awards as an example of modern Chinese-style design.

It turns out that this “Palace” was registered as the first of 55 museums in the city and – according to the web sites – consists of a museum, gallery, library, art institute, and theatre. The central 13-storey tower houses 18 exhibition halls and a library. The two wings are devoted to entertainment and recreation, housing an auditorium, a club and a dinner-dance hall.

The mission of the Culture Palace was to serve and educate the various minority cultures of the country, promoting minority cultures. Apparently it has a large collection of arts and crafts, costumes, musical instruments, and religious articles showing off the culture of the 56 Chinese ethnic groups.

It also apparently has a four-lane bowling alley which was donated by a Japanese businessman, in early 1985.

It apparently features performances of drama, concerts, ballets, and musicals throughout the year. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Ballet from Britain and other excellent performance troupes from around the world have all – apparently – performed here.

So why can’t I find anyone who knows about it? How come this ‘favourite building of Beijing residents’ – according to many web sites – is so completely unknown? Maybe it’s time I changed my circle of friends???

I decide to broaden my education and set off in search of the place.

I’m glad I have had the foresight to actually look up its address – 49 Fuxingmennei Avenue, in Xicheng District – since there’s not a single sign in English to tell you what it is. A bored looking PLA guard stands on his ownsome lonesome, behind a fence; but round the corner is an X-ray machine guarding an entrance into the grounds. I waltz up to the two guards each drinking from a flask of tea and they barely give me a second glance as I enter the grounds.

A very unused fountain sits forlornly in front of the building into which I make my way, wondering if there is an entrance fee or whether I need to show ID – which is often the case when the fee is waived. I look around for a ticket office, or an entry guard or … anything. But the place is almost entirely deserted.

In front of me is a small staircase of green marble with potted orchids on either side. I decide to take a peek inside.

Inside there are two people – a visitor and a guard who is dosing off to sleep. The room is filled with some quite nice pictures, very few of which appear to have much to do with ethnic nationalities of China. Hardly earth shatteringly great pictures, but pleasant nonetheless.

There is a smattering of stork pictures (can you have a smattering of pictures – or even storks for that matter?) …

and some darker, more sombre works; but not a great deal to highlight the ethnic diversity of the country.

Ah. I speak too soon. I have found a couple of “ethnic” pictures, hiding away in a forgotten corner of the gallery.

Entry to other floors in the central tower is totally blocked. There may well be galleries upstairs, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get to see them.

I move into one of the side wings where there is a gallery full of calligraphy – again, nothing that bowls you over…

unless you count this cute-looking work of art…

Oh. You don’t?

Let’s explore on the other side of the building.

There’s a large poster referring to a display of two large-scale paintings by Wang Linxu, one of China's top artists, that perhaps were shown here before winging their way to the China Lounge at the UN Headquarters in New York which has just finished renovation under the sponsorship of the Chinese government.

Wang, now 55, is the founder of the transcendental imagery school in Chinese traditional painting, a contemporary take on Chinese ink-and-wash painting that "does not focus on what people see but focuses on what people feel”.

His 20x8 ft Interactive World features a world map which has been made abstract with sea waves, mineral veins and mountains and is said to express Wang’s love for the planet. Yeah. Right! The artist also included elements of pollution and war, in accordance with the UN's advocacy for environmental protection, world peace and development.

But alas. If ever there was a display here (and I guess we must presume there was) there is only the sight of a firmly padlocked door now. And the only thing we can appreciate is the poster. Hmmm

I make my way round the upper gallery of the central foyer and come across an exhibition of paintings that have something to do with the upcoming Expo Milan, though the Chinese signs leave me none the wiser. Perhaps they will be exhibited there and another padlock will soon be gracing the door of this particular gallery. If so, I would advise them not to bother. Almost without exception, the works on display are mediocre in the extreme and it takes me less that five minutes to walk my way around them all.

I find my way downstairs again and see a door open to another gallery… but alas it is devoid of anything, save for a couple of ‘interesting’ chandeliers.

In fact, the fittings inside this building are probably the most interesting things to see, so boring is the remainder on display.

I make my way out the front entrance once again, no longer wondering why no one is the slightest bit interested in this place. Palace of Nationalities? Oh please! Don’t make me laugh!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Searching for True Paradise in Ilocos Norte

Of all the (few) places I have so far visited in the Philippines, the northern part of Luzon has to be one of the nicest. The province of Ilocos Norte in particular is very pleasant, not least because it borders the sea and the place actually smells fresh, while the countryside is green and pleasant.

Laoag is its capital. It has a population of just over 100,000 and has the distinction, if that is the right word, of being the northernmost city in the nation. The foothills of the Cordillera Central mountain range to the east, and the South China Sea to the west are its physical boundaries.

Long before the Spaniards arrived, there was an extensive populated region, consisting of the present provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra and La Union, which was renowned for its gold mines. Merchants from Japan and China would visit the area to trade gold with beads, ceramics and silk. When the Spanish conquistadors sailed along the coast, they were surprised to see numerous sheltered coves, known as ‘looc’, where the locals lived and hence they named the region ‘Ylocos’ and its people ‘Ylocanos’.

Tourism has become a major economic driver of Laoag and the local airport has seen a surge in Chinese and Taiwanese tourists flocking to the city to splurge out in its profitable casino, located inside the only 5-star hotel in the northern Philippines – Fort Ilocandia Hotel and Resort.

You can wander through large swathes of its gardens, before being politely stopped from going any further by smart and friendly hotel security staff.

Laoag is a very pleasant town and even if you arrive in the middle of the night, there is a splendid welcoming sight in the form of the town hall government buildings lit up in a stunning display. It’s no surprise to me, at least, that Laoag City has recently been adjudged the number one tourism destination in the region and in the top ten of the whole archipelago.

Taking the road a little south from Laoag, is the town of Paoay, famous for its Saint Augustine Roman Catholic Church. Completed in 1710, the church is famous for its highly distinctive architecture, highlighted by the enormous buttresses on the sides and back of the building. It was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the Philippine government in 1973 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the collective group of Baroque Churches of the Philippines in 1993.

Its most striking features are the 24 huge buttresses, each about 1.67 metres thick at the sides and back of the building, designed as a possible solution to destruction due to earthquakes. It also has ‘step buttresses’ at the sides – probably for easy access to the roof. Javanese architecture reminiscent of Borobudur can also be seen on the church walls and facade. Interestingly the mortar used in the church includes sand and lime mixed with sugarcane juice boiled with mango leaves, leather and rice straw!

Adjacent, but standing some distance away from the church as a protection against earthquakes, is a three-storey coral bell tower, which was begun some 80 years after the church. However it served a dual purpose, being used as an observational post for Filipino revolutionaries against the Spaniards in 1898 and by Filipino guerrillas against Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Talking of revolutionaries, Valentín Díaz – a Filipino patriot who was among the founders of the Katipunan that started the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896 – was born in Paoay. He was one of the signatories of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato in 1897, and he joined the revolutionaries exiled in Hong Kong as one of the conditions set forth in the Pact.

But it’s time to move on – northwards now; and before long we pass what must be one of the weirdest houses I have seen in a long while. OMG! Who would actually WANT to live in a house like this?

First up, we get to the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse – the northwestern-most point in Luzon, located approximately 35 kilometres from Laoag. It’s a Spanish colonial-era lighthouse, also known as Burgos Lighthouse. It was first lit on March 30, 1892, and is set high on Vigia de Nagpartian Hill.

The 20 metre octagonal stone tower was part of the Spanish government's master plan of illuminating the Philippine archipelago. It is typical of the Spanish Colonial lighthouses which were all made with bricks that are still produced in the area. The tower is topped with a bronze cupola and a viewing gallery, surrounded by a decorative iron grill.

The intense earthquake of 1990 that hit most of Luzon damaged the lenses and displaced the mechanism alignment of the original first-order apparatus making it inoperable. So the beam now comes from a modern electric lamp that is powered by solar panels (as opposed to the previous light provided by pressurized kerosene lamps). It flashes once in every minute.

Cape Bojeador Lighthouse was declared a National Historical Landmark on August 13, 2004, and a National Cultural Treasure on June 20, 2005 by the Philippine Government.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse is covered in scaffolding and, apart from being able to climb a few steps, access to the building beneath the lighthouse is not possible. There are some nice views of the sea below you, but otherwise, it is pretty underwhelming, all told.

Well, it’s not long till we get to one of the must-see sights along the northern Luzon coast – the Bangui Wind Farm. This massive wind-driven powerplant was actually the first in Southeast Asia and is also the biggest.

The wind farm uses 70-metre high Vestas 1.65 MW wind turbines, arranged on a single row stretching along a nine-kilometre shoreline, spaced 326 metres apart, each with 41 metre-long blades, and a rotor diameter of 82 metres.

The area is pretty much undeveloped and uninhabited, making it an ideal site. In its first year, the project produced a 5% discount of the weighted average price in the wholesale electricity spot market – saving approximately 70 million pesos ($1.4m) for electricity consumers. They now produce 40% of Ilocos Norte's total electricity demand.

It’s a lovely sight, which reminds me of the wind farms in the UK’s Pennine district. Silent, impressive and beautiful to watch.

Not far up the road is a scenic cove above which the windmills soar. There are some rock formations which are pretty snazzy, and to add to the attractions, there’s a sculpture by Paul Quiano, a famous Ilocano-Ibaloi sculptor, depicting the Epic of Lam-ang – a poem by Pedro Bucaneg.

It’s all about Lam-ang who gets angry with a crocodile for some unfathomable reason and knocks the living daylights out of it, before removing its teeth which he gives to the local maidens to make necklaces out of.

Lam-ang has obviously watched that programme on National Geographic Channel which explains that to subdue a croc, you have to approach it from behind, for that is where it has a blind spot. Approach from in front and you’re far more likely to be turned into a tasty snack…

We progress further up the road, and now we are at the quaintly named Pagudpud, famous for a hole in a rock. No, really!

I’m sure it’s a very pretty hole, as holes go; and the local kids get to earn 20 pesos a time for taking the tourists round the corner of a rock to see it – as if they couldn’t find it for themselves. But it’s hardly earth shattering, I have to say.

We press on towards paradise: “Nestled among endless turquoise waters and powdery white sand in Pagudpud is a seven-hectare exclusive paradise that is emerging to be the crown jewel of Ilocos Norte,” reads the website of a beach resort calling itself Hannah. “Even before entering Hannah's Beach Resort and Convention Center, one would already feel a sense of being at peace with nature. The sprawling mountains, the breathtaking views of the sea, and the sight of windmills all pave the way for the perfect getaway experience to come.”

Hannah even has its own zip line, which spans 1.2 kilometres, and is reportedly the longest over water in the entire world. Or, if you read GMA TV’s web site: “Within the grounds of Hannah’s, you can try the longest zip line over open air in the country.” You mean you don’t have to zip your way through a vacuum? Now that’s a relief!

The ride, which must take all of 30 seconds costs P700/person – or about 10 quid! Do people really have that much money to waste? Apparently they do!

“It is one of the latest attractions of the resort to further highlight, magnify and present the natural beauty of the Blue Lagoon from different angles and perspectives, creating a whole new experience,” the blurb continues relentlessly. “The zipline was constructed to provide guests with the ride of their lives. The adrenaline rush of the launch from a mountain, the 80 kph speed, the view of the exotic fauna and flora of the azure and pristine waters below, the serene blue horizon and verdant mountain slopes in the backdrop, and the cool, fresh and rejuvenating sea breeze while traversing over the Blue Lagoon will definitely be a 360 degree-feast-for-the-senses.” Yeah; right. Just make sure you don’t blink!

It all sounds too good to be true.
It IS too good to be true!

The beach is underwhelming in the extreme; pop music blasts your senses from loudspeakers strung up throughout the entire resort…

There’s even a plastic dinosaur park being constructed, as if the endless ‘lifesize’ plastic models of pop and Hollywood stars, such as Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe (with suitably billowing skirt, of course) and cartoon characters isn’t more than enough already.

Reading some of the comments on the likes of Tripadvisor would surely put anyone off from ever setting foot in Hannah’s. This one particularly got to me: “If you want to have a vacation designed for torture, Hannah's is the place. We went during Holy Week on a P7500 a night per villa, only to find that they misrepresented a 20 sqm airless room as a villa. Room decor comes as mismatched beds in primary colors over floral tiles, accented by dusty plastic flowers.”

Time for a quick pee (in a disgusting ‘CR’, as if that is any surprise) before taking off and putting as much distance between us and Hannah’s as fast as possible.

Luckily, not all resorts in Ilocos Norte are like Hannah’s. On the contrary, a truly excellent resort is called Saud Beach.

As their web site proclaims: “All you really need to bring is your swimsuit. We'll take care of your accommodations and Mother Nature will provide the rest - the light, the sound of the surf, the touch, tastes, and scents of her lovely creations.” I already like the place!

Some web sites dub Saud Beach as the "Boracay of the North", though I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It has a long stretch of fine, powdery sand and its peaceful atmosphere – not spoiled for a second by the thump thump thump of disco music, like you get all over the Philippines – adds to its undoubted attractions.

The lunchtime menu is good; the service is not at all bad; the prices are not outrageous; and the last time I had a beach like this all to myself was perhaps forty years ago in the Cayman Islands.

If the owners of Hannah’s ever get to read this blog (can they actually read, I ask myself?) THIS is what their so-called ‘paradise’ should be striving for.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Ilocos Sur’s Time Capsule City

Cobblestone walkways, horse-drawn carriages, mansions of yester-year…. 'One of the most atmospheric and enjoyable cities in the country,' opines The Rough Guide. This is Vigan, one of the few remaining 16th century towns in the Philippines.

Vigan is the capital of the province of Ilocos Sur, located on the north western coast of Luzon, facing the South China Sea. Everyone says it’s a must-see place to visit, so here I am, being driven around by a local driver to see the sights on a whistle-stop tour.

In pre-colonial times, Vigan was an important trading post for Chinese junks. The merchants traded gold, beeswax and other products from the central Cordilleras for exotic Asian goods. A number of Chinese traders settled, marrying the local girls. Vigan was captured and settled by the Spanish in 1572, and grew to become a centre of Spanish political and religious power in the north of Luzon.

According to local legend, Vigan got its name from a simple breakdown in communications. A Spaniard walking along the Metizo River is said to have met a local and asked about the city's name. Not understanding what he was being asked, but seeing that the Spaniard seemed to be pointing to a tree, he replied ‘Bigaa Apo’ (referring to a giant Taro that was common in the area). It is said that Vigan is derived from the word ‘Bigaa’. Huh! A likely story!

A more likely explanation is that the area around Vigan was originally a settlement of traders coming from Fujian Province in China. At the time of Spanish colonisation, the Chinese settlers spoke the Southern Fukien dialect – known as Hokkien in the Philippines. It was then spoken by about 98% of the ethnic Chinese population. They referred to the area as ‘Bee Gan’, meaning ‘Beautiful Shore’; and since the Spanish conquistadors freely interchanged V with B in order to get their tongues round the language, they spelled it as ‘Vigan’, which is the name used to this day.

Anyway. Our driver takes us first to the Church of St Augustine in the outer suburb of Bantay. It was originally made of bamboo and cogon to house the Image of ‘Our Lady of Charity’, which was found by some fishermen placed in a wooden box floating in Bantaoay River. It is said that people from other towns and provinces came to take the image but could not move it; only people from Bantay were able to. The church was later changed into a permanent edifice in 1590 because of the good fortune this image was said to have brought to the local people.

The church and its separate bell tower are two of the oldest structures in the province. The Bell Tower was constructed two years after the church and at the same time was used as a watch tower.

It’s in a not-too-bad condition, considering its age; and though the cement shows definite signs of deterioration, the entire structure feels a lot safer than some other churches I have visited in Luzon.

The same cannot be said of the five bells, which are in a pretty dreadful condition, and are definitely not fit for ringing, though it is more likely that it’s the actual fabric of the tower itself which would be in more danger if they were rung.

From the top of the belfry you get a magnificent view of the town, a good view of nearby Vigan centre and of course a bird’s eye view of Bantay Municipal Cemetery.

The Church has a deep brown, neo-gothic façade which incorporates ‘earthquake baroque’ (ie large buttresses giving extra strength to the walls) in its architecture, since this is very much earthquake country.

Having suffered damage during World War II, the church underwent reconstruction in 1950.

Although quite large inside, it is not that stunning an interior, to be perfectly honest…

Outside, there’s a pleasant garden, which features some of my favourite ginger plants.

Pleasant though Bantay undoubtedly is, visitors come mainly for the downtown area of Vigan, whose well-preserved Spanish trading town environment has survived the test of time, including bombings during World War II which levelled other major Philippine cities such as Baguio, Cebu and Manila.
It’s the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia and it’s unique in the Philippines. In 1999 Vigan City was listed by UNESCO as the best preserved example of Spanish colonial towns in Asia, with its conglomeration of cultural elements from the Philippines, China and Spain. Last year, too, Vigan was crowned as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders’ Cities.

Personally I wonder at some of these made-up awards that seem to spring up with boring regularity. It feels a bit like the unending lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage that China adds to every five minutes and organisations like UNESCO make up (to justify its existence, I sometimes wonder). Along with Vigan, the New 7 Wonders Cities list includes Beirut, Doha, Durban, Havana, Kuala Lumpur, and La Paz. Doha? Durban? Are you kidding me? Oh come on! Enough said I think!

Still, there is no denying that Vigan is special in many ways, and accordingly it attracts tourists like there is no tomorrow.

UNESCO notes ‘Vigan is an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in East and Southeast Asia. The architecture is truly reflective of its roots in both materials and design, in its fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning.’

Vigan is therefore becoming ever better known for its cobblestone streets, and a unique architecture that fuses Philippine and Oriental building designs and construction, with colonial European architecture.

Actually, when the Spaniards took control of the town, they called it ‘Villa Fernandina’, in honour of Prince Ferdinand, the firstborn son of King Philip II, who died at the age of 4. As the city grew, and the seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia transferred to Vigan, it was later renamed ‘Ciudad Fernandina de Vigan’.

It appears that back in 1572, the Spaniards didn’t display much originality when deciding how they would lay out their cities. So they decided to pattern Vigan’s urban plan on that of Intramuros – the walled city in Manila – not that that’s a bad choice, I have to say. And they didn’t have much else to copy from in any case.

The urban planners all basically followed a pattern that can be observed in most old Spanish towns in the country. Streets follow a grid , the centre of which is a plaza or a central park. I guess that’s not a bad pattern to follow.

Over time, various disasters took their toll on the city. Some of the houses in Crisologo Street were casualties of fire during the Japanese period, for instance. Several houses on Quezon Avenue were also destroyed by fire in 1952; and in 1971 houses near Plaza Burgos burned down. The houses along Crisologo Street that were burned were later reconstructed faithfully following the architecture of the former structures.

Japanese Imperial Army planes bombed Vigan in December 1941 and Japanese troops occupied the town in 1942. But three years later, combined U.S. and Philippine Commonwealth ground troops, aided by Ilocano resistance fighters, defeated the Japanese Imperial forces and liberated Vigan. (Thank goodness the Americans didn’t decide to fly bombing missions, or maybe Vigan would never have made it to the 7-Wonders list!)

One of the main touristy sights making their way around Vigan are the many Kalesa (horse-drawn) carriages that vie for the passing tourist trade. Like most touristy kalesas in other cities, they tend to stink of horse pooh, though I guess if you love growing roses in your garden, then you would welcome them with open arms. (Is this why roses in China tend to be so robust?) Still, it doesn’t seem to put the rubber-neckers off, and I guess as a relaxing way to see around the town they may well have their appeal (as long as the wind is blowing in the opposite direction that is).

I feel a bit sorry for the horses though, being left standing around in the sunshine for so long each day…

It makes one tired just to look at them! Thank goodness there are some rather snazzy 'wheel-chairs' gracing the streets on which to rest one’s situpon…