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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Himalayan Paradise in Yorkshire

It’s considered one of the wonders of North Yorkshire... and rightly so. But the Himalayan Garden & Sculpture Park in Grewelthorpe, opened in 2005 just three miles south of Masham and five miles northwest of Ripon, is also one of the least known tourist attractions in the region.

An open-air gallery – featuring some 80 contemporary sculptures, showcased in a tranquil valley-setting of some 45 acres of woodland, gardens and an arboretum – is enhanced by 3 lakes. It’s only open a few weeks of every year, but some 10,000 people make the pilgrimage annually.

The Himalayan Garden was winner of the Yorkshire in Bloom Award in 2018, showcasing as it does, some 1,400 rhododendron varieties, 250 azalea varieties and 150 different magnolias among its 20,000 plants. There’s even a newly planted 20-acre arboretum.

Peter Roberts – the man who was once the driving force behind the Golden Tulip hotel and PureGym chains – and his wife Caroline purchased the land in 1996 when it was little more than a coppiced hazel and spruce woodland. Peter was inspired by the hybrid rhododendrons which had been planted along the drive to the house, and started to research other rhododendron gardens in Colwyn Bay, Castle Howard, Cartmel and Cumbria. Following that, he made forays to the Himalayas to bring back to Yorkshire some of the native species there.

What makes this land so ideal for a Himalayan garden is, apparently, the acid soil, high rainfall and unique topography which creates numerous micro-climates.

Everywhere, particularly in late April and early May, rhododendrons and azaleas line the paths in a profusion of colour.

Not all the varieties have name tags, which is a shame if you are hell-bent on obtaining samples for your own garden, but as you turn every corner there is something else to smile about...

Dotted in often-unexpected places, and adding rather than taking away from the splashes of colour, are numerous sculptures – such as this ‘Thailand Hand’, by an unknown artist.

Close up, some of the flower heads are quite stunning...

To add to his extensive plant collection, every year Peter Roberts commissions new sculptures for the grounds.

Six of them by an Indian artist, Subodh Kerkar (the Founding Director of the Museum of Goa) are really attractive. His work is showcased all over the world, and Ghandi’s principle of ahimsa (doing no harm) is a theme that runs through his work.

The first of his sculptures you come across is called the ‘Cotton Tree’, and alludes to Yorkshire’s industrial heritage. A notice beside it tells us that cotton originated in India. Apart from spices, cotton was one of the major Indian export commodities. In 1350, an Englishman named John Mandeville, wrote a book called ‘The Travels’, in which he wrote about a tree in India that grew wool. "There grows in India a wonderful tree which bears tiny lambs on the end of its branches. These branches are so pliable that they bend down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry”. Kerkar explains that he covered his cotton pods with patterns of crochet (a Portuguese knitting style) and one of the cotton pods is fitted with a lamb’s head.

Others of his sculptures show that the man has a good sense of humour as well as being highly creative. Take this ‘Book Tree’, for instance, that features logs carved with books encased in resin, symbolising the process from tree to book

Or how about ‘Logs of Dialogues’, a sculpture that consists of 18 logs painted with eyes and open mouths. Kerkar explains that he made it in response to the rise of terrorism. “Terrorism is a product of a lack of communication,” he says. “The world needs dialogue more than ever before.”

Yet another of his works, ‘The Ocean Comes to Yorkshire’, combines natural materials from Yorkshire with 10,000 shells shipped from his Goa homeland to chronicle Yorkshire’s ancient links with the sea. It features logs covered with cowrie and tower shells.

When the Vikings came to Yorkshire they used the ocean as a highway. There are more than 2,000 place names in Yorkshire originating from that Viking culture. Cowrie shells were used as currency, because they didn’t disintegrate, and porcelain, named from the cowrie shell, was much prized in the UK,” he adds.

Other sculptures are also attractive, but in a totally different sort of way from those of Kerkar’s. Here’s something called ‘Slate Cone’, which can be seen from some way away and is made from embedding pieces of slate into a cylinder of concrete.

‘Fisherman’s Head’, by Christopher Marvell, doesn’t look a bit out of place beside one of the lakes.

And ‘The Swift’ by Hamish Mackie is elegant in its simplicity.

Looking forlornly over another of the lakes sits a sculpture that goes by the name of ‘Still Sitting’ by artist Helen Sinclair. Have you ever seen such a sexy bottom!

Adorning one of the lakes is a series of red-painted bridges, setting off nicely against a red sculpture that emerges out of the water a few hundred yards further on.

And recently added is a Norse ‘Stabbur’ – or store house – by local craftsman Paul Grainger. A Stabbur was typically built on wooden poles or tables of stone to ensure they were raised off the ground. By the end of the 9th Century there were large-scale settlements of Scandinavians in Britain and the densest Viking population was found in Yorkshire, where they had their capital city, York (Jorvik). Many Yorkshire dialect words and place names derive from old Norse owing to the Viking influence in this region.

Another building – a Kath Khuni (‘Kath’ means wood and 'Khuni' is corner, implying that the buildings should only have wood in the corners) adorns the arboretum area. In remote areas of northern India at altitudes of 4,500 to 7,000 metres, the inhabitants have a unique architecture, responding to the specific rural conditions, and in particular the frequent occurrence of large earthquakes. These buildings are made up of layered courses of wood and stone, topped off by a slate roof. The front of the house and balconies are then decorated with intricate wood carvings.

Traditionally the external walls are held together by wooden tenon-and-mortice joints rather than nails and are filled with rubble rather than cement, which allows the building to flex with Seismic waves and to disperse the destructive energy of earthquakes.

This Himachal Pradesh style of building uses cedar, stone and slate with Indian flagstones and the ornamental balcony (which is about 100 years old) was brought over from the region.

Opposite the Kath Khuni is a young oak, which was grown as an acorn from the Royal Vergelegen Oak in South Africa in 2010. This latter had been given as an acorn by the Duchess of Marlborough to Sir Lionel Philips in 1920 and sent to South Africa. It had come from the King Alfred's Oak at Blenheim Palace that is over 1,000 years old. So this oak is directly descended from both of them.

The magnolia’s flowering season is nearly over...

...as is that of the daffodils, narcissi and tulips...

But there is still a lot to enjoy, quite apart from the spectacular rhodies and azaleas.

But once your feet start feeling over-used, you can retire for refreshments in a Log Cabin tearoom, which serves a range of hot and cold drinks, and a variety of food options. Notice the blue-poppy logo which represents an extremely rare species that they have managed to cultivate here.

The ploughman’s lunch is excellent, and though there are one or two criticisms of the staff in this little restaurant to be found on the internet, I have to say that when we were there they couldn’t have been more friendly and with good service.

The Himalayan Garden is best visited by car, though it is also possible to reach it by taking buses 36 and then the 138A from Harrogate. Acklams Coaches also organise tours there.

Note that the gardens are only open for a few weeks each year, so check before you head off! In Spring they are open from mid April to mid July, while in Autumn they are open for most of October. 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays

Monday, May 27, 2019

Relax Disney... Fantasy World has nothing to get you worried about!

I well remember, a few years back, going on a press trip to Hong Kong on behalf of a newspaper in the Middle East. I probably filed at least a dozen articles, all of which, bar one, were printed. The errant story was about the recently-opened H.K. Disney World that the newspaper refused to publish. Apparently the advertising department felt that if they did so they would lose advertising from a valued client. For some reason they took particular exception to me writing something along the lines of “The best sight in the entire HK Disney World is the sign that reads Exit”.

So I was somewhat amused recently to come across what had been dubbed by many at the time it was scheduled to open as the ‘Disneyland of the Philippines’.

Fantasy World is located just off the Diokno Highway, near Lemery in Batangas, 2-3 hours drive south of Manila . You can hardly miss it.

Fantasy World has been there since 2001, and has a chequered history, to put it mildly. It started off life destined to become a theme park, but according to initial stories the money ran out early on when the ECE Realty Corporation’s head, Emilio Ching, fell ill. So Plan B was to convert it into a 'photo-opportunity' park instead.

In the initial stages, Fantasy World was endorsed by the Department of Tourism and was designed to have a castle, a club house, a 504-room hotel, a chapel and rides. The budget was set at over ₱1 billion (or just over US$19m). Later internet reports, written in the past five years, claim that Fantasy World had a suspension order forced on it after the developers failed to comply with disclosure requirements. Its stock market listing was also suspended as a result.

What is not in doubt is the fact that in its present state the entrance fee was initially set at ₱1,000 (US$19) for up to 10 people to be allowed to wander in the 30-hectare park and climb to the top of the Disneyesque-Bavarian-inspired castle. No doubt following complaints of this rip-off level of pricing, you can nowadays enter for ₱100 per head.

The park is currently run and maintained by neighbouring residents in a kind of homeowners association. Food and drinks bought outside are not allowed inside Fantasy World, no doubt to protect what few profits the homeowners can drum up from the gullible tourists. Guests can purchase drinks and snacks for between ₱30 and ₱125 in an underwhelming cafeteria room that has appalling write-ups if you read the travel sites that have actually bothered to visit the place.

ABS-CBN News actually made a feature about the park, struggling heroically to think of anything good to say about it: “Here are some of the things you can do inside: Take lots of photos... Rent a costume for ₱300... This will make your selfies much more fun... Climb to the top of the main tower... Cross the hanging bridge... Find a moment of peace...”!

For professional shoots, pre-nup photographic sessions, and even for flying drones, there is an additional fee of ₱5,000.

ABS-CBN continues: “Those who would not mind climbing about a hundred steps [up the castle staircase] will be rewarded with an unobstructed view of the Batangas greenery that surrounds the park”. What we are not told is that the castle is simply a poorly built facade with nothing more than a tower that you can climb up in order to reach the viewing gallery that probably holds a maximum of 15 people standing shoulder to shoulder.

But they are correct when they say you can see greenery – that looks pretty much like the greenery you can also see from the bottom of the tower.

ABS-CBN also reports that “several theme park rides such as mini-ferris wheels, roller coasters, and mechanical swings can be spotted in different parts of the property”.


Ah... my dictionary helps me out. “Several: being more than two but fewer than many in number or kind”.

Or to put it another way... Three!

Apparently the THREE rides were installed in early 2017 but not one has been finished as of two and a half years later and they are still not operational. One wonders if they ever will be.

This eight-ball ferris wheel is what you might find in any children’s amusement park anywhere in the world, and I shudder to think how real Disneyland employees would describe it!

Likewise this mini rollercoaster that I think is meant to resemble a dragon is overgrown with weeds.

Ah, but hang on a moment... one of Fantasy World’s more popular features is the tree house. Well, compared with the non operational rides, it probably is a lot more popular. Actually, there are two tree houses connected by a hanging bridge. Go climb the top and you will be rewarded with panoramic views of Taal Volcano – a view that will make you feel like the ruler of the land.

(Drive a little further along the road, however, and you can get even better views of Taal volcano!)

In the lower half of the Park is a pleasant garden. And if you climb to the bottom of the hill and back, that will eat up at least another half an hour of your time. But perhaps because of the stifling heat, no one seems interested in climbing down the stone stairs, knowing that what goes down has to climb back up again.

So what few visitors there are in this place wander aimlessly past topiary-inspired hedges ...

... and admire some of the pleasant trees and flowers.

Heaven forbid that you should even think about picking any of the flowers though – there are stern warning notices all over the park telling you in no uncertain terms not to do so. But there’s nothing to say you can’t uproot one of any number of self-seeded tree weeds, which is possibly a better way of getting some kind of value for money in this place.

To add insult to injury, ABS-CBN tells us that if we can't get enough of Fantasy World, the management offers free access to the park for a lifetime membership fee of ₱187,000. Hold on... does anyone really think they will want to come back to this place even once more, let alone another 1,870 times?

I’m beginning to see why they call this Fantasy World!

Fantasy World can be found on the main road linking Tagaytay to Nasugbu, not far from Lemery. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A hidden jewel in Tongzhou

After seven years in Beijing I thought I had seen most of what there was to see – museum-wise at least. But recently I discovered what has to be placed in my top five museums... and even that is being conservative.

It’s way out in the eastern suburbs of Tongzhou, which is why it had escaped me for so long. But it’s well worth the trek, albeit that there is a bus that goes directly there from Guomao.

I’m referring to the Beijing Daqi Radio and Movie Projector Museum (北京大戚收音机电影机博物馆) – though what a misnomer this turns out to be!

The fact is that, probably due to its location, it is little visited and when I arrived there I was treated like royalty. Certainly there were no other visitors on my first trip, and when I went again a couple of weeks later there were only two other visitors in the building.

The name of the museum belies what treasures there are to be found inside... but more of that in a moment. It’s not just radios and projectors here, but a whole Aladdin’s cave of other stuff, including film equipment, stereo systems, gramophones, mobile phones, typewriters, cameras and much much more. It basically covers the development of sound and image recording and playback equipment from the 1930s to the present; and it’s truly a Mecca for retro-lovers.

One Chinese web site claims the Daqi museum, which opened in 2011, is by far the largest and most complete private radio film machine museum in the world. Maybe that comes down to the definition of ‘private radio film machine’. But the collection is said to include more than 20,000 machines, including 3,000 radios, many of which, however, are in storage on the lower ground floor due to lack of display space in the main two floor areas.

The museum's curator, Jian Jiangang, has been collecting his massive assortment of radios and film projectors since 2005, bought in the main from other like-minded retro enthusiasts from other parts of the world, particularly Germany.

When you walk in, however, you might be forgiven for thinking you have come to the wrong place. A collection of fake post boxes line the lower part of the main staircase. But I find out later that these, and other miscellaneous items scattered haphazardly around the building, have been used over the years as props in various films.

In the visitors’ rules, that all museums and public places appear to love putting on display, we are advised ‘Don't shout loudly and travel in civilization’. I remind myself henceforth to shout softly should the urge take me.

First off is an exhibition area for foreign movie projectors. These, we are told, are typical projectors used outside China from 1895 to the 1970s, and range from the silent era, including oil lamps, gas, carbon rods, and kerosene lamp light sources, to AC powered portable and stationary projectors. This has to be a collector who simply didn’t know when to stop, there are so many of them!

Here, for instance, is an Edison Projecting Kinetoscope dating from the first decade of the 20th century, together with a photo of one actually in use – just as are provided with many other items in the collection...

Other machines, such as this Revere 16mm projector from the 1940s, are accompanied by reproductions of movie posters from the era.

More modern projectors up to the 1990s feature domestic brands like Dongfeng, Meihualu and Zhujiang, as well as a number from the US, Germany and other countries.

There are also plenty of photos of projectors being used in everyday situations...

... not to mention cinema entry tickets.

Of course, without film cameras, the projectors would be pretty useless; and just like with the previous section, there are plenty of cameras on show.

Here, for instance, is an Arriflex 16mm camera from Germany. Developed during World War II, the ‘Arri’ stands for the two inventors of the brand – August Arnold and Robert Richter. This model with its interchangeable lenses was used primarily for shooting news footage and documentaries.

On show, and pretty much on its ownsome-lonesome, is this carousel slide projector. Amazing to think that something as basic as this that was found everywhere when I was a lad, should end up in a museum!

Not surprisingly in a museum of this sort, there is a preponderance of radios dating back to the 1920s, such as this one-valve Westinghouse...

Or this five-valve Guarantee from a couple of years later.

Likewise there are very many German radios from the middle of the century, bought from other collectors, together with advertising posters of the period from which they were made...

And here is a Nordmende – a common enough radio brand in my former days...

There are also plenty of transistor-type radios, such as these Chinese ones,

Together with some early stereo receivers. Here’s a Saba ME19 from the early ‘50s.

Nor should one forget satellite receivers with crystals to control the exact pickup frequencies – very useful when you are tuning into distant shortwave stations. Here’s a Grundig Satellit 3400 Professional.

And who remembers Walkmans (or should that be Walkmen!) which were ubiquitous until MP3s made them almost obsolete over night.

Next up is a gallery depicting the evolution of China's television from the 1950s to the present day. If the truth be known, these sets are not very exciting to look at, and of course, the country’s TV systems are not old enough to show the old-style vertical cathode ray tubes with a 45 degree mirror affixed for viewing that almost every TV museum in the West will have on display.

There’s also scant mention of home video recorders – I didn’t see an actual machine here at all, though there was a rather higgledy-piggledy pile of VHS tapes that made passing mention of it. But no DVD recorders at all, not to mention solid state.

On the sound recording front, there are a few cylinder recorders on show (here’s a ‘Nouveau Phonograph BB’ with assorted cylinders).

And there’s even an explanation of how they worked, compared with ‘Digital Versatible Disc’ (stet) methods of recording.

Again, no mention of recording onto 78rpm discs, which was the principle means of recording hi fidelity during the WWII days, but oh joy of joy, they had on display a wire recorder – something that I had never seen before.

Wire recording was the first type of magnetic recording technology, in which a magnetic recording is made on thin steel wire which is pulled rapidly across a recording head, which magnetizes each point along the wire in accordance with the intensity and polarity of the electrical audio signal being supplied to the recording head. By later drawing the wire across the same or a similar head, the varying magnetic field induces a similarly varying electric current in the head, recreating the original signal. Wire recording initially had the advantage that the recording medium was already fully developed, while tape recording was held back by the need to improve the materials and methods used to manufacture the tape. The brief heyday of wire recording lasted from approximately 1946 to 1954.

Compared to tape recorders, wire recording devices use a nominal speed of 61 cm/s, making a typical one-hour spool of wire over 2km long. But because the wire was extremely fine, having a diameter of 0.10 to 0.15 mm, it was possible to hold it all on a spool less than 3 inches (76 mm) in diameter.

Of course, there are also a number of tape recorders – this home machine being a Chinese version of a standard Grundig, for instance (what? Do the curators really not know how to thread up the tape around the heads?).

Or this semi-professional multi-track TEAC from the 1970s...

There are even Grundig dictation machines from the same era.

And here’s a Chinese version of a professional portable machine that I used to use in my BBC days. Oh happy memories!

Too much excitement? How about stereo radio-cassette machines then, of which, again, there is a plethora on show?

Or a small section on microphones, showing some types in use during the ’40s and ’50s.

There’s even a lovely poster depicting a recording of a piano being made at the turn of the century. Don’t you just love it!

as well as 78 rpm records..

There are also old gramophones (here’s an old Chinese model from the 1930s)

together with loads of old posters...

And these merge into a newer collection of what we used to refer to in old Blighty as ‘Dancette’-style players.

And don’t you just love this old 1950s ‘1502’ stereogram, which is a wonderful piece of furniture in its own right.

And there’s loads of other stereograms shown too.

You’ll not be surprised that there are loads of old cameras...

And mobile phones too...

...even an extensive catalogue of bricky Nokia phones that I used to use in years gone by.

There are even loads of old loudspeakers...

...that used to be used to blast out instructions to the masses during more turbulent times in China’s recent history.

What typewriters have to do with movie projectors and radios is anyone’s guess.

But there are lots of old ones on display,

including this old rotary head non-QWERTY model from Germany.

And barber chairs? There are no signs. Maybe these too have been old props.

And who can forget the poster of the classic Marilyn Monroe pose as she stepped over that air duct in Seven Year Itch?

We’ve finally come to the end of this treasure trove of goodies. To put it all into some kind of context, there’s a mock up of a family living room during the Mao era (though it is hardly convincing).

Trust me when I say I have barely lifted the cover on all that is on display in this wonderful museum.

So how come not a single person of all my many Beijing media contacts has ever heard of this place, let alone actually been there?

The Beijing Daqi Radio and Movie Projector Museum is located 500 metres east of Xiaobao Village Ring Island, Songzhuang Town, a one hour journey by bus from the centre of Beijing. Take the 808 or 809 from Dabeiyao Dong and alight at Xiaobao roundabout, two stops from the end of the route.