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Pingyao

The Pingyao city wall at dusk

In the last couple of decades, the popular image of China, at least outside China itself, has become a very modern one. Much in the same way that Japan’s rapid modernisation subsumed an ancient “shoguns and ninjas” image and replaced it with a hi-tech, futuristic one of robots and intelligent lavatories, China’s recent boom has brought some rather more unsightly stereotypes to the fore – smog, factories and endless apartment block developments among them. When we visit the big-ticket tourist cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, we often see one or all of these, but we do it for some small and carefully-preserved piece of China’s history – Old Shanghai, the Imperial Palace Museum, or the Terracotta Army. After those fascinating exhibits, the cities around them feel like a strange mix of luxury stores, grey cookie-cutter apartment blocks and ultra-modern, ambitious and sometimes ridiculous new construction. In the People’s Republic’s rush to create a communist utopia, and the resulting u-turn and plunge into a market economy, Chinese life has changed, seemingly completely. So, one begins to wonder, where is a living version of old China? One that pre-dates the Cultural Revolution and isn’t cluttered with tourist shops and ticket booths? One answer to that question is a little town in remote Shanxi province, called Pingyao.

One of Pingyao's shopping streets

One of Pingyao’s shopping streets

Pingyao has a long history. Situated roughly halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, it has been in the company of the centres of Chinese civilisation for over 2000 years, and held a position at the eastern end of the trans-continental Silk Route. But it was more recently, during the last throes of the Qing dynasty, that the city amassed much of its riches. It was in Pingyao in 1823, as wealth in the form of silver moved across the vast empire to finance development and occupations, that China’s first bank emerged. Business boomed and Pingyao spawned several banks, with branches across the empire and as far away as India. It all went well until the fall of the Qing in 1911, by which time the wealthy banking families of the city had built impressive homes and amassed enviable art collections. The 20th century was unkind to Pingyao as the business centres shifted to the coast, industries were nationalised, and Shanxi’s national role was reduced to the extraction of coking coal. The upshot of Pingyao’s descent to the fringes, however, seems to have been its protection from modern China’s relentless development and the preservation of the city’s precious heritage.

Pingyao's West Street (Xī Dà Jiē) at night

Pingyao’s West Street (Xī Dà Jiē) at night

Pingyao has been surrounded by a city wall for over 2000 years, but the wall in its current form has been in place since the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Its 6km length encloses and overlooks a criss-cross of tiny lanes, marshalled by 2 perpendicular main arteries. The southern half of the north-south artery, South Street (Nán Dà Jiē), is the most heavily-touristed, straddled by an ornate gate and lined with shops selling tourist nicknacks, eclectic collections of antiques, and restaurants and cafes. South Street also finds itself among the bulk of the tourist attractions and guest houses in the city, heavily trod by large Chinese tour groups and a smaller crowd of foreigners. There are two temples and four bank museums in the southern half of the city, as well as two double-entendred “escort agency” museums. Some of the attractions date from over a millennium ago, and each reveals a precious piece of China’s history, chief among them the pioneering Rishengchang Draft Bank Museum, with a room full of treasures dating back to the Song Dynasty. The Rishengchang Museum is part of a city-wide entry ticket of 120RMB that includes a number of attractions and is valid for three days. But the beauty of Pingyao is not only in the draft banks and temples, but also in walking its sometimes-restored, sometimes-rubble-strewn dead straight lanes.

The extent of the branch network for the Rishengchang Draft Bank in Pingyao

The extent of the branch network for the Rishengchang Draft Bank in Pingyao

Turning off the main streets, the touristic nature of the lanes quickly dwindles, but the ancient village architecture never does. Dark brick façades rise either side of you and the sky forms a thin strip over your head, the horizon in front obstructed by an ornate gate in the near distance, or one of the watchtowers on the city wall. The occasional electric bike creeps up behind and rushes silently past, while elderly locals rest outside their houses, watching Pingyao life go by. At night the lanes are strung up with red lanterns to light the way – until they’re not, and the path is pitch black, haunting bike lights in the distance mixing with the faint smell of heating coal and the cool night air to give an otherworldly feeling to your evening stroll. The outskirts are dotted with construction as new buildings are being built with similar materials in a similar manner to the old, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ancient and new. But there are a number of hotels and guest houses, such as the Yide Hotel in the city’s western half, set in courtyard complexes from the city’s golden era, whose success will likely be the guarantee of the preservation of much of the city’s wonderful heritage. And the city wall itself can be walked the entire perimeter, as part of the city-wide entry ticket, offering a rooftop perspective over an ancient Chinese city, still living, and finding its place in the new China without wholesale demolition and high-rise construction.

A small lane in Pingyao at night

A small lane in Pingyao at night

An example of new construction that remains true to the old in Pingyao

An example of new construction that remains true to the old in Pingyao

In the headlong rush to enrich a nation of 1.5bn and reach economic superpower status, heritage has been the least of China’s worries. But now that large numbers of Chinese are beginning to travel, and faraway parts of the country are accessible with airports and fast trains, it’s likely they will want to see what’s left of their precious ancient heritage preserved, that now they can afford not bulldoze the old and replace it with something new, but find the value in what’s there. We outside China can help too, by seeking out the genuine “old China”, by looking further afield than the big cities and digging deeper into a country that’s so much more than just smog, factories and high-rise glass-and-steel.

A courtyard at the Yide Hotel in the western half of Pingyao

A courtyard at the Yide Hotel in the western half of Pingyao

More about Pingyao:

The UNESCO Entry on Pingyao
An Article in the Financial Times
An Article in the Economist Magazine ($)

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Hakka Villages of South Fujian

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Directly to the west of the city of Xiamen in southern Fujian, near the border with Guangdong province, nestled among rolling green hills of tea, rice and tobacco plantations are the villages of China’s Hakka ethnic minority. These migrants from the far north made their move as long ago as 300 AD, escaping poverty and persecution, and made a new home in the hilly Fujian countryside above the fertile river deltas. Initially unwelcome in this southern land, they housed themselves in imposing round multi-storey rammed-earth houses, impregnable and self-contained, a combination of family home and fortress. Little-known outside of the Chinese societies of east and south-east Asia, the Hakka have had a disproportionate impact on their part of the world since their arrival in the south, counting the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, the former Chinese premier Deng Xiao Ping and Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore among their number. But it is these curious giant mud houses, called tulou and ranging in age from 70 to 700 years old, that attract tourists to the villages around Yongding and Nanjing in Fujian in their busloads to learn about the culture of a people whose name “Hakka” literally means “guest”.

The heavily-touristed Huaiyuanlou building, with souvenir sellers lining the approach.

The four-storey heavily-touristed Huaiyuanlou building, near Nanjing, with souvenir sellers lining the approach.

The inside of the Huanjilou building, near the town of Yongding. The Outer ring of the building is for living, cooking, while the inner sections usually house areas for worship and bathing.

The inside of the 320-year-old Huanjilou building, near the town of Yongding. The Outer ring of the building is for living, cooking and storage, while the inner sections usually house areas for worship and bathing.

The postcard tulou cluster of Tianluokeng from above. It's the most picturesque collection of houses and makes it onto plenty of tourism material aimed at the Chinese market.

The postcard tulou cluster of Tianluokeng from above. It’s the most picturesque collection of houses and makes it onto plenty of tourism material aimed at the Chinese market.

Tianluokeng from below with our guide Helen (Fei Fei) and our driver Mr. Zhang (the Chinese Ben Elton).

Tianluokeng from below with our guide Fei Fei (Helen) and our driver Mr. Zhang (the Chinese Ben Elton). photo by Manal Shehabi

Many of the tulou have been turned over to government-approved tourist attractions so their ground floors, previously used for cooking, are now souvenir shops.

Many of the tulou have been turned over to government-approved tourist attractions so their ground floors, previously used for cooking the family meal, are now souvenir shops.

Some of the tulou are operating as family-run inns where guests can sleep and eat.

Some of the tulou are operating as family-run inns where guests can sleep and eat.

This is an inn in the villiage of Taxia near Nanjing city in Fujian.

This is Weiqunlou inn in the villiage of Taxia near Nanjing city in Fujian.

Taxia fits the bill for the typical Chinese village - a bubbling river flows under ornate bridges past red lanterned houses under terraced hills.

Taxia fits the bill for the typical Chinese village – a bubbling river flows under ornate bridges past red lanterned houses under terraced hills.

A Taoist temple in the Taxia village. Each pillar is a symbol of an ancestor who passed the Imperial Examination for the Chinese civil service - an achievement to which some men devoted their entire lives.

The approach to the Taoist temple in Taxia village. Each pillar is a symbol of an ancestor who passed the Imperial Examination for the Chinese civil service – an achievement to which some men devoted their entire lives.

A woman delivers offerings for her ancestors to the Taxia village Taoist temple.

A woman delivers offerings for her ancestors to the Taxia village Taoist temple.

The offerings take the form of (real) food and (fake) cash normally, lovingly donated by descendants still very much in touch with their roots.

The offerings take the form of (real) food and (fake) cash normally, lovingly donated by descendants still very much in touch with their roots.

The cobbles outside the privately-run Yanxianglou building. The family has eschewed the government tourism system and so enjoys less visitors but maintains a more peaceful setting. All around the walls are pictures of a successful uncle in the family who became a successful businessman in Indonesia and who returns each year to the family home.

The moss-and-firework-covered cobbles outside the privately-run century-old Yanxianglou building near Yongding. The family has eschewed the government tourism system and so enjoys less visitors but maintains a more peaceful setting. All around the walls are pictures of an uncle in the family who became a successful businessman in Indonesia and who returns each year to the family home.

Ornate eave decorations in the Yanxianglou building near Yongding.

Ornate eave decorations in the Yanxianglou building near Yongding.

A trader in the Heguilou building near Nanjing. The traders inside the more-touristy tulou might not always be descendants of the house clan, but they are all Hakka natives and their businesses very much family affairs.

A trader in the 200-year-old Heguilou building near Nanjing. The traders inside the more-touristy tulou might not always be descendants of the house clan, but they are all Hakka village natives and their businesses very much family affairs.

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Jinmen

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The Fujianese island of Xiamen in China, including areas like Haicang on the mainland and the Gulang Yu islet, is a place full of day trips. There are enough places to see and things to do, and to see again and do again, that it could occupy a casual traveller for a very long time. But talk to enough people and you soon learn about another day trip – Jinmen. “What’s Jinmen?” goes the typical conversation.
“It’s a Taiwanese island you can get to by ferry”
“You can get the ferry to Taiwan???”
“Well, Taiwan is a long way away, but Jinmen is an island nearby that’s controlled by Taiwan”.
You see, back in the years following WWII there was a battle for China’s soul. Put simply, it was a civil war between the nationalist Kuo Min Tang and Mao Ze Dong’s communist Red Army. It was a titanic struggle and today, we still don’t have a result. The nationalists, who still claim to be China’s rightful government, were eventually pushed off the Chinese mainland and set up their capital in Taipei, 300km away on the island of Taiwan (as a side note, this explains why Taiwan competes in the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei”). With ambitions to re-take the mainland, they called their country the “Republic of China” (ROC), but most people simply call it “Taiwan”. Mao and the communists called their country the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) and it is that which we now commonly call China.
But as well as the island province of Taiwan, the nationalists managed to keep hold of a few outcrops in the Taiwan Strait, Jinmen and its little brother Lesser Jinmen, officially belonging to Fujian province, being the closest of those to the mainland.

A temple gate in the Jinmen capital Jincheng.

A temple gate in the Jinmen capital Jincheng.

The ferry ride from Xiamen’s Wu Tong terminal to the Shuitou port on Jinmen is a sharp 30 minutes, but enjoys all the formalities of international travel – immigration, customs and duty free stores at either end and a fresh stamp in the passport upon emerging from the rather dilapidated facility in Shuitou. The line of taxis waiting outside belies the sleepy, countryside nature of the island. Either side of the quiet single lane main roads, rocky hills, partly forested sit behind semi-rural vistas of rice paddies and scattered houses.

Jinmen is the almost-X-shaped island just right of centre in the map above, and its brother Lesser Jinmen (or Lieyu) the smaller island to its west. These  outposts of Taiwan sit surrounded 180-degrees by the People's Republic of China and separated by a vast stretch of open sea from Taiwan itself. From this  angle it looks a miracle that they're still part of Taiwan at all.

Jinmen is the almost-X-shaped island just right of centre in the map above, and its brother Lesser Jinmen (or Lieyu) the smaller island to its west. These outposts of Taiwan sit surrounded 180-degrees by the People’s Republic of China and separated by a vast stretch of open sea from Taiwan itself. From this angle it looks a miracle that they’re still part of the ROC at all.

On the north eastern tip of the island lies Mount Lion, a fortress-come-museum tunnelled deep into a mountain with a 32km range Howitzer cannon pointing out to sea and the PRC. Thirty-two kilometres takes its shells well into enemy territory and so it’s a weapon of which they are rightly proud. The tunnels hewn into the rock are decked out with posters promoting Jinmen tourism and the exhibits along the way to the cannon offer the visitor imitation experiences of the theatre of war. It’s all very theatrical. I passed a mocked up war room where only a grandmother and her grandson sat colouring pictures. The lady, who was from Taichung on Taiwan island, greeted me and we chatted about her time in Australia briefly and then bid each other good day. Continuing up the passage, occasionally I passed a section of the tunnel that was walled off behind which I could hear mysterious voices chattering away.

Helmets on standby at the entry to the tunnels of Mount Lion Cannon Fort on Jinmen.

Helmets on standby at the entry to the tunnels of Mount Lion Cannon Fort on Jinmen.

The cannon is on the seaside of the mountain, dug in behind a lookout and accompanied by a noisy and patriotic video presentation reminding visitors of the times, as recent as the 1970s when the PRC engaged in regular shelling of the island, that Jinmen was the frontline in the battle for China’s identity. In fact it still very much is at the frontline, and it was there I concluded that the walled off sections of tunnel I noticed were for defence purposes and the voices coming from them must have been those of real soldiers. All over the sleepy island of Jinmen there are reminders of how close it has come to invasion and bombardment – the traffic roundabouts have concrete camouflaged pillboxes installed in preparation for invasion, the ports are scattered with sandbags and sea defences, and little Taiwanese toy soldiers are the most popular tourist souvenir.

Curious wedding photos adorn the walls of the tunnels at Mount Lion Cannon Fort.

Curious wedding photos promoting Jinmen tourism adorn the walls of the tunnels at Mount Lion Cannon Fort.

Descending the tunnels again, the cacophonous cannon presentation fading in my ears, I heard an arresting female voice barking orders coming up ahead and strained to tell if it wasn’t just another recording in one of the war history exhibits. When it became frighteningly loud, around the corner came about 12 uniformed troops marching towards me in formation. Hastily I put my camera away, abandoned the path down one of the long side tunnels and waited for them to pass. When I emerged from my self-imposed exile, the soldiers had stopped in formation a little way up the tunnel, facing back towards me standing alone in the tunnel. They began repeating another aggressive volley of chants as I retreated. Well aware that photographs of the military aren’t usually approved souvenirs, I dared not retrieve my camera and continued calmly towards the fortress entrance, allowing myself one furtive glance back at them as I descended. The tunnels were otherwise empty, as was the war room where I had chatted to the friendly locals, their paper and crayons hastily put away. I wondered if an invasion was under way.

The 32km-range Howitzer cannon at the Mount Lion fortress on Jinmen.

The 32km-range Howitzer cannon at the Mount Lion fortress on Jinmen.

The mystery was solved as I waited outside in the museum cafe for a cab to take me the 6km into the principal town of Jincheng. The friendly grandmother walked in saying “Hi! You missed the demonstration firing of the cannon!”. Distracted and unnerved by the ambiguous nature of the museum & fort, I’d missed the main event, the daily ceremonial firing of the Howitzer cannon.

A pagoda in Zhihui Park, a seaside garden near the western port of Shuitou on Jinmen.

A pagoda in Zhihui Park, a seaside garden near the western port of Shuitou on Jinmen.

The eastern side of Shuitou town, near the departure port for Xiamen and the PRC, has a collection of houses built in the Peranakan style, by a Jinmen businessman who migrated to Indonesia and made his fortune in the early 20th century. Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, culture developed in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as more and more Chinese migrated from Southern China and settled in South East Asia before, during and after the explosion of European trade in what was then known as the ‘East Indies’. There the Chinese, a great many from Fujian province, opened businesses in trading ports like Penang, Singapore and Jakarta, cities that were ‘melting pots’ centuries before the term came into common use. They formed large communities and kept their customs and dialects, but a culture all its own emerged under the influence of the Arab, Indian, European and native Malay trading society around them.

The eighteen-house Peranakan complex in Shuitou, with its distinctive defensive tower.

The eighteen-house Peranakan complex in Shuitou, with its distinctive defensive tower.

Many returned with their riches and built complexes for their families back home like the eighteen-house cluster in Shuitou. These particular Peranakan houses now form a low-key museum that celebrates the South East Asian, particularly Indonesian, Chinese culture. Peranakan dresses hang where the wardrobes would have been and the upstairs dining table is laid out with models of ‘baba nyonya’ dishes, the distinctive cuisine of the Straits Chinese. After the more confined and garishly-adorned local Fujian houses, walking into those airy hardwood spaces felt to me like slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. The furniture made of dark polished hardwood with intricate inlaid pearl designs, the high ceilings and dishes with the words “sambal” and “satay” recall a more laidback, tropical world than wintry, windswept Fujian in February.

Peranakan wall tiling and teak furniture in Shuitou, Jinmen.

Peranakan wall tiling and teak furniture in Shuitou, Jinmen.

The Peranakan houses, these curious South East Asian artefacts transplanted to Fujian by an unwitting pioneer of globalisation, are fascinating to the smattering of mainland Chinese tourists who manage to make it over to Jinmen. And it was these tourists who joined me in the departure hall at Shuitou port, and on the comfortable, half-full ferry back to the PRC and Xiamen. There’s an irony in the truth that Jinmen, this bitterly-contested outcrop on the eastern edge of Fujian, has preserved its precious heritage through the wars and bombardments, while relatively peaceful cities like Xiamen and those on the Taiwanese coast have had much of their heritage erased, not by conflict, but by development. So Jinmen* makes a refreshing way to spend a day away from the the crowds and traffic of Xiamen. It opens the eyes to a world that has stayed quietly hidden away, sedate and unchanged behind the rapid pace of the Chinese economic miracle that has in some way affected every one of us over the last couple of decades.

Examples of the ornate roofs of the traditional native Fujianese houses, well-preserved clusters of which exist all over the island of Jinmen.

Examples of the ornate roofs of the traditional native Fujianese houses, well-preserved clusters of which exist all over the island of Jinmen.

*Once on the island it’s almost exclusively called “Kinmen”, which is only an alternative way of sounding the first syllable, the Chinese word for “gold” (金 jin/kin)

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Quanzhou & Xiamen cont’d

Kaiyuan Pagoda

The 44m high West Pagoda, one of two at Quanzhou’s Kaiyuan Temple complex, a Buddhist temple first constructed in the year 686 AD. The temple stands at the west end of Xi Jie (West Street), a bustling thoroughfare recalling the China of the past, of tiny ramshackle businesses, chaotic congested streets, honking buses and outdoor food stalls.

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A monk trains a young boy in the yard at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.

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Door handles on the East Pagoda at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.

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A doorway on Quanzhou’s Xi Jie. The city seems to be awakening from a tourist slumber, cleaning up the old parts of the town and erecting plaques in English and Chinese explaining the history of the area.

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An egret on Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

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A family walking along the western edge of Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

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The food markets near Xiamen’s pedestrian shopping street, Zhongshan Lu.

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Seafood cooked in its shell in the streets around Zhongshan Lu. Xiamen is famous in the rest of China for its seafood.

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Xiamen’s south-west shore in the distance, as seen from the highest point on the nearby island of Gu Lang Yu. Gu Lang Yu has historically been the preserve of foreigners, working in embassies and living in ostentatious villas, giving the island a colonial European atmosphere that helps make it a top-3 destination for Chinese domestic tourism.

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Workers unloading construction materials from boats on Gu Lang Yu, an island that is practically free of vehicles.

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This means that bricks and sand and cement and everything else gets pulled by men using handcarts like these.

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A dapper man in a suit jacket on a sampan sorts his catch for the day on the eastern shore of Gu Lang Yu.

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Because of its quaint architecture and scenic locations, the island is hugely popular with local newlyweds, who often eschew the black-and-white traditions we’re used to and go for colourful dresses and hipster vests.

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Back on Xiamen itself, a tour group prepares for a photo in front of the 280mm German-built cannon at Huli Shan Fortress on the island’s southern shore.

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The fortress occupies 13,000 square metres and has a collection of cannons, of which the 280mm, with its 7km accurate range, is the largest. It claimed a Japanese destroyer in 1941 and has a large feature about that event. More recent hostilities have been with the nationalist-controlled Taiwanese island of Jinmen, to the east of Xiamen. Whether those events are less important, or just that they don’t fit neatly into the Chinese national myth perhaps time will tell.

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Quanzhou & Xiamen

The Guandi Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province in China. Quanzhou, about 45 minutes on the train from Xiamen, was once a bustling traders' town at the end of the maritime silk road. The temple stands next to what is left of a 1000 year old mosque, built by the Arab, Persian and Indian traders.

The Guandi Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province in China. Quanzhou, about 45 minutes on the train from Xiamen, was once a bustling traders’ town at the end of the maritime silk road. The temple stands next to what is left of a 1000 year old mosque, built by the Arab, Persian and Indian traders.

Reminders of another significant part of the region's history, opium pipes for sale in Quanzhou's markets.

Reminders of another significant part of the region’s history, opium pipes for sale in Quanzhou’s markets.

Ornaments for sale in the markets near Quanzhou's 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale in the markets near Quanzhou’s 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale at the markets near Quanzhou's 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale at the markets near Quanzhou’s 1000-year old mosque.

A bridge over the Yundang Inner Lake in Xiamen, Fujian province, China

A bridge over the Yundang Inner Lake in Xiamen, Fujian province, China

Sunset view of the south shore of Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Sunset view of the south shore of Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

A girl and her father fishing on Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

A girl and her father fishing on Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Three egrets on the rapids of the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Three egrets on the rapids of the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

An egret on the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

An egret on the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Egrets lined up to swoop for fish in the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Egrets lined up to swoop for fish in the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Flowers in Xiamen's Huweishan Park.

Flowers in Xiamen’s Huweishan Park.

A rock carving at Xiamen's Nanputuo Temple.

A rock carving at Xiamen’s Nanputuo Temple.

Kids at sunset at Xiamen's Nanputuo Temple.

Kids at sunset at Xiamen’s Nanputuo Temple.

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21 October, 2013 · 21:09

A Hotel Review

Big Hotels are stuck in the past. They are vast bureaucracies that deliver large amounts of what we don’t want (gym, spa, mini bar) and struggle to provide us what we do want when we’re travelling (wireless internet, the will to live).

A block of apartments near the Pan Pacific in Xiamen, China

A block of apartments near the Pan Pacific in Xiamen, China

I grew up in a business traveller’s city (Singapore) in the golden era of the business traveller (the 80s). As an adult I’ve rarely chosen to spend my own hard-earned on them, but the chain hotel still occupied a kind of heavenly place in my mind, and I would look enviously at those folk who could afford to stay in them.

The chain hotel flourished in the shrinking world of the 1980s, when the cost of international air travel fell within the orbit of growing multinational companies. The companies would send their hard-working men (mostly men) away to far-flung places to win work or find suppliers, and usually these men wanted nothing more than to be back at home. The hotels couldn’t replicate home, so they didn’t even try – at great expense, they provided a kind of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for adults – all the things he couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed at home: an array of tiny bottles of top-shelf liquor, a fully equipped gym, heated swimming pool, buffet breakfast, endless pornography… They promoted their brands as luxury items. Like expensive watches and German-built cars, they alone could make you feel good about yourself. If you stayed at the Sheraton, or the Hilton, or the Intercontinental, you’d made it. Every little added comfort was at extra cost, but these men weren’t paying, so they didn’t care. They drank in the self-worth without any of the cost, and the companies shelled out to keep them happy.

Hong Kong from the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui

Hong Kong from the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui

Today we’re into the second decade of the 21st century and the 80s are a distant memory. The 5-star hotel chains still advertise in patronising soft-focus black-and-white in the Economist magazine, and their neon still lights the skylines of global cities. But stay in one today and it’s impossible not to get the feeling that they’ve been left behind by the rest of the world. Drop your bags on the bench and look around the room and it’s not the mini bar you’re interested in, or the quality of the complimentary stationery – you’re looking for a power point to charge your phone and a wireless network to check your emails. And 100+ room hotels that have been around for decades are uniformly woeful at providing either of those. Where are all the power points? Did people not need electricity in the 80s? Worse still, many of them take pleasure in charging premium daily rates for an internet connection far less reliable than your own $50-a-month plan at home. You open the fridge to survey the mini bar and speculate that there’s nothing in there that can’t be bought at the 7-11 across the road for literally a fraction of the price. You pick up the glossy hotel pamphlet and see the smiling faces on gym machines (you know the gym will be dark and airless), the 24-hour room service menu (how often do you need a ham sandwich at 3am?), and the list of pay-per-view blockbusters on offer (you’ve already got all the new movies you want loaded onto your laptop or iPad). The ubiquitous telephone is still there too, stalking you next to your head at night. But it’s only for emergencies – if the hotel is doing everything right, you won’t have a single use for it.
In fact, the only truly modern things that seem to work well in these hotels are the electronic card locks. But they’re not there for you, they’re there so reception can lock you out after 12 noon with the push of a button.

The Hong Kong skyline from the Avenue of the Stars on Kowloon peninsula

The Hong Kong skyline from the Avenue of the Stars on Kowloon peninsula

Placed alongside boutique hotels and Airbnb-style private rentals, the chain hotels, regardless of how many stars they think they are, leave travellers feeling cold and unsatisfied. The guests are herded like cattle and stacked like battery hens, the reception desks are staffed with overworked smiles, the pools attended by bored gentlemen with sullen faces and your complimentary cocktail is served by a costumed kid who doesn’t even drink. All you really want from them is a clean comfy room, a decent Skype connection, and someone who can tell you where a good restaurant is, and the small hotels and private-leased apartments do a far better job of that. With companies still sending their people enmasse to stay at these dinosaur chain hotels, these days it’s the businessmen who are envious of the rest of us.

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Economic Migrants

On the path to Bābak's Castle

On the path to Bābak’s Castle

Milad bounded up the final steps to the fort’s highest lookout and I followed with the cautiousness befitting a man three times his age. There, standing alone at the top, we were welcomed warmly by one of our fellow passengers from our short Land Rover journey. He was a cheery Iranian man with a shining bald spot wearing a sun visor, smiling broadly and admiring the view. He turned his smile to me and greeted me in Farsi and then delivered a torrent of words I couldn’t understand. It was an Iranian welcome – incomprehensible but which conveyed all of the warmth of a friendship despite us having only shared a bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive

We were in the Azarbaijan province of Iran, a few hours drive from the city of Tabriz, where a fort known as Bābak’s Castle sits atop a hill. It is a symbol of Iranian Azeri nationalism, remembered as the stronghold of a Zoroastrian Azeri, Bābak Khorramdin, a hero who galvanised Iranians and fought the Arab Muslim Abbassid Caliphate in the 9th century AD. It sits 2200m high above the village of Kaleybar and offers sweeping 180-degree views into two forested valleys below. I’d hastily arranged with my travel agent the day’s drive in a taxi from Tabriz, along the borders with Nakhchivan and Armenia, then up to Bābak’s Castle via Land Rover at first, finishing with an hour’s hike to the fort. My driver Zahir was a happy and eager Iranian Azeri man whose Azeri-Turkish was better than his Farsi, and both were far, far better than his English. He had decided to skip the journey to the top and instead left me with his son Milad, who had no English and hiked with me in silence except for the occasional coo-ee echoing across the valleys.

The entrance to the Kordasht Bath House, in the Aras Valley

The entrance to the Kordasht Bath House, in the Aras Valley

So our new companion’s gushing Farsi was a welcome change and I did manage to catch the word “Lorestan”, the name of a little-visited region I was lucky to see last time I was in the country. His bad English and my terrible Farsi were good enough to establish that this man and his friends were from the very same Lorestan town that I’d been to, Khorramabad, and from that moment we were friends.
We lingered a little longer to admire the view and breathe the cool mountain air above the baking plains, and then began our descent. At the makeshift tea shop just below the fort we shared a tea with his group of friends, one named Abbas who spoke very good English. With communication lines open now with the Lorestanis, Abbas said he was, like me, an engineer, working for the Iranian national oil company (only one company controls all Iranian oil and gas) on rigs based out of the southern city of Ahwaz. He is one of those specialist oil and gas engineers, the kind who in Australia make a great deal of money spending roughly half their time working on rigs and the other half back in the city chucking their money around and driving up the cost of living for everybody else. He asked me what salary an engineer might earn in Australia and I answered, conservatively, 150,000-200,000 per year in his industry. “I earn seven thousand US dollars”, he said. “Per month?” I asked? No, per year. The oil industry is a global industry always in need of specialists, so Abbas is getting paid less than 5%, or one twentieth, of his worth.

Milad and his father in the Kordasht Bath House

Milad and his father in the Kordasht Bath House

While I’ve been away from Australia, our Prime Minister has called an election and the campaigning is mercifully nearly over. A bare-faced anti-muslim party has nominated to cash in on the xenophobic hysteria that usually accompanies our election campaigns (see Muhamed Haneef, Children Overboard, etc, etc), and the two major parties have reached new highs (or lows) in the auction for who can be the cruelest and harshest to desperate people who, if we take them at their word, deserve our protection and hospitality. Our government has spent large amounts of public money printing advertisements in English, in Australian newspapers, assuring us of just how cruel they intend to treat anyone foolish enough to sail for Australia and seek asylum. The justification for this treatment is that people who pay a large sum of money to risk their lives on a leaky boat aren’t desperate at all – they’re just cynical economic migrants making a choice – as if they checked out Qantas prices on kayak.com first and instead plumped for the 5-day cruise to Christmas Island. Until now, the idea that even one person would choose that option voluntarily seemed unthinkable to me, and the suggestion that all 70-80 on a boat are just shopping for a good deal still seems scurrilous and dishonest in the extreme. But here I had met an intelligent man who could do some simple maths – $150,000 minus $7,000 equals $143,000. If he could do his job in Australia, it would take only 1 month of working as an engineer to pay off the cost of a $25,000 journey – after that he’s a free, and rich, man.

The regime in Iran makes it very difficult for ordinary Iranians to leave the country – they cannot easily take their wealth out of the country and can expect to find it very hard to return if they leave on their own terms. The government’s main income comes from its monopoly on oil and gas, and it does all it can to stop those with the requisite skills from escaping to the west or the Arab countries chasing better pay. So someone like Abbas would obviously need a very good reason to leave. But a 2000% pay increase would tempt anyone, anywhere in the world, to consider their options. With such an income disparity between a closeted country like Iran and a booming, skills-hungry country like Australia, for the first time it made sense to me that someone might just opt for the unthinkable.

The view from Bābak's Castle

The view from Bābak’s Castle to Kaleybar in the distance

It’s unlikely that this was the first Abbas and his colleagues have heard of just how much money they can earn outside Iran. Iranians watch a much broader range of television than we do, the government has been fairly unsuccessful at limiting their access to the internet, and there’s a booming oil industry just across the gulf that they all know about. But there was one crucial thing missing from our discussion about Australia – he never asked me the cost of living. He doesn’t know about the $5 cups of tasteless tea. Or that it costs more than $10,000 to buy a tiny, crappy Korean car, which needs more than $50 each time you want to fill the tank. Or that a small bottle of water, on special, is over $2. And then, if you’re earning good money, you’ll be tempted by the $50,000 German car, and that inexplicably expensive water in the tall glass bottles. He doesn’t realise that his $143,000 gets fairly well taken away by tax, rent, food, electricity and other essentials, and at the end of the year there’s not nearly as much left as he first thought.

So, in the interests of the desperate people seeking asylum in Australia, the real ones, of whom there are many, escaping genocide and ethnic and religious cleansing and whose claims we must hear instead of ignoring them and shipping them off into depression and an uncertain future in a prison in the Pacific, I propose the following: stop trumpeting the cruelty of our policies to Australians and stop trying to appeal to the worst in us. Instead advertise in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the real cost of living in Australia. Send them the price list for Gloria Jeans. Offer samples of their coffee. Promote the on-road cost of vehicles in Australia and publish the average petrol price. Educate them about our incomprehensible personal tax system. Send them the receipt from an average weekly shop at IGA. Tell them how much it costs to buy one watermelon. Because economic migrants from Iran and other countries aren’t stupid, they aren’t lazy, and they can do the maths. They are connected, and they know a lot about the world. But they probably don’t have any idea just how expensive life is in Australia, and that is a big factor for the kind of cynical economic migrant our government wishes to demonise and discourage.

And maybe then we can get back to welcoming people as the Iranians do – with care and hospitality, and treating asylum seekers with the dignity they deserve.

The Colour Mountains, just outside Tabriz, in the setting sun

The Colour Mountains, just outside Tabriz, in the setting sun

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Don’t Go Near There: Travel Advisories

I got the following email today:

The travel advice for Turkey has been reviewed and reissued.

The Advice was last issued on Thursday, 29 August 2013. It contains new
information under Civil unrest/political tension (Australians in border
areas with Syria who hold concerns for their safety as a result of the
current regional tensions surrounding events in Syria should consider
departing these areas). We continue to advise you to exercise a high degree
of caution in Turkey because of the high threat of terrorist attack and to
avoid all protests and demonstrations.

For a full text of the revised advice, please refer to www.smartraveller.gov.au.

Yours sincerely
Consular Section
Australian Embassy, Ankara, Turkey

It came because back in July I laboriously entered my travel plans into the Department of Foreign Affairs Smart Traveller website, so they know I’ll be in Istanbul tomorrow night on the way back home and they must email those Australians who they know will be in the area. It is welcome, since I’ve been away from the news for a few days and missed the accelerated reaction to the nerve gas attack in Syria. Turkey is NATO’s frontline in this conflict and, without the support of the UN, the greater conflict becomes one of NATO/rebels vs Russia/Iran/Syrian government. The Syrian rebels have, until now, largely been supported by the gulf Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But if NATO steps in, they take a backseat, and Turkey becomes the easiest enemy for Iran/Syria/Hezbollah to hit.

So DFAT‘s concerns so far fill us with a great deal of confidence. So far.

The problem starts when you actually follow the links to the website and start reading the advisories. They have 5 levels of advice for each country and, in some cases, significant parts of each country:

1. Do not travel

2. Reconsider your need to travel

3. Exercise a high degree of caution

4. Exercise normal safety precautions

5. (Nothing, it’s all good, do whatever you like, don’t bother with normal safety precautions, you’ll be fine)

Now, can we guess which countries are in the Do not travel category? Syria, obviously. Afghanistan, correct. Iraq, too (although parts of Iraqi Kurdistan get the Reconsider seal of sort of approval). Libya gets it too, more than two years after ousting Gaddafi. Two countries in central Africa, two in the Sahel region and three in east Africa get it, as well as Yemen in the Middle East. That’s it.

So, what about the safest places, those places where less than the normal safety precautions are all you need, according to DFAT? They are Andorra in the Pyrenees, the vast majority of the islands of the Caribbean (but not famously-lawless Jamaica, they get high degree of caution), lots of islands in the Pacific where nothing really happens (including, amusingly, our own penal colony, Nauru), obviously that Mecca of happiness Bhutan, a couple of sleepy central European countries. And…Bulgaria. Yes, it seems the same Bulgaria where Aussie Jock Palfreeman stood up for a couple of gypsies and a lot went wrong and he’s now in a Bulgarian prison for a very long time. Japan? I hear you ask? No, Japan requires you to exercise Normal safety precautions. Yes, that same Japan where you couldn’t get 2 screens into buying a train ticket before some kind Japanese person did it for you and then led you to your platform, missing their own train in the process. New Zealand, surely? Nope, they get Normal safety precautions too. Is it because of the earthquakes? Seems unfair.

So what about our good friends the United States of America? Where an Australian in a sleepy town was shot in the back by some bored kids? Relax, only Normal safety precautions required there. In the entire USA. Does a kevlar running vest count as normal precautions? And what about the United Kingdom? There’s parts of London you don’t want to go, so there’s got to be a travel advice for the UK. But then again, even the roughest parts of London seem safer than Bulgaria, so…now I’m confused. The UK gets Normal safety precautions too.

Now, the absurdity of these advisories comes into greater focus having just been to a country like Iran. Iran escapes the Do not travel tag and scrapes in with Reconsider your need to travel (the more lawless parts of the border areas do get Do not travel).  But I have never felt safer among people than in that country. I’m well aware of the corruption of the system and the Australian government’s inability to offer much help because of limited political ties with Iran, but the people there understand all this too, and they know what to do. There is no rapacious tourist industry and there is a culture of hospitality that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Contrast that with Bali and parts of Indonesia where institutions are corrupt and tourists are a regular target for all kinds of crime.

It is not DFAT’s job to issue travel advisories for, say, Northbridge in Perth, or the northern suburbs of Melbourne, or the bus to Frankston, but one wonders what travel advisories they might give foreign tourists if they had to apply the same standards. Even if we do make too much of the crime on our streets sometimes, a lot of the world is much, much safer than our cities, and that’s impossible to see in these advisories.

But the Turkey advisory today is welcome. Even if it has got me worried that someone might bomb the Sheraton tomorrow on my first ever night in a Sheraton.

Now here are some pictures of nice people from Iran (Reconsider your need to travel) and Georgia (Exercise normal safety precautions):

Alika and his son Erekle - our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

Alika and his son Erekle – our hosts for lunch in Dartlo

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

The nephews of our driver from Omalo back to Kakheti. They sat quietly in the back the whole 3 hour drive

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

My guide and translator Salome in the village of Sighnaghi, at the end of a long day touring Kakheti

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh - Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

Kamelia, Azalia & Vanusheh – Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. My beautiful extended family in Lahijan

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us "Hey! Come take a picture of me!"

This man selling textiles in the Rasht bazaar shouted to us “Hey! Come take a picture of me!”

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

Upon learning that I was Australian, this man threw open the doors to the normally-closed rooms of his mosque in Lahijan. Inside were a number of tombs and a memorial for a local hero of the area, Imam Hasan.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She's from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

This lady sold me some handicrafts on Masouleh. She’s from the Talysh ethnic group of people who live in the green hilly areas on the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

Vanusheh outside her kindergarten after school

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Tusheti Photo Gallery

The Stori River valley on the road to Omalo, looking back towards Kakheti

The Stori River valley on the road to Omalo, looking back towards Kakheti

The Alazani River Valley and the road to Omalo

The Alazani River Valley and the road to Omalo

The map of Tusheti outside the visitors centre in Omalo

The map of Tusheti outside the visitors centre in Omalo

Our hotel and their dog Gabi in the warming afternoon sun

Our hotel and their dog Gabi in the warming afternoon sun

Our host Paata plays a traditional Tushetian song before dinner

Our host Paata plays a traditional Tushetian song before dinner

Wildcat, badger and bear skins hanging in the hotel, which is also Paata's family's house

Wildcat, badger and bear skins hanging in the hotel, which is also Paata’s family’s house

The fields of Lower Omalo and our horses for the day's trek to Lake Oreti

The fields of Lower Omalo and our horses for the day’s trek to Lake Oreti

Omalo, with the towers of Keselo watching over

Omalo, with the towers of Keselo watching over

Looking out over the Alazani Valley towards Dagestan from our lunch stop near Lake Oreti

Looking out over the Alazani Valley towards Dagestan from our lunch stop near Lake Oreti

One of the locals in the village of Dartlo

One of the locals in the village of Dartlo

Our host for lunch in Dartlo, Alika, and his son Erekle. The boy would not leave his father's side and, confusingly for me, kept sayng "Mama, Mama!". "Mama" means "father" in Georgian.

Our host for lunch in Dartlo, Alika, and his son Erekle. The boy would not leave his father’s side and, confusingly for me, kept saying “Mama, Mama!”. “Mama” means “father” in Georgian.

An impromptu lunch offer from Alika, who gave us a lift from Omalo to Dartlo. The pizza-looking dish is Khachapuri, a typical Georgian cheese bread. After lunch we and his family piled into his Hilux for the ride to Omalo. They were moving back to Kakheti for the long Tushetian winter.

An impromptu lunch offer from Alika, who gave us a lift from Omalo to Dartlo. The pizza-looking dish is Khachapuri, a typical Georgian cheese bread. After lunch we and his family piled into his Hilux for the ride to Omalo. They were moving back to Kakheti for the long Tushetian winter.

We visited a museum in one of the Keselo towers and a rain storm came through. After it had cleared we stepped out to the sight of afternoon rainbows

We visited a museum in one of the Keselo towers and a rain storm came through. After it had cleared we stepped out to the sight of afternoon rainbows

Rainbow Over Omalo

These houses on the side of a hill near Shenako are where the animals are kept for the winter. Three families in Shenako remain for the winter to look after the flocks.

These houses on the side of a hill near Shenako are where the animals are kept for the winter. Three families in Shenako remain for the winter to look after the flocks.

The frescoes in the little church on the hill in Shenako

The frescoes in the little church on the hill in Shenako

Berries by the roadside on the walk to Shenako

Berries by the roadside on the walk to Shenako

On the walk back from Shenako, a 30-year-old Lada Niva rumbled past and offered us a lift. In the back, in a box, was this Caucasian sheep dog puppy. They cut the ears when days old so they don't impede the dog's hearing.

On the walk back from Shenako, a 30-year-old Lada Niva rumbled past and offered us a lift. In the back, in a box, was this Caucasian sheep dog puppy. They cut the ears when days old so they don’t impede the dog’s hearing.

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29 August, 2013 · 19:51

Tusheti

The view from the towers of Keselo, which watch over the village of Omalo in Tusheti

The view from the towers of Keselo, which watch over the village of Omalo in Tusheti

It was during a toast over our hearty mountain dinner that it hit me for the first time that day. I’m not sure if it was the third or the fourth toast of the night, but this toast was for the horses and the dogs, I think. We’d already had the toast for the dead relatives, and the one for the folks who never had any kids – they got their very own toast – now we were celebrating our most loyal beasts. We were necking Georgian white wine by the glass and, as my guide and translator screwed her face up at the shock of yet another one down the gullet, and ashed her cigarette in an hollowed-out horse’s hoof, it occurred to me: I was actually in Tusheti.

Flowers in Tusheti

Flowers in Tusheti

Overland travel, and travel on a budget, has a habit of moving so slowly sometimes, that you don’t actually notice that anything is changing. The Turks are pretty much like the Greeks, the Persians are pretty much like the Turks, and the Georgians are a jumble of all three, with a heavy dose of Russian influence that they don’t seem all that keen to acknowledge.
But this night was different. Little over 24 hours earlier I’d been trudging the cobbled streets of Georgia’s quaint and European, but not exactly exciting, capital city Tbilisi, looking for a way out. I wanted to see the north-east of the country and, not for want of trying, I’d failed to organised anything prior to arriving in the capital. With my days ebbing away in museums and cafes, this was my last chance to lock in 5 days in what is supposed to be the most pristine corner of this curious nation in the middle of the Caucasus. So I went door to door. In and out of office buildings, up and down stairs, I knocked on any door that had the word “travel” on the sign.

Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, by night

Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, by night

Eventually a door opened into a spartan room occupied by three smiling women at two desks who shared one computer. They seemed sceptical: it was very expensive for just one person to get to Tusheti and their company had no groups going. But that wasn’t reason enough for me to give up, so one of them got on the mobile to a man named Shota. Shota knew no English, but he had a car, and he sure knew Tusheti. So Shota got on the phone to a friend who had never been to Tusheti, but knew how to speak English. Eventually the smiling women were able to give me a price for the return trip with Shota, and a price per day for the guide, who would ride with us. Within an hour, I’d handed over a small fortune in Georgian laris to the smiling women, and received in return a receipt, and an agreed pickup time and place the next morning.
Shota, a warm and amiable father in his late 20s and Salome, a female masters student a few years younger, collected me from my hotel lobby fashionably late, just late enough to relieve me of the growing feeling that I’d been sold a dummy, and we set off without delay.

Lake Oreti, to the south of Omalo, in late summer

Lake Oreti, to the south of Omalo, in late summer

Georgia is instantly beautiful. There’s something about green hills that appeal to a man living on the edge of a desert, and Georgia delivers before you’ve even left the city limits. The hills are gentle and pleasing right into the wine-growing region of Kakheti, where we swapped our minivan for a Land Cruiser 4WD. Once in the Land Cruiser, the landscape got serious. We plunged into a river valley, steep, deep green and pine treed either side and rushing, rocky blue waters in the middle. For two hours, Salome and I stared out of the windows with the same childish joy in our faces. Only periodic motion sickness could take our minds off the nature show going on outside. On the road we jostled with Border Police trucks, winded and climbed, past the tree line and into the clouds, over a pass at about 2900m and then began descending. We looked down on a valley below bathed in sunshine, bottomed out near the rushing Alazani River, and wound steadily up to our destination.

The church in Shenako, a few hours walk from Omalo toward the border with Dagestan

The church in Shenako, a few hours walk from Omalo toward the border with Dagestan

Approaching the village, we disturbed a bird of prey perched on a post, who took off and flew level with us for a few hundred meters. The village of Omalo is a cluster of houses clinging to a hill overlooking the twists of the Alazani before that river disappears into the Russian republic of Dagestan. The hill is crested by a cluster of medieval defensive towers, carpeted in yellow and purple flowers, and surrounded by deep green and snow-coated mountains. The geography has kept Tushetians isolated enough that centuries of Christianity, then Islam, then Soviet atheism, and Christianity again, have failed to dislodge their native pagan animist traditions. The climate helps, too – for 3 seasons of the year the village is practically deserted, left to the wolves and the bears, buried beneath meters of snow, the passes impassable even by 4WD cars. We coasted up to a balconied wooden inn with a table and chairs lazing in the afternoon sun, and checked in.

The ruined church in the village of Dartlo. A lot of government and church money is going into restoring the treasures of Dartlo and this building will be restored in time, too

The ruined church in the village of Dartlo. A lot of government and church money is going into restoring the treasures of Dartlo and this building will be restored in time, too

And so it was that I found myself toasting dead horses with a Tushetian man drinking Kakhetian wine, while my Tbilisian guide and translator ashed her cigarette in the former foot (shoe included) of one of the very creatures we were celebrating. Outside were the cacophonous squeaks of a litter of Tushetian sheep dogs crying to be fed and a rumble of thunder signalled it was late August and the Tushetian summer was coming to an end. I was truly, to use the cliche, a world away. How unlikely it all looked little more than a day before on the cosmopolitan streets of Tbilisi.

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