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Nature in China

March 20th, 2017


The sun sets in south-east Yunnan province, over karst mountains and lakes, not far from the border with Vietnam.

Last weekend I went to Puzheihei, an area of karst mountains surrounded by water lilly-filled lakes 270kms south-east of Kunming. What used to be a five hour bus journey now just takes 1.5 hours on the whistling bullet train and a half an hour’s cab ride. The biggest railway station in south-west China is just a short walk from where I live, and that’s where the bullet trains leave from.


This station is of size that is hard to comprehend.  The bullet train is as steady as a rock – in fact you can balance a bottle of water upside down while it moves along at 200kms an hour.


Arrival at the national park was a disappointment. The Chinese had diligently cobbled together about 500 guesthouses, sitting cheek by jowl, many still under construction, in one or two cramped areas around the lakes. It is accurate to say that I have a more serene environment back at my campus apartment block in Chenggong, than amongst the carpenter’s hammers and half-built hotels of this place. After walking up a nearby mountain along concrete stairs built into the slope, and passing crowds of shouting Chinese tourists, I was firmly schooled in what immersion in nature means in modern Chinese society. Forget the Tang dynasty poets who saw the cosmos through the lens of wild rivers and mountains.  For modern China ‘nature’ is encountered as a prettified, objectified, commodified, and sanitised outing on your weekend off. It has nothing to do with a lone communion with a wild place. It is nature consumed, en masse – not far from the din of the madding crowd.


Still, Sunday morning I did enjoy a walk around the base of the same mountain – that was, yes, over a concrete path complete with stairs – but was miraculously not heavy with foot traffic and dipped and rose along cliffs, under branches and past dark cave entrances.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship the Chinese have with nature.  The place where I live is typical of much of modern China – its very new.  The speed of urbanisation cranked up in the 1970s, as the economy opened up, factories opened up along the east coast and the government loosened legislation restricting where citizens could live. Since then, hundreds of millions of people have left farms to work in cities that have grown up around the new factories. Some did so voluntarily, while others were forced off land by local governments.  Between 1982 and 2015, the amount of Chinese officially living in urban areas rose from 21 percent to 56 percent.


The plan is to get 60% of them into places like this by 2020.  These monster apartment blocks are nearly all empty right now. They are at the southern edge of Chenggong.  The Chinese government is planning on putting hundreds of millions more Chinese rural folk into human storage containers like these over the next decade or so.

How are you going to make these place attractive to live in?

I know, wait a minute, I’ll just whip down to the menhir shop, and pick up a big rock.



This one ought to do the trick.



I do like standing stones, but I’m not sure if this is going to fix the problem.

With these tall standing stones, half or fully empty apartment and office buildings, largely empty six-lane streets, and vast sized blocks suited to a culture with car lust, modern China can feel slightly strange.

On the Red Mud Trail in Yunnan

March 14th, 2017


I finally made it to downtown Kunming last weekend.  Amazingly there were still a few of the old buildings standing in the centre (although they were a tiny minority).


Walking across Green Lake, a lake in downtown Kunming with various interconnected islands in its centre, I passed through a grove of bamboo trees.


Old women were dancing on one of the islands, and elsewhere old men were happily engaged in playing traditional Chinese tunes on the violin.  It all seemed a lot more cheerful than the average aged care facility back in the West.

As you can see from the above photo, spring is coming on apace in south-west China.  Its hiking weather.  On Sunday I managed to get myself out of the city and into the mountains.  I went walking up a mountain called Liang Wang, about 30kms south east of the university.  My little group of hikers caught the subway south, then took a van on a wide and empty tarmac boulevard lined with strangely empty and gaunt apartment blocks.  Then the van suddenly left the new China, and bumped over a gravel road.

After passing streets lined with iridescent cherry blossom we arrived in a little village high up the mountain. The village was full of little mud brick houses and mangers and barns.


It was quiet apart from the odd puppy or chicken wandering past.


Old folk gambled at mahjong and sucked on giant bamboo water pipes in a communal building. The mists parted and we stepped up into the sky – well into a cloud to be exact. The slope of the mountain was very steep, and we zig zagged up a track full of red mud, up the face of the mountain.


A local pine species clad in wizened lichens covered the land where it became too precipitous for terraced beds of vegetables. We ended up facing horizontal drizzle and wind – basically the interior contents of a big white cloud. But we did find a summit – complete with Tibetan prayer flags.

I feel great to have finally got some red Yunnan mud onto my shoes. To have finally arrived in a China thousands of years old, rather than a few decades old.  The rest of Yunnan province beckons me, but for now I’m back to the lecture hall.


China – Arrival in the Middle Kingdom

March 10th, 2017


I’ve arrived in Kunming, the little red dot you can see on the map above.  I’m here to teach research skills to undergraduate students at Yunnan Normal University.  As you can see, I’ve come to a point where the foothills of the Himalayas fold up into a bunch of deep creases.  Yunnan province is the area of China with the deepest canyon on earth (2.5 kms deep Leaping Tiger Gorge).  My university is at 2000 metres altitude.

So I’ve arrived in China, and my first impression?  Everything is very, very big, and very, very new.  My university is about 40kms south of the main city, and is part of the city of Chenggong.  The university and surroundings were only built in 2006, and until then the area was rural land.  Here’s the university campus in the top of this image.


Those dark shadows at the bottom of the photo are very tall residential apartment blocks.  Here’s what they look like standing on the university campus and looking south.


Chenggong was one of China’s famous ghost cities until the last couple of years when some life has emerged on the streets.  If you don’t know about China’s ghost cities, they are the result of massive construction of office and residential apartment buildings and roads, which propped up economic growth for the country, but which were eerily empty for years after construction had finished.  Production overshot demand.  Tumbleweed rolled down the main street.

Even today Chenggong has vast freeways and very little traffic.  Vast apartment blocks, but many dark windows at night.

I’d heard about the scale of China, but I wasn’t prepared for the shock of how incredibly big everything is.  Here’s the main library on the campus.  It houses over 3.2 million books.


The canteens on campus are three story affairs that hold thousands of students at a time.  I’ve never seen anything like them.


The food is delicious generally, even though I’m sometimes concerned about food safety in China.

There are 6 million people in Kunming and its one of the smaller cities in China. In Yunnan province there are 47 million, which means that this, one of the most sparsely populated provinces in all of China, is about twice the size of Australia. There is a cinematic quality to this place as I walk around the university campus of Yunnan Normal University at Chenggong – its sense of being slightly unreal – so new, no history, so planned, so gigantuan in scale and size.


That’s the symbol of my university – I can’t help thinking that it seems vaguely corporate.


Everything here is so new it shines.  One of the nicest aspects of the campus is the large stone boulders they have brought in and are seen dotting the landscape here and there.  But what a contrast between nature and history and human artifice and building in the above photo.  You can see which of the two sides – nature or culture – dominates this landscape.


There are sliced boulders set up as tables across the campus which is nice.


This is the view from my apartment building, looking east to the mountains.  Everything is new and quiet, and the spring air isn’t too cold.


I’m here to teach.

Funnily enough this was the view I had five minutes into my first lecture…


Apparently the students had been given the wrong room number and the problem was soon resolved.  But it was a rocky start.

I’ve already been struck of the different style of learning in China.


This country has had thousands of years of memorising Confucian classics for the Imperial Examination, and although that was discontinued in 1905, even today rote learning rather than critical thinking is the order of the day. Part of my job teaching research skills to third year university students is to introduce them to some of the differences in academic culture between what they are used to, and norms in English speaking universities. I’ve even gone back to provide them with a little bit of history of how learning has developed with its origins in the Groves of Academe of classical antiquity.


Raphael’s School of Athens even made it onto one of my lecture slides.  

Hopefully next time I write here I’ll have seen more of Kunming and Yunnan.  For now a old woman sweeping leaves…


Old woman sweeps leaves

On new stone in a new town

China’s past fallen

Now swept away by Progress

Lines in a face never erased


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