Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Dazu Rock Carving Tour: an international artists' group brings fresh eyes to a Chinese package tour


I consider myself a veteran having taken quite a number of Chinese bus tours. Almost every time I've been on it has turned out to be so bad it has been paradoxically great; there is a perverse pleasure in being shunted around as one of the masses within the world's largest domestic tourist industry. Today was going to be another tourist bus experience, a day trip to the Dazu Rock Carvings. There was to be a curious twist, however. The group was made up of artists and curators from around the world brought together for an exhibition in the Chongqing and now enjoying a day off. Many of the foreigners were new to China and most had never been on a package tour like this before. Little did they know what was awaiting them.



We got off in style with the bus waiting for us in a different place to where we had been told to assemble and when we finally connected, we were then driven through the mounting morning rush hour traffic to a point in the city centre where we disembarked and waited for a new coach to take us onwards. This quickly came and we were carried off again into the thick of the now slowly creeping traffic, our guide urging us, in Chinese, to relax. Mystified but excited to be rolling out of the city, we finally reached a B-List stop-over attraction after an hour or two. This turned out to be a newly reconstructed historical site that housed a few souvenir stalls. It seems its primary purpose was as a toilet stop.



We broke out into groups and seemed to quickly exhaust the site's potential, our visit lacking any context or, beyond the restrooms, purpose. The thirty minutes we had to look around were more than enough.



Our next stop, the China Dazu Best Kitchen Culture Museum was another story completely! This was a place that stretched the definition of museum to well beyond breaking point: it was very plainly a shop and restaurant with an attitude. The Dazu in the title is the giveaway: this meant we had arrived in the vicinity of our destination, the Dazu rock carvings. The 'museum' was a coach party's lunch and shopping stop par excellence. What's more, looking around it in the company of a group of artists new to China, allowed me to relive my first encounters with Chinese bus tours. Some were downright incredulous.


The best that can be said about the lunch was that it was adequate in quantity, though half my table of nuisance weirdo non meat-eating foreigners (myself included) wouldn't touch most of it.  


We went back through the 'museum' which merged seamlessly into a showroom and shop. Outside, three old ladies were selling pomelos which turned out to be both good value and fresh. I think I must have spent more time with them than I did with the exhibits.


We finally arrived at the Dazu rock carvings where we were separated into a Chinese speaking group and an English speaking group. We weren't briefed on the site beforehand so didn't really know what to expect, but by this time it was clear that the best attitude to take was just to relax into the experience and let it be whatever it was going to be. We were joined by an American doctor and his Chinese student, who, for a while seemed to become our guide.


On the site proper, a new guide took over. She introduced herself as Angela and she told us she was a native of Dazu who had been giving tours for several years. She spoke through a microphone which relayed her voice into our headphones. In this way the there was not the usual earsplitting chaos of competing amplified guides that often come in places like this. What's more, her English was quite clear and she seemed to actually like and respect the place. 


She did have this habit, however, of sometimes sounding too rehearsed. For example, at one point she said the women of Dazu are known for their beauty, and as she said this she put on a falsely modest smile and tilted her head to one side. This might have been a spontaneous comment and gesture she once made, many years ago, but by now it seemed to me to have hardened into a moment she performed every time she stopped at this point. I understand that it is perhaps too much to expect that she gives the tour for five years in a foreign language and still sounds fresh. I was happy enough with what we got, which was already significantly better than average. Still, this makes me think that tour guides and actors performing long runs face a similar problem of appearing stilted. Their solutions are often different though not unrelated. From what I've seen, the most successful tour guides get over this difficulty by making their tours more interactive, primarily opening up to the group they are leading but also sometimes responding, in the moment, to the living site they are visiting. It might be a stretch, but you could say this is the tour guide equivalent of the Meisner method.


I have to admit I was more interested in the carvings depicting hell than those showing heaven. I never imagined the Buddhists would be so thorough in their administration of suffering. It seems to me that hell lends itself more to art than heaven: there is greater drama in suffering than in comfort. I immediately though of the Chapman brothers' Hell sculpture which exaggerates and locates torment to such a degree it reaches a level of black humour.  


The most famous carving, the 31-metre long sleeping Buddha, was under wraps and was barely mentioned. As the tour went on I started to realise that our guide was not just contextualising a historical and artistic site, she was also using it to deliver the messages of the sculptures. The site, I learned, was educational and devotional and, contained within the carvings, were many stories and morals drawn from different sources (Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian) instructing the viewer how to live. We were therefore treated to some of these ideas, and when she finished telling us to be nice to one another she tilted her head to the side again, and give a little smile. 


The Buddha was not the only one sleeping. Once out of the gate it was not so much a case of exit through the gift shop as exit along the gift shop road. There was a relentless duplication of stalls at each of which sat, or slumbered, mostly middle-aged women. They sold a fantastic array of Buddhist souvenirs riffing off a rock and stone theme, factory produced antiques, plastic replica swords and tray-loads of shiny plastic children's toys. Business was decidedly slow and I counted at least three stall owners who had slipping into their afternoon nap. 


We were urged, no implored, to take a ride back to the coach in one of these cars but a group of us walked anyway. There was a bit of a cultural difference here. Most Chinese tours I have taken try to reduce walking and physical exertion to a bare minimum. I can only speculate that this is because using the body is associated with physical labour, poverty and the past whereas tourism is modern, effortless and connotes wealth. Still, walk we did and, as well as saving ourselves 5 RMB each, it brought us once again to the monumental pastiche structures that clustered around the entrance. These behemoths testament to a fetishised history that announces YOU HAVE ARRIVED at a national level tourist attraction.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Way-Losing Brochure and next adventure in Cologne


Two new things to mention about Way-Losing, the guided tours of mine in which everybody gets lost. First, there are some new dates in Germany. On the 19th and 20th November I'll be leading a group somewhere around Cologne for the Globalise Cologne Festival. For full Information and booking details follow the link and take a look at their page.

Second, there is now a brochure available for anyone interested in booking one of these tours. Take a look and take an adventure.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The South Downs Way: excruciating pain in the pleasantest of places


The South Downs Way is a long-distance walking route that meanders its way over a hilly ridge running across the south of England. It stretches some 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, or, if you prefer from Eastbourne to Winchester. It seemed to make more sense to me to walk from west to east, following the direction of the prevailing winds or, moving like the eye dancing over a line of text. When I stop to think about it, however, westward journeys are no less evocative: Columbus sailing to America or The Journey to the West. More modestly, I rolled into Winchester, a rather prim historic city where Downton Abbey must be popular, bought supplies then walked around in circles looking for the starting point and route. I should really have bought a map in the Tourist Information but I was hooked on the simplicity of following the marked path and discovering the trail as I went along. This was my first mistake.


Winchester seemed more interested in itself than in the South Downs Way and I had to be put on track by a retired dog walker as I paced back and forth like a yoyo in and out of a light industrial estate. Finally, heading west out of the city, it receded from view only to be replaced by a colossal music festival in the making. I had stumbled into Boomtown Fair a festival larger in scale than Glastonbury. There was no peace and love going round, the site had a downbeat workaday feel to it. I passed men in hard hats who carefully avoided eye contact and moved hastily aside as four-wheel drives tore through this fictional city in the making.


As the day wore on, my backpack began to dig into my shoulders, the dull ache it produced slowly growing into sharp teeth clenching stabs. I was not kitted out for a six-day trek, I was carrying all my things for the entire summer which, at this point, included gifts for friends such as a thick metallic Tibetan singing bowl. This was my next major mistake. I started to curse that bowl but there was nothing to be done but to drag myself from one post to the next. These markers were sporadic, sometimes vague to the point of setting me off-course, but for the most part clear. They described a broad zig-zag along the South Downs, which could be seen as either showing off its diversity of landscapes or of ensuing the route added up to the tidy number of 100 miles in total.


Nights were spent either camping wild on the side of secluded fields, hidden in woodland clearings or else on campsites. Getting down to the campsites was much like getting to the country pubs that made the whole endeavour so much more bearable. Both of these creature comforts were usually found on the lowland that lay on either side of the downs and which necessitated a descent of a mile or two to reach them. I stopped in some excellent historical coaching inns where food and real ale fuelled body and spirit. The only real exception was The Royal Oak where the landlord said he wasn't open, directed me to another pub which turned out to be a wild goose chase on which I nearly got run over and, when trudging back past his pub, saw that it had in fact opened. It was a snooty place that liked to pick and choose its customers, I suppose, and tired, muddy walkers were little better than gypsies.


Over days two and three my back had more or less resigned itself to the pummelling it was receiving and this pain was, in any case, trumped by hostilities taking place around my feet. I was wearing shoes that were too heavy and without support around the ankles: my third and final major mistake. They resulted in agony dancing up the front of my lower legs as the muscles lifting the feet were all but spent, my feet hanging limp below me. In spite of or even because of these hardships, the walk was putting me into a quite distinct state of mind. Before setting off I had imagined I would think about ideas more acutely as a result of the peace and quiet but actually, the daily exertion simply quieted the mind and put the body in executive control. This was turning into a grim form of meditation relieved only by infrequent drinking stops.


Arriving north of Brighton the weather changed and I had to fight my way through driving rain that was washing over the downs in sheets. The path was deserted and, swinging my shot away feet below me like two golf clubs, I said to myself, this is not fun anymore. I spent a sodden night in my now gently leaking tent, a night that seemed far more removed from civilisation than it actually was. The next morning I pressed on, stumbled through a pig farm and was spat out at a petrol station that seemed like a cornucopia so completely depleted was my food supply. Tucking into a ploughman's sandwich and alarmingly sweetened coffee, I assessed the desperateness of my situation and took a bus into the city.


From there I visited old friends in both Brighton and nearby Seaford putting the South Downs Way and, just as importantly, my ankles on ice. In Seaford my friend took me out to a local scenic spot which turned out to be on my aborted walking route. There, at Seven Sisters, I saw crowds of tourists for the first time. I was then taken elsewhere by work and in all it took a good week to regain the ability to walk naturally.


I was not done with the South Downs Way, however, I picked up the trail once more a few weeks later when I had a couple of days free. I went back up onto the ridge looking over Brighton and set off. While this was not the ideal way to complete the walk, it seemed better than aborting it completely.


As the way progressed, the park narrowed but the terrain remained surprisingly similar. There were few people and the hills had a surprising austerity about them. Coming into the closing stretch, the village of Alfriston was rather like Winchester in the sense that it didn't seem so overly concerned about the South Downs Way. I lost the track and found it again some way out of the village only to realise, a good deal later, that there were two South Downs Ways. I was on the route accessible to mountain bikes which meant I was cutting overland towards Eastbourne and missed out on the most spectacular part of the route, the Seven Sisters cliffs. It is a good thing that I managed to see them during my recuperation break in Seaford.


The final morning's march through thick damp clouds was bleak. I pulled my hat down and pressed on military style. I was not going to be beaten!


The end came as a complete anti-climax. I was expecting epic views over the cliffs of Eastbourne but instead simply stumbled across this signpost stuck in the corner of a suburban park, nestled beside a cafe where pensioners were sipping cappuccinos and sheltering from the drizzle. I asked the waitress if this was it and she said "yeah" in a tone of voice that suggested, "what else do you expect?" There was nothing else to do but order a coffee and readjust to the deeply prosaic world I had re-entered. I probably will do another one of these long-distance walks, quite possibly a longer one still, but I will come better prepared next time, which is a way to say, with the right boots and without a Tibetan bowl. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Dublin Bus Tour: what sort of authenticity do you want?



When I learnt that Dublin Cityscape offers a circular bus tour of the city that is almost half the price of their main competitor, I was immediately sold, which maybe earns me the title of Dublin Cheapskate. We piled aboard at St Patricks Cathedral and took to the top deck. This first part of the route turned out to be a particularly desolate stretch; public housing in a state of mild decay, empty plots abandoned to weeds and tedious corner shops selling a predictable arsenal of goods with which to assault body and mind. To compensate for this, the driver sang us a song about a fair Dublin lady. He sang like... a bus driver.


Here is the bus's route, shown in green, which sort of resembles a bug with two antenna pointing out to the left. There were some deals thrown in at stops along the way, one them being a €1 discount on entry to the rapidly approaching Guinness Storehouse. It was a little too early in the day and we were not even 30 minutes into this two and a half hour bus tour. Another time. 


Viewed from the top deck of the bus, the city often appeared very ordinary; a mish-mash of unspectacular buildings hosting a chaotic assortment of business and people. There was no obvious magic, it looked much like a middling British city just about keeping its head above water. This first impression of Dublin lacking in style did change over time and once the eyes adjusted and I learnt more about the city's substance, the place grew on me. That process took more time than the two and half hours of the bus ride, however. Because this was a relatively long tour that included more than a few B-list locations, it inevitably showed a more flat and realistic portrait of the city. 


It would be unfair to say that the tour was uniformly mundane, however, it did also include the formal side of the city such as the official residence of the president, even if it was only seen from afar. The driver's stories and jokes were considerably better than his singling and he did include a joke about the building's current resident, the diminutive Michael Higgins.


After what seemed like an age spinning around interminable suburbs, we finally came to the city centre. Actually, it was an age of driving up and down grey streets that was lightened up  with some creative nicknames for places and monuments, the best being "the floozie in the jacuzzi". The one topic he kept returning to was the Easter Rising of 1916 which lead to the country's subsequent independence. As this year marked the 100th anniversary of this event that was to become the modern state's foundation story, it was something very much in the air. The General Post Office played a central role in the rising and we heard much of the fate of the leaders, executed by the British Army.


Time was ticking and we made a lunch stop to take advantage of a two for the price of one meal promotion that come with the tour. This was also the opportunity to try a drop of the iconic beverage and assert that it is much better drank locally. It was a fine pint but I must say I have also tasted great Guinness outside of Ireland. I rather think this aura of authenticity, drinking at the source, so to speak, is a little exaggerated. Yes I appreciate that the general standard is probably higher over here but there is also an element of exclusivity in saying you have travelled and sampled rather than just stumbling round the corner to your usual dumb local in Hounslow. Whether it be national pride or touristic kudos, there is every reason to continue to assert Guinness is better in Dublin because those who have not tried it are in no position to refute the claim. So I should rephrase my opinion: it was a superb pint, so much better than anything back home.



On the subject of beer, hopping abroad the service once again and driving on, our new driver pointed out the Dublin Convention Centre which, he said, looked like a giant can of beer being held to the mouth. If that is the product of an alcoholic imagination, I must also share one with him, it does fit.


The new driver continued more or less where the old one left off with the Easter Uprising, a narrative that was reinforced everywhere I looked. I read an interesting article How does Dublin remember? that makes the point that the manner of the remembrance is very much a reflection of the contingencies of the present. Apparently, until quite recently, the 1916 guided tours where very niche and given almost exclusively to tourists. That has changed with the implementation of the peace process in the north and 1916 less associated with an ongoing armed conflict. A noticeable absence in the narrative, however, was the Irish Civil War which followed independence, as that, presumably, could still be divisive. The Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in that period and is centred around the question of, what sort of state were the Irish rebels fighting for. It's well worth watching if, like me, your history classes at school studiously ignored this important period of Irish and British history. Not the final word, but a good place to start.


The day was wearing on and I spied one of the company's employees in the depths of a mid-afternoon lull. I remember that feeling only too well from countless summer jobs that were a character-building blot on my teenage years.


The bus stopped beside Trinity College and while waiting this song, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, played through the sound system. I heard it afresh and, for the first time,  made a connection between Irish soldiers (then part of the British army) fighting in the 1st World War and the battle for independence that had begun back home in Ireland. That is a connection not in the original song by Eric Bogle but is a new layer that comes out in this cover of it by The Dubliners. Ronnie Drew's voice is well-matched with this song and I'm guessing his is the voice that bus drivers aspire to, a seemingly artless art that is, of course, very difficult to actually produce. 

And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war.

And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.



There is only so many hours you can spend viewing a new city from the top of a bus and it was high time to continue on foot. We pulled up beside a very louche statue of Oscar Wilde and shortly afterwards spilled out onto the street. The driver had mentioned the literary greats and how they were celebrated in the Dublin Writers Museum. When I stopped to think about it, however, they all left Dublin. I was already familiar with this phenomenon coming from the city of Portsmouth which tries to claim Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as its own on, I should add, considerably more tenuous grounds. Nonetheless, the fact that Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett all left the city in order to make their names, is not a side issue. For all the Bloom's Day celebrations that have become a part of the city's calendar, those who stayed and those who came are, I would suggest, the city's greatest literary heritage. 


And so off the bus and into Temple Bar we strode where yet another version of the authentic Dublin was on display. I daresay if I lived in the city I'd avoid the area like the plague because of the tourists, junkies and high prices. That said, unattractive though it may be, it certainly was a spectacle and might well be, for many visitors, the city's definitive one. Which sort of authenticity did I want? All of them, I'd greedily assert, and more besides. Two days was not enough.