Category Archives: Sutherland antics

Why are photographs of China so empty?

I look at images of China – my images of China – and I am amazed. I have travelled to some astoundingly beautiful places since I arrived 14 months ago. I have been incredibly lucky to have the time to get out of the city for long periods, and am privileged with visits from keen and experienced travellers eager to see China (and me). With my wonderful companions I have spent days at a vast number of the most famous of China’s “scenic spots”, as they are dubbed by travel agents and Chinese tourists alike.

At almost every one, there are huge crowds. Whether strolling the walkways of Hunan’s Zhangjiajie (supposedly the landscape that inspired the floating Hallelujah mountains of James Cameron’s Avatar), viewing the rainbow rocks of Zhangye, Gansu, climbing Huashan (flower mountain), or visiting the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An, Shaanxi, the experience is similar. It is hard to find convenient transport from the nearest city, but once inside the national park (every tourist site is inside a national park or state-run area, so that it can be monitored and monetised) there will be no choice but to hop on (and, usually, pay for) regular buses between different areas within the park. And, unless you arrive before the masses get there (ie. at 8am), you will not meet a tranquil moment for the rest of the day.

The hustle and bustle of extended Chinese families on vacation – struggling up steps with small children and old people, shouting across aisles in buses full of people, music playing like theme tunes from young peoples’ smartphones and old peoples’ portable radios slung across their backs – hands-free technology! – can be intriguing, hilarious and absolutely unbearable. This is part of life in China. Just like the thousands of slow city bicycles, chronically late aeroplanes, people packing luggage into cheap plastic burlap sacks and queuing in perfect lines for trains only to crowd the door when they arrive. The crowds are part and parcel of life in China.

The thing is, the photos of these places have virtually no people in them. The vast majority of images of China’s famous places are utterly devoid of people, totally belying the morass of people out in droves at every scenic spot the country has to offer.

What on earth is going on there, then?

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

In a country of over 1.4 billion people, Chinese people are extremely used to living in close quarters. Apartments, schools, universities, and offices are small and overcrowded. People just ignore one another and shout over the people they do not know in order to be heard by the people they do. It seems socially acceptable to be rude to someone you do not know – you simply cannot be nice to everyone in the world, there are enough people whose opinions actually matter to give a sh*t about the rest of the country. To an outsider with a penchant for personal space, thoughtful behaviour and generosity, I often find this incredibly stressful and even depressing at times. But who am I to judge people for the inner workings of Chinese society?

Surprisingly, Chinese tourists don’t seem to want to get away from the crowds when they go on vacation. In fact, they follow the crowds in their visits to the major scenic spots. They get away from their home crowd only to be surrounded from an uncannily familiar crowd of strangers from other provinces. Sometimes they’ll be lucky enough to spot a foreign face in the crush of bodies, at which it seems acceptable to point, stare, and shout about to your own cohort. Few ever approach for a substantial ‘hello’.

The people I met were generous and kind, more often than not. Many of the pengyoumen I met while travelling were not able to speak more than a few sentences of English, and thus the conversation would dwindle as the bounds of my Chinese level were breached and my vocabulary fizzled out. Communication issues aside, they regularly offered food, refreshments, tours, assistance with transport officials and some took me out for dinner or home to meet their parents (the source of my daily dose of green tea is a box I was given by a young woman from Leshan, whom my mother and I met in May).

Perhaps more so than other tourists in China, I have photos with people in them. The crush of the crowds is what makes China Chinese. Without its 1.4 billion people, China would be a cultural wasteland of pristine mountains, lakes, rock formations and deserts. However hard they try to f*ck it up, the Chinese are the essence of China.

When was the last time you took a bath with your mother?

In April this year, my wonderful mother came to visit me in Beijing. She hadn’t taken an international trip alone for a few years. Well, she hadn’t left Europe alone for something like 30 years. (Having kids changes things like that, I would think.) So she boarded a plane from Norwich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Beijing, and arrived with me on a Friday morning, a little before 9.

We were overjoyed to see one another. It had been nine months since I’d left home, since I’d sent her home with a pile of stuff I’d had to jettison and we’d had our last hug at Heathrow airport. That was the longest we’d spent apart in the nearly twenty-six years since I was born.

It was difficult for me, but it was I who had made the decision to leave. I can’t imagine what it is like for a mother to watch her child move abroad, not knowing when she would see her little girl again, nor knowing anything of what her little girl would see. My mother still says, her chin barely reaching my shoulder as I squeeze her a little too tight: “how did you get so big? Where did my little squidge go?”

I know it was difficult for her. Especially so since I had decided to stay in Beijing for a second year. Seeing me in April was a big deal. Plus this was the first time she’d ever been to China. I had to make this a more-than-memorable trip for her. I had to show her how China had captured my heart and might never let me go. So I set about planning an itinerary for an adventure she would never forget.

We skipped across China, hand in hand from one province to the next, for a little over two weeks. We spent entire days climbing holy mountains, spoke broken Chinese to beekeepers in rural hillside villages, met Chinese families who gave us boxes of tea, ate unbearably spicy dinner with young English major students, took painfully long bus rides through winding valleys and got terrible altitude sickness in the Himalayas of western Sichuan.

My mother is a brilliantly fun patient travel partner. She bore everything in good humour and often surpassed me in physical stamina. She told me constantly how impressed she was that I could speak enough Chinese to make sure she got no meat in her food.

Towards the end of our second week of travel, we’d made it Litang, a small town on the China-Tibet highway. At 4,012 metres above sea level, it just so happened to be the highest point either of us had ever been to. Our bus journey there had taken us form below 3,000 metres to above 5,000 metres and back down again. I had sweated and vomited almost the entire journey, my ever-calm mother talking me through it moment by moment.

So, after three days in Litang, most of it spent huddling, heads aching, under the blankets in our hotel room while drinking five-flavour tea to counteract the altitude (apparently all the ingredients are picked at above 5,000 metres, and none contain caffeine, so it is especially good at curing altitude sickness), and some spent exploring the plains, the nearby temple and the sixth Dalai Lama’s birthplace, we just had a few last hours before the sun would set on our final day in the Tibetan world around us.

The kind, well-spoken Tibetan woman who ran the hotel had told us about hot springs nearby, recommending again and again that we go, so we finally let her arrange for her husband to take us. We hadn’t read anything about this place, so were excited to get beyond the Lonely Planet suggestions for Litang. I imagined a vast open space overlooking the town, where hot, clean water bubbled from the ground, forming a small pool before trickling down the mountainside. Mum said we should prepare for the wind at that height, and we both hoped the extra altitude wouldn’t be a problem.

As we prepared to leave the hotel, the owner explained that her husband would drive us there, drop us off and come back an hour later. We were confused, but we climbed into the car. As the engine started up, she leaned towards me in the passenger seat and advised me not to get my hair wet because there was no hairdryer there. I looked at her blankly, a vague understanding of the situation dawning in the back of my mind.

“We haven’t got towels. Do we need towels?” I asked her.

“Yes, they do not have towels”, she told me. “Quickly, get towels!”

I ran up to our room and grabbed both of our blue travel towels (the use of which my father always compares to drying oneself with a plastic bag) and hopped back into the car moments later. We’d already paid for this, we had to at least try to enjoy whatever was awaiting us at the end of this drive.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in a courtyard surrounded by low buildings, numbers painted above the numerous doors. A quick exchange in a language that was neither Chinese nor English, but Tibetan, led to a woman unlocking and opening one of the many doors, shoving a wadge of something fabric-like into a corner and loosening a huge plastic tap. Water poured forth into a very basic paved concrete pool. Our chaperone pointed to his watch, said “one hour” to me in Chinese and waved goodbye before he drove us. This was it. The hot springs we’d imagined dissolved before our eyes, realisation dawned. This was simply an elaborate ruse to get a British mother and daughter into a hot bath together for the first time in 20 years.

In actual fact, it was lovely. We stripped down shyly (and quickly, thanks to the bitter cold) and sat on the cold tiled edge for a while, trying to acclimatise to the heat. Sinking slowly into the water, we relaxed completely. The heat stripped away the tension that days of cold and discomfort had bestowed, leaving us energised and talkative.

It was the best bath I’d had in years.

The Pomegranate

Today is my wonderful mother’s birthday. I am over eight thousand kilometres from her at home, but my thoughts have been on her all day. She’s an utter inspiration. She’s taught me so much, continually encourages me to follow my dreams and supports me in every decision I make. She’s never once prevented me from life’s lessons, but always been there to talk them through.

Sitting out on a windy Beijing rooftop in the weak sunshine, I read aloud a poem that reminds me of her:

The Pomegranate

The only legend I have ever loved

is the story of a daughter lost in hell.

And found and rescued there.

Love and blackmail are the gist of it.

Ceres and Persephone the names.

And the best thing about the legend is

I can enter it anywhere. And have.

As a child in exile in

a city of fogs and strange consonants,

I read it first and at first I was

an exiled child in the crackling dusk of

the underworld, the stars blighted. Later

I walked out in a summer twilight

searching for my daughter at bed-time.

When she came running I was ready

to make any bargain to keep her.

I carried her back past whitebeams

and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.

But I was Ceres then and I knew

winter was in store for every leaf

on every tree on that road.

Was inescapable for each one we passed.

And for me.

It is winter

and the stars are hidden.

I climb the stairs and stand where I can see

my child asleep beside her teen magazines,

her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.

The pomegranate! How did I forget it?

She could have come home and been safe

and ended the story and all

our heart-broken searching but she reached

out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.

She put out her hand and pulled down

the French sound for apple and

the noise of stone and the proof

that even in the place of death,

at the heart of legend, in the midst

of rocks full of unshed tears

ready to be diamonds by the time

the story was told, a child can be

hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.

The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.

The suburb has cars and cable television.

The veiled stars are above ground.

It is another world. But what else

can a mother give her daughter but such

beautiful rifts in time?

If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.

The legend will be hers as well as mine.

She will enter it. As I have.

She will wake up. She will hold

the papery flushed skin in her hand.

And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, ‘The Pomegranate’, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy, (New York: Norton, 2005). pp. 1941-2.

Beating back the Christmas Blues

A few weeks ago, I had a Bridget Jones moment. I know you know what I mean; we all have them.


Those times when all you want to do is sit in front of the telly wrapped up in your duvet, while you eat ice cream and drink far too much wine. Not exactly a healthy activity for a solitary young woman who has recently, undeniably, joined the “mid-twenties” club. There’s that overwhelming despair at being alone and the frantic worry that, given your recent track record, you might be alone for a very long time.

This wasn’t exactly helped by this Christmas-round-robin-gone-viral from a successful, happy looking young American family, which makes most of my 2013 accomplishments seem a little dull.

This video got me thinking. I stopped moping and started writing. My piece was published two days before Christmas on the wonderful

Although Christmas has now come and gone, the blues sadly returns. Maybe that’s because you can deny the end of the festive season no longer and must return to work-work-work (yesterday was the last day of Christmas and the first day of work for most people), or maybe because, like me, being at home-home over Christmas was actually really fun, and London seems a little lonely by comparison. Actually, it’s probably both, combined with the lengthy sessions of Christmas boozing and a mild health problem after all the food.

Whatever your reason for feeling those blues, take a look and see if my tips might help you beat what remains of those Christmas Blues!

Take what you can get: my graduate jobsearch

When I graduated – with a first class degree I might add – I hadn’t really pictured myself working in a big corporate office. But neither had I intended to work full-time at an empty pub, spend several weeks on jobseeker’s allowance and attend a series of godawful interviews. But that’s life – you take the best you can get. So, this is what I got, and this is what I took.

Straight after my final term had ended, I decided I wasn’t ready to go home to Norwich. I would stay in Egham instead. (This had nothing to do with having a minor life crisis and initiating a bad break-up…) During the whole of July I worked at a pub near uni. I’m not going to criticise it too much, but it was one of those jobs in which you can learn everything there is to learn within a week (maybe two) and from there on in, you perfect your pint-pouring technique, watch a lot of tennis/golf/rugby and get the regulars’ drinks ready before they open their mouths. I had fun, at first, speaking to the few people that came to the pub – many of them arrived at the same time day in day out – but I soon felt crowded by their prejudices, ignorance and quite plainly boring conversation.

I distinctly remember one evening when a regular and his wife were talking to the guy’s brother at the bar; the couple had been on a cruise to Southeast Asia.  Their description of the one-and-only Raffles Long Bar (Singapore), famously credited for the invention of the Singapore Sling, focused almost entirely on how disgusted they were at the peanut shells on the floor. This is a classic element of the Long Bar experience, emanating the 1920s. People go for a Singapore Sling expecting there to be peanut shells on the floor, in the attempt to live a little bit of the Raffles Hotel heyday. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I actually had to leave the room – and thus the bar, which is not-on for a bartender – to prevent myself either shouting to expose their ignorance, or crying at the futility of it all. The accumulation of moments like this is one of the reasons I left a lot sooner than I had originally told the Landlord. I realised why I had got the job in the first place – to avoid Norwich, not to stay in Egham – and I knew I had had my fill of this level of having a ‘real’ job. I hadn’t got another job, but telling the Landlord I had was the easiest way out of it, if not the wisest or most honest. I hadn’t got a contract and I wasn’t being paid properly – I should say legally – so I didn’t feel too guilty about it.

I then spent an utterly exhilarating, frantic, exhausting – the adjectives go on – month or so in Edinburgh. I had a few days with my coolest friend, Nadia and her Mom, who had come over from Canada for a whistle-stop tour of the UK.

Myself and Nadia, with ears
Myself and Nadia, with ears, taken by Lucy

I felt pretty privileged to get to see them to be honest, they were so rushed! The Fringe itself was a hotch-potch of wildness and tiredness and watching a huge amount of good – and a little bit of bad – theatre, dance, music and comedy. Though I haven’t really set those experiences down here, the Fringe was a highlight of my year… and they deserve to be written about when I’ve got the time to do them justice. Which, given the circumstances of the two-and-a-half months since, still isn’t quite yet. Oops.

Vicky, Bella and I on the Edinburgh-London train, heading South

We all left our Edinburgh house on the morning of Wednesday 21st August. I had a horrible journey home, waiting over an hour after a missed connection. But at least Vicky, Bella and I had got the train together – the vast majority of the others had got the Megabus together. The three of us had it pretty cushty in comparison! We even met a nice older lady, who took this photo and wished us the best in all our future endeavours. It was very sweet really.

After two days at home, the misery had hit. I remember bursting into tears at various mealtimes for absolutely no reason. The Edinburgh blues had hit. I was suddenly miles away from the fourteen people I had lived and laughed with for almost a month. It was made so much worse by being exhausted, poor and without purpose. But I picked myself back up, swallowed my pride, and applied for jobseeker’s.

My job-seeking days were pretty good – it took longer for me to get my CV in order than to find things I felt I wanted to do, for a little while at least. After a rather harrowing job interview experience (that was so bad I have written it it’s own dedicated post), I ended up signing a contract with a recruitment agency. That was on a Friday. The following Tuesday I had an interview, was offered the job on the Wednesday, and began my new job on the Monday. It was a pretty swift process, but clearly they had liked me a lot in the interview.

I had never thought I would take a job answering customers’ queries about the London Gazette and selling printed copies of government legislation and Driving Standards Agency literature. But, alas, I spent several weeks doing just that. I had a fun four weeks at The Stationery Office – I learned a lot, I met some interesting people and it was a great stop gap. I was living at home, not paying rent and getting paid a nice chunk every week, so I felt great about refunding my rather stretched overdraft. However, as my Mum said to my boss-to-be over the phone, this was ‘a job, not THE job’.

THE job was yet to come.