Cesar Manrique: the wizard of Lanzarote

13 11 2016


The Canary Islands, lying low off the coast of Morocco, are Europe’s last outpost – a crop of grotesque volcanic islands springing out of the Atlantic Ocean with rocky slopes and beaches – alternately black and golden – and mysterious forests. There are underwater museums and rugged valleys where the local people have developed their own unique whistling language, a tantalising remnant of the culture of the island’s original inhabitants, the Guanche. And, I discovered this week, the islands are also home to a wealth of incredible local design.


Architect and artist Cesar Manrique is responsible for a slew of Barbarella-esque pleasure palaces hewn out of the rugged stone of the island of Lanzarote; there are plush Bond villain lairs carved out of caves,  modernist sculptures and cactus gardens adorning the cliffs and lava flows and a nightclub in a tunnel with a cave full of blind albino crabs and a swimming pool reserved exclusively for the King of Spain.


Its a strange and wonderful contrast of Disco 3000 hedonism imposed onto an almost lunar landscape. Images taken from the website of photographer Alastair Philip Wiper, click on the link for some more amazing pictures.


Green ghosts

30 10 2016


Shrouded in ivy and fog, abandoned houses stand on the island of Shengshan, an overnight trip from Shanghai. I had wanted to go and see the ghost villages on the island, deserted by the fishermen who once lived there and now throng to work in the cities, but with limited transport options (and Chinese) I decided against it.

Paris, China.

30 10 2016


Other than the West Lake, the other item on my Hangzhou hitlist was a housing estate in the city’s far suburbs, a twenty minute taxi ride from the last stop on the Northern subway line. But this was not just any housing estate, but Tianducheng, an ill-fated replica of Paris, complete with its own Eiffel Tower.

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Despite the amazing scale and spectacle of the place, it was noticeably quiet when we arrived. A gust of cold wind blew a plastic bag down the street, eerily vacant except for a couple of construction workers and maintenance crew and a bridesmaid playing with her phone on a park bench in a sparkly yellow dress, as a distant procession of brides and grooms climbed the steps to the mini-Sacre Coeur for wedding pictures. Most of the shops along the avenues were vacant or closed. We wandered around the dusty streets, ate delicious Uighur food on the Champs Elysee, and then caught a ride back to China.


Is Jiangsu the hot new China destination?

30 10 2016

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Although most of the province is less that two hours by train from Shanghai, and it includes the supposedly beautiful “garden city” of Suzhou, I didn’t make it to Jiangsu on this trip.

The provincial capital of Nanjing, once of course China’s capital and scene of one of the grisliest massacres of World War 2 (the “Rape of Nanking”) has recently been hard at work upgrading its tourist credentials.

I was intrigued by a poster in a Shanghai train station adverising the newly-opened Usnisa Buddhist complex on Nanjing’s outskirts, a hyper-modern and lavishly-scaled temple complex perched on a mountain slope. Similarly over-the-top in design is the reconstruction, completed this year, of the city’s “Porcelain Pagoda”, a wonder destroyed some 150 years ago and now rebuilt by China’s richest man, with an an(other) Buddhist themepark attached.


And finally there is the Sifang art complex, peeking out from the treetops in a pair of sleek architecturally-driven boxes, also just outside the city. I was reminded again of Japan in the bubble years, when these costly prestige projects came so thick and fast that no-one could keep track of them, and spectacular buildings that should have been star attractions flew completely under the radar.


But it doesn’t take long for the old China to reassert itself. The province is also home to a safari park in nearby Yancheng that has eleven stuffed giraffes on display, placed as a reminder not to feed the animals after they choked to death on plastic bags fed to them by visitors😦


17 10 2016


Ma Wan village

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A weekend of surprises.

2 10 2016


There wasn’t really a plan for this weekend, but as sometimes happens, that made it all the more interesting. My boyfriend was late for a swimming date which was commuted to dinner on Friday night so I ended up waiting in the re-opened People’s Recreation Community, a little upstairs bookshop in the hubhub of Times Square, specialising in Chinese language books banned on the mainland. These consisted of tomes on the ever-fascinating topics of (in order of popularity) feng shui, sex and politics. I was pleased to see the place open, its owner having only recently returned from his politically-motivated abduction and arrest on the mainland, and bought a book in solidarity, a Shigeru Mizuki comic. They actually have a small but quite interesting English selection, as well as (uncensored!) internet booths and a modest two-table cafe serving comfort food.


From here we set off to eat, and to celebrate – I hadn’t realised that the next day was a public holiday! Scouring the backstreets of Causeway Bay without much of a plan we ended up in a twenty storey-high office block into which I had never ventured but which turned out to be piled high with restaurants and thronged with customers. There were Japanese oyster bars, a vegetarian Sichian restaurant, a 1980s Guangdong-style BBQ place with luridly painted mural walls and a manequin of a girl in a leather miniskirt, and finally a rowdy Korean joint. Here, students snacked on fried chicken and squid’s legs wrapped in cheese and graffitied the bare concrete walls, while knocking back bottles of cider held upside down into large glasses of melon soda. It felt like a little slice of Seoul, totally unexpected, and it was called “Mr Korea Chicken”.

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The next day, again unplanned, we got up early to head out for a hike and picked the Twin Peaks trail, which sets off from the Parkview housing estate and heads Southwest across the island to Stanley.

As we climbed up into the forested slopes along muddy paths, our voices echoed through the valleys and billowing white cloud wrapped around us. It was hard to believe we were in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities! Truly amazing. We passed the Tai Tam reservoir and vistas of rolling hills covered with trees and then began the grueling 1000-step staircase of the first of the two forested mountains, before tackling the final peak and descending to Stanley below us. Beautiful.


As we got down to Stanley, the cloud lifted and the sun came out. After a lunch soundtracked by Ella Fitzgerald at an idiosyncratic little cafe in a corner of Stanley Market called Lucy’s Kitchen, we headed down to a sunny, secretive little beach. We had seen this from above as we descended. It was near where a war cemetery sits on a well-manicured lawn and bright laundry flapped on the balconies of the correctional services staff apartments for the families of those staffing the nearby prison.  Via streets of hundred-million-dollar mansions and thick green foliage we arrived at St Stephen’s beach and splashed about contentedly as the sun shone down, a few children played and the clear, warm water washed our tired bodies. Floating on the sea, we could look up and see the path on the hillside which we had so recently descended.


The final surprise of the day came back in Causeway Bay. After a cheap but hearty vegetarian meal and a massage in a little Thai place located semi-legally in a residential block, it was time to head home. But it was only then that my partner realised he had lost his housekey somewhere and we had to wait for him to pick up his spare from his mum, before we could finally pile into bed, worn-out after an action-packed and adventurous day, thankful for the incredible variety of scenery Hong Kong island packs into such a compact package.

Jet-so Jetsons

2 10 2016


Kam Mong, the Wong Kar Wai-esque late-night cha chaan teng I discovered recently in Mongkok’s seedy Portland street sex district has a new attraction:  1950s-style busty robo-waitresses! Expect a full report soon…