Wednesday 29 August 2012

Musing on censorship

 I wonder if there was a time in China when true freedom really existed? The freedom of movement, of information and speech, the freedom to hold your own opinion and not worry about upsetting those in authority.

Sitting on the marvellous new fast train from Suzhou – Beijing. Whizzing me at goodness-knows-how-many-km/h to Beijing, I think about what developments have happened in China since I lived here. In only 3 years big changes have occurred. This fantastic train being one of them. The rapid rate of development in China is astonishing. There is so much more freedom in today’s China than there was even 10-15 years ago. There is freedom for the Chinese to move around their own country, which 60 years ago was impossible. Freedom to start businesses, make their own money and better themselves and their families.
They can travel abroad, although this is still not as easy as for most of the rest of the world. But their opinions and ideas remain hidden unless they are in line with the government. To criticise openly is still dangerous. To remember the myriad events throughout history that the government view as embarrassments and therefore refuse to accept happened, is unacceptable. There are still many people who are monitored and even kept under house arrest. Mothers who lost children during the Tian-anmen massacre are not allowed to campaign for justice or a final resting place for their children.

The government fears losing control. A control it has held over it’s people for decades. It fears outside information. It fears the truth. Tian’anmen, Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the great leap forward. These things are not taught in schools. Taiwan and Tibet are taboo subjects, and the governement wants to keep track of your every movement within the country.
As someone from a country that cherishes freedom of speech, ideas, opinions and information visiting China is difficult. It’s completely baffling. The lockdown of the internet happened in 2009, while I was still living there. Beginning in June, on the 20th anniversary of Tian-anmen. Youtube was one of the first to be blocked. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to maintain that something didn’t happen when there is video evidence online. Facebook soon followed and during my re-visit I could basically only use my email and the BBC.

Why don’t Chinese people question why the internet is so heavily censored? Why they can’t read any news from outside China? Why are there certain words that won’t type into google or skype? And yet, the younger generation, have found ways around the rules. Those who’ve visited foreign lands and who’ve made foreign friends. My generation and those who follow are beginning to see though the façade. They look outside their own town, city and even country. Will they be the ones to change China? That remains to be seen I suppose, and for now, if you’re visiting China make sure you download a VPN onto your computer or Phone to bypass the Great Firewall. 

Monday 27 August 2012

The journey begins...

Our train pulls out of Beijing station and our epic journey home has begun. We watch the city disappear and countryside start to pass by the windows.

When we reach the border I feel as sick as a dog, and it’s not long before I’ve thrown up in a dodgy squat toilet somewhere between China and Mongolia. Perhaps not the best start… We later conclude that this is likely to have been some kind of altitude sickness as Mongolia is probably the highest place I’ve ever visited.

Our lovely guide Oggie meets us at Ulaanbaatar station and our 3-day sojourn begins with a rapid tour around the city. In about an hour and a half we take in:
·      The Soviet Era statue situated high above the city
·      The oldest remaining Monastery (the only one not destroyed by the Russians)
·      Central Square with its statues of Genghis (Chingis) Khan and his various sons and Grandsons.
·      A cashmere factory outlet shop
Finally we are driving away from the congested, polluted city and out into open countryside. Our Ger camp is not too far out, quite small but surrounded by open fields, nomadic camps, horses, sheep and goats. Bliss.

Inside the Ger is very comfortable. Obviously ours is set up for tourists, although we find out on the last day that it is not watertight as the rain comes gushing in through the roof. We have electricity, a log fire and comfortable beds. The food is served in the main building and although always a variation on mutton it is very good. Particularly the breakfast on the first day.

On our second day we head out to stay overnight with a nomadic family. I will share the details of that in a forthcoming post, but it was definitely an eye-opener and worthwhile experience.

Our time in Mongolia was one of calm, quiet and fresh air. Of relaxing, sleeping and playing simple games together.  On our way back to the city to catch our onward train we made a de-tour to the huge Genghis Khan statue/museum an hour away. It was an interesting museum, which educated me to how important the Khan dynasty, was for not just this area but also the entire world. A rather random extra was the world’s largest boot, which actually detracted from the rest of the museum.

Before we got our train we had enough time to whizz into a performance of traditional Mongolian arts; Singing, dancing and contortion. Probably not even worth the £7 to get in, but something that had been recommended to us, we left slightly puzzled. Stopping to get BBQ chicken (finally something other than mutton!) we ended up getting take away and scoffing our dinner in the van outside the station as our guide soothed us ‘Don’t worry we have plenty of time’ as the panic slowly rose within us both that we were going to miss our train.

Of course we didn’t and were soon safely on our way to Russia, with two tour group companions down the hall, who would later entertain us with drunken renditions of God Save the Queen and Que Sera sera. But more of that eventful journey later…

Chingis Khan

Mary looking windswept

A statue to mark the relationship between the Soviet Union and Mongolia

A car park in the middle of open fields

Making our fire for the night

Delicious Breakfast

Getting used to horse riding

The main man

The world's largest boot...

Shaman dance at the Traditional Mongolian show

Onwards to Irkustk

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Mannam International

I couldn’t leave Korea without writing a post about Mannam. I’ve mentioned this organisation many times before but never really explained what it’s about and why it is so important to me.
During my second year in Korea, I reached a point where I had tired of spending every weekend out in bars and clubs, or sitting in saving money/relaxing while it seemed everyone knew was out drinking. I don’t know whether it’s because I felt like I’d grown out of bar hopping every weekend, or I just burnt out from having continued to live a student-esque lifestyle for the 5 years since I left university. Other factors within my life had also made me realise I needed to make some changes, and those changes might mean I moved further away from the friends I had made in the beginning of my time in Korea.
I tried a few different ways of getting myself out and about, keeping busy without spending money on alcohol and cabs in the middle of the night. I signed up for couch surfing and met people visiting Seoul a few times, I joined my meditation class, and I decided to meet the few people who contacted me through my expatblog profile. It was also during this time that I went to my first Mannam event. It was a large global gathering of people in Jamsil. International food and performances were promised. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side and it poured and poured with rain. The performances were under cover so I watched a few of them, braved the wet for a delicious Moroccan sandwich and also visited a stall to make my own paper crane and write a message of peace onto it.
After the event, I signed up for the Mannam facebook group “When Lights Unite’. During that time Mannam was also going through a lot of changes and expansion. Classes, social events and other groups were being established practically weekly. I started going to the dinner nights on a Tuesday and some café nights on Thursdays. When their next big event, an Open Mic café came around I went to that too. It was held in Hyehwa, and I was actually able to bring along two friends from my meditation class. I saw people again that I had met only once or twice before, and they greeted me like long time friends. I finally felt like I had made some real connections with people. It was at this particular event that I donated a teddy my ex-boyfriend had given me. It was a really important moment for me as I finally let go of that disastrous part of my past and looked forward to what was next.
During the next 6 months of my time in Seoul I got more and more involved in Mannam International. At the following Open Mic, in February, I helped out as staff. Eventually I joined the volunteering committee and began helping to organise the events. Through Mannam I have helped wrap trees in Bukhansan National Park, spent time playing with children at an orphanage, painted a remote Elementary School, MC-d the House of Hope Olympics (a home for the mentally disabled), participated in helping clear litter at Guryong Village (a shanty town in the shadow of Gangnam), and helped in the planning of our first fundraising event and second school painting.
It is also thanks to Mannam that I met numerous people who became my closest friends, Donna, Myheshni, Alex, Michael, Rahul…  Mannam introduced me to people from a kaleidoscope of countries. Before I joined Mannam my friends in Korea were all native speakers, or colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but through Mannam I learnt about so many different cultures, suddenly I met people from all over the world; India, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Korea (of course), Philippines, Germany, Holland, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam,Brazil, Thailand, Russia, Poland, along with many native speakers from the US, Canada, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
I joined the Mannam running club (MIRC), and whist a little over-enthusiastic – I picked up a stress fracture from too much too soon – it is something that I hope to continue in the future. I also briefly joined the singing club, although other commitments meant I couldn’t continue for long. I went to Mudfest with Mannam and had the time of my life. With the friends I made I spent time hanging out at hangang park, exploring Gyeongbukgung after dark, road tripping across the country, nearly got stranded on an island and played battleshots in the most amazing apartment I've seen in Korea!
Mannam is an excellent way of meeting people, doing something worthwhile, getting out of a routine of nights out and wasted weekends. They run all sorts of clubs and classes; photography, judo, taekwondo, running, football, basketball, cooking classes, singing, cheerleading, Korean language. They also have regular social events; café and movie nights. There are usually two volunteer events each month, as well as other larger events, like the Ultimate Challenge and Mannam Charity games.
If anyone is interested in joining the volunteering committee, they are always looking for more people to help out. Visit the volunteering blog here.

This September Mannam is heavily involved in the World Peace Initiative, which is going to be a very large celebratory event in Korea. I only wish I could be there to join in!

So thank you Mannam for making my time in Korea so fantastic, for introducing me to so many people and new ideas and for getting my out of bars and giving something back to the community.

Painting Yangduck Elementary School

Social Nights at Donna's

Messing around

A make-shift church at Guryong Village

Overlooked by the Gangnam Skyscrapers

Fun in the park

Open Mic

Goodbye to Lottso Bear

Games at the Hello Kitty Cafe night

Two important staff members

Definitely an extended family picture!

Mannam at Mudfest