I thought that I would be writing this post in June, drafting my first paragraph before I processed photos that chronologically were taken before ones posted two moths ago. But it’s been a hectic summer, and so China — or more precisely the photos I took while there — has had to wait. My first stop on a warm but windy Sunday to start the trip, however, was the airport, a place I’ve become all too familiar with. Ironically, I was there to learn even more about it: MUC offers various tours of its grounds operations, and despite having lived here for two years this was the first chance I could experience one.
I arrived after a short drive; apparently, not many people are on the roads early on Sunday mornings. I parked at my long-term spot and walked over to MUC’s “spotter playground,” where there is a restaurant, observation platform, and older planes on display. Unlike ZRH, whose observation platform is in the terminal itself, the MUC area is off-site. Access costs just €1; I ended up there three times in the hours before my flight.
All of the very light traffic seemed to have the same destination that morning, as our motor coach for the tour was completely full. I learned from the tour guide after the tour that most tours run with around five participants; this one was among the busiest he had ever seen. I’ve forgotten what the tour guide announced during the one-hour ride, but we got to see planes of all sizes: bigger ones, like the Delta 767 opening this post, and also smaller ones, like the Air Dolomiti Embraer ERJ-195 being pushed back for its departure.
We also got to see a Singapore Boeing 777-300ER, which reminded me of my first trip to Singapore four years ago. Then, too, I left out of MUC, not knowing that MUC would soon become my most-used airport or that Singapore would become a comically common weekend escape for me.
Riding around the apron, we also got a few good views of the control tower and the storms brewing behind it.
The fire department trains on Sundays, and although we missed the exercises themselves by a quarter hour or so, we did see the parade of trucks back toward their garage.
After many type sightings, including seeing some governmental planes, our tour ended. It was neat to be able to see more parts of the airport up close, though now, naturally I want to see more. Airport logistics are fascinating, and it’s always a treat to be able to get closer to those operations in Europe. After the tour, I headed back up to the observation deck, watching lightning flash and the wisps of rain in the distant Alps that I left behind five hours prior.
With MUC being a Lufthansa hub, it was not surprising to see so many of their jets take off. An A340-600 leapt for the skies behind the airport’s vehicle traffic, whose drivers and passengers likely oblivious that this sight is sure to become rarer as the the type is gradually replaced at MUC by the more-efficient A350. According to Lufthansa, the A350 is the first plane capable of returning a fuel consumption of under 3 L / 100 km. For a plane that carries hundreds of passengers and tons of cargo, this is a seriously impressive milestone.
From the observation platform, the north runway was in full view, although it was still possible to see the acceleration phase of takeoffs from the south runway. As I watched an SAS 737 head off into the distance, it dawned on me that the clouds developing to the south were also starting to form east, causing the pilots to deliberately seek out and poke through the remaining openings to seek blue skies beyond.
As I wandered around the platform loop one last time, I got to see the last of Lufthansa’s A350s take off, the other two having departed earlier that day. I didn’t have the right lens on when I saw the earlier departures, but despite having seen all three LH A350s on the ground during the tour, seeing them in their natural environment was even more impressive. Hearing rumbling thunder in the distance, I headed back to my car and to the terminal, chuckling to myself as I realized I still had eight hours before my flight. This was beginning to become a habit…
I learned during my wanderings that MUC would celebrate its 25th birthday while I would be away, and it was clear the airport was gearing up for a party. Beer tents, kid play areas, and fencing was being put up everywhere near the visitor center, and I was again caught off-guard by how open the festivities appeared to be — in the US an open family day at a large airport is virtually unheard of.
After hours of reading, eating, napping, drinking, and wandering around the lounge, we were able to board. The flight itself was barely longer than my stay at the airport, but twenty hours after I beat the rain at MUC my flight had also just beat the rain at Hong Kong, my first stop in the two weeks I’d be in China. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city: I knew it wasn’t going to “feel” like a Chinese entity given its British influence for over a century, but I also wasn’t sure if it would remind me of Singapore.
I had met up with my parents at the airport, and our explorations on the only full day we had in Hong Kong were first around Kowloon. After taking the MTR from our hotel on Hong Kong Island, we ended up at the under-renovation Avenue of Stars, where understandably the most popular star was Bruce Lee.
After lunch, we walked around the harborfront some as we waited for the harbor cruise, eventually joining other tourists in a crash-course (of which I remember almost nothing) of the main aspects of Hong Kong history, architecture, and current events. I’m don’t recall there being waterfront tours in Singapore, but seeing the clusters of high-rises along what is a typhoon-prone coast was intimidating but also a bit uplifting; humanity has mastered a lot in its time, and seeing this much development in the face of potential natural disasters induced quiet but inwardly tumultuous contemplation.
After the harbor cruise, we ended up heading toward The Peak tram. We considered walking up but with uncertain weather decided to queue up and buy round-trip tickets. After spending time taking pictures at the top, we also had dinner there, lucking out and getting a table with views of the harbor we had crossed earlier that afternoon.
As sun set, we saw the city seem to truly come to luminescent life, with each building getting lighter as the sky became darker.
We lucked out with the weather, not getting wet during our entire day under the cloudy skies. Even so, it was impossible to see if the skies had actually cleared through the evening, as the buildings’ lights were too bright to see the heavens above.
Our next day was a combination departure / last-minute-sightseeing day. We ended up spending a good amount of time gawking at the extensive shopping available, complete with today’s hot brands next to unidentifiable older buildings. Not shown in any of these photos: how hectic Hong Kong can be in its busier districts.
While I’ve never spent much time shopping in Singapore, I have seen how significant a role it plays in the Singaporean economy. Hong Kong appears to be no different. At one point before lunch we saw a line that snaked around the side of an entire mall; there was a cosmetics sale that day and the savings were, apparently, quite significant. Malls here, perhaps more so than in Singapore, are brilliantly-lit, artificially-cooled extravaganzas, and if the West has contributed anything to the world beyond music and English, it’s clearly fashion. The loudest advertising was clearly of brand names formed from the Latin alphabet.
Though I’ve left out until now what my impressions of Hong Kong were for two reasons, I can’t help but compare it to Singapore. In a word, Hong Kong felt more unsettled, more coarse. Whether through politics or merely as a facade, Singapore in many cases feels like a model society: its streets are clean, and while busy and dense the city sparkles. Hong Kong in this perspective feels like any other big city in China. The airport is modern, the shopping rivals that of high-end western fronts, and the hospitality caters to foreigners. But it’s still very much chaotic, appearing almost to welcome Chinese authority to shed its British colonialism. Its people might very much prefer democracy, but behaviors and attitudes appear more Chinese than occidental. Singapore in many cases feels the opposite, and where I am ever inquisitive about that city-state, I haven’t found so strong a thirst to revisit Hong Kong, a statement that arguably begs its own curiosity, as subconsciously it means I do want to understand why I feel more apathetic toward it than toward Singapore. After all, if one former colony feels more Western than Asian and I am inclined to visit it again, why should I feel less compelled to revisit another former colony that feels more Asian than Western?
Our brief time in Hong Kong came to a swift close when we boarded our flight for Xiamen, a booming mainland island directly opposite Taiwan. It’s a popular destination for vacations and typically less affected by the infamous smog that hovers over other large Chinese cities, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its status among popular Chinese destinations for foreigners continues to grow. Three years ago, I had visited Gulangyu for the first time and experienced its crowds first-hand, naming my reflection of that time “Hectic” already; in the relatively short span since then the number of visitors to the island has allegedly exploded. Even the relatively quieter nearby city of Longyan was more bustling than I remembered it in 2014. Thankfully, the planned urban greenery offered a reprise from the cacophony of car horns outside its walls and crowds alike.
It was nonetheless in quiet Longyan that some of my lingering disbelief of previous trips began to rumble again to life, though the source of the tremors had more to do with the significance of infrastructure development and less with large crowds. We visited a housing development built on a premise similar to that of American golf courses — golfing as an attraction, with houses built farther off in various luxury developments. At first glance, the tracts could be mistaken for any well-off subdivision in any population center: bright greenery, modern architecture, practically no yards.
What is startling is not just that golf, arguably not among the most sustainable uses of land or water, is now seen as a plausible replacement for the local timber industry, or that mountaintops are being razed to make room for that development. We saw this already in Peng Lai in 2015, so seeing it here hardly brought pangs of surprise.
It’s rather the sharp contrast in “tiers of accessibility” that is surprising. Somewhere in the ballpark of several hundred such houses will be built in this gated community, and a fair number thereof have been paid in cash. Their buyers drive expensive cars, no doubt also paid in cash, and generally dictate to the builder every facet of their house. Meanwhile, the workers building the houses arrive by motorbike, not because it’s necessarily their ideal transportation but because it’s all they can afford. The earth excavated was likely moved by mechanized equipment, but once the trees are razed and the earth laid barren, any remaining trenching is done by hand and moved with wheelbarrow. As an entire class is catapulted upwards into debt-free home purchases, the people who built those homes are living lives arguably unimproved by the presence and accumulation of wealth surrounding them.
It is this gulf, one that doesn’t admittedly appear to be shrinking, that continues to be, in a word, shocking. I’ve mentioned in the past that going back to China is a new experience for me each time, one, like the country itself, that is also not stagnant. Since 2014, I’ve been fortunate to visit each year, and with each visit I see a little deeper into the society. Initially, I was taken aback at the cursory or visual cues: how much the infrastructure had grown, how many more crowds there were, that there was more “modernization” in general. These were indicators of increasing purchasing power; what was inaccessible was starting to become more attainable. Gradually, the awe and confusion at the abruptness and speed of all the physical differences were replaced by wonder at interpersonal relationships; I began to see, for instance, how my family has been affected by that growth and what conflicts and personal decisions began to emerge as a result. Then, slowly, questions of how people interact with one another gave way to those about the society as a whole and where it is going, but of course now each previous layer influences how I reflect on current observations. Seeing multi-million dollar houses going up became less mesmerizing, but seeing the workers building those houses living comparable lives as when they were building cheaper ones is still perplexing. Granted, a five year snapshot of my visits cannot be considered a significant or cohesive historical perspective, but for all the discussion today about more socialistic constructs, the country with the largest and most imposing communist regime does not seem to be shrinking the wealth divide so much as revealing it — if not exploiting it outright.
We spent the last evening back in Xiamen, walking alongside the coast before grabbing dinner. The pondering I had over the past few days gradually began to subside in the warm breeze and beneath blue skies.
The next day, we flew out toward Nanjing, city #3 (of four) in a two week trip. Mostly I tried to nap, awakening briefly to look out the window and see direct evidence of the staggering pace of industrialization in the country: a distinct separation of smog below and familiar blue skies above. These I remembered from my first trips back to China, before the machines and industrialization obscured the hue from the ground.
We landed in Nanjing beneath unsaturated skies, but the haze cleared slightly during our days there. Much of our time was spent with family, and the only pictures I really took were around the campus of the Nanjing University of Science and Technology. The afternoon we headed to the last city of our trip was delightful. The air was crisp, and for once the stifling heat that is so characteristic of Nanjing summers stayed at bay.
It was also nice to see so much greenery on a campus. Apart from having a protected plot of forest, nearly the entire campus road network was covered with cool [albeit allergy- and bug-inducing!] trees.
Despite the growth of the passenger vehicle market, a good number of university students still choose the bicycle as their primary means of transportation around campus, spawning a new market for rental bikes with a GPS chip and a smartphone app, which has rendered bike racks only in select locations moot. Practicality and economy of a bike don’t always win hearts, however, and parking spaces on the campus are increasingly scarce. Sidewalks of ten years ago have become makeshift parking spots today.
As I headed back to the hotel to take the taxi to the train station, a street cleaner came by to keep the dust down. With three cities in around nine days, the trip hadn’t been thus far exactly relaxing, and I wondered what could contain my own bewilderment at a country I’d barely come to recognize despite having visited for four years straight now.
It turns out the remedy for such an ailment is to have a glance at history. Our final stop of the trip this year also was Beijing, largely because the pricing on both my parents’ and my flights worked out superbly but also because it had been nearly two decades (and hence beyond my memory) since we visited the Great Wall of China. I remembered my first visit as a teenager to Badaling (八达岭, or phonetically Bā dá lǐng), but my primary memory was that it was downright touristy. A college football game might be “busy,” but the frustrating part of the Badaling type of busy was the constant hassling by hawkers plying the bus stops trying to sell trinkets. I wanted something a little more raw and a little less catered this time, and was a bit astonished to find almost exactly that at Simatai (司马台, Sī mǎ tái). In China, “crowdless” is rare. At the Great Wall, it’s, well, unheard of.
I’m not sure it’s possible to visit a known part of the Great Wall and have the entire section of wall to oneself, but in spats throughout the afternoon Simatai came very close.
The views seemed endless, and while there was always a tourist getting ready for or to take the perfect shot, seeing the majesty of a wall built entirely before the age of computers and simulation was just the right amount of eye-opening. Even the weather and the smog played along that day; it was warm, the warmest it had been all trip, but facing away from the harsh sun showed brilliant blue skies.
Despite the warmth, I ambled along the crumbling walls for a good while, taking in the views and enjoying the aging but globally familiar icon while marveling at what it must have taken to build the structure. It was warm — maybe 90 °F — but how did people then get water? Or food? Or stay warm in the winter? I ended up walking from the tenth to the fifth or fourth watchtower before heading back to the hot valley below and afterwards back to the not-so-distant Beijing.
The relative quiet of this section of wall is not to say that the whole area is undeveloped or inaccessible. The opposite is in fact true, with a reconstructed ancient town opening in 2014 acting as the official entrance to the Simatai wall. The existing town in Gubei was demolished and replaced with a replica of a Suzhou canal village, Wuzhen, reassigning the farmers living previously on the land roles in the tourism industry. Its tourist center is large, bright, and modern, an almost ironic contrast to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status inferred upon the Simatai wall rising behind it.
But life, as time, marches on, sometimes more slowly for some than for others. As large cities grow, there is less dependence on small farmers and more eagerness of the burgeoning newly-wealthy to explore ancient history or experience nature. This has given birth to such sites as Nanjing’s Niushoushan, whose missions seem altruistic if not for their phenomenal price tags. For those living outside the lengthening shadows of large Chinese cities, it’s a difficult social question to answer: how does someone make a living without resorting to exploiting a potential tourist draw, when her or his original livelihood is threatened or is no longer sustainable? Three years after WTown opened, its streets are still not nearly as full as those in Beijing, but whether for lack of knowledge of or for lack of interest in its facade, the sparse crowds let me contemplate again — this time on another continent — whether tourism really is such an evil.
We returned to Beijing and spent our last full day there walking around, at one point turning toward a Hutong. It was not uncommercialized, but despite clear tourist lures this somehow still felt more organic than the town we saw the previous day. This, however, seems to be something of a dying breed despite the Western obsession of them; there are more effective ways to house people in a city whose population density is exceeded in China only by that of two islands (Macau and Hong Kong) and Shanghai.
I started this blog with the intention of being able to jot down thoughts or conditions around my photographs more cohesively than I could with photo-sharing platforms, but rather than featuring photos here I’ve increasingly used my photographs as memory-aids to amplify and evoke emotions I felt or reactions that tingled. A great amount of that recollection and scrutiny has come with my travel to China, and despite a not-insignificant awareness that it is inherently different than my upbringing in the West, I’ve increasingly begun to wonder not when China will realize it’s doing something wrong but rather what caused it to question whether the status quo wasn’t doing something right. It takes insight and guts and investment to commit to the unexpected, but time and time again I see in China this commitment, odd and haphazard as it may appear. It doesn’t sit right, but it’s also so jarring it justifies visiting and revisiting the question. I visit and revisit Singapore because it’s fascinating that a society can appear so stable it’s almost boring; now, I find myself wondering how it’s possible and at what cost a society so breakneck and so chaotic (indeed, the first letters of each of my first series on China in 2014 intentionally spelled “chaos”) as China’s can just survive, but thrive. As I waited in the lounge at Beijing International Airport for my flight back to the stoic Allgäu, I realized I again didn’t have the answer. For the first time on a trip to China, I think detected a faint, sly smile in the back of my mind: I’ll be back to take more pictures of my visits there… and to continue pondering that unknown here.