Sing for your supper

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In China, songbirds are kept in bamboo cages. Their owners take them for walks and hang the bird cages off tree branches. They will often cluster the cages together so the birds can be introduced. This wee bird was hanging on a tree outside the walls of the Forbidden City, his owner was sitting peacefully nearby.

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The Bile Bears of China – please help me raise awareness

This year’s Wild Photos event was, as ever, an inspiration. The most shocking lesson learned came from the power of photojournalism and in my opinion, no one does this better than Britta Jaschinski, whose images of China’s captive performing animals living  in appalling condition’s in zoos and parks were shocking, horrific and sickening.Her portrayal of the bile bears of China gave her a standing ovation.

She documented the practice of farming bears in crush cages (no bigger than a small coffin) for their bile which is used in Chinese medicine in the belief that the spirit of the bear will pass into the human through the consumption of this bile. A metal ‘door’ is strapped to the bear’s stomach and a rudimentary metal pipe is pushed straight into the gall bladder of the bear to harvest the bile. The bears live like this, in incredible pain, unable to move or protest because the ‘door’ has a huge metal spike that lodges itself under the neck of the bear.

Many of the bears have bald patches on their head and arms where they have repeatedly rubbed themselves against the cages in distress. Those bears who can move, do so to eat themselves in response to the pain and distress they feel.

Many of the bears are dwarfed, through the practice of keeping them in cages so small that they stunt growth. Many of the bears have also had their paws and /or claws removed too, as this is a delicacy in China.

There was not a dry eye in the house by the time Britta finished. I still cannot recall the presentation without crying and barely slept a wink last night. This is an horrific practice that many of us are blind too.

The pictures are not easy viewing, and this is not easy reading, but I implore you to look at at a selection of the images  “Made in China” now available on Britta’s website

Her images also document the practice of performing animals in China, where ligers, tigers and lions have had heir claws and teeth removed and are beaten until they learn stupid tricks.

Elephants are beaten until they sit on chairs, stand on their hind legs or do handstands – all tricks that cause unimaginable pain.

Bears and monkeys are forced to ride bikes and tightrope walk. If they perform correctly this is the only time they receive a morsel of food. All other times, they live in cramped cages or horrifically sparse enclosures fed off junk food that visitors throw into the enclose.

It is not often that i am bold enough to directly ask people to share my posts, but I urge you to share this post to help educate people of these horrific practices. I am not sure what else I can do to help stop this. But I want to do something!

Don’t just take my word for it… further information on these horrific practices are also available on;

Categorized as China, News

The evolution of our trip to China

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I had always dreamt of visiting. I recall, when we bought our first house I was so in awe of Chinese culture that I couldn’t wait to use Chinese fabrics, art, decoration and faux Chinese objects throughout the house, dreaming of they day I’d have a chance to experience this culture first hand.But then our love our of wildlife photography took over, and wildlife became the main focus of our holidays, taking us to destinations like Ecuador, Galapagos,  Kenya and Antarctica.Ali had never fancied China – he wasn’t repulsed or put off by it, he just was not as driven to visit as I was and he saw value in visiting many other destinations on our do list first, as did I.Then one late autumn evening we found ourselves armed with travel brochures, searching for a cheap Christmas holiday destination. We excitedly booked a 2 week trip to China with a popular group tour operator, only to wake the next morning and instantly regret our decision. We’d made a rash decision based on cost alone, and realised we really did not want to spend two weeks touring one of the world’s most intriguing destinations with a bunch of young and eager students – we were too old for that and worked far too hard to earn our leave to share it with people. After a frank and honest call on our way to work, and less than 6 hours after making the booking, we’d decided to cancel and go it alone in China – no students, no backpackers, no tour operators. We’d decided to travel alone, doing what we wanted, when we wanted. I ran home that evening eager to research the vast country and compile a trip of a lifetime.

It took weeks to plan and research. We purchased a ginormous white board especially for the occasion and spent every night annotating a hand drawn map of China, plotting routes, calculating costs and prioritising activities we wanted to do and places we wanted to go. This has since become a staple of all holiday planning.

We were convinced we’d made the right decision – even after forfeiting our deposit on the previous trip. The more we researched the country and devoured books and maps, we became more inspired about the opportunities we’d have to take a path relatively untraveled and tailor the holiday to meet our needs, desires and interests. We were daunted – I will not deny that! We were visiting a huge and complex country, travelling to places with incredible poverty and power in equal measure. We pencilled in destinations where no one spoke English, when no signage would be in English, places where British tourists rarely visit. To help prepare for the trip we started to learn basic mandarin – hoping to pick up enough of the language to ask for drinks, discern between meat, fish and veg,  offer basic greetings and adhere to their cultural norms.

It might sound like an obvious thing to say – but China is HUGE! We’d decided to set ourselves an ambitious itinerary for the three weeks we had. We wanted to take in a mixture of key cities, countryside, local cultures and wildlife. In the end we decided on the following itinerary:

International flights from London Heathrow to Beijing
Beijing for 5 nights
Overnight train from Beijing to Xian
Xian for three nights
Overnight train from Xian to Chengdu
Five nights in Chengdu – including one road trip to spend a night on Emei Shan
A flight from Chengdu to Harbin for the ice festival
Four nights in Harbin
A flight from Harbin to Hong King (via Shanghai)
Three nights in Hong Kong
International flights to London Heathrow

All accommodation, rail and air travel was booked over the internet and tickets delivered to Chinese address where we’d be lodging. There was a certain amount of organisation required to ensure that you could confirm your Chinese accommodation address at the time of booking air and rail tickets, and we were required to reconfirm bookings at several times during our trip -but we found our local hosts and hostesses were all too happy to hold our tickets in anticipation of our arrival and assist us with and confirmations required mid trip.

It’s worth highlighting that this entire trip did not cost much more than the cheaper trip we’d originally with Intrepid travel – proving that a bargain might not always be as it seems, and that it really is worth tailoring your holiday yourself. For this additional spend, we got to spend a week longer in China, stay in the upgraded accommodation we wanted, and visit more far flung places of the country.

The moral of the story – follow your heart!

Our China trip log will continue within this blog.

Photos and further information about our trip are also available in our photobook of China.

Tianamen Square

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It’s not a beautiful square, per say. But rare in the fact that it’s avoided the temptation of other great city squares to capitalise its space. There’s no rows of cafes on its edges and very few hawkers selling their wares. Nor is it surrounded by 5* hotels and stores. Instead, it’s a solemn and silent place, patrolled by rows of policemen who are overlooked by the giant portrait of Chairmen Mao on the walls of the Forbidden City.

It’s a hard place to linger. It’s full of ghosts of previous events, and you have an overwhelming feeling of being watched. It’s not as vast or welcoming as I imagined, more compact and incredibly sterile. We stayed long enough to pay respects and take some photographs, and then retreated back to the welcome of the Forbidden City and the hustle and bustle of its entrance gates.

The Forbidden City, Beijing

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I was instantly surprised at the size of the Forbidden City. It took us an hour to walk from the bottom walls to the entrance gate, but I am glad we did so. We wandered through local communities, saw children at play, men and  women at work, and walked through tree lined streets where song birds hung in cages, serenading us as we walked by.

The exterior walls of the Forbidden City are soulless, huge grey concrete walls which offer no insight or hints at the beauty that lies within. Upon arrival at the entrance gates you’re met with a contrast of crowds and crowds of people; tourists, police, locals, hawkers, vendors and army cadets practising their drills. Be fooled not by the crowds, the Forbidden city is vast enough to lose them all inside its endless walls and courtyards.

Inside the Forbidden City it’s an oasis of calm and serenity. It’s basically a series of interlinked picturesque courtyards, framed by intricate bridges, grand gateways and splendid palaces and throne rooms. Everywhere you look there is the most beautiful detail. Take, for example, the figurines on the rooftops, the volume of figures (each one unique) dictates the power and aristocracy of the resident – the more the better!

Each building is adorned with incredible detail, from Chinese dragons carved into the water grates, to bricks emblazoned with colourful Chinese mosaic. Every corner you turn provides a new perspective and the alleyways meander endlessly toward the horizon. We wandered through the city, mostly undisturbed and alone, taking advantage of the opportunity to photograph the palaces in solitude, pausing to appreciate the peace and quiet.

To the southern gates are the city / palace gardens. A beautiful networks of granite boulders, ponds, ornate gazebos, summer and winter houses and flowering trees, all offering a injection of additional colour to the concrete landscape. Upon exiting the southern gates you’re facing one of Beijing’s city gardens. It’s worth entering and climbing the hills to obtain a bird’s eye view over the Forbidden City – especially at sunset, as the city is silhouetted by the descending sun and strings of kites fly high in the evening sky. Be prepared to visit a few times during your trip as smog levels can obscure the views.

Further information about the Forbidden City is available in our China book (available to view online).