Ten Days In Hangzhou And Suzhou

smog och kanal

December smog over a Hangzhou canal

Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.

  • Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
  • HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
  • Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
  • Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
  • Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
  • Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
  • The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
  • The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
  • Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
  • When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
  • In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
  • My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
  • A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.

For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.


Staying At An Invisible House


Swedish House, 1930s, from the N.

I’m back again at the Swedish Institute’s writer’s retreat in Kavala, Greece, finishing my Medieval castles book. By now I’ve spent a total of three weeks here, taking daily walks. And it’s annoyed me that I’ve never been able to see the place I stay at from street level. Such a Lovecraftian feel to it. Does the Swedish House, as it is known, even exist when I’m not there?

The building was finished in 1936. At that time the site was outside town in a commanding location, and the building was a comparatively tall one with its 2½ lofty floors. After the war, though, Kavala grew greatly and the Swedish House with its terraced garden became surrounded by taller, much uglier buildings. They’re in the way when you walk along the waterfront, so you see them and you see the mountainside behind the city, but you can’t see what’s immediately behind the newer structures from most directions.

Yesterday morning I went up onto the roof and looked around. I found an unimpeded view ESE towards the acropolic fortress in the Old Town, which is unsurprising because it is the city’s highest point. But I also found good sightlines to shoreline level toward the SW: the area immediately south of the municipal football field. So I took a picture of this view.

Fire station

Fire station seen from the roof of the Swedish House.

Today I grabbed an umbrella and walked down to the fire station on the other side of the football field. I failed to identify the Swedish House by eye in the chaotic jumble of later rooftops, but then, my eyes have no zoom capability. So I took a picture in the direction of the Swedish House, went back up and checked out the pic on the laptop. And look, I found it!

Swedish House

Swedish House, top floor, WNW face, seen from the front stairs of the fire station.


Swedish House, close-up from W.

Update, same evening: I borrowed a pair of binoculars and went down to the fire station again. I took this picture of the Swedish House from a vantage point some ways up the road from there, through the binocks.


Swedish House, top floor, WNW face, seen from a vantage point near the fire station.

WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

The 75th World Science Fiction Convention took place in Helsinki and seems to have had the second-highest attendance ever: more than 7000 people in the Messukeskus convention centre, 2000 of whom had (like myself) never attended a WorldCon before. There were 250 programme items only on the Friday between 10 am and 10 pm, so there is no way that I’ll be able to tell you everything that went on. (Check out the programme here.) Instead I’ll tell you the bits I enjoyed the most, plus some observations.

The WorldCon crowd was incredibly diverse even if you disregarded the cosplayers. Men and women and trans folks, old and young, white and brown, Western and Eastern and Sikh. Two couples that caught my eye, for instance, were a skinny Japanese guy and a well-favoured black lady who wandered about hand in hand, and a Scandy couple with their baby in a buggy where both parents wore dresses and lipstick but one appeared to shave daily. And the attendees awarded N.K. Jemisin the Hugo for best novel for the second year running. The Puppies movement of 2013–16 that wanted white masculine conservative technocratic Hugo winners, not a bunch of brown-skinned women and gay people, is well and truly an ex-parrot.

Awards that made me particularly happy (because here’s where my candidates won) were Hugos for Ursula Vernon (novelette), Ursula le Guin (related work) and Lois McMaster Bujold (book series). Also, my dear friend Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf won the prestigious Big Heart award for services to fandom, joining the august ranks of for instance Robert Bloch, Andre Norton and Jack Williamson.

The most interesting events I attended were Sonja Virta’s talk about Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit, Karoliina Korppoo’s talk about boardgames in Finland, Kevin Roche’s talk about quantum computing and the Hugo prize ceremony.

The funniest events I attended were Lee Moyer’s presentation of weird and ugly book covers, Charles Stross’s reading from his forthcoming Laundry novel The Labyrinth Index (highly satirical – it has Nyarlathotep as main inhabitant of 10 Downing St.), the panel on mistranslations and the panel on Stockholm-Helsinki ferry culture.

My own programme items – a talk about crackpot archaeology in Scandinavia, a panel about Medieval reality vs fantasy, two Q&As about archaeology in the children’s room – all went super well, though the grown-up events could easily have filled much larger rooms than the ones we had been assigned.

I also enjoyed the short film programme, the art show and the socialising. I was lucky: my talk was one of the first events at the convention, so people learned early to recognise my face and several came up to me for a chat. Two of these conversations were particularly surprising.

1) The tall paunchy greybeard whom I didn’t recognise until minutes into the conversation, when I realised that he was an old Tolkien Society buddy that I hadn’t seen in a quarter century, and whom I remembered as a lanky beardless redhead.

2) The friendly Finn who had heard only 20 minutes of my talk before he and many other floor sitters were kicked out because of the fire safety rules, and who found the talk super interesting and wanted to hear more despite himself being a big believer in dowsing and several pretty far-out ideas about archaeological sites.

This was a super big, super rich and super well-organised convention. I found so much to do despite knowing nothing about the guests of honour and despite having no interest in several of the main strands of the programming (notably TV shows, comics, academic lit-crit and how to write fiction). Two years from now the WorldCon will be in Dublin, a city to which you can travel cheaply from Stockholm. I’ve never been to the Republic of Ireland. I’m thinking now that I’d really like to go to the con with my wife and then rent a car to spend a week at small-town B&Bs around the country.

Hiking In Abisko

Abisko national park is in the mountains of extreme northern Sweden, Sámi country, reindeer country, where half of the year is lit by constant sun and the other half is frigid darkness and aurorae.

Getting there takes 17½ hours by train from Stockholm Central. There’s a sleeper train with no changes, so if you only count time when you’re conscious, the trip takes 10 hours. You can fly to Arlanda airport and get right onto this train without making the detour into Stockholm. And the trail head is next to the platform when you get off.

Some friends and I went up hiking over the Mid-summer weekend 22–27 June, spending three nights in Abisko and two on the train. There are many huts and hostels in the area, so none of us brought a tent or a sleeping bag. Only Mårten brought a portable stove – to make espresso.

You don’t actually even need to bring a water bottle. There’s clean water in every stream. We arrived right at the start of the area’s hectic summer, with meltwater rivulets everywhere, innumerable flowers and a bewildering variety of bird calls. Very few mosquitoes bothered us. The treeline is near, so the landscape varies dramatically as your path lifts and dips. With a GPS or map and compass, of course, you needn’t even follow paths. The King’s Trail suffers from erosion, so the less people use it the better.

Check out the Swedish Tourist Association’s mountain hiking site.

Mechanisms Of Urban Decay

Downtown Kavalla’s mix of well-kept properties and hopeless ruins confuses me. I’ve seen similar in the Baltic States, but there it has to do with uncertainty about the ownership after the Soviet period, I’ve been told. That doesn’t apply here. So I googled real estate agencies and went visiting on my lunch break.

The first clue was simply that I couldn’t find most of the agencies at their stated addresses. One had closed down so recently that the sign was still there and the shop space hadn’t found a new tenant. The real estate market here isn’t exactly booming: demand is low. But eventually I found an open realtor’s office where a woman kindly yet sarcastically told me what I wanted to know.

Here’s why property owners don’t renovate old buildings in Kavalla, according to the realtor I spoke with.

  • You can’t get bank loans.
  • Low demand: even if you have the money, you’ll never make it back in this weak market.
  • Light repairs can be profitable, but there is a point of no return beyond which a property is too run-down for it ever to make you the money back. (I notice that a lot of the worst-kept buildings are low ones with a low potential ratio of tenants to plot acreage.)

Here’s why owners don’t tear the ruins down and redevelop.

  • Heritage protection.
  • Complicated bureaucracy.
  • Low demand.

Here’s why owners don’t just give up and sell their properties.

  • “Who would buy?” No demand for plot acreage. Might as well wait for a century or two.

Yet as I said, there are a lot of well-kept buildings here too, some of them recently renovated. One big difference according to my informant is that public property is usually much better kept than private property. I guess this is because private property has to support its own costs on site, while the government purse is nationwide. Case in point: see the picture above, with the beautiful municipal music school next to a once lavishly appointed ruin in private hands, both on busy Venizelou Street across from St. John’ schoolyard.

But my informant told me of one confusing case that seems to contradict much of the above. Kavalla is full of run-down tobacco warehouses from the early 20th century, when Western smokers still liked Turkish tobacco. One, on Filipou Street, is incongruously in great shape, very recently renovated. A sign proudly proclaims it to be the Euro Mania store, which if I understand correctly used to sell cheap stuff. But it’s closed and has started to attract spray-painted tags. I was told that the Euro Mania store did healthy business until a buyer recently offered the owner €9 million for it and perhaps made a small down payment. The condition was that the owner immediately close down his retail business and evacuate the premises. This seems to have been a handshake deal. But by the time the Euro Mania store had been completely cleaned out, the buyer withdrew his offer. And there it sits, one of Kavalla’s best-kept older private properties, making no money at all.

November Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • Thanks to metal detecting, the 7th century material has exploded with duckbill brooches / næbfibler in Denmark and conical brooches in Norway. The making of every one of those brooches resulted in a pile of durable, easily identified mould fragments. Where are those? Ground up into grog / chamotte for new moulds?
  • Distinguished older Slavic construction worker on commuter train is annoyed on cellphone, says kurva at least once in every sentence.
  • I need to stop reading US news. It’s sheer self-harm since I’m powerless to help.
  • Tea leaves flavoured with berries and cream. What is the substance that confers the aroma of cream? I hope they don’t pour cream onto the leaves. Anyway, I’ve never tried it.
  • Playing the boardgame Detective & Co. Gameplay was somewhat confused. In this game you only know which colour belongs to you, and two players believed that they played orange.
  • Odd expression in Planetary Report: “four times closer”. I conceptualise this as “one fourth of the distance”.
  • I posted an annoyed note recently about people getting context numbers confused during excavations. Somebody commented “Oh how boring”. This somehow stuck with me. I’m tempted to reply “Well, I guess not all of us are mentally geared towards scientific exactitude”. But I won’t. Because it would be mean. And worse, most likely completely ineffective as an insult. Comparable to “I guess not all of us have a complete collection of the Swedish Ant Farm Association’s newsletter”.
  • About the Mick Rock movie Shot. “I was lucky to shoot Bowie and Reed before they were really a big deal.” Maybe that should be “If I hadn’t shot Bowie and Reed at that time they would never have become such a big deal.”
  • Kebab places are extremely reluctant to serve small helpings. They prefer to give me three times the food I want and a take-away box.
  • Klavs Randsborg, dynamic Danish archaeology professor, died Saturday 12 November.
  • WTF. Sponge cake as the basal layer of a cheesecake?!
  • Some Roma beggars display religious effigies. I wonder if that really works in Sweden. To me they might as well heft a daikon radish.
  • So weird when Adele Adkins (26) sings lyrics written from the perspective of a 50-y-o multiple divorcee.
  • Just had to explain to a young scholar that when you submit a manuscript file to a journal, questions of font and type size are irrelevant. “You can submit in 35 p green Comic Sans if you like, it still only takes me 5 sec to change it to something I like better.”
  • Heading for Kavalla and two weeks of reading & writing at the Swedish Institute. Screw you, Swedish November!
  • Rode two Embraer 195s Stockholm – Vienna – Thessaloniki.
  • The Kavallans are wearing sensible November clothes. Sensible that is if you’re in Stockholm. I’m walking around in just a shirt above my belt.
  • Lunch: sardines cooked with onions, mustard and parsley. And a dish of oil-simmered horta greens. Only the absence of garum dates this meal after AD 400.
  • I’m not a great tourist ambassador. I mainly take pictures of buildings in severe disrepair.
  • The some-time live music bar was almost empty. Instead I found a recently opened boardgame café full of people. I had a cup of hazelnut cocoa, but I couldn’t find the courage to ask a bunch of young Greeks to play Saboteur with me. Next time I’ll be braver.
  • I’m hiking the Water Trail north from Kavalla into the hills, on the conduit that fed the town’s aqueduct.
  • I like the bedrock here. It’s gneiss like I’m used to, not some weird-ass recent sedimentary.
  • Unripe olives taste really bad.
  • The water conduit and aqueduct remained functional until WW2.
  • Under Ottoman rule, the Christians of Kavalla were exempt from taxes in return for funding and organising upkeep of the water conduit. This involved a lot of chalk powder, linseed oil and cotton wool.
Kavalla's Water Trail.

Kavalla’s Water Trail.

Danish Castle Road Trip

I spent last week in Denmark at a friendly, informative and rather unusual conference. The thirteenth Castella Maris Baltici conference (“castles of the Baltic Sea”) was a moveable feast. In five days we slept in three different towns on Zealand and Funen and spent a sum of only two days presenting our research indoors. The rest of the time we rode a bus around the area and looked at castle sites and at fortifications, secular buildings, churches and a monastery in four towns. Our Danish hosts had planned all of this so well that the schedule never broke down. Add to this that the food and accommodation were excellent, and the price very humane, and you will understand that I was very happy with the conference.

This was my second CMB. Last year in May I attended the twelfth one in Lodz, Poland. It’s an excellent education for me as I delve into High Medieval castle studies with my ongoing project about castles in Östergötland.

You might think that within such a specialised field there would be lots of debate at the conference, but actually participants present work that is mainly of local or national relevance. Your audience takes a polite interest in what you’re doing, but nobody presents any results or methods that change the game for everybody else. I imagine that this has to do with written history’s specificity. These scholars aren’t dealing with large generalised prehistoric cultural categories. They’re dealing with specific people and events at specific castle sites. If someone has found out new stuff about the architectural phasing of a certain castle in Lithuania, then this will not change the way someone in south Jutland thinks about her subject much. But every specific case presented, and every site visited, offers a wealth of details that add up to help castle scholars contextualise their work at home.

The presentation that I found the most interesting was Christofer Herrmann’s and Felix Biermann’s about recent fieldwork at Barczewko / Alt-Wartenburg in northern Poland. This wooded area, Warmia, saw a planned colonisation effort sponsored by German lords in the 14th century. Written sources document that a settlement was founded at Barczewko in 1326 and razed to the ground by Lithuanian raiders in 1354. Attracted by a long-known but undated defensive bank-and-moat, my colleagues have now mapped the site with geophys and excavated key buildings. The geophys showed a neatly planned mini-town, with a main street, a town square and a town hall. The cellars are still full of the debris from the fires set by the attackers, on top of the goods stored in the cellars, and a few bodies of murdered inhabitants. Almost a little Pompeii, and very painstakingly excavated. The pottery is dominated by Silesian designs (from the south-west part of modern Poland), giving an idea of whence the colonists came.

London Vacation

Got back last night from a six-day stay in London with wife & daughter. YuSie had rented a flat in Southwark for us via Air BnB, so we had a good base of operations. I fell ill with a bad cold halfway through our stay, which explains the complete lack of museum visits and rock gigs, but I still managed to do some fun stuff. (Left to their own devices, it turns out, the ladies will sleep late, eat big meals, shop for clothes and ride buses for fun.)

  • Outsiders in London portrait photo exhibition in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields. Lovely work, interesting subjects, and I had a long interesting chat with the photographer Milan Svanderlik. The church is denominationally vanilla CoE but has apparently long had quite a radical social agenda. Homeless people were napping in the pews.
  • Browsed in used-book stores, didn’t find anything I wanted.
  • Bought a blue woolen engineer’s cap at Laird.
  • Harrods: amazed by Egyptian escalator, flabberghasted by art department where you could buy enormous tacky statues and original Matisses. The place looks and feels like it caters mainly to the families of Arabic oil princes. Western humanities graduates will find the department store vulgar in the extreme and Harrods will not care because we are not where the money is.
  • Sunshine boat ride from Westminster bridge to Greenwich, highly recommended.
  • Guided walking tour of Spitalfields street art. Apparently the area has become a graffiti Meccah quite independently of the fact that it’s long been a famous curry Meccah known as Banglatown. I wonder what the inhabitants think of the street art imposed on them by elements of the majority population.
  • Musical: Matilda. I’m not a big fan of the form and I wasn’t happy with the production’s class-society subtext. But Tim Minchin’s tunes are catchy and everyone put in a fine performance. Craige Els absolutely killed as the horrific school headmistress Trunchbull.
  • Chinatown: I told Jrette, “This is why your Mum teaches you Chinese. There are Chinatowns all around this planet. You can walk into any one of them and be recognised on sight as someone who belongs there. Then all you have to say is ‘Dumplings please'”.
  • London Eye ferris wheel: a pleasant half-hour’s bird’s eye perspective on Westminster and Southwark. I just wish it was downstream in the Roman City.
  • Parks: Paddington St. Gardens, St. James’, Green Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens
  • Meals: noodle soup, dumplings, dim sum, Bangladeshi curries, pub lunches, fried chicken & chips, full English breakfast

Three Days In Estonia

Spent Wednesday through Friday in Estonia at the kind invitation of Marge Konsa and the Institute of History and Archaeology in Tartu. Gave a lecture on computer-aided statistics for burial studies (here’s my presentation), then went to Tallinn, where Jüri Peets and Raili Allmäe showed me the finds and horrifically battle-damaged bones from the two 8th century Swedish mass burials in ships at Salme on Saaremaa. Also had time to meet with my grad school buddy Marika Mägi and do a lot of sight-seeing. Pics on Flickr!

The vibe in Estonia is optimistic and self-confident. Plaques about EU funding are everywhere. Much fewer run-down buildings than last time I was there, in January of 2002. But there is still a lot of squalor. The post-Soviet world has a particular kind of patchy microsqualor. I found a juicy bit just a stone’s throw from the seat of government and the country’s most expensive apartments. This comes not of poverty, but of uncertainty about ownership after property was nationalised and then de-nationalised. Decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people still don’t quite know who owns certain property, and before they do, nobody will renovate it.

Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.

Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.

Tartu is very much like Uppsala and Lund, down to the details of academic culture. Though mensur ritual fencing was never as big at the Swedish universities as in Tartu. I was interested to learn that among the student fraternities / nations there before WW2, there was a Jewish one with a proud Star of David on their velvet cap where other fraternities had similar symbols. Today only the more conservative and nationalistic students join fraternities, and they tend to be organised by academic subject rather that the origins of the members.

I visited the students’ jail in the attic of Tartu university, full of graffiti in German and Latin from c. 1900. There were five of these detention rooms, but four perished in a fire in the 1960s. Apparently the walls were frequently whitewashed, so with the right methods you could probably image many older layers of graffiti there.

On my way home I flew in an Air Baltic Bombardier DASH 8 from Tallinn to Riga. It’s a Canadian 1984 model.

Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.

Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.

Jules Verne at Disneyland

Though I really enjoyed my late 70s childhood visits to Disneyland and Disneyworld, I am no friend of disnification, and I’ve always seen the Paris Disneyland as a bit of a joke. But my mom wanted to treat my kids to a visit last week, and so I came along too.

The Paris Disneyland has five sections. The US small-town nostalgia section full of Disney memorabilia shops, the faux-16th century fairytale section, the adventure movie section and the wild west section didn’t do very much for me – though the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is admittedly hugely atmospheric, and the Small World ride provided a strongly hallucinogenic (though not altogether pleasurable) experience.

The Nautilus and the moon cannon

The Nautilus and the moon cannon

The best part of Paris Disneyland is instead the retro-futuristic section, because it’s the least disnified one, and because its design largely builds upon the characteristic settings and illustrations of sometime Parisian Jules Verne’s novels. We went on board the Nautilus and we got shot out of the moon cannon onto the Space Mountain 2 roller coaster – where the security seat couldn’t quite accommodate me, so I hurt my shoulders pretty badly in addition to being scared witless.

The kids though, 15 and 10, were very happy with it all.

See also Jules Verne’s awesome grave monument.

Parked Vernian dirigible

Parked Vernian dirigible