Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for November 2015

Four weeks in Yunnan

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Aboard a sleeper bus

I’ve been in the sunny south of China, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, for about four weeks now. I’ve enjoyed the blue skies and warm weather — in contrast to gray, polluted Beijing where it’s been an unusually cold November.

I’ve been staying with a friend who lives just outside of Kunming, the provincial capital, in a one-street town. She works for a non-profit called Teach For China, who send American and Chinese graduates to impoverished Chinese schools in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces.

My friend is from Texas and last week we celebrated an early Thanksgiving dinner in the scenic old town of Dali, alongside two dozen or so of her colleagues who had all converged on Dali, traveling from their variously remote schools.

Yunnan province is larger than Japan and Germany, with hilly terrain, so a group of us have been traveling on sleeper trains and sleeper buses. It’s been quite the adventure.


Yunnan is home to the most ethnic minorities of any province in China. Let me list some of the names of these minorities: Derung, Nahki, Pumi, Hani, Tibetan, Va, Jinpo, Dai. Another of these, the Naxi, use the Dongba script, which is the only pictographic writing system in use in the world today, according to Wikipedia.

Traditionally, Yunnan has never really been considered a part of “core China”, which was centred around the Yellow river basin, and then, later, the Yangzi river basin. Not until the Mongol invasion of China did Yunnan come under direct administrative control of central government. It’s a diverse part of the country.

There’s a book I want to read called The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by former China correspondent David Eimer (now Bangkok-based). Eimer spent months traveling the frontiers of China, from the frozen steppe of Manchuria in the north, to the dry Turkic far west, down to the jungly and drug lord-run far south. I’ve read several reviews of the book and there are quoted journalistically interesting passages.

I am hoping to spend time with some of China’s more remote peoples, when I get the chance.

Smartphone photography

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All the photos in this blog entry were shot using my LG G2 phone. Many of them have been edited using the app VSCO. This shot was taken in Bakery88 in Dali, Yunnan.

Lately, I’ve taken to using my smartphone as my photographic device. At the moment, I’m in Yunnan and have been traveling around the province. The photo you see in the below post, in the previous blog entry, was shot using my phone, edited on my phone, and uploaded onto this blog with my phone.

For work I still rely on my trusty Canon S120. The camera is what I use on journalism assignments. But for everything else, my phone replaces it. Much of this has to do with the fact my phone is always on me.

But even while traveling in Yunnan, where my camera is readily available in my rucksack, I’ve left it in there, in the hostel locker, while I’ve traipsed around, phone in pocket ready to be fished out.

Why a smartphone is better than a digital camera as a travel camera

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 23, 2015 at 7:27 am

Cangshan, Yunnan — 17th November

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The magic first sentence

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“Finding a date in Beijing is not especially difficult”.

“When you land at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, yours very likely will be the only plane that day disturbing the quiet, although rather bumpy, runway”.

“Five years ago, Beijinger Robert Zhao went on a trip to Tibet”.

“Let’s start with Mary”.

These are the first sentences of some of the articles I’ve written. Most of them, as you can see, are pretty simple. But all of them came about quite suddenly.

So how do you write the first sentence? I can only speak from my own experience, but most of the time it just comes. The sentence will offer itself and I’ll trust that instinct and stick with it. From the opening sentence, everything follows.

I once read somewhere that if you have a title, the first sentence, and roughly know what the ending of the story will be, then half your job is already done. Sound advice, I thought.

I once copied out the first sentence of every essay contained in Tom Bissell’s book of essays Magic Hours (many of them started out as features for magazines). That is the extent of my writing geekery. I did it just out of interest. I wanted to see how a writer I much admire opens his pieces. I highly recommend such exercises. Once you copy and analyse in this way, you see the structure, the bones, that make up good writing, all the more clearly.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm

November 4th — in Beijing

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I’m homeless.

But it’s self imposed. I moved out of my apartment and I’m currently crashing at a friend’s place. I don’t have my own accommodation in Beijing anymore.

On Friday I will be flying to Yunnan, a province in southern China. It’s a beautiful and diverse part of the country. I’ll be staying with a friend and then we’ll travel around the province a little. I am looking forward to it. I’m a big nature lover and Yunnan has plenty of it. It’s something that Beijing, being a huge urban agglomeration, lacks.

October was a much quieter month than September. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote recently. One is about China abandoning its one-child policy after 35 years — big news. The other piece is about craft beer and coffee in Beijing. The latter piece was something I enjoyed writing. It took me a night and a day to put it together, and its more descriptive style brought to mind the older form of foreign correspondence, when those living in foreign lands sent home vignettes and descriptions as well as news; trying to capture the zeitgeist of exotic locations in which the writer lived but who readers back home could only imagine.

I hope that perhaps I can do more such writing. Although capturing the zeitgeist is harder than it may initially appear.

November and December will probably be downtime for me, which makes up for a mediocre and somewhat depressing summer, a summer where I traveled nowhere and did not do many summery things.

But I took the long view and the wintry downtime is something I feel I need. I will be flying back home in December for Christmas, staying with my family in England. I bought a single ticket. Will I be coming back to Beijing? It’s likely, but the question of when will hang around for a while I think.