Xi’an, China: 1993


China’s Communist Party decided to open the country to the outside world in 1978. By the early 1990s, there were only very limited observable results for a foreign visitor. To my Australian eyes, even as a reasonably seasoned Asian traveller, the country was resoundingly exotic.

I visited China in 1993 as a member of an Australian university delegation hosted by the All-China Youth Federation (the young Communist Party).  My friend and fellow delegate, Peter Snowdon, took the photo of street sweepers in Xi’an, and kindly agreed to allow me to use it in this post.

Xi’an was once the capital of China, and is now most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, constructed around 246–206 BC as a memorial for First Emperor Qin so as he could be represented in the afterlife in the same way as in life.

Of many memorable events I recollect from that first visit to China, one particularly astonished me. In Guangzhou, our delegation was hosted to yet another banquet, at a restaurant tucked away in the suburbs, and away from areas frequented by foreigners. The restaurant band provided backing for local patrons who wished to sing. As their consumption of Maotai (China’s famous hard liquor) increased into early afternoon, the accompanying toasts of ‘Maotai’ became louder, as did their singing.

Eventually, one of my fellow delegates decided to ask the band whether they knew a particular song, to which the band leader replied, in effect, ‘of course’. The band then played an excellent and note perfect version of the old Australian bush ballad Click go the Shears, a song about shearing sheep, accompanied less well by my colleague’s vocals.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook this month starting with the letter ‘X’.

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Way out West, the Golden West: Wimmera Silos

Four or five hours drive west of Melbourne, on the margins where wheat country merges into desert, many small towns that once flourished teeter on the edge of survival.

Wheat silos are the dominant human sign of continuity in the landscape. Their transformation into works of art may enhance their longevity. I wonder whether Michelangelo might have flourished in this environment.

Brim grain silos


This is my contribution to

A-Z Guidebook Badge

this month beginning with the letter ‘W’.

I have written a little more about the Wimmera here.



Valparaiso Contrasts

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast was transformed from being a major seaport for ships voyaging between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to something of a backwater.

UNESCO recognised Valparaiso’s old quarter and its faded glory as a World Heritage Site and the city is undergoing a resurgence in terms of art, culture, education and tourism, as well as building on its maritime strengths.



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Attempts to describe Valparaiso promote contradictory observations. Perhaps the city is a contradiction.

Houses seem to tumble down steep slopes, literally sometimes. Those clothed in rusted corrugated iron adjoin newly painted ones of the brightest colours; faded opulent timber houses nestle ornately within very modest localities. Elegant cobbled streets and lanes join weedy and seedy ones. Locals use stairways and colourful ascensores (funiculars or elevators) to negotiate the slopes.

Colour is everywhere: painted buildings are joined by commissioned public art and random graffiti to provide a vast palette of hue, subjects and thought.

Danger hovers over Valparaiso, as the area is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city, four months after San Francisco was similarly razed.

My feeble attempts to encapsulate something of  Valparaiso have been saved by Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Noble Laureate in Literature, who wrote Oda a Valparaiso. Neruda was a sometime resident of the city, and a visit to his home (La Sebastiana) is a feature of experiencing Valpo.

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
that you never finish
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.
The earthquake caught you,
and you ran
you broke your fingernails.
The waters and the stones
the sidewalks,
the sea,
the night,
all were shaken.
You slept
on the ground,
from your navigation,
and the furious
lifted its waves
more tempestuous
than a marine gale.
The dust
covered up
your eyes.
The flames
burned your shoes.
The solid houses
of the bankers
like injured whales,
while above,
the houses of the poor
into the void
like imprisoned
who test their wings
and fall to the ground.

you forget
about your tears.
You return
to hanging your dwellings,
to painting doors
and windows
You transform
everything into a boat.
You are
the patched-up prow
of a small
The foamy crown
of the tempest.
Your ropes that sing
and the ocean light
that makes the shirts
and flags tremble
with your indestructible swaying.

you are
from far away.
In the height of the coast
you shine
and soon
you surrender
your hidden fire.
The rocking
of your muffled alleys,
the uninhibitedness
of your movement,
the clarity
of your seamanship.
Here I conclude
this ode,
so little
like a destitute
raggedly in your windows
in the wind
of the ocean,
with all
the sorrows
of your land,
the dew
of the seas, the kiss
of the wide irritable ocean
that with all its strength
beats against your stones.
It couldn’t
knock you down,
because within your southern chest
are tattooed:
and happiness
like anchors
that withstand
the waves of the earth.

(translated by Hermitina – http://hermitina.com/oda-a-valparaiso/)

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘V’.

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Being urbane in Urbino

Urbino is a small hilltown in Italy’s Marche region whose historic centre is listed by UNESCO. This beautiful and relaxing mediaeval town is notable for its buildings, streetscapes, and cultural richness, all enlivened by a large student population from the University of Urbino, which was established in 1506.

The town rewards strollers with views of fine buildings, cobbled streets and lanes, glimpses of the nearby hilly countryside, and that all-important find of the next venue for sampling delicious local food and wine.

The surrounding countryside is very picturesque, here including Chiesa di San Bernadino (Church of Saint Bernard), the burial site of a number of the Dukes of Urbino, including its most famous ruler, Duke Federico da Montefaltro.


Urbino became famous during the Renaissance, particularly during Duke Federico’s rule (1444-1482) when his interests and efforts led to a cultural and artistic flowering, and a restructuring of the town on the principles that it be beautiful, efficient and comfortable.

If only modern town planning could achieve such a fine result.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘U’.

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Wild in the streets: Thekkady, India

Thekkady, in Kerala State, is best known for its closeness to one of south India’s main wildlife sanctuaries, Periyar National Park. Visitors hope to sight wild elephants and tigers, as well as other fauna.


My visit purposely coincided with Kerala’s  biggest annual Hindu celebration: the 10 day Onam festival. Days and nights were punctuated by music, song and ritual. The streets went wild.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘T’.

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It’s raining in Santiago

Santiago de Compostela, in north west Spain, has been one of the Christian world’s main pilgrimage destinations for over 1000 years, based on the belief that it is the burial site of one of the disciples, St James (Santiago in Spanish).


The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an intriguing, hospitable and welcoming place, with narrow winding streets to explore. The grand cathedral is the ultimate goal of the pilgrims who have travelled the Camino de Santiago from faraway places.

Santiago is the capital of Galicia, and the region is quite different from most other parts of Spain in terms of culture, music, language (Galician) and climate.

Unlike much of Spain, Galicia is wet. Santiago is said to experiences some rain on more than 300 days per year.

Galicia is considered to be one of the seven Celtic nations (along with Scotland, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany) and its music reflects this heritage. Bagpipes (called gaita gallega) are a common feature of Galician music. My favourite Galician band is Luar na Lubre. A link to their song Chove en Santiago (It’s Raining in Santiago) is here.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘S’.

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Wimmera Wanderings

In the north west of Australia’s state of Victoria, the Wimmera region ranges from highly productive sheep and grain growing farmland to desert. It is on the edge.  Horizons seem endless, solitude is close.

Mechanisation of farming over the last century has displaced the large rural workforce that was once essential for agriculture. Then, teams worked on the  wheat harvest and bagged the grain in hessian bags capable of being handled by one person. Now a huge truck with a lone driver carts away many tonnes at a time for delivery to the silo. Machines, not people, now dominate. Currently pressed bales of straw and grass are so large and heavy (at around 600 kilograms) that they can no longer be moved by hand, as was formerly the case, but require a powerful tractor with forks.


[This image of traditional wheat harvesting has been reproduced with the kind permission of the State Library of Victoria]


Large bales of wheat straw, baled after the grain has been harvested. Near Beulah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grain silos are numerous and the largest constructed form in the area, dwarfing the frequently ornate local pubs, commercial buildings, and austere churches. A few silos have been painted, with others on the way. There is already a designated driving circuit to enjoy this art form. Guido van Helten painted the Brim silos, surely a masterpiece:


Grain silos in Brim
Grain silos in Brim

Brim silos

Small towns in the Wimmera are generally in sharp decline as people drift to larger towns for shopping, housing, amenities and work. Those small towns slumber amongst closed shops and businesses, with houses increasingly unoccupied and neglected. In a country with some of the world’s highest house prices and rental costs, as well as homelessness, it’s a pity that this housing is going to waste.

The main street in Beulah:


Another stark reminder of the depopulation of many small Wimmera towns is the war memorial listing residents killed in the two World Wars. A town that may struggle to sustain a small store and a hotel amongst its streets of closed shops usually has a memorial listing a shocking number of the district’s young men who died in Europe and Turkey in the 1914-18 World War. Hopetoun, with a population of 555 in 2011, lists 91 or 92. The Rainbow War Memorial (pictured below) lists 41 names under the heading ‘They sleep well’. The town’s population in 2011 was 525.

War memorial in Rainbow

Jeparit’s silos:

Jeparit - silos and garage

As a contrast to the rather forlorn sight of numerous empty shops, most small towns have well maintained sporting infrastructure; tennis courts, a swimming pool, a football and cricket oval (which sometimes doubles as a venue for the annual agricultural show), and sometimes, a lawn bowling club.

For wanderers, the region has camping grounds and pubs offering accommodation. Camping fees are moderate compared with the rates at more popular destinations; $10-$20 per night for a powered site is usual in the town’s caravan and camping park, generally located beside a river (Jeparit – the Wimmera River) or lake (Brim, Beulah and Hopetoun).

This year’s good rainfall has replenished the region’s watercourses and lakes, which were suffering from a long drought, and local spirits. A farmer of around 60 years old, chatting in Jeparit’s Hindmarsh Hotel, intimated that this year’s grain crop is the best he’s ever seen. By staying and mingling, perceptions alter. As a result of his recommendation we drove to Brim to see the painted silos, and also included Warracknabeal, Beulah, Hopetoun, Rainbow and Jeparit; a nice driving circuit.

The Wimmera River at Jeparit:

The Wimmera River at Jeparit