Thursday, June 30, 2011

Feedback from slideshow presentation

I presented a slideshow at work of my case studies and one comment was that there is nothing new here. This is not surprising as what I am looking for was not new techniques, but ways of using old techniques that meet modern demands. My argument is that the way to deal with climate change is using simple passive techniques and good design from the outset before technology is necessary to overcome climate problems. By using vernacular technologies or designs you are not only reinforcing local cultures but giving people a home they can operate without a huge user manual. One thing that my case studies all have in common is that they all use tried and tested traditional technologies using local or easily available materials; one thing in which they differ is the cultures that they represent and the designs reflect this.

Another key comment to come from the feedback was that, these technologies are all out there, the problem is persuading people to use them. This is particularly true of the Bolivia case study where building in brick is seen as a status symbol and in Papua New Guinea where a tin roof = a rich man's roof. The Australian case study represents a different problem - only architects really want to live in architect designed houses. The architect Lindsay Johnston himself said that people often say 'they don't want to live in a chook shed'.

As a colleague pointed out ' Is the solution a Barratt home with hidden eco technologies?' I would argue that so long as this home does not require hours pouring over a manual to understand when it is allowed to open windows then, yes, perhaps this is the answer, however depressing that may be to architects.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reflection on my trip

I have been very lucky that all these case studies have come together (some very nearly didn't). It has been fascinating to interview people all over the world and I have discovered that we all share the same problems. Many people were worried about changes in future generations, old people all over the world marvelled at the changes that had taken place in their lifetime. Many were also worried about how their children were going to afford a place to live. House price inflation is not just a UK phenomenon. What struck me the most was how we in the West have inflicted the product of our consumerism onto developing countries. In La Paz, Bolivia, the river is a bright foaming red, in Peru the cancer rate is 3 times that in Bolivia because of factories churning out poisonous fumes. In China the pollution rate in Beijing is 240 (compared with 20 in London and 24 in New York, the UN states that 20 is healthy (China Daily). The sad thing is, that because we are walking around in a relatively pollution free and clean environment, the consequences of our consumerism are not brought home. This also applies to food. Only yesterday it was reported in the Telegraph that farmers are spraying GM Soy beans with poisonous pesticides and one boy has died from being sprayed (Gray, Louise, The high cost of the quest for 'green gold' Telegraph 17.05.11 p21). Agribusinesses are major giants and locals do not have a say in where and with what crops are sprayed. The only thing we can do as consumers is only buy organic produce and this applies to meat too. The GM soy is used to feed animals.

Another thing I didn't realise until I travelled, is how lucky we are in the Western world to be able to travel at all. I spoke with Argentinians in Buenos Aires who were desperate to explore their Italian roots but could not get a visa to visit, nor afford the extortionate air fare and living costs to visit long lost ancestors. One guy who worked in finance told me that many American companies outsource to Argentina so there is a ceiling to his earnings. He will never be able to get above a certain level unless he migrates to a more wealthy country.

I also learnt that it is tremendously valuable to travel alone. Though many people tried to warn me of the dangers of being a lone female traveller, I found the opposite. I think your guard is down and you are not so aware if you are in a group. You also miss out on a lot of interaction with locals because you are less approachable. I also think that because I was female, people were more prepared to help because I appeared less threatening and perhaps because they were more concerned for my welfare than they would have been had I been a man. I also enjoyed the huge liberation of travelling solo and also the space for lots of thinking time. I could really absorb the new ideas, peoples and landscapes around me because there was no distraction. Other people thoughts were not polluting my own ideas. Despite this, I did carefully organise things like WWOOFing and Couchsurfing as a way of meeting people and getting to know local cultures in a way that is not possible by backpacking. But this was also as a method of prevention against lonliness. And it worked. I was free and solo when I wanted to be and I had company when I needed it. Sometimes I did wish that James could have been there to share a special moment. But the fact is, we would have unlikely got as far as I did with two of us. Because I only had to think about myself, my money went further because I was prepared to rough it and I also went on much more intrepid and thrilling expeditions than I think I would have been able (allowed?!) to as a couple. I did meet a few travelling couples on my trip, who seemed to have got the balance right and I am sure they will have wonderful memories for years to come. But I am really quite glad to have gone alone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Final Stop - Beijing

Beijing was a big shock to arrive in after coming from the Chinese countryside. I really missed the peace and the relatively pollution free air and the wonderfully cheap local food that you find in rural China. Everything in Beijing is more tourist friendly. The food is more expensive but there is nearly always an English menu, English is widely spoken (a big shock after using my pidgeon Mandarin for weeks!) and there is even a subway. I found this all almost disappointing. Travel had suddenly become too easy. People in Beijing are more used to tourists, so I did not get flocks of people gathering round the strange blonde alien that I had out in the sticks but at the same time I had to watch out for scams in Beijing in place of genuine friendliness and helpfulness that I found in all other parts of China. Also as if the shock of arriving in a big city with a subway was not enough, I was also couchsurfing in a penthouse suite with a swimming pool and gym. I felt distinctly scruffy to say the least and very out of place, but I can't complain and it was nice to have a hot shower again and not have to go outside to use the loo!

For me Beijing was not what China was about and though there are lots of exciting things to do, nothing compared with staying in my own cave dwelling, hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, being the only Westerner in Western Sichuan, trying out my Mandarin (to rather humourous effect) and eating in genuine local street cafes with the most amazing steaming bowls of noodles or Baozi. I think most tourists start in Beijing which is probably a softer landing than coming from Vietnam as it is much more tourist friendly.

Scam alert: When visiting the Great Wall and walking to the bus station to take you there, do not allow yourself to become accosted by a friendly lady who speaks perfect English and offers to show you to the right bus. Unfortunately I was used to genuine friendliness in the countryside and did not expect a scam. The lady shows you to bus no. 980 which is mentioned in the Lonely Planet book so I thought it was OK. The problem is, is that before you get to the right place the bus driver (who has done a dodgy deal with said lady) will tell you to get off and then you will be stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing but some taxi vultures to take you on your way. They will unsurprisingly try to charge you 10 time the going rate. I had a big argument with them (I was not happy) and ended up paying twice what I should have. Thankfully the exchange rate is not so bad so I only paid about £2.50 extra but when that is a quarter of your allowance for the day (budget travelling!) it is hard to part with. It also put a rather sour taste on my Great Wall experience. As I said above, not the real China.

The Forbidden City, teaming with tourists

A rare quiet spot

Tianammen Square

A Hutong nearby, I managed to find a nice street cafe near here

The Great Wall

Sweeping off into the distance

I made it all the way up here

The Summer Palace

Beautiful traditional roof tops and blossom

A buddhist temple

The long corridor was very busy

Beautiful blossom everywhere

I brought a mini version of this dragon home

Me at the Lama Temple

Inside one of the temples at the Lama Temple

The bird's nest, I'm afraid I was too tired and limited on time to make it any closer

The view of the swimming pool from the penthouse I stayed in, lucky me!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Yungang Caves

I stayed in Datong and made an excursion to see these jaw dropping caves. I had to compete for space with many Chinese students and older Chinese taking photos but managed to find some more secluded spots. While in Datong I ate some fantastic street food (meat on skewers, delicious breads) and enjoyed looking at the nine dragon screen made of glass tiles.

The temple at the entrance to the caves

Walking in here took me by surprise as you can imagine!

1001 buddhas

Many Chinese were clamouring for photos in front of this boddhista

The tortoise is an important symbol in Vietnam as well

The nine dragons screen

A close up

Datong, not all that pretty, but had some nice streets and wonderful street food

Monday, May 2, 2011


This was a real highlight of my trip in China, a chance to stay in a real cave dwelling! It took me three buses and an hours walk to get to Lijiashan but it was really worth it. The journey there was also interesting. After arriving in Lishi, I got on a no.1 local bus to try to get to the West bus station which isn't really a bus station at all which is why I missed it on the first loop around Lishi. The bus driver and all the passengers were really helpful (whilst also laughing at me) and eventually via much humour I arrived in the right place. There was an impromptu gathering of street food vendors nearby and they sold delicious Baozi and spicy noodles, all the better for sitting in the sunshine to eat them. Eventually I arrived in Qikou and began walking to Lijiashan asking locals for directions along the way. When I arrived it was like finding a magical fairytale place and I was suprised to find people still living there. I walked up the hill and was met by a lady who had a kind of guesthouse where I decided to stay. I walked around admiring the scenery only bumping into a couple of Chinese artists and an Australian/Chinese couple. It was incredibly peaceful. Later on I was called in for dinner of stir fried vegetables and rice and discovered a couple from Sunderland were also staying there, we got on really well and the next day made the return trip to Lishi and then Taiyuan together.

Arriving in Qikou

Along the walk to Lijiashan

Arriving in the village

A local cat

Lijiashan from above

Where I was staying in a traditional courtyard pit dwelling

With a traditional pit toilet (and cat for company)

The scenery that looks like you are on another planet, I think the terracing is man made

Where I stayed viewed from above, a traditional pit dwelling holed out of the earth behind

A traditional cave dwelling house frontage still occupied

Real Martian country

The school, not sure how often it is used now

Some painters from Guangdong province (Southern China)

The man they were painting

Inside his house

Where the owners of where I stayed lived. You can see a traditional K'ang bed with the stove (where she cooked me delicious food) on the right

Traditional paper windows

Where I stayed, also on a traditional K'ang but unfortunately heated by electric blanket seeing as I did not cook in there.

Me and the owner of the courtyard pit dwelling

Walking along the river on the way back, there is a temple on the hillside

The scenery from the bus leaving Qikou and returning to Lishi