Ever visited a Micronation?

This is new to me: a “Micronation” is an independent country that does not have diplomatic recognition. In other words, it’s a fantasy country, or an imaginary country, or simply an unrecognized state, that has been created by an individual or a small group (tribes?). There are around 100 such nations that have a population ranging from 1 to 20,000 people, a list of which you can see here, along with some website links.

You’d think that some are taken less seriously than others — the image here for instance — it’s a Micronation called the “Principality of Sealand“. But you need to rethink its level of seriousness when you see that it has a flag, it’s own currency, and the official structure of a constitutional monarchy.

So, any of you been to such a place?

The Lonely Planet has a guide to the world’s micronations should you be bored of visiting recognised countries, and if you are slightly more adventurous and have always wanted to “make” your own country, YOU CAN! Take a look at a step-by-step guide to begin with here.

A Canadian in Beijing: Hutongs & Mopeds

Beijing is famous for its hutongs. A hutong is the Mandarin word for “alley” and, at one time, most of the city was made of these narrow streets that housed residences and businesses alike. These days, there are many wide streets that have replaced them, but there is a movement to preserve the hutongs (rather than knocking them down and replacing them with more modern apartment complexes.)

Yesterday, I visited a very famous hutong called “Nan Luo Gu Xiang.”

The hutongs are so famous, in fact, that there are “hutong tours” here in which foreigners get into bicycle rickshaws with colourful awnings and are then taken with the rest of their tour group through the hutongs all in a row – rickshaws rolling like a giant snake, one after another, winding through Beijing.

Yesterday, I met with my new friend Will as he offered to take me to a restaurant for some vegan fare. (Musician rule #1 = never say no to food!) He picked me up from the subway on his moped and I hopped on the back (with a helmet, don’t worry!) and held on tight. The sun was bright – a beautiful spring day — and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Riding a moped in Beijing is the way to go! It’s like a video game. We were able to drive past cars, zigzag around bicycles and pedestrians, skip the queue for the lights and turn left in front of everyone, park on the sidewalk, etc. It was amazing and I laughed out loud with delight. I really can’t think of a better word than “delight” to describe it. I loved every second.

Apparently, you can get away without having a license for a moped in Beijing, especially if you’re a foreigner. Many license plates on mopeds here in Beijing appear to be upside down and this is the sign that it is not an officially licensed vehicle. The police may stop a driver, but the foreigners are hard to deal with when they don’t speak Chinese and so the likelihood of arrest or having your moped impounded is nil. I also heard that by 2008 and the Olympic games, they will start cracking down on these and other illegal two-wheeled vehicles. Until then, I’ve seen plenty “unofficial” mopeds and motorcycles, especially in Wudaokou where there are so many foreigners.

Will introduced me to a great restaurant in “Nan Luo Gu Xiang” called “Luogu” or “Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant” in English (pictured above.) We walked into the restaurant, through the tables and to a set of very narrow back stairs, not unlike attic steps in century-old houses back home. We had to duck at the top of the landing because the ceiling was too low. We turned and ducked again through the child-height entrance to the outdoor rooftop patio. It was full of tables and umbrellas and dripping in sunlight like caramel. I paused before sitting down so that I could drink in the gold of the sun – an elixir for the eyes. It felt as though we had been magically lifted up and out the traffic and congestion of the streets below and then gently placed into a perfect paradise of quiet and surrounding foliage.

Will’s also vegan and he has been giving me some insight into the world of eating as a vegan in Beijing. His Chinese is way better than mine, too, and so I gave him total liberty to order for us. While this wasn’t a vegan or a vegetarian restaurant, his choices were impeccable. We talked and ate and shared insights about music and writing and city life and travelling. He’s American and has been here two years already, and so his knowledge of this city was impressive. He had lots of share and I have open ears.

After our amazing meal and conversation, we got back on the moped and went across town to a well-known independent record store called “Fu Sheng Chang Pian” or “Free Sound Records” in English. It’s an independent record store and Will suggested that it would be a good place for me to pick up some music by female artists here in Beijing to help direct my research (see this post for more information about my research here). The people in the store were really helpful and I came away with three new CDs for the low price of 30 kuai each (or $4.33 Canadian — how do musicians earn a living at that price?) All three of the artists are female, independent, Beijing-based songwriters and I believe they all play instruments too (besides their voices). I’m looking forward to listening to them.

I waited around for Will to be done with his tasks because I was secretly hoping I’d get one more ride on the moped. I honestly fell in love with that moped yesterday and I think I may have to negotiate an open relationship with my bicycle! Otherwise, I’m two-timing my bike and I am not the type to keep those kinds of secrets . . . !

We were standing on the sidewalk outside of the record store when he offered to drop me off at the subway station where I was meeting my friend Sarah for yet another mission to the arts district of Beijing called “Da Shan Zi” (more on this soon). I eagerly accepted his offer – maybe too eagerly – and I noticed my childlike exuberance flash back at me from my reflection in the record store window. Just a split-second sparkle that caught my eye before putting on my helmet and hopping on the back of Will’s moped for my final ride of the day.

Swerving, twisting, between cars, around bicycles, passing congestion and capturing open spaces like prizes, we motored through the cityscape like it was maze and we had the map. Once again: delight. The sun on my back, the wind in my hair, my smile peering over his left shoulder.

I gotta get me one of these!

(Okay, well maybe not. But if I lived here permanently, I’d seriously consider it!)

A Canadian In Beijing: Turn Up The Volume

Ember Swift is the newest member of Gadling. Over the next three months, this Canadian woman will be living in and exploring China. During her time there, she’ll be posting regularly about her adventures. Check in every Wednesday and Sunday to see what China is like from a Western perspective…

Beijing is less than one week away and my musician self can barely keep the volume down. My excitement is cranking and I haven’t even started packing yet. That’s tomorrow’s task and it brings me that much closer to eventually hearing the lilt of Mandarin spoken nearly everywhere I go for a solid three months.

I am a full-time musician who has logged a lot of travel miles. I’m onto my fifth touring van since 1997, for instance, and only two died of unnatural causes (one fire, one theft) while all the others were just driven to their graves after years of loyal service. But, to give you more résumé-like context, throughout the past eleven years there have been ten different independent releases (nine albums and one DVD), thousands of performances averaging approximately one hundred and fifty per year, eight tours to Australia (our most frequent overseas destination) and lots of changes to my band line-up which I must confess includes six different drummers – yikes! All in all, it makes my résumé sound heavily steeped in experience but lacking in flavour. Of course, résumé bullet points don’t include the stories. These stories weave in and out of the awards and accolades, times of struggle and periods of prosperity, debt and recovery. They are told in songs or between songs; they’re stage material that keeps this crazy journey full of life.

At the University of Toronto, I completed a degree in East Asian Studies and have four years of university Mandarin training lodged in loyal cavities in my brain. In between university and this nearly-in-China moment, I have pursued my music career full blast (as described above). What has been missing is the subtle connection between my education and my career. Now, nine years since graduation, it’s time to bring it all together.

My life seems to be playing out like a long-laboured-over song arrangement; this is the moment when all of the players are gathered in the same space and it’s time to hear if their parts fit together. There’s excitement and tension simultaneously, but all of the amplifiers are humming and ready.

China has always been my dream destination. . . . “when the music thing was over,” as if it really would be “over” one day. It only recently occurred to me that I am the agent in making any and all dreams come true, and that I didn’t have to wait for one part of my life to die in order to birth another. Besides, who says they aren’t related? It also occurred to me that going to Beijing for three months is very much a career decision. And, it will be. Now – well, now that I’ve listened to those occurrences — the potential seems obvious. It’s spinning before me.

Not only will three months in Beijing be a luxurious block of time and space to write more songs away from the rigorous tour schedule and constant business and band dynamics, but being surrounded by the tonal beauty of the Mandarin language will push my ear into new musical territories. For me, speaking or hearing Mandarin spoken is like singing or being sung to. Top that off with the opportunity to explore what is happening in the music scene of Beijing and we alight on the research portion of my trip: I can finally dust off some undergraduate research work that was an investigation of women and music in China and the growing audibility of women’s voices in the outpouring of Chinese music. My undergrad research was limited by my geography and I always envisioned the research continuing there.

Here is the door. This is me walking through it.

I’ll be starting off my trip as a tourist. Just a couple of days in a downtown hotel before moving to the University district and setting myself up in a dorm room. I’ve already scoped some sightseeing tours that will take me to some official tourist destinations and then spit me out into the registration line at the Beijing Language and Culture University. There, I’ll be refreshing my rusty Mandarin in a part-time morning course at twenty hours a week. The rest of my time will be spent opening many live music venue doors to listen, jam, meet people and cultivate the hope that I’ll eventually bring my band to China. We are an internationally touring act, but not yet in Asia, and I do believe that this journey will yield that opportunity.

Isn’t that all potential is? Finding the open doors? Being open to opening them?

Three months in one place is a radical choice for a gypsy. Keep in mind, however, that this is a city of fourteen million people to keep me occupied! I am looking forward to undressing the underbelly of the arts scene — particularly the music world — and I am sure that three months of networking, connecting, befriending and exploring will yield colorful stories.

So, I start as a tourist, morph into a student and then morph nightly into the artist that I am. Already I’m realizing that I’m really all these things all at once; this cacophony, or symphony, is me.

How will it sound?

I don’t know for sure, but I’m turning up the volume knob anyway.

Call it trust.