Burma: First Impressions

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IN A DEPARTURE from the norm, arriving in Burma has moved me to blog about it immediately – no two month wait for me to get round to writing up my notes this time. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll most recently have been reading about my time in China. Since then I’ve been to Taiwan and Japan, but don’t worry about that – save to note that the particular, efficient, tech-loving and rule abiding nature of Japan is a world away from Myanmar (yes, that’s right, I am using the country’s old and new names interchangeably – deal with it).

ON THE FLIGHT from Kuala Lumpur, where we’d just been for a 12 hour layover, there were many different faces – Indian sub-continent, East Asian, Thai, Burmese (the largest ethnic group in Burma), European. A reflection of the ethnic diversity of both Burma, and (no doubt) Malaysia, along with the increasing popularity of Burma as a tourist destination (I read that in 2013 300,000 tourists visited the country; this year it is estimated that 1 million will visit). There was also a group of Muslims returning to Yangon after having been on Hajj. One older lady sat staring out of the window, fondling a set of prayer beads, her lips soundlessly mouthing suras. Her prayers were interrupted every so often by epic belches that caused the few Europeans (all French except us) to turn round in their seats. She would go from silent prayer to holy burp back to silent prayer as if nothing had happened. Later, she swapped seats and ended up next to BK-C, who she showed pictures of her grand daughter. I passed in and out of sleep, glad that it was BK-C attempting to explain that we had no faith when the lady asked if we were Christians.

Arriving in Yangon airport was a lesson in how quickly Myanmar is changing. At the time of writing, the most current Lonely Planet guide was published in November 2011, and so much crucial information is out of date (another guide is due to be published in July 2014). The guide is very clear that getting a visa on arrival is impossible, though the first thing that we saw when we landed was a booth with a big sign above it saying VISA ON ARRIVAL, with a big queue in front. We’d got our visa in Bangkok, probably the best and quickest place to get it (if you’re planning on doing the same, then I recommend twotravelaholics comprehensive explanation of the process). I don’t know how the visa on arrival works, but solely on the strength of an advert on the front of the tourist map we were given, I think that you can arrange it through the website myanmarvisa.com. It looks to be about three times as expensive as getting one in Bangkok.

Similarly, the LP is adamant that it’s impossible to withdraw money from ATMs in the country, noting that you should bring enough US dollars to last your trip and that you should change them on the black market, where the rate is ten times better than the official one. At the airport there were huge billboards advertising that one particular bank now allows you to withdraw money at its ATMs using Mastercard; we’ve also heard that it’s possible to withdraw money on other cards (though have done neither ourselves yet). This morning, we asked at our hostel about changing US dollars into the local Kyat, and were pointed to an exchange booth on the opposite side of the street: it had a big digital sign saying that it exchanged US Dollars and Euros, and it gave a decent rate (i.e. nearly the rate that XE.com shows). I understand from the hostel that the rate is the same everywhere – so I presume that they’ve brought the official rate up to cut out the black market. Finally, there’s a decent internet connection, and wifi, in our (admittedly very new) hostel, when everything that we’d read said that what internet we’d find would be slow. So from just spending 24 hours in the country it’s obvious that the place is changing rapidly, in concrete everyday ways that should impact on people’s lives.

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BUT THESE CHANGES don’t make Burma any the less striking upon arrival. The taxi ride from the airport made me feel like I’d stepped into a Hunter S. Thompson book. It was dark, about 8pm, and the heat was still oppressive. Sweat beaded around my hairline, and the air felt hot in my lungs. “Hey brother,” said the taxi driver, as he lazily began tailgating the car in front at approximately 100mph, “you want the air conditioning on? It’s one dollar extra.” Looking at the circa 1985 standard issue fans that he had in the dashboard, we declined. No seatbelt, erratic driving, weaving in and out of traffic, plenty of horn honking – we weren’t in Japan anymore. The world whooshed by in series of typical SE Asian vignettes – people eating outside on plastic furniture, flashing neon lights above shabby shops, vehicles parked on the pavement. We passed the scene of an accident, where a woman lay on her side on the tarmac, unmoving. Two men in helmets stood above her, waving their arms. I told myself that she was just in the recovery position, and then she was out of sight.

Stopped in traffic, I saw the driver of the taxi next to us open his door and spit out a long red line of spittle. This was from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, which is apparently done in all of SE Asia but I’ve never actually seen myself. A young girl, carrying her baby brother in her arms, walked amongst the cars stopped at the lights. She stood next to my window, and looked in. I gently shook my head at her, heart wrenching inside, and she turned and walked off.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

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As we got further into the centre of Yangon, the usual SE Asia scenes took on a different, older cast, as they were all conducted in front of run down buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen any maintenance since the British left in 1948. I’ve seen plenty in Central America that fits the term “faded colonial splendour”, but this was the first time in Asia.

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Unlike the rest of SE Asia, western clothing hasn’t taken over, and so most people – men and women – still wear longyis, sarong-type wraparound skirts. They probably make it easier to get back up again when you trip over the holes in the pavement.

Breakfast the next morning was mohinga (a kind of curry noodle soup), served by a laughing Burmese lady, eaten sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the street, and washed down with endless refills of green tea. We walked around, looking at the old buildings, avoiding the holes in the pavement, speaking to the locals – feeling happy to be in Burma.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

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China Goes Wild, Nearly: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

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ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through his account of travelling through China by train in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux writes: “so far, China seemed a place without wilderness. The country had been made over and deranged by peasant farmers.” He wasn’t wrong. Even in Guilin, a place of ethereal beauty, concerted efforts had been made to make it the Authorised River Tour of the Place On the Back of the Twenty Yuan Note With Visits To Ancient And Totally Authentic Farming Villages. In Yangshuo, a town amongst the limestone karsts that are the area’s trademark, farmland extended right up and indeed onto the stone towers. So when we told people that we were going to Yunnan and they said that it was a beautiful wilderness, I was sceptical.

Coming into land at Kunming airport, we’d seen acres and acres of poly tunnels stretching off into the glinting, plastic distance. Somewhere in the haze there were also mountains, but they seemed very far away. We decided to try and get closer to them by travelling to Dali City, about four hours drive west of Kunming. After similar experiences in South East Asia travelling through mountainous country, I was expecting a very windy journey on the bus. But I’d forgotten that Chinese roads are all straight. I presume that if they encounter any mountains on the way, they just blow them up. At least it meant I didn’t get travel sick.

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Dali is a pretty little walled town that sits on the edge of a lake and under the shadow of some fairly imposing mountain scenery. We were there mainly on the recommendation of an American girl that we’d been on a cookery class with in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After we’d started talking again following the customary where-is-the-hostel-my-bag-is-heavy-I-told-you-it-was-this-way argument, we were able to appreciate why she’d recommended the place. This was the view that evening from the terrace in our hostel:

Trav10-3 The next day we wandered into the town itself, which was full of quiet streets lined with waterways and peach blossom trees.

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We came across an antique market, where traders laid out their goods on groundsheets at the side of the road. A combination of Chinese tourists and what appeared to be some serious buyers browsed through the goods, the buyers holding up pieces of jade and amber to examine them with their eyeglasses. In addition to these semi-precious stones there was a whole assortment of old Chinese wares from coins, teapots, and opium pipes to knives, chairs, and books. We didn’t know it at the time, but – with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors – these were the only genuinely old things that we’d see in Mainland China. Most “antiques” in China are just new things made to look old, and usually not very well. Most were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and those remaining are cossetted away behind closed doors, reserved only for the serious collectors. Later, in Beijing, we visited a big antiques market and were bitterly disappointed because it was all “handicrafts” and things that had been made to look old by reversing the vacuum cleaner. So we were glad that we took the chance in Dali to buy something genuinely old, purchasing a well used Chinese seal set made of solid copper (and, less good for my luggage, weighing about a kilogram). We haggled with the seller – fairly ineffectually – through a Taiwanese-American lady who happened to be there. She didn’t think that we got a very good deal, but we didn’t care because we loved it.

I’ve been carrying this around in my bag ever since, waiting until we meet up with our parents in Thailand so that I can offload it to them. Haggling in China is different to what we’d experienced previously. In SE Asia it’s a fairly good-natured affair, and you usually start off at about half the asking price and work upwards. In China, you start off at quarter the price and try your very hardest to stick to that price. Every Chinese trader we dealt with drove a hard bargain and gave nothing away. Which explains why I ended up paying £7 for a pair of gloves when I visited the Great Wall. £7 may not sound like a lot, but, trust me, when you’re buying gloves made in China, in China, it is. There’s a well known Chinese phrase: “It’s always easy to fool a foreigner.”

After the antique market we continued down quiet lanes until we reached a street that contained approximately 30% of the population of China. This is the other side of Dali – the one that’s been discovered by the Chinese tourist market. We blended into the crowd in our usual way by posing for pictures.

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The Chinese like to go to popular places and do popular things. If it’s not popular then, well, it’s not popular. This means that it can be surprisingly easy to escape the crowds in China. The Yunnan Provincial Museum, for example.

WE DISCOVERED THE other 70% of the Chinese population at our next stop in Yunnan Province: Lijang. It’s supposed to be a beautiful old Chinese town, with distinctive architecture. In fact, it’s a new Chinese town built to look old, with Disneyland architecture. It has spectacular views of mountains and many, many shops, most of which sell dried Yak meat for you to take home to remind you of that time you went to Yunnan province with everyone you know.

Trav10-10 Trav10-11  Fascinating though the people watching was in Lijang, we were there only as a stepping stone onto Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing in China that I Definitely Wanted To Do.

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So early one morning we said goodbye to our backpacks and boarded a minibus to Shangri-La (no joke, this is actually a place in Yunnan – formerly called Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists, supposedly because it’s the place that British author James Hilton based Shangri-La on in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon), which passed by the small village of Qiaotou, where the trail for Tiger Leaping Gorge begins.

 

Looking back from the start of the trail.

Looking back from the start of the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead having made three new friends – from Germany, Israel and France. We set out at a brisk pace, hoping to escape the expected hordes of other tourists. After all, the Lonely Planet lavishes praise on TLG, calling it the must do hike in China, and Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the rest of Yunnan. But, in fact, we were alone as we made our way up a twisty paved road that soon gave way to a gravel path. It was a clear, sunny day and we looked out over a steep sided valley patched with rice terraces. We paused to look out over the view and adopted a more leisurely pace. After about half an hour, though, our Israeli and German friends said goodbye and marched off at speed – they were intending to hike the entire gorge in a day, whereas we had the leisure of two days. It was just myself, BK-C and Lorette, our new French friend. For most of the rest of the day we didn’t see a single other person and had the most spectacular views in all of China just to ourselves.

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If you’re a francophone then you can read Lorette’s account of our TLG hike here. If you’re not a French speaker, then you can enjoy her pictures and, if you venture further into her blog, you’ll see her wonderful, wonderful drawings, some of which she shared with us that evening (packing your sketch book and a set of watercolours at the expense of an extra coat definitely makes you a proper artist). Lorette was one of those chilled, inspiring and life affirming people that you seem to meet when travelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been working in Cambodia for the past eight months, teaching physiotherapy, and was on her circuitous way back there now, before finally heading back to France. Losing ourselves in conversation helped us to conquer the 28 gruelling switchbacks to the top of the gorge.

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We lunched on big, cheap bowls of noodles at Tea Horse Guesthouse, about half way, and then stayed the night at the confusingly named Half Way Guesthouse, about three quarters of the way along. Perhaps an hour before we reached Half Way Guesthouse, we caught up with the group of Chinese hikers who we’d shared the minibus with and who had overtaken us whilst we lunched at Tea Horse. At one point we all paused to appreciate a particularly breath taking piece of scenery. One of the Chinese hikers spread his arms as if to try and encompass the view, evidently overtaken by the beauty of the moment. Then he took a deep breath, gave an almighty shout, lobbed an empty plastic bottle deep into the gorge – where it will presumably join the ever increasing pile at the bottom – and stomped off. The Leave No Trace philosophy still has some way to go before it reaches China.

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THE NEXT DAY, we rose early and hiked onto the end of the trail for most, Tina’s Guesthouse. Leaving BK-C at the guesthouse to read her book, Lorette, a Korean guy we met called De-Ha, and I all tramped down a steep, steep path to the ferocious river below. On the way down there were the usual stalls manned by locals selling drinks and snacks. We’d seen perhaps three of these the previous day on our journey along the trail, their owners lazing in the sun on what must have been a very slow day indeed. They sold water, soft drinks, beer and wild walnuts, a speciality of Yunnan. On the way down into the gorge, one of them also sold big bags of surprisingly authentic looking green stuff labelled Cannabis. We pointed this out to each other and raised our eyebrows at the owner, and she just laughed. The gorge was steep and I can’t imagine that the Chinese police make a habit of patrolling the place, though the owner was risking a bullet in the neck by selling drugs. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to buy booze or drugs half way up a mountain, but this is what amounts to the wilderness in China – a place where someone else hasn’t set up a shop yet. Go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and go now. Don’t delay – soon it will be full of plastic bottles and, maybe, stoned westerners.

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Looking to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge Yourself? I recommend these blogs as a good resource.

http://easyhiker.co.uk/hiking-tiger-leaping-gorge/

http://withoutbaggage.com/essays/china-tiger-leaping-gorge/

The second one allows you to download the GPS track for your smartphone in GPX or KML format. I used the GPX track in MotionGPS [CHECK] on my iPhone, though discovered that I didn’t really need it as the path is well marked.

NEXT TIME: I finish up my travels in China by visiting Xi’An, Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written on the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally uploaded in Kuala Lumpur airport.

On Becoming a Celebrity in Yunnan Province

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I’VE BEEN READING Paul Theroux’s account of travelling through China by rail in the late 80s, Riding the Iron Rooster. Although Theroux is one of the world’s great curmudgeons, you can’t fault his perceptive eye for a place, and as we travelled through China ourselves I found my self nodding furiously at his insights into Chinese culture. “I’ve noticed that too,” I thought to myself, “so that makes me just like Paul Theroux!” I imagined myself incognito in the background, the great travel correspondent watching, observing and taking notes. Then I went to Yunnan province, and realised that it was impossible for a foreigner to be incognito in China.

We flew from Guilin to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I was all for taking the train, but then I discovered that it would take 24 hours so we flew instead and it took 1 hour 30 minutes, costing the same as we would have spent on the train. Every time I looked at travelling from one place to another in China, I found myself surprised anew at just how big the country is.

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China – it’s big. (Map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin).

And it’s all one time zone: the whole country runs on Beijing time. When we were in Guilin, in south eastern China, it was getting light at about 6.30 in the morning – in Kunming, in the south west, it wasn’t light until about 7.30. In Xinjiang, the country’s westernmost province (bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) the sun doesn’t rise until 9.40am in the winter, over two hours after the sun rises in Beijing. This is bonkers.

We arrived in Kunming early evening. It was a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade, the setting sun making the picturesque park at the centre of town – with its little bridges, weeping willows and peach blossom – seem particularly lovely as we stumbled past it with all our bags, lost in the usual daze before we found our hostel. Kunming is known as the “Spring City,” because its weather is always nice – not cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. It has pretty tree-lined streets and boulevards lined with trendy shops, all kept clean and tidy by officious looking men with walkie-talkies who order the street cleaners around and move on homeless people. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that the city was very popular with international students and that a lot of people came there to learn Mandarin – but we hardly saw any Westerners whilst we were there; perhaps a handful, at most (and they were grizzled and unfriendly, the sort of traveller who would be rude to you because you had the same colour skin as them).

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The next day, we wandered through the park in the centre of town. It was sunny and teeming with tourists. Stalls sold snacks, drinks and tourist tack. A man on a stage whipped a crowd into a frenzy as he auctioned off mysterious looking cardboard boxes. We ate fried potatoes covered in salt, pepper, chilli and possibly crack cocaine they were so addictively delicious. And we had our own crowd. Yes, we too were a tourist attraction. In a garden full of peach blossom trees people were posing for photographs beneath the peach blossom, until they saw me and BK-C and then they stalked us amongst the blossom for a quick snap of the funny looking foreigners. One woman just came up and asked for a photo with BK-C. BK-C demanded one in return, with her whole family:

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What cracks me up most about this picture is how deeply unimpressed the older lady on the far right looks. At this point I was holding my two fingers up in the V for victory sign that is such a popular photo pose in this part of the world. She was having none of it.

Have yourself a bite. The first one's free...

Have yourself a bite. The first one’s free…

Trav9-2 One man followed us around for about 20 minutes until, when I was teapotting in front a giant teapot (why wouldn’t you?), he plucked up the courage to ask for a photo with me. It must have been my uncanny teapot impression.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

Winners.

Winners.

This was our first encounter with our new found celebrity status. It’s carried on throughout East Asia. Some people pretend to take pictures of whatever’s behind us when they’re really taking pictures of us:

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Other people just come right out and ask (which actually I prefer, as it feels less like you’re an animal in a zoo). If there’s a group of people sometimes we’ll rotate through the whole group doing photos with them. It’s given me a new appreciation for famous people – it must be very tiresome your face not being your own. Our new favourite thing to do is to either randomly pose for people who are secretly taking pictures of us – one couple literally fell over themselves with excitement when we did this – or to photobomb other people’s photos (people go mental – in a good way (I think) – when we do this). This must be what it’s like to be Bill Murray.

WE WEREN’T THE only people in the zoo. Chinese people come to Yunnan province not just for the spectacular scenery, but also to see the many different ethnic minorities who make the province their home. All over the province, there are groups of Chinese tourists having their pictures taken with members of these ethnic minorities in their traditional dress. The ethnic Han Chinese (who make up 92% of the population of Mainland China) seem to view these people as a form of walking entertainment – a bit like the Disney characters who walk around Disneyland, posing for photos. They’re an oddity to be ogled.

 In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

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WE VISITED THE Provincial Museum of Yunnan, where there was an exhibition on about the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yunnan’s Peoples.” Given the interest that Chinese tourists had in different ethnic groups, we thought that it might have been popular. But it wasn’t.

The museum was a grand looking building with marble colonnades and a huge sign with golden lettering. It sits just off a main road and outside it was busy, hot and noisy. Inside the cavernous foyer it was cool, dark and silent. Two security guards were fossilised at a table just inside the doorway, next to a knife arch and a sign saying that all bags would be searched. They wore green uniforms with epaulettes and big, peaked caps. As we walked though the arch and it screamed that we had metal on us, one of them slowly rose and sighed. I offered him my bag to search but he just waved it away and led me over to a bank of lockers – all empty – and locked it up there, using a 1 Yuan coin from his own pocket to pay for the locker. Upon first inspection, the information desk in the centre of the foyer appeared to be unmanned, but actually the man sat behind it had died with his mobile phone glued to his forehead, his cheek resting on the desk. A worried looking woman eyed us from her hiding place behind the cash register in the gift store. On the other 4 floors we saw many men in uniforms guarding the dust gathered in the corners, along with the occasional, presumably lost, Chinese tourist. We left having learnt little about Yunnan, but plenty about the resource profile of Chinese state run institutions.

THERE IS A postscript to our experiences of difference in Kunming. The day after we left the city, there was a horrific terrorist attack at the train station – 29 people were killed and many more injured when a group of people ran through the station with knives, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. Those responsible for this attack were Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang province, in the North West, is mostly populated by Uighurs, a people who are ethnically and culturally very distinct from the Han Chinese: they look like Afghans or Tajiks, have their own language, and follow Islam. After our experience of seeing and being ethnic minorities in China, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about the motivations and causes for this act of terrorism that elide what is, in fact, a complex situation. I’m not seeking to do that. This terrorist attack was a despicable and deplorable act that can never be justified. But I also can’t help thinking that China’s approach to its ethnic minorities does little to win hearts and minds.

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NEXT TIME: I discover that China isn’t all cities and farms.

This post was written on the bus from Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, to Taipei, and posted in Kyoto, Japan.