Australia As You Thought It Was

DEAR WORLD, I’M back. Obviously I’ve been back – as in, back home, not travelling, not living the dream – for some time now. Four months, in fact. It’s been traumatic. And wonderful, obviously. Seeing friends and family. All of their pale, cheerful, slightly chilled faces. Wonderful. Returning to work, getting the train into central London, bodies crammed into carriages like paperbacks on an overcrowded bookcase. Having a dishwasher. Having to shave. All the things that you romanticise when you’re lugging a backpack up to the fifth floor of a dingy hostel, cockroaches scurrying before you. Wonderful.

Home...

Home…

...and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver festish

…and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver fetish.

But I’m not talking about that. I mean that I’m back here, in the blogosphere or whatever the kids are calling it now. I’m here with a post that I mostly wrote whilst I was still travelling, but I haven’t been able to search out photos for until now, on account of having to hit the reset switch on life and wait for the loading screen to disappear. Now I’m all booted up and running DKC 2.0, I can write some more things for you, dear reader. And maybe for myself a bit, if I can keep from crying when I look through our travelling photos.

I have some Proper Thoughts about returning home. But they’re for later. This is for now.

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THE NORTHERN TERRITORIES are Australia as you imagine it: long roads, red scrubland, and the sudden realisation that those hats with corks hanging from them might actually be helpful because, man, these flies that keep landing on my face are annoying.

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We were there with my parents in the third week of our Australian journey. It was the second week where we’d been travelling together, and the bird count was high. This is not a euphemism. As this was his first time in Australia, for my dad every bird was a ‘lifer’ (for the uninitiated in twitching ways, that’s a bird that you’ve never seen before in your life), and every waking moment was another opportunity To See More Birds. There had already been some tensions and controversies as I tried to navigate a course through BKC’s likes (sleeping) and dislikes (walking) and those of my father (walking and sleeping, respectively). There had been numerous binoculargates, the latest – as we left our one-night-only AirBnB place in Darwin to head for Kakadu, now locked out with no way of re-entering – the most serious. When the hallowed optics were discovered missing, believed left-in-flat, recriminations flew, bags were turned inside out and pockets thoroughly checked. Only the late discovery of said binoculars in the side pocket of a less used bag saved us all from the sight of a grown man crying.

Thus blooded, we headed out to the land of man-sized termite mounds.

Trav22-6 GENERALLY, I AM not a fan of sunrise tours. The early rising is rarely justified – they invariably cost more and they usually mean spending a significant portion of your time at the temple/volcano/natural wonder in complete darkness. Sunrise tours are an epidemic amongst Asian tour operators. Sunrise is often beautiful; tourists want to see something because it is spectacular/historical/it-said-so-in-the-guide-book; tourists will pay more to see the attraction at a time that everybody knows is beautiful. Thus the thing that they see will also be more beautiful. And we will be richer. That is the logic.

Hence we once found ourselves tramping through a grey, dusty, volcanic ash landscape in complete, utter, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness, trying to find our way solo to the crater of Mount Bromo in Java, Indonesia, as a light rain pattered onto our heads. Every so often, moped drivers passed us, travelling from somewhere to nowhere; sensing our weakness, some occasionally stopped and circled us, like vultures. “Hey, you want volcano? I take you for 80,000. No? Ok, ok, 60,000.” After telling the first four no, we eventually caved – but only after having a heated, whispered argument as two moped drivers looked on (“we’re lost, we don’t have a choice, and it’s dark.” “It’s too much [it was £2.50], it’s a rip off. They might murder us and chop up our bodies. We’ll find our way.”).

A  volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

A volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

They took us to the bottom of the volcano, which we dutifully climbed in silence. As morning dawned behind the grey clouds, we were treated to an underwhelming view down a steep crater from which grey steam emerged into the grey day, joining its great friend, grey rain. Then we walked back the way we’d ridden on the mopeds and realised that in the darkness we’d missed the best part of the trip – an otherworldly, moonlike landscape, truly spectacular in its monochrome desolation. But there wasn’t time to stand and enjoy it: we had to catch our bus.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the "blue fire" from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the “blue fire” from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just as darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

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And you’re rewarded with what a volcano should look like: spectacular. It’s Ijen Plateau, also on Java. If you’re there, skip Bromo, do Ijen instead.

So I was sceptical about the Yellow Water Sunrise Tour in Kakadu National Park. During the dry season, when we were there, Kakadu is a vast expanse of outback with just scrubby, red bushland stretching for miles and miles. There’s the odd, half dried Billabong, patrolled by hopeful birdwatchers and hungry crocodiles. And that pretty much seemed to be it on our drive into the park along the dead straight roads that disappeared into the heat haze.

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But Yellow Water at sunrise made me feel like I was David Attenborough. And, let’s be honest, you can’t get better than that. As we boarded our boat, the sun was sliding over the water, nuclear bright but honey-in-hot-milk soothing; mist was creeping out over the river like a flock of ghostly sheep that had taken a wrong turn; and an Azure Kingfisher was perched atop our boat, flashing its iridescence and shitting on seats. I have never seen so much and so diverse birdlife all in one place as we did on that day (and I spent most of my childhood in bird hides). We were in for a remarkable trip, our guide told us, but “just remember not to lean out of the boat, otherwise a croc might go for you.”

Better than most volcanos.

Better than most volcanos.

Don't be fooled, something's lurking in there.

Don’t be fooled, something’s lurking in there.

...and he wants to be your friend.

…and he wants to be your friend.

See how friendly he is?

See how friendly he is?

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that's right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that’s right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Whistling Ducks.

Whistling Ducks.

...and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they're massive. And easy to remember.

…and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they’re massive. And easy to remember.

But Kakadu is not just about the birdlife. There’s also the thrill of longdrop toilets in the dark. Will there/won’t there be a spider crouched under the toilet seat? Probably not, but, as I discovered when I heard a small scream from BKC in the toilet next to me – to be fair, it was more of a yelp, certainly less of a screaming-like-a-girl sound than I would have made – there are other things that lurk. “Everything alright?” I ventured, over the partition wall.

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

“It was a frog!” my wife shouted back. “It jumped up my bum!”

I considered this statement for a moment whilst I stumbled in the darkness to find the sink. “It jumped up your bum?”

“It was inside the toilet and it jumped right at me.”

Such aggressive frog behaviour is perhaps more understandable in the light of my mother’s experience in Darwin: queuing outside a similarly rustic toilet, she was surprised by the sudden emergence of a pale faced Dutch girl, who slammed the door behind her. “There was a frog in there,” she told my mother, “it was in the toilet.”

“Are you ok?” my mum enquired.

“Yes, but,” whispered the beleaguered Dutch girl, “I weed on it.”

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We were also lucky enough to join a tour that headed into Arnhemland, a vast, largely untouched wilderness that covers over 97,000 square kilometres, roughly equal in size to the state of Victoria, and is home to about only 17,000 people. It’s aboriginal land and for non-residents it can only be entered by permit. When we went, Tony Abbot, the Australian PM, had just spent a week living and working there.

One of the primary reasons for visiting Arnemland is to see rock art. There are places where it’s possible to see drawings and paintings that were left centuries or millennia ago by the ancestors of those who now live on the land. And when I say millennia, I mean 10,000 years plus – which is a staggering amount of time for one culture to have been in the same place, uninterrupted, let alone for its artwork to have survived. Perhaps more so than other works of art, photos cannot truly convey rock art.

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To truly appreciate aboriginal art, you need to walk around half-dried billabongs, under dusty red overhangs of rock, and watch as distant dust devils twist upwards from the flat, baking bush. You need to scramble up cliffsides, anxiously holding your binoculars in one hand whilst balancing with the other, pausing for a moment to appreciate the 8,000 year old paintings and the view that stretches into the distance. And in that moment you might forget the fragility of your optics, whether or not you’re wearing enough suncream, or the fact that you should have brought a hat and didn’t; instead, you might appreciate how the light here stretches water into glass and landscape stretches time into a past before the arrival of European settlers. Or something like that anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s what the Australian Tourism Board told me to say. They definitely said not to mention the giant man eating reptiles or the small, slithery, deadlier-than-a razorblade-smoothie snakes. (“are those fires deliberate?” asked my dad of our guide, pointing out to the long columns of smoke in the distance. “Yeah,” he replied, “round here long grass is bad news.”).

Nothing to worry about, apparently.

Nothing to worry about, apparently. Keep driving.

Whilst in Arnhemland, we also visited the art centre of Gunbalanya, where locals ply their artworks to tours and daytrippers. Gunbalanya is a small, dusty town of squat buildings with corrugated iron roofs, a few shops, a police station, and a modern looking school. The place felt poor in a way that we hadn’t experienced in the rest of Australia.

Whilst there was some outstanding work at the art centre, on sale there was also a lot that was less good. As we were led around on a somewhat haphazard tour by a local artist who worked at the centre, I couldn’t help but feel that – despite there being some excellent artwork on display – the place was as much a job creation scheme as a place for artists to work. How to decant aboriginal culture into a European, tourist, market driven system, whilst still preserving its heritage? It’s a question that Australia still struggles with.

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Alternatively, of course, you could go to Mindel Market, in Darwin, and watch the Northern Territories sun sink into the Timor Sea whilst eating kangaroo sushi rolls and browsing aboriginal art sold by a stoned white hippy lady. No it’s not Crocodile Dundee, but there’s still always the threat of amphibians in the lavatory – and you don’t get much more authentic than that.

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Australia Is More Than This

Trav20-2 “WELL, IF YOU’D have kept up with your blog, then you’d be able to remember all these things, David.” So said my mother as she sat opposite me in our cabin in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia, and quizzed me about our year of travelling. “Your fans are waiting.” 

Yes, well. Thank you mum. Sorry all for the interruption. Been busy travelling and seeing things and that, which I appreciate is a departure from my 2014 normal of just sitting and reading in different places. Hope that you’ve got along just fine without me.

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I CANNOT TELL you how strange it is to arrive in Australia after eight months in Asia, eight months of being different. You’ve journeyed from London to the other side of the world; you’ve seen sights, eaten foods, learnt strange new things; and then you arrive in Melbourne to find Woolworths and pie shops, fish and chips and hipsters. And everybody kinda looks like you.

From this...

From this…

...to this.

…to this.

It’s a wonderful, awful, comforting, uncanny thing and we were so happy to be here. After nearly six weeks in Bali, drinking water from the tap and having a refuse disposal system that didn’t involve burning plastic on every street corner was a joy.

When we first booked our flights for this year, I said to our guy at Travel Nation (who worked their airline ticket magickery and got us an excellent deal) “but what are we going to do in Australia for two months? Do you think we’ll be bored?” I imagined Australia as being a few big, western cities, a lot of beaches and lots of red scrubland.

Sorry Australia, I had you all wrong.

And I guess that I was wrong about what we’d want at this stage of the trip. I’d imagined leaving Indonesia as the end of the “proper” travelling. It’d all be easy from now on and we’d have a gut wrenching nostalgia for eating dirt cheap street food on tropical beaches, floating from place to place on a cushion of camaraderie and travelling awesomeness. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. It was amazing, obviously. But when everything is amazing all of the time, things stop being, well, amazing. After a while you become a bit jaded and find it hard to get excited about things. It’s a sort of travelling impotence – you just can’t get it up for anything anymore.

Another bloody volcano? It's alright. I s'pose.

Another bloody volcano? It’s alright. I s’pose.

So we spent five weeks in a bungalow on a family compound in Bali, our days filled with hammock swinging and reading, cake eating and writing. I probably won’t have so much free time all at once for decades, possibly ever. If anyone reading this is considering going travelling long term, I urge you to build in time to rest and do the things you want to do without worrying about going to visit that temple or those rice terraces. You won’t have the chance to do it again for a long time and you probably saw a better temple in Burma anyway. And when you start thinking thoughts like that it’s time for a holiday from the tourist duties.

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Five weeks of this: highly recommended.

So when we finally did arrive in Australia, not only was I well rested and a lot better read than before, I was also excited to see new things. And more than a little glad to be met at the airport by our Melbournite friend Catherine.

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Later on that week we met up with my parents who’d flown out to see us and also, I should’ve known, as much bird life as possible given that they were accompanied by their reluctant, none-twitching son and daughter-in-law.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

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And in other news, today a woman was escorted from the premises of a Melbourne deli after shouting “cheese!” and immersing her head in brie.

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“Yeah, she just put her head right in there. A whole brie. Just gone.”

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Do you have any eucalyptus for me? no? Then sod off.

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And in other news today, a man was escorted from a food truck after attempting to drive it away whilst shouting “I want all the tacos.”

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AFTER MELBOURNE, ROAD. But don’t be fooled – the Great Ocean Road, heading west from Melbourne, is about more than the coast. Or it should be anyway. Yes, there are amazing clifftop views.

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My mum laughs in the face of danger.

My mum laughs in the face of danger.

But unless you fantasise about being in the landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, being seaside on a rainy day when everything is the colour of tumble dryer lint and the rain stings like a swarm of kamikaze bees is not that much fun. Instead, on one day, we followed a winding, decaying road into the Otways National Park, taking nearly an hour to travel 18km and wandering whether we’d just entered into a different kind of hell, the kind where a T-Rex might jump out and attack the car.

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Something

In hindsight, putting superglue onto the lenses of everyone’s binoculars wasn’t that funny a practical joke.

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The Otways is a temperate rainforest that elected to skip the last 60 million years of evolution. Enormous ferns loom overhead, lorakeets squawk out of sight and Giant Myrtle Beech entice the unwary into their cavernous, hollow inners, offering far-too-convenient path-side person-sized crevices that surely bring only a spidery death (this is Australia, after all). When we were there the reluctant sun broke into a crusty light, falling between the leaves, fronds and twisted tree limbs, and we idled amongst the prehistoric fauna, feeling more than pleasant. This was my favourite part of the Great Ocean Road.

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Venture further into the Otways and you will find a forest of Californian Redwoods, planted in 1939. They stretch up to the sky, eerily uniform in their giant, branchless reach upwards. There was no one there when we went, and we just stood amongst them, dwarfed, watching a tiny, Pink Robin proudly show off its fluffy fluorescent chest. It was still there when we left, alone amongst the redwoods.

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IN TRUE ROAD trip fashion we didn’t book any accommodation for our time on the Great Ocean Road, and instead just rocked up at wherever took our fancy. We never had any trouble finding somewhere and were never disappointed with where we slept. One night, curled up in front of a log fire in the common room of our B&B in Port Fairy, we were roused from our reading and sipping of peppermint tea by a raucous party of seventy-somethings returning from a Tuesday night out. “Hello and who are you?” asked the man who had come to sit on the sofa, breathing alcohol over me in a friendly manner. “I’m 70,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “you wouldn’t guess would you?”

We sat with them and talked about “the old country,” as they called the UK, including its relative merits (“Europe on the doorstep”), its de-merits (“the rain, and the awful food, or it was when we were there in the 80s.”) and what we did there for employment (“and are you far enough along to have any influence?”). Britain persists in the mind of many Australians as a strange historical anchor that many think they know and perhaps did thirty or forty years ago; it’s glimpsed through the news and through the ex-pats that never quite made it home. I lost count of the amount of times that I had conversations with people about what the weather had been like in the UK this year and last – they knew more about it than me (“those floods were awful.”). And yet small town Australia can feel like the Britain of forty years ago, stuffy and unapologetically blue-collar, all shops closed on Sundays and a varied cuisine provided only by the changing of what the pastry walls of pies hold. People eat mysteriously early here, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to close at 8.30pm. At one restaurant in Brisbane that we visited with friends on a Thursday night, we were the last people there at 9pm and shortly afterwards were asked to leave as they were locking up. All of these things feel like an echo of a Britain passed – the greatest irony is that “the old country” is now found only in Australia.

After the Great Ocean Road he headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

After the Great Ocean Road we headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

Or possibly Mordor.

Or possibly Mordor.

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BUT THE TOP End is not like any part of Britain, now or then. After driving all the way to Adelaide we flew to Darwin, in the Northern Territories, 3,000 km north. Then we headed into the bush. Kakadu National Park is exactly as you imagine Australia to be – long, straight roads, red earth and man size termite mounds. Oh, and hundreds of crocodiles, just waiting to eat you.

But more about all that another time.

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NEXT TIME: Crocodiles! Long Roads! More Birds Than You Can Shake A Stick At!

This post has been a long time in the writing, mainly because I’ve been so busy. It was started in Lismore, in the Gold Coast hinterland, NSW, Australia, and finally finished in Christchurch, New Zealand.

(Food) Courting Kafka in Penang

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A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the food court. We’d just arrived in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and were venturing out of our hotel to seek some dinner. As we passed by two cars parked on the side of the road, we saw a small, elderly lady sat on the ground between them. Are you alright? we asked. No, she said, she’d fallen down and couldn’t get back up again. We helped her up. She was using an umbrella as a walking stick. Holding it in front of her, she gripped it with quiet ferocity – less to support her weight, it seemed, and more as a futile handhold to stop her from falling backwards, which she was in perpetual danger of doing. It was clear that she wouldn’t be going far. Can you walk? No. My leg. It doesn’t work. Where are you going? The coffee shop. She pointed to a small food court about a hundred meters away. My husband usually takes me, but he’s at work. I see.

It was still light, and there were other people about. Eventually, a woman from the car rental place opposite came to see what was going on – why an increasingly desperate looking white male was standing with both hands on the back of this little old Malay lady, whilst his wife waved at passing vehicles. The car rental lady got her car and drove our charge to the coffee shop. We went to have dinner. So: situation resolved?

No.

At the food court we ate Char Kway Teow, which is like a Malaysian version of Phad Thai. It was delicious. This is irrelevant to the story, but I just mention it in passing.

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On the way back to our hotel, we passed the same elderly lady standing in the road. Hello! We called. Hello! Found your feet again! Glad to see you moving about! I cannot move. Oh. My leg. It does not work. Oh. Ok.

So, once again, we resumed our positions. Each of us linked arms with her. Can you walk like this, if we support you? Maybe. She managed two steps. I cannot. Ok. How far away is your home? Down there. She pointed along the street.

By this point it was dark, and there wasn’t really anyone around. Cars and scooters passed us every now and then, but their drivers studiously ignored us.

You carry me. Carry you? Yes.

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I knelt down – she was quite small, the top of her head just coming up to my chest – and went as if to give her a piggy back. BK-C pointed out that quite apart from sheer indignity of this for the lady, she wasn’t in any position to climb onto my back. So I lifted her up in my arms instead. She was as heavy as a sack of lead, or perhaps I was as weak as someone who hadn’t been to the gym for five months. I am scared, she said to me. Me too.

I managed perhaps ten or fifteen metres like this before I had to put her down. We were outside the car rental place again, but it appeared to be closed. I deposited the lady next to a car, where she stood holding onto the rear windscreen wiper, me supporting her back with my arms. At this point, BK-C went to a local business that had its shutters down but from which a light could be seen. She managed to coax the reluctant owner out onto the street, where he joined us so that he could contribute nothing whatsoever to the incident, except wringing his hands and talking to the lady in Malay. (“She says she cannot move. It’s her leg.”). There was talk of flagging a car down, though the Malay business owner seemed very reluctant to do so. We were also apprehensive about the task as we spoke no Malay; we’d only just arrived in George Town from the tourist haven of Langkawi and at this point we hadn’t appreciated how widely English was spoken in Malaysia. Besides which, it was dark, we were in a strange town, and the cars were driving fast.

Trav17-5 We were joined by a young Malay man who had been working in the car rental office. He volunteered that he wasn’t able to help because he was working. Nevertheless, he stood there with us and discussed the situation. What was to be done? It was a pickle certainly. If only there were someone with a car.

The elderly lady was leaning further and further back, and holding her up was becoming an increasingly strenuous task. Moreover, my bladder was becoming increasingly full.

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The owner of the car that she was gripping onto arrived. There was a conversation in Malay. He was unable to help. I think that he had to wash his hair or something. He drove off, the old lady and me breathing in his car fumes as its back window slipped from her grasp.

Minutes ticked by. The lady didn’t get any lighter. I know this, because it was just me holding her up. Then I spotted that there were dozens of plastic chairs stacked outside our non-helper’s business. I suggested that perhaps we might retrieve one for the lady to sit down on. He went to get one. Upon returning, he placed the chair down on the ground about a metre away from my charge, and gestured that I should manoeuvre the lady into the chair. I gestured that he should bring the chair to the lady. A short period of competing gesticulation ensued. Mohammed and the mountain were mentioned. BK-C took the chair and placed it behind the lady. She sat down.

Eventually, a tall, wiry, old Indian man walked by carrying big bags of shopping. There was another conversation in Malay. He walked off. I was led to believe that he would be returning.

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Some time passed. Then I saw a cyclist approaching from down the street. It was the wiry Indian man. He dismounted and indicated that we could put the lady onto the back, where there was a flat ledge above the wheel for carrying bags. She expressed some reservations about this arrangement. Is there a car? No. I am scared. Yes, but this is the only way you’re going to get back. We’ve been here for over half an hour. We’ll hold you. We won’t let you fall. I might piss myself if I have to stand here any longer.

The wiry man and I lifted her onto the back, and walked the bike down the street, one on each side, one hand on the lady, one hand on the handlebars. Our two other helpers wished us luck and waved us a cheery goodbye.

After a few streets, we reached the lady’s house. Our cycling saviour shouted inside and a younger woman came out, whereupon she immediately began berating the elderly lady in Malay. We helped her off the bike, and walked her to the doorstep. Do you want to come in for a drink? she asked, as we bodily handed her over to the younger woman.  No. No thank you. I just want to go back to the hotel and urinate like there’s no tomorrow.

After that, we took a different route to and from the food court.

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I HAVE BEEN READING…

Now For Then: How To Face The Digital Future Without Fear, Ben Hammersley
My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father, Hanif Kureishi

I HAVE ALSO CONSUMED…

The Economist, (recent issues)
The Paris Review, No. 209, Summer 2014
Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts
The Psychology of Your Future SelfDan Gilbert, Ted.com
Buddhist Economics: How To Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity, Maria Popova, quoting the work of E.F. Schumocher, brainpickings.org
The Shape of Days, Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com
Impressions of Poverty, Richard Davies, AS I PLEASE, criticaldispatches.com
…and way too much of the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia (& LP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei).

This post was written and uploaded in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME:

I get more in depth about the food we ate when we arrived at the food court.

Six Months of Travel: Things To Remember, To Learn, To Forget

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“Did you know that ‘but’ means ‘no’?”

It was evening, and we were sitting in the common area of our guest house, an open structure with chairs, benches and a pool table, sat on the edge of the beach. Two locals were potting poolballs in exactly the way I had failed to a moment ago. Every so often, bats raced over our heads as they flew through the common room to eat the bugs that clustered, suicidally, around the lights. There was the sound of waves breaking. BK-C and I were arguing about education policy with a Dutch life coach. She had just interrupted my reasoned and, if I may say, elegant, riposte to her previous argument, to deliver to me this tiny bit of life coaching.

I really hate people telling me what to think, especially through the medium of meaningless clichés. I took a deep breath, had a sip of my gin & tonic, and carried on: “but what you’re not taking into account…”

That’s it. End of story. I was very restrained. Why have I just recounted this tale of me being a little bit of an arse to an otherwise very nice lady? Well, mainly it’s because I’ve just discovered that it’s actually very difficult to start a post summarising a long period of travel without resorting to meaningless clichés, grand generalisations, or speculations about what you may or may not be thinking/expecting/visualising. Travelling, in other words, is a lot like the rest of life. There are highs and lows. There are good days and bad days. Life is not, in fact, a beach everyday. Ok, maybe every other day.  And maybe there have been some phenomenal experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But the point is, I’m going to have to use some sub-headings here. Maybe even a list.

Things to Remember

THERE HAVE BEEN distinct phases to our travel. We travelled from Bangkok, into Cambodia, up through Vietnam, through Laos, back into northern Thailand, and back down to Bangkok. I think of this as Stage 1.

I’ve previously written about our time in Vietnam and Cambodia, so let me just select a few things from Laos and northern Thailand. In Laos, we visited Luang Prabang, which is a city of much culture, history and wonderful temples. We got up early, when it was still dark, and went to watch the giving of alms, where long lines of orange robed monks took offerings of rice from the devout kneeling at the side of the road. Then we wandered around the morning market, sampling all kinds of new foods, before ending at a local coffee shop where we drank coffee strong enough to bring back the dead, sweetened with condensed milk. This is one of my favourite memories.

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It’s hard to make generalisations about an entire people, but of course we all do, and I’m not making an exception for the people of Laos, who were unfailingly lovely. We travelled up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang into northern Thailand; rocks loomed out of the cold morning mist, and we huddled underneath blankets as our junk boat cut through the water. Eventually, the sun burnt away the mist and we were left seeking shade as dense jungle swept by on either side of this wide, wide river. That evening, we docked at a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, for our homestay. As we walked up the dusty hill amongst the houses on stilts, people came to their doorways to stare, in silence; young children in raggedy, dirty T-shirts hid from us; a dog, panting in the heat, watched us, her teats gorged and hanging, two puppies playing underneath her; we looked behind, and a straggling group of older children had begun to follow us. I have never felt more foreign than at that moment. That night, we saw stars like I have never seen before. Two other guys and I broke the awkwardness of no common language with our hosts by making shadow puppets on the wall for their kids, the mother smiling on. Then we fell asleep on the floor, under mosquito nets, wrapped in the utter, utter silence of the night time village.

Trav16-6 Trav16-7 Trav16-5 Trav16-9 Trav16-8IN MAE HONG SONG, northern Thailand, we were two of the few westerners in the sleepy town, and ate phad thai omelettes sitting on the floor, looking out over a lake where the brightly illuminated pagoda was reflected. Later, we bought hand woven textiles from a little old Karen woman at the night market, the prices embarrassingly cheap.

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The next day, we hired a guide and hiked through what seemed to be unspoilt jungle to reach two local villages, one of the Hmong people, the other of the Karen people. There was no trail, there was no path – just hacking our way through head high bamboo. Yes, we ran out of water towards the end, and yes we had to remind ourselves that we were having fun – but it’s not these things that I remember, it’s the children playing with a kite made out of the plastic bags, the wrinkled faces of the old women as they watched us wander about the village, the constant fear of standing on a snake amidst the bamboo…

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FROM THAILAND WE flew to Hong Kong, and spent a month in China. This was Stage 2. China gets a stage all to itself because it’s so big and because at times it was something of a trial. I’ve written extensively about the country, so I won’t recount it all again here except to say that hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best treks I’ve ever done.

Trav10-16  WE FLEW FROM Shanghai to Taipei, and spent three weeks in Taiwan. Then we flew to Tokyo, and spent three weeks in Japan. After that, it was to Yangon for three weeks in Myanmar. This was Stage 3. We were travelling fast, we saw a lot and we had some of the best and most memorable experiences of the trip so far. I intend to write more about all three countries (I took a lot of notes and a lot of photographs), so I’ll just pick one thing from each place.

At the southern tip of Taiwan is the national park of Kenting, a beautiful expanse of rolling hills, cliffs and coasts that has much in common with the south west of England, except that it’s tropical. We had no transport of our own while we were there, but Vincent, the wonderful owner of our hostel, took pity on us and drove us around the coast to show us his favourite places. He gave up a successful career as a web designer in Taipei and Beijing so that he could open a business in Kenting and spend his time surfing. We reaped the rewards of his choice.

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IN JAPAN, WE had the luck to visit during sakura, cherry blossom time, and the trees were bright and bristling with flowers, the petals shivering in the wind. On our first full day we travelled to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, bullet train, and after checking in at our Capsule Ryokan hotel (all tatami floors and folding floor futons), we hot footed it to the Toji Temple, where a monthly flea market was just starting to close. There, we darted between stalls to look at people’s wares even as they were packing them up; BK-C bought vintage kimonos and antique washi paper, whilst I, inexplicably, bought a hand painted Union Jack flag from the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Then we went into the gardens of the Toji Temple, and had our first taste of why Japanese gardens and temples are so famous the world over. We’ve visited a lot of temples whilst we’ve been traveling. It’s fair to say that we’ve become a little jaded (in fact, the worst kind of traveller – the constant comparers: “yeah, this is ok, but it’s not as good as Wat Pho in Bangkok.” Or “yeah I could climb those steps to go and watch the sunset from the top of the temple, but it’s not going to be as breathtaking as that place in Luang Prabang. Why bother?”). But I never got bored of visiting Japanese temples. Their elegant aesthetic, the precise beauty of their gardens, the quiet contemplation of sitting on the tatami floor – I fell in love with all of this.

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IN BURMA, WE visited Bagan, a vast, scrubby plain where, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, Burmese kings vied to build increasingly magnificent temples, and where over 2,000 of those temples remain today. We hired electric bikes and zoomed about the plain in the 40 degree heat, slipping and sliding in the sand, visiting whatever temples took our fancy. Although there were plenty of tourists at the bigger temples, most were deserted, and we explored them Indiana Jones style, with torch and whip. Ok, maybe not the whip, but certainly the torch. On the walls of many remained 1,000 year old drawings, and it is a remarkable feeling to stand alone in the dark, quiet and relative cool of one of these temples and to stare upon the doings of people long dead, the pictures drawn before Chaucer put quill to vellum to pen the Canterbury Tales, even before Richard I sat on the English throne. There is no glass, no grill between you and these incredibly precious paintings, just air and your own sense of wonder. I shall name our firstborn Indiana.

Trav16-24 Trav16-23 Trav16-25THEN WE FLEW back to Thailand, visited a couple of islands, and headed south into Malaysia, where we’ve been for the past month. Malaysia has had the most consistently great food of the trip. Because of the uniquely cosmopolitan make up of the country, you can eat Indian curry for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, and Malay food for dinner – and every time you’re eating the local cuisine. Increasingly, as we travel, I find myself spending less time – or sometimes no time – reading the ‘sights’ part of the Lonely Planet, and instead spending hours salivating over the ‘eating’ section, in order to plan what restaurants and street stalls we’re going to visit. Eating is a pleasure, everyday; seeing temples is not.

Trav16-26 Trav16-27On Saturday, we arrived in Singapore. Next, we’re travelling to Indonesia. When we leave Indonesia, in September, that will be the end of Stage 4. Stage 5 will be Australia and New Zealand. We return on 2 January, 2015. I’m sure that won’t be a downer.

Things to Forget

Inevitably, and yet also in a way that surprises me, every time, life is not a montage of edited highlights, even when travelling full time. As I write this it is a Sunday, and BK-C and I are sat in our room, spending the day writing and reading. It’s our first day in Singapore, and we’re spending it indoors. We travelled really fast in the first five months, and it takes a toll. You have to have down time. After a while of spending two or three nights in a place you start to crave continuity. And you realise that you can’t go on walking into furniture in the middle of the night when you get up to go the toilet. Eventually you’ll fracture something (once I thought I had, and lay in bed, in the darkness, suffering in silence and wondering what lie I could tell to my friends and family about how I fractured my leg).

BK-C and I seem to measure everything in the domestic: could we live here? Would we want that table in our house? Would we get better service here if we were regulars? It’s different for other travellers, of course, but for us one of the most important things about a place we visit is where we stay. Our room has to be somewhere where we can spend time, where we can lie on the bed and read, or pretend to write and instead stare out of the window. For other travellers it’s about meeting other people, the location of the accommodation, the availability of wifi… and of course all of those things are important to us, but if a room is nice, then none of the other things really matter. Every place must feel like a little home. This means, of course, that if we don’t like our accommodation then it can colour our entire experience of a place. In Langkawi, our room was a dirty box with no window, and thus the whole island was a downer for us. At times like this our friends and family seem a long, long way away, and we wonder why we’re here (similarly, you feel very alone when you’re sat on the toilet at 4am for what is the tenth time that night, in your guesthouse’s little shared bathroom that, as you’re going to realise later, has open topped walls abutting the common room).

However much you try and keep in touch with home, there are things that you miss. Two sets of friends have got engaged whilst we’ve been out travelling: both sets are getting married before we’ll return. My father-in-law’s cancer has come back. My granddad has died. Two sets of friends have had babies. Many more children of friends have changed alarmingly quickly (I mean, is that normal? Shouldn’t they stay in stasis or something until we get back?). England still haven’t won the world cup. Again.

Things to Learn

This wouldn’t be a self-reflective post on a travel blog if I didn’t have a list of all the things that I’ve learnt whilst we’ve been away. So here it is.

  • The place where we sleep is also the place where we read, and thus it must be nice; or we must make it nice through the medium of post it notes on the walls, filled with lists of things to do and quotes from inspiring people. Yes, we are losers, but I knew that before we came travelling and so it has no place on this list.
  • Our favourite places have history and culture and a creative scene.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t take your phone, your ipad, your laptop with you: they’re wrong.
  • It’s heartbreaking not to be able to attend your grandad’s funeral.
  • I scream like a girl when I see a cockroach. Every time.
  • Gaffa tape is one of the most useful things you can travel with.
  • You can never eat too many chinese dumplings.
  • It’s still hard to make time to do all the things you want to do, even when staying in a hut on tropical beach (this must be what retired people feel like).
  • British humour isn’t universal. Or, there are a lot of people in the world who just don’t understand how funny I am.
  • Mutton is delicious, and should be used more in Britain.
  • I’m still not very good at relaxing.
  • Condensed milk in coffee is ace.
  • Indian food makes a fantastic breakfast. A curry trumps a full English, any day.
  • Sitting on a chair designed for primary school children doesn’t in any way affect your ability to enjoy your food.
  • You don’t always need to plan, and things will work out.
  • But it’s still better to plan. I’m not a hippy, for goodness sake.
  • Don’t send text messages to people at home telling them what a killer time you’re having on your tropical island. They’re either asleep or at work when you send them, and both seem to make people grumpy.
  • Bigger mosquitoes are easier to kill than small ones.
  • Tea without milk is good, often better than tea with milk (I’m looking at you, Lipton Tea).
  • Tiger Balm is the most effective thing to put on bites. Try it.
  • Except ant bites, for which nothing works. Wear mittens in bed.
  • Writing everyday makes me happy. So maybe I am a little bit of a hippy, after all.

Final Words

THIS IS THE bit where I end with some wise and meaningful words. Like the beginning, though, it’s difficult not to stray into clichés and platitudes. The learning that comes from travelling is lots of little pieces of wisdom that accrete over time, like the lint in your tumble dryer. So, I’ll just settle for this: it’s been amazing.

But I can’t wait for what the next six months will bring.

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What I’ve Been Reading For The Past Six Months

 Ferried over rough seas, bounced at the back of minivans, perched on mounds of luggage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my kindle over the past six months. This is what I’ve read, in no particular order:

Wool, Hugh Howey
Great House, Nicole Krause
– Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, Paul Theroux
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
– Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, Graham Stewart
– Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Alwyn W. Turner
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
– 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
– Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, Fergal Keane
– Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon
– The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
– Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
– The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov, Vol. 1, Anton Chekov, (Constance Garnett translations)
– The Glass Palace
, Amitav Ghosh
– Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
– Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
– On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
– The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka, Vintage Classics
– Burmese Days, George Orwell
– How To Shit Around The World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Travelling, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
– A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, Hector Garcia
– Hiroshima, John Hersey

This post was written in Juara, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, and Singapore. It was uploaded in Singapore.

NEXT TIME: The street food of Penang. Almost definitely this time. No more travel montages.

Beijing & Shanghai: Photo Essay

AFTER X’IAN, BEIJING: we travelled there at 300 km/h, our speed digitally displayed at the end of the carriage. There was boiling water on tap, there were wide seats, there was more than adequate leg room and the train ran on time. In other words, it was everything that train travel in the UK is not.

 

THE LAMA TEMPLE

 

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Welcome to the Disneyfication of religion. Don’t worry if you’re not Buddhist, it really doesn’t matter. Please collect your complimentary bundle of incense sticks and proceed directly to the brazier, where you may light them. Screams of excitement are encouraged. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (and you probably are) please do feel free to light the entire bundle at once (don’t worry about the sign telling you not to do that). Next, proceed to wander around the temple clutching your incense stick like you don’t quite know what to do with it. When you’re bored with it, just drop it on the ground. Thank you.

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THE HUTONGS

 

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Welcome to the hutongs, a series of old narrow lanes that you’ll probably get lost in. People have died trying to get out. Do come in, though.

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Residents are mostly friendly.

Mostly.

Mostly.

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Don’t touch my beer.

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All hail.

 

The discarded bikes of those who didn't find their way out of the hutongs.

The discarded bikes of those who didn’t find their way out of the hutongs.

 

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Don't worry that you're lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

Don’t worry that you’re lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

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THE WALL

 

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there's a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold. And if that doesn't take you mind off it, don't worry, because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there’s a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold.

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OK, so it is quite impressive in places.

And if you're still bored, don't worry - because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

But if you’re still bored, don’t worry – because there’s a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

 

REMEMBER THIS?

 

Remember this?

So 2008…

SHANGHAI

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

It's very popular.

It’s very popular.

We've got the whole post thing covered as well.

We’ve got the whole post thing covered as well.

And laundry. I'm pretty sure it's fine to be a Christian in China as well.

And laundry too. I’m pretty sure it’s fine to be a Christian in China as well.

We don't talk about the hairy building. Look away,

We don’t talk about the hairy building. Look away.

This is the view that you're paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

This is the view that you’re paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

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NEXT TIME: The food of Penang.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia.

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.

Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.

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Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).

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There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

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It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.

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I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).

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FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.

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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.

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*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.

The Dangers of Peach Blossom (And Other Tales of Vietnam)

DEAR INTERNET, I’M sorry that I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been busy, you see, in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Also, the Chinese Government has been trying to suppress my writing. Yes, WordPress is blocked in China, along with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a number of other dangerous sites. I’m joining you now only through internet sorcery, via a server based somewhere in Japan.

The Great Firewall of China is not that sophisticated, however, as it only blocks wordpress.com, not all wordpress sites. The upshot of this is that when I recently changed over to be elsewhereunderwritten.com rather than elsewhereunderwritten.wordpress.com I exposed myself to an extra ONE BILLION potential readers. Welcome, new Chinese readers! I’m still awaiting the spike in blog stats. I expect it’ll come soon, though. WordPress hosted sites can’t handle over a million hits in a day, so please remember to form an orderly queue… (yes I know, there’s no such thing in China, but please do try). I’d offer a few words of welcome, but I think that I’d struggle to put it better than the tourism board of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, in this sign that we saw earlier in the week:

Trav7-1 IF THIS WERE an Indiana Jones movie (and frankly I’m sad it’s not), you’d be seeing a red line snaking over a map right now. Over the past seven weeks we’ve travelled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, into southern Vietnam, up through Vietnam to Hanoi in the north, from Hanoi to Vientiane in Laos, through Laos, travelling up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang back into northern Thailand. Once there we hung out for a week in Chiang Mai, then went to a couple of other places in northern Thailand before getting a 16 hour overnight bus down to Bangkok, where we buzzed around a lot to try and fit in as much as possible before flying to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we pretty much did the same thing, except with more clothes on (because it was cold, get your mind out of the gutter). From HK we crossed the border into mainland China and got an overnight train from Shenzhen to Guilin, where we are as I write this post (postscript – from Guilin we flew to Kunming, Yunnan Province and after a couple of days in Kunming we travelled by bus to Dali, also in Yunnan Province. We’ve had unreliable internet so it’s taken me a while to upload this post). All caught up? Good.

Last time I promised a round up of Vietnam, after having covered only the south. I’ve had to buy an external portable hard disk because I didn’t have enough room for all the photos I’ve been taking (with 1TB of extra storage, I should be ok now – thank you Pantip Plaza, Bangkok). Today I went through those photos and picked some of the highlights from Vietnam.

WE WERE IN Vietnam for close to three weeks, and very much on a well trodden tourist trail. From Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong Delta in the south we headed north to the beach resort of Nha Trang, arriving at 5.30am off the overnight train to be greeted by a rainy city and wild waves at the seafront. Later, we explored the city, the rain having stopped but the sky still overcast. Nha Trang did little to endear itself to us – the long beach was pretty, certainly, but just a few streets away from the seafront the town turned into an ugly scrawl of dirty streets, snarling mopeds and touristed-out locals. When we’re somewhere new we like to walk around to get a sense of the place, usually straying far away from the haunts recommended in the guidebook. In Nha Trang we were happy to return to the seafront.

There’s one direct flight from Nha Trang International airport, and that’s to Russia. It is the beach destination in Vietnam if you’re from Russia. Consequently the town is an odd mix of western backpackers and high spending Russian vacationers, glued together by Vietnamese touts, pimps and tuc tuc drivers (who are often the same person). But if the sun’s out, you’re drinking, and you ignore the touts and pimps, then Nha Trang is a fun place to be. Yes, I did have an awful sunburn and a Hollywood star hangover when we left.

An overnight bus to Hoi An sorted me right out. Rather than simply a reclining chair, each passenger had a sort of plastic sarcophagus which you inserted your legs in up to the waist, and then leaned back into what felt like one half of a sun lounger. The sarcophagus combined with the stacking of passengers bunkbed style created a cosy, I’ll-never-get-out-of-here-if-we-crash kind of a feeling, and (once I’d gotten over the series of RTA scenarios that paraded through my mind) I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

In Hoi An it was raining, but just off the bus and walking through the old town, it was already lovelier than Nha Trang, even in the wet. From the 16th through to the 18th centuries the city was the most important trading port in south east Asia, with merchants from China, Japan and Europe. Towards the end of the 18th century, the river leading from the port to the sea silted up and trade moved elsewhere. When commerce ebbed away from the city it remained largely unchanged in architecture, and mostly untouched by the modernisation that was sweeping the rest of Vietnam. The town remains a wonderful jumble of old Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese building styles, pretty even in the rain.

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Tourism and tailoring are the two chief enterprises of Hoi An. So after a shower and some breakfast we headed over to get some clothes made. For what else does one do in Hoi An? The city is awash with tailors, so many that without the advice of tour guide I would have struggled to have known which to use (if you’re going there yourself, we used Yaly – slightly more expensive than some others but they were extremely professional, knowledgeable, and produced clothes of excellent quality). You can get a tailored suit made in 24 hours, thanks – I was assured – not to a sweat shop but to an army of 300 tailors all paid a fair wage. I was measured for a suit on the morning of the first day, alterations were made in the afternoon of the second day and it was ready by that evening. It cost me £100. As I took my top off to try on the shirt that I’d also purchased, my tailor stared at my burnt red-raw chest. “Ah,” she said, “you go to Nha Trang.”

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality in Hoi An. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

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After Hoi An, it was an 8 hour bus journey to Hue (pronounced “Hway”), former imperial capital of Vietnam. Along the way we stopped off at a place called Marble Mountain – a complex of pagodas, shrines and caves on top of a (very small, more cliff-like) mountain. Perhaps it was because the sun was out, perhaps it was because at the top of the mountain we were away from the sound of horns, but it felt like the prettiest place in Vietnam. We were there for an all-too short hour – and only at the end did we discover the vast cave with stairs carved down to its floor, a giant stone Buddha set against one wall, illuminated only by a single beam of sun from a hole in the roof. It was a serene interlude from the madness that is Vietnam.

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WE WERE IN Hue for less than 24 hours. We arrived in the evening and wandered down neon-lighted streets lined by budget clothes stores pulsing with young Vietnamese, getting bemused looks from most we passed. We tried some clothes on and didn’t buy them. We drank some Vietnamese wine, which was slightly less than awful. We ate some Western food and regretted it. We looked at some statues and tried to work out what they were commemorating. We looked at some art, intended to come back the next day and buy it, and then didn’t. Instead we went to a ruined tomb and got lost. In short, we had wonderful time doing all of the things that one does in a foreign city.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

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 During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

HALONG BAY IS a place that everyone raves about. Read any travel article about Vietnam, and it’s likely to get a glossy double page photo. I felt that I’d read the legend of how it was formed about a million times before I even went there. So I was thoroughly prepared for it to be overhyped. It wasn’t.

We sailed out in clear blue skies, the sun gently warming our bare feet even as we wore fleeces on top against the wind. Within half an hour we (and, it has to be said, about thirty other boats) were sailing inbetween looming limestone Karsts – giant fragments of islands, their sides sheer cliffs, their tops verdant green. They seemed to be endless, disappearing off into the horizon forever. If you are in Vietnam, then I urge you to go there, and to stay overnight on a boat in the bay. You won’t want to leave.

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AND THEN IT was Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and our last destination in the country. The old town is a mass of small streets and seething mopeds. It’s a fascinating place to walk around, each street dedicated to a particular trade so that there are streets of carpenters, streets of toy shops, even streets dedicated to packaging, cardboard boxes spilling out into the road.

What no one tells you about Hanoi, though, is that you haven’t got time to look into the shops or soak up the atmosphere because you’re TOO BUSY TRYING NOT TO DIE under the wheels of a moped. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in SE Asia pavements are for parking, not walking, so you find yourself stumbling down the narrow roads spending all your time watching where the mopeds are and then – WHOOSH one speeds past you from behind and you are inches from death. It’s like when you’re on the London Underground at rush hour at the edge of the platform with the crowd five people deep behind you and then the train slams past you and you think, if someone just nudged me forward right now… In Hanoi, it’s like that all the time.

Rush hour is out of control: nowhere is safe, as mopeds mount the pavement (what little of it there is left to walk on) to get past. It was worse when we were there because it was just before Tet, Vietnamese New Year, when everyone gets a peach blossom tree for their home or business. Inevitably, these are transported strapped to the back of a moped. So if the vehicle itself doesn’t get you, you’re just as likely to get whipped by the branches of a tree as it whizzes by.

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A peach blossom tree outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

A peach blossom tree, for Tet, outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

But survive the gauntlet of motorised death then Hanoi is a wonderful city, best enjoyed from a tiny plastic chair on the side of the street (NOT at rush hour) drinking a Bia Hoi, or fresh beer – beer that is brewed freshly everyday and retails at about 12p (20c) a glass. At that price, what could possibly go wrong? Just don’t try walking home after a beer too many.

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And that, dear internet, was Vietnam for me.

Join me, next time, when I’ll write more words about some different things. There will also be pictures for those bored of the words.

This post was written in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. It was finally uploaded in Dali, Yunnan Province, China, after a great deal of patience and numerous rounds of green tea.

Remnants of a War Fought in Vietnam

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THE LANGUAGE IS so loaded: Fall of Saigon, Liberation of Saigon. All or nothing descriptors that it’s hard to square. The Vietnam/American war is familiar to me, of course, from so many Hollywood films, so much cultural pastiche (the “/American” added on only, let’s be honest, since I’ve been to Vietnam – where of course it’s called only “the American war”). I thought of it when we first decided to go to Vietnam – but I wasn’t thinking of the war, I was thinking of its cultural imprint. With the exception of the two world wars, it’s hard to think of a war so fictionalised in the West.

So I was surprised, if it’s possible to be so, at my own surprise upon meeting people who had fought in the war – on both sides – and seeing the lasting impact on people living in Vietnam today (and Laos and Cambodia), even people who weren’t born when the war happened.

There are noticeably more amputees in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (typically begging on the street) than in any other country I’ve visited. According to estimates by the Vietnam Government, unexploded ordinance from the war still contaminates one-fifth of the country’s total land area, with somewhere between in 350,000 and 600,000 tons of ordinance left to clear. When the Vietcong spilled into Cambodia and Laos to move south, explosive ordinance was also dropped there. In Cambodia, the US dropped more than a million tons of bombs, amounting to at least 26 million individual submunitions (i.e. parts of cluster bombs), of which it is estimated that between 1.9 million and 5.8 million still remain today. Laos suffered heavier bombing than either Cambodia or Vietnam, and is still the world’s most contaminated country from unexploded ordinance. Over two million tons were dropped on Laos, including over 270 million submunitions. There are no reliable estimates of how many unexploded bombs remain in the country today, but about 300 people a year die in Laos from leftover ordinance. There are no statistics on how many people lose limbs every year.

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“HAND GUNS, RIFLES, they don’t scare me,” Vien, who fought on the side of the south, told me. “Landmines do. You don’t know: just walking along and – boom!” The USA weren’t the only ones using explosive ordinance in the war – the Vietcongs did too (though, it must be noted, the vast majority of the remaining unexploded bombs were dropped by the USA; and, where the Vietcong did use explosives, it was often salvaged from unexploded American bombs). The favoured Vietcong tactic was to set traps in the jungle, surrounded by landmines. If a soldier was caught in the trap, any attempt at rescue would likely trigger one of the landmines, or else attract the attention of a sniper. When we were in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where you can see recreations of the bamboo traps used by the Vietcong.

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The Cu Chi Tunnels were underground tunnels used by the Vietcong to evade detection and to move closer to Saigon. Today, they are a monumental tourist trap, where you can go and join hundreds of others watching mechanised models of Vietcong soldiers making traps, disarming bombs, and generally taking on the American imperialists. As with most war-related tourist attractions in Vietnam, the accompanying narrative was a little one sided (incidentally, if you’re reading this and considering going yourself, I wouldn’t bother – it’s a 3 hour trip to get there, including a compulsory stop at a ‘handicrafts’ workshop’, to go and see a bunch of tunnels). There’s also a shooting range, where you can buy ammunition and have a go at shooting an AK47 or an M16, pretending that you’re shooting soldiers of either side, depending on your preference. It’s all in good taste, I’m sure.

Our guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels, Hong, fought on the side of the North, and took great delight in showing us his scars from gunshot wounds on the bus on the way there, alongside telling us about his wife who was 20 years younger than him, at 45. She weighed 84kg, which is 14kg more than him. Such are the things that you must tell people, apparently, to fill up a three hour bus journey.

“I must decide, my father told me, who you fight for,” said Hong. “So I chose the VCs, and fought for the north.” He was in the army from 1967 – 1974, and was shot twice in that period, spending time in hospitals before returning to the front line both times. Hong enjoyed making (very realistic, it has to be said) impressions of the different guns used in the war. Although I would probably file his dramatic re-enactments of skirmishes under the same bad-taste category as the AK-47 shooting range.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It's all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It’s all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

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LATER, WE SPOKE to Vien about what it was like fighting his countrymen. “It was a horrible war,” he told us. “Everyday, I lost two or three men. I don’t want to shoot people, and I don’t want to get shot. I have a family, they have a family. But if you don’t shoot in the field, then you die. You’ve got to shoot to survive.”
Earlier in the trip we’d seen Vien greeting one of his friends. “He used to be my enemy,” he’d told us, “but now he’s my friend.” So when I asked him how things were now between the North and the South, I was expecting a less hostile answer. “I still don’t like the north,” he said. “They come to the south, but they don’t own it, and they bring their families.”

Vien’s unforgiving answer is perhaps more understandable in his generation: he saw a vision of a different Vietnam, fought for it, and lost. When I’d asked him what the loudspeakers on so many telegraph posts in rural Vietnam were, he’d smiled at me and said: “They’re for propaganda. Bullshit.” Vietnam is a communist country (though anyone seeing the unrestrained capitalism of the country and the entrepreneurial spirit of so many Vietnamese would be forgiven for raising their eyebrows at this fact) with one party, one vision. But those who fought on the side of the south still live here. It’s a distinction which is becoming less relevant, but it still lives on.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways. It didn't provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways and cold war paranoia. It didn’t provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

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THERE ARE ALSO more visible signs of the war, and not just amputees: I saw at least 4 people born after the war with profound disfigurements, caused by Agent Orange, the chemical used by the US during the war to clear large swathes of foliage. These disfigurements are profound and debilitating – people born with half a face, no arms, a head three times the size it should be. In the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a gallery devoted to the victims of this chemical, people still being born today because it accumulated and settled in the bodies of their parents. I toured that exhibition, wandering past portrait after portrait with my fellow visitors in something deeper than museum-silence. I also visited the exhibition of photographs from the war, taken by a collection of photo-journalists (mostly western), many of whom were killed during the war. After that, I couldn’t face the rest of the museum. Loitering in the lobby, gathering myself after the exhibitions, I saw two Americans (recognised by their accents), both old enough to have fought in the war. One wore a Canada top, the other an England football top, too tight and obviously borrowed. They hovered, awkward and sombre, and one wrote a message in the visitor’s book, before leaving.

WHEN IN HANOI, in the North, we visited the very cool Cong Caphe, and drank Vietnamese coffee. Cong Caphe was on three floors, decked out in military surplus and Vietnam-American war era antiques. It was Vietnam-war chic, the war more kitsch than profound – appealing to a younger crowd. Teenagers hung out on the 70s furniture, all glued to their smart phones. The place was war-influenced, but different – something re-purposed for today. It felt a long way away from Vien’s comments about the north/south relationship.

The youth of today.

The youth of today.

The Vietnam war: now it's cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

The Vietnam war: now it’s cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

With great coffee too.

With great coffee too.

My time in Vietnam gave a brief, surface-deep experience of the war’s legacy, and I certainly don’t claim any expert knowledge in the field. The experience was enough, though, to see past the Hollywoodisation of the war; but it was also enough to grasp why this war has had such a long life in books, films and as the theme for trendy cafés. As Tim O’Brien writes in his novel of the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil […] But this too is true: stories can save us.” 

― Tim O’BrienThe Things They Carried

[Sources: Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office]

In this post I have changed the names of people to protect their anonymity.

This post was written in Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Song, Northern Thailand.

[Because I am so so far behind in writing about the places I’ve been…..
NEXT TIME: Vietnam Roundup]

Ho Chi Minh City & The Mekong Delta

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HO CHI MINH City (also known as Saigon, its pre Vietnam-American war name, or simply abbreviated to HCMC) and the Mekong Delta: two very different places with a lot in common. HCMC is a sprawling, urban rush, whilst the Mekong Delta is a peaceful, rural area of farms and waterways. But both play an important part in Vietnam – Saigon drives the country’s economy and the Mekong Delta feeds the nation’s people. Both are some of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam, with the sky scrapers and streets of Saigon contrasting with the farms, fruit trees and rice paddies tightly packed into the Delta. And both share a common Southern Vietnamese heritage, a separation in attitude and history from the North that is still felt by many Vietnamese today. As people are fond of saying in Vietnam (of just about anything) – it’s same same, but different.

HCMC WAS OUR first stop in Vietnam. It topped the steadily rising crescendo of beeping horns that we’ve experienced as we’ve worked our way through Thailand and Cambodia. The streets are notoriously busy, thick with mopeds and the occasional car. Crossing the street in HCMC – or indeed anywhere in Vietnam – is one of those travelling rites of passage that is so often written about as to be cliché. There are ‘pedestrian crossings’, but no one stops at them; there are red lights, but these are optional; and there are pavements, but these are mostly for mopeds, so what the hell do you think you’re doing walking on them? In Hanoi, where I am as write this, we were at a busy intersection of a main road, waiting for a less-fatal opportunity to plunge across the road, when two distressed looking American ladies came up to us. “Have you crossed the road here?” they asked.
“We’ve never crossed the road here, specifically,” I replied, “but yes we’ve crossed the road in Hanoi.”
“Oh that’s great,” one of the women enthused, “we just got here. Can we cross with you guys?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping BK-C’s hand tightly whilst subtly attempting to position her as a human shield between myself and the oncoming traffic, “we’ll go over after this red bus… ready…and go.”
And we strode out into the road, in front of a battalion of buzzing mopeds which all beeped obligingly, either to tell us that they’d seen us and would drive around us, or that they were going to collide with us (I’m never sure which). We reached the other side in one piece, the American women deliriously happy that they’d survived their first road crossing. All such crossings are thus in Vietnam.

After you...

After you…

These are the drivers that had their lights on...

These are the drivers that had their lights on.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here - it's common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam's one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here – it’s common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam’s one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

AFTER THE CITY, Mekong Delta was wonderfully quiet and horn free. We visited a market with our guide, Vien, and marvelled at the diversity and plentitude of the produce, most of which we needed Vien to identify for us. Vegetables, fruits, fish, snakes, chickens, flowers – it was all there.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

I can't testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam - but at least they're not battery farmed.

I can’t testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam – but at least they’re not battery farmed.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

I have no idea what the person in the top right hand corner of this photo is wearing.

A fruit seller watches a bag seller pass by.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

In the Mekong Delta, intensively farmed and super self-sufficient, nothing is left to waste. The water hyacinth, Vien explained, typifies this approach. It is encouraged to grow by the side of the river, to prevent erosion; it is dried and then weaved into baskets; used as feed for animals; as a fertiliser; and finally its leaves are laid on the ground in the dry season to keep the moisture in the soil.

Over the course of a day and a half we also visited a fruit farm, a bonsai farm, a pottery, a floating market and a handicrafts market. Although there were a few tourists in some places, they where overwhelmingly thronging with locals. The impression that I was left with was of a highly efficient, complex and, above all, successful agricultural economy. Even the rolling pin in the handicrafts market used to make sesame snap was recycled – it was an old shell casing.

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NEXT TIME: I go cycling in the Mekong Delta. Hilarity ensues.

This post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vang Vieng, Laos.