Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Sleeping Panda, Aching Calves

Hmm, I really think I overdid the Emei Shan descent. I thought I was pressed for time (I needed to catch the last bus) and so I ran down 2000m of steps in 3 hours. My calves don't like me much now. But that doesn't matter, as I have found a hostel in Chengdu with a DVD player and a large selection of films, and so I have decided to spend an extra day here. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, which is almost a country in its own right: it has a dizzying variety of landscapes (from mountains to forests to plains), many ethnic groups, and population-wise it would rank as the 12th biggest country in the world, just after Mexico. And out of all of China's different cuisines, Sichuan's is probably the most widely exported abroad. There is however one local speciality that I have not seen in any Western Chinese restaurants, and that is namely Chengdu's famous hotpot. The hotpot consists of a large pot of stock that bubbles away in the middle of the table whilst the diners place various ingredients (anything from chickens' legs to cabbage) into the cauldron (hubble bubble toil and trouble) before fishing them out a few minutes later. It's quite fun when your in a group, though we were unaware that the stock is always fish-based. Whoops, there goes my allergy.

But Sichuan isn't just about the food. It is also home to one of the most iconic animals on the planet: the giant panda. The range of the cuddly critter lies almost exclusively within Sichuan and the national panda research and breeding facility lies on the outskirts of Chengdu. That was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up, so off I went early in the morning to be able to catch them before they go to sleep for the best part of the day. The place was absolutely warming with tourists (me included, of course), though the locals were managing to be the most annoying by displaying 2 archetypal Chinese traits. The first is the inability to not shout, and the second is their complete disregard for signs. The fact that the signs in question asked for visitors to be quiet so as not to disturb and stress the animals made it even more galling for me. I therefore derived considerable pleasure from pointing out these signs and getting the people to shut up. The pandas themselves lived up to their reputation for cuteness by producing a great many saccharine poses for the cameras. Actually I say that but I was just happy to be there and see them.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

How Do You Like Your Bud Sir? Big!!

Ouch, my legs hurt. I've just spent the past 2 days walking up (and down) Emei Shan (or mount Emei). Emei Shan is the tallest of China's four, sacred Buddhist mountains (China has 9 sacred mountains: 4 Buddhist and 5 Taoist), at 3100m. The whole mountain is studded with steps all the way from the base to the summit. I've tried finding a definitive number with no success, but suffice to say that it lies in the region of the many tens of thousands. This makes the ascent, and the descent as well for that matter, technically unchallenging, but knackering in the extreme. This being China, though, there's a road and monorail all the way to the top, and if you do feel you have to take the pedestrian, pilgrimage option, then you can always hire a palanquin and reach the top like royalty (for a price of course). These options all insulted my fine, backpackers' sensibilities, and so I decided to rough it and walk all the way to the top. The spectacular views were unfortunately slightly muted due to a visibility of barely more than 50m, but the visible bits were still very pretty and I was also glad for the exercise. Apart from the many monasteries that dot the mountainside one of the top attractions on Emei Shan is its population of Tibetan macaques. The cheeky little monkeys (though some of the males can get rather sizeable) terrorise tourists by grabbing any loose food and bottles off them, or even ripping any plastic bags they may be carrying. It's actually quite amusing and appeals to my sense of schadenfreude. I did get a taste of my own medicine whilst walking in a remote part of the mountain when I got ambushed by a large male who noticed me munching on an apple. It was quite alarming when he started pulling at my trousers and baring his teeth, but I would be damned if he was going to get my apple. When I started kicking the bastard he noticed a group of Chinese tourists further down the path that constituted a much easier target and so he left me alone.

Included within the same UNESCO complex (I'm on a world heritage collecting spree at the moment) as Emei Shan is the Buddha of the nearby town of Leshan. This seated bud, built 1200 years ago, is the tallest stone Bud in the world. Measuring 71m from top to toe, his ears are 7m long and even his fingernails are bigger than I am. He was built overlooking a section of rapids on the Dadu River in the hope that his presence would help save sailors from the treacherous waters, which in fact he did. So much stone was dislodged and dumped into the river during his construction that the rapids were tamed. (Maybe there is something to this Buddhism malarkey after all?)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Floody Hell

The road linking Sichuan to Tibet is certainly among the most beautiful in the world, but the breathtaking gorges also make it a rather risky place to live as well. As it was pissing it down on Sunday night in Litang I was snuggly huddled under my blanket. The people living in the valley above the town of Yajiang weren't so lucky as many of the houses, bridges and a good chunk of the road were swept away when their stream became a raging torrent. Unfortunately for me, the valley also contained the only road out of Litang. No buses were leaving Litang so we had to hire a minibus again and have it take us as far as the road would go. From there we had to walk. Luckily it was mostly downhill all the way (otherwise the 15km, with 20kg on my back, would not have been so much fun) with beautiful views. However there were places in which the river had swept away everything in its wake and the only way of getting past was by scrambling along steep paths with the churning maelstrom of the river just beneath. It was also sad to see people whose entire livelihoods had been swept away, though at the same time it was heartening to see them getting on with things and trying to make do as best they could.

My next day's travelling didn't fare much better either. On the bus heading east from Kangding I thought I was away from the landslides, floods and other natural disasters. How wrong I was. We almost missed the landslide by 10 minutes, but in the end we sat there for over 4 hours. Still, I had been bracing myself for a night in the bus surrounded by spitting Chinese, so I was happy in the end.

But now I am, finally, away from the most mountainous areas and so hopefully will not have any more travel hiccups (touch wood). So a word to the wise, if you ever do plan to travel in China I'd recommend you don't between June and September.

Monday, August 22, 2005


The road north from Zhongdian is known as the back door to Sichuan, and for good reason. The countryside finally delivered on my expectations with narrow, hidden valleys, high mountains and innumerable switchbacks. Indeed, it feels like you're sneaking around the country and that somehow you're doing something clandestine. At one point we were driving through a vast plateau filled with boulders, some small and others larger than our minibus; it was rather surreal.

I ended up spending longer in Xiangcheng than I had originally planned (I wanted to leave the next morning after arriving) because of a cheeky scam that the people in the bus station had going. They would refuse to sell me any tickets to Litang (where I wanted to go) and instead would only offer tickets to Kangding, which cost more than double the price. But what was most galling was the fact that not only do the Kangding buses pass through Litang, but they also stop there for the night. The lady at the desk was as stubborn as a mule and wouldn't budge. Luckily this obstinacy meant that other travellers were in the same boat and so we managed to band together and hire a minibus instead.

Travelling in this part of China is interesting as it allows me to get a feel for Tibet without having to go through the rigmarole of actually going there (Actually, at the present moment it is impossible to get to Tibet, even through organised tours. The whole region has been closed down to the public, and I've even heard of people being refused flights to Nepal because they needed to get a connecting flight in Lhassa.). The most beautiful things here are the traditional houses. They are either grey or white, tapered boxes with colourfully patterned doors and window-frames and garlands of prayer pennants flying from all available spaces. The interiors of the houses are even more intricately decorated, with every available inch of wall covered in vivid drawings, usually in red, gold and green. The streets here also teem with monks in their scarlet robes. However expectations for monks here are perhaps slightly different from what one would expect in the West; here it's not uncommon to see them getting rather boisterous at the local pool halls (for some reason pool is extremely popular round these parts). I'm also glad to be able to cross another animal off my list: the yak. It's actually quite hard not to see the blighters as they are everywhere, though you have to climb to the top of the pasture areas to get to see the really hairy ones. Although I've yet to try the local speciality: tea with yak's butter.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Greetings from Shangri-La. At least that's how the town of Zhongdian (marked Xianggelila on the map) in northwestern Yunnan province, nestled in the Tibetan plateau, is marketing itself. But I'm getting ahead of myself, before arriving here there was some hiking to be done in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

In this gorge the Jinsha Jiang narrows from about 100m to less than 10m in places producing some monstrous rapids, and the surrounding mountains are sheer and impressively tall (unfortunately the summits could never be seen as the craggy peaks never let go of their veils of clouds). There are two ways into the gorge: via the road along the base of the gorge, or along the steep footpaths that wind up the mountainsides. It was never really in any doubt. So Cressica and I shouldered our bags and headed off along the paths, trying to stay clear of other pesky tourists and local people offering horseback rides (it wouldn't be a challenge then, would it?). The night was spent in a Naxi-run guesthouse and the next morning we headed down towards the river to get a closer look at the river and the part of the gorge that gave it its name. According to legend a hunter was chasing a tiger, which, to save itself, jumped across the river at a narrow part of the gorge (still over 20m apart), about 60m above the water. The view was definitely worth the descent down to the river (my legs, however, would disagree with the value of the ascent). Then we had to make our way quickly back along the road to catch a bus to Zhongdian for me, and Lijiang for Cressica. I was hoping to catch a lift back, but that option soon proved to be impossible as landslides had blocked the road at many places, meaning we had to scramble over them (sometimes just inches from the edge of a sharp drop), which was actually great fun. Anyway, we finally did get a lift at the last landslide and I managed to catch a bus to Zhongdian.

So that's how I got to Zhongdian. In James Hilton's book Lost Horizon, Shangri-La was an earthly paradise in a secluded Himalayan valley. But you have to be wearing a pair of rose-coloured eyepatches to believe that of this place. I admit the old town has a certain charm, with wooden houses built in traditional Tibetan style (even the new ones) and a large lamasery (the largest outside of the Tibet autonomous region), but they have an uphill struggle against the insipid grimness of the modern, Chinese monstrosity that has sprung up here. Similarly I have been a bit underwhelmed by the Tibetan plateau. I was expecting soaring peaks, vertiginous drops, snowy summits and all that jazz. Instead what you've got are verdant, rolling hills, albeit at three to four thousand metres. I guess it stems from me selectively ignoring the meaning of the word plateau. Still, I expect things will become a bit more dramatic as I press on. Tomorrow I take a bus to Xiangcheng, some 400km north of here. Under good conditions the journey takes 12 hours. So now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be off to buy some snacks for the trip.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Spanner In The Works

Did I ever mention it was the rainy season? Well it's still going full swing here in northwestern Yunnan province, which has caused several roads leading to the mountains to be closed due to mudslides. Ah well, it had to happen to me sooner or later, but the roads should be open tomorrow so I can carry on my trip then. The reason I know all this stuff is because I have hooked up with (latched onto some may say) an American girl who speaks Chinese, so I am exploiting her talents mercilessly (thanks Cressica). So today has been a free day in which to relax and vegetate a bit before some hardcore mountain hiking.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Maze-ing Town

In western Yunnan, in a broad valley 2000m up, close to the Himalayan foothills, sits the town of Lijiang. Upon arriving at the bus station one has to wonder why they bothered stopping there. But then all you have to do is walk down a street, turn down a couple of alleyways, and immediately you are transported hundreds of years back in time. I have never visited a town where the term "maze of alleyways" was more apt. The entirely pedestrian old town, with its cobbled streets, worn smooth with time, and old Naxi houses (more about them later) is a photographer's paradise (or it would be if it wasn't bloody overcast all the time!). The icing on the cake, though, is the dense network of mini streams and canals that flow parallel to the streets, sometimes taking up half the width between opposite houses. This is definitely one place in which getting lost isn't just a possibility, but a certainty.

Of course, such beauty hasn't gone unnoticed here in China. The Chinese, with their new found wealth, coupled with travel restrictions, are here en masse. Chinese tourists like their sites easy to digest, therefore the central square and the few alleyways leading off it are jam-packed from 9am, whereas just slightly further along the streets are empty. Another, hilariously kitsch, example of the above is the little town of Shuhe. The town, though beautiful in its way, is an entirely modern recreation of a "typical minority town" complete with its own circle of dancing grannies in traditional garb. The houses are meticulously built, but rather samey, with handy, open-plan downstairs areas housing various handicraft boutiques, whilst the rest of the house remains completely devoid of human habitation. The Chinese seem to lap it up though; especially enjoying the dancing grannies and the 10-minute horse rides.

If you remember back a couple of paragraphs I happened to mention the Naxi, who are the local minority group. All you ladies out there will love them, as they are a matriarchal society, where the women rule the roost. And although they are beginning to be outnumbered in the larger towns by Han (ethnic Chinese) they are ever-present in the villages in the area. One such village is Baisha, which is internationally famous (apparently) because of its favourite son, Dr Ho. He is known far and wide for his expertise in herbal medicine. He should also be known for his own little cult of personality thing that he has going. Any tourists that happen to pass his house (and, since there is only one street of any note in Baisha, all tourists pass by his house) get accosted by this wizened old figure, dressed in a white lab coat (bad lab practice that, to be wearing your lab coat outside, though I didn't have it in my heart to tell him), and pulled into his dingy house where he pushes various newspaper cut-outs and letters from random dignitaries at his unsuspecting victims. His latest treasure is the fact that Michael Palin stopped to visit on his latest travel programme where he tours the Himalayas (see here for excerpts from his book). Apparently he's pretty good at keeping cancers at bay, so just remember this tip just in case.

P.S. By the way, if anybody is planning to post a comment on my blog (don't all rush at once!) please e-mail me instead, as Big Brother won't allow me to view my own website. Boohoo!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Computer Games Are Hazardous To Your Health

No news from me today, but I can't help but impart to you all this hilarious, yet of course, at the same time, very sad, story of a Korean online gamer. After spending 50 hours, pretty much non-stop, playing an online game, he collapses a few minutes after finishing his session (and you thought I played too many computer games Mum!). Now personally, after having travelled through Vietnam, Thailand and seeing China this comes as no surprise to me. The people here are obsessed by online gaming to an incredible degree, and you can easily see people spending entire days at their local internet cafes. Ah well, that's progress for you I suppose.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


"Quick! Quick! Come to China before it changes and becomes all western."
"Ha ha, too late, try again next time!"

The difference between China and its smaller southern neighbour are immediately visible as soon as you cross the border: gone are the dusty streets filled with innumerable hawkers, scooters and bicycles all milling about in a general scene of chaos. Instead there are wide, clean boulevards with not too much traffic, and most of it respecting traffic regulations. Then in Kunming, the "small, provincial capital" (though in Europe it would be amongst the top 5 biggest cities) of Yunnan province, everywhere you look there are modern high-rise buildings, giant shopping plazas and chic little boutiques. Consumption is the name of the game here, and the more conspicuous the better. In one afternoon's stroll I saw as many McDonalds's as I had seen in all of Southeast Asia. If old Chairman Mao were not in a glass case on public display I'm sure he'd be turning in his grave at the sight of it (not to mention that it's being wholeheartedly approved by his very own party). But perhaps the most noticeable difference is not visual, but auditory. In Vietnam the defining noise was the honking of horns from scooters, cars, buses and lorries. Here the noise that one hears most often is the kheeh-eh-eh-eeh of the throat being cleared, followed by the inevitable ptui of the built up phlegm being ejected from the mouth and onto the floor. This charming custom is widely practised by all Chinese and you have to be careful in certain situations (such as when you are in the bottom bunk of a sleeper bus and there is someone above you) to avoid sticky consequences.

Apropos buses, I had a rather alarming, but in hindsight quite funny, experience whilst catching my sleeper bus to Kunming. Whilst waiting for my bus this Chinese guy, who had previously helped me buy my ticket, came up to me and told me that I would have to pay a surcharge for my baggage. He led me to a room in the station which appeared to be for the forwarding of freight and he told me that I would normally have to pay 50 yuan (more than half the price of the bus ticket), but that he could get it down to 20 for me. This looked rather dodgy to me and I said that I'd rather take my chances and try and board without paying. This made him really mad and he got rather rough, threatening me to call the police (I didn't quite understand why that was a threat, but still) and even trying to grab my rucksack off me. He then left me alone and I didn't see him until I was already on the bus (where, of course, I didn't have to pay) and he came on still insisting that I pay him for my bags. I asked him to politely leave and then he just went crazy and started to attack me. Luckily he was no kung fu expert and I was sitting on a top bunk, so I could just push him down with my feet. It was all a totally surreal experience and I laugh now thinking back upon it, but it was a rather unfriendly welcome to the country.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Goodbye Big Brother, Hello Bigger Brother

Today's post is going to be a bit of a mish-mash as I'm in Sapa, right on the Chinese border, and I'm going to take the opportunity to give a bit of a round up of my travels in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general, before embarking upon the beast of a country that is China. I'll start small and gradually work my way up, in which case I shall start with Sapa and its environs.

Sapa is another French-era hill station chosen for its mild climate (this is the only place in Vietnam where you have the, albeit slim, possibility of seeing snow in Winter) and stunning scenery. And stunning it certainly is. The mountains of northern Vietnam (and northern Laos for that matter) are the easternmost crinkles caused by the formation of the Himalayas, and, as such, they are very new (geologically speaking) and very sheer. The latter fact makes agriculture here extremely difficult, and yet the Montagnards (the collective name given to the hill-tribes by the French) manage to do just that, building staircases of rice terraces well over 100m in height (though sometimes barely 20m wide) that form mirrors to the sky. The whole effect would be even more sublime if it actually stopped raining, but then you can't have everything. But it is the Montagnards themselves (mainly H'mong around Sapa) that give the place its charm. Many of them walk around in their traditional costumes regardless of tourists. A lovely vignette sitting just across from me in the internet cafe is two H'mong girls sat in front of their computers, one playing an online game whilst the other is chatting on Yahoo.

Travelling in Vietnam has proved, at times, a rather exasperating experience. The country has natural and cultural marvels in abundance, but, unless you have your own set of wheels, visiting them independently is nigh on impossible. On the one hand Big Brother likes to keep tabs on you so that you don't spread any heretical ideas amongst the locals (Vietnamese and foreign nationals are not allowed to share hotel rooms; locals must inform the police several days in advance if they wish to entertain foreign guests; and, as I have mentioned earlier, hotels keep the police informed of all your movements); and on the other hand, off of the well-trodden "tourist trail", the public transport system is patchy and prejudicial against foreigners (you either pay several times what the locals do or they don't let you on at all). So if you want to see the sights you're forced to book a tour with one of the many tour agencies and just hope that you don't get taken for the wrong kind of ride, as the people that work in the tourism industry can be rather rapacious. That said I have also found the ordinary Vietnamese to be amongst the friendliest and kindest I have ever met. I have been the recipient of numerous acts of generosity where nothing was expected in return. For me, therefore, Vietnam has been a country with a serious bipolar disorder: at times frustratingly grating while at others disarmingly open and inviting.

As for Southeast Asia, the past 4 months have been a fascinating ride through many different sights, sounds, colours, tastes and cultures, with innumerable contrasts both between and within the countries. From the carefree insouciance of southern Laos to the manic bustle of Bangkok; from the temples of Angkor to the skyscrapers (modern-day temples to Mamon, some may say) in Singapore; from the crystal-clear air of the Cameron Highlands to the choking smog of KL. And although I'm leaving the region now, I'm certain I'll be back some day (Borneo, Indonesia and Myanmar still remain unchecked on my List). As well as a multitude of experiences, I have also learnt many useful things as well. I can now count in Thai/Lao and Vietnamese, I have a far better grasp of history and geography than before, and I can now do long multiplication and division in my head much faster than before (1USD = 40 Thai baht = 4100 Cambodian riels = 10600 Lao kip = 15900 Vietnamese dong).

And tomorrow on to China. Throughout Southeast Asia China looms large and is an ever present influence, whether it be in the mundane (noodle soup and chopsticks), the spiritual or political (past as well as present). I have no real itinerary planned as yet (I still need to procure a guidebook) but I am certain that I won't be able to see it all and will have to leave out large swathes of the country.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Hey, Who Sneezed On The Map?

To the east of Hanoi, on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin, is Halong Bay. The bay contains several thousand karstic islands and islets jutting straight out of the sea forming a maze of waterways. If you were to look at it on a map it looks as if someone has sneezed onto the sea. Legend has it that Vietnam sits atop a huge dragon whose heads form the Mekong delta and whose tail lies in Halong Bay. According to the legend it is the thrashings of the dragon's tail that created the spectacular rock formations. Now I'm sure that some geologists may disagree with that version of events, but they would definitely agree that it's well worth visiting the beautiful islands and the many caves and grottoes within them.

And although my travels here in Vietnam have been good fun and hassle-free I got a rather unpleasant double-whammy on my tour to Halong Bay. So far I've been fortunate not to have come across any nightmare tours for which Vietnam is notorious, but that changed here when I got short-changed on my tour when I didn't get what I had booked and the tour guide was incredibly rude, just driving off on his motorbike whilst I was in the middle of asking him a question. Such behaviour is not uncommon in Southeast Asia where people are averse to dealing with difficulties head on so as not to lose "face". This can make dealing with people rather problematic and sometimes you feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall. My second piece of unpleasantness came when I caught a rather nasty bought of gastroenteritis. Still, it was bound to happen at some point on this trip and frankly, I'm surprised it didn't occur sooner. Anyway, now after a couple of days of having a bad case of the runs (a fact I'm sure you all wanted me to share with you) things seem to be improving.

Anyway, I shall soon be leaving Hanoi and heading for the Chinese border, armed with my fresh new visa in my fresh new passport. Personally I haven't been too impressed with the city: the people seem to be a bit more dour, the moto drivers more persistent, and the only thing of note to see is Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. The funny thing is that Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately known over here) actually wanted to be cremated and it was the communist party leaders that created the cult of personality surrounding him. Actually, he seemed like quite a decent man. In the aftermath of WWI he petitioned the French for an end to summary justice, equal rights and representation in government for the Vietnamese people (not dissimilar, in fact, to the demands of the colonists in America before the War of Independence); but it was the colonialist stance taken by the French that ultimately ended up creating the conflict. But there I go talking about the war again. I'd better stop there and go and have lunch.