Friday, August 30, 2002
Border between Hekou and Lao Cai. The Chinese border is shiny and new and obviously had lots of cash poured into it. The Vietnam side had lots of dust poured into it. Which wasn't wuaite the same. the moment we crossed the border, a school of moto-riding sharks surrounded us. We eneded up taking a Russian jeep to Sa Pa:
"Shall we install suspension on our glorious Soviet troop carriers?"
"Nyet comrade, such bourgeois luxuries will weaken the resolve of our great Red Army".
The seats were uncomfortable but the views were amazing.
Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Arriving in Kunming, I was presented with an enormous queue at the railway station. I needed a ticket Hekou. I had been told I could get one from the main station. So I waded in with my elbows and waited. About 45 minutes later, I was nearly at the front when the man in front of me produced an little red book (no, not that one). This elicited some anger from the woman at the counter. So riled did she become that she had to calm herself by counting change for 20 mins and blocking out all contact with the queue. Finally the red book was returned and I was next. "Hekou, Train L933" I said. "No", came the reply. I redoubled by efforts, writing down the destination and train number. She wrote down "Bus 23". But I didn't want a bus. I wanted a train. An English-speaking member of staff was summoned and I was told to take bus 23 to the smaller railway station north side of town - where I could get a ticket to Hekou.
So I went to the north railway station. It was deserted. Some yelling and a faked epileptic eventually provoked some service. "Hekou", I said. "No", she said. "Hekou", I repeated. She rummaged around behind her desk, produced a paper with English and Chinese writing and directed me to this:
English Lesson No. 7
1. "There has been an accident on the line. The train has been cancelled for a month."
Ah. No train to Kunming then.
1. Chinese hard sleeper train carriages are very comfortable. You get a comfortable bed and they turn the lights out at 10pm on the dot. You also get small kids who find your phrase book then play The Guessing Game. The Game is simple. They say a Chinese word. You have to guess what it is by miming it out. This was quite fun for the first two hours but after that my enjoyment waned. I was saved (or so i thought) by an carriage attendant who wanted to practice his English. He tried out all his known phrases on me. And as he had a radio at home tuned to the World Service, he had a lot of them. Fortunately, my journey only had a mere three hours left.
2. Vietnamese hard sleeper trains are a different proposition. Putting the 'hard' into 'hard sleeper' you get a formica shelf, a straw mat - and that's it. Sweet dreams.
Horse Trekking: Sichuan borders Tibet and Songpan has a very Tibetan looking population. And the main thing to do their is saddle up and git on out thar. My first horse had a attitude problem. Not to me but to other horses. So he was demoted to carrying bags of food and I was a given a more placid beast. Up the hills we went. Down the hills we went. The waterfalls were beatuiful. The guides plied us with lethal local grog and dodgy home-cooking around a roaring campfire. And the Americans kept on falling of their horses. So much for the cowboys.
Went to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Now if you go in the morning you see the Pandas being fed. But that's at the crack of dawn. So I went in the afternoon. In the torrential rain.
The average panda is not very active. Their schedule consists of 1) Sleeping and 2) Eating. In fact a panda must eat between 10 and 40% of their body weight each day. A panda lifestyle would be ideal for me. Except for the endangered bit. And the rubbish sex life.
The pandas I saw were comatose, slumped on floors and tables, their eyes dark-rimmed and saliva dribbling from their chins. It was like visiting a student hall of residence when 'Neighbours' is on. Only pandas are cuter and don't leave their washing up in the sink for months.
The museum stated that one reason for pandas difficulty in breeding is the shortness of the male's equipment and the length of the female's pipes. "No, no, it's fine. It's average that's all. Size isn't important. Stop sulking and eat some bamboo".
Of course the main reason for the panda's imminent extinction is the destruction of its habitat by man.
The museum also featured some the worst taxidermy I have ever seen. The method used is:
1. Kill animal. Preferably with a multi-blade chain saw.
2. Skin animal with a rusty spoon.
3. Give animal skin to a chain-smoking coal miner for 2 decades.
4. Retrieve skin, stuff with steel wool and display in an unflattering light.
Chengdu: The capital of Sichuan. Famous for Pandas and Hot Food.
Thursday, August 22, 2002
I'll tell you all about Chengdu and horse-trekking soon . But I have to catch a bus to Vietnam shortly. So my next post will be from Hanoi.
Monday, August 19, 2002
One of the few interesting things to do in Lijiang Old Town itself is visit the wonderful Naxi Orchestra. With an average age of 146, it's touch and go as to whether they'll all make it thru the performance. They fon't so much play Naxi music as traditional Han Chinese fare. The bi-lingual conductor identified the topic of one piece as bound feet. With its delicate, ungainly rhythms and different tonal conventions all the music played evoked that delicate and disturbing image. Oh and the conductor got everyone singing Christmas carols at one point.
Rules for Chinese Tour Groups:
1. If your group numbers falls below 30, unpleasant feelings of anomie and individualism may result.
2. If camers unused for more than 5 minutes will cease to work.
3. Rule 2 also applies to the human larynx.
4. Souvenir purchasing is NOT optional.
5. Smoking can serious damage your health - causing such conditions as cancer, heart disease and impotence. So if you ever want to get rid of the one child policy - you know where your duty lies!
Of course, it's not just Chinese tourists that follow these rules.
Friday, August 09, 2002
"Where are you from?" I looked up from my book. The girl had good English for a 14-year-old Chinese.
"Part of Britain, yes?" She said evident intent to unearth the truth of the matter.
"Yes, Great Britain, United, Kingdom, many names."
"And are you proud of this?"
"I dunno. I do not have much choice in the matter."
"Why not?" She was surprised. "I am proud to be Chinese."
National pride is a tricky matter for Europeans - esp. bleeding heart Guardian readers like me. What do you think of national pride?
Two days ago I left Lijiang to do the three day Leaping Tiger Gorge trek. Arriving at the start of the trail equipped with the bare essentials, I headed off along the trails - following the trails of litter if presented with a forking pathway. About two hours in I started to feel rather peculiar. Kinda sick. And dehydrated. And dizzy. After three hours I reached the first guest house on the trail, negotiated a room at a reasonable rate and promptly passed out for three hours. I spent the next day indulging in one of my all time favoritest hobbies - deep sleep - with occasional interruptions froma concerned landlady. By today I felt fully recovered. The landlady waved me off with directions to the next guest house on route - three hours away. I thanked her and walked on... until just out of sight, where I waited a few discreet minutes before retracing my path and heading back to the start. To forge on or wimp out - the decision must have taken at least a millisecond. I didn't have the heart - or the Mandarin for that matter - to tell the landlady this tho.
Cycled to Baisha with a trainee doctor. Here the Naxi engage in their traditional pursuits of gouging tourists and playing pool. On arrival, we were confronted by a Naxi dancing troop - who stirred into action at the sight of potential tourist dollars as though they were puppets on a motion sensor. We avoided Dr Ho, who was standing on his doorstep dragging potential punters off the street. And instead had tea and cakes with an enterprising Naxi woman who had opened her home to tourists. She dressed my companion in traditional Naxi women's costume (which was appropriate as my companion was female). She didn't try the same with me - which is a shame because it's so flattering to the unkempt figure even I could get away with it.
We rounded off the day by visiting a temple just outside town. Its inner sanctum featured a Taoist deity surrounded by two Buddhas with a Naxi Mother Goddess thrown in for good measure. You have to make sure you've got all your bases covered, eh? Oh and there was a statute of a peasant and a emperor in there too. Just in case the others got lonely.
Attitudes to towards religious belief in China are extremely pragmatic. Whereas Hinduism attempts to bind diverse deities and practices into a single philosophical whole, Chinese culture kinda lets them compete in a free-market fashion, despite official communist disapproval.
Some photos that are better than mine. If only because this person bothered to take some.
There is a place called Black Dragon Pool just north of the Old Town. Here, Han Chinese tourists are pimped Naxi culture in much the same as Bai culture at Dali. Fortunately Chinese tourists do not enjoy climbing or walking, so I was able ascend, admire a panoramic view of the plain on which Lijiang sits and read a book in peace. Didn't see any elephants mind, but you can't have everything. Maybe they were hiding in the trees.
And so to Lijiang
One thing you have to understand about the Chinese is that they like their history to look nice and modern and shiny and new. Hence the "old town" of Lijiang has been extensively retrofitted into a bijou shopping mall. They were also celebrating the Torch thingy here too. The main addition being little polystyrene flower-boats with candles attached. You float these down the stream that runs thru Lijiang. Making an offering to the spirits whilst simultaneously getting rid of that pesky ozone layer. Neat, huh?
Celebrated by many of the tribal groups in Yunnan The Torch Festival. Some people say that it comemmorates the combustable suicide of the widow escaping the clutches of a lecherous king. Others talk of battles between demons and heroes. Still others mention a fertility rite to celebrate the rice harvest.
All you need to know is it gives small children an excuse to run around with flaming brands of wood. And the rest of us an excuse to drink beer next to twenty-ft high bonfires.
Friday, August 02, 2002
The Chinese language is kinda like lego. You take loads of one-syllable words and create new words from them. For instance, the word for martial arts literally translates as "5 trees".
I went to a little shop by the hostel and the woman immediately offered me some washing powder. Was that a hint?
Met an English guy who had spent 6 months teaching at a Chinese school. Some interesting points came up:
- All Chinese organisations run by the State have a dual hierarchy. You have the basic administration and then the Party appointees. So the Principal of a school will be its day-to-day manager. But the deputy head is Party and can tell the Principal what to do.
- Guangxi. Or "connections". Everything in China runs on Guangxi - who you know and what they owe you. The West would view it as corruption but the Chinese just see it as doing business.
- To a certain extent "corruption" is institutionalised. There is one pass mark for getting into university. There is another if you are willing to a few thousand yuan. There is yet another for the family of high-ranking Party officials. And this is all public knowledge, officially approved.
Yunnan is host to a number of ethnic minorities - esp. the Bai. And until a few years ago it was the preserve of Western backpackers. Now it has become a popular destination for packs of Han Chinese tourists. I chanced on some waiting for a presentation of Bai dancing inside one of the pagodas that top the city walls. They were kitted out in white CITS baseball caps. I thought it might be fun to join them. So having been relieved of some cash, I sat down to enjoy the show. The Mistress of Ceremonies (decked out like the rest of the staff in 'traditional' Bai costume) began with an intro in Mandarin. I couldn't understand a word of it, but it's unlikely it made reference to the persecution of minorities during the more turbulent years of communist rule. The dancing began and between numbers we were presented with small samples of Bai cuisine - pickled fruit, tea, a broth made from honey and coconut, and a tonic that took away the lining of my throat and refused to give it back. The dances involved three men and three women and seemed to be courtship rituals. It looked more fun than a night down Pizza Express. One number near the end involved the men playing guitar-like instruments and the women turning coyly away. When it was finished, the MC dragged a young bloke from the audience on stage and questioning him - to gales of laughter from the audience. He was presented with a guitar-thngy and a heart-shaped pendant apparently designed for Julian Clary. He was expected to perform in an amateur version of the previous dance and looked mighty embarassed. Poor bloke. But what was this? The MC was walking down the aisle towards the back of the room. Why was everyone was looking at me? She stopped where I sat. Oh dear. It seemed I was volunteer number two. Now I could simply refuse - but that would involve a massive loss of face. Damn it. Take me to the stage. On went the guitar-thingy and the pendant. And with me, matey and a male dancer lined up, the music started. The dance was quite simple. You hade to mime playing your guitar with romantic vigour and run from one side of the stage to the other, while your beloved looked away (which for my dancing is quite a common reaction). Unfortunately, half the time I couldn't see the lead dancer so I kinda made it up. The audience laughed so hard I wondered if they've need to mop the floor afterwards. When it was over I calmly went to my sit. The Chinese women sitting in the row all gave me the thumbs up.
Glad to be of service.