Friday, August 19, 2011

Flashback 02: Into North Vietnam

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 – Part 4

I am currently in Vietnam. Yup, Nam baby! It was rather a mammoth journey from Lijiang and the Snow Mountain Rock Festival, but we have made it to the small old French hill station of Sapa for some serious R&R. A place of calm, fresh air and serious views.
From Lijiang we took a series of buses South to Dali, pass the famed lake and then across to Kunming. It was bucketing down most of the way, which bought some added entertainment. Our journey in a mini-bus was rudely interrupted by a huge slam and a small skid. A landslide slurry of rocks and mud had cascaded down the hillside and ripped a sizable chunk out of the side of the vehicle. Nice.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Kunming a nice city. China seems to have a knack of producing monstrously polluted and ugly cities, but Kunming had a welcoming feel about it. Unfortunately I caught a nasty bug there and, after a night of high fever and mild delusion (I was convinced Felix was the devil incarnate guzzling the last of the orangeade), we decided to push on and jumped on a rickety bus to the Sino-Vietnamese border. A mistake. Throughout the entirety of the 14 hour bumpy bus ride I had a fever and a severe migraine. I could barely even bring myself to look out the window. Eyes forced shut by the pain, occasionally interrupted by some rude official demanding our papers.

Still feeling ropey, what I did not need was an eventful border crossing. Sods law. At the Chinese border control the officials let the others through, took my passport, looked at me, scrutinised my passport, looked at me some more and then walked off with my documents to a room behind. No word. I waited, with a touch of anxiety. What had I done? Who had I discussed the tortures of the one child policy with? How many times had I suggested that China was not really communist and autocracy was not necessarily the best form of government? Eventually, after many minutes, the guy came back, scrutinised me a bit more and let me through.

Across the ironically named "Friendship Bridge" between these historic enemies and the Vietnamese guards were hardly more pleasant. Yes, they gave us each a copy of this tacky tourist brochure, but then ensued to point AK47's at us for not reading them with due attention. I have some sympathy for the guys. The transition from alert border guards to tourist reps is not an easy one.

Thankful to be through, we hitched a ride in the back of a 1960's Soviet and jeep took the windy, precipitous yet stunning road to Sapa.
Now awakening from days of feeling awful, the extra intrigue of a new country leaves me in as excited state about my travels as I have been. It is so beautiful and the local hill tribe people are so nice (despite the offering of opium). In particular, the children are great fun, falling all over the place and finding us foreigners very amusing. We have been on gentle walks, perused the markets and even bought a pillow cushion.

The most striking thing about the place is that it is in the shadow of Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain, and the view is really quite spectacular (see photo above).

We are moving on in about an hour to Hanoi via a 12 odd hour sleeper train journey. I do not know if it is my long running desire to visit Vietnam, the friendliness of the people I have met so far or maybe that we have escaped the all controlling Beijing, but I am so much more excited about this country. I really am buzzing about seeing Hanoi and heading down this long, thin land.

HANOI AND HALONG BAY 

My first hour or so in Hanoi will, I am sure, stay with me as long as any of my memories of this part of the world. Jumping off the most uncomfortable train ride of my life – steaming hot and squeezed on a top bunk, prevented from sleeping by a lethally sharp fan blade rocking and propelling not 4 inches from my head – we arrived just before the crack of dawn in a dazed, dreamlike state. We wandered away from the hustle and bustle of the train station and through the abandoned streets. As the first light permeated the smog, we walked along the tree-lined boulevards in search of somewhere to stay. It was like no place I have ever visited. A strange hybrid of a pretty French town and a polluted Asian megacity. Eventually, we found ourselves at the central lake. There, by the water were old ladies and gentlemen carrying out their daily ritual of Tai Chi. As the city awoke and noise, smells and sights bubbled up from slumber, these people represented such calm tranquillity. We threw down the backpacks, sat on them and watched. Surreal and beautiful.
After a couple of days enjoying the sights of the city, Felix, Rachel (a friendly wicker witch we met in China) and I headed off to Halong Bay. This involved a four hour journey out east from Hanoi, before jumping on an over night boat cruise around the world heritage listed sticky outy limestone islands which break out into the South China sea from the mainland. A stunning place. The same geological phenomenon as we saw a few weeks back in Yangshuo (China), though instead of scenic paddies below, there are emerald green waters.
We toured around some caves (adorned with plastic penguin bins), swam and played drinking cards with some guys who crawled over from another boat. The highlights were though undoubtedly just sitting watching the islands roll by and, at night, diving off the high top of the boat in a tropical rainstorm into waters frothing with bright phosperesence. Then again there was also lying on the deck watching wide-eyed as the sky was lit up by fork lightening vividly extenuating the shape of the islets. A crazy, fun time. The only mild downer was an un-engaging, pissed off crew.

The way back was uneventful except for a stop off at a shop selling snake wine. Barely tempting. The locals put live snakes in alcoholic liquid, allow them to drown, let the liquid fester, and then serve it everywhere. Nasty stuff, though it is apparently an aphrodisiac.
We are now back in Hanoi waiting around for our Cambodian visa. Good times. Just enjoying the buzz, fusion and confusion of Hanoi. I really like this city with its millions of motor bikes, baguettes for breakfast and noodles for lunch. When the visa is in hand we are heading off to the centre of the country, Hue and the DMZ. You know I am almost getting used to these double digit hour uncomfortable journeys.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Flashback 02: Rocking Lijiang

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 3
I am in Lijiang, Yunnan province, China. A very old (in parts) town over 3000m above sea level. It is so beautiful here. Winding cobbled streets lined with picturesque houses with delicately tiled roofs. Exactly how I would have pictured a historical Chinese town. I've really enjoyed just strolling around, taking it all in, but of course found a bit of time for dress up. Our time has been enhanced by the company of Rachel, a New Zealand wicker witch (i.e. white "good" witch) we met dancing on the roof of our hostel in a torrential lightning storm and a slightly odd, but very friendly lolloping German called Thilo, who wears decidedly tight shorts for such high altitudes (or indeed anywhere) and has an evil sense of humour. We did a great cycle ride out to some outlying villages. Yunnan has so many distinct ethnic groups with differing traditions and dress. How long they can exist before the all engrossing monster of Han culture devours them is hard to guess, but their odds seem pretty short. To add to our recent excitement, on the way here a chunk of our minibus was ripped out by a landslide as we rolled along in the pouring rain from Kunming. Rubbish weather changed our plans. No longer are we to trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge, now we are planning something markedly different... Near Lijiang on a mountain side (the highest one round here is over 5,500m high - in other words, shit high) China's first major rock festival just happens to be about to commence. Pure chance and we've rolled sixes. What has been dubbed as the "Chinese Woodstock" starts tomorrow and Felix and I are itching to go. Who needs Reading? A FEW DAYS LATER... The Snow Mountain Rock Festival rocked... eventually. The full works in terms of sound, lights and set up, though the crowd was much smaller than expected due to the weather. A distinctly odd turn out. Try and picture it, somewhere half way up a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas, hundreds of people shielding under umbrellas in two piece suits wearing plastic bags on their smart shoes to guard against the sodden ground. Around the perimeter, ticker tape was guarded by a load of soldiers in full gear. Were they there to keep others out, or us in? To be honest, it was a bit crap at the start, polluted by Cantonese pop (to be avoided at nearly all costs), but the tide soon turned....
In the interests of livening things up a bit, I was one of the founders of the first mosh pit in Chinese rock festival history (or so the people around us later informed us). We were left with little choice as a seriously cool punk band thrashed out their three cord creations. We then got slashed on beer and bacardi breezers on account of them being free. Why? We are Western. A strange not all too pleasant feeling, but you can't be fussy with only a few yuan in the pocket.

The clear highlight was the last performer of the weekend, Cui Jan, the godfather of Chinese rock, who has been banned on numerous occasions and even played at Tiananmen square preceding the massacre. He was awesome. Being the last foreigner left, the cool Chinese crowd through me up in the air and gave the bumps. I just about survived though I fear I crushed one or two quite small people. A fitting farewell to this bizzare but entertaining event was bid by the Chinese army - who ever said military conscription doesn't go to good use... Anyhow, a great experience, but onwards and upwards, we are off to Indochina tomorrow. I just hope the nasty stomach bugs that has afflicted me and left Felix doubled up over a particularly minging rat infested hole in the ground for hours on end alleviates. God bless the Dongba guesthouse and all its black bean soup.

Vietnam awaits....

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Flashback 02: Yangshuo

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 2
I am still in little Yangshuo, a place to melt the senses. My lasting memory from this small corner of China will be perched on the top of a huge limestone stack called "Moon Hill", sweat pouring from the climb and catching breath, staring out over a panorama of countless more green-clad limestone hills with only a few rivers, small villages, padi fields and a soft mist filling up the gaps. The sweltering, fantastical scene is embellished by the reflections of the hills in the water of the padi fields. Water, reflects earth, reflects sky. A confounding symmetry of beauty.

This place ranks with any natural wonder I have ever seen or perhaps ever will see. I honestly am thinking about coming back here if I take a year out and teaching for months. A place to share with those you love.
Yesterday, with a simply excruciating hangover (made far worse by the bumpy road to the jetty), we were able to slowly sink in the scenery as we floated down the Li river on a bamboo boat. Serious relaxation. The bird life was fantastic. Cranes and other water birds abound. In the evening we took a little boat out to watch the fishermen catch dozens of fish with cormorants. An ingenious activity where in return for the birds diving in, catching fish after fish and bringing them back to the boat, the fishermen give them back one in seven or so. The catch, so to speak, is that the birds have rings around their necks to stop them eating the first six and are on lines to stop them escaping.

POTHOLING CHINA STYLE

By far and away the most adventurous part of our stay involved a cave and a lesson in Chinese health and safety standards, or rather the severe lack thereof. As is the way with a landscape of limestone, beneath our feet, water has scoured out a contortious network of caves and a mini-industry has sprung up showing tourists these wonders. After a bit of searching around and negotiation we went with a guy who had his own private cave, hidden away amongst the hills. When I say hidden I am not exaggerating. We hitched a ride on a mobile tractor type device to the proper countryside some way from Yangshuo. We then jumped off and criss-crossed a series of mosquito infected padi-fields while the guide looked round to check no one was following. Protecting his assets. After some time and a lot of bites we arrived at a pond at the base of a limestone stack. In said pond was a water buffalo munching away. Nice scene and all, but on asking where the cave was, our guide just pointed to the pond. Oh dear.
We spotting a small narrow opening in the hill at the far side of the pond. Asked him if he was serious. He was. We shrugged our shoulders and slipped into the sludge of the water and waded over to the opening passed the bemused looking cow. Torches on, we were urged on through the opening and, feet on tiptoes, scurried along holding our heads as high as we could to stay above water. The air gap narrowed to a matter of inches, but we persevered just about keeping our faces above the murky water stretching our chins to the ceiling. As the sunlight dimmed and then disappeared, the ceiling thankfully rose, the water shallowed and we found ourselves in a limestone cavern. As you would imagine, stalactites and mites abounded. We spent the next hour or so climbing up, over and through passages which ranged from large halls of stone, to small gaps we could barely fit through. When our dim torches punctured the pitch black, they showed an undulating and twisting scenery coloured dirty beige. Time for a slightly homoerotic mud fight and then, perhaps a kilometer down the passage we made it to the waterfall. Some 15 meters high and wide, cascading from above us down to a pool below.. Quite a sight deep below the ground. What to do? Wide open eyes, deep breath and dive from high above into the cool gushing pool. Bashed by the torrent and awesome relief. Quite an experience.
Apart from a few bumps and bruises, the only thing that concerned me at the time was our torches periodically stopping working. Not a great idea to have to be knocking your tacky Chinese torches over and again to light your way deep below the earth. It was only after we re-emerged and went for a beer that it dawned on me that this was wet season, the caves were prone to flooding and what we did may have been rather stupid. Awesome fun though.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

The most comical part of our stay was an interlude in an otherwise serene day cycling though the fabled countryside. As seems to be his way, conveniently in the middle of nowhere Felix's stomach gave way. That sharp pain of travellers guts gone wrong built and built until toilet time was obligatory with immediate effect. By chance we had just passed the small dwellings of a farmer and his family. Faced between that and a padi field complete with bity things aplenty, I walked and Felix waddled up to the house.

We knocked and the family were in. Hurray for Felix! Or it would have been had we spoken the correct Chinese dialect (or perhaps any dialect) to explain our need. "Toilet" and "WC" got us nowhere, so in his desperation Felix resorted to more and more explicit hand signals until, finally and with a little shock, the family understood. While Felix sauntered into their out house making strange noises the family and I burst out laughing. Who needs a common language to share a joke!

NIGHTS TO JUST ABOUT REMEMBER AND OFF TO YUNNAN

Once the sun sets our time here has largely focused around seriously cheap local beer at what works out as less than 30p a pint (for god-sake our room only costs us about 80p per night each!), and loads of cool people. Our favourite bar is the "Green Lotus" where we have befriended most of the people who work here and in particular one of the local guys we knew as "Kevin" (those working around the touristy industry have largely supplemented their proper names with English ones given by various travellers who have passed through), and the earliest we have made it home on any night here is 3am. I mean they're open till we drop or, at least in one instance, until we hitch a home on a wobbling motorbike at first light.
Tonight is our big last night here. We will soon get to leave our mark on this part of China on the walls of the Green Lotus. Not sure what I will write, but will think of something.

Tomorrow we embark in sequence on a one hour minibus journey back to Guilin, a six plus hour bus journey to Nanning, and then a daunting seventeen plus plus hour hard-sleeper (even more uncomfortable than it sounds) train journey to Kunming in Yunnan province. That is well over 1000 km in just over 24 hours. Should all though be worth it as Kunming is our staging post for the more interesting part of Yunnan. We plan to head to Lijiang and the mountainous north-west of Yunnan. The foothills of the Himalayas and reportedly the only place in China that can match the beauty of where I am now. Can not wait!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Flashback 02: Hong Kong and first steps into the Mainland

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 1

Hong Kong is exhilarating and everything I expected. A mad urban sprawl of mass sky-scrapers on every inch of space and of all possible safety standards (mostly rotting, but just as many new ones being built). There is also an amazing array of culture and living standards, with huge wealth, depravity, seadyness (oh word is there a lot of that), refined class, authentic Chinese culture etc.
The sight of Hong Kong island skyline was simply breathtaking last night (just beating the Arabian sunset over the gulf on our stop over in Dubai), and we're going over to the island tomorrow. I am currently in and around Kowloon. We've just spent 4 hours walking around all the hectic and dirty backstreets catching the atmosphere. They really are insane. You can buy anything you could possibly imagine and a whole lot more. In fact the area just round from where I am staying has more shops and stalls per square inch than anywhere on the planet!
We are staying in the 'Garden hostel', a scruffy but friendly and dirt cheap place in a dodgy, dirty rabbit warren of a tall building in the backpacker district. I like it quite a lot actually. The only problem has been Felix's severe stomach problems (you can see that 15 times a day look on his face!) though some pills I bought from a Chinese pharmacy may do the trick.
Soon we are off to the mainland armed with 2 words in Chinese and an inability to use chop-sticks. An adventure indeed. Oh and we've decided to do an additional 2000 plus km train journey through Yunnan province and Kunming so to see some amazing scenery and approach Hanoi from the wilder north-east mountain/hill province.

GUANGZHOU AND INTO GUANXI

Where am I today? I am in Yangshou in Guanxi province in south-western China. Up to this point our journey has been quite fun, incredibly interesting and more than a bit arduous. The rest of our time in Hong Kong was cool, we saw the island itself with all the rich scrapers, and had a night out (nothing too amazing, but cool that we left the bar at our own leisure at 6:15 am). We then got a bus to the city of Guangzhou in Guandong province. Now this was a culture shock! During the 5 hour journey from Hong Kong there was not a single time when we could not see an ugly, cheap housing block. They are huge and ran in line for mile after mile after mile. I kid you not! The concept of a billion people becomes slightly more fathomable.

Guangzhou itself was quite possibly the shit-hole of humanity. About 6 million people living on top of each other in these horrible apartment blocks scrambling for space as far as the eye can see. This is one of the most developed cities in China and my word does it show that they have a long way to go in terms of both economic wealth and living standards. Below each of these buildings were scores and scores of dirty streets lined by squalid markets. We went to one of the most famous and active, where I swore they were selling and eating anything that flies, runs, jumps, crawls or slithers. Scorpions, snakes (I got a shock from walking past literally hundreds of them in a single bucket - some having escaped and crawling over the floor - would not surprise me if they were poisonous as safety standards, along with animal rights, do not seem high priority here). It was all fascinating though and we stayed in a more than reasonable hostel in the ex-colonial part.
Quite a contrast from there to here. It was a 10 hour sleeper bus (though I did not sleep much) to Guilin. "Sleeper" bus was a bit of a misnomer considering the excruciatingly squeaky and loud Cantonese pop which pumped out the stereo to poison the air. Then an hour or so south by minibus to Yangshou. Without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. This is the crawler covered stack hills and beautiful waterways illustrated in so much Chinese artwork and from first glimpses I reckon it might just live up to its reputation...