Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 8th April 2004

Come Home Billy Bird

Despite the distant prospect of 2047 and the opinion of Beijing, Hong Kong often isn't seen as 'China proper'. I resolved therefore to get into that country before I lost the opportunity - brief forays for counterfeit goods into the den of vipers that is Shenzhen don't count. With only a week to go before the end of my Hong Kong life, I caught a plane which took me an hour inland to Guilin, in the Guangxi province of China.

Just before the plane's shaky descent into Guilin's shabby airport the air hostesses came and took everyone's newspapers, bundling them into black bin liners, while the P.A. system told us this was because of local laws. It was a good indication, along with the sign greeting me as I left the plane that said " el ome to Gui in A r po t", that whatever I may have naively supposed while exploring the remoter areas of Hong Kong, 'China proper', even if only a short flight away, was radically different.

I met Oscar, my guide, as I left the airport. In addition to his exclamations regarding my youth, he told me he had chosen the name 'Oscar', because he liked American movies, and while reading a dictionary had discovered the word could be used as a first name, as well as an award. He also seemed to be some kind of amateur Confucian - when I asked him about the local climate he told me, "Sometimes it is warm, then suddenly it is very cold - like a girl's heart".

We drove 40 minutes or so into Guilin. Once I was installed in my hotel, I decided to go for a brief evening walk along the river, a walk which was soon curtailed, as I grew tired of the constant offers of 'massages' and 'nice Chinese girls'. Is there anything that could induce one to pay for sex less than having it suggested by an odd little man, digging around with his tobacco stained finger in a hole made by the loosely closed fist of his other hand?

The next morning a very early start - before 10am I found myself on a large river boat, cruising smoothly down the Li River, surrounded by stunning scenery - the giant limestone mountains that characterise the region stretched into the mist, each one, completely independent of its neighbour, rising out of the thick forest like a giant crumbling tooth. The boat weighed anchor at a town I can't remember the name of - the boat usually goes all the way up to Yangshuo, but Oscar apologetically explained that the river was too low, and the rest of the trip would have to be made by car. But the car journey turned out to be the best part of the day - the mountains still dotted the countryside and in addition, I also got to see villages and agriculture, cows roaming the roads, diminutive ancient women, bent double under a burden of sticks, three times the height of them, old men lounging by the road in Party uniform and caps. It was these sights, from the car window, that were the highlight of my trip to Guilin, as opposed to the half-hearted visits to a gallery or replica fort - I don't see why places that already pull in the tourists, by virtue of their natural beauty or colourful history, feel the need to artificially create more 'attractions'.

Yangshuo is a backpacker refuge, and the main street reminded me of the infamous Khao Sahn Road in Bangkok. I briefly admired the flood plain and a restaurant advertising rat hot-pot, before getting back in the car for the drive back to Guilin.

Perhaps I wouldn't have noted the rat hot-pot as keenly if I had previously been to the Guilin restaurant I visited that evening. Among the cages of pigeons and chickens, a cage of gently writhing snakes attracted my attention - not for its contents so much, but more for the four decapitated snakes' heads sitting on top of it, the blood of the creatures having been drained into a couple of glasses, which waited for a thirsty diner's patronage. I think it was the dog, skinned and roasted, hanging up in the kitchen window which intrigued me most. I asked Oscar later if he had ever eaten dog. He told me a story about when he was a child, growing up in Yangshuo. He said that when he was about 8 years old, he had befriended a stray dog. Over time the two became almost inseparable, and after school he used to run home to play with his canine friend. One day he returned from school to discover that the dog was nowhere to be found. He asked his mother where it was - his mother told him that their neighbour had sold the dog to the local butcher. Oscar was distraught, and went for a long walk through the countryside, tearful and inconsolable. Eventually, after he had calmed down a little, he dolefully returned home. His mother told him that their neighbour had given them some meat for their supper. It was the dog, of course.

"Did you eat it?" I asked.

"It was delicious. I had seconds" he replied.

Other highlights of Guilin included a trip up one of the mountains via a chairlift, for magnificent views of the region, with Oscar and I taking the option to travel back down the mountain by way of the incongruous toboggan track, which spits you out at sea level after a high speed three minute journey on wheeled toboggans, as well as watching the cormorants used for fishing and visiting underground caves, crowded with stalactites and 'mites.

But it was over very quickly, and soon I was back on the Airport Express being efficiently transferred from Chek Lap Kok airport to the centre of Hong Kong - and then, five days later, it was shipping me out again.

And then suddenly China was done, and Hong Kong too, my time there over for now.

44 - posted at 15:23:00

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Tuesday 17th February 2004

Deft manipulation of public holidays and available leave meant that Claire and I enjoyed over two weeks respite from work and an opportunity to venture further into Hong Kong and South East Asia.

The dawn of the year of the monkey proved auspicious, and we found ourselves with one of the best views in Hong Kong of the territory's massive and impressive firework display, watching a curtain of stars fall into the harbour, as jealous diners craned over our shoulders.

The new year's public holidays last for three days - most Chinese retreat into their homes or visit relatives, but not before heading for the nearest temple to ensure the best possible fortune for the coming lunar year. Hence the Wishing Tree, a short drive from Tai Po in the New Territories. This enormous tree sits in the grounds of a large temple complex, its branches groaning under the weight of wishes, scribbled on paper, attached to oranges and hurled into the branches of the tree. Having spent some time formulating a wish, I cautiously made my way through the crowds of people, successfully avoiding the oranges thudding to the ground around me, and sent my wish flying through the clouds of incense, towards the branches. The orange, with my wish streaming behind it, flew straight through the tree, missing its mark, and landed amongst a heap of other failed wishes. It was swept up and incinerated before I could retrieve it and have a second go. Claire's however, caught and hung safely amongst the other successful attempts, destined to come true. I wasn't too worried about my broken dreams - prior to trying the tree a wander around the temple, past a high energy dragon dance, had brought us to a fortune teller, who read my palm without too many unpleasant comments, although I was rather hoping for a longer life.

The following days took us to some of the SAR's most colourful and intriguing sites - such as the 10,000 Buddhas monastery in Sha Tin, the number of Buddhas in which comfortably exceed its name; and the walled villages of the Hakka tribe, antique fortresses, over which the tower blocks of the new towns loom, while within, the clacking of mah-jong tiles echoes through the dark alleyways and corridors. The outlying islands also proved fruitful - twilight one day found us on the wrong side of Cheung Chau, amongst the cemeteries built into the coastal rocks, rather than the heavily populated town a mile or two across the car-free island. We quickened our pace, not wanting to be caught out by the darkness. Walking past the crematorium as the sky turned an inky shade of blue, we noticed small fires burning in between the memorial tablets. A gentle sweeping sound turned out to be an ancient woman, sweeping up ashes amongst the flames. She cackled and babbled to herself as we hurried past. Thankfully 20 minutes later and we were deep in the lively lanes of Cheung Chau's market. As well as the outlying islands, a ferry also took us to Macau, Hong Kong's dilapidated older brother, a would be Vegas of the east. Full of character, years of Portuguese rule fashioning the area in the Iberian style, in a way the British never really managed with Hong Kong.

But, despite the delights of Hong Kong (and Macau) I was looking forward to the three days in Cambodia that were, more or less, to bring the holiday to a close. Looking out of the plane window as we descended into Siem Reap airport, the jungle and paddyfields stretching out of view, filled me with a sense of calm that the shiny glass towers of Central could never achieve. The country's beauty though, tragically, hides the sinister legacy of Democratic Kampuchea - the jungle and paddyfields are still largely riddled with landmines. In Hong Kong the amputees begging provide expats with a diverting exercise in speculation - some say that when borrowers can't repay their debts to the Triads, the Triads cripple them, then make them beg to pay off what they owe. No such speculation in Cambodia though - the reason for the plastic arms, the wooden poles and the distorted stumps is plain enough.

But Siem Reap has tourism to pull it away from the darkness of the '70s. The place is now solidly on the tourist map - our fellow passengers stepping off the plane in the baking sunshine seemed to belong to Belgium's equivalent of Saga. In the car park of the airport, a gravel area that reminded me of the carpark in a provincial English railway station, we found Rith and Smee, to be our guide and driver respectively. They were, like almost every local, good-hearted and seemed genuine, with none of the tired smiles I've encountered in other tourist areas, whether on the package or the backpacker trail. Perhaps the charabancs simply haven't got to them yet.

That afternoon we rattled down a dirt track, past clutches of one-room huts on stilts, their walls made of palmleaf mats, outside of which mud-covered pigs fraternised with naked children. Smee skilfully avoided huge holes in the road to bring us to the edge of a village by a river. We buzzed up the river on a small boat, and I felt more and more like Conrad's Marlow (or I would have done, had the boat boy not been wearing a Beckham top). As we neared the end of the river, we passed a floating school, the open doorways affording a brief glimpse of children, quietly attentive at their desks, pencils poised. And then the river opened up into Tonle Sap, the great lake of Cambodia. Our boat made its way through the floating village, at least a hundred houses built on rafts, to a fish farm, the size of a canal barge, on the very edge of the settlement. Beyond this there was only water, which simply disappeared into the horizon. The farm was crammed with tourist junk for sale, much the same as I could get back in Hong Kong at Stanley market, but it also contained more unusual items. As well as a pen of large hungry fish there was a line of cages and tanks containing various lake creatures, a python and a wide-eyed monkey, swinging himself maniacally in his miniature hammock - he would later run riot across the farm when released from his cage. Down at water level, on a platform under our feet, 30 or so crocodiles were lazily enjoying the sunshine.

The next morning found us in the world heritage site of Angkor. Our first stop Angkor Thom, the ancient capital city. It wasn't hard to ignore the hawkers ("Lady, lady! you want guide?") or even the elephants to admire the first giant stone face, looking out of the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Inside, we discovered that our visit had coincided with a national festival, in which monks from throughout the country travel to Angkor to benefit from the public's charity. Lines of orange-robed bald-headed young men stood in lines, holding pots, receiving food and money. We made our way through the crowds to the remains of the Bayon. Well preserved bas-reliefs tell the story of the city of Angkor (and provide one of the only contemporary clues to the history of the place - and therefore the country) while above them, from the tumbledown towers, the benign smile of Jayavarman VII looks out in all directions. Wandering amongst the stones, we eventually made our way under the towers. Above us, chirruping bats were suspended, faint grey shapes in the gloom. Despite myself, old Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness fantasies began to resurface - something reinforced later in the day: a distant flock of unidentified birds rising from the depths of the jungle as Claire and I sat on the hill of Phnom Bakheng, watching the cloud smudged sunset over the plain of Angkor.

In the afternoon - Angkor Wat. From the far side of the moat, its five towers, like giant lotus buds, sitting over the long corridors and levels of the temple, present a familiar image - but the pictures and the films do not do it justice. As with Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring. Almost every inch of stone in the sprawling complex is covered with intricate engravings, including long corridors of bas-reliefs depicting Hindu stories. The temple exists over many levels, and scrambling across ledges and up steep stairs, occasionally a nerve-wracking endeavour, only presents more to marvel at - whether surveying the views from the temple, the structure as a whole or the details of a doorway or window. Only the sweat drenched t-shirts of fellow tourists tempered the atmosphere - but even they can't really affect the place.

In Ars Poetica Horace states that a writer should 'leave out what he knows will not look polished if written', and although, as is evident, I frequently break this rule, I despair of success in describing Angkor. Plus I'm a little lazy. It's a stunning, mysterious place, but I'm afraid of sounding patronising, or merely flat in trying to do it justice. But I hope to get back soon - I wonder how the increasing numbers of visitors will affect Siem Reap. Will it be completely overrun in five years, destroyed by the ravages of insensitive tourism? Or will it manage its growth as successfully as it seems to be doing at the moment?

I was sickened by an American backpacker I saw assuming he could openly bribe a policeman outside Angkor Wat, and perplexed when I saw a couple of Western tourists tip a monk after chatting with him. But is my tourism anymore responsible? I hope so - and I think so - but at the same time, I greedily stare at the third world villages, feeding my senses, while I pay my money instead to the posh hotel in town, live out my Conradian fantasies and then fly out - fly out to, as it happens, a foot spa in Ho Chi Minh City Airport. And my tip for the day is: if you have ticklish feet, don't have a foot massage.

43 - posted at 01:54:07

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Wednesday 11th February 2004

A quick note to remind myself I still exist. I've just returned from a colourful and fascinating holiday (more about which soon), but now I'm once again imprisoned in the mental and physical misery of the glass box where I have engage myself in frivolities in order to remain sane.

In this spirit, this site is a disturbing introduction to the shabby world of celebrity lookalikes, demonstrating what happens to those poor fools who take that 'all my mates reckon I'm a dead ringer for Robbie Williams' syndrome a little too seriously. As well as some of these 'artists' being shockingly unconvincing (see, for example, Ant & Dec) - but oddly compelling - the site raises some fairly searching questions. Such as, how much demand is there really for a Bella Emberg lookalike (etc)?

And from that topic, where else to go but to another tedious entrant into the gallery of miscreants cursed with my name?

Robert Allen

This saucy fellow was a shipmate on the USS Nassau, a battleship, during the Second World War.

42 - posted at 13:29:22

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Sunday 25th January 2004

Kung Hei Fat Choy!

Year of the Monkey

41 - posted at 05:39:29

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Monday 8th December 2003

Two vaguely interesting (for me) stories on Roll on Friday this week. The first of these offers further confirmation that, at whichever firm an aspiring solicitor trains, being used as a useful strategic pawn (whether it be in a legal capacity, a marketing capacity or a 'verbal-punch-bag-allowing-a-superior-to-vent-his-frustrations-at-his-home-life capacity) with obligatory humiliating and degrading results is the norm. I suppose this type of treatment should be looked at as pre-emptive punishment for a life of being qualified to practice law.

The second concerns more abused employees - this time in a department store. In Austria, the website reports, shop-workers are demanding that they be compensated for the 'psychological terror' of having to listen to Christmas music throughout their working day. Apparently, this treatment has left the workers 'aggressive and confrontational', and makes them 'completely lose their temper at the slightest mention of anything to do with Christmas.' This story attracted my attention, because, like the oppressed Austrians, I once had to endure 6 months of Christmas music whilst working in a department store. You could argue that I asked for it, as I was flogging Christmas decorations, but it may explain why my ears start bleeding everytime I hear Paul McCartney jauntily imploring everyone to have a 'Wonderful Christmastime', or John Lennon tunelessly droning on about how war is over. That said, there are six or seven Christmas songs to which I'll happily listen, and I certainly don't lose my temper at the slightest mention of Christmas. I was even grateful for the two cans of shop branded lager and a Christmas pudding the store gave me as a 'Christmas bonus'. In fact, this year, I haven't looked forward to Christmas so much since I was eight years old.

One man who may have been spending too much time listening to the piped music in the store he owns is David Tang, proprietor of Shangai Tang. I quote below from his letter to the South China Morning Post:

'Looking at the utterly ghastly Christmas tree in Central, I just wonder if it is not too much to ask for the vapid Hong Kong tourist board at least to engage someone with even a modicum of style or an amoebic degree of taste so as to present Hong Kong with the slightest hint of sophistication.'

He's got a point actually, but perhaps he should stay out of the city as Winterfest kicks off.

Ho ho ho.

40 - posted at 07:36:14

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