Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 30th September 2004

I'm still in Beijing, and it still surprises, infuriates and delights in equal measures. An oddly moving moment last night - Claire and I headed to the Houhai Lake area to find some food, and having satisfied our hunger we slowly made our way back to the hotel. On the way, flanked by the lake on one side, and a busy road thick with trundling electric buses on the other, we found dozens of couples in each other's arms, dancing. A rudimentary speaker system played slow and more upbeat Chinese songs, while the couples delicately twirled or gently stepped back and forth to the music.

Over the weekend we headed north out of the city on a train. Fortunately we had bought our tickets a couple of days previously - the station at first seems impenetrable for a foreigner. There is a special ticket desk for non-Chinese - it just takes a while to learn of its existence a track down. We were headed for Chengde, a medium sized town, four hours away by rail. The journey there was pleasant - the train smoothly took us past more rural scenes, as well as dusty mountains and small towns. For some reason I was harassed for much of the journey by a couple of small Chinese children - their courage grew from simply staring to, nearing the end of the journey, open physical abuse.

Chengde is home to a huge park and palace complex - similar to the Summer Palace in Beijing, it served as a holiday home for the Qing dynasty emperors. The literal name of the park, as translated, is 'Resort for Escaping the Heat', and it took us a day or so in all to explore. As well as heading into the hills in the west of the park, where we shared our walk with various creatures including deer and chipmunk, we went rowing on the large willow lined lake. There are also plenty of temples in Chengde to keep the tourist amused, and we visited a couple, including one called Putuozongcheng Miao, a Lamaist temple, the outside of which is designed to look almost identical to the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

But Chengde also offered a rich variety in the food we ate - or tried to eat. We almost managed to order successfully in a restaurant and a tea-house with no English menus. But on both occasions we miscalculated slightly. In the restaurant, an order for a pork dish turned out to be a large plate of wobbling dark orange pig fat, while in the tea house, on ordering chicken on a stick, we were presented with some things on a stick that looked as though they had been designed by H.R. Giger. They were, I think, silkworm pupae. They tasted OK. We also enjoyed a Mongolian hotpot in Chengde - since the diner chucks his own ingredients into the bubbling soup stock, we were on safer grounds with this.

Back in Beijing, yesterday we stocked up on souvenirs such as kites and a lot of various types of tea. And today, we headed up to a section of the Great Wall of China. We walked 10km along the crumbling structure, from Jinshanling to Simatai. It was exciting to finally get to the wall, and see it snaking over the hills into the distance. The walk wasn't too demanding, although there are some tough uphill stretches and parts where the path has disintegrated to the extent that finding an easy way is challenging. But the real difficulty was presented by the weather. The rain poured down for most of the three hours we were walking, and the wind rushed through us at the highest parts of the wall. At one point mist closed in, and all we could see was the track in front of us, as cloud bubbled up on either side of the wall - it seemed for a second like a pathway to a mythical kingdom. Unfortunately the reality behind such fantastical thoughts was hard to ignore, and arriving at Simatai thoroughly soaking, we had to buy a whole change of clothes from eager stall holders - for our own health and to preserve the upholstery of the car that took us on the long journey back to Beijing.

The day after tomorrow I'm off to a country which prohibits cameras with excessive zooms and mobile phones. Sadly, internet access is definitely out of the question, I should imagine.

66 - posted at 12:34:21
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Friday 24th September 2004

The colour that best defines Beijing is grey. The roads, the buildings, the sky - all are grey, a colour which mutes the bright temples and red lanterns that swing above streets and doorways. But despite the impression this might give, the city is captivating and dazzling, the streets full of constant diversions and for a foreigner, almost everything can give rise to endless speculation.

What first struck me was the traffic. Gridlock characterised much of the journey from the airport, which eventually ended in a narrow hutong close to the centre of Beijing, the location of the charismatic hotel - where I managed to meet up with Claire. That evening we struck out towards the flashy shopping area of Wangfujing, where, to continue the traffic theme, we discovered that many of the main roads through Beijing's centre take both courage and minutes to cross - they seem as wide as motorways.

Over the next couple of days we orientated ourselves - the obvious starting point was Tian'anmen Square, vast and liberally peppered with tourists and monuments, this place does, in a way, feel like the centre of China. Given my new-found hobby of viewing long-dead Communist leaders, Mao Zedong's mausoleum beckoned, a grand structure parked in the middle of the square. Visitors are allowed to see Mao in tightly regimented groups. Claire and I had to fall into ranks in such a small group, and then solemnly march towards the mausoleum. Many of the Chinese in front of us chaotically broke ranks on spotting a flower stall, running towards it and waving money at the vendor to buy tributes to Mao. But soon we were inside the mausoleum, passing by a statue of the erstwhile leader benignly relaxing on an arm chair. And then there he was, much thinner than I expected, lying under a hammer and sickle. To be honest, he looked like a waxwork - and there are rumours to this effect. Supposedly the real Mao was so distorted during the botched embalming process that a wax model had to be used instead.

We continued our acquaintance with the Tian'anmen Square area the following day, passing under the giant portrait of Mao to enter the Forbidden City. The place was packed with tourists - notably giant flag-following tour parties, each member identifiable from badges or colour-coded baseball caps. Like us, they wandered the collection of lavish pavilions, alleyways and gardens, enclosed by the high red walls of peeling paint. Perhaps like me they tried to imagine the palace as it was - populated by high officials, eunuchs and concubines. It wasn't an easy picture to conjure, despite remembered scenes from The Last Emperor. But the majesty and history emanating from the Forbidden City is awe-inspiring. Plus I had an excellent guide in the audio-tour. Sir Roger Moore provides English speaking tourists with a friendly and easy-going route through the main buildings.

Often, when directing me to the point when I should next turn on the guide he would say:

'Take a few minutes to discover the area, and I'll meet you over at marker number 5, just by the large incense burner'.

On finishing the tour, he hoped I had enjoyed it adding:

'Personally, I have enjoyed it immensely'. Which was good to know.

As well as the major sights, we have also enjoyed some of Beijing's many parks and lakes - a pleasant refuge from the bustling streets, they are also perfect for people watching. Tai Chi enthusiasts practice along side rehearsing opera singers. In the early evening, bats fill the sky flitting over pagodas and the still surfaces of the lakes. And as usual, people stare at us - surprising perhaps for such a cosmopolitan city.

Yesterday we took a hutong tour, riding a rickshaw through the ancient lanes of the low grey houses - Beijing used to be full of these little alleys, but now most have been demolished, the few hundred remaining cluster around the centre of the city. The tour was fascinating. As well as visiting the home of a hutong dwelling family and enjoying a tea ceremony, we visited a kindergarten. Claire was suspicious that the place was a 'show kindergarten' - and she may have been right. It was certainly well equipped, with CCTV cameras and a ball pool. We arrived during morning exercises when all the 'little emperors' were out in the playground, running in circles and generally being endearing. Some were shy, some pointed at me and laughed (not unusual among children here I have discovered) others came to talk to us through an interpreter. I asked some of them what they wanted to do. One loud little girl wanted to go to university and make money for her family. A boy wanted to be a policeman, another girl wanted to work at McDonald's.

'McDonald's is dustbin food' said a boy to the girl. She shouted back, as did he, and the conversation disintegrated into an uninterpreted, typical toddler brawl. I suddenly became a little overwhelmed with the innocence of the children. It was a great place to visit.

After a quick stop at the hotel to shave off my beard, we headed to Yonghe Gong, a Tibetan temple. The over-ornate pagodas and brash decor is more how I expected the comparatively restrained Forbidden City to be. The centrepiece of Yonghe Gong is a huge 180 metre standing Buddha carved out of sandalwood. I imagined him coming to life and rampaging through the city, like the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters.

There is too much going on in Beijing to write about in much detail - every aspect deserves a comment and every comment begs questions which can't be answered - so much is incomprehensible. As well as the above we have drank lots of tea, seen the ornate Temple of Heaven, picked our way through the hectic shopping of Dazhalan and gorged on fatty Peking Duck.

65 - posted at 12:27:46
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Sunday 19th September 2004

I arrived back in Thailand this afternoon, for a one night stop-over. Despite my short time here, I wanted to be sure that my stay wasn't solely defined by the bland walls of a hotel. I wondered what a young man on his own could possibly do with a spare evening in Bangkok. Despite the suggestions of the pimps prowling Sukhumvit Road, I decided to seek out some Thai kick boxing.

I recognised Ratchadamnoen Stadium as the same place Tom, Al and I had visited in 1997. The fighting seemed more violent than I remembered, a flurry of flying feet, lunging gloved fists, brightly coloured shorts and falling bodies, played out to a jangling beat performed by musicians in the stands and pulsing out of the p.a. system. At the start of each bout the boxers appeared in the ring, decked out in cloaks, simple head-dresses and tassels. They prostrated themselves at the four corners before the bell rang and the action began. The boxers kicked, kneed and punched each other, the smacking of flesh audible from my ring-side seat. The Thai crowd exploded in excitement and incomprehensible hand gestures, which I took to be signals to lay bets. At the end of a round, the coaches animatedly bellowed at their breathless fighters, who tried to listen in between being liberally covered in water. After each fight the umpire collected scores from the judges and proclaimed a winner - the boxers then retired to the back of the stadium, where keen punters had their photos taken with them. It was a fun way to spend the evening, although a peanut toting midget in a bowler hat was nowhere to be seen. It goes without saying that I can't appreciate the niceties of the sport - I don't even know the rules. Nonetheless, if anyone knows where I can't get a DVD of Ong-Bak with English subtitles I'd be much obliged.

As for Phnom Penh, I spent my last couple of days seeing sights with less of the dark impact than those of Thursday. Highlights on Friday included the National Museum, which contains some exquisite Angkor-period art, and watching an elephant pick its way across the busy riverfront road. That evening I decided to pay a visit to the infamous Happy Herb's pizza, where I ate a tasty 'happy' pizza. I slept very well that night, and was still feeling the effects of the pizza the next morning. I sat brooding at breakfast...why was that man staring at me? Does he know something I don't? What was I getting worried about again?

I had recovered enough by lunchtime to enjoy a frog based meal by the river, after which I headed for Wat Phnom, a faded wat on a small hill, the slopes of which are populated by scampering monkeys. This is also the case with the grounds of the Royal Palace, residence of the professional survivor, King Norodom Sihanouk. I watched as a monkey took command of a drinks stall, chasing away the tourists and the owner of the stall, who shouted in dismay as the monkey began to eat her abandoned paper-work and topple over crates of bottles, in the process of trying to break into one. Marauding primates aside, the Royal Palace is a celebration of opulence characterised by diamonds and ornate sweeping roofs, the centrepiece being the Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is covered with thousands of silver tiles.

Exiting the palace I ran into Nik, a tuk-tuk driver. I asked him to take me somewhere slightly off the beaten track. The tuk-tuk chugged over the Japanese bridge into a dusty suburb of the city. We stopped at what looked like a regular run-down roadside drinks outlet and my heart sank with the familiar fear that I had been victim of a scam. I wondered if Nik had simply taken me to a random restaurant where he would get commission from the owners for my custom. But, I was led through the shack to the back, where decking extended on stilts into a large lake. In hammocked alcoves along the deck Cambodians sat around drinking and eating. We sat on hammocks at the end of the decking and chatted over an Angkor beer (me) and a coconut (Nik). As we talked, the sun set in a haze of pink clouds behind the palm trees on the other side of the water.

64 - posted at 15:33:53
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Friday 17th September 2004

On Wednesday I renewed my acquaintance with the Mekong, arriving in Phnom Penh. That evening I strolled along the river front, a neat, well-kept strip. Flags and elaborate lamp posts line the water, while on the other side of the road, shops offer the usual services - 'Khmer Food Served Here', 'Phone/Internet Access', 'Welcome, Please Check Our Menu', along with the odd incongruity: 'We Make All Kinds of Coffin'. As well as the men lounging over motorbikes I had grown used to in Hanoi, there is also a proliferation of beggars and hawkers plying their trade - the majority of them children, or the physically disabled (or both).

Other parts of the city offer the same odd marriage between the grand and the destitute. Wide boulevards run the length of Phnom Penh, containing lofty neo-colonial facades and pleasantly landscaped pavements, while directly off these sprout small dirt tracks, cluttered with wooden shacks, cows and chickens.

Yesterday I rejected scooting around the city on a back of a motorbike, in favour of a taxi, which I commandeered for the day. The driver, Vannah, drove me 15km out of the city to the site of the killing fields at Cheoung Ek, the Khmer Rouge extermination camp closest to Phnom Penh - there are other killing fields dotted throughout the country. On walking into the site the visitor is immediately presented with the Memorial Stupa, a tall pagoda-like structure which contains a small glass box full of clothes and over 8,000 skulls. A path then leads to the site of the mass graves. Here, the track meanders around the edges of dozens of large holes, pits which have so far offered up the remains of nearly 9,000 people. Next to many of the graves are pots, into which newly unearthed bones are placed, some of them full. Half-buried pieces of coloured cloth liberally scatter the site, embedded in the earth, the remnants of the victims' clothes. And around the killing field children play and beg, offering to take tourists' photos ("Picture for money...1,2,3 smile, yes?") and cattle lazily chew the cud. As I was to realise later in the day, the real horror of Democratic Kampuchea can't be found here, despite the thousands bludgeoned to death. As another tourist I spoke to said, "Cheoung Ek is easy on the eye." He meant comparatively.

Vannah then suggested I should go and shoot some guns. I had read the Lonely Planet's disapproving lecture on the shooting ranges of Phnom Penh, which suggested these are underground organisations, where, for $100 tourists can machine gun a cow. That book is going straight in the bin. Although I felt a little uncomfortable given the morning's sight-seeing, I agreed with no reluctance and I was driven to a range near the airport on a military training base. I was unable to use the indoor range, as a delegation from the American embassy had booked it for the entire day, so, along with a Danish couple also there, I was to blaze away on a strip of land under the glaring sun, a long stretch of burnt grass leading up to a target depicting a swarthy looking gentleman advancing with a gun.

A man wearing the range's t-shirt, bearing the legend 'Mess With the Best, Die Like the Rest' handed me a K54 handgun. 8 shots later and the swarthy gentleman, apart from a wound in his shoulder, was looking a bit too healthy. The sights must have been off...

Then I was handed the AK-47 Kalashnikov, and with it 30 rounds. I lifted the gun to my shoulder - the metal was hot from the sun, and I felt the rawness as I lodged the butt into my still sunburnt shoulder. I lined up the sights and started shooting. Each time I pulled the trigger, a wisp of smoke rose from the weapon and I was greeted with the smell of cordite. The gun kicked back a bit, but not as much as I had expected, although when I took my t-shirt off later in the day, a small blotch of broken blood vessels showed where the gun had jolted back. After 10 or so rounds, I was having trouble - sweat poured into my eyes, and my right arm supporting the length of the AK was beginning to shake. The AK-47 is a lot heavier than any of the SA-80s or shotguns I have fired in the past, and eventually I decided to go down on one knee to shoot the remaining rounds, in order to support my weak arm. I have to admit that I wondered how the small child soldiers in the Congo handle such weapons. This time I was satisfied to get back a more impressively holed target, with some tight grouping around the chest area.

Later in the day I visited Tuol Sleng, the former high school the Khmer Rouge turned into S-21 Prison. It was from here that the dead at Cheoung Ek started their journey, although many never got that far, and after 1979 hundreds of bodies were exhumed from the grounds around the prison. From the outside the prison looks like a grim inner-city school, except more so, its walls dull and stained, the paint peeling. Once through the gates I was offered an English speaking guide to accompany me around part of the place. I'm glad I accepted as, although many of the rooms and pictures speak for themselves, the captions are in Khmer only and my guide explained them and gave extra information about S-21 and that time, including that her father and brother had been executed by Angkar.

The first classroom we entered set the tone for the whole compound. In it is a bare metal bed and resting on it some shackles and a jerry can. Above the bed on the wall is a large photo, taken by the invading Vietnamese forces in 1979 when they discovered the prison. It depicts the same bed, identifiable from unique bends in the metalwork. On the bed is the twisted corpse of a man, and on the man two birds peck away at his insides. In the other classrooms in this wing there are similar beds and similar images. By 1979 Khmer Rouge had started killing Khmer Rouge, the natural conclusion to four years of auto-genocide. The 14 bodies the Vietnamese found were the last inhabitants of the jail, and all Khmer Rouge.

Other buildings in Tuol Sleng contain instruments and descriptions of torture, including water barrels, scorpion and centipede cages and electric cables. Elsewhere remain the tiny cells the prisoners were kept in, shackled to the floor. One block remains exactly as it was, the front of the building covered in barbed wire, a crudely made wooden gate for entry - the wire was to stop prisoners jumping from the upper terraces to kill themselves. On the third floor of one building I watched a documentary about the prison and the rule of Angkar. As well as featuring an interview with one of the only 9 survivors of the prison and a former guard, it focused on a couple of inmates there, a husband and wife, and interviewed their ancient relatives in remote parts of the country, who until the making of the film were never certain what happened to their son and daughter.

But perhaps the most terrifying indication of the brutality and horror of S-21 and the Khmer Rouge's years in power are the photographs of the prisoners. Over 10,000 people were incarcerated here, and their photos are arranged in part by gender and age. The faces stare at the camera, some in open terror, others confusion. A few squint into the light, their blindfolds obviously just having been removed. Many appear to puff their chest out to the camera. Closer examination reveals this is because their hands are tied tightly behind their backs, while their heads are pushed forward, kept upright with a special adapted contraption. A woman, the wife of a former minister, cradles her baby, and looks morosely into the lens. If you look closely you can see a tear trickling down her face. In one section are the pictures of children, heart-rending photos of scared or oblivious faces; all the little girls, like the women, have their hair cut at shoulder length, in accordance with Angkar's instructions - Pol Pot was an ardent supporter of Mao's China and ordered the women to cut their hair as the Chinese communists did. The regime killed whole families, including children, so no one could seek revenge.

On other walls there are pictures of the foreigners tortured here, mostly businessmen caught out by the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Other foreigners include Vietnamese soldiers captured towards the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign - a beautiful Vietnamese soldier looks defiantly at her photographer. She is distinguishable as Vietnamese on account of her long hair.

I went to Auschwitz a few years ago, a chilling place, despite the sunshine and the singing birds. But somehow here is more immediately horrifying. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it is because with unshaved heads, the Tuol Sleng victims are less dehumanised. Or maybe because this all happened so recently, or perhaps because this holocaust seems more base and earthy - most of the victims were bludgeoned to death with rifles or spades, sometimes sticks. This was to save ammunition.

In the evening, feeling sombre and also slightly chastened for my Rambo antics earlier in the day, I quietly ate a Khmer dish of fried rice and a pork sauce, which I had to eat with my hands. I chatted to the waitress as lightning silently flashed over the river.

63 - posted at 05:17:50
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Tuesday 14th September 2004

Another early start on Sunday morning, to wait around for the minibus to take me on the three hour journey to Ha Long Bay City. It turned up just after 8:00am, and then jostled through the city picking up a few other tourists. I was kept in suspense over who my companions on the boat would be - the bus picked up a couple of Australian girls and a handful of young English men (now I realise that Alan Partridge quotes are only funny when they come from my friends and how we must irritate those around us), but only a few minutes after they were picked up, the bus dropped them off at another bus onto which they were transferred. As it turned out, I was fortunate - the tour was to be a very small one, with only me and a young couple called Li-An and Wilde travelling together. They were not, as the latter's name may suggest, a couple of vacationing performers in the adult movie industry, but two residents of Hong Kong, so we had lots in common and they proved to be friendly and easy company.

Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese woman called Huong. She was chatty and informative and told us that she was actively looking for an Italian boyfriend, since she had seen Italian men on television and thought them very handsome. She was even taking lessons in Italian.

We had a huge boat to ourselves - there were more in the crew than tourists. The boat chugged off to Ha Long Bay, stopping at some caves full of the usual stalagmites and stalactites. Here Huong asked the first of many questions prefaced with the phrase, 'In your country...'.

'In your country do you have caves like this?' Before I could answer, in a mocking tone, she sang out 'Noooo!'

After a couple of hours the boat stopped in a huge natural amphitheatre, the surroundings formed by the various giant limestone karsts rising out of the water, each one wearing a scraping of foliage up the sides and on top. Despite the popularity of the place with tourists, it is large enough to mean that the boat weighed anchor in a place of relative isolation, with only two or three other boats sitting in the distance.

I jumped into the warm water and splashed around for a while, always with the slight fear that some creature from the deep would awaken, grab my ankle and pull me under. But in fact the only jaws I needed to fear were those of the young dog on board. I suffer from something that I have christened 'Stella Syndrome'. This consists of the ability to wind-up dogs to the extent that after my good-natured taunting of them, they won't leave me alone, and constantly pester me to play with them. I had wound-up the dog on the boat, and he mucked around with me, jumping up and grabbing my hands with his mouth. Then I went for a swim, and each time I climbed back on board he was waiting for me and followed me, gently biting my legs and pulling at my shorts.

After swimming I went kayaking, paddling off behind distant rocks and through the various floating villages. In the early evening I stopped paddling and drifted for a while, and watched the sun set behind a clump of rock. As I did a flock of exotic white birds with long yellow beaks flew in front of me and the moment was perfect.

We had dinner on board the boat. As we sat down at the table a huge insect careered around the light bulb and the food. The dog leapt at it, twisting his body to catch it in his jaws. He was dragged away by one of the crew, and for some reason soundly thrashed, while another member of the crew simply stretched out his hand and caught the flying menace. The dinner was pleasant, but we were vaguely disturbed by the cockroaches scuttling around the benches. Wilde said that previously she hadn't been sure what a cockroach was, which surprised me since she came from Hong Kong.

Later I headed to my cabin, a cosy little wooden box, with a poster of Britney Spears on the wall. I doused myself in Jungle Juice as earlier I had seen bugs scurrying off under the beds when I entered, and identified red ants and what I thought was a bed bug on the bed I didn't sleep on. The next morning I was thankfully bite free, but ruined this good fortune later by reading on the deck in my shorts and getting burnt by the hazy morning sun. It was still pretty painful as I went to bed back in Hanoi that evening, and I felt a bit like the English Patient, except not quite as pretentious and without a beautiful French nurse to look after me.

This evening I'm still a little sensitive. Earlier I went to see the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, a popular tourist diversion. The stage is flooded with water and puppets act out typical agricultural Vietnamese scenes and legends, while musicians play traditional tunes. Although a remembered quote 'farcical aquatic ceremony' floated into my head, it is far from this - instead it's an amusingly surreal and colourful spectacle. Apparently the art form developed hundreds of years ago in the water paddy fields of the Red River Delta. I bet in those days the peasants watching weren't disturbed by their mobile phones going off.

62 - posted at 13:42:15
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