Saturday, February 25, 2006

Chengdu, Sichuan, China

It took me 2 weeks but I have finally managed to leave Yunnan. I had to do a 40 hours Fun Run to do it due to snowstorms denying me access to the Trans-Himalayan Highway. This involved the Great Chinese Sleeper Bus with its great dampness and cold then a tremendously interesting hour or so trying to cross a vast industrial town to get to the train station in the dark wee hours with only the vague meanderings of some drunk guy in Lijiang who might have said that he thought bus 64 would take me there as guidelines. I eventually found the correct bus and got on a Great Chinese Hard Seat Train. Imagine taking the Tube at rush hour, imagine everyone is smoking, imagine that you have got to swallow some generously offered, but seriously disgusting, unidentified snacks and then imagine doing this for 15 hours. Sounds fun doesn't it?

The positive side of this “getting there is half the pain” stint is that I was treated to great scenery most of the time. Gorges, vast rivers, great mountains and loads of terraced agriculture were all on display except when passing the numerous industrial cities that litter China and produce the stuff we all buy. At night these become nightmarish scenes of fire belching smokestacks and neon lit heavy machinery. It was like getting a slide show of some dystopia out of a early thirties sci-fi novel.

So what have I been doing since my last post? In short I have one of the most popular backpacker trails in China. The Dali to Zhongian trip. Also known as the Shangri-la run.

The first stop was the town of Dali. This is an old and quaintly restored walled city that is a major attraction for domestic tourists. It had a weird Disney Does China feel about it and I strangely preferred the new town 20 kilometers away as the daily activity of an average Chinese burg still holds some fascination for me. Of note in Dali are the old women who try to sell ganja to you. Not just weird because of their age and quaint Dai costumes but also puzzling as all you have to do to get some of the local stuff is walk a few klicks out of the city and pick your own from the big bushes that dot the side of the road.

Next stop north was the UNESCO heritage site of Lijiang. Lijiang is what Chinese towns look like in Chinese cinema epics. Low houses with wooden facades slapped chaotically along a network of narrow canals and bridges. Also a domestic tourism hotspot but that was fun in itself as the main drag was alive with groups of waitresses in local costumes trying to outsing each other to attract the vast groups of drunk Chinese to their restaurants. To add to this fun you sometimes spot wax paper flowers with a candle in them floating down the stream as the more sober groups of women would buy and release them for good luck. Getting back to the guesthouse through the non-developed part of the Old Town after a drinking spree reminded me of waddling through the Petite France area of Strasbourg whilst drunk. I had to be slightly more alert as the cobbles were more slippery and there is a great lack of barriers to stop you falling into an icy cold stream.

I procrastinated more than I should in this pleasant place before moving on, northwards again, for some hiking at Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s hard to put in words how great that was. I scrambled breathless (from the altitude, the hike and my fondness for ciggies) along a trail up on the mountains alongside the gorge pausing occasionally to look at the Wile E Coyote drops top my left. Frequently our little party of me, a Swiss couple and a Colombian guy (all much more used to hiking and altitude than me) faced the rush hour of long haired goats and packed mules that frequent the 2 foot wide trail. My legs were cramped and my feet were blistered but it was a fantastic 2 day hike in one of the most scenic spots in China

So how are the authorities living up to their role of curators of this marvel? By destroying it of course. Up on the ledge we heard what could have been thunder except that the sky was clear and the rumbles came across as slightly too sharp. This was the merry sound of dynamite blasting. Parts of this protected area are already used for marble quarrying but a lot of stuff is getting blown up in preparation for a new dam. The commie fondness for hydroelectrical projects and the some shady connections between the promoter and party bigwigs have ensured that Tiger Leaping Gorge might one day become Tiger Swimming Lake. This is one spot were I will be sad not smug to say that I was there before it got fucked up. 2008 will be the year of the Beijing Olympics and the year where the obliteration of the gorge begins. Twats.

After some DIY chiropody I continued north to the town of Zhongdian, highly inappropriately nicknamed Shangri La, a charmless town that sits on a beautiful plateau at over 3000 metres . Being dainty of foot I was reluctant for more hiking and discovered to my sorrow that that is the only reason to stay in Zhongdian. The only thing of note is that there are a lot of folk originating from Tibet around the place and amusing herds of cattle meandering along the town centre. Beyond that I found out that the nice (ie: scenic, dangerous and arduous) road to Chengdu was blocked and that beer at 10, 000 feet makes you drunk very quickly. On a grimmer note I was bemused at the amount of Tibetan schlock omni-present in backpacker haunts. Whether it be tea, steak, soup or clothing, all were stamped with the backpacker friendly tag of Tibetan. If the government is so bloody keen on promoting the appeal of Tibetan culture in bordering towns why are the morons putting so much effort in destroying it at its birthplace? Again; twats.

As I was getting all boisterous and political I decided to do a Fun Run to Chengdu. Chengdu is one of those big modern Chinese cities that can be dull if you don't have any interest in metamorphasizing societies. The only real attraction of the town is a Panda breeding centre. I made enquiries as I wanted to verify the urban legend that boffins had made special videos to get the male Pandas excited but I was told that Panda Porn was a myth and/or that they would certainly not let me see some. I am therefore reduced to strolling around the town for my cultural enlightenment.

One thing I noticed that was perhaps excessively symbolic of modern China was a great statue of Mao saluting a shopping complex that included McDonalds and a Cartier outlet. What also puzzled me was that the chubby boy was saluting in a open right hand, palm downwards fashion more reminiscent of German dictators than the standards leftie clenched left fist. As I said, maybe too symbolic.

So, no more Yunnan fun for me and, judging by the time left on my visa, very little Sichuan fun either. Time to head to Hong Kong as it apparently counts as an exit form China. Off to enjoy some more insanely spicy food before moving on to Chongqing.

Take care,


Monday, February 13, 2006

Kunming, Yunnan, People's Democratically Popular Republic for the Liberated Freedom or Whatever of China

More often than not I slap myself on the forehead for my idiocy but this time I can pat myself on the back, scratch myself behind the ears and give myself a biscuit for having a good idea. Even rarer are occasions where I find that sharing a tiny cabin with 3 sailors was part of a great experience.

The boat trip up the Mekong was tremendous fun and one of the most scenic border crossings I have witnessed. I left Thailand a week or so ago after many a tedious hour faffing around the docks waiting for a boat to be loaded up and depart. After a long afternoon watching some guys load the top deck with beat-up Thai cars destined for Burma I got the all-clear to run up to immigration and get my passport stamped. The spirits were high on the dock and my last encounter with a Thai was a swat on the arse from some merry docker using the short sticks they use to count up what has been loaded. I must have looked a bit huffed as he made a show of swotting all other backsides within range whilst smiling at me to impress that he had not singled me out.

The human cargo on the boat consisted of me, a woman who taught French in China and 4 monks who were escorting a statue of Buddha and some ceremonial bells up to Myanmar. We went up to where the Thai authorities have built a large statue to mark the Golden triangle border and I noticed the sharp contrast between the neons and karaoke joints on the Thai side and the vast amount of fuck-all on the Burmese side. Sailing at night at this time of year is too dangerous due to low water levels so we only got a few klicks north before tying up for bedtime at a floating petrol station that seemed to also be a bar and mah-jong gambling joint.

For the best part of the trip I distracted myself by getting the captain’s kids to teach me Chinese pronunciation and tones, trying to ignore the wrecked and stranded vessels along the way and watching the amazing scenery. Fun breaks in the routine were provided by rapids where the sailors (all from the mountains of Sichuan) scrambled along the rocks of the bank to hitch a rope that was then used to winch us up.

One happy distraction was going with the crew into Burma to fish. They used a pack made of a plastic jerrycan rigged up with straps and 2 car batteries that connected to a rod. They ran current through streams in the hope of stunning the shrimps. This failed but it did let me add Burma to my “countries entered” list even if this was just for an hour. I am also proud to have done it illegally and without coughing up the visa fee for the paranoid brutes who run the place. Fighting tyranny in my own small way.

After 2 days we stopped at a Burmese river port where the monks got off (only after the scrounging gits scabbed some of my fags) and, after a few hours wondering what was going on, the French lady got the crew to fess up that we would be stuck there for 4 days because of some chap not showing up to collect the dodgy cars. They were unfazed by this but we pointed out that our weird foreign background made dossing around in a hammock near a concrete pier for several days a bit annoying. They shrugged as if to say Tough Luck but just as dinner was served and I had niched out some dollars with the perspective of hiring a speed boat they got us to scramble our crap and hop on another passing boat.

Finally we got into China where our bags were thoroughly searched though for what I don’t know. They mainly seemed interested in my camping crap and my shaving kit. They looked at my books though and I was glad I had given my copy of Chris Patten’s East and West to a comely Dutch girl in Thailand as I thought she was interested in geopolitics and also as a creepy way to ingratiate myself to her for she was rather yummy. We then caught a bus to the small (by Chinese standards) town of Jinghong.

The bus trip was another beautiful introduction to China as it raced along crappy mountain roads sometimes braking suddenly to pick up bags of meat that the Chinese carry around for the New Year feasts and that had fallen off other buses. The driver was well chuffed with this windfall and sped up as a result. The fear was alleviated by the discomfort of the tiny seats, the smell of 20 people in a minibus all chainsmoking and the uniquely Chinese background noise of people hawking loudly before spitting out the window or on the floor.

I was also introduced to Chinese toilets; a legend in their own right. A culture based on the importance of the group, overpopulation and commie ideas about privacy have made for interesting bog etiquette. Toilets consists of a series of yard long trenches running perpendicular to the wall. In the more luxurious ones a 2 foot high wall separates these but that’s as much privacy as you will get. Nature’s irrepressible call as well as loads of chillies for brekkers helped me overcome years of cultural taboos about being alone when taking a dump. To add the joy of this pleasant new experience I was confronted to Chinese (and male) curiosity and the fact that they see no rudeness in staring. Cultural enlightenment at its basest.

Anyway I am now in Yunnan’s capital of Kunming. It’s big and charmless so I have bugger all to say about it. The only thing I like about it is that it’s cold and provides a welcome change from oh-so-fucking hot SEA. I will soon head north to the scenic towns of Dali and Lijiang as well as attempting to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge in winter before heading to Zhongian, aka Shangri-la on the border with Tibet.

On a final note, my blog is inaccessible in China so I have to use creative ways provided by geeks to get around this so, if this gets through, I would like to say a big Fuck You to Cisco systems et al.

Take care,


Friday, February 03, 2006

Chiang Saen, Thailand

Last post from South East Asia. I am currently kicking my heels in this quiet town waiting for some weird dispute to be solved between Thai traders and Chinese cargo haulers to come to an end. The official cause of the delay is that the river is low but it has been for the last month. The Thais reckon the Chinese are stalling in order to get more cash so they can make back the dosh they doled out to their employees as part of the New Year traditions. Therefore I can wile away the hours by watching the 2 protagonists yell at each other by the riverside. Fun, fun, fun.

This is also my last uncensored post until god knows when. China is going to be the biggest problem but I will try and work something out by using proxy servers. A lot of countries I am aiming to blight with my presence, as well as a few I have already been to, would no doubt also wish to silence the sweet sound of critical keyboard stroking but they don’t really have the financial clout to do it well. China, on the other hand, has the money to recruit the best such as Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo and now Google to help them keep their kin silent and ignorant.

I am mildly amused by the way this much vaunted new generation of cyber entrepreneurs (with their Segways, crap haircuts and No Tie policies) stopped humming John Lennon ditties and sank to their knees in front of the Great Red Panda. I’m sure they contribute the odd thousand to Greenpeace or whatever but when real money is waved at them all they can do is try to suppress their gag reflex as the plums hit the gums. Yahoo even helped track down some poor sod who wanted to email some of his opinions to his friends and got himself a 10 year stretch as a result. That I was less amused by.

Enough ranting about China and rich geeks for the moment as it’s time for Arabin's Happy Report on Thailand:

To be honest I haven’t got that much to say about the place. I failed to connect with Thailand somehow (“connect” in the hippy sense of “giving a toss”). There’s nothing wrong with the place and I have had some fun but it was the type of fun that young, idle people with ample supplies of cheap booze and drugs will create for themselves wherever they are. I get the feeling that I enjoyed the peripheral benefits of backpacking (the party atmosphere, the ease of encounter etc..) without any real exposure to foreign weirdness, which is the whole point of this little journey. I also know that this is out of lazyness on my part and I could have tried harder.

Not that being in Thailand hasn't affected me. I spent the afternoon doing stuff that I will have to avoid once out of Siam such as getting lunch from the back of a pick-up truck and being trustful of the locals. Basically I’m getting soft and dopey and I will need to wake up before I hit China if what other backpackers say about the place is true. This happy little daze of mine is also disturbing as it seriously pissed me off in others when I first got here.

I remember being annoyed at people that made the same type of comments that I do now about Thailand and it’s inhabitants; they are so friendly and nice etcc. These comments riled me as it seemed to me as the flip side of racism . Though not as nasty, seeing people in a purely positive light is to negate their humanity just as much as making brutish assertions about a whole group when propping up some bar in Yorkshire. Thais are just as flawed and annoying as other humans and just as nice. Sometimes you are not sure if fellow backpackers are talking about humans or smurfs when they describe why they like the place

The real reason this fucked me off is of course hypocrisy. I do the same kind of generalizations constantly. No one likes a mirror thrust in their face especially when their reflection has 2 red braids in their hair, pupils the size of pinpricks and a nasty scab on their shoulder after getting a “tribal” tattoo.

I guess that’s why I just did not bother with Thailand. It is so easy to shift about until you find a place you like and a crowd you get along with that you don’t force yourself to stay in one place and experience it, warts and all. Also most of what I have seen lacks the extremes that usually get me all pensive and pompous. Thailand seems to be plodding along nicely, getting richer without obsessing about it Malaysian style and the locals seem generally content.

Even the politics did not interest me much despite reading at least one of the English language papers on a nearly daily basis. The PM of this place, Thaksin Shinawatra, is like a Thai Berlusconi without the entertainment value. He is in a spot of bother at the moment for a bungled sale of his company to Singapore but nothing to really scream about. Him and his friends are definitely bent but they do it by rigging the economy to maximize their profits instead of the Snatch and Grab Cambodian School or the Legislature for Sale sign that Indonesia’s finest have put up. This is not too detrimental to the population at large and is nothing that doesn’t exist in the west. Arguably it’s a fuck of a lot better than the Dick Cheney/Halliburton connection. At least here no one gets killed for stock options.

In a way this last post is an admission of failure. I hope to fare better in China, Central Asia and the Middle East. I hope that a slightly less defined backpacker trail will remove the easy options and make live a place a bit more even if it means I get less immediate satisfaction.

So in final, would I recommend Thailand? Not for the rucksack crowd. I suspect for backpackers the end is nigh in Siam. Dropouts such as me who are set to travel as long as their banker allows them to are the minority here. Holiday makers and expats constitute the bulk of the vast farang community. Thailand in a way resembles the Costa del Sol. A place where you should settle down and stay long if you really want to get to know the people and country or a place where you can assemble 20 of your mates and get completely smashed. Most backpackers now see Thailand as a hub and not their personal playground anymore. Things change.

Hope my next post gets through the Great Firewall.

Take care,