Thursday, November 15, 2007

At last

Despite many many many procrastinations, my tale has wound its way to Vietnam. This one isn't all talk. It has pictures. Also for some reason I have used a lot of capitalisation.

Having passed through the tedious border procedures, our first task on Indochinese soil was to negotiate passage Hanoi, the border crossing being a few clicks from the absolute middle of nowhere. This was facilitated by some well dressed, well spoken (presumably well paid) young men who bundled us into a very comfortable, modern car, and took us to a nearby town where we were told a luxurious, spacious and air-conditioned mini-bus was waiting to ferry us to civilisation in the utmost comfort.

As many of you will be aware, the term 'minibus' is actually a euphemism for 'van', but, compared to a hard seat Chinese train, it did seem pretty luxurious. At first.

After paying our $10 fare (about the cost of a pretty nice hotel room for the night) we spent a few minutes getting to know our driver while we waited for some other saps tourists to arrive. His main schtick was pointing to various couples, and saying "I love you?" to establish the relationship status of his passengers. As I was travelling alone, when it came my turn he would point to various old women, men and livestock, say "I love you?" then collapse in fits of laughter at his marvelous joke. In the 3 hours or so it took to get to Hanoi, he never once tired of this.

After offering Ed $10 for his sunglasses (and turning his nose up in disgust at mine) we hopped into the van (er, minibus) and began our journey.

Perhaps a legacy of the leaner years of communism, there seems to be a policy in certain parts of Asia that no vehicle may travel at anything less than 120% capacity. To put a mere 12 people in a 12 seater van would be the height of wastefulness and decadent capitalist excess. As there were already 10 or so (fare paying) foreigners seated (for the time being) comfortably inside, it was up to our intrepid driver to find at least another half dozen locals to make up the quota. This was done by a process akin to press ganging, where the driver would stop near a local market/laundry/road side gathering spot, roll down his window and yell at random townsfolk. I imagine his speech translated as something like "This baby's going to Hanoi, and Whitey is payin. Get on board!"

The idea that a man squatting beside the road smoking and minding his own business, or a woman buying bananas at the local market might not WANT to go to Hanoi was no match for his mix of sales pitch and coercion. Perhaps wowed by the fact that they didn't actually have any good reason NOT to go to Hanoi, the van quickly filled to capacity, and beyond.

Eventually we must have tipped some ratio of airspace to meatspace in the van, and off we went. I was tired, hungry, parched, but still able to appreciate the fact that we were driving through some pretty spectacular countryside, impossibly green and ringed by those round pointy mountains that seem to thrust out of nowhere. Taking in the view was certainly preferable to meditating on the fact that I had about 15cm of seat space for both of my buttocks. Retrieving my camera from my pocket was a laughable proposition. My whinging aside, we made it to Hanoi, and the old quarter where the bulk of the cheaper accommodation is located.

The old quarter is a rabbit's warren of stores, hostels, bars and restaurants. The streets are rarely more than 4m wide, completely clogged with a never ending flow of motorcycle traffic, and seem to wind around on each other in ways that violate several fundamental precepts of geometry (particularly after a few beers). Many streets bear the names of the goods that were (traditionally) made and sold there, and some areas still conform to this pattern. Were you to ask, for example, where to buy a handbag, you would be directed to 'handbag street' where several dozen shopkeepers would step forth from several dozen identical stores imploring you to examine their selection of several dozen handbags which are completely indistinguishable from every other store within a 100m radius.

Aside from diverse selection of geographically concentrated stores, a foreigner is likely to be dogged at every step by street vendors offering various wares, including (in rough order they are offered)

- Guidebook?
- Motorbike?
- Marijuana?
- Opium?
- Girl
- ??? (at this point, realising you aren't interested in the 'ordinary' wares, the seller will spiral off into strange and disturbing realms of commercial possibilities, the gist being that WHATEVER you want, a guy can have it here on a motorbike within the hour.

Anyway, being day one, my only real desires were food, beer, and bed (order negotiable). Having taken care of item 3, I met up with Ed and Fiona again and sought out items 1 and 2. Driven by a mixture of curiosity and desperation, we waltzed up to the first street-side eatery we could find and sat down on some dangerously low and fragile looking plastic stools. Once 'bia' was ordered (we hadn't yet learned to ask for 'cold beer') we took to perusing the menu which was, unsurprisingly, in Vietnamese. Defaulting to my well tried 'would've starved to death in China without it' plan B, we took a look around the neighbouring tables and decided we'd have "that" (some sort of tofu dish with dipping sauce) and one of "those" (a plate of pea in the pod things). Beer arrived and food soon after, followed by another round of "that" and a few more beers.

I was filthy, dripping sweat, hadn't slept properly for two days, and was generally dumbstruck by the claustrophobic chaos of Hanoi. But sitting on a dodgy plastic stool on a dirty street drinking beer from a grubby glass, I was about as happy as I could be. The air thrummed with the sounds of motorcycles bearing unfeasible loads of passengers, goods, or both; Hanoi residents sat around us and joked and drank and shot us shifty glances; the sun shone down; and most importantly:

I had made it out of China, and into Vietnam; traversing more than 3000km in about a week, a stranger in a strange land. A casual observer (like the guy with the long white beard and one eye at the adjacent table) might have detected a hint of pride in my beer swilling and tofu chewing.

Oh, and pictures.

Hanoi, city of 3 million or so humans, and 3 million or so motorbikes:


Typical 'multi-use' building:


Hanoi Cross Section (courtesy of railroad track)


Night Life


and Mosquito control, provided by your hotel, free of charge


Friday, November 09, 2007

Vietnam Ho!

When we last saw our insipid hero, he was soaking wet and passed out from lack of sleep, too much running through monsoon rain, and the usual stresses of rail travel in China. I'm giving you a recap because its so long between posts at the moment that you've probably forgotten. If you're reading this at all.


I awoke about 4 hours later, still on the train, still soaking wet, and being snap frozen by the airconditioner. I needed to change out of my sweaty monsoon drenched clothes, and into some of the slightly less sweaty monsoon drenched clothes in my pack. Doing this in a small, dirty bathroom on a rickety-clackity train was no mean feat (a tip: don't touch ANYTHING) but I managed to get minutely drier and warmer and crawl back into my bunk.

The next morning found me in Nanning, capital of the Guangxi autonomous region and apparently famous for its lush green foliage. None of which was evident from the train station or the surrounding courtyard. I managed to get a ticket on to Pingxiang (the last Chinese stop on my dash to Vietnam) and then had to find a way to kill three hours or so. I ate something or other then found a internet cafe that was, at about 5.30am, already uncomfortably hot and overcrowded. I bashed out this guy then beat a hasty retreat back to the train courtyard to snooze on my pack for a while.

Relieved at the ease with which I managed to get a ticket to Pingxiang, I didn't think to check on the class or length of the journey, which of course turned out to be around the 3 hour mark, hard seat. I've most likely whinged about hard seat travel in China before, but for those of you that haven't heard it, it's a seat, that is hard. The angle of seat back to seat is also a perfect 90 degrees which does not gel particularly well with any human anatomy I've ever seen. Add to this the fact that its sweltering hot, and there's four of you to a bench, and you can see why its not my favourite way to travel.

Between dozing and inwardly grumbling about how tough it is to be me, I noticed that I was, for once, not the only foreigner in the car. Adjacent me were an English couple, Ed and Fiona, who were (and still are) on a mad quest to circumnavigate the globe without the use of airplanes, extolling the virtues of slow travel, enjoying the journey, and not pumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere via aviation fuel. (Read all about it). Joining forces to face the uncertain train/taxi/walk/wait/taxi ordeal of the China Vietnam border crossing, I was immediately glad of their company when it came time to negotiate a fare to the border pass, in the back of a moto-tuktuk type thing. For some reason the sting of being fleeced is less when others are in the same boat (or moto-tuktuk thing).

We were soon speeding down the highway towards the border, stopping only to make a roadside currency change from a lurking money changer who sprung out from the undergrowth (in what I'm sure is a well rehearsed maneuver) and waved our driver down.

By and by, we made it to the border itself. Some of you may be aware that China and Vietnam, despite their shared commitment to the dictatorship of the proleteriat (hur hur), haven't always been the best of pals. The ominously named 'Frienship Pass' where we made our crossing was I suppose an attempt at showcasing the improved relationship between the two People's Republics, and nothing says 'warm and friendly neighbour' like a huge expanse of white concrete, surmounted by a fortess of white stone emblazoned with the crest of the PRC.

Squinting against the reflected midday sun, we made it through customs and out of China, and struck out across no-man's-land toward a small shack which was the Vietnamese response to China's amiable border outpost.

The immigration procedure consisted of lining up with a bunch of other sweaty impatient foreigners, migrant workers and other miscellanians; pushing through the dark sweaty interior of the building to retrieve forms the counter furthest from the door; pushing back to take said form to the counter nearest the door; placing your passport on a towering pile; then standing outside and waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

It did occur to me that you could simply walk around the building, and viola, you're in Vietnam, but I figured illegal immigration was no way to start a holiday. They did have a large colourful poster of different kinds of ecstacy that amused me for five minutes or so.

Eventually (after Ed's passport had been thoroughly looked over by suspicious customs agents, no doubt habitually wary of Englishmen attempting to illegally immigrate to Vietnam) we got our passports back and headed through into Vietnam. Ed and Fiona were bailed up for 'entry tax' which I avoided by simply walking past the desk (making my immigration just a little bit illegal).

And there I was. In Vietnam. At last.

What adventures would befall me? If you've read this far you may as well stay tuned and find out.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

One Night In Canton

So there I was, accomodated, showered, refreshed, and stuck in a strange town until 4pm the next day.

So, sticking to the tried and true Ben Shaw Method Of Finding Fun in a Strange City I went in search of Canadians. And found them, at the appropriately named Strange Brew. After a satisfactory attempt at a burger, a few fancy German beers (a welcome departure from China's Lager standard, and the horrendously overpriced suds of Hong Kong) and some light chat with an attractive Chinese barmaid, one of the owners showed up, announcing that they were closing early and heading off to a friends newly opened Irish Bar (some things every city needs, no matter where on the earth). I'd ingratiated myself sufficiently by this point to be invited along.

The rest of the evening was of the standard 'ex-pats congregating in a foreign city' binge drinking kind, with various odd Irishmen, loud Americans, shifty elderly British fellows and jovial Canadians (+ one road weary Kiwi).

At some point in the evening though, we collected westerners were given a stark reminder of the superiority of the local stock, with the entrance of a tall, incredibly well muscled Chinese guy. You could hear the beer-bellies being sucked in. He turned out to be extremely fluent in English, and quite proficient in French also (not to mention Mandarin and Cantonese of course). Every man in the room instantly loathed him, particularly because he was one of the most likeable people you could ever meet. He eventually made his apologies and joined the band on stage, cradling a saxophone in his huge arms (which he, of course, played superbly).


Note also that lustrous mane of hair.

A few too many pints of Kilkenny later, I managed to crawl into a taxi, and thence to bed. I woke up the next day, head pounding, and wallet considerably lighter, having spent most of the money that I'd scrimped by living cheaply in Hong Kong.

Such is life.

With 6 hours or so till my train left, I figured I had ample time to sample the touristy treats that Guangzhou had to offer. The first challenge was to find the metro station, which wasn't helped by my hotelier pointing out a place about 3 blocks north of where I was and saying "this hotel is here". With that navigational head-start, I walked out onto the main road, under the shadows of the ever present fly-overs, and tried to work my way out of the leather district (a great place if you like handbags and jackets, not so good if you're a tourist on a budget wanting to be anywhere but the leather district).

My wanderings were considerably hampered by the arrival of the daily rains (the word 'torrential' doesn't really do them justice) and I of course had neither umbrella or coat. The rain came in bursts, meaning that one moment I was sweltering in malarial heat, and the next I was shivering and huddling beneath inadequate shelter in a drab grey housing complex.


Guangzhou holds the dubious distinction of being founded by five goats (magical goat deities I'm sure) and after correcting for my hosts helpful advice, I found my way to a statue commemorating this.


A metro station was nearby, so I set off for the south part of the city, and Shamian Island. The island was originally a sand-bar in the river (the direct translation is 'sandy surface') and was conceeded to the US and British who built a bunch of warehouses on it and generally enlarged it into a sizeable haven of colonial splendour and whatnot. Nowadays its mostly famous for being the place to go to see wealthy American couples pushing Chinese infants down the bund in strollers as they await the outcome of adoption proceedings. The colonialism continues unabated, albeit in a modern form:


I was forced to shelter under the eaves of that very Starbucks for about an hour during another downpour until I realised, to my horror, that it had gone 3pm, and my train left at 4.

From the other side of the city.
And that I needed to stop at my hotel first to pick up my pack.

With the prospect of yet another night in a hotel that I couldn't afford, and an unrefundable train ticket, I set off at pace to the subway station. I bolted out of the train at the nearest stop and made a run for my hotel. I'm sure the sight of an absolutely sweat drenched laowai, sprinting madly down a crowded street in 38 degree heat, stopping only to suck from a water bottle and gasp for breath occasionally will live on in local legend for years to come.

I made it back to the hotel with about 15 minutes till departure, elbowing my way through a group of Indian businessmen attempting to negotiate their check-in in a language that neither they nor the hotelier were particularly proficient at (ie English). I managed to flag a taxi on the street, and bundled in, soaking wet and with blood pressure that was probably audible. He asked what time my train was leaving. I told him. He laughed. I asked if it was doable. He said something to me in Cantonese that I took to mean "There is absolutely no way in the 7 hells that you are going to make that train you big stupid foreigner".

At the front of the train station, 8 minutes till departure, I hit the usual queue for the metal detector (yeah I have no idea either) and was forced to fall back on 10 months of accumulated 'queuing' training to elbow my way to the front and through into the foyer. Swatting elderly women and children out of the way with my pack, I pushed through the crowd looking for a sign that might indicate where my train was leaving from. I eventually found the helpful student, who seemed sure that I'd already missed it. I asked him to humour me and show me the gate anyway, and with a bit more pack-bludgeoning, toe standing, and generally using my obnoxious western bulk to full advantage I found the platform, still blessedly inhabited by a train.

Exhausted, saturated with both sweat and rain, and at the fringes of sanity I made it to my berth, dumped my pack, and collapsed. The train pulled out moments later.

Take that skeptical Guangzhou taxi driver. Never underestimate the power of a highly stressed laowai with a heavy bag to swing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

From Hong Kong to Guangdong

this one's wordy.

As I sat in Starbucks at Kowloon Railway station, slurping a Red Bean Frappacino, I realised I’d be somewhat relieved to be leaving the fastidious and overpriced mallishness of Hong Kong behind and to be returning to the 'proper' China of 20c beer, cheap street food, and slightly less expensive touristy geegaws.

This relief lasted right up until I got off the train at Gaungzhou central station, and was pressed forward into the thronging masses and stifling temperatures.

My plan:

- Find the legendary ‘foreigners ticket counter’
- Purchase a ticket on to Nanning
- Catch a taxi to the North Railway station
- Board Nanning train
- Sleep blissfully until my arrival in Guangxi Province, rocked by the gentle swaying of train on rail.

China being China, this was of course hopelessly naïve.

The lack of bilingual signage, and general chaos the place ensured that my plan stumbled before I even ticket off the first bullet point. My attempts to garner directions from the locals resulted in fingers pointing to each of the cardinal points of the compass, and no real information being conveyed.

This meant resorting to the all-purpose, Foreigner Travelling In China Emergency Assistance Plan, or, “standing around looking bewildered until a friendly student who wants to practice his/her English approaches you”. Right on cue my assistance arrived, and after a brief discussion with one of the guards, he informed me that the foreigners ticket counter did not in fact exist, and that I would need to go to the North Train Station to buy my ticket directly. Before thanking him and heading out into the streets, I managed to find out that he had absolutely no idea where Nanning was and had never even HEARD of Vietnam.

Upon exiting the station, I realised that what I thought had been a sweaty claustrophobic box was in fact an air-conditioned haven of tranquillity compared to conditions out of doors.

Guangzhou (Canton to you colonial types) is a city of between 8.5 and 12 million people (depending on who you ask) and is a sprawling multi-lane flyover ying to Hong Kong’s pedestrian paradise yang. Dodging cars to get to a taxi rank I was made well aware of the fact that the average temperature in July ranges from 25-32 degrees Celsius, with about 270mm of rainfall.


I made it to a cab, managed to communicate my destination to the driver, then received a full blast of culture shock when he asked me to put on my seatbelt. In 11 months of living in China, I had rarely encountered a taxi that was equipped with seatbelts, let alone been asked to wear one. Crazy southerners.

So we wound our way through the drizzle and traffic to the North Train Station. I may have mentioned earlier that Lonely Planet describes this establishment along the lines of ‘teeming masses’ ‘confusing’ and ‘avoid at all costs’. It was all of this and more.

Lines snaked outside from the hot dark bowels of the ticketing office, and it took all of my gathered queue ramming and pack swinging skills to secure a place in line. 40 minutes later, sweaty, chafing from my pack, and driven near mad by the constant stares, elbows, smells and sounds of the thousands gathered around me, I made it to the front, and asked for a ticket to Nanning in my fumbling Mandarin.

“Mei You”

The words that every traveller in China will know. And dread. Turns out there were no tickets available until the following day. I bought one, then staggered back out into the sunlight, into a city where I had not planned to stay and which was described as having ‘very few options for budget travellers’.

Broadcasting my ‘what the hell am I going to do now’ face for all to see, I was soon approached by a hotel tout waving pamphlets in my face and yelling out sums of money that were about 4 times what I’d planned on paying for accommodation. To add to the fun, she spoke Cantonese, and I had a 2 year-old’s grasp of Mandarin. This is equivalent to learning a smattering of French and then finding yourself stranded in Italy for the night (with all the attendant, “we hate the French” in there as well.). Having stated a price that I was willing to pay, and being more or less understood, she set off a trot to visit various small hotels around the station. All of which were of course full (or unwilling to house a sweaty laowai who was just smart enough not to be ripped off). Darting across highways and under over passes, I was hard pressed to keep up, my pack suddenly feeling about ten times heavier and my head ten times lighter due to the moisture that was pouring out of me. Having exhausted the nearest options, she set off at a near run to a hotel a little further out. I have a suspicion that she had decided I was too much trouble and was trying to lose me at this point, but I pursued her with dogged dedication (or delirious determination. One of the two.)

Eventually, saturated, sore and stressed near breaking point, we reached the Huada College Business Hotel (No. 5 Building Guihua Road Guangzhou, entering from the gate of the Experimental Middle School of Guangzhou Univeristy. Tell them Ben sent you). Normally for international business exchangees, the fact that it was definitely not suit and tie weather meant it was almost empty. Before I could have the tricky ‘so how much do I owe you’ conversation with the tout, she was off (but not before complimenting me on keeping up) and I was soon checked into a nice (and quite reasonably priced room) with a double bed, satellite TV and, most important of all, a shower.

I showered, collapsed for a few hours, and woke up feeling something like a human being again. That taken care of (as pictured), I was left to wonder what one does with a night in Guangzhou…


Post Script: Today is Blog Action Day for the environment. In that spirit I'd like to suggest that anyone who thinks 'oh a bit of warming won't be so bad', 'cities would be better off with more and wider roads' and 'all economic development is good development' should spend half an hour running around Gaungzhou wearing a 12kg pack in mid-summer, breathing deep lungfuls of the fruits of industry and commerce. Its a good teaser of what we're heading for.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lantau Layover

Okay, so the where and why of this particular day is pretty well covered here but basically I took a day journey out to Lantau Island (one of the 262 or so islands that make up the Special Administrative Zone of Hong Kong) and was given a rather prolonged lesson in "how Buddhist monks spend their pocket money" (or perhaps, to be fair, how the Hong Kong authorities exploit Buddhism for the tourist dollar).

And here it is (proving that with enough caveats anything can be the largest something): The World's Largest Outdoor Seated Bronze Buddha


and yes I paid hard currency for the privilige of slogging my way up all those stairs in the sweltering humidity, to take a walk around a glorified 'buy a buddha' gift shoppe.

The view from the top as proof:


Other attractions on the island (where I was captive for 4 hours or so, trying to retrieve my pack) were:

The World's Largest Wicker Chair Situated Beneath a Tattered Chinese Flag in Hong Kong


The World's Eeriest Derelict Building with Scarecrow on an Island In Hong Kong


The World's Most Poorly Conceived Tourist Attraction (not too many qualifiers on that one):


And the World's Most Sterile and Deserted Chinese Model Village (the folks in red are staff):


And finally the World's Most Thing that Ben Doesn't Know What The Purpose Of It Is On Lantau Island:


As noted earlier, there were also some pretty butterflies (which were extremely difficult to photograph)


And for those of you that read the original post, "Sun Killer" (which has yet to snuff out our gaseous benefactor) turned out to be foundation. But I used it anyway because the alternative was being barbecued.

Two posts in two days. Remarkable. We'll be in Vietnam shortly.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hong Kong Phooey, Part Tooey, Redooey


Anywhooo, my continuing adventures on Hong Kong island.

Starting with the good points:

Hong Kong is cleeaaaan, there is no spitting, there is no smoking (in fact any behaviour deemed to be even mildly anti-social is punished with an instant 5000 $HK fine); they seem to have found a way to aircondition large outdoor areas and its probably the most pedestrian friendly place I've ever been. You can walk from one side of the island to another without having to cross a street by way of subways and overpasses (all airconditioned). The harbour is serviced by cheap (if slow) ferries, and apparently the bus and metro system is just peachy.

The bad point:

The entire place is basically one gigantic shopping mall. And whilst 'anything' can be purchased, sometimes its best to remain ignorant as to exactly what 'anything' means.

To wile away the days waiting for various visas to process (I was later sternly admonished by the owner of my hostel for not using her overnight service), my temporary travel buddy Will and I did Various Touristy Things™ including ascending the Viewing Tower On a Hill Thing™ (housing a branch of Madame Tussaude's, and designed so that as you ascend each floor, you have to walk through a slew of Touristy Crap Shops™).

The view from the top:


The view from the top again, slightly obscured by a sweaty guy:


The port, showing that unique Chinese flair for 'organisation'


Other Touristy Must-do's™ are the Hong Kong walk of fame, paying homage to various Taiwanese and Hong Kong movie stars that China likes to claim. I don't know exactly who this guy is, but I have a definite contender for the name of my firstborn:


In conclusion, Hong Kong loves pandas:


Does not love theoretical physicists with Lou Gehrig's disease:


And is nice to look at in a City Scapey Sort of Way™.


If anyone is actually still reading this, I'll have a post up about Buddhisty Tourist Traps™ tomorrow. Promise.

(And I'll let the Dumb TradeMark Gag™ die. )

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On the road again (again)

Okay, so these next few are going to be retreads, going back over my hastily bashed out entries on the way south from Liaoyang, fleshing things out with further blatherings, inanesights (like insights but not) and pictures.



So as mentioned, I went through the ritual harrowing of packing all my wordly goods back into the pack whence they came, with the help of half a dozen large rubbish bags, and a few chinese friends onto whom I could offload various appliances, musical instruments and bottles of undrinkable chinese liquor.

I flew down to Beijing, dumped my stuff in a corner at a friends house, and booked my passage on an overnight train to Hong Kong the next day. Just to recap, this was all necessary because my Visa expired the day my teaching contract ended, and the Liaoyang authorities refused to extend it, possibly due to being unable to comprehend why anybody would stay in Liaoyang any longer than strictly necessary.

Of course, having to stay overnight in Beijing meant that I was already a day over my visa (and liable for a 500 yuan fine) when I went through customs to board the train to Hong Kong (its a little weird being stamped out of a country when you've still got to do 24 hours of rail travel within its borders). The matronly customs lady studied my visa, then asked me if I spoke any Chinese. I gave her my best "wo hui shou yi dian dian", which prompted her to tell me (in English) that I was a day over my visa. However some combination of my winning smile and endearing mangling of her national tongue must have melted her cold bureaucratic heart because she stamped me and waved me through.

I was travelling hard sleeper on the train, an open arrangement of six bunks to a berth, which I shared with an American teacher and two Chinese ladies, Ms Yu (heading to Hong Kong for the first time to visit family) and Ms Teresa Lee, manager of the Lucky Cloud International Cultural Exchange Company. We struck up a conversation of sorts, with Teresa playing interpreter between the two Chinese-poor Laowai, and the elderly Ms Yu, who spoke no English.

We had a 24 hour journey ahead of us, so decided to pass the time by teaching our Chinese friends the game of Hearts (or Black Bitch if that's your fancy). Its kind of a difficult game to explain, particularly with a language barrier, but Ms Yu soon began to display a pretty crafty knack for the game, prompting me to mention to Teresa that she was definitely the one to watch. This was conveyed to Ms Yu who replied, with a glint in her eye: "You've been in China too long".

Anyway, after 24 hours of this (barring those hours that it was dark):


We arrived at Hong Kong, the transition from Mainland to Special Administrative Region made immediately apparent by the sudden appearance of graffiti on the railway sidings, and the slatherings of (correct) English on signage and advertising. Of course, if you really want an illustration of the "One Country Two Systems" policy, you need look no further than the first thing you see upon exiting the train station:


In China, claiming that Fulan Dafa is 'good' (in fact claiming that it is anything other than a dangerous subversive and evil cult) is liable to get you a couple years of 're-education' that you may return from a couple of organs shy of a full set.

Following the lead of Will, my American train-buddy, I dragged myself and pack through the unbelievably sweaty streets of Hong Kong, dodging touts and sellers of fine suits and fake rolexs, to arrive at the Cosmic Guesthouse, situated in the euphemistically titled Mirador Mansions.



Apparently a good place to stay if you think you're going to need to get any of your Ethnic Minorities serviced.

After ditching our burdens, we headed out into Hong Kong, in search of visas, train tickets, and beer. The last item on the list was stymied by the fact that everything in Hong Kong is absurdly expensive, especially on a Chinese teacher's salary. It is pretty by night though.




Thursday, September 06, 2007

I promise...

that I will return, and recap, the last month of my time as a decadent western dog.

Right now I'm having issues with the wireless internet that I'm stealing, in that it isn't very fast. I will however do my best to find a cafe or somesuch that I can sequester myself in this weekend to get some writing done.

How many coffees do you think I need to drink, minimum, to sit in someone's cafe and use their internet for 6 hours or so?

Friday, August 10, 2007


Well, I made it back to the correct hemisphere, and am now occupying a friends couch while I stew various experiences around in my head, in preparation for spewing them forth onto this blog and the eyeballs of my lucky (possibly non-existent) readership.

We'll be starting in Hong Kong and heading West, before hanging south for Vietnam and Cambodia. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I'm not dead...

I'm just resting.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia to be exact. Not exactly the most restful place on earth, but it has a certain invigorating energy to it.

Just spent 4 days or so lazing on a beach in Sihanoukville, taking brief breaks to go snorkeling or order various intoxicants from the bar. It was hard work but somehow I made it through.

Off to Siem Reap tomorrow, then I have a mere 3 days till I have to be in Bangkok, then back to Beijing, where I will have plenty of time to bore you all to death with photographs and tall tales.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Da Nang It!

Travels will be explained in further detail when time allows, but for now:

Well I made it out of craaaaaazy Hanoi, city of 3.5 million people, and 3 million motorcycles, but not before seeing various museums detailing how the Vietnamese have taken on the Koreans, Japanese, French, and of course Americans and kicked ass. Plane wreckage sculpture abounds and I saw John McCain's flight suit and tin of throat lozenges.

Then I stayed on a boat in Ha Long bay for three days, kayaking and swimming and climbing unreasonably large hills for no good reason. It was all pretty spectacular.

One pretty damn uncomfortable overnight train ride later (apparently in Vietnam, as opposed to China, when they say Hard Sleeper, they mean Hard Sleeper) I'm in Da Nang, home of China Beach (My Khe) upon which I hope to be relaxing in about an hours time.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


A brief update to confirm my aliveness.

I don't have time to get into the last few days in depth, but they included several trains, an unscheduled stopover in Guangzhou, some Canadians, a bunch of Guiness, a mad dash to a train that a taxi driver swore I wouldn't catch (you don't need to speak Cantonese to understand 'haha you're screwed buddy') and, after a very poor sleep in a crowded carriage, my arrival here in Nanning, where its just after 5am and already about 30 degrees.

In just over an hour, I catch yet another train to a place called Pingxiang, which is near, but not actually on, the Vietnamese border. THere's another bus or taxi involved there, then a 600m walk apparently.

It turns out that travelling alone, overland through southern China in July is kind of a hassle.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hong Kong Phooey, Part Twooey

Well, day 3 in Hong Kong down, about 12 hours left to go, about which I am happy.

Things have not gotten any less crazy, humid or expensive here, I've been eating McDonald's as it seems to be the cheapest available meal option (the exact opposite of Liaoyang) so I'm energy-less and cranky.

Today I went out to Lantau island, which is supposed to be a lovely wilderness dotted with idyllic beaches. Unfortunately I got suckered into a bit of a tourist trap, catching a bus to see the World's largest bronze seated outdoor buddha. Quite the distinction. Nice to know those monks begging in the street are putting the money to good use.

I was originally planning to stay at a hostel on the island, but after realising that it was in the middle of nowhere (though with handy access to a certain buddhist folly), $60HK in busses and ferries from where I need to be tomorrow, and an overpriced mosquito haven to boot, I decided to get back to the mainland. Unfortunately, I'd already locked my pack in the hostel office, and the lady wasn't back until 4pm. That gave me three hours to sit and contemplate the world's largest bronze seated outdoor buddha.

Things in my pack that I was unable to access that I would have quite liked at this time:

A raincoat
Insect repellant

Anyway, I survived, with a mild case of sunburn. There were some pretty butterflies around though.

On that note, I finally found a 'supermarket' here in Kowloon. I'm pretty sure its as, if not more, expensive than shopping at 711, but at least all the overpriced crap is in the same place. I managed to buy some sunscreen that met all of my requirements of being A) not $90HK B) not containing 'whitening' agents and C) higher than SPF 10.

It's of Japanese origin, I don't remember the name, but I do recall that its SPF 50+, and has the words 'Sun Killer' emblazoned on the tube. My current theory is that it somehow accelerates the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium in the sun's core, thus ensuring that the sun will use up its available supply of raw materials that much faster. In the short term, this will infact enlarge the sun, causing significant discomfort to all life in the solar system (though possibly promoting sales of SPF 50+ sunscreen). Eventually however, the sun will 'die' shrinking to a relatively cold, dwarf state, thus sparing the purchasers of this product from its harmful effects.

The package also says 'kiss me' and we all know I can use any help I can get in that department.

Iminent solar death aside, tomorrow, all going to plan, I will pick up my visa for Vietnam, and board a train to Guangzhou in Guangdong province. Once back in the Mainland, with its reasonably priced beer and lack of Indian suit peddlers, I will board a train to Nanning overnight, and then the next day a series of trains, buses and taxis across the Vietnamese border to Dang Dong. From there its a short hop to Hanoi.

Or so I have been led to believe.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hong Kong Phooey

Well I made it this far at least. And I got out of China without having to fine for my 12 hours overstay!

As expected, everything is horrendously expensive and its 30 odd degrees with about 300% humidity.

Every five metres a man of Pakistani origin tries to sell you a suit or 'copy rolex' and massages, of both the legitimate and 'massage' kind are available everywhere you look.

I'm sitting in the smallest internet cafe in the world, behind me some British girls are debating how to get to Vietnam. I'm keeping my ears out for pointers but they sound reasonably bewildered.

So I've got to cool my heels here for a few days, at the Cosmic Guesthouse, a cheap but reasonably clean little hostel in Kowloon, while I wait for first a Chinese Visa, and then a Vietnamese one.

Then things really get interesting.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

On the road again

Well, made it to Beijing, and managed to rustle up a ticket to Hong Kong tomorrow, by which time I'll be only 12 hours over my visa, and thus hopefully beneath the notice of immigration officials.

My baggage at check in at Shenyang was 15 kilos over weight, even after I threw out or gave away most of what I owned (thankfully excess baggage costs next to nothing flying domestically in China) and I thought for a heart stopping, three years off my life shaving moment that I'd forgotten my ticket.

I also committed a flagrant act of abuse against the carry on luggage system, with about 20kgs of whatnots strapped about my person.

Anyway, I've deposited most of my worldy goods at a friends place in Beijing and I'm stripped down to about 8 kgs of stuff that will be slung about my shoulders as I begin phase 2 of operation 'go somewhere that isn't liaoyang'.

Its starting to feel like an adventure now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

All alone in my big empty apartment

Well, I'm packed. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be well over my 20kg limit (I have about 100 more DVDs than when I arrived), but I'm packed. My apartment is once again the sparse white box it was when I arrived.

There have been times over the last 10 months when I've thought about this place as a cell, albeit one that I often preferred to stay in rather than face the bewildering outside world. I'm indescribably glad to be moving on, but I'll miss my little sanctuary of internet, peanut butter and banana on toast, rock n' roll and air-conditioning.

So I guess this is the end of one chapter of the saga of this particular decadent western dog, the next time I write, assuming none of the innumerable possible disasters in my immediate future decide to strike, I'll most likely be in Hong Kong. Incidentally if you know anyone who has a couch there I could crash on, that'd be great.

At this stage I'll be back in Australia on August 7th. I hope to have a souvlaki in hand shortly after arrival.

zai jian?

Thursday, June 28, 2007


So I just handed in the last of my grades and am now officially, indefinitely and blissfully, unemployed.

I will never again have to stand in front of a class and deliver my half-baked lesson plans to those indifferent, insolent, incurious ingrates.

I'm gonna miss them all.




Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Great Escape

I am now a mere 4 days from leaving this town for the ever, and about a week from getting out of China altogether (for a while anyway). Unfortunately, my residency permit expires in 4 days too, so I'm going to spend a few days experiencing the heady thrill of being an illegal overstayer (high-five Leon) and then pay about 1500 RMB (round $250) as a fine when I leave. At this stage this seems to be kind of unavoidable, as the dour police lady wasn't convinced I was worthy of a visa extension, and 1500 RMB is probably less than I'd pay to have one, ahem, arranged.

So the plan for now (well, more of a 'notion' than a plan really) is to do the following (dates in the dd/mm format, as is what we use in New Zealand and thereabouts):

30th June: Farewell Liaoyang, drive to Shenyang, catch flight to Beijing
1st July: Catch train to Hong Kong
2/7: Arrive in Hong Kong, find cheap accomodation, apply for Chinese Tourist Visa
3-4/7: Faff about in Hong Kong, (hopefully) receive Chinese Visa, apply for Vietnamese Visa.
5-7/7: Get Vietnamese Visa. Hop on train to Nanning, China.
8/7: Train from Nanning to Hanoi Vietnam

Rest of July: Travel around Vietnam, look at stuff, sweat a lot, lie on a beach or two. Cross in Cambodia, check out things thereabouts, cross into Thailand

1/8: Fly from Bangkok to Beijing
2-4/8: Spend whatever money I have left in Beijing (alternatively: Survive on 2 yuan bowls of noodles for three days)
5/8: Fly from Beijing to Melbourne, Australia
6/8 - ???: The madness begins afresh.

All of this is being done solo, relying on my minimal Chinese, mediocre wits, and my 'meh I guess he's okay if I'd had a few to drink' looks.

Potential Problems with this scheme:

  • The good folks of the Chinese Communist Party, in an act of extraordinary foresight, chose to arrange the re-unification of Hong Kong and mainland China exactly 10 years ago, this July 1st. Thus ensuring that finding a train or accommodation will be a complete pain in the ass.
  • My finances, whilst probably adequate, are finite, and Hong Kong is expensive.
  • I am for some reason, denied a Tourist visa to re-enter China. This is extremely unlikely, but its also China. Nothing is a given.
  • Its approaching the stinkiest hottest part of the year in IndoChina. I might actually sweat to death.
  • Malaria.
  • Monkey attack.
  • Landmines (in Cambodia)
  • One, or a combination of the above factors meaning I don't get to Bangkok in time to catch my flight to Beijing.
Should be fun.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Nazi Pirate Sports Shoes

Because I guess even Nazi Pirates like to have comfortable feet:

nazi pirate shoe

Further Scenes from a TiTTi bar

Well, Friday night was supposed to be THE big night for Liaoyang, the TiTTi bar was officially opening, and we were guests of honour. Alas, like much else in this town, twas a disappointment.

Here I am at the door, brimming with excitement:



and here I am inside, with Raphael, Andrew, and The Proprietor. Frank took the photo, and there was waiter guy sitting in back there. This was the sum total of patrons on the supposed grand opening of Liaoyang's hottest new night-spot.

IMG_0114nazi pirate shoe

In that photo, or shortly after, The Proprietor is trying to convince us to come back at 9.57 on Saturday morning, a time that various numeroligical consultants have assured her is the most propitious. "That's when TiTTi bar really opens". She assured us. Oddly enough however, the allure of TiTTi bar had begun to wear off by this point. (As an aside, those of you who have known me since I was 14 may recognise the shirt Andrew is wearing).

Promising (lying) to return the next morning at 9.57 sharp, we toddled around the corner to "That bar with the Chinese name were Lulu works" (For the record, the other bars in Liaoyang are referred to as: "Woodstock", "That other bar next to Woodstock", "That bar with the really bad music" and of course "TiTTi Bar".)

We were fortunate enough to arrive there when the owner was entertaining some Party Bigwigs, and, by managing to outdrink them all, I gained a shiny VIP card. I have no idea what it actually does, but its gold and made of metal and it says "VIP" so I feel special. I may have also agreed to marry someone's niece and sell New Zealand's state secrets to China, but they were paying and my nations reputation was at stake, so we kept drinking well past what might be deemed reasonable.

12 days left. oh yes.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Scenes from a TiTTi bar

Warning: The following blog post deviates somewhat from the usual sombre, measured tone of this blog. The post below contains descriptions of gross acts of immaturity, and laughing at funny names for parts of the human anatomy, particularly as uttered by oblivious Chinese ladies.

Act I

North-East China, a small industrial town, a bar, the outside covered in neon advertising drinks they don't sell, the inside smelling of fresh paint and scrawled with zodiac signs, gingham table cloths, and those fan things with the orange ribbons which are supposed to somehow call to mind flames.

Dramatis Personae:

Ben (a New Zealander, quiet, but radiating and understated aura of uncontrollable awesome)
Ian (a fellow from the UK. A slight predilection for tea and scones)
Andrew (an American, but a good guy none the less)
The Proprietor (a cheerily rotund Chinese woman in her late 30s, blissfully unaware of any meanings that the word 'TiTTi' might have in English)

Scene 1:

Ben, Ian
and Andrew, drawn like moths to a neon flame, approach the bar

Andrew, Ian, Ben: Hi! giggle

The Proprietor: TiTTi bar is not open yet! but come into TiTTi bar, foreigners love
TiTTi bar!

Andrew, Ian, Ben: Okay! snigger

The Proprietor: How do you like TiTTi bar? TiTTi bar is Liaoyang's newest and best bar!
TiTTi bar!

Andrew, Ian, Ben: Yeah, its uh, nice. barely restrained laughter

The Proprietor: Well I am very happy to welcome you to TiTTi bar! I hope you like TiTTi

Sometime later...

Ben: (noticing the conspicuous absence of the bar's namesake) So, uh, why did
you call this bar “TiTTi bar”

The Proprietor: Well, my cousin went to United States of America a few years ago, I told him
I wanted to open a bar, and asked him, “What is the best bar in the United
States”. He replied: “The TiTTi bar, American's LOVE the TiTTi bar”, so I
called my bar the TiTTi bar”

Ben, Ian, Andrew: Oh. I guess that makes sense guffawing, holding of sides, uncomfortable
squirming at the idea that if The Proprietor says 'TiTTi' one more time,
pants will be wet.

End Scene.

She also said at one point, slightly bewildered by our uncontrollable fits of laughter: "During the day I work as a teacher, but my dream has always been to open TiTTi bar"

Anyway, TiTTi bar opens for realz on Friday night. The Proprietor said we should bring some CDs, and she will have a karaoke machine set up.

Liaoyang will not know what hit it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Liaoyang Pub Crawl

Now anyone who has ever driven through, lived in, or even heard much about Liaoyang, will immediately think "that's impossible - unless you count going from Woodstock to that other one bar next door that isn't Woodstock" but, I have discovered (within 30 days of leaving this town for ever) that there may be as many as FIVE bars in Liaoyang. Sure, there all identical, kitschy as all hell, overpriced, and completely empty, but they exist, and I never knew.

The only reason I found out, was that I met a whole raft of new foreigners, who's presence I had been totally unaware of these long months. They work for Liaoning Petrochemical, a subsidy of China Petrochemical and are helping to build a new Polyester plant in Liaohua, an outer suburb of the town (I went there, remember?). They're all from the UK, and good blokes to a man. They all consider me something of a local legend for having survived almost 10 months in 'the yang' and I have been regaled with tales of how Liaoyang will one day be wiped from the map by a stray cloud of semi-intentionally leaked acetic acid (ohhh, that's what that valve does!). These guys have worked all over the world, 1st to 3rd, and have never seen safety standards as lax as Liaoning. With the flash frying of 3o or so people a little ways north a few months ago and a spattering of mining disasters from time to time, it certainly shows.

Also, one of the guys is a dead ringer for the 'this week I have mostly been eating' guy from the fast show. If anyone gets that reference please high five me in the comments.

anyway, we managed to perform a respectable tour of the Liaoyang's drinking establishments, leaving confused looks wherever we stopped for a warm bottle of Snow. However, it seems that what may potentially be Liaoyang's greatest drinking establishment of all, is yet to open:


Friday night. I will be there.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How much is that doggy on the menu?

MYTH: Chinese people will eat any kind of animal, flying, crawling, slithering or swimming, including dogs.

FACT: People from Guangdong province will eat any kind of animal, flying, crawling, slithering or swimming. And its mostly Korean people that like to dine on rover.

With this in mind, Andrew and I headed down the street to a nearby Korean restuarant, figuring that everybody would be disappointed if we didn't have at least one dog eating story to tell when we returned to the 'civilised' world.

In keeping with my theory that anything fried and appropriately spiced probably won't taste that bad, we skipped past the varied delights of dog skin, dog soup, cold dog salad, dog penis, and dog face, and went for a straight up stirfried dog with chilies.


The verdict? Not bad. kind of like slightly stringy beef I guess. The trick is not to think about this:

Image Hosted by

Monday, June 04, 2007

I want to ride my...

Number of maladies my bicycle was suffering from: approximately 3

Time taken to repair these problems by a deaf-mute Chinese guy, aided by his overbearing septuagenarian mother: about 20 minutes

Price of repairs: 5 yuan. (about 70-80c)

Number of functioning gears my bicycle had when 'repairs' were finished (of a possible 24): 12

Hours it took to restore my bike to pre-repair gear function: 2

So after that, I took a celebratory bike ride, and some snaps, including:

Kongfuzi Statue (better known to you ignorant barbarians as 'Confucius')


Might = Right (of way)


Some of the many views of my school that could've been taken 50 years ago when it opened (though the power pole probably wasn't there):



Though subtle hints of modernity are around, if you look very carefully:


I also managed to get a good shot of a local Chinese Opera Diva under full sail in a nearby park. If you click through and look at the larger image, you'll notice that about half the audience is actually looking at me.


I leaned up against a tree to watch her for a while.

Then I realised that the tree smelt like a urinal.

Then I realised that the tree WAS a urinal.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Heaven above Heaven

I just ate a whole Honey Dew melon. It was delicous and cheap. I might do the same tomorrow even.


Last weekend, I found what I think may safely be called 'the only good reason to come within a 2 hour driving radius of Liaoyang'. That thing is Qianshan ('a thousand mountains' a slight exaggeration).

Any description I could offer would pale in comparison with that composed by Eternal Spring Tours. So here you go:

Qian-Shan Mountain
Mount Qianshan is the most famous tourist site in north China. It lies in the east, about 20 kilometers away from Anshan City, and boasts 999 mountains altogether, covering 152 square kilometers. So, it is also called thousand-lotus-flower mountain.

Mount Qianshan features many beautiful peaks, precipitious cliffs, secluded valleys, high-situated Taoism and Buddhism temples, grotesque pine trees in strange shape, exuberant flowers of various kinds, etc. So, for a very long history it has been given the name of Treasure Pearl of North China.

Ever from Shui Dynasty, it has been the religion center, and many Buddhists and Taoists came here to construct many temples, pagodas half way or at the top of the mountains. It is seldom for both Buddhism and Taoism temples stationing in one mountain area and left with present people so much cultural contents to read, understand ans explore.

For Taoism the most imposing temple is Infinity Temple who was built half way up the steep mountains and has very strange layout. Visitors coming here will sigh at the fine scenery and have the feeling of walking casually into a fairy land. Many poets left with us much poem praising the sights and so many poem inscription tablets stand fully or partly in deep shrub. Emperor-Visited Scenery Zone, Western Ocean Zone, Great Buddha Zone, Bird-Tweedling Zone and Immortal's Platform are present spot sites very deserving visting and at least 4 days are necessary to tour them all.

Well, we had one day. Actually around four hours. But I think we managed to get the requisite amount of walking casually into a fairyland.

Now, with so many mountains, and so little time, we chose to make a bee-line for this guy:


I think it was the "Mountain of Freaking Huge Buddha in some big-ass temple" or some such. The other peaks held such delights as "One Step Heaven", "A Line Heaven", "Heaven above Heaven", "Heaven slightly to the right of Heaven*" and the alluringly named "Strip Heaven".

After discarding my serfs and chicken entrails as dictated by point number seven on this sign:


We started the walk up the wide, lightly inclined avenue, keeping an eye out for marauding uber-golfcarts carrying the lazier tourists, till we got to this guy:


You'll notice how he's laughing, and looking very relaxed. This is because he knows that you are about to climb a bunch of stairs, whereas he is not.


Though again, for the Chinese tourist who insists on showing up either in impractically high heels or a full shirt/tie/jacket ensemble, there is the soft option:


We took the stairs.

Getting closer:


Seeing what must be several hundred tons of marble at the top of a very tall hill, accessible only by a narrow winding path (and a cable car) conjures images of Buddhist super monks effortlessly hefting huge slabs of stone on their backs, leaping from peak to peak to build their sequestered house of prayer. This sense of awe is somewhat dampened when you see plaques indicating that it was constructed in the ancient year of 2004.

Eventually, we found ourselves at this door, (flanked by two rather ridiculously muscled monk type fellows) What mysteries would it hold for the determined supplicant who had completed their hour long penance of stair climbing? (or 3 minutes of cable car riding?)




Which is, as they say, something that you do not see everyday. Now I'm not one of those people that comes to the mysterious Orient and goes all gaga over the 'sublime beauty of Eastern Religion over Western Dogma' or whatever, but if the new testament involved more Jesus riding giant anthropomorphic giant eagles, I wouldn't complain.

Anyway, all of this aside, the reason why I think this is the best place I've seen in Liaoning Province so far is this:


You can look out over the landscape for about 270 degrees, and see no signs of human civilisation whatsoever. Just trees and mountains and more trees. Authentic wilderness. The thing about China, is that it has been continuously inhabited pretty much forever, certainly for the last 6000 years. Almost every inhabitable inch of soil has been farmed, flooded, burnt, built on, dug up, filled in, slept, shat and died on, by thousands of people for thousands of years. And it shows. There are really places in this country where you have an overwhelming sense that the very earth is worn. So to be able to stand not 20 minutes from a city of several million people, and stare out at pure untrammeled nature, bonafide wilderness, is, I think, something special.

* Okay I made that one up. You can quit looking for it in your guidebook.