Monday, December 28, 2009

Vamos a la Paya

Our days in Yangon are spent in the old city centre of streets crowded with stalls and tea shops. Because of sanctions Myanmar, like Iran, is not connected with the international banking system and once again we are carrying dollars (in mint condition, no fold, no tears, no marks) which we have to change on the black market - the official rate is way below market rate. We change money with an Indian jeweller in one of the big markets. The largest bank note here is equivalent to 1 dollar, so we emerge with our pockets bulging with bricks of notes. At first you feel a little self-conscious with these voluminous bill-folds but then even the fruit sellers sat on the pavements can be seen counting their wads of cash. It soon feels normal.

In the mornings we see lines of monks parading the streets with black bowls tucked under one arm, collecting offerings of food from homes and businesses. Nuns too, in bright pink and orange robes and often a brown parasol to protect their shaven heads. They are not begging - merely providing the people an opportunity to gain merits. One afternoon we catch a bus to Yangon's main tourist attraction and Myanmar's most famous stupa: the Shwedagon Paya. The bus, an old crusty thing with loose bench seats and open windows that catch nothing but hot air, crawls through the traffic. Incongruously there are two flat-screen TVs showing Burmese pop videos and TV programmes. Nothing we see on Burmese TV ever looks like anything we see here. The people are nearly always white, often in western dress and the streets are invariably paved with....well, they're paved. It's unreal.

The paya can easily be seen on the approach - a huge gilded stupa on a hill casting the sun's reflection far and wide. We climb the steps barefoot to the complex of shrines, temples, pagodas, statues and smaller stupas. Momentarily blinded by the dazzle from so much gold up here, we stagger forwards only to be called back to pay the 5 dollar entrance fee. Shame really, because the money goes straight to the government. Shame also, because it appears that the lower half of the Shwedagon Paya is covered in brown paper. Like a modern art installation. And as with most modern art installations we are disappointed. This is a phenomenon we now know as the 'Milan Duomo Effect' . It is the sense of being cheated of the glory of a building by the untimely and lengthy restoration work in progress. (Friends from Milan tell us their cathedral is permanently wrapped in scaffolding.) But there's plenty to see - the complex is alive with locals who have come to make offerings, pray and meditate. A young boy is going through the ordination ceremony to becoming a novice monk. Plenty of older monks are hovering around and eager to strike up conversation with tourists - practising their English, talking football (not politics),hoping to solicit donations. Tourists mill around, listening with glazed expressions to their guide's explanation of the religious and historical significance of a large bronze bell. And cameras are inevitably to the fore. Anything Buddha-ish is gilded, usually by gold leaf applied by the hands of the devoted. Some Buddhas have been electro-plated in shiny gold and look more like C3PO out of Star Wars. The sun sets and night descends. The complex remains busy and peaceful.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Yangon Christmas

There's always a thrill arriving in a country for the first time, no matter how many photographs we may have seen or books we may have read or conversations with other travellers that have coloured-in the simple sketch in our imagination. Driving into Yangon from the airport we get the sense of a provincial town of low-rise buildings, old and new. Only the distance to the centre hints that we're in a city of six million. We're riding in an old Japanese bus - a real museum piece - that's come from one of the budget hotels. There are a dozen of us and it feels like we've suddenly joined a tour group! But the hotel's been recommended to us and we always find it hard to turn down a free ride. The hotel is busy busy, with a big turnround of guests, and there seem to be as many staff as punters. It's all overseen by a woman who is clearly in charge and got everyone well-trained. After the chaos of sorting out rooms for us we are invited to have breakfast and sit down with Sylvie and Eric from France, who are great company.

We end up staying five days in Yangon, happy to walk around the city and adjust to a new place and a new pace. There's a faded charm about the old city centre. Clapped-out crowded buses tear down the dusty streets, the broken pot-holed pavements are alive with bustling food and clothing stalls. There are trees everywhere and tea-shops cluster around huge banyan trees offering welcome shade. We are immediately reminded of India and Sri Lanka. There are paan sellers everywhere and blotches of red spittle cover the ground. Maybe ninety per cent of the men are wearing longyis, and the women also with fitted blouses. Dotted around are old colonial buildings, remnants of the British occupation. Side streets are lined with mildewed concrete appartment blocks, washing is hanging everywhere. Oh and there are plenty of Indians here too in Yangon - descendants of immigrants who turned up with the British to build and run the railway, to trade or to work in the administration. We read that in the 1920's there were more Indians than Burmese in Rangoon, as it was called, and it's not hard to imagine.

lives, or is it dead?

Christmas Day is a low-key affair for us. We have superb biriyani for lunch and then go in search of a decent internet connection to phone home. In an undeveloped country where the internet is restricted by the government and the electricity supply is erratic, we're not too hopeful. Sure enough, our phone calls home are full of empty pauses and swallowed sentences - all very frustrating. In the evening we find a cheerful 'beer station' selling draught stout. Gayle prefers a glass of Shiraz, but they've none in. We join the patrons sitting on toy plastic chairs at toy plastic tables - like furniture borrowed from a kindergarten - spread out across the pavement. There's a nice atmosphere in the cool of the evening, and Christmas turns out to be rather merry after all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Bangkok Interlude

The plane touches down (do planes really just 'touch down'?) late afternoon in Bangkok and we take the slow bus into the city. The air-conditioning on the bus is set to deep freeze and as we sit in the endless traffic jams of the Bangkok rush hour my lips slowly start to turn blue. When we finally get off Gayle has to massage my hands and frost nip has caught my nose. We soon thaw out.
It's high-season in Thailand, the climate is much less humid than our previous two visits and there's a noticeable increase in tourists. There's also a noticeable increase in Western men young and old walking around with their rented girlfriends. The streets seem to be full of food stalls - a bit of a change from China and Hong Kong and we soon get back into the habit of stopping for snacks and meals when the fancy takes us. It's great to taste Thai food again, even if the red curry sometimes seems to go beyond our taste buds' range. We have a few 'jobs' to do - find a Burma guidebook, trade a few novels, catch up on e-mails and this blog, eat a few choc-ices, buy pristine dollars to take to Burma - all easily done here. I am also in need of a haircut. Down by the main station we had noticed fellas getting cuts on the end platform in the open air. When I get there there's a queue. A man starts chatting to me and explains the haircuts are free. I don't believe it, but when it comes to my turn I'm told the same thing. The woman explains that they are all learning and that the cut is free but I don't get to choose the style. I have about 2 cm of hair, and all I want is a no. 1. She obliges and when she's finished directs me to a stand-tap at the end of the track to wash my head. Thinking back now, it's possible that the trainees were on some sort of rehabilitation programme.

Jurek, our Czech friend who we last saw in Chengdu, is also here and it's nice to catch up with him and hear his stories. It's also good to stay with Fiona and Gordon again. Seeing friends like these helps alleviate our occasional pangs of homesickness, particularly as this will be our third Christmas away. Lest we forget the overt commercialism of the event we are bombarded with carols and kitsch seasonal songs in all the shops. It all seems out of place here and even more phoney than at home. So it's with some relief and excitement when we catch our dawn flight to Yangon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hong Kong - c'est tout ce que j'aime

I'm loving it. You just can't beat a chicken-grilled sandwich, fries and coffee to go from those lovely smiley folk at McDonald's. Ahhh - the adventurous life of the traveller. And ahhhhhh - Hong Kong! You just can't beat the price either. It's the cheapest food around. Thankfully there's the Cafe de Coral too - a Chinese fast food chain that serves up the healthiest food possible in stark contrast. And speaking of stark contrasts. Well, there's the hot sunny weather when we emerge from the station at Kowloon. There's the smoke-free public space along the promenade with the great view of Hong Kong Island. There are the helpful and informative signs in Cantonese and English advising what you can and cannot do for everyone's safety and peace of mind. (Too many signs - the British have left their mark.) And a Falun Gong display of photos with accounts of China's brutal repression and human rights abuses. These are shocking in their own right, but we are doubly shocked to see such a display in public, after three months in China.
We take the best boat-ride to be had - the public Star Ferry across the harbour to Hong Kong Island - and go straight to the post office to collect a parcel from Poste Restante. My Mum and Dad have sent our camping equipment out to us along with some rather tasty chocolate which we sample while unpacking and repacking our rucksacks. Then it's a late lunch at the aforementioned global junk food emporium before we take another ferry to Lamma Island, an island without roads or cars. We've come here to couch surf with Adrian, a charming young Romanian who works in the city and lives alone in a small flat on the island. It turns out that Adrian is a very generous host and once he learns that we have come to trek some of Hong Kong's trails, he kindly invites us to leave excess baggage with him and to return whenever we like. Adrian thinks of Hong Kong as 'a London in Asia', but thinks the Chinese are ruining it. I'm not sure how. The locals he works with meanwhile refer to the mainland dismissively as 'The Farm'. There is certainly a sense that Hong Kong locals seem more sophisticated than mainland Chinese but I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint why. Is it in their haircuts???

After a couple of days pootling about we buy supplies for trekking. Getting petrol for the stove seems to be a problem at one petrol station. After saying no, none of the staff gives us eye contact. We were never treated like this in China. Still, there is the super-efficient Tourist Information staff who track down a place where we can buy some and off we go to walk some of the MacLehose Trail which runs along the ridge of hills that separate Kowloon from the rest of the New Territories on the peninsula. Our first day's walk takes us over Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong's highest peak at about 950 metres, which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. It turns out to be the worst weather day, and from then on we have sun and light cloud as we cross eastwards above the skyscrapers and appartment blocks of the townships. It's good walking and there are some campsites with toilets, but on our second night we end up carrying water and having to camp right on the trail beneath a high-security radar station. I am spooked by troops of monkeys on some stretches of the trail that is forested, and occasionally we pass silent packs of dogs. These animals are pets that have been dumped in the national parks by locals. At one point we pass a group of vets in white body suits sterilising the monkeys - a rather weird sight. In the end we don't make it to the beach at the end of the trail - it's cloudy and trying to rain and we opt to return to Adrian's. It's the weekend though and there are hundreds of locals of all ages out on the trails and off to the beach with their tents.

Our other hike is on Lantau Island. We climb Hong Kong's second highest peak which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. We descend to a campsite above a monastery and a huge sitting Buddha statue, which serves as a pilgrimage place and a tourist attraction. The Buddha faces eastwards looking out towards the new airport, as if he's looking out for the Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore. Our second day takes us along rolling hills and down to a beach campsite where we can relax in solitude. Its hard to imagine we're in Hong Kong, having spent so much of the time in the national parks well away from the hustle and bustle.

When we get back to Adrian's for the final time we discover a full house. He seems to welcome everyone and we've already met a few other couch surfers there. On this evening there is also a Moldovan man who is bumming his way around Asia with an old bike with no gears or brakes. His stuff is in plastic bags tied to the handlebars and he looks like he spent the last night sleeping under a bridge. He probably has. He's already spent three years like this visiting every country in Africa, but in Asia he keeps having problems entering countries. No wonder really as he looks penniless. Adrian is as kind and generous as ever and wants to help him along. It strikes us that couch surfing hosts seem to have something special - to open their doors to complete strangers, demonstrating such trust and hospitality - it renews our faith in humanity, after witnessing in Hong Kong what seems to be only relentless consumption. Speaking of which, anyone for McDonalds??

Monday, December 7, 2009


Suzhou is one of those little Chinese cities of only 5 million people. Thankfully the city centre is a low-level and low-key place, famous for its canals and gardens and provides us with a few days of easy strolling and low-level, low-key tourist sights. As it's December we skip the gardens (even resisting the temptation of The Humble Administrator's Garden, which is made easier when we see the entry price of a not-so-humble 10 quid) but make a bee-line for the small silk museum that explains Suzhou's role as one of China's major silk-producing centres. There are silkworms munching on mulberry leaves, a collection of old and very old silk textiles and clothing and a couple of large handlooms in operation producing different styles of silk cloth. In the city's funky modern museum there are an assortment of archaeological finds from the area, including some fancy treasures plucked out of buddhist pagodas, and some fantastic silk coats fit for an emperor, or probably a very wealthy merchant. And out on the street it's sunny, the trees are in their autumnal phase, and we're happy to wander around.
Once again we are stymied with our onward travel plans. We want to catch a train from nearby Shanghai to Hong Kong, but to do so we have to go to Shanghai in advance to buy it. For all it's fame and glamour we're not so keen on a day trip there, but at least there are express train connections that make it easier. As soon as we arrive we head to the large Ticket Hall and within minutes have two tickets in our sweaty palms. Now we can go out and enjoy ourselves and we head straight for a stroll along the Bund, the riverside stretch of old colonial buildings built by the foreign traders and businesses that operated for so long in Shanghai. And what was their business? Well, one of the grandest buildings was put up by a bloke who specialised in the opium trade. The British were particularly adept at this trade as they had a ready supply of the drug from India. How ironic that we are trying to prevent this trade these days. When the Chinese tried to stop the sale of opium the British and French waged a little war and by force won concessions to trade in other parts of China, and Britain took Hong Kong Island to use as a trading and shipping base. Nowadays these grand buildings are in various states of repair, but as Shanghai will host the World Expo in 2010 there's an army of construction workers refurbishing and polishing them up. I'm sure it will look lovely, but on this particular day it is all a bit dusty and scaffolded. We seek solace in a park and backstreets through one of the few old neighbourhoods still standing. Part of the area has the city's most popular temple - dedicated to wealth of course - and is surrounded by hundreds of tourist shops. Uh-oh. We take another lane and find a tiny place doing food for locals. We squeeze in with some relief at finding something rather normal at last.
Since we've suddenly got a taste for museums we head for Shanghai's big modern one. There's a stunning collection of statues, buddhas and other figurative pieces, but what impresses me more is the collection of Ming-dynasty furniture - 400 year-old stuff that looks so modern and graceful, including possibly the most comfortable bed in the whole of the Middle Kingdom. Outside we're surrounded by the tall skyscrapers that now symbolise Shanghai's position as the most modern and international city. It's also thought to be the largest. Everyone looks a little wealthier and a little more western, but maybe we're just imagining it. Down one pedestrian shopping street we're assailed by touts trying to sell us handbags, watches, more handbags, marijuana. Marijuana? A South Asian man gives me a conspiratorial wink when I turn in surprise. So the drugs trade is still alive in Shanghai after all.
We have a couple more quiet days in Suzhou before returning to catch our luxury night train southwards. In Shanghai station we pass through immigration control and are formerly stamped out of China before we board the train. We are sharing with a couple of older women, one of whom has been to Manchester in the woolly jumper trade. Her friend has a son teaching English at Hong Kong University and she's planning to see out the winter with him. Wise woman. We ask them whether they speak Cantonese or English in Hong Kong. One of them replies with a smile "We speak Mandarin - it's part of our country now!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On The Town

Beijing, Beijing, it's a helluva town. The Bird Nest's up and Tiananmen's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. Beijing Beijing. It's a helluva ...... oh, Gene Kelly, where are you now? What can I write about the place that you haven't heard before? This is probably the least-surprising city we have visited here in China - it's just how we expected it to be. There's Mao's mug hanging over Tiananmen Gate and the infamous square just over the road - a huge expanse of nothing, oh, except for the man himself, tucked up in his monstrous mausoleum. The flag is flying. And through the gate is the Forbidden City which Gayle visits without me - I feel no great desire to join the crowds of Chinese. She tells me I missed a great collection of Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics, but that the buildings of the city itself are very similar to ones we have already seen around the city. We have already nosed around the Confucius Temple and the neighbouring College for the Imperial Civil Servants' Examinations, plus the Worker's Cultural Palace - and these buildings are all built and laid out in a similar style and decorated in the same colour - Imperial Red (not the People's Red). There are some pleasant parks to visit and at the weekends these seem to fill with people of 'a certain age' who happily indulge in rather wonderful group activities: there's the ballroom dancers swinging to Chinese pop, the opera chorus accompanied by an accordionist, the Tai Chi troop twisting and squatting in unison, two harmonica bands battling for supremacy with booming sound systems, and clusters of folk playing 'zhou en lai' (which translates as 'shuttlecock keepy-uppy'). Of course the rest of the week they all just sit around playing maj jong. Winter's come early this year, with heavy snow already been and gone (the snow had been induced by Chinese meteorologists in an attempt to counter the seasonal regional drought - they really wanted rain.) As a result most of the trees have lost their leaves, so the city seems all the more the great urban metropolis. Big buildings. Big roads.

And then there's the small matter of a wall. We set out early one day for a popular walk along a hilly section of the Great Wall. There's hundreds of steps, steep ramps, broken pathways, iron ladders and a suspension bridge to cross. The scenery is big dry rolling hills. We are duly impressed - the wall disappears into the distance east and west. When we set off it's in glorious sunshine, but at the end of the walk the mist has rolled in and, as we drop down into the car park we can just about spot the taxi drivers' fins sticking up above the cloud. They circle, they feed. We escape eventually with torn clothes but limbs intact. It's been a great day.

While we're here we apply successfully for our Burma visa. We have less than a month left in China, but we definitely want to return in the New Year. As is often the case, it's not the Must Sees or Things To Do that we've enjoyed most, but all the other things in-between. So, in Beijing we enjoy the morning wandering around the Sunday antique/crafts market, or the afternoon mooching about the trendy modern art 798 district. There are still some of the old hutongs left and they're entertaining to wander. These are the old lanes full of one-storey houses that once filled the old city centre. Much has been made of their ongoing destruction and those that remain look like they've been renovated or turned into trendy tourist shopping streets. The old houses have no toilets, so public ones are everywhere. In fact, they claim to have the most of all the cities in the world - handy in this cold weather and one boast to be proud of. There's a decent metro system and the city centre is huge, but we still end up walking a lot. Thankfully we've a decent and very cozy hostel to recover in.
This is the furthest north we're travelling, and at the end of the week we catch a night train southwards to get to Suzhou. As usual, the station's busy, there are the tedious baggage scans and the hanging around in the cavernous waiting halls before the gates are opened and the mad scramble to board first. We're on the train to Shanghai and it's full of rather well-off Chinese. We've got top bunks which means we can go straight to bed, and we nod off with the train announcements coming out of the speaker by our ears.