30 Oct 2008

Tibetan flavours

How could somewhere so big, so empty and so open be so efficiently closed off, I asked myself. I was becoming breathless from the altitude (current town Litang, over 4,000m high) and the stunning scenery. The magnificent big blue skies, the sweeping vastness, the sense of the mountain summits grazing the heavens.

If China had a Wild West, then this would definitely be it.
Officially I am not in Tibet. Unofficially, and to all intents and purposes, I am already in Tibet. The soaring snowcapped mountains, the big empty terrain, the clourful prayer flags flapping in the icy winds, the stirring sense of gigantic wonder, the exotic weather-beaten faces of the people. Technically a part of China, but a very different world.
The terrain looks rather roughed up, in spite of a bright strong sun, which yields little kindness, only harsh brightness. The driver turned up the volume of his music. It was what I might describe at Tibetan techno, thumping beats and Spanish lyrics for one song: 'Vamos a la playa!' (Lets go to the beach!) The beach had never felt further away.
The morning frost was hard and the scenery promised to be breathtaking. Enromous valleys, icey rivers and mountains coated in gleaming snow. I was already out of breath with the high altitudes, but something else contributed too.
On my bus the driver had offered me cigarettes. I needn't have bothered smoking any becasue all the other passengers on Chinese buses do your smoking for you. And when they're not smoking, they're spitting.
At one small town stop I wondered around a market and watched men chopping and sawing off yaks' heads before they were casually wheeled off on a trollyey. Crude outdoor butchering and running blood. As they did so, cigarettes never left their mouths, of course. Pigs snaffled around the fringes of toilets. A pair of stray dogs (there are nearly everywhere in these parts) mated with uneasy brutality in the distance.
Of course it is always useful to remember just how much history China has been through (near on 46 centuries of it no less). So in some ways this is a country which is always writing, or even rewriting, its own enormous history.

Mountaineering for Buses

I promise you, one day I shall write a book entitled the world's worst bus journeys. A recent contender was my journey in Sichuan province (south west China) from the town of Kangding to Tagong. At times I thought I was back in Afghanistan doing a never-to-be-repeated journey - www.alitravelstheworld.com/afghanistan
The start of the journey was not promising. We reached a police road block. Then engine chuntered out and the driver went to speak to the soldiers. I guessed that they were not letting us through because we were foreigners. Never forget that China is a country of rules, of control, or order and of face. Rules must be adhered to.
On a previous bus journey people refused to sell me tickets because I was a foreigner. Foeigners are not allowed to buy tickets for buses here. 'Why?' I asked, without answers. I waved my money around but the woman behind the counter didnt want to know. She didnt even give one of the famously awkwardly tightly clenched polite Chinese smiles.
The bus company even made announcements in English and the entire list of the Customer Satisfaction Requirements (their words, not mine) were printed out on a notice board
It was only becasue of the attentions attracted that a lady came over and took myself and two other English girls in a taxi to the outskirts of town, Here we waited uneasily, wondering what on earth we were doing, Then the same bus we had previously been refused permission to travel on pulled over and we got onboard. Rules can be bent in China, sometimes very effectively.
Anyway to reach Tagong there was only one road and we were obviously not going to be allowed to travel on it. So the driver came back, slammed his battered Hiace into a frenzied reverse and off we headed down a side road. We came to a village checkpoint. Money was handed over to some local women and we took a very severe turn up a steep rocky farm track. It was an excellent place to be robbed and left for good.
We careered around a brick wall, near shaving it. However, there were some other passengers in the vehicle, Tibetan men, and they urged us all to get out. The driver told us to find some large rocks to palce behind the wheels to prevent it rolling back down the hill. Then he required us to push the vehicle up the farm hill. What on earth was going on, I silently wondered, as I packed my body down alongside twoTibetan men in a an exhausting attempt to generate some momentum. Becasue we were at altitude (over 3,000m) the effort was near shattering. Somehow the driver gave it all he had and we made it to the top of the hill. We came out on a main raod, indeed the correct road. A few shouts of delight and the turnign on of some loud Tibetan techno music indicated that we had successfully, if exhaustively, circumnavigated the Chinese military road block.
The Sichuan-Tibetan Highway is the main road all the way from South West China up to Lhasa, Tibet's controversial capital. To call it a highway is a gross exaggeration. It is a tortorously twisting narrow mountain road, deeply unsuited to the volumes of heavy truck traffic which batters it every day.

more coming soon ( Chinese internet connections and electricity permitting!)...

Monkeys in the mist

The Chinese have a saying that where one monkey stands in the way, ten thousand men shall not pass. And when you are confronted by clusters of these monkeys half way up stepp mountain trail, it is easy to understand why. From far away they look cute and playful. Up close however, they are considerably more menacing and threatening. They seem to believe they have a right to help themselves to anything edible you might have on you, whether you like it or not.
I spent a couple of days trekking up Emei Shan, one of China's holiest mountains. Misty monasteries and mischievious monkeys were the main highlights.

I was crossing a rope bridge and all of a sudden a small group of monkeys appeared around me from different angles. I had a stick with me, but it seemed to make little difference. One of them took a leap and swiped for my back. Fortunately I swerved oput the way just in time and he missed me. That was fine, but the more intimidating moment came furthher up the mountain where a young Chinese couple were waiting nervously.
It soon bcame apparent why. One very large monkey was sat on a post. When he saw me he growled. Up close some of the monkeys were the size of large dogs or even small black bears. As he growled me he yawned his mouth open and bared his fangs. We had to be very patient and wait for him to be distracted befopre continuing through.
I spent the night in a monastery. With creeping woooden floorboards, dark crevices and mysterious bodies lurking in the mist, it did a very good impersonation of a haunted house.

A few notes on further Chinese food experiences:
It really is incredibly hit and miss. Ordering is often a complete gamble, especially if you are feeling in the slightest bit adventurous. Entire dishes have been left untouched. Perhaps the most disgusting thing so far for me has been bamboo shoots. Harmless enough you might think, I certainly did, but utterly repulsive. And the fact that they happened to be shaped rather like a certain part of a man's anatomy also considerably diminished the appeal.
I found myself eating yogurt with chopsticks (?!) and the most bizarre yet....a fruit salad smothered with, wait for it, tomato ketchup...mmm....it almost makes those severed yaks heads and chicken feet seem vaguely palatable. In order to wash it down I had to order a bottle of 'Local Bear'
The Chinese dont really eat their food, they scoff and shovel it. There is something compelling unsophisticated and crude in witnessing the cramming into the mouth with the efficiency of cattle converging around a feeding station. And the mess they leave afterwards is truly incredible. The scavengers come, then devour, then they clear off again.

photos coming soon hopefully...

22 Oct 2008


Not for one moment did I imagine I would find myself in the city where the great origins of China's early empire took root, gawping at skyscrapers and cranes. But this is twenty-first century Xi'an. For a moment I thought I must have taken the train to Shanghai by mistake. Its cenntre is one big endless glitzy shopping centre.

it was a bit like when I arrived in the city of Manaus, an isolated city in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest after four days of boat travel. It was all a bit underwhelming. I was expecting something more. All I got was busy blandness. The klet down of the first impressions after arrival somehow devalued the efforts of the journey.

The big thick walls of this ancient city (a more modern city centre you might be hard pressed to find), even they could not protect it from rampant consumerism and big name brand shopping. Its a little like a woman who puts on too much make-up again and again. The outside facades are clean and pleasant but you begin to wonder what is really underneath, what is being concealed or glossed over. When something is too gleaming and glitzy, trying too hard almost, you begin to ask yourself why.

Sure the site of the terracotta warriors is indeed very impressive. Although you cannot get all that close to them, you can have a solid appreciation of how one emperor set about constructing an army of 6,000 uniquely stylised clay statues under the ground. A policeman sat on his perch above some red carpeted stairs. The red carpet stairs were closed off to the public.

From Xi'an I continued on to Chengdu, home to the giant pandas. And I allowed myself the luxury of travelling hard sleeper rather than hard seat. Comfort, space and peace like I had never known on a train in China.

Just outside Chengdi is a giant panda reserve. Seeing these wonderful creatures close up is a very worthwhile experience:

One of my main aims has been to find a way into an area of China which (to thwart the censors!) begins with T and ends in T. It has lots of monastaries and mountains. But my chances of finding a way in are not looking great, so I'll see where I end up.

Hua Shan mountain

These are my photos from a couple of days spent trekking up Hua Shan mountain, an extremely holy place to many Chiense people. You would have thought that in such a remote, beautiful and cold place you would finally be able to escape the masses of Chinese people. You would be wrong. They built a cable car and off they pour in their thousands. Fortunately, for those who opt to do things the hard way (me!) the steep climbs were rewarded by some stunning views and an unforgettable sunset, largely free of Chinese tourists.

Some of my favourite signs up the mountain included:

Padlocks and red ribbons engraved with symbolic words

20 Oct 2008

Chinese Trains...

How bad can it really be, I asked myself. Travelling hard seat on an overnight train journey. So bad I found myself doing it twice. Maybe i could or should have done it a different way. But then travel as something smooth and uneventfully glamorous rarely does justice to the purpose of a meaningful journey.

Afterall, when you've travelled on buses on Africa as the locals have done - http://www.alitravelstheworld.com/zimbabwe - its all relative.

On the first train I was squeezed into a tight, smokey carriage - cattle class - and plonked in the middle of a Chinese family. The man sat opposite me (ie knee to knee) might well have been the Chinese harry Potter lookalike champion. He wanted to ask me anything and everything.

China may be strange, different, and often weird. But that does not mean plenty of its people are unhelpful or unfriendly. Far from it. I have spoken to all sort of people about China, and where it is going, and the general consensus from those who have spent long periods of time here (which naturally lends a certain amount of credibility) is that no one really knows with any certainty what will happen next. Anyone who tells you they do is lying or deluded.

But whatever happens, we are tied in with China. There is very little we can do to alter its course. Perhaps, not for the first time, a few tricks were missed during the Olympics, but we are where we are.

On my second train I was escorted away by a uniformed soldier. I didnt know where I was going. It was the black of night, just me and him marchign along a deserted platform. 'Go! Go!' he kept barking. Then as the train emerged out of the mist he shuffled his shoes to an erect attention and stamped his feet. I felt compelled to take my hands out of my pockets and tuck my shirt in. He was merely escorting me to the right carriage. 'Go!' he implored again, pointing at the door. So I did.

Around 4:30am a baby across the isle shrieked violently into action, roaring for some attention. Then I watched with sleepy horror as his mother swung him around with sudden swiftness to dangle him into the aisle and point him at the floor. His pants were down and he projected out a small jet of urine. It was heading towards my vicinity and she looked like an old lady merrily watering her English garden. The watery trickling sound woke me up fully. Never wear flip flops or shorts on a CHinese train, i silently reminded myself.

I looked up with disbelief and the woman in the next compartment was contentedly engaged in sewing a tapestry pattern. Then I cast a weary glance out the windomw and noticed lots of rushing water, which the train was crossing over. There was running water everywhere, little ironic perhaps for such a supposedly arid country. I delved into my map to see what this huge stretch of great water might be called and when I found out I afforded myself a quiet and suppressed chuckle. It was the Yellow River.

The shear volume of torsos in Chinese train stations on arrival and departure can instil claustrophobia. Early on a cold morning in Xi'an train station a cold slit of light at the long end of a mass of crowded humanity illuminated the exit. I felt like I was coming up out of a coal mine at dawn.

Then I watched as a fight broke out. A large fat man was thrashing out at two policemen in a way which suggested he was someoine important and had been pulled up for something petty. He cokmpletely lost his temper and was lunging for the throat of one of the policemen before he was pulled away. They were reluctant, even afraid perhaps, to pursue him. I put my head down and heading as quickly as the crowded humnanity would allow me to for the exit.

Bodies continue to converge on you from all angles. How on earth did so many people travel on so few trains, you wonder. Where are they all going and what are they all doing. The story of China's momentum belongs to them. They carry it with them every day and night.

more to follow.....

12 Oct 2008

Postcard from Beijing

The immensity of China is daunting. It is also exciting. Its size makes it feel like it something much bigger than just one country. One of the world's oldest countries is transforming into one of its newest...almost overnight. This country is so many different things to so many different people. A threat to some, an opportunity to others. China is more, much more than we think it is.
China is much talked about, but that doesnt necessarily mean we are genuinely well informed about it.
There's a lot going on in China these days. You might have heard about it. But seeing is believing. ONly after you have found yourself in the middle of an Olympian sized traffic jam with what feels like half of Beijing's 16 million people, do you even begin to get a sense of the scale of China and its thrusting, attention grabbing emergence onto the world stage.
Despite its size - it takes a huge amount of time just to make your way from one part of the city to another - Beijing is a rather pleasant place. People are generally friendly and very helpful. Many want to practise their English. The subway system puts the London tube to shame: modern, clean, efficient, reliable. And largely chav-free.
The Chinese are seemingly invading their own country. Small armies of tour groups in red and yellow caps all over beijing. The people are armed with cameras and there's little respite from them. Young people are bright, clever, quick and eager to learn in ways that I rarely encounter in my own country. It is a sobering thought.
Confucius once said that, 'Is it not a joy to welcome friends from afar?' - and this also seems to apply to the hasslers to. But I can take them in my stride. After some 5,000 years of continuous history they're still on the go, relentless and restless. There's no time for sitting down here. I did what I always do, just walk and talk.
Everywhere you walk, there are faces, hundreds of faces. From a meditating old man to a chicly dressed yung girl. So many faces, so much action, so little outside comprehension. It is all but impossible to take photos without including other Chinese people taking photos of other Chinese people. SO many of them either look really young or really old. Never go the wrong way down an underpass though. You just get swallowed up into a chattering chasm of excitable camera-wielding humanity.
I walked around Tianamen Square - if you never knew of its history you would take it as a pleasant place, if slightly sparsely Soviet in style. From the ancient ruins or the sprawling Forbidden City to the gleaming (and now largely disused and empty) modernity of the Olympics complex, China seems to encompass so much.
I walked for several hours along the Great Wall -this coiled serpent unleashing itself, it is so much more close up. You can appreciate it from a different dimension. Even there in the remoter stretches of this amazing structure, people try to sell you thins:
'I am a farmer?' one man waving some postcards at me for the fifteenth time told me.
'What do you farm? Tourists?'
'Its a good time to harvest now?'
'Yes. Special price for you my friend.'
And then there's the food - again encompassing the delicious appetising (mouth-watering roast duck) to the less appetising: Sheeps Penis, Roast Eel, Fried Scorpions, Sea Snake, Stir fried pig liver, fried pig's kidneys....anything whet your appetite there?!
There are the old winding alleys of the Hutong, rather touristy now but retaining a sense of timelessness. And then there are the glitzy shopping malls, brimming with bright neon and overspilling with giant adverts. I was told I was not allowed to call it capitalism (a dirty word here) but you can decide for yourself. Egalitarian communism at its redistributionalist best. They are nothing but efficient though, you have to say that. What takes us six years to build, they probably knock up in six months. Thats good and bad.
The world's (arguably) oldest civilisation has transformed itself many times before. We forget or overlook this. And it will do so again.
The impression is that grand old Chairman Mao, still revered and respected, has turned into a sort of deified Diana for China in its new century. The soldiers here are fairly relaxed.
People asked me about England and told me what they knew...James Blunt, The Spice girls, Harry Potter and Prince Andrew. All the good things about my own country then...hmmm.
One man I met mentioned the Olympics. He asked about the London 2012 display with the red bus. 'It was very...erm...different and ....fashionable!' Embarassing would have my adjective, I told him.
So now I'm on my way inland. Where it might lead I dont quite know, but if the censors are kind, I'll try to write again when I can. Until then....

5 Oct 2008

Ali in China

From early October, I shall be travelling through China. Follow my progress and impressions of the country here...

Vote Conservative!

Everyone likes to moan about politcians, but not many people have the resolve to do much about it or translate it into something positive.
For the first time in my life I went to a political conference. Almost everyone I met and everything I heard confirmed to me one thing - this country cannot have a change of government soon enough. David Cameron gave a very thoughtful, considered speech - listen to it for yourself in its entirety (with an open mind if need be) and it makes an enormous amount of good sense.
As anyone and everyone on the left seems obsessed by, yes indeed he did go to Eton. But frankly, so what? Apart from a few bitter, immature, outdated politics-of-envy class warriors, who honestly cares? How long will it take before these people get over their complex about the hard reality of some people having more money than others. Labour is afterall the party which has embraced obscenely wealthy people like no other and prostituted our honours system to them.
And if all these people think that Britain today is such a divided and unequal country, where only rich and privileged people can progress and prosper, well, if so, isnt that a pretty damning inditement of three Labour governments? They have nothing positive whatsoever to say about anything Labour has done, so they resort to cheap, nasty smears.
Just because I am in favour of a Conservative government does not necessarily mean I wholeheartedly agree with or embrace all of what they say or do. Some of the remnants on the fringes cling to some strangely outdated opinions. Yet, by and large, the people in the key positions of power are becoming better informed and smarter about the wider world.
With my particular emphasis on foreign affairs and international development, I was pleasantly encouraged by the sensible and well-thought out policies being developed. William Hague in particular will make an excellent foreign secretary. What a pity we will have to wait another two years.
What impressed me most, amongst everyone I spoke to, was the willingness to listen and be open-minded about parts of the world that no one truly or comprehensively understands.
If you care about Britain having an effective, well informed and sensible foreign policy, then you have to vote Conservative. The Conservatives may not have a flawless track record, but by and large they are the natural party of international affairs.
Britains interest's, and the world's interests, are best served with them in power.

Peter Mandelson

In America their solution to ease the Credit Crunch is a $700bn bailout bill. Gordon Brown's solution? He brings back Peter Mandelson! A little desperate, dont you think? Then again Gordon is sorely in need of some slicker news management with a more ruthless, sinister and calculating edge and as we well know, Peter is 'not a quitter'. Why not bring back Alastair Campbell as well, as Minster For Truth perhaps. Or resurrect Neil Kinnock's verbose and long-winded charms to batter people into opinionated submission with.
No one spin. the end of spin, Gordon cried forlornly. Some people believed him. Yet the spin has never really gone away. It's just that he wasn't very good at it, so now he's dragged someone back who used to be good at it.
It is bound to end in tears and quite a few people might appreciate the sublime irony of one of New Labour's most sinister architects being present at both the birth and the final death of his own project. A perverse symbol perhaps of New Labour lavish indulgence of super wealth, and being out of touch with ordinary people, that it regards the return of one of its most over-rated and underachieving ministers as some sort of redeeming saviour. Desperate.