25 Nov 2008


Disgusting I know, but it has to be brought up. Bad pun intended. The Chinese like to spit. And its hard not to let it affect you.

After the best part of a couple of months amongst them (most of the time fairly intimately), maybe its the sterile air or contagious force of habit, but part of you thinks if you can't beat them, join them. In fact, whuy not go one better and really show them how to spit properly because, especially for people who do so much of it, the peculiar thing is that the Chinese are not actually very good at spitting.
They are world class throat hoickers. Of that there is no doubt. But the actual spitting part is usually a complete anti-climax. Perhaps it is the crowds or the likely proximity of so many other Chinese people, but something seems to hold them back at the critical moment of expulsion. Still it never fails to make me glance around nervously and check that my legs dont have a new coating.

23 Nov 2008

Road to Burma

They call it the Bamboo Curtain. It is China's secretive border with Burma. There is no reason to go there at all, nothing much to see. So I did a strange thing. I decided to go totally out of my way to take a look. Just for the thrill of the ride somewhere totally different. It didnt disappoint. For a couple of days I wandered around, not another Westerner or even Chinese tourist in sight. No one really spoke any English. It was just me and my phrase book, trying to fathom what I was doing in such a place.
In what felt like no time at all the bus engines had been switched off and there was the silence of an unexpected blurry-eyed arrival in a town I could not remember the name of. Sometimes when you travel you do not need to see a particular sight or undertake a designated experience. Just getting an open-eyed feel for somewhere which looks intrguing on a map is enough. Ruili, right in the far south western corner of China was such a place.
Like so many other places in China, it totally confounded my expectations. The scenery was stunning: an area known as the sea of heat for all its thermal energy and some twenty volcanoes, it is also very earthquake prone. My second bus deviated away from the main highway - I thought this was to avoid paying the toll, as had happened previously (see below) but no, this was indeed the rough dirt track to the Burma border. It was a road for motorbikes, jungle-clad with overlapping ferns, brilliant for hiding things or bandits poerhaps, unsuited to buses and it reminded me of the beginings of the Lost City in Colombia.
This road, the Burma road was, I could see, still being built by hand, brick by laboriously chiselled brick. Teams of labourers toiled in the warm sun. Tea plantations began to emerge and then the mighty girth of the Mekong river and a precarious wobbly planked bridge. Banana plants and sugar cane-filled fields. Then, always a surprise around the next bend, flat plains.

There was that lazy hum and distant drone of the Asian Sub-continent, the sleep-inducing haze and mind-draining heat. Water buffaloes and cycle rickshaws. The people, I noticed, now had darker features and were more ragged looking, and less purposeful in their demeanour. I oculd easily have changed countries. I could easily have been in Burma.

And then some Chinese soldiers stopped the bus stopped the bus and asked me questions. Was I American, one of them asked, as he thumbed through my passport. Absolutely not, I replied, takign the risk of humouring him. It seemed to work. He and his colleague looked long and hard at my bag and gave me the benefit of the doubt, waving me on my way. But to where?
What a strange place Ruili was. Again there was the strong sense that I had left China altogether. I almost had. I was totally on my own in an unfamiliar town and it was strangely stimulating. Everyone I passed in the street looked at me hard. I attracted plenty of attention everywhere. No one seemed to speak my language. The men wore sarongs, like loose skirts which they had a habit of crudely 'readjusting' from time to time.
I found a hotel. it was rather surreal, vast and empty looking. The reception lady sent me to what felt like the furthest away possible room, at the end of the corridor where there were protruding cameras, which I cheerily waved into on my way past each time. It felt like I was their only guest. 'Classic Jazz Tastes Style!' boasted the hotel pamphlet. My room looked pretty ordinary and shabby to me. They even had a comb and shower cap in the bathroom (really useful to a bald man!). And the TV didnt work. And i thought back to the bus station which had clocks on the wall showing the times in 'Greenwich, Peking and Rangoon.' And I began to wonder if perhaps this city was not dissimilar to Rangoon, something I might well be able to find out within a couple of months time.

to be continued.....

First impressions are not always the most favourable. Shops didnt seem to sell anything I needed or wanted - an ice cream or a cold beer perhaps. Instead they offered expensive jewellry, designer sunglasses, washing machines, beds and even an entire row of stores selling blankets. Christ, it was well over thirty degrees, there was no danger of catching a chill at night here!

I walked into a supermarket to muffled titters and giggles. No less than ten uniformed girls greeted me at the entrance and then one of them escorted me around the shop. It was like having my very own personal shopper. Outside another large electronics store, the shop assistants were skipping, sop few customers were there.
Someone offered me teak, jade and some opium (a big problem, but thats another story) and at the border, did I require the services of a ladyboy? I'd heard stories that hairdressing shops were not indeed what they seemed and were fronts for brothels. Luckily as someone who isnt big on hairdressing expenditure, that wasnt a problem.
In fact whole swathes of the town felt like it was just one big front for various illicit endeavours.

The Brurmese people, at first glance to me, reminded me of Indians or Pakistanis and they spoke like them too. I came across a couple of boys who were very inquisitive in English. I thought they spoke it better than actually did and only realised when they kept repeating everything I said!

The markets, like plenty of markets in China were not for the faint of smell of the weak of stomach. Dogs in cages, cats on leads, blood fur and feathers all amalgamated together on the floor. I was sure there was a decent chance I'd pick up bird flu. A mentally ill man, ragged and destitute in a way that you would never come close to see in my own country or indeed continent, was craling his way laboriously across the dirty floor. Where he was going, or indeed where he had come from, no one seemed to know, or to care. It seemed that some people were actually living or sleeping in this market in hunched gloomy squats with washing hung outside. What a place to live. What an existence.
One strange thing about Ruili - there were many strange things - was that the town just seemed to come to a abrupt halt at the end of the main road (some eight lanes wide). High rise buildings, then jsut dirt and mud, nothing but the rubble of countryside again.
One thing that struck me as I picked my way through the mayhem - it was strangely compelling - was how busy or pre-occupied most people were. Children being schooled, a mother arranging her daughter's hair, a man texting on his mobile phone (every has one) families scoffing noodles, making tea, counting money, a woman methodically putting on her make-up.

Then it struck me. I'd come all the way from the sprawl of Beijing right to far fringes of the Burma border to encounter what I expected China to be - the lonesome anonymity of the strange alien outsider, the awkward and rude hotel service (another story) and the weirdness.

Having taken myself to some of its remoter fringes, I am tempted to conclude that maybe, just maybe, China as the monlithic homogenous entity we hear so much about, is not quite what we've told it is or what we think it is. Yet in this far flung corner of a vast country people seemed to posess something very un-Chinese - that rare commodity called time. And it occurred to me that people werent spitting in the street. I had barely noticed.

19 Nov 2008

Chinese Lessons

Maybe its just me, but I seem to have a way of getting into trouble with attempting to speak the language. Never mind my Spanish in Central America (read my experiences and mistakes here: www.lulu.com/alistaircaldicott), theres always a new misunderstanding around the corner - Ill try to backdate a few here when I have time and internet speed / availability.
Earlier today, in a jokey sort of way, I called someone comrade. And then I discovered that the word comrade in Chinese (tongzhi) also now means a slang word for someone who is gay. Quite ironic really, since the literal translation (I belatedly realised) means those of the same mindset. SO there you go - perhaps that just about sums Chinese communism up - going from comrades to gays in less that a generation!
Some time ago I showed someone the word for sore throat in the back of my phrasebook. It was in very small print. I was wondering why he was looking at me in a funny way. Then I scrutinised the word and noticed that immediate above it, where I had underlined was the term for sore thrush.
Also the word for current affairs in Chinese is Shishi - said almost literally as Shhhhh! Appropriate perhaps, you might think.
And as today happens to be World Toilet Day (you think Im joking) - in the same restaurant I made my language faux pas I managed to photo their toilet sign, which didnt pull any punches:

I am now heading west right to the border with Burma -a very long way from Beijing. In fact I shall be closer to Delhi than either Beijing or Shanghai.

18 Nov 2008

On the Edge

Perhaps my favourite Chinese sign yet:
Rather appropriate in some respects.

WIthout realising, I had stumbled into the middle of a sizeable and chattering party of Chinese tourists (very easily done) but it was nothing like as bad as I might have feared. In fact I really came to enjoy their company and started to to work some of my Mandarin.
More and more I am coming to the conclusion that China is so far removed from our casually and lazily accepted norms. Obviously plenty of people will remain quite sceptical but my advice is to do what I usually do: come and see it for yourself and make your own mind up. It truly is an absorbing country with plenty of magic to be sprinkled on you...if you go delving into the right areas and delve hard enough.
As roads go, the road up to Lugu Lake on the border of northern Yunnan and Sichaun proivinces is a rattling, rough and rugged rollercoaster. It snakes and slithers its way around the precariously sloping orangey-brown mountains of Yunnan. It feel like hundreds, maybe thousands of men, are constantly rebuilding the road. And for a good reason: heavy landlsides. The road was closed for this reason just a few days before I ventured up and it was easy to see why. This was an area where landslides were of severe and epic proportions.
This is a road which is never short of drama: rubble and wreckage, overturned trucks, dusty swerves or the steering wheel from a driver who uses one hand for his mobile phone and the other for his cigarette. Panicky honks of the horn do little to reassure passengers - I found myself in the front seat which was both the very best and the very worst place to experience everything the road had to offer.
When you descend it - and it is no more than a rutted track of stones - it is the sort of descent for which you need to hold on to something fairly firmly. I was airborne from my seat several times and banged various parts of my body on hard edges of the bus interior. I always bang my head hard on anything, its like a curse of baldness. But in a strangely compelling way, the ride was worth every yuan. As the late afternooon sun ravished and dazzled the broadening river valley and banana trees emerged to signify a milder climate again, I was reminded of my crazy journey down the world most dangerous road in Bolivia (www.alitravelstheworld.com/bolivia)
And all sorts of every animal scattered and casually rambled across the road - piglets, herds of cows, sage old beared wild goats, horses, stray dogs. Every now and again I caught glimpses of brillinaltly flurescent women from the minority Mosuo people. More and more in CHina, you start to realise that so much its territory is actually rather un-Chinese at all. So many different kinds of diverse people co-exist within its borders. This is a country of Lost Horizons

12 Nov 2008

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Last night, in my efforts to immerse myself, I summoned up the courage to eat snails for dinner washed down with local red wine, which was unsurprisingly the much more palatable of the two. I have met all sorts of people in the last week or so here in Yunnan province - having had beers and discussion with the Chief Justice of the Marshall Islands to having dinner with a German man in charge of a large automotive company opening its third factory in Shanghai to a an ex Wall Street banker.There was something utterly compelling about witnessing first hand the powered, frenzied, concentrated fury of the Yangzi river. The late afternoon sun glinted and streaked with marvellous dazzle down the river's path.
In terms of challenging walks that I have undertaken, the Tiger Leaping Gorge walk was fairly moderate and undemanding. In terms or spectacular views and scenery, it was dramatic. I nearly got bumped off the path and down into the lower reaches of the valley at one point by a pair of frisky horses, but managed to manoevre my body away form theirs just in time.

At the end of my charge down into the canyon, I found myself being asked to have dinner with a German man and his wife. His wife spoke excellent English but barely uttered a word and did little more than nod politely as her husband told me all about the Chinese work ethic and the economic prospects for the automotive industry.
'We always have to tell the CHinese workers so many times. It is not like in Germany. We cannot embarass or humiliate them. This is very bad. It is like killing them. The CHinese are very different to you and me.'
'Indeed they are.' I replied.
'They think, eat and act differently. Try eating the frog.' he insisted. 'It really is very tasty. And the goose feet too. This is recommended.'
Then suddenly, out of the blue, came a fierce cry. ' Fuwujian!!'
He was callign the waitress over.
'Oh so you know her name?' I innocently suggested.
'No. Dis is the word for waitress. If you shout it loud enough they always come over.'
Sure enough a girl sheepishly approached our table.
'Our food is not hot.' He insisted. 'Please take it back and make it hot.'
As she did so, she stared at him. I also stared at him. He had blood streaming out of his nose. It was altitude sickness. And it began to attract attention.

more soon....when China sorts its internet out! Believe me their is so much more to tell, but I'm short on time and internet speed. Tomorrow I am heading up to a place described as the 'Kingdom of Women'...

6 Nov 2008

Chinese Signs

There are many dangers and perils to the traveller in China, some of them less obvious than others...

I shall add new signs when I can - there really are too many to upload...but enough of my scribbling!

Where were these signs when I needed them on my train journey! (see below)

Chinese Karaoke

If seeing is believing in China, then hearing is disbelieving when it comes to karaoke.
As someone with the singing voice of an undomesticated mammal which should never be inflicted on anyone apart from myself, far be it for me to caste judgements on the quality of others attempting to expel tuneful or melodic noises from the deepere recesses of their larynxes.
Nonetheless, it must be unequivocally stated that the vast majority of karaoke singers here are hideously and excruciatingly stressful to any normal and properly functioning human ear.
Perhaps I should have been alerted, or even troubled, by the hurried and exaggerated enthusiasm with which I was ushered up the stairs of a dimly lit bar I had just ambled into. But I was shunted straight into the uncomfortably intimate vicinity of a small raised stage. Luckily, after ordering a beer, and accompanied by my two English friends Abby and Jasmine, we managed to edge ourselves into a more discreet position out of the vocal firing line.
White smoke began to diffuse suggestively across the stage as an announcer over-enthusiastically belowed out something or other. A dog, which resembled a much hairier nad stockier Lassie, waggled and weaved in front of the stage in anticipation of what was to come.
Then out of the mist, in a very 'Stars In Their Eyes' kind of way, the shape of a body emerged. As the figure of a young man all in white became more clearly defined, I felt like he was on the verge oif announcing,
'Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be the Chinese Will Young!', before dissappearing back into the smoke. But he didn't. Instead he started to sing.
Only several lines into the song could I properly idnetify the song as an Eric Clapton one. But, instead of tears, the title had changed to 'Cheers in Heaven!'
And the man was boldly undeterred by the underwhelming apathy of the audience, which consisted mostly of a sprinkling of CHinese businessmen, a couple of whom were ploddingly absorbed by their mobile phone prodding. Meanwhile another group were masochistically indulging in dice rolling drinking games, feverishly and gleefully plunging themselves into raucous oblivion.
Clink, CLink. CLink. They raised their glasses and embarked on another downward slide into messy drunkeness. Then,m before I could uncringe my face from the final dying, screeched choruses of 'Cheers in heaven!', two of these men had plonked themselves down next to me.
The greetings were all forceful backslaps, exagerated head nods and endless handshakes, which I almost began to make a silent sweepstake on estimating the time my hand might be released from his grip.
All of us were near muted by the deafening volume of them usic. So the 'conversation' rarely progressed beyond monosyllabic shouts of enthusiasm or polite agreement.
'We make buildings. Our business.' one of them told me.
'Tomorrow Kunming we. Tomorrow you come Kunming!'
In the end I hated the idea of stone-cold killing their enthusiasm. So with the conversation rather dry and them usic having shifted to a totally different and more vigorous dance beat, the three of us sat dancing with our hands.
The CHinese businessmen, when they weren't crash-clinking our glasses, seemed in awe of copying what we were doing with our dance movements. So, after a few moments of intensive synchronisation, there we all were under the instigation of Jasmine and myself, motioning the hand signals to cleaning the windows, climbing a ladder, feeding a horse and changing a light bulb. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds, as did my disbelief.
Then, before us, out iof the smokey mist another Stars in Their Eyes contender emerged - a tall man with a really long black mane of hair and sporting an intriguing red and white outfit. The dog didnt seem to approve and started barking. It looked like he had a very thick woolen jumper around his waist, or was it a actually a small blanket? Either way, he belted out some CHinesem usic with unswerving conviction.
Having exhausted the window cleaning and ladder lcimbing dance routines, all of us found ourselves merrily waving our hands swayingly in the air in the manner of a rock concert crowd. To some mild astonishment the singer started to respond and do the same arm movements while he was singing. When he had finished he took an exaggerated bow and vanished back into the smoke. My two Chinese friends had near exhausted themselves and felt obliged to issue goodbyes before beginning to stagger out.
'Tomorrow Kunming you.' he repeated.
'Yes tomorrow Kunming you' I replied.
And they were gone as swiftly as they'd arrived. A Spice Girls -ish solo tribute act was next up on the stage, but I'd had my fill.


China is an absurdly bureaucratic place in some respects. Some hotels in certain restricted areas require all sorts of information, but plenty of it borders on the ridiculous and is just paperwork for the sake of it. So sometimes I take a little silent pleasure in making answers up.
At the bottom of the form is a 'Remarks' section into which I have inserted comments like
'I'm very tired of filling out poinless forms.'
or, 'It's quite cold here and the hotel staff and not terribly responsive or efficient.'
Under 'Occupation', you could write anything from 'Egyptian goat herder' to 'Olympic athlete'. I once put down Gordon Brown as my employer. Maybe some pen pusher might pull me up for this when I eventually leave the country, we'll see.

4 Nov 2008

Naked bodies

Have you ever witnessed naked human bodies being enthusiastically devoured by packs of vultures? Thats what I spent a morning doing the other day. it is a Tibetan Buddhist sky burial and it is peculiarly compelling. It is how plenty of Tibetan people choose to dispose of their dead and you might say it is the most ecologically friendly funeral practice on earth. And the backdrop, at nearly 4,000 metres high, with dazzling snow coated summits and a misleadingly silent and serene air, is equally compelling.

Seeing the heads of the vultures soaked with the red of human blood was slightly disturbing. They tended to gather in feverish packs awaiting the final slicing and chopping of the naked human flesh while a Buddhist monk issues the last rites.
The Chinese outlawed the Tibetan sky burials a couple of decades ago, but it really is very difficult to prevent a group of people just taking a body to a cold hillside, cutting it open and preventing the vultures from tearing it to bits and feasting. A free-for-all ensued, the vultures chasing and tearing at chunks of flesh right until there was nothing left. Then the bones are smashed and ground down into a paste so that also can be consumed.

Gruesome, macabre...you might chose to use these words, but it was fascinating, and also a reminder of just how different some people are to us.

On a separate note I have my suspicions that I am being watched and even followed, but more of that another time.

Shangri La

So I have reached Shangri La. And it is about as far removed from what I thought it might be. But then so have so many other places and indeed pre-conceptions about China. The road to it is as tortuous as it is dramatic. Every now and again the road is on the verge of falling away altogether a few hundred metres down into a breath-inducing canyon. But the arrival never quite justice to the journey.
For a seasoned traveller, or even a curious tourist, there is very little here to stimulate or nourish. But for an intrigued observer of where China is really going as a country, away from the turbo-charged, explosive growth of its mega-cities and their sleey, super-imposed modernity, it is rather fascinating and very revealing.
Here is place, so far far removed from Beijing and it is perhaps more syptomatic of the new China than anywhere else I've been. Perhaps this is what the Chinese government one day will turn Tibet into - some sort of gentrified, dumbed-down tourist theme park.
Shangri La is misleadingly billed as some sort of authentically Tibetan thriving city. It is anything but.The sun illuminates and warms parts of the city in the daytime, but by night, the temperature really plunges and chills everything and everyone.
The olds town brims with internet cafes (never mind that the computers dont always works properly!), tacky souvenir shops, boutique jewellry
Embryonic consumerism is taking hold, but in a rather staid, saniised and controlled way. Thai massage places for tourists (largely Chinese), Western food offerings.
It is also like they built all the shops and office blocks, the plush hotels, the statues and artificial lakes, and are still waiting for the people to come
There is an ordered calmness and a pleasantness which somehow feels uneasy and unatural. Something doesnt quite feel right. It is perhaps a slice of China's vision of its own utpian future and you wonder if this is what communism eventually turns into - sterile, controlled, uniform capitalism in all but the official name. For me, anywhere with an excess of contrived fakeness has the air of somewhere where you can easily be controlled or watched.
For a tourist wanting to renew a visa (me) it is breathtakingly easy and even efficient. I found myself laughing and joking with a Chinese policewoman about my lack of hair. Sometimes it pays to smooth the process along. My photo was very different to my shaven head. I looked like a monk, she said in her softly spoken voice. It is ironic becasue the Tibetan monks almost look out of place now here.
To the outside world China's voice is softly spoken (in a way that Russia's is not for example) and no one knows for sure what the future will be, but inside scrutiny and questioning on our part will be no bad thing. So the next time you see, hear or read a news report from the part of the world let me know.

President Obama

At the risk of prematurely predicting the result ) I once wrote a dissertation on the 1992 British election!), today could be a momentous day.
Yet we need to be very careful in getting too carried away by the implications of America's new president. We should be realistic and patient in expecting the changes that are needed. But nonetheless, it is a hugely significant momeent, not just for America but more importantly for the world. This change has the power to change lives for the better right from Palestine to Pakistan. So lets cast aside any cynicism or negativity and get behind the new president. He has the ability and judgement to do the right and necessary things. But patience is required for real change.