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Saturday, November 30

Reading the signs

China is a country that does evidently recognise the value of tourism and try to encourage people to visit. One of the signs of this is that most signage, whether it's street names, the destination of a train or instructions, is translated into English or at least pinyin. They don't do it quite as well as they could (in particular they are inconsistent about whether to translate words like central, north and street on roadsigns, so you have to know that where the map says Jianguomen Xijie and the sign says Jianguomen West Street they mean the same thing), but it makes life far easier for foreigners than it would be if we had to walk around as illiterates.

That said, they do have a lot of very funny signs. I won't poke fun at the Engrish on display, because it seems a bit churlish to mock people who have made some effort to be helpful for just not quite getting it right. Besides, it was in Croatia that I saw the worst piece of translation - a caption about a ship that sank, except that in the English version it had sufferred an average. Then again I don't think signs like Engine room is serious place are really a matter of poor translation, so much as just having an inherently bizarre way of saying a simple and obvious thing.

What I found more amusing were the signs that say more than they really intended to about the country, like the ubiquitous no smoking in bed, and the three signs that are guaranteed to be ignored where there isn't a heavy PSB presence:
no smoking
good lord! These people smoke even more than the French.
no spitting
I tried clearing my throat the Chinese way and it was quite painful, but it seems to work for them. I can't imagine I'd obey a no coughing sign in the equivalent situation.
no horns
large Chinese vehicles don't actually seem to be fitted with brakes, so imagine the disasters that would take place if they couldn't use their horns to clear a path....
Best of all though were two signs that seemed so heavy in subtext that it was hard to accept that they were put up by officials rather than protesters. Last year, while cycling through the endless suburbs on the way into Beijing to finish our ride, there was an enormous billboard visible from a long way off because it was on the first tallish building after a large area of one-storey houses. I think it was advertising a company that was either recently privatised or about to be privatised, but the actual words were simply: State Power.

It's an image that will stay in my mind for a long time, but on this trip its been upstaged by a subtle little sign at the entrance to Beijing's official Foreign Languages Bookshop. I can't quite work out whether this was meant to be in instruction or a promise from the government. The sign had a picture of a match, and a small caption saying:

No burning
posted @ 6:29 PM -

Hu is the new leader of China?

I suppose this was waiting to be written....

[it's from a site that can't be accessed from within China, incidentally, along with BBC News but not the Independent]
posted @ 7:32 AM -

World AIDS Day

a World AIDS Day Banner in Chinese


I almost forgot. Today is World AIDS Day. I don't have a great deal to say about it, except that fewer people would die if there were less politics interfering with the issue of handling AIDS. One of the Chinese government's greatest crimes against its own people (and one that has had little interest from the human rights lobby in the west, because it's not as headline-grabbingly simple as the plight of the Falun Gong or of Tibet) was that for many years it denied that the country had an AIDS problem. In that period of government inaction, the said problem went from a small number of HIV infections to a potential epidemic, not helped by policies such as forced blood donation using unclean equipment, which infected entire villages. Because those in charge couldn't bring themselves to admit there was a problem, it grew and grew and grew.

Rant over (this one at least).
posted @ 6:27 AM -

The dam-ed Three Gorges

So. From Beijing I went straight to Yichang, which is a town supposedly of so little interest to tourists that it gets a whole two paragraphs in the Rough Guide. I suppose it beats mostly harmless though....

What Yichang has is the world's largest dam (which was closed 2 or 3 weeks ago to surprisingly little fanfare or outcry), and a hydrofoil service from there up the Yangtse, through the Three Gorges. Under normal circumstances I would have said that I could do this on a later visit to China, because I really was eager to get to a warm part of the country, and while Yichang was milder than Beijing it wasn't exactly warm. However, you can't really describe as normal circumstances the situation in which the attraction in question is expected to be underwater by the time I can next feasibly visit it.

The guidebooks don't actually reccommend seeing the Three Gorges the way I did, and there's a good reason for that. The hydrofoil is very much a working public transport route rather than a tourist boat, so it has windows so tinted and dirty that it's hard to see out of them. It does have a couple of open-to-the-air spaces, which are mainly used as smoking areas (I must admit I was quite disturbed by the fact that one of these was next to the open engine cover), but in which I spent most of the journey standing. I think this made most of the passengers consider me very strange, but then perhaps they were just staring because I don't look like them. Anyway, doing it this way did buy me time, because I spent one day going through the Three Gorges twice, whereas the cruise from Chongqing to Yichang that is more geared for tourism involves first spending a day travelling through a boring section of river.

The Gorges themselves are simply spectacular. In fact, the Yangtse around Yichang itself is quite impressive, with large forested hills plunging right down to the riverbank, and this is the section not considered especially scenic. The boat starts in scenery like this, but it's no preparation for the gorges themselves, which consist of enormous cliffs between which the river gets narrow and turbulent, cut occasionally by small tributaries. There isn't much development in the Gorges, because its not exactly the easiest land to build on, but there is the odd path or house clinging precariously to the cliffs. This was the time when I most wished I could have a camera with me....

What I found most interesting, though, were the parts between the gorges. They tell a powerful story of how China has raped its environment, and how its attempts to relocate literally millions of people by force, all in the name of progress, are meeting with determined resistance.

Much of the less steep parts of the South bank is used for loading ships up with coal, in an incredibly primitive and wasteful manner. The road runs to perhaps 30 or 40 metres above river level, and next to it there are large open-topped brick pens, which delivery trucks keep full of coal. Either they sometimes overflow, or rainwater becomes contaminated, because below each of these nothing grows, and the rocks are stained black. From the pens run long chutes, looking like gutters, down to river level, where boats wait to be filled. To fill the boat, workers at the top simply scoop coal onto the chute, losing some in the process, and let it run down, losing more through cracks in the scoop. This means that each chute has its own accompanying shadow; a poisonous black stain following it down the hill. And then there's the coal that simply misses the boat, in some places creating black beaches under the end of the chute.

There are signs everywhere to indicate how high the future reservoir level will be, both in the form of large concrete blocks with 135m spray-painted on them, and subtler things. My favourite are the jetties, which in many places have already been built in anticipation, but look so far like they have been marooned far inland by a terrible drought. What is really shocking though is how many people evidently live below this level. There aren't many houses left there, because the government have decided that they must demolish them for some reason (allegedly this relates to cleaning up the area that will be flooded, but they seem to be leaving the rubble in place, so I can't help but suspect its a way of forcing the residents out), but people have refused to be moved, so they are scraping together remnants of their lives, in what looks like the scene of an earthquake. The government likes to pretend it is building nice new accommodation for everyone, just up the hill so it will be near the new shoreline, but in fact they are only doing this for a few towns as a showpiece, while they send most people to other overcrowded cities, where they are met with hostility by existing residents. Little wonder they don't want to move.

Most horrible of all was the town at the end of the route - Fengjie - where I spent an hour waiting for the return departure. This was a town that stretched from the water level all the way up to the top of the hill, and now all the buildings below the future waterline have been destroyed. However, from the ferry pier up to the still-standing part of the town there is a tent city, with people using the plots marked out by the outlines of the foundations of their old shops and houses. It is a forlorn scene, reeking of the open sewers that run behind each row of tents (because of course all the infrastructure has been ripped up), and looking like it's just waiting for a deluge to come and wash this stain down into the river that will eventually swallow it, one way or another.

I walked up through this, to find a shiny set of new glass-and-steel buildings at the top, as if they had been put there purely to highlight the gap between those who share in China's new-found prosperity, and those who are being left behind. It's the place I have felt least comfortable in the whole of China. Everywhere people stared at me, but here there seemed to be a different meaning behind those stares. It wasn't so much who is this funny looking person? or even how can I get at laowei's money?, but it felt more like what the hell are you doing in a god-forsaken place like this. In places that were hit by natural disasters (I particularly remember this happenning in Lewes after the floods 2 winters ago) the residents often take great offence at grief tourism, and with my inability to explain to them that I hadn't set out to be there but just had some time to kill, I can only assume that was what the locals thought I was doing. It is certainly a grief-stricken place; I understand enough of the background to know that they know they can't stay, but they won't leave because they have nowhere else to go.
posted @ 5:59 AM -
an aside:

It's amazing how when something happens it confirms everybody's previously held beliefs and leads very few people to any new insights.

For the record, no I am not scared of travelling because a few bombs have gone off. I lived in London while the IRA were active there, and I always maintained that they were less of a threat to me than road accidents or mugging. Now there have been bombs seperated by a little over a month, at unpredictable locations around the world, so my odds are rather better than when there were bombs going off at the same frequency in my home town. To develop a fear of travelling now would be like the needle jumping out of the haystack because a horse came along and took one bite.
posted @ 5:19 AM -

Friday, November 29

I still haven't found what I'm looking for

I must confess that I've found China very frustrating. 'Confess' because I think this might have as much to do with my own unrealistic expectations as any real shortcomings of the place. It's not really the difficulties or irritations of travel in China that frustrated me (well they did somewhat, but actually less than I expected), but that I couldn't really find the China I came for.

Last year, when I cycled in Beijing province, we encountered lots of really friendly, warm people who were unabashedly curious (and had no qualms whatsoever about staring at us in a way that some people found very annoying), but seemed to be genuinely interested in us as strange people, rather than what they could get out of us (apart from the kids, who all wanted sweeties, but were far too cute for anyone to hold it against them). Then in our 2 days in Beijing we managed to see parts of ancient Chinese culture (particularly in Tiantan Park, where the masses gather to practice their tai chi, chi gung and calligraphy), mixed interestingly with foreign imports (like the ballroom dancers in between the tai chi classes in the park), and a vibrant modern urban culture. The place also has some of my favourite modern architecture, which also manages to keep distinct Chinese influences while adapting the western glass-and-steel aesthetic to it, with colourful little backstreets and pleasant green spaces dotted around. I loved it, but I don't think I had really understood quite how atypical Beijing was of China.

With one notable exception, the only evidence I've seen in the rest of China of classical Chinese culture has been at tourist sites, and even there the lack of respect shown to temples makes it very obvious how much this is a culture of relics rather than something that lives on in modern people. The one exception was in Yichang, which on paper is the least interesting of the places I went to, but actually quite a pleasant city. It has a long waterfront along the Yangtze, and a park separating the city from the river. Wandering around in that park I found musicians (old men again) playing Chinese instruments, and passers-by (mainly old women) singing along as they walked by, while a few couples danced. Elsewhere in the park there was a group of kids practicing kung fu (the modern state-synthesised kung fu, which is quite far removed from the ancient traditions, but at least it is related), and then a gaming club with a set of Chinese Chess (I forget the proper name of this game) boards, and a set of Go boards, with people playing and others watching. Finally I could see some of the culture that made me so interested in China in the first place, and I even had a few chances to get involved, after having felt that the most frustrating thing about China is that I am doomed to be a spectator, unable to actually engage with the culture in the way that is so easy to do in Mongolia. One of the fiddlers offerred (if I understood his gesturing right) to teach me some, which I politely declined, but later wished I had accepted. Then when it became clear at the Go tables that I actually did understand the game (I've been playing for less than a year, and am not very good, but I do at least know how to play) I was challenged by one of the other onlookers. Naturally I was efficiently beaten, but all the same there was a special satisfaction in being able to actually take part in something like that. The Go player was also one of the few Chinese people I've had any meaningful interaction with, simply because it was a situation in which my inability to speak his language didn't matter.

All of this was great, and turned what had been an afternoon with time to kill into one of the highlights of the trip, but in a way it just underlined my frustration at the fact that this only happenned once. But then am I being fair? Is it not just that I expected a kind of all-singing all-dancing ChinaWorld, simply because this was the country I was visiting of whose culture I am least ignorant?

I do have these doubts, but then I think when I compare to China to, say, Russia there is a big difference. China is an easier country to get around (much to my surprise), but it is far, far harder to see anything that I could think of as culture. Walking around a Russian city there are elegant buildings to be seen, from the simplest wooden houses to the grand edifices of train stations and government buildings. Sure, there are also extremely grim suburbs, but they haven't replaced the core. On the other hand, in China (except for Beijing and the Muslim quarter of Xi'an) it's hard to find any buildings that could be described as attractive, because the whole city consists of new blocks, covered in white bathroom tiles, and which I can only assume were designed by engineers, because no architect could possibly put their name to such things and sleep at night. Walking around in Russia one hears distinctively Russian music everywhere, whether it's the buskers with violins or the infectiously bouncy pop music from a shop's sound system. Walking around in China one hears sales pitches relentlessly shouted through megaphones, imported music (they love Kenny G right now. Not such a terrible thing, until you've heard the same one album again and again every day for a few weeks), and horribly bland canto-pop which seems to aspire to being nothing more than 2-Unlimited speaking in tones.

Before I entered China I remember writing something to the effect of I think the Chinese government gets too much stick from Western liberals, and there are things they deserve some credit for. What I was expecting to write now was a defence of the Chinese Communist Party, based on the idea that Deng Xiaoping's policies have given ordinary Chinese people a chance of actually owning more than a straw mat and a rice-bowl, for the first time in history. That last statement is true - Chinese people actually have the chance to enrich themselves in a way that was unimaginable to their grandparents - but there are too many provisos to attach to it. It feels like the country has sold its soul in order to have a chance of making some money. And of course this follows the horrors of the [ahem] Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which I guess I'm now seeing had been a much more efficient destruction of the old culture than I had previously realised.

I was talking to a girl at the hostel the other day, who had spent a few months working as an English teacher in China, and she came up with the phrase spiritually empty to describe what she saw. I think she hit the nail on the head there. It's not just the absence of classical culture, it's also that each person seems to be aligning their activity to the pure pursuit of wealth. Last year I met some nice people because I was in areas so completely devoid of tourists (the route for that bike ride was very well chosen - perhaps part of why when I came back this year I expected too much) that it hadn't occurred to the locals to use us as cash cows yet. By contrast this year, even in Yichang and Luoyang (both enough off the backpacker trail that I felt like I was the only westerner in town), everybody seemed to be after my wallet in one way or another. To an extent this has to be expected in touristy areas, but I found it very upsetting how in any place that ever saw tourists I had to permanently ward off the hawkers and touts if I wanted to walk around.

By way of contrast, I'm in Hong Kong now, a place that I had expected to find rather soulless and mercenary. Instead (and I'll write more about Hong Kong later) I'm finding it far more human than the provincial Chinese cities, with a really invigorating energy emanating from the hordes of people crowding the streets (I did feel something similar in Beijing, but nowhere else in China), and in my first 24 hours here I saw as much evidence of living Chinese culture just in the gaps between the concrete as I did in a few weeks in China, from old men practicing tai chi, to buskers playing the same music that I heard in Yichang.

I remember my kung fu club (which is based in Singapore) always saying that authentic Chinese culture lives on far more among the South Seas Chinese than in the country itself, but I had always taken this with a pinch of salt, thinking it had a certain amount to do with justifying why the club wasn't based in China. Now I can see quite how right they were - Hong Kong at least is something of a storehouse of what China itself decided to throw out, and I'll soon see how true this is of Singapore.

It's personally very upsetting, because one of things that I appreciate about kung fu is that it involves connecting to ancient tradition, that is still being kept alive, and I had always thought my trip to China would have something of the nature of a pilgrimage, but there was nothing to be a pilgrim to. In a way it makes me all the more eager to get back into kung fu though, because these things do live on elsewhere, and it would be deeply sad to let them wither.

This leaves me with one question: will I go back to China? When I was planning this trip, I had in my head that there were several 1-month routes in China I would like to take. I'm now fairly convinced that the East coast one will be a waste of time, and I should just go to Shanghai, but skip the nouveau riche towns along the coast. On the other hand, some of the people I have spoken to this week have had much more positive and interesting experiences in China, mainly those who went to the far less developed West of the country, so the southwestern trip may well still be worth making.
posted @ 6:12 PM -

Wednesday, November 27

must go and do some shopping now (my phone is dying so needs replacing, and I've been advised of another area to go looking for cameras), but I have much more to write now that I am out of reach of this and can write about serious issues in the Peoples' Republic. It will probably wait till tomorrow though. I hope you can.
posted @ 1:31 AM -

glimpses of heaven on my birthday

After a distinctly glum start my birthday did get a whole lot better.

First I went to the doctor, which didn't help a whole lot because this time I couldn't find a helpful translator (to be fair I had been very lucky with that previously), and she wanted me to come back again on the 28th, which would really mess up my plans. In the end I realised that I could always find a Chinese doctor in Hong Kong, so I'll do that tomorrow, but I am still a little worried that I will be told to come back in another week, at which point I'll be in Thailand and it won't be so easy. I want to follow this treatment properly, because there is a chance I'll be able get rid of something that has been something of a curse to me, and that would be worth a lot to me.

All the same, my illness did seem to lift for the rest of the day. It came back the next morning, and for most of the week I've been in moderately poor health, but at least for the day it stopped bothering me. It seems to have lifted now, which makes me wonder if in fact I have some sort of allergy to China. Food hygiene is not great there (it is much better in Hong Kong), plus I found it completely impossible to avoid chilli. Even the sweet and sour sauce came with some chilli in it, which actually tastes quite nice but was exactly what I didn't need. I hope it's not that I have a problem with chilli though - I will be in Thailand next week, and it's the only country whose food I like better than China's, but almost everything I like in Thai food is also pretty hot....

Anyway, it being my birthday, and my still not being very happy, I decided to spoil myself. At the end of the Mencap bike ride last year our reward for 6 days' slog was to all be taken to a reflexology/massage place in Beijing, which was the perfect antidote to bike fatigue, so I tracked the place down and went there. Just walking in instantly made me feel better. Apologies for the odd choice of analogy here, but in the latest Star Wars film there are various scenes on the cloners' world, where the whole pace and mood of the film changes, as the cloners' world is a wonderfully relaxing shift from the pressured environments of the other locations. Walking into the Beijing Healthy Company's place is much like that - the manicness of Beijing is left behind as soon as one walks through the door, and then up a flight of stairs there is a waiting room with comfy chairs and tea to complete the effect. After a very short wait I was whisked off to one of the massage rooms (not a private room - I know what you're thinking but it's not that sort of place, OK?) and given a tub of hot water with some sort of black herbal infusion in it, to soak my feet. After a short wait along came a masseuse, who proceeded to spend a couple of hours making me feel several inches taller, far looser and far more alive - just what I needed to turn my mood around.

On the way back from there I stopped off at Beijing's ancient observatory, which isn't really on the tourist trail, but gets a positive and intriguing write-up in the Rough Guide. The ground floor just has a mildly interesting set of exhibits that established how far ahead of European astronomers the Chinese were back in the 1000s BC (and in effect shows up just how sad it is that Chinese culture managed to stifle itself and fall so far behind that by the 1900s the Europeans were carving up China), but the real attraction is upstairs. All the sign says is that there are some old instruments on display upstairs, but it totally undersells the place. The observatory is just high enough that standing on top gives a commanding view of one of the most conspicuously modern parts of Beijing; all tall shiny buildings and large highways full of traffic. What makes it really spectacular though is that this view is framed by the most beautiful mediaeval bronze astronomical instruments, ornamented richly with dragons and the like. If only I had my camera this could have been the photo to sum up Beijing in all its glorious contradictions.

The evening was reasonably entertaining, with Matt Dillon (no, not the Matt Dillon but it's a good name to have) announcing that it was his 30th birthday, so we rounded up a reasonable sized group of people, had a particularly good dinner and some tequila appearred from somewhere. Fun, but no substitute for being surrounded by old friends and/or family....
posted @ 1:11 AM -

Calligraphy with water

[credit is due to Sam for quite inadvertently leading me to this thought]

Occasionally in China it is possible to see people (usually old men - it always seems to be the small children or the elderly who give China its colour, while the large chunk of the population in between those extremes just seem to be an undifferentiated mass of salarymen and women) practicing their calligraphy on the pavement, dipping their brush in water with no ink. The idea is that because they use no materials they can keep practicing for as long as they like, and then once they feel they are getting it right they can actually spend some money on paper and ink and make things to keep. I enjoy watching them, because there is something really touching about seeing someone concentrate fully on producing something which has already started to disappear by the time they finish writing it, and then just starting over, and repeating this process again and again with a patience I'm not used to seeing.

This activity gives me pause for thought, and viewing my photography to date as a sort of calligraphy with water makes me a little less annoyed about losing the photos. I definitely did gain from the process of taking them, because the process does change the way I look at things, especially when (as in the Forbidden City, because it was my second visit) I started taking close-ups of the kind of really small details that most people miss. That said, I've been taking photography progressively more seriously, and I feel like I am ready to buy my ink and paper now. I just have to find somewhere in Hong Kong that stocks digital SLR cameras other than the very top of the range (which are wonderful machines that I would like to own, but I'd have to sell my body before I could afford one, and quite apart from any issue about whether I really want to do that I suspect I might have a little trouble finding a buyer, at least at the price I need to command).
posted @ 12:43 AM -

Tuesday, November 26

Yin and Yangtse

Location : Hong Kong
Visited since last post : Yichang, the Three Gorges and [very briefly] Guangzhou
Mood : feeling particularly alive
Company : so far I'm not too impressed with the people I've met at the hostel here...
Reading : the Dao De Ching. One hell of a frustrating book.
Weather : Warm, at last! And it's not the nasty sticky heat I was expecting but actually really pleasant to walk around!

Sorry for the extended silence. Once you leave the backpacker trail in China internet cafes get harder to find. I do have much to tell thee of China, so I'll write lots either today or over the next few days. The quick summary is that I've left China a little frustrated and disappointed, because I've only been able to see tantalising glimpses of the culture that fascinates me so, while a lot of modern China is actually not very appealling. Meanwhile I've been surprised at how positive a feeling I have from Hong Kong, which was one of the stops on the trip I was least excited about at the planning stage.
posted @ 11:16 PM -

Thursday, November 21

yesterday did get a whole lot better. I don't have time to write much now, but I just thought I'd add that after being so negative yesterday morning....
posted @ 8:57 PM -

Wednesday, November 20

The People's Hero, risking life and limb to shine Laowei's shoes

Location : this happened yesterday, in Xi'an

So, I was walking around Xi'an, and the shoeshiners were touting for business. Unlike in Luoyang, they didn't all gang up on me as the foreigner, but they were just generally calling to any passers-by, which instantly made them less annoying. I normally ignore them, but I thought actually my shoes were looking pretty battered, and the next day being my birthday it might well involve going out somewhere nice, so I ought to make a little effort. I sat on the little stool, and the nice lady started shining my shoes; not something I would have expected to generate a story I would feel compelled to write about here.

But then the Public Security Bureau rolled up. An unmarked white van, from which two men in green uniforms jumped out. They immediately started shouting at the shoeshiners, and picked up their little boxes. Then they hurled the boxes at the ground with such force that they fell apart instantly (probably not much force seeing as they looked like Blue Peter creations).

I retreated a few steps up the footbridge we were conveniently next to, knowing that the PSB weren't really interested in me, but thinking that if I stayed where I was I'd probably get caught up in it anyway. As quickly as they arrived, the PSB men jumped back into their van and disappeared. The shoeshiner reappeared from wherever she had run off to, found me and immediately jumped back to shining my shoes. I had to admire her dedication to her art, so needless to say I paid her many times what I thought the going rate would be.

I can think of many reasons why street corner shoeshiner isn't my true vocation, but until yesterday the high level of occupational stress would not have been one of them.
posted @ 5:52 PM -

happy birthday to me?

Location : back in Beijing
Visited since last post : Xi'an, the terracotta army
Mood : trying not to feel sorry for myself
Company : assorted travellers
Reading : read the whole of Beowulf while I was ill
Weather : we've had snow, but it's gone mild again. I'm dead eager to get south now.

Well, let's start with the positive. The terracotta army is one of those few tourist attractions (like Dubrovnik) that is talked about in glowing terms and really does justify the hype. On first walking in to hall 1, I didn't get this, because the first view that visitors get is from a raised platform which makes them look smaller (both in number and individual size) than they really are. However, as a whole it's pretty well displayed, and walking around gives one a chance to get quite close to the warriors, and see how beautifully sculpted they are, as well as feeling that the whole place is somehow haunted. At one point I started to feel like I was inspecting a real army, and that was when suddenly I felt like I appreciated the place. After a while it does become quite awe-inspiring.

Xi'an city is also a nice place, in contrast with Luoyang which is only worth seeing for the attractions around it. They've recently restored the city walls, so although there are only a few old buildings left, there is some flavour of the old China there, which is unusual. It's also more laid-back than the other Chinese cities I've seen so far, and it's the place where I felt least hassled by hawkers (surprisingly considering that it's such a tourist trap). There is a full scale tourist circus around the terracotta army, and there are pushy hotel touts around the station, but that's to be expected and both are easy enough to get away from. There's also a big Muslim quarter, with a grand mosque built in a charming mixture of Chinese and traditional Islamic styles.

However, my health is still bothering me. The medicine seems to have worked, because for a few days I had no symptoms at all, but then I think I ate something bad. For all of Monday I couldn't bring myself to eat, and consequently felt very tired. Tuesday I felt OK, but yesterday morning bad diarrhoea kicked in. I'm just starting to feel a little cursed - any of the things that have gone wrong in the past month could have been shrugged off on their own, but it does seem to be one thing after another. I'm trying to keep focussed on the good things - I've seen very cool places, some of which I've always wanted to see, some of which I knew nothing about before, I've met some really nice people, and I have been having a good time - but at the moment my focus is shifting to the negative.

I was also going to moan about my birthday feeling distincly un-special, because no-one I know is around me, but since I started writing this that's improved somewhat. First of all I've read some emails from home, so I know some people at least have remembered, but email's no substitute for having people with me, and I usually make quite a big deal of my birthday. What's also halped is that a particularly nice Dutch guy who was around last week has turned up, and having remembered it was my birthday he got me a small present. Unfortunately the present had broken in his pocket, but today more than usual it really is the thought that counts. It's funny how much difference a little gesture like that can make....
posted @ 5:48 PM -

Sunday, November 17

I've written lots today, but the posts are in no particular order, so no silly reading backwards games to be played
posted @ 2:48 AM -

Transport in China

An essential part of the China experience is travelling on Chinese public transport. It's not always the easiest or most relaxing of experiences, but it's an insight to how the Chinese live and conduct themselves, and it's often highly entertaining.

I was particularly worried about the trains before I took a few, because various people had independently told me that there was no English on the signs (except, ironically, for no spitting), and that the trains were horrendously uncomfortable, and so on. None of this is true.

Taking a train from Beijing is particularly easy, as the main stations there have signs in English, foreigners' booking offices where the staff speak English, and a high enough concentration of English speakers around that someone will help a confused foreigner soon enough. Elsewhere it's not quite that easy, but the place name signs all have pinyin (Chinese spelled in Latin letters), meaning that my greatest fear (that of not having any way of knowing when my stop has been reached) was unfounded. They also have images on most of the signs, and all the matrix boards refer to the trains by number (written with reassuringly familiar Arabic numerals), so I can work out things like the platform number for myself. Buying the ticket from Luoyang to here was a bit of a challenge, but the old 'point at the book and write down times' thing worked, and I made it here.

The trains themselves are pretty good; in fact the one from Beijing to Luoyang was a new train, with a ride so smoth I couldn't tell when we were moving. I'm travelling in second class ('hard sleeper', the equivalent of third class, or 'platskartny' on Russian trains), and having no trouble sleeping. There isn't a great deal of space, which I could see being annoying on the longer journey from Beijing down to the Yangtze, but for overnight trips as long as I can sleep nothing else is important, and for longer trips there's always the dining car as an escape.

Much less comfortable, but much more fun, are the private minibuses that run between towns. If you want to get anywhere you have three options - take a taxi (which can be a bit pricey for a foreigner, so therefore a fortune to a local), take a public bus (which can take forever between the waiting and the stops), or take one of the completely unregulated private minibuses. They have no signs, but the conductor hangs out of the side door shouting the destination and a price, and if you're not sure whether they pass your intended destination on the way you just have to ask. In the last few days (I guess because I've had to) I have discovered that I can indeed say a Chinese place name with a reasonable enough imitation of the right tone to be understood, so this negotiation is quite easy, and years of kung fu classes have burned the ability to count in Mandarin into me with searing pain, so I can even understand the prices. There's nothing like an association with sit-ups to burn some words into one's memory....

The minibuses throng around the main bus stations (in fact I think the traffic blockage they create is part of the reason the buses are so slow), miraculously not colliding with each other or killing bystanders (I have seen no road accidents in 10 days here, but that seems miraculous given the standard of driving and the assertiveness of the cyclists and pedestrians). When enough passengers are on board they depart, and if you have the misfortune of being the last passenger they accelerate while you step aboard. Anarchy reigns, with people being thrown into seats and sometimes laps by the acceleration, and the conductor often having to climb on other minibuses to catch the one they are supposed to be working. Once full the minibus may still stop to pick other people up, but mainly they stop at the passengers' request, whether that is to get off, to buy some fags, or just to say hello to someone passing by. Given all this they get to where they are going surprisingly quickly, as a result of distinctly hair-raising driving.

This is where my celebrity status has been strongest, with one driver actually offerring me the wheel (a truly terrifying prospect), several wanting to throw Chinese people out of the front seat so I can sit next to them, one conductor giving me a free ride, and one seeming to give everyone else a free ride because he was more interested in trying to speak to me than actually working. I wouldn't dream of doing a long journey in this way, but to get from town to another it's fast, cheap, out of control (if you don't know what I'm plagiarising here don't worry about it) and a great laugh.
posted @ 1:51 AM -

Finding peace in China

is actually quite a difficult thing to do. For all that I love this country, it is also a bit of a maddenning place to spend time. Chinese culture seems very focussed on making vast quantities of noise, whether in ordered environments like the Beijing Opera, or chaos like the shopping streets where each stall has a megaphone hooked up to a repeating tape of somebody shouting what I can only assume is advertising for their products. The pace and volume at which commerce is conducted is dizzying, and being an obvious foreigner just adds to this, because everybody is interested in me. A lot of people just come up and say hello, and whatever I answer they just giggle, but anyone who has anything to sell comes up and tries to pitch to me, often not understanding that I might not want their service. There are only so many meals I can eat in a day, only so many paintings I can hang in a room, and I certainly don't need a taxi to cross the road, but try explaining that to someone whose English vocabulary only extends to 10 Yuan - lose money and I give you special price....

When I'm in the right mood, which is quite a lot of the time, I find this all quite entertaining, and even energising. It does get wearing after a while though, and one of the reasons I decided t go somewhere off the [foreign] tourist trail was the hope of getting away from something which I had mistakenly thought was a characteristic mainly of Beijing. No such luck. The trouble is Luoyang is on the Chinese tourist trail, so all the tourist infrastructure and hawkers are there, but they are that much more excited to see a European, because I seemed to be the only one in town. The temples around the city, which are the main reason I went there, are lovely (particularly the cave carvings at Longmen, which are not all that well preserved, but the best ones still have a lot of life to them in spite of being 1500 years old), but they are not peaceful. They are too near to major highways (and the Rough Guide is spot on when it suggests that Chinese drivers use their horn where a European might consider using the brake), and too full of tourist groups behaving with no respect at all, and the odd tour guide using a megaphone inside a Buddhist temple(!).

In the city itself I became thoroughly sick of the taxi drivers, who while I was walking on the pavement, paying no attention to the road, would pull up beside me, hoot, and then wind the window down to shout at me. Because obviously, just because I'm foreign, I can't possibly want to walk anywhere, and nor do I know how to hail a taxi. After losing my camera I was not in the right mood for this, so finally lost my rag, and when one map seller had followed me for several blocks, thrusting her map in my face each time I wanted to cross a road (I'm sure it wasn't quite like that, but it felt like it), I found myself shouting at her white boy has tongue. White boy can ask for your crap if he wants it. I felt a bit guilty, but actually it was cathartic, and in this noisy society no-one seemed at all flustered except the hawker herself, who really had been particularly annoying, and it did at least get rid of her.

Surprisingly, the one place where I did find the peace (not counting the hotel, which was the first really unpleasant place I've stayed in) I was looking for was the train station waiting room. It's quite a busy station, but it has several different waiting rooms, and I managed to find one where there were no announcements, not many people and not much smoke. For the most part I was left alone, until two students turned up wanting to practice their English. My heart sank at first, but they were actually nice people, who had no ulterior motive, and there were only two of them so we actually managed to have an interesting conversation.

I haven't actually been into the town centre yet, but so far Xi'an seems a lot more mellow than Luoyang or Beijing. At the station there was the usual array of hotel touts, but the area around my hostel is free of anyone hassling me, and it makes a nice change. I'm sure in town it will be the usual hello, you're foreign, obviously you want to give me money thing, seeing as this is one of the country's biggest tourist centres, but as long as I can get away from it some of the time I can see the funny side.
posted @ 1:35 AM -

Marvellous

I'm not following the sports news from home a great deal, mainly because Brighton's fortunes have been so depressing (Mark & Dunc - there's no need to add smugly to that), but at least the rugby has made more cheerful reading....
posted @ 1:01 AM -

and when we reach that point, whatever has happened will happen again

Location : Xi'an
Visited since last post : Luoyang and some temples around it
Mood : extremely angry with myself
Company : alone
Reading : still reading the Rough Guide to China. It is about as long as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, after all.
Weather : Noticeably warmer this far south, but it still gets cold at night, and it's been misty.

Well guess what? I've managed to lose another camera while in Luoyang. This time I think I was pickpocketed, but all the same it was so stupid of me to have left it in an outside coat pocket that I still feel it's my own fault. Once again I'm much more annoyed about the pictures than the camera; once again it had a large memory card with all my pictures to date on board. To put that into numbers, I have now managed to take and lose over six hundred photographs. Photographs that I was very pleased with, of wonderful places, and which I was looking forward to showing you. Now I can't. I'm not even going to try to express how pissed off I am about this.

I remember exactly where I took the last picture, and it didn't take me too long to realise the camera was missing (I was sitting in a bus at the time), so I searched the bus, and then went back to the temple where I had last used it. I managed to convince the monk (who was trying to close the place to tourist at the end of the day) to let me go in and have a quick look around, but there was no sign of the thing. I'm pretty sure that if it fell out of my pocket I would have heard, so I reckon either it was stolen or possibly it fell out on the bus.

I went to the police, which was quite an interesting experience. While the Public Security Bureau is a big imposing building with Party insignia on it, the actual police station (which it took some time to find) is a little concrete hovel on a backstreet. I interrupted their dinner, but no-one seemed to mind (the curiosity value of being the only westerner in town seemed to buy me an awful lot here), although no-one really spoke any English either. I was repeatedly offerred cigarettes (they actually seemed slightly hurt that I didn't accept; it does look like absolutely every man in China smokes), and sat in what I guess was the office (and then left alone with the radio system - if I could only speak Mandarin there would have been so much temptation there...), until someone came along to move me to a room with a TV, bring me some tea and tell me, in very carefully pronounced English as if he had just read it from a phrase book, to wait a moment please. After about half an hour of watching TV programmes that I'm sure would have been just as dull even if I could understand them, the first even vaguely official looking person turned up. As far as I could gather he had been called in because he was the only English speaker, and once he had established that my passport and visa were both valid (obviously highly relevant to a case of a stolen camera) he tried to be helpful. The whole thing was very frustrating though - I don't have an official police report because they wouldn't issue one (I think they will send one to my London address, but I'm not convinced), which means that I won't be able to claim the cost back on insurance (*!?* bastard insurance company; they MUST know how bloody difficult it is to get a police report in a country where you don't speak the language), and I simply couldn't convey to the guy that it might be worth speaking to the bus company.

Now I'm in Xi'an, and trying not to let this sour what has in general been a great experience, but I've made several attempts at explaining to generally helpful English speakers that I want to contact the bus company. I know the thing was probably nicked, but there is a chance that the bus driver picked it up at the end of the day, and those photos are far too important to me for me to just accept their loss without trying everything to get them back. It seems to be impossible though.

I am debating whether I really want to buy another camera or not. If I do, I'll probably wait till I get to Hong Kong anyway, where I'll get a wide choice at low prices, but right now it just feels a bit futile. Why put all that love into my pictures when I can't even hang on to them for long enough to show them to people back home?

I'll try and write some positive things shortly, but I'm in a nasty little internet cafe with some whimpering dogs, some very annoyingly loud people (loud by Chinese standards, which is saying something), and a horribly worn out keyboard, so we'll see how long my patience lasts.
posted @ 12:39 AM -

Wednesday, November 13

medical update

Location : Beijing
Visited since last post : back to the doctor
Mood : very good indeed

Today was the day to go back to the doctor, so I did, but unfortunately failed to meet up with Meichin, who had offerred to interpret for me again. Went upstairs, spoke to the receptionist, but she had something complicated to explain so she went looking for an English speaker. Luckily there was a woman there who was a European resident, back for a holiday to see her family, and she translated for me.

The doctor I spoke to last week wasn't there, but today's one was actually more conversational and explained many things. First of all she told me what I would be diagnosed with in the West, and got it right without the need to insert expensive fibre optics up my arse, which seemed like a pretty good start. Then she explained that in the Chinese system they don't accept that an organ can just be consistently inflamed with no underlying reason (exactly why I wanted to see a Chinese doctor in the first place), and in my case the problem is [and then something that my translator didn't know in English]. From the description I think it was the pancreas.

Anyway, she has given me new medicine, which she thinks should completely remove my symptoms within a few days. Even if it works she wants me to come in 7 days (so on my birthday) for a different prescription which should hopefully give me a long term cure, and without which I will just be in the familiar cycle of making it go away for an amount of time but being hit again. It messes up my embryonic travel plans somewhat, but if I really will be cured it's the best birthday I could wish for.
posted @ 9:40 PM -

Tuesday, November 12

Planning, planning, planning

Location : Beijing
Visited since last post : not enough places really
Mood : ready to get moving again
Company : too many bignoses - I need to get somewhere a little less awash with tourists
Reading : the Rough Guide to China. I still don't know where to start though
Weather : windy, but at least it's keeping the smog at bay

I never really planned the Chinese part of my trip well enough. There's so much to see here, and getting around can be complicated, so it really needs some organisation to make the most of it. This time round it's not really mattered, because any plans would have been screwed up anyway by my first spending an extra week in Mongolia, and then being held up here for a week, but I know for the future that I should come back to China with as much time as I can spare and a better idea of where to go.

In any case the medicine does seem to be working, so I will go back to the doctor tomorrow as planned, but then head straight out of town. I decided not to go straight to Xi'an, because I've had enough of the five [hundred] go mad in China thing for a while, so I need to be somewhere with a smaller number of tourists. The Rough Guide to China makes Pingyao sound like a very nice and quiet place, conveniently on the way to Xi'an, but since deciding to go there I've met so many people who have been that I guess it must be one of those places that has lost its quiet un-exploited charm since getting listed in a guidebook. Instead I'm heading for Luoyang, which is not actually supposed to be the nicest looking of cities in itself, but then the industrial cities are an important part of China's modern identity, plus this one has a famous cave temple nearby that I'd like to see. Should keep me busy for a day or two, then I'll head to Xi'an, and then I might want to see English menus and meet anglophones again.

What I need more than anything else right now is a place where the locals aren't quite so determined to see every white person as their personal bank. I do like Beijing, but I'm getting a little sick of people trying to make money out of me, because sometimes it gets to the point that I have to detatch people from my sleeves, and I have spent an awful lot of money here in a week anyway. It has done me good to spend a while in one place and rest some, but it is time to move on.
posted @ 8:43 PM -

Monday, November 11

Eye of newt reprise

Location : a relatively touristy restaurant in Beijing
Company : many people from the hostel, who individually turned up for meals and then hung around together

Sometimes having too many nice people around can be a drawback, as arranging to go anywhere gets tricky. In the end Toby and I just gave up and wandered up the street to find a nice restaurant (not exactly a hard task in Beijing), but along the way we saw a couple of familiar faces in one, so wandered in and joined them. By the time we had finished eating about 8 people had done this, and the cheapness of beer led us all to stay.

One of the waiters was learning English, and someone spotted his notebook and asked about it. He showed it to us - a vocabulary book he was practicing from - and we started reading. On the first page were obviously useful waiters' phrases like hello, welcome, sweet and sour pork and so on. Except that at the bottom of this page was deer penis.

Obviously we had to understand why deer penis was as important a phrase as sweet and sour pork, and his way of explaining was to show us three large glass jars sitting on the bar. Each was filled with a highly potent Chinese liquer, which smells like a cross between tequila and cheap and nasty vodka, together with additional ingredients for flavour. One had a snake, one had some lizards, and one had (you guessed it) deer penis.

I didn't taste these things, because I'm trying to get my health under control so a spirit that everyone tells me strips the skin from the drinker's throat seemed like a bad idea even without strange additives, but apparently the deer penis variety was by far the nicest. What I do know is that the drinks were just as strong as they smelled, because by the time we left a few peoples' eyes were distinctly pink, and one actually managed to get lost before even leaving the restaurant. Dangerous stuff, this penis....
posted @ 4:23 AM -

Sunday, November 10

Eye of newt and leg of toad

So now I am in Beijing, and rather surreally this is the most familiar place I've been to since leaving London. It has actually changed quite noticeably in the 12½ months since I was last here. In the taxi on the way to the hostel (Beijing Far East Hostel, which is by far the nicest place I've stayed in so far, so worth noting) it took me a long time to figure out that we were passing by where I had stayed last time, because a whole area which had been criscrossed by little alleyways was now full of shiny new tower blocks. There's also now English (or at least Latin lettering) on almost every roadsign, in preparation for the Olympics, noticeably more passers-by speak basic English than last year, and the place has kept its WTO pledge to improve the public toilet situation, to the point that it's now hard (at least in the touristy areas) to be more than a minute's walk from one.

Unfortunately that latter point is one of which I am more aware than I would like to be, because I'm having a fairly bad relapse of the colitis that decides to haunt me every now and again. I knew that at some point on my travels it would hit me, and the Mongolian diet is just about the worst food I could have for it, but the thing that is frustrating is that the medicine I have with me has had no effect at all. I've always been dissatisfied with the way doctors back home told me I just had to live with this condition and use symptom-suppressing drugs without any hope of a cure, and now that they aren't even working I'm really fed up. I had been considering going to a Chinese doctor anyway, to see if a different approach could help me, and this has spurred me to actually do it.

The Lonely Planet Beijing guide (which is in general much better than the larger-area LPs I've used) claims that there's a hospital with a foreigners clinic, but in fact this is completely untrue. I found the place, but there were only two people there who spoke any English at all, and while they were happy to help I just didn't feel that the consultation was very useful. He did prescribe me some medicine, and I took it away with me, but promptly decided not to use it, because it was just too likely that it was the wrong thing. I started to get quite depressed about this, because if I can't sort my health out it could easily ruin the rest of this trip; I'm in the kind of state now where Beijing's in-your-face nature is a bit too much to deal with.

I very slowly wandered back in to town, contemplating whether there was anything else I could do (of course there was - via the British Embassy I must be able to find an English-speaking doctor - but I was depressed enough not to have considered that), when Meichin turned up. He is actually part of a general trend of art students approaching white people to try and sell them paintings, which can be slightly annoying because they are so damn pushy, but he seemed nicer than most of them. He speaks a lot of English, and was very talkative, and the work he showed me was really good so I actually did buy some (will be quite a challenge to transport it undamaged...). When I actually bought one of his (they show you the whole class's work, but of the things that I would have any chance at all of transporting his calligraphy was the most appealling) he was so pleased that he decided to spend the afternoon with me as an interpreter/guide. I mentioned that I was unwell, he suggested taking me to a doctor and translating. This time round I felt a lot more confident in what I was being prescribed, because he actually did understand what I was saying.

The consultation is a very interesting process. First the doctor asks obvious questions about what the symptoms are, but then what they actually check is apparently always the same - tongue and pulse. As soon as I stuck my tongue out there was a look of recognition on the doctor's face, so apparently this was the main information she needed. The rest of the examination consists of the taking of pulses, but they are looking for the nature of the pulse, not the speed. Left and right wrists are both checked, and the checking involves three fingers, one on the usual pulse point and the other two nearby. It takes a minute or two to check each side, and the fingers are moved around, all of which apparently gives more information about what is wrong with me.

I have now been given some medicine, which was made up freshly by boiling a concoction of herbs (and possibly insects and organs from endangered species) for several hours, and packing the resulting liquid in individual portions. Apparently it should make me feel better within a week, but I only started taking it last night, so obviously it hasn't been a miracle cure overnight. If foulness of taste is proportional to quality of medicine I will be feeling better within a couple of days....
posted @ 2:45 AM -

Saturday, November 9

Mutton dressed as, well, mutton

Location : Beijing
Visited since last post : the jeep trek around central Mongolia did eventually happen
Mood : I'm ill, and I'm sick of being sick
Company : in Mongolia: Toby, Christelle, Gans and Shagga - a god among jeep drivers. Now: Christelle and a large group of Europeans at the hostel, and Meichin, a local art student who gave me a few hours of his time as a translator and guide after I bought a painting from him
Weather : in Mongolia it warmed up surprisingly, and all the snow melted, and Beijing's cool but quite mild.

please note: there are parts below that will not appeal to the squeamish. I make no apologies for writing about what I've seen (and now I'm making it sound more exciting than it is), but if a detailed description of a particularly gruesome-sounding method of slaughtering sheep is going to upset you, don't read today's post.

It is a shame that I've lost time in China, and I can't help but think that the terrible Mongolian diet is part of the reason I'm now ill, but even so I'm extremely glad I decided to spend the extra week there. Normally as a traveller I feel like I am just a spectator on a foreign culture, and I don't get the chance to engage with it all that deeply, whereas here I actually feel like I could live it for a while and really get a feeling for how rural Mongolians live.

Ulaan Baatar is not particularly exotic. It's basically a Soviet town, that would not look out of place as a provincial capital in Siberia, but made magnificent by its setting, surrounded on all sides by mountains, so that turning a corner into one of the main roads immediately presents one with a stunning backdrop, making up for the traffic jams, the smoke, and the general drabness of the buildings. It does have quite a nice atmosphere, and it is a place worth spending a little time in, but importantly, life there doesn't feel very different from life in a European city; I have to admit to having been surprised at how familiar Mongolia's urban culture felt. For this reason its main purpose as far as I was concerned was just as a base to get out into the country.

Pretty much as soon as we were out of the city limits it stopped being possible to pretend we were in Europe. People here still live as their ancestors in Chinggis Khan's day would have done. They have modern technology - motorbikes, truck rental when needed and the occasional TV - but rather than having their lifestyles shaped by these things, they have simply absorbed the technology into their way of life, in a way I found quite inspiring.

On the first day (Saturday) we drove for about 5 hours, initially on quite a good road, then on a road that made me (and presumably more so Toby, who is a little taller than me) understand why the roof of the jeep was padded, then on a road that apparently is marked out as a public highway, but consisted only of twin tyre tracks in the thin grass. We reached the general area where the families Gans has planned for us to stay with would be, but of course these people are nomads, so there was no address to go and find. After a short while looking around Gans spotted a shepherd, went over to say hello, and indeed it was his friend. He gave us directions, but on the way we found the rest of his family at another family's camp, where the only television within a day's walk is, so the kids tend to congregate there. None of them spoke any English, so all speaking had to be via Gans acting as interpreter, but with the kids this didn't matter at all, and even with the adults when people are friendly and willing to make an effort quite a lot can be comminicated by miming and drawing things.

We stayed a night with these people - 3 families, with the cutest kids, who stay in a ger each, with a few other gers for cold storage. They are relatively well off, which means their herd (sheep and goats together) is large, and they have a wind turbine and a few solar cells, so they can charge batteries and have electric lights in their gers and torches to go out at night. Transport consists of one motorbike, three horses and a camel, and they have five dogs to protect the herd from wolves at night. That's about the sum of their worldly goods, though apparently they borrow a truck when they want to move camp.

We started to wander around the surrounding area taking photos. Toby & I climbed a sand dune, from which we had a commanding view of the area, because apart from one incongrous rocky hill and a few trees around the camp, the area was pretty flat and bare. I decided to head back, because I feared navigation would be impossible in that place, but Toby carried on. At dusk Gans and I looked for each other, and both asked each other have you seen Toby?. Being quite worried, we decided to go out with a torch and try to track him (not the easiest of tasks seeing as some patches of ground were frozen too solid to get footprints). We climbed the same dune, and then saw a camel heading for us. I couldn't really make out the riders, but Gans told me there were two, and as it approached it became clear that this was Toby's taxi home.

Apparently he got completely lost, but eventually saw some gers, so headed for them. By miming that he was staying at the camp of 7 gers and drawing a map in the sand of where the camp ought to be in relation to the big hill, he managed to show the people there where he was staying. The population density in the area is so small that this was actually enough information to narrow it down. After being force-fed tea and some dried yoghourt biscuits (which are special food for guests, and not as unpleasant as they sound) he was led to the camel and taken home. Apparently the space between the camel's hump is not really wide enough for two riders, and he was in front, so it wasn't the most pleasant of journeys, but I don't think he was really complaining after finding himself lost as the sun went down....

The next morning (Sunday) it was announced that they were about to slaughter 30 sheep for the winter (at the start of each winter they slaughter the oldest and least healthy animals so they can sell the meat rather than let them die of natural causes). This was actually quite an unexpected bonus, because it gave us a chance to help out and see something we wouldn't normally get the chance to. First the herd had to be corralled into a confined space, which took all of us (the 6 adults who live there, the 5 of us guests, and all the kiddies, who are pretty young but obviously knew what they were doing) and a lot of noise-making. Then they started to look at the teeth of each of the older sheep, selecting the ones with the most worn teeth to seperate. The rest of the herd were allowed to wander off, and one by one the lucky 30 were taken out of their pen to be killed.

The Mongolian method of killing sheep is to cut below the sternum with a knife, reach inside and slit the aorta and vena cava with fingernails. Sounds horrible I know, but it actually looks far less traumatic than a Western abbattoir. The sheep initially struggles a bit when it is caught, because obviously any animal will struggle when confined, but it actually doesn't respond to the cut at all, and from the disconnection of the heart it takes a matter of seconds for the sheep to die. Mongolians say that sheep have no nerves at the place they cut, and this may well be true, because I can't imagine sheep suffering in silence.

The blood is then carefully scooped out of the carcass, because of a belief that no blood should touch the ground, and then it is gutted and the skin removed. I was impressed with how fast the whole operation was conducted. Most of the carcasses were destined for the market in Ulaan Baatar, but a couple were kept to feed the families. One of the convenient things about the Mongolian climate is that all that is required to store them is a shelter that keeps scavenging animals out, so they can keep as much meat as they want.

After watching this operation once we headed off, to get to Kharkhorin, the modern city by the site of ancient Karakorum. Kharkhorin itself is not the most attractive of places, bearing a distinct resemblance to Tattoine in the oldest Star Wars film, with expanses of dust between the fences serving as streets, and much of the housing consisting of permanent gers. There's nothing to see of Karakorum any more, because in the Middle Ages one of the Khans built a monastery recycling brick and stone, and even a few sculptures from the site. Much of the monastery was in turn destroyed in Stalin's time, but what's left is really striking because it's just in the middle of a windswept plain, and it has the sort of atmosphere I would imagine Tibetan monasteries to have, with a sense of complete emptiness outside, while the inside of the surviving temples is amazingly rich and colourful.

On Monday we travelled on to a mountain, with an isolated monastery on the top. This was where Shagga really had to show what an outstanding driver he was, taking us up the mountain through a snowy forest, constantly working the jeep to get it round trees and out of pits. We stopped for lunch at the top of the driveable part, and then climbed up to the actual monastery. There are 4 monks there, but we saw no sign of them. Presumably they come here for the isolation, so I guess they just don't want to come out on the rare occasions when tourists visit. It does seem like a fantastically isolated place to come and meditate....

We spent too long there, scrambling around on the rocks and enjoying the view from what felt like the top of the world, so on the way back it was dark before we could cross the river we needed to get over. The crossing just involves fording it and breaking through the ice at the edges, so it was another chance for Shagga, who was in the army for 25 years and climbed the ranks from mechanic to major, to show us what he could do. Night driving in Mongolia ought to be a nervous experience, because there are neither roads nor lights, but with this guy it was really quite comfortable, because it was clear he was always in control. There was no moon that night, but starlight is surprisingly bright when the sky is totally clear and our eyes had a chance to adapt. It felt like we were on the moon.

We got back to the shepherd families' camp late and went straight to bed. The next morning (Tuesday) we climbed the hill, which apparently the shepherds do regularly because from there they can see where the good pastures will be, and decide where to move their camps in the spring. More commanding views, more photos, but we saw a storm coming so had to get down in a hurry. It seems we did the right thing, because in the afternoon there was a sandstorm that cut visibility down to 10 metres or so and kept us in our gers. Because this was to be our last night, and to celebrate the sending of sheep to market, there was a feast, which involved cooking a sheep's head. These people don't allow any part of the animal to go to waste, so every scrap of meat from around the head is eaten. I've had brain before, and it tastes good, but I must say I've never eaten it directly from an animal's head. The Mongolians seemed very impressed that we were actually willing to eat this stuff - we're not the first European tourists they've met, but most seem to be more squeamish - though I must admit I couldn't bring myself to eat the eyes.

In the middle of the night the dogs started going mad. Gans said it probably meant they had smelt wolves, and having been nervous around dogs for a little while, this time I found their presence quite reassuring. I remember reading the Mongolia guidebook while I was waiting for my rabies shots in the Russian hospital, and becoming quite nervous about visiting because it made it sound like there were vicious stray dogs everywhere, but in the end it was Mongolia that rehabilitated the relationship between me and man's supposed best friends, because there are dogs everywhere, but they range from the friendly to the disinterested.

On Wednesday morning we headed back to Ulaan Baatar, sad to end what had been a wonderful trip, but also looking forward to leaving some things about the countryside behind. It had been a little too long without showers, but more importantly the Mongolian countryside involves seriously overdosing on sheep. The smell of sheep - whether it's mutton on the boil, sheepskin, the flock itself, or their droppings - is impossible to get away from, so that became something we were looking forward to not experiencing for a while. Most importantly, the prospect of eating anything other than mutton was highly appealing. Food is definitely the worst thing in Mongolia. It's not that it tastes bad - in fact the mutton dumplings are delicious - it's just that you only need about 2 days to eat everything that's on offer, and the fact that our stews had any vegetables in them at all was a rare privilege.

On Thursday we took the train to Beijing, going through the Gobi, which is the only part of the country that actually looked how I expected; an endless flat expanse with no trees at all, just about no features (apparently it is quite treacherous to navigate in), just the odd ger every few miles, and a very thin scattering of animals, ranging from sheep to wild camels and really beautiful birds of prey. I think if we were headed anywhere less cool than Beijing it would have been seriously hard to leave. This has definitely been the highlight of my trip so far.
posted @ 10:40 PM -

Friday, November 1

One Steppe Beyond

Location : Ulaan Baatar
Mood : excited
Company : Toby, Christelle & Gans
Reading : not much at the moment
Weather : we're having a heatwave. Today's high was about -2. The sun's out and everything looks wonderful though

Tomorrow I'll set off with the crew on this jeep trek that we've been talking about for a few days. We met up to plan exactly where to go over lunch today, and we're all very excited about it now. It's not going to involve going as far into the middle of nowhere as I'd really like to do, but it is winter, so routes that were entirely practical a couple of months ago are now just foolhardy. I'll just have to come back another year....

I am falling in love with Mongolia. Even at the tourist camp, within 2 hours' drive of the capital, that we spent Monday & Tuesday nights in there was a sense of space that is impossible to find in England (I hear there are still wild parts of Scotland, but I've not been to any myself), and rivals even what I've seen in Russia & Canada. I'm not sure I'd like to live among it, but for someone used to a densely populated part of the world, the emptiness of the steppe is incredibly refreshing. The landscape is also really beautiful. I was expecting endless flat grasslands (apparently the East of the country is like that), but in fact the plains round here are punctuated by hills and mountains with trees going up the slopes. There's not a huge amount of animal life, because some of the more populous species have already started to hibernate for the winter, but even so when we went horse-riding we managed to find some wild horses and cattle.

More than all this though, what has really endeared Mongolia to me is the people, especially after Russia. Smiling comes naturally to Mongolians, and even at the hospital where I had the last rabies shot no-one really looked miserable. The range of expressions seems to run from serene to creasing up with laughter, the people are really friendly, and although in the countryside no-one speaks English, in Ulaan Baatar enough people to that there's always someone in a shop who can help, and in bars curious locals come up to obvious foreigners and make conversation. I think that's as much to use us to practice their English as anything else, but it is nice to be able to speak to locals in an unstilted way.

Time to go and buy some last-minute supplies (vodka for us, and newspapers to give to any nomads we meet, because they only get to a shop every few months so they appreciate some contact from the outside world). I know I've said this before, but this time it probably will be a while till I get back to a computer. If we get back to Ulaan Baatar reasonably early on Wednesday, and I'm not too tired, I'll probably do more sightseeing, so the next time will probably be in a week or so in Beijing. From there I wouldn't be too surprised to find I can't access Blogger; if that is the case I'll email someone and make sure a comment is left explaining the silence.

One final note: I am probably being a lot more cautious than I need to be, but I will not criticise China while I am in China. I am in general less opposed to the Chinese government than most Westerners, and I do see some really positive trends at the moment (I've been watching Chinese State TV's english-language service for the last couple of days, and it even carries some negative reports about government policy), but still bear in mind that you will be reading a carefully edited version of my thoughts while I'm there. If anything seems particularly worthy of criticism I will come back to it once I'm out of that country, because I don't want to present a purely rosy picture of the place.
posted @ 3:32 AM -

Russian Around

First of all, apologies to Mark for nicking the pun, but my verbal inventiveness seems to have hit an all time low of late. I'm trying hard to think of some good ones for Mongolia....

The jeep trek has been postponed due to a miscommunication that was actually my fault. Gans had no way of contacting us, and I was supposed to phone him yesterday to confirm where to meet this morning (the trip was never meant to start on Thursday - I was just in too much of a hurry to correct the error when I wrote the last entry). I did phone, but not until evening, by which time Gans had postponed the jeep hire because he was worried that the vehicle would turn up and he'd still not have found us. We'll go tomorrow morning, which gives me time to catch up on some writing now.

I'm trying to make up my mind whether I like Russia or not. For the most part I enjoyed my stay, in spite of a couple of bad experiences (and though I was mighty annoyed at the time, the fake arrest is quite funny in retrospect, so really it's only one bad experience, and the dog bite could have happened in any country, and there are many places where medical treatment is way below the standard it is in Russia), but there were some things that really would me up about the place. To some extent the contrast with Mongolia has served to really highlight the bits I didn't like about Russia.

On the positive, it's a country with a fascinating history and modern culture, beautiful cities (Moscow is the only city I visited that I thought mostly ugly, but it still had great views and lovely areas), and a lot for the tourist to see and do. It also has really good pop music (sounds like a silly thing to comment on, I know, but I just appreciate it when a place actually has its own pop culture and doesn't just have familiar English language songs on every radio station, and I have become particularly fond of Russian pop, though it is definitely an acquired taste), and in Yekaterinburg I went to a great jazz gig. The food is mostly good (unlike much of Europe it is possible to get a bad meal, but it's still not hard to find really tasty stuff, even from babushkas selling pies on station platforms), the beer is nice, and I don't really need to tell you about the vodka, do I? The people who I actually spent some time talking to were also really lovely, but the qualification in that sentence is important.

The people with whom I had brief encounters were almost universally obnoxious. For a start, Russians simply don't smile. Maybe the police 'arrest' people for smiling in public or something, but it really is striking how miserable everyone on a Russian street looks. This is worse by far in Moscow than anywhere else, but even in the smaller, more relaxed towns the only people I saw openly displaying happiness were the Buryats in Ulan Ude (who are obvious because they look like Mongolians). They also have no concept of personal space at all. I'm not too concerned about such things myself, but I do think it's nice when people are willing to add the extra one step into their journey that allows them to move around me rather than simply barge me out of the way. This is particularly bad on the Moscow Metro, where it's also particularly annoying as a newcomer to the city, because it generally took me a while to work out which exit I needed.

By far the worst thing though was the service in places like shops and the cheaper cafes. I'm told by Russian-speakers that they are rude to everyone, but the thing I objected to most was not the curtness, but the complete unhelpfulness with the language barrier. I appreciate that yes, I should learn more of the language of a place I visit than I generally manage to, but I actually did learn enough Russian to order some food and suchlike, provided people were willing to just repeat what they said a little slower, rather than just shouting at me. Last time I was in China, where the few words of Mandarin I had learned were useless because my pronounciation was so awful, I still managed to get by with pointing and the willingness of local people to try to understand me, but in Russia it was such a big problem that I found myself desperately seeking Western-style supermarkets where I wouldn't have to speak to anyone.

I also feel like in general the country just hasn't worked out how to bring tourists in. Most actual tourist industry staff do have a clue, being either very nice or annoyingly mercenary, but they are hamstrung by a regime that makes it difficult to get permission to visit in the first place, sometimes flatly refuses to be helpful (it is illegal to put latin letters on signs in Moscow, for example), and is full of corrupt officials who just see tourists as a cash cow waiting to be milked.

All of that said, the country is nowhere near as hard to travel into, through and out of as the rumours I had heard beforehand implied. It requires patience, and an absurd level of carefulness over paperwork, but it is not an inaccessible realm. It's also well worth seeing, and after all that moaning I could still see myself going back to see more of the country.
posted @ 2:16 AM -
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