Friday, 13 September 2013

My photos

My photos are now available, starting with my recent trip to Arran and Holy Isle.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Symptom - broken Arm; cure - move home.

After travelling in the Far East last year, I returned to my mooring to find that the Aylesbury Arm was the subject of a planned stoppage from the beginning of October to the end of December. (A stoppage is where a waterway is closed for navigation for a period.) After that there were stoppages planned in both directions at the junction at the top of the arm from early January to the end of March. In total therefore it seemed as though I would not be able to cruise in my boat for about six months. As I had not decided whether to travel in this country or abroad this year, this was no great hardship.

Then I went up to Scotland for Ani Sherab Zangmo's ordination - a fantastic weekend. Whilst I was there, I learnt by email that one of the locks on the arm had collapsed completely - the wall on one side fallen into a hole that had opened up underneath it. So travel on the arm was going to be impossible for the foreseeable future. So back I go to Aylesbury to learn more about the unfolding saga.

The Canal and River Trust, in conjunction with various other interested bodies proposed providing a lift out of those boats that wanted to be free to cruise this summer, with a lift in at another location on the system. As  there were a large number of winter moorers in the basin, this was anticipated as a major operation. The end result was that yesterday and today 21 or so boats were craned out of the basin; loaded onto a specialist extending lorry; and moved 20 miles to the south end of Milton Keynes, and craned back into the canal. As these were (largely) residential, people were concerned that the shift go smoothly, and were anxious about the operation.

The biggest problem in the entire operation was that the first trip of the third (the last) lorry had a tire blow out on its trailer en-route. This was not as bad as it sounds, as the trailer could operate on two rear axles, rather than three, but did mean there was a limit on the weight it could carry, which also meant there needed to be a little reorganisation of the order the boats were lifted out.
Preparing the crane and the first lorry

Setting the slings

And up my home goes!!!

Manoevering the load for the lorry.

Anyway, I am now at Fenny Stratford on the Grand Union, unable to return to my moorings (which I am still having to pay for) until the arm is repaired. The good news is that the current estimate of when this might happen is the August bank holiday.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Three days up the Mekong

Travelling back to Thailand from Luang Prabang I took a boat up the Mekong for three days travel. This was upstream in more than one way - the journey is long enough that on a apparently level, but flowing, river, with no locks or rapids, the boat ascended 130 metres. In doing so it passed a number of villages of the local hill tribes.

These are some of the more accessible villages in this part of Laos - they are only one or two days travel along the river to a town where they use money. There is no other means of access to these villages, though for a few close into Luang Prabang, there may be a track of sorts during the dry season. The less accessible tribes are multiple days or weeks walking away from the river through dense jungle covered hills and gullies. Even without the jungle, the hills would be very tough going, because they are very rugged and steep. As a consequence of this inaccessibility nobody really knows much about the people living in Laos. The government of Laos has no idea how large the population of Laos is - they believe they have an approximation for the number of families living in the villages - but this is extended families, where children are not really counted until they become adult enough to form a family of their own. Even the headmen of villages may not have a clear idea of how many people there are - they know about the Smith family, the Jones family, and the McTavish family - but not how many dependants each of these families have.

This does by the way, put into perspective, the American bombing raids on Laos during the Vietnam war. The US dropped, on Laos alone, a volume of bombs about equivalent to all the bombs dropped in all theatres by both sides during the Second World War. Just looking at the terrain and those villages that are accessible is enough to determine that such an attack is bound to be ineffective. Its not so much taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut, as taking one of the world's largest ever bombing campaigns to kill three people and a goat. In addition, although LeMay's famous quote about bombing them back to the stone age applied to Vietnam rather than Laos, this objective was never achievable - most of the tribes are not very far from the stone age. True they use metal implements, though not many, but in many significant ways they are living a stone age existence already.

One of the signifiers of the difficult task facing the Laos government is that life expectancy throughout Laos is about 58. Most of the reason is the mortality of the hill tribes. Again an estimate, it is believed that the life expectancy of the hill tribes is 35. Equally there is no real concept of the value of education - if male children know enough to poison a crossbow bolt and hunt a small animal; if female children know enough to remove the inedible portions of some of the jungle fruits - this is enough.

Some of the government initiatives designed to improve services and facilities available to the tribes involve some fairly standard measures. The most visible of these is the forced relocation of some of the more remote tribes into joint villages with existing tribes who live in a more accessible place. Of course such force-majeure generates its own resentment and problems. Most of the tribes have a subsistence living. They can support themselves from their traditional jungle pursuits, supplemented by a very little agriculture. If they get relocated, they will encounter the concept of a cash economy for the first time. This implies that if they want to access any of the services being made available to them - health or education they are likely to have to interact with a town and money at some stage or other. The first law of ecology, "We can never do merely one thing", rears its head at this point.To do this, they need to  produce a surplus -often for the first time. This implies a much larger commitment to agriculture, which in turn, in this part of the world, means a substantial increase in slash and burn agriculture.  This has several knock on effects. First, just for the vegetation to recover some shadow of its former self, will take 25+ years from a particular patch of ground ceasing to be in cultivation. Secondly, though jungle is astonishingly fecund - almost by definition - once the soil has been denuded of nutrients it can take centuries of no human impact to re-establish the original balance. It can be denuded easily by agriculture and the growing of cash crops. Along the river, the scars not only of current slash and burn agriculture can be seen, but also the scars from the previous five or six iterations of this practice.

The lack of a money based economy, and the perceived need to provide services to these peoples, results in many distortions and complaints. The tribe people complain that the local town takes advantage of them - the local yokels - because they don't understand money. As a result the hill tribes believe they are always being taken for a ride by the townies - particularly for education. One of the carry overs from a non-monied economy - where wealth is measured by the number of large baulks of timber stored under the house - is that the people are in fact ripped off in a major way by unscrupulous Chinese buyers coming in to purchase the proceeds of illegal logging for teak, rosewood, and mahogany. This of course encourages the trade, as logging is seen as a cash crop. Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea how such buyers extract their purchases from the houses of the hill tribes. The search is also on for cash crops. This has historically been much of the root of the drugs trade - the area I'm talking about is the edge of the golden triangle. Drugs provide high density value - lots of money (comparatively speaking) for small packages.

As an aside when I returned to Thailand, and was starting to travel from Chang Rai to Bangkok, the police as is often the case on public buses, checked the passengers. The only person questioned was a young mother evidently from one of the hill tribes, with a small baby in arms. Not only was she questioned, but was also pat searched, as was the nappy (?) of the baby.

The hotels along the tourist trail - the Mekong - are doing a very good job in many ways. They provide a source of cash for the immediately adjacent village(s). They do provide support and encouragement in all sorts of practical ways to the local tribes. At each of the hotels I stayed at 95% of the food served  came from the local village (the odd 5% being things like alcohol, and western foodstuffs). Much of the efforts of local projects has been to find a cash crop that does not have the disastrous effects of drug or hard wood logging. They have had some success with Laos coffee - it is starting to make a market for itself.

And yet, cliched though it may be, the idea of the primitive but happy natives living in the garden of Eden, there does seem to be some truth to it. The Laotian hill tribe peoples do seem to have a happy (though short)  life. Obviously they have never known any thing else, and the alternative to living such a life is to not live such a life (and usually this means not living at all).

And yet......

Sunday, 2 September 2012

and Yet....

Before I came on this trip I would have said, without hesitation, that my favourite place on earth was the centre of the Tibetan Plateau. A few months into my trip, I might have changed this to say Kham,  now forms part of Sichuan Province in China. Still within what used to be called Greater Tibet, and still on the Tibetan Plateau. And yet, having visited Laos I am hard pushed not to change my mind and say Laos.

Laos has fantastic scenes of tropical beauty. Everywhere you look, especially but not exclusively outside the towns and cities there is beauty - flora, fauna, climate, geography, with the works of man a mere incidental footnote in the field of vision, if there at all. The people and the culture are gentle and pleasant, and make the visitor feel like honoured guests. And yet, I would not choose to live there, while I would live in Tibet in a heartbeat.

While Laos is not a place of contrasts, this visitor at least, was very conscious of the multiple contrasts he brought with him. The interior of Laos is incredibly remote. The town of Luang Prabang, where I was based is accessible by two means. One choice is Air Asia's journey by small, twin engined, prop driven, light plane once a day from Vientiene. Given that this flight is into an airport in the hills, which regularly have mist on them throughout the day, due to the high levels of humidity at this time of year; and given Air Asia's less than fantastic safety record, most people seem to choose the alternative. This is the overnight sleeper bus. Quite a good bus, though a little on the pricey side by the standards of transport in this part of the world. Having difficulty getting to Vientiene, more getting to Luang Prabang, all act as a filter on travellers that do make it this far. There are a (very) few backpackers, but mostly it is those with money - and sometimes lots of it - and mostly those on holiday rather than travelling for travelling sake. Like the family I travelled with on the sleeper bus. They were a Chinese American family, father, mother, son at university, and daughter just finished school and going onto university later this year. They were on a three week holiday, through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, This was obviously a high school graduation, or getting accepted at university reward, and must have cost a few bob, particularly given the up market hotels they were staying at. He said he was in semi-conductors. Later this turned out to mean, sole owner of a semi-conductor factory in southern California.

The effect of this on Luang Prabang is that there is some backpacker accomodation but in practice, it tends to be the low end of the accomodation there - which mainly consists of boutique hotels, starting at about $45 a night, and going up to $1250 a night. In this latter case, I fail miserably when trying to imagine what you get for you money, and how it can possibly ever be value for money. his in a town where there is a charity in town trying to help people to become literate in English, because that is the only way that they can get a job; and they cannot afford books or tuition. I was staying in such a boutique hotel, run by a French woman - but who had obviously been born in Laos, spent all her life there, but still regarded herself as French. She had one endearing quirk. In the morning she did not speak much English, but she did understand a moderate amount, and could speak some. However, as the day went on, her English abilities became less and less, so by mid evening she could not speak or understand English at all.

Moving on by boat, as I did, from Luang Prabang, again acts as a filter. The cost of a three day journey such as I made does tend to deter even the determined backpacker. I was fortunate in that, as I could see my trip coming to an end, I did have a little bit left in the budget. This trip gives travel on the Mekong during the day, interspersed with stops at tourist sites en-route. Overnight one stays at hotels set up specifically for this trade, on the banks of the Mekong. Staying in these hotels puts one firmly in the slightly Alice-in-Wonderland world of the rich - not the mega-rich. Both overnight establishments gave one the full French colonial experience - from the colonisers side of course. The accommodation was veranda-ed large airy rooms, complete with ceiling fan and mosquito nets. Drinks before dinner on the veranda. The ambiance of the hotels was such that if you dropped a napkin, three people would immediately come over; one to offer you a replacement; one to pick up the fallen item; and one to apologise on behalf of the establishment, for the napkin having the temerity to fall in the first place. They provided entertainment for their guests - in one there was a variety of native skills on offer - shooting the Laotian hill tribes crossbow, that is used in reality as a hunting weapon using poisoned bolts; planting rice; fishing; and panning for gold. The other had a tour of one of the local villages.

Both establishments were run by expatriates - both French. They both had the slightly chivvying and patronising attitude to their staff, who they obviously found a little dilatory in always doing what was required of them. All the elements that I expected to really hate. And yet, I enjoyed the experience; the hotels are doing a major job in involving local villages - the food in both places virtually all came from the local village; they are providing, often for the first time, access for hill tribes to a cash economy, and are forces for good in both conservation, and moving the Laotian economy forward somewhat. They are a real benefit to the locals. And yet - I'll be continuing this in a later posting.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Culture Vulture

My last day in Luang Prabang proved to be my culture day. Whilst going round the National Museum earlier in the week, I had seen the Royal Ballet Theatre, which is in the grounds of the museum. I had investigated and found there was a performance on my last evening, so I booked it up. I have only been to the ballet once before, and that was the English Royal Ballet - a rather different type of dance. I did not have any idea what to expect.

When I go there, the requested 30 minutes early, they would not allow entry to the theatre for nearly the full thirty minutes. I, and a few other tourists who had followed their instructions sat talking outside the theatre. There were a small group of Australians who had obviously been travel companions on many trips, plus a young French theatre set designer, who though on holiday, was there partly out of professional interest. It proved to be an interesting introduction to the evening.

The format of the evening was a welcome dance to start with, and some general dances to end - a monkey dance, a goodbye dance, and a giants dance. These framed one episode of a continuing saga - The Abduction of Princess Siva. The company runs through one episode per performance, thus the entire saga takes about six performances to see. (This would take about two weeks in total.) The theatre very usefully provide information sheets about all the dances, including the episode of the serial being danced that evening.

The first dance was performed by the women of the ensemble. This was what I think of as typically Siamese/Indian - much of the action was in very small and precise hand movements, combined with small and precise steps. Very interesting, but there are semantic elements that just passed me by.

The rest of the dances were mixed, but all but one of them focussed very heavily on the male dance. This is completely different from the female dance, and like Beijing Opera, owes a lot to martial arts and the stances and movements from such arts. The dance is very slow, with a lot of foot stomping and held postures - very difficult ones. The whole thing was superb and thoroughly enjoyable.

After the ballet, I went to a restaurant just a few hundred yards up the road from where I was staying. I had seen this when I arrived, and thought it somewhat upmarket, so a possible place to have a special meal. As this was my last night it seemed appropriate. When I arrived there the place was packed, but they managed to find space for me in an extension. This is when I found it was not just "somewhat upmarket". It was a gourmet, French-Laos, living food vegan restaurant. Living food is one of the further reaches of veganism - I don't pretend to know all the implications of it, but they do include not heating any food above 115oC, and using "live" vegan ingredients. Again the implications of this are unclear to me.

There was only a fixed menu, at a fixed price. The menu on the day I went:

Bee Pollen, Greens & Mint
Seasonal Lao Mushroom & Coriander Mouse
Tomato Carpaccio, Lime Zest & Vanilla Dressing
Warm Laksa Curry
with Herbs & Vegetable Noodles
Green Papaya Condiment
Chocolate with Coco Bean & Fruit Slice
Herbal Tea
Bael Fruit & Mulberry

The meal was of extraordinary standard - up there with Michelin starred restaurants - as was the price, which was expensive by western standards let alone Laos ones.

So for this evening I was the complete culture vulture.

Sunday, 19 August 2012


Me, begrimed, bedraggled and soaking wet, after I had climbed right to the top of Kuang Si waterfall, about 24 kilometers from Luang Prabang. This is not the largest waterfall I have ever seen, but it is probably the most spectacular. The sheer volume of water and speed of flow are both very impressive. The waterfall is in a national park, and there is a good path to the point shown in the picture. From here there is a jungle trek on either side of the water fall. I chose to cross the bridge here and then go up the path. This was an interesting scramble - rocks, mud, insects, decay, and fecundity. The top was not very interesting - the path dissolved into a multitude of water sodden slightly clearer areas, with no obvious direction to go in, and all apparently leading into dense jungle. Coming back down was painful - in flip-flops, which are not the ideal footware for this sort of thing. I slipped over four times; and came down much of the way on at least three points of contact - sometimes five. The wildlife was everywhere - centipedes; columns of ants; flies; beetles; butterflies with a wingspan the width of my head; spiders; and a lizard that had gone in for camouflage in a big way - its head and antennae made it look like a large elaborate cricket - spoiled only by the fact that the lizard was about nine inches long; and lots of unidentified movements of other lifeforms in the rotting jungle debris. 

Oh - and leeches - I collected my first leech today as I found out when I came to hose off my legs, feet, and arms in the car park at the bottom.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Buddhist Gaudi?

Outside Vientiane there is a sculpture park. I learnt about it from Wikipedia, and put it on my list of things to do while I am here in Vientiane. The reception desk at my hotel advised me to catch a local bus from the bus station just around the corner. This took me as far as the Friendship Bridge - the border with Thailand. A very local bus took me on from there. Two buses to the park; admission to the park; a can of drink at the entry; a meal and drink once I had finished going round the park; and two buses back - all this and I spent less than £3.50. It is very difficult to spend large amounts of money here. 

 The park is quite extraordinary. To describe it I can do no better than quote from the article I found.

"The park was started in 1958 by Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunleua Sulilat. Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat was a priest-shaman who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism. His unique perspective was influenced by a Hindu rishi under whom he studied in Vietnam. 
The statues are made of reinforced concrete and are ornate, and sometimes bizarre, in design. The statues appear to be centuries old, though they are not. There are sculptures of humans, gods, animals, and demons. There are numerous sculptures of Buddha, characters of Buddhist beliefs like Avalokiteshvara, and characters of Hindu lore, including Shiva, Vishnu, and Arjuna. These sculptures were presumably cast by unskilled workers under the supervision of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. One notable sculpture resembles a giant pumpkin. It has three stories representing three levels - Hell, Earth and Heaven. Visitors can enter through an opening which is a mouth of a 3-metre-tall demon head (9.8 ft) and climb staircases from hell to heaven. Each story contains sculptures depicting the level. At the top, there is a vantage point where the entire park is visible. Another sculpture, an enormous 120-metre-long (390 ft) reclining Buddha, is also a park attraction."

So if you have ever wondered what it is like to be in a giant magic pumpkin, then this is the place for you.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

(Nearly) Dead Millionaire

Today I became a millionaire, but nearly died in the process.

I returned to Thailand after visiting Siem Reap for Angkor Wat and other Cambodian temple complexes. I then spent a number of days in Bangkok, doing very ordinary things - shopping for replacements for some items of clothing I have worn out; finding and going to the local Buddhist temple; getting a hair cut; getting to recognise and be recognised by a few individuals in the local supermarket; and generally tootling about, writing this blog, and doing ordinary things. Part of this was catching up on my blog postings and I am now back to publishing more or less contemporaneously with my travels, rather than the backlog of postings I had in non-computer form.

I then travelled to Vientiane, Laos by train from Bangkok. This turned out to be a bit of a endurance trial - firstly I got to the railway station very early as I had had to book out of the hostel early. Then the train was just over an hour late in leaving the station - there was evidently some problem that was affecting all the train leaving Bangkok northwards. The train conformed to my view of Thai trains - reliably unreliable. It took about 25% longer to get to the Friendship Bridge into Laos than timetabled, so got to the border at about 11:30.  Travelling to my hotel finished off the journey - which had been 24 hours rather than the 13 1/2 hours   it should have taken.

Vientiane is a delightful town. French colonial in layout, cuisine and architecture,.  The local culture is relaxed to a degree that makes the Cambodian attitude seem frenetic and urgent, which takes some doing. All the major tourist sites are surrounded by formal, tropical gardens which are a riot of colour and are very, very attractive. It is also the only place I have been where one of the major tourist attractions in the city, the Patuxai Monument is described there as: "At the northeastern end of the LaneXang Ave. arises a huge structure resembling the Arc de Triomphe. It is the Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane, built in 1962 (B.E. 2505), but never complete due to the country's turbulent history. From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."

As for becoming a millionaire - The Laotian kip is the lightest weight currency I have encountered so far. There are approximately 13,000 kip to the £. So I went to the ATM today and drew out about £80 - which makes me a millionaire in the Laos kip. And nearly dying while doing it. Well I had to cross the road to get to the ATM. In Laos there seems to be only one rule of the road/driving technique. This is "if you can't see it, it can't do you any harm. If you don't look you can't see." So you never look out for other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, just go where you need to go. A stranger reacting with this environment needs eyes in the back of their head; high speed vision rotating through 360o; the fortune telling powers of the psychics on Blackpool promenade; the reflexes of a cat; and the luck of the devil.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Gods' Toybox

The various temple complexes in Cambodia, in and around the Angkor Wat complex are the Gods' toybox of temples. The Gods', not having been brought up very well, don't put their toys back very well, scattering them nearer or further away from the toybox depending on their whim. They also don't look after their toys very well - some have been slammed down; some twisted and broken while being played with; and some more or less whole.

Angkor Wat and other surrounding temple complexes (and they stretch, as far as I could tell, virtually all the way across Cambodia) is like no other place on earth. It is the only place I have been where a painted or drawn picture, even if one of the mass produced tourist souvenirs, is likely to contain more truth than all but the very best of photographs. The place is about atmosphere rather than detail, and even with the millions of tourists that go there, there are resonances of the atmosphere very evident.

Here are less truthful images of some of the contents of the toybox.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cute Unit

The milliHelen is an internationally agreed unit for measuring beauty - the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship, or to topple a single tower.

There is an evident need for a like measure of cuteness. There is only one viable unit for this, the Kitty.

[I dislike this name for the unit - my favourite Kitt, Eartha, has a cuteness rating of about -1000. Though there are a lot of adjectives and descriptions that do fit her, cute is not one of them. Indeed calling her cute might lead to shredded skin].

This is defined as the cuteness of a single average, awake  kitten, just sitting, in ordinary surroundings. The existence of this unit does make other measures necessary. It is not just the cuteness of something that causes an effect. It also depends on the susceptibility of the observer to cute. There is an obvious measure of this available - the w-number. This is defined as the number of w's that are put on the word aw when encountering a one Kitty degree of cuteness. So a w number of one implies that the observer goes aw when seeing a one Kitty; two and they go aww; and so on. Equally, if someone has a resistance to cute rather than a susceptibility, then their w-number is negative. This represents the number of w's in the reversed word - wa; wwa; ... It is essential that this word is pronounced with vigour, and with a gurning and ferocious face. Then a -1 w-number encountering a one Kitty goes wa.

Siem Reap appears to have no other industry than tourism. In addition with Angkor and the surrounding temple complexes being such a vast, and important site, there are severe restrictions on who can live in and around the various complexes. These limitations ensure that everybody living there is directly involved in the tourist industry. They are also (obviously) native, and they and their families have lived in the area since time immoral. As a result many of the souvenir sellers; the restaurant staff; the people producing souvenirs - mainly paintings and drawings; all live close to their work, and naturally take their small children to work with them. On the evidence of my visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complexes, these children's first words are likely to be in English rather than Thai; and are very likely to be "Ten postcard, one dollar", as they get into the family business from the word go.

These children are undeniably cute - I reckon they rate 10-15 Kitties. They do however meet their match with a few tourists, who, like me, have a w number of -10 to -15. They are not successful in selling their postcards, or pens, or whatever. They do though show a degree of persistence that is greater than that of the adults, who very quickly recognise a determined ignoring of their wares and sales pitch. So today's picture is of belated recognition that the sales pitch didn't work.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012


 Siem Reap Killing Fields Memorial

Following the Tomb Raider Trail

In the light of various travel advice; that the border between Thailand and Cambodia is a hot bed of industrial scale scams; that descriptions of the Cambodian border town of Poipet include phrases such as "Be wary. In this town the bad things you've heard are true", and "a town of no redeeming features, appealing only to those of warped  aesthetic"; that Poipet is the outlet from which all the corrupting influences in Cambodian tourism vents itself; I decided to break it into two parts. I travelled to Aranyaprathet, the border town on the Thailand side yesterday, and stayed in a hotel there. Today, I got up in a fairly leisurely manner, had breakfast, and arranged a tuk-tuk to the border. All the descriptions I had read suggested it would take about 1 1/2 - 2 hours to pass the border formalities; about a further hour to arrange travel on to Siem Reap, the journey taking anything from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. As a result I was very pleased to travel from hotel to hotel in four hours total.

Cambodia is (at least the route from Poipet to Siem Reap) is flat. There are a few small, isolated hills close in to Siem Reap. Even from the road it is apparent that this is the poorest, least developed country I have been in. Most of the buildings are built on stilts - allowing movement of air beneath the building while providing shelter from the rains. Many of them are built out of galvanised iron.

If feels a lot hotter in Cambodia than Thailand, though the temperatures are only a degree or two higher. The rainy season has different aspects in the two countries - in Thailand when the rain starts, the rain taps are turned on, they pour out rain steadily for an hour and a half to two hours, then the taps are turned off. In Cambodia, the rain descends as part of the display and bluster of a tropical storm - first of all the wind machines, then the storm clouds, then the rain enters on the wings of the storm. All in all a much more showy display. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Thai Trains

Things to like about travelling on the Thai train system.
Thai trains are reliably unreliable add 1-1 1/2 hours per four hours timetabled.
Third class is best for tourists - no air conditioning, so open windows which permit photography; everything moving so slowly, and stopping so often that there is time for it.
Herons/cranes/egrets/other small wading, long legged birds (named, in honour of Pete Groves famous universal bird naming system* - wading chaffinches)
*["There are only two types of birds: chaffinches, and web-footed chaffinches"]
Bright birds [scarlet wings, black body] or [blur of bright blue wings batting like hell for a banana grove] - parakeets/parrots/macaws (or all of these only found in the true home of the weird and the wonderful, South America?) - bright chaffinches
Banana hedged rice paddies
Vendors continually working the passengers to sell their fruit, or sweets, or drinks, or cooking ingredients (mainly today spring onions)
Man working rice paddy in a traditional "coolie" hat
Nut palms
Thirty nine variants of plants I've never seen before
Meticulously trimmed station gardens, full of tropical plants
Fist sized fuschia flowers - but none variegated
Hibiscus acting like a weed
Acres of faintly pink lotuses
Acres of bright red water lilies/lotuses(?)
Spoon and straight billed, large and small, multiple varieties of wading chaffinches
School kids using the train as their commute from school, or scout group, or guide group
Wats like explosions of joy in their colour, decoration and vibrancy
Priority seating areas labelled "For monks, the disabled, pregnant women, and elderly citizens" - always in that order
Water buffalo
Thai cattle
Station labelling which gives not only the name of the station you are at, but also the name and distance of the preceding and succeeding stations (and if there is a junction both arms of the junction)
Trains rung out from the station by the manual ringing of a large, highly polished, brass bell.
Single plants that have decided today is the day, to deck themselves out in their best floral finery
Ramshackle jollity and camaraderie
Vendors who are murderously quick at ripping off the struggling non-Thai traveller - prices going up 10 fold between two breaths
The feeling that timetables are all very well, and they do show we tried, but.....
The honesty of the arrival and departure boards; which have columns (for arrivals): arrival time, delay, real arrival time (and corresponding columns for the departures board)

Trouble with Traffic

So off on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. This is a very old city that was only really accessible to the rest of the world from the 1920's onwards. The core of the city is the old city - a one mile square area, surrounded by a moat, with walls and gates adding to the original security of the city. Adding in the advent of motorised traffic has meant that one direction of traffic runs on the road just inside the moat, while the other direction runs on the road just outside the moat. Tie in the fact that there is only at most one bridge across the moat on each side of the square, and you have the start of a difficult puzzle in order to get about the city. The outside of the old city seems to have its streets modelled on the Fishbone cause and effect diagrams, which does not help with learning where to go to get to where you want to. Finally the system to convey the public around is unique to the city. There are tuk-tuks, but the majority of bulk traffic is conducted in pick up trucks equipped with a long bench one each side. These act as communal taxis and buses, but do not run to fixed routes, or even regular routes. They need to be flagged down in the street, at which point the destination and the fare is negotiated. This may involve agreement as to the route, but depends on additional people filling up the vehicle, so can involve substantial waits while the vehicle fills up.

All in all a complicated travel system, and one I never really got a handle on during my time in Chiang Mai. As a consequence, I did much of my tourism here on foot, and within the radius of foot travel.
A real prayer tree, Wat Lok Molee. Each leaf, gold coloured, has a prayer inscribed on it.
One of the places I did visit was a Wat Lok Molee, Amphoe Muang. This is very close to the old city moat, and hence the tourist area. It was a royal temple of great importance for one of the Thai dynasties. It is still maintained, with a population of monks, and some small numbers of locals attending and offering sacrifices there. However, it is very quiet and over the two and a half hours I was there, there were possibly as many as a dozen other people there. One of the really nice things about this Wat was the information board which started off almost apologetically "An old and significant site, there is no record of the temple's founding date, but its name first appeared in historical texts in 1367".
By contrast, visiting the main Wat outside Chiang Mai, which is on a mountain completely surrounded by forest, I was astounded by the noise, rather than the quiet. This was due to both the cicadas (at least two varieties, judging from the sounds) and another insect. Though I did not get to see one of these other insects, I was told that they are very small. They make up for this by the volume of their call - they sounded like jet engines spooling up ready for takeoff.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Wat Pho

The first of my major tourist excursions was to Wat Pho, the site of the reclining Buddha in Bangkok. The excursion was interesting in part because I did it all myself, but more as I did it with a backpackers point of view rather than that of an organised trip. This meant using local transport, and local facilities for the excursion. So leaving my hostel, I walked to the nearest sky train station, about 10 minutes away. Then a ticket for the Central Pier stop, cost 40 baht (about 80 pence). A 35 minute journey on an air conditioned fast train, changing once at the central station, which is where the various arms of the sky train meet, and onto my destination. A short walk to the pier, and catching a water express at a cost of 30 Baht. Then a thoroughly enjoyable river trip lasting about three quarters of an hour.
I got off at the stop for Wat Pho, crossed the road, and entered the temple complex (an area as far as I could tell of similar dimensions to the Tower of London).

The Wat itself is a riot of buildings, decoration, the Thai equivalent of stupas (can't remember the proper name), temples, halls, schools,  and a visitor throughput about equivalent to that of Westminster Abbey. The nice thing though, was that probably a majority of the visitors start their experience there by offering a sacrifice at a small shrine area just by the entrance, which although small, caters for all those who wish to use it without its users or the plain tourists getting in each others way.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

He's seen the Durian

On my travels in China there have usually been a number of prohibitory notices displayed in hotel and hostel bedrooms. These have generally been of the order:

  1. No guns
  2. No explosives
  3. No fireworks
  4. No inflammable goods
  5. No gas cylinders
  6. No smoking (not often seen, as hotels and hostels in China are full well aware of how little notice would be taken of such a sign. The one place it was effective, and meant, the hostel was entirely built out of wood, and the notice was backed up by penalties such as immediate expulsion from the hostel, with loss of all deposit and paid in advance room rates)
In southern China, and now in other parts of Asia these signs have often included a "No Durians" sign. Apart from the traditional circle and bar indicating prohibition, this sign also includes what looks like the top view of a cross between a spiny anteater, and a duck billed platypus.
Until today I did not know what a durian was, though it had been vaguely mentioned on one occasion many years ago that it was a sort of fruit. Well going into the local, to the hostel I am staying in, supermarket today they had durians on sale.  They were indeed fruit, and subsequent research showed that both that there is a huge variety of such things and why they are prohibited. They are a tropical fruit, and the specimens I saw were about two feet in circumference; had a stem about one inch in diameter, and looking very woody; were multi-lobed - each fruit having between three and seven lobes; had a skin which was waxy looking, spiney, bright green, and looked as if it would require a machete to open; each lobe was about 15-18 inches long; and the whole thing looked as if it weighed about five kilograms. The reason it is so disliked by hoteliers is its smell - in the reference above described as:

"The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and revolting. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as tert-ButyIthiol, almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit's banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia."

Talking later to a traveller who had encountered the beasty led to a far less flattering description: terms such as a garlic eating, skunk, whose main job in life is cleaning the sewers by being dragged backwards through them, while wearing socks that have been worn and then left for long enough to turn into a life form of their own; being bandied around. I don't feel this description really gave full vent to the emotion the person concerned seemed to be trying to convey. So now I have seen the Durian.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

It's Abbreviated to OCD - duh

One Sunday in Bangkok, I went down to the railway station to buy some tickets for other destinations in Thailand. Returning to my hostel, I took the wrong exit from the Sky train, and so found myself wandering through the biggest amulet market in Bangkok, and hence almost certainly in Thailand, and in the world. Over a very large area - probably some acres, though I did not explore the full extent of it - there are table top stalls in every conceivable spot. Down both sides of every pavement; alongside alleyways; packed into the market area proper; and with the gaps being filled by the out of a suitcase hucksters. Every single one of these stalls (and there must be low thousands of them) is selling amulets to the vast, knowledgeable, expert, fanatic crowd of  Thai amulet collectors. 

Most of the amulets on sale seem to be flat and about 5mm long. They do go up regularly to about 2cm in size, though much less frequently than the small ones. Each stall may have one or two bigger amulets - up to statuettes about 30cm high. So in total, there is on sale, every Sunday, a few million amulets. The devotees spend a massive amount of time going through the stalls, examining the wares on offer. This usually seems to involve examination under a powerful hand lens on all sides; comparing the amulet on offer to the remainder of the stalls offerings; discussion; negotiation; and all the infrastructure of the fanatic collector in full pursuit of his (almost invariably as customers; not always so as vendors) obsession.

I have no idea what makes an amulet special, collectible, or which differentiates it from the everyday amulet. It could be antiquity; craftmanship; precious material; the amount of luck it brings; the maker; or just because it seems nice. There are at least five large circulation magazines - three of them weekly, the other two monthly - supporting the market, and appealing to the discerning cognoscenti. These, to judge from their marketing in main stationers, railway stations, and supermarkets, have circulations comparable to those of the popular home and women's magazines.

Altogether, one of the quirkier aspects of cultural difference I have seen so far on my travels.

Friday, 20 July 2012

New Fields

I landed in Bangkok. This is my first time in this city, apart from transiting the airport; the first time in Thailand; the first time in South East Asia; and the first time in a tropical country. So being an open minded, cosmopolitan, experienced traveller, why were there so many surprises for me? It can't possibly be that I came to this city with expectations could it?

My first surprise was that Thai traffic drives on the left. I had thought it was only English speaking ex British colonies that had this habit - the rest of the world having standardised on the right hand side of the road. On the drive to my hostel, I was also surprised by the fact that, not only is Bangkok a modern, vibrant, city, but they seem to have achieved this without the adverse side of Chinese development - if its more than six months old it is too old and needs to be demolished. Equally the Chinese, who use vast amounts of concrete, always seem to have the attitude "slap some more concrete here, and never mind how it looks". Bangkok by contrast looks as if they know how to both use concrete, and how to finish it off so it looks good. Equally, Bangkok has its own pattern of wear on concrete buildings. I expect this is a pattern shared by all countries subject to a rainy season - the rain leaches dirt and solutes out the concrete from the top down. So all the older concrete buildings look very dirty at the top and much cleaner at the bottom.

The taxi operated in a way I have not seen before - though it makes as much sense as any other. When there are tolls for expressways, the passenger is expected to pay, not the driver. There is a lot of traffic and it moves considerably quicker that what I have become accustomed to over the last three months. Much of Bangkok's streets are laid out on a plan similar to the ginnels in the North of the UK. There will be a main street with a large number of straight offshoots. These are just wide enough for one vehicle to go down the offshoot. some of these run straight from major city intersections direct into farms and farmlands. Unlike ginnels, the houses and other buildings front onto these. My taxi driver was unwilling to go down the alleyway  , leaving me to negotiate the length of the alleyway with all my luggage. Had I mentioned that I was surprised by how hot it was? Though to be fair, the humidity was having less effect than I anticipated. I later learnt that Bangkok has a very equable climate at this time of year - varying between 34 and 36 oC during the day and 26-28 during the night.

Bangkok shares with Beijing and Moscow a first rate metropolitan transport system. This is basically three fold. Down the East of the city is the Metro, which provides NS routes throughout Bangkok, and which extend Westwards to include the Railway Station. There is the Skytrain - an elevated railway that runs down the middle of the city again providing NS routes throughout the city, and which links in at several points with the Metro. It has an Eastward extension to the main international airport. It also links in with the third part of the transport system. This is the river, which has fast river buses; shopping and hotel boats; and (regrettably) now comparatively few long tail boats, which seem all to be used for tourist excursions. Why is it that a city that has a functioning, vibrant river system of transport, seems so much more alive and fun to be in than one that does not. It is not even a question of knowing about the river - just being there and being part of the life of the city seems to be enough.

Most of the tourist sights seem to be in one area - round the royal palaces and the two main temples there - the Emerald Buddha Wat and the Reclining Buddha Wat. The reclining Buddha (above) is immense - I think I heard somebody say it was 61 metres long. The complex is very extensive, incorporating a Thai Buddhist Massage school, and the Thai equivalent of the Tibetan medicinal tankas - pictures on one of the walls showing the channels, the attributes, the massage remedies for various aliments.

There are plenty more surprises awaiting me, I am sure.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

It's the Only Way to Tavel

I decided to make use of my return air ticket to Thailand. This meant leaving on 2012-07-09, and returning early in September. As the 9th was the day that the Olympic torch was due to pass through Aylesbury, I added even more leeway to my ridiculous margins I allow whenever I am travelling by air. As a result I got to  Heathrow too early (by half an hour) to drop my luggage off, but not too early to check in using one of the automated ticket booths.

When I did check in I was delighted to see that my bog-standard Economy Class ticket had been upgraded to Premier Economy - basically the same thing, but with more leg room and space generally. This is precisely the class I try to book, on those airlines which do not charge an arm and a leg to gain these extra few inches.

Anyway I went onto spend the remaining time as one does in an airport - mooching around; eating; looking at the shops; emailing; writing; reading. Eventually it became time to go to the gate - except the flight had been delayed and information as to why the delay, and how long it would be, were in short supply. Then the gate came up and a herd of people, including me, made our way to the appropriate gate. At this point I was very surprised, and further delighted, to find I had been upgraded again - to Business Class.

So we select few were called first. Onto the plane, and stroll gently up the stairs to the top cabin on a 747, to be ushered to out seat/bed/capsule that is the lot of Business Class, and First Class. Once seated, we were immediately offered our choice of orange juice, champagne or water, and a complimentary newspaper - from a very wide selection. Then we were given our travel packs - bed socks, eye mask, ear plugs, toothbrush and paste, eye freshener, lip balm, skin cleanser, anti-ageing cream; plus a blanket and pillow.  Then the menus were handed out - with multiple choices for each course. Very good food, with if required, champagne cocktails to start. All served on china and glass, with each course separately served - none of this aircraft tray nonsense.

As I had had a good meal in the airport, I passed on the initial meal and chose to sleep. The seat transformed itself into a full length bed, with the aid of the multi- position footstool. On with the eye mask, and settled down to the first good night's sleep I have had on an aircraft. When I awoke, some seven hours into the flight, there were multiple choices - both in drinks, and in-flight entertainment. The selection of films was about three times wider than that in economy class. I watched The Exotic Marigold Hotel - always worth watching the theatrical dames in action. Then breakfast - full English, or continental.

Our immigration cards were handed out together with our priority immigration channel passes - this meant we could go to an immigration channel reserved for Business and First Class passengers - the advantage of which was that there were no queues. Then collect luggage (no special treatment here) and off to a taxi to take me into Bangkok.

So why aren't all journeys like this? Just because we were taking up the resources (carbon footprint, cabin space, attendant service, etc) equivalent to about six economy passengers. Just because, normally, it is massively expensive. Just because upgrades like this are not normally available. This is the only way to travel.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Liberty Bell March

When I arrived at Chengdu, I was intent on going onto New Zealand. So naturally I started investigating air tickets on the internet. I soon determined that Air New Zealand (ANZ) could give me all I needed, so I booked a ticket with them. This was when the fun started.

[If any of the timings seem odd, it is probably because they are. There was so much going on, over a short period, that I am not sure I got the sequence of events correct.]
  1. I booked and paid for my air ticket with one of my currency cards, which left this card with only a small balance on it.I loaded up my currency cards from my current account, using online banking to effect the transfer. I had set up this type of transfer a while ago, and it went through smoothly.
  2. As I knew that this transfer would leave my current account overdrawn, I went to transfer funds from my savings account to the current account. This is when I first encountered the problems that National Westminster were having with their systems. I don't know exactly where in their cycle of problems I hit, but it must have been fairly early on. I could not transfer monies between accounts; I could not get confirmation (from the bank) as to whether ANZ had been paid or not; and could not get confirmation that the transfer to the currency card had worked. 
  3. I checked out that I did not require a visa for New Zealand. On a British passport, one can stay for up to six months in New Zealand without a visa. 
  4. I received an email from ANZ stating that they had been unable to accept my booking, because one of their partner flights (the first leg of my flight from Chengdu to Shanghai on an Air China plane) could not be booked. They advised that they had not taken any money from my currency card; had not made the booking; and asked me to contact them via a telephone number in New Zealand to sort out the situation. 
  5. Searching the ANZ web site, booking site, and any other place I thought there might be information, provided me with only one contact option - a URL designed to notify ANZ of problems with their web site - so a webmaster's address, rather than a ticketing address. I sent off an email, and very quickly got back an automated response saying that due to the volume of business (and the low priority of a webmaster's site compared to a booking site) any response was likely to take at least 72 hours. This was not useful given that I wanted to travel within 48 hours. 
  6. At this point, I enlisted the help of the hostel's travel desk - who were superb throughout the whole of this tiresome series of events. They suggested that they book a flight (for 27th June) with Air Southern China (ASC), through their normal ticketing arrangements. This seemed reasonable, as it provided them with business, and consequent commission; provided me with a solution, at a cost less than I had been able to manage myself. The only draw back was that I would have to pay cash for the air ticket - the normal way of doing such transactions in China. 
  7. Drawing sufficient money to pay for this air ticket left my currency card balance at almost zero. Trying again to transfer monies I could neither transfer monies between my accounts, nor transfer monies onto my currency card. However, I had my airticket, with ASC, from Chengdu to Guangzhou, and then on from their to Auckland. 
  8. It was at this point that I received a further email from ANZ stating that they had received my email concerning the problem; had managed to sort out my booking; had debited my currency card with the cost of the flight; and issued my e-ticket. So now I had two valid air tickets to New Zealand, on the 25th via Shanghai and the 26th via Guangzhou; I had paid for two tickets on my currency card - so I assumed this was overdrawn (a state of affairs that should not happen - there is no provision for credit on these cards. I was unable to transfer monies between my accounts to regularise the situation. 
  9. I tried to contact National Westminster by phone (they do, under normal circumstances, provide a reverse charge number for account holders abroad in this type of situation). This is when I found that the hostel's Skype phone was being blocked by the Great Firewall of China - a not unusual situation. As far as they could tell it was likely to take 2-3 days to resume normal service. Their other phone set up for international calls (normal international calls) was not working either. On those days it appeared that the authorities in China did not want anybody making international calls out of Chengdu. 
  10. As my final throw of the dice, I found a Shanghai help desk number for ANZ, and rang them. After ringing for a very long time (certainly over an hour - I know this because I was using the ticket desks' phone, blocking 50% of their calls, and was very conscious of how long I was on the phone) it got transferred to a real live New Zealander (I assume, from the conversation, that she was in New Zealand; that the call had been transferred there; and she was in an office based customer service area). To my relief, she took full details; understood the position; and assured me that she would reverse the whole situation - ticket issue, charging, ticket booking; as if it had never taken place. The only fly in the ointment was that the refund of monies would take about five days. 
  11. Time zones started to show their effect. The person I was dealing with in New Zealand was working office hours (09:00-17:30) in New Zealand, which was five hours ahead of my time. The help desk in Shanghai was operating on the same time as me. The extended branch openings that National Westminster had put in place to try and alleviate problems were on the Sunday, and into the early evening UK time - seven hours behind my time. 
  12. So the only thing I now had to do was obtain sufficient monies in Rmb to pay for the three days I was going to remain in China. I ended up doing this on my current account debit card - thus putting it even further into the red (or so I believed - in reality, down the line, the situation was rather better than this, but I did not know it at the time). Everything looked hunky dory. I had a full day free before my travels. I had a valid air ticket. My financial situation was unknown in detail, and was giving me some concern, but not too much because I was due a refund from ANZ, even if the timing was a little off. 
  13. So on the 26th I got up late, as I knew I would be travelling for 20 hours or more, had a late breakfast, and took the (pre-arranged through the ticket desk in the hostel) hire car to the airport. Got there nice and early. Had a little difficulty, though not too bad, because this was the first time I have started off an international flight with a purely domestic leg. This meant I had to check in at the domestic desk, and would have to check in again, at the international desk, in Guangzhou. Not a real problem, once I knew what to do, but it did take me a little while to sort out what I needed to do. 
  14. The flight was substantially delayed, but because there was so much slack in my itinerary, this was not an issue. I finally took off round about six o'clock in the evening, for a two and a half hour flight. 
  15. Arrived at Guangzhou airport to find that it is huge - it took me 25 minutes to walk from the domestic arrivals area to the international check in desk. So I joined the very slow moving check in queue. There were only three desks open, and it took me until 22:30 to reach the front of the queue. My flight was due to leave at 00:30 so time was starting to get short but still not an issue. 
  16. At the checkout I was asked for my passport as normal. Then I was asked for my ticket from New Zealand. It turned out that although I did not require a visa, I needed to have evidence that I would be leaving New Zealand. I had missed this requirement, and it had not been brought to my attention by any of the bodies involved in the ticket sale. It quickly became evident that without such a ticket I would not be allowed onto the plane. 
  17. I then tried to purchase an air ticket. To quote Gerard Hoffnung, in the Bricklayer's sicknote piece, "at this point I may have lost my presence of mind because I let go of the rope" - or rather, I did not think of the obvious way out of this - to get the cheapest ticket I could from New Zealand (to say Australia). I was over focussed on getting a return ticket to somewhere - Guangzhou, London, Bangkok, or Chengdu. Anyway, I am not sure that this would have solved the problem. There were actually two interlinked problems - I had to get a ticket from New Zealand and had to purchase it before loading terminated on the 00:30 flight. I also had to get evidence that I had got such a flight to the check in desk in order to be able to check in to the flight to New Zealand. 
  18. All the ticket desks in the airport were closed. The business centre was closed. All the airline desks were closed, except one for ASC domestic flights only. The staff on this desk were Chinese only speakers, but were able to let me have the phone number of the English speaking ASC help desk. Checking all this out involved traipsing from end to end of the airport, while the minutes were ticking away. During this process I attracted the attention of a senior airport manager, who did try to assist me in meeting the conditions of the flight I had booked. 
  19. Eventually the only was left for me was to contact the ASC help desk to see if I could purchase a ticket (remembering that all my credit, currency and debit cards were in an unknown situation). I spent about 50 minutes on the phone to them (at a cost I later learnt of £150, because I had lost my international SIM card, and was forced to make this phone call on my UK domestic SIM). The problem was that they could sell me a ticket, but they had no way to demonstrate this to New Zealand immigration, via the Guangzhou check in desk, in the time available. At 00:15 I finally conceded defeat, and realised I would not catch the NZ plane. 
  20. The airport senior manager, who had been keeping an eye on me during this phone call, suggested, at this point, that I go to one of the airport hotels for the night, returning at 06:30 when the ticket desks would be open. I agreed, and he arranged a complementary transfer to the hotel, and confirmation that the hotel could take me, and sent me on my way. 
  21. At the hotel I had to draw more money out of their ATM - on an already depleted currency card - and had to pay cash for the room. The good point was that it was a four star business hotel, but it only cost 480 yuan - about £48. 
  22. Once in my room I could do some thinking and sorting out. In view of the facts that: my visa only had about six days to run at this point, and it would take a minimum of five days to renew it; that I would need another air ticket even if I carried onto New Zealand; that the only sure way I had of paying for a ticket was my savings account debit card, which was about the fourth layer of financial contingency planning I had made, and certainly the penultimate; that I knew I could certainly get into the UK without problem; and that I had valid return ticket from London to Bangkok that I knew I could use if relevant on the 9th July; I decided to fly back to the UK. 
  23. So at 06:00 I left the hotel to return to the airport, went straight to the now open ticket desk; purchased a ticket for London and joined the flight for takeoff at 09:00. Twelve and a half hours later I arrived back in London, sailed through the luggage and immigration formalities and caught the bus to Milton Keynes at 17:30. I had originally been going to treat myself to one night's stay in a good hotel, but all the hotels round Heathrow had Olympic fever - the cheapest quote I had for a single room for one night without breakfast was £380. 
  24. Stayed in a motel for a couple of nights, sorted myself out. I started the process of trying to get a refund on my ASC ticket to New Zealand. Both ASC and Guangzhou airport had suggested that I should be able to get a refund. They also suggested that the only way of getting a refund was via the original ticket agency that sold me the ticket, in Chengdu, and that I would only get a refund in cash. I contacted the hostel I had stayed at and who had arranged my ticket. They have confirmed that a refund is available of about 3000Rmb - or two thirds of the actual ticket price, without any refund of any part of the taxes on the ticket. All that now remains is for them to find some way of remitting the monies to me - which is itself difficult. 
So as envisaged by the title of this piece, I ended up back in the UK for at least a few days. I took the opportunity of seeing, or trying to see various friends, doing minor maintenance work on my boat, trying to sort out my financial situation, trying to get a refund on my ticket, and generally tootling about.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Big Bus Journey

I thought I was experienced in Chinese buses - both local, and more importantly, the long distance buses to remote areas. It turned out that I was only just starting to learn about these buses. The journey from Ganzi to Chengdu was the real apprenticeship in such travel.

I had information from a tourist map put together by one of the hostels in Chengdu. This suggested that the trip from Ganzi to Chengdu would be about 10 hours, and that the bus ran at 06:30. I enquired at the hostel I was staying at, and was told where the bus station ticket office was - though the bus station itself was obvious, the ticket office, during most daylight hours was closed, and was completely inconspicuous when shuttered up. The hostel suggested going to the ticekt office at 05:30 to get a ticket to Chengdu. They also suggested that the bus went at 06:30. So up at 05:15 to walk the 400 yards to the bus station. The first snag became apparent very quickly - the shuttering on the hostel was down and locked, and there was nobody around to open it up. The night watchman only emerged to unlock the gate at 06:00 and I arrived at the ticket office about three minutes later. Business at the ticket office was being conducted in Rugby mode - a total scrum of people waving money; shouting out details of the ticket they wanted; pushing; shoving; rushing for a bus once they had a ticket; trying to buy tickets through the ticket office window, and by entering the doorway of the actual ticket office; all this being dealt with by one woman who was selling the tickets. When I finally got to her, and requested my ticket I was informed that there were no more tickets available that day for Chengdu. I was also informed that (after a lot of pantomime and communication difficulties) that to get a ticket for the following day, I should return to the ticket office at 08:30 that day, when it would be open for advance ticket sales.

So I returned to the ticket office at just before 08:30, having got some breakfast in the interim. The ticket office was closed when I arrived back, and the modus operandi was again a scrum - first to get into position for when it did open, and then to get a position in the queue (?) at the ticket window. Fortunately it was the same woman dealing with ticket sales as had been there at 06:00. She recognised me, and I was sufficiently tall and long armed to be able to pay for my ticket over the heads of those who had pushed, sneaked, or insinuated themselves in front of me. So in exchange for my queueing and 280Rmb I now had a ticket for the trip to Chengdu on the following morning - departure time 06:20.

The following day, I again got up at about 05:15, in order to get to the bus station. Again the shuttering was down on the hostel, but now I knew where the nightwatchman slept, and so was able to disturb him and leave the hotel before six. There was a similar scrum this morning, but it did not extend to the bus I was catching. This bus was full, the first time I have been on a completely full bus in China, but it was the most modern bus I have had here. Think National Express coaches of about five years ago - so not bad, just not bang up to date. There was a lot of milling about and placement of luggage, but embussing went fairly smoothly. It was interrupted only by a group of Westeners seeking tickets (though not to Chengdu) in the same manner I had done the previous morning. Eventually the bus left - only 10 minutes late getting going, which again is fairly good.

Though I should have had some inkling that my information was off, based on the total duratation of the journies to Ganzi, my first real indication was leaving Ganzi. The centre of this town is paved, to a fairly high standard. However, as soon as we got out of town we were on Chinese rural, non-improved roads. In this part of the world this means a road that is basically the rock substrate, and can be anything up to half a mile wide. This entire width represents the area that vehicles of all sorts have chosen to use as their road. The road out of Ganzi was in good condition for such roads, and we only saw the result of one mishap - one of the Chinese 22 wheel lorries had managed to put its front two offside wheels deep into a ditch, so the whole lorry was skewed off the road and into the ditch, and would require some heavy traction to extract it. The misstatement in my information started to be noticable when it took the first five hours of driving to reach a paved road. This period included the first two pit stops - which seemed to come at about two hourly intervals, and lasted no more than five minutes.

Eventually we reached paved roads. Unfortunately these were virtually all is a state of being improved, or being under repair. This meant driving through the road works - no namby pamby diversions or alternative routes in China - when there are road works you drive through the actual works. As there had been so much rain, the surface of these road works, churned up by heavy lorries and other large vehicles had turned into a thixotropic mix of mud, water, and general gloop. This had snared two minivan shared taxis - they were both up to their axles in the mud, with passengers disembarked and looking forlorn. Chinese public buses always have a driver's assistant. This is usually a qualified driver, who can act as a relief driver, but whose main function seems to be to act as conductor; general assistant to the driver; and maintenance tasks such as filling up the water tank that provides boiling water on the coaches, when needed. The driver's assistant was called on three times to aid the buses journey through the road works. The first time it was to remove large boulders lying in the road way that threatened to be axle breakers. Next the assistant had to build up a portion of the gloop, to ensure traction, by laying a surface of boulders in the gloop that the bus could use. The final time, he only needed to guide the bus driver's route through a particularly tricky piece of road work and gloop.

After a total of seven hours driving, the bus finally pulled up for the first meal stop of the journey. This meant that it was a place where there were built toilets, and a bus restaurant. These bus restaurants are quite spectacular - they have a seating area, multiple choices of food, all bubbling away in large cauldrons over gas burners, out in the open, though with an awning to protect against the rain. They always seem to be ready to serve the instance a bus pulls in, and they usually serve 90% of the passengers with a good hot meal. They always seem to be run by four or five people, often (I assume) man, wife, child, neice, and A.N.Other. The meal breaks last no longer than 20 minutes. This is sufficient time for the driver and assistant to get a meal; for the assistant to fill up the water tank; and (in this case) for the driver to run one of the wheels up onto a pile of rocks, to conduct a running repair involving a large wrench and a large lump hammer under the bus. I did not want to know what the repair was - ignorance is bliss, so walked away from the bus while this was going on. The altitude must still have been fairly high, as the direct sun was as hot as I have experienced during my trip - to the extent that it was painful to stay out in it for more than a few minutes.

Onwards and onwards. The roads did slowly improve, but it was getting dark before we started encountering roads that were not under repair with any frequency. After 12 hours travel, the driver's assistant took over the driving for a couple of hours. It was at this point I had managed to sort out my Chinese sufficiently to ask how long the journey was scheduled to take - to learn that the scheduled journey time was 20 hours (not the 10 I had believed). Chinese driving regulations obviously prohibited the driver from driving for 20 hours straight - though 12 hours straight; a two hour break; and a further (as it turned out) 7 1/2 hours straight driving were perfectly OK.

During the afternoon and evening we went through several of the places I had passed through on the way to Ganzi. At one of these, on the edge of the sensitive area, the bus entered a garage went up on ramps and was inspected underneath. I had assumed on the outward journey that this was to detect stowaways and people trying to travel in contravention of the authorities prohibitions. Though this was potentially a part of the reason for the inspection, we could see the bus in front of ours going through its inspection. This made it very clear that a substantial part of the reason for the inspection was that it was a mechanical inspection - they were checking that nothing had fallen off, or had come loose during the rougher parts of the trip.

Anyway this is more or less the way that the trip continued - through another meal stop after dark (not sure what time, but it seemed to go dark at about 21:00 hours. Pit stops became less frequent, roads improved and we finally got into Chengdu and 03:30 - about an hour and a half later than the scheduled arrival time.

Then to get a taxi - which was surprisingly easy - and to get to the hostel I had stayed at previously and which I had booked up by email. The only slightly difficult thing was that all Chengdu motorcycles, motorscooters, and power assisted bikes, are all electically driven, and so silent. This is difficult enough to deal with in the day time when you can see them in their masses, but at night they creep up on you - especially as it is common if there is any street lighting at all, for such vehicles to switch off their lights to save battery power.

And so to bed just before four, thinking that at least I had done the most difficult part of my journey, and that I was unlikely to encounter anything anywhere near as difficult. Little did I know.