Whenever I finish a blog I always think to myself where on earth am I going to get the material to write my next entry especially when I look at my route back to Shanghai from the south of the country which didn't exactly look like a source of comedy. Well, the great thing about travelling this part of the world is that it's just a conveyor belt of crazy ongoings, no day is the same so it's with much sadness that I write to you my final blog for this trip.
Since my last blog I visited the famous rice terraces of Longji, the terraces being steps which are carved in, up and around the hillsides with each step trapping water to allow the rice to grow. Sounds boring but it's impressive, you'll have to wait for the photos. As with most of my journeys the trip from Guilin was not without excitement. I took the bus 3 hour bus to Ping'An and on the way we encountered some mechanical problems in getting the door shut. It took the driver half an hour to work out what the problem was. Earlier in the journey he had been speaking on his phone and ran over a huge rock which made a dreadful sound under the vehicle so the bus must have somehow buckled as the door was now jamming at the base. With a little Chinese ingenuity he found a huge hammer, started whacking the floor and after 10 minutes of smacking the crap out of the decrepid vehicle we were on our way again. We had seen two humongous car accidents which had only just occurred that morning, without a doubt one of them was fatal and I expect there were many other incidents that day due to the heavy rain which had caused numerous landslides along the road. Having seen these accidents and the manic way the bus driver was taking these hairpin bends I seemed to be the only person on the bus who had my seat belt on. I was dropped at a junction and was told by the driver which way it was to the village of Ping'An - well, I wasn't told I was shouted at in Chinese! I couldn't see the town so it looked like I was in for a walk. The driver of course spoke no English so there was no way I could demand he take me to where I paid to go. So off I went and started walking uphill with 20kg of bags and camera gear in the hope that the village would magically appear after one of the many twists and turns in the road. After 20 minutes it was clear the driver had left me in the arse end of nowhere and because of the delay with fixing the door he must have been running late. I wasn't overly concerned as there were many buses so attempted to flag one of them down. To my dismay the first one fobbed me off, then the second, then the third - they all drove straight passed me. It's a good job no-one speaks English as they wouldn't have appreciated the expletives which flew off my tongue. No more buses appeared so I continued walking then tried hitching a lift with a few cars. Again they all waved me off even though I was quite clearly suffering, drenched with sweat and about to collapse from dehydration. What concerned me is the sign in Chinese at the start of the road, it had the figure 20 in it, was that km? All I could see as I looked up the hillside was the road switching back and forth and not a village in sight, it didn't look good.. I started cursing the Chinese and their lack of compassion. After an hour and a quarter I was finally picked up by a lovely couple who were in fact from Hong Kong!! Guess us Brits instilled some empathy in them.... I finally made it to the village and spent two days walking around the rice terraces in the mist, there was hardly any other tourist in the village so I had the whole place to myself which sounds great but really it isn't a whole lot of fun when you can't see anything. On the last day the sun briefly popped out and I had an amazing view of the terraces. Longji rice terraces, done.
My next destination was a little further north to the town of Chongqing. This involved another long journey on the train which I have come to enjoy as the Chinese run an unbeleivably fast, efficient train system with comfortable sleeper beds and delicious Chinese food served to you in your bed! The journey to Chongqing was no fewer than 20 hours which by China standards isn't so bad - Shanghai to Tibet is around 49 hours. Chongqing surprised me, most people have never heard of this city yet it's humongous with a metro population larger than Sydney or Melbourne. Outside of the hostel I was the only westerner and it was here that I began to realise how useful it is to speak Mandarin! Luckily the girls on reception at the hostel are used to muppets like me not knowing any Chinese so they wrote down a few key words which would come in useful for my onward journey.
From Chongqing I was heading east back to Shanghai the long way via the Yangtze River with my first stop being the town of Fenjie. Arrival at the Chongqing bus station there were hardly any signs in English but knowing how to pronounce your destination and do a clueless shrug of your shoulders gets you a long way. I took my seat next to a young lad who was carrying his computer with him and no, not a laptop! He was carrying a whole boxed up desktop computer and somehow in addition to seating himself he managed to squeeze in a tower, keyboard and 21" monitor without encroaching on my space. The journey took 5 hours and what struck me is the way the Chinese have just ploughed this whopping great big dual carriageway through the countryside allowing nothing to stop it's progress. Whereas most countries would pussy foot around a mountain by going around or up it in a series of zig zags the Chinese appear to tunnel and bridge their way through anything which gets in their way, we went through so many tunnels I could barely read my book.
Arrival in Fenjie nothing was in English not even the word Hotel. I didn't realise how far off the tourist trail this place actually was, you can usually tell how many non-Chinese they receive in a town like this just by the number of people who stare at you, especially the kids who look at you as if you are some sort of white devil. Luckily there was one girl on the bus who could speak some English "can I help rou?" It's always the younger ones who can speak English and this girl despite only speaking very basic English was an absolute gem. She not only helped me to buy my hydrofoil ticket for the trip down the Yangtze the following day she also arranged my hotel room right next to the jetty. I gave my passport to the hotel owner to inspect and he started chatting away to the girl, I was concerned with the girl's reaction as some hotel's cannot accept foreigners then she translated his words "British people are very welcome in my hotel, Japanese people are not" !! I burst into laughter and high fived the guy (ok a polite handshake) he laughed too but somehow I don't think he was joking, they're not a huge fan of the Japanese.
Fenji is a small town on the banks of the Yangtze and full of high rise buildings. The Chinese love living vertically but here there's hardly any room for horizontal expansion so the town is built on the side of the hill overlooking the river and is densely packed with ghastly 80's era apartment blocks making it look like 1980s Peckham in Only Fools and Horses. I took a walk across the bridge to the other side of the Yangtze which had a beautiful blue/green hue to it as opposed to a mucky yellow colour as I remember it from my school geography text book. On the way back I noticed a youth who had started to hang around further down the bridge about 100 yards away. As I moved, he also moved. He did it again and after a few more steps down the bridge I began to feel I was being followed. I noticed he was playing with his phone, maybe texting his mates? I have been travelling for around 8 months on and off and I thought this is it, this is my mugging. It's the same with crashes, I've yet to be in a car, train or plane crash and i'm long overdue when you consider the amount of transport I've been using. As he got closer and closer I tried to stare him down then realising he was only a small lad I lightened up. He then got his phone out of his pocket and asked a passing fruit seller if she could take a photo of him with the white devil!
In the evening I ventured out for some street food and perched on a tiny plastic chair about 30cm off the deck forcing my knees up to my chin. I was joined by the husband of the wife who was cooking what was a delicious pork and chilli dumpling soup. A girl presumably his daughter also racked up and seem to take a shine to me going so far as to mix my dumpling soup to ensure I get the best possible taste and making a gesture when my mouth needed a wipe. I realised as I was eating I had an entourage of 5 other people behind me all fascinated in my reaction to the food as well as my chopstick technique which I don't care what anyone says, gets the food to where it needs to be. A lady came by and held her hands together at the side of her head and leaned into them as if to signal bed time. I assumed she had a hotel I could stay in but I was fine, I had a hotel. She later came and joined us and started pointing to the girl next to me doing the same sign then the girls father joined in much to the embarassement of the poor girl. I wish I knew what they were talking about. I went to the next food seller and ordered or should I say pointed at his fried potatoes sizzling in the wok. This man did the same with his daughter who laughed nervously and then shyed away. So I can only assume they were trying to palm their daughters off on me! One of the more obscure nights I've had and I was only out of the room for 20 minutes.
The food in China is AWESOME but I have to confess while travelling the middle of the country I hadn't a clue what I was ordering. As English and indeed Chinglish was out of the equation I resorted to choosing my meals based on which of the restaurants have pictures I can point at. I found a street seller who served dumplings and I wanted to know what filling was in them. I reeled off the name of a few meats to see whether this person knew any English, he didn't so I resorted to making the noise of a pig in the hope that they had some filled with pork. They looked at me a little strange then laughed. As I walked away and bit into my dumpling I realised they had no filling. It must have been quite surreal for them to witness some strange guy approach them, blab a foreign language then start making pig noises. Good job I stuck to the one animal as I was quite prepared to go through a whole farmyard as let's face it the Chinese eat anything!
The final part of my journey through the middle of China was down the River Yangtze by hydrofoil. I stood at the open doors for most of the journey taking in the views of the gorges which rise dramatically on either side of the river the only thing interrupting my serene experience being the occassional Chinese barging me out of the way so they can spit out the phlegm which they have hoicked up from the pit of their stomach. Seriously, the spitting thing got out of hand on the hydrofoil, one man was spitting on the floor and the two women next to me, both quite striking, had a bin in front of them so they didn't have to get up and spit overboard. What puzzles me is where does it all come from? I won't go into the nose clearing which they do, you get the jist by now i'm sure....The journey down the Yangtze was fascinating. Without warning these huge towns would appear, again, all high rise apartment blocks and not particularly sightly in comparison with the stunning surroundings. They are like small cities but without the suburbs, it seems the most unlikely place to have such a huge amount of high rise flats.....This stretch of the Yangtze is part of the Three Gorges Dam project, the dam being the largest hyrdroelectricity plant in the world. The body of water which I floated on for 4 hours has with in the last few years artifically risen due to the damming downstream. In doing so the flooded lands have displaced around 1.2 million people from their homes, mostly farmers, many of them who were not compensated for their loss. So as we zoomed along the river I was humbled of the thought that below the boat lay the remnants of people's home, their land and their livelihoods. Its amazing how man has managed to tame such a monstrous river. Supposedly the total area of the resevoir and the river which the damn blocks is the size of England, there's a QI fact for you!
Built 10 years ago and still the fastest train in commercial service, the Shanghai airport Maglev train does not dissappoint. It makes me weak at the knees just typing this, it is a stupidly awesome bit of kit. Using magnetic levitation technology the train hovers above the concrete track and zooms a distance of 30km in a tidy 7 minutes reaching a top speed of 430km/h, thats 270mph for us Brits and faster than an F1 car. I didn't need any excuse, how many times can you travel over land at 270mph and not get a speeding ticket!? I don't really have the time or patience to give you a detailed analysis but put it this way, when the cars that flash by you on the adjacent motorway appear almost stationary you know you're doing some serious speed.
China has been a real experience and not knowing the lingo has made it hard work but sure made for an adventure. It is amazing how far you can get by sign language and making noises such as a choo choo sound for a train, brum brum for a bus and a pig sound if you want pork. Then there's hand gestures in particular a sign I don't need to explain which I have used when needing the toilet. I have used the sleeping sign when communicating to the train ticket office that I require a sleeper bed on the train. Of course I now realise from my experience in Fenji I could have inadvertently been asking the ticket lady for a shag!
The penultimate laugh from China came from an old lady who pestered me when I left my hostel in Shanghai. She was walking funny with a slight hunched back and I ignored her knowing full well she was just going to hassle me for something. That's until I realised on her face she had a silly pair of plastic glasses with a big nose and fake moustache attached with the intention of making a sale from me! The final laugh I had from this crazy crazy country was yet again induced by a Chinese senior citizen. This particularly charmer was sat at her gate waiting for a flight at Shanghai's impressive Pudong airport. It was 12am, things were quiet and she had a full load of 747 passengers surrounding her. Showing absolutely zero signs of restraint she let rip not one but two monstrous belches in front of everyone without any shame and no acknowledgement of the diaphragm rattling burps which just came out of her. Oh China how I love you and your craziness. I will be back.....
So there you have it, almost 6 months of travelling done and dusted. What a roller coaster it has been. Thanks to all of those who have made travelling such a joy. If I have met you in the passed 6 months and you're reading this it means you are one cool dude. Travelling wouldn't have been the same without my Everest trekking buddies particularly Natalie and all those I met at Alobar1000, Johanna for your company in Yangon (remember I'm always available to finish your leftover donuts), Reino, Eric "Bassman" Wilson, Oriol (I will never forget the sight of you bursting into the tent at 6AM unshaven with your white shawl, the return of the messiah or what!?) Laura and Jane for providing some sanity in Varanasi, Anna (thanks for the tlc while I was sick!), Dutchy and lastly the Shanghai Palawan crew!
If you're bored of life and need some insipiration get yourself a plane ticket to this part of the world, have your mind blown, experience everything, regret nothing.
Goodbye from me or as they say in China "hooooiiiiiickk ..........."
Herrrro from China!
I had two very uneventful days in Manila becoming a mall rat and taking advantage of the cheap albeit dire Filipino food. As I was leaving my hostel for the airport the owner casually told me that if I missed my flight they were having a bbq on the roof that evening, I mean, I love a nice slab of grilled meat but how relaxed did he think I was about catching my flight?
The plane landed in Shanghai and had barely left the runway when the Chinese passengers unstrapped themselves and started collecting their bags out of the overhead lockers! Shanghai was a bit of a climate shock, after living in 30 degree heat for the passed few months within just 3 hours flight time I was plunged into a rather English affair of 2 degrees and drizzle. Chinese new year had kicked in so my arrival at 2AM the place was practically a ghost town as most occupants flee the big cities to be with their families elsewhere around China. Chinese new year is a nice time to be in Shanghai, one night there was a display of orange lanterns drifting in the wind with the futuristic Shanghai skyline in the background. Every night the streets echoed with the constant sound of firecrackers being let off and not just any firecrackers, I found one used firework the other day the size of an armchair! When these things go off it sounds like an ambush of AK47s, it is deafening and followed by so much smoke that you can't see your hand in front of your face. The purpose of the firecrackers is to ward off evil spirits not too mention to scaring the bollocks off unsuspecting tourists. There's no oooohs and aaahs, people just seem to step out of their house, light some firecrackers and shut the door while an explosive carnage ensues outside.
Shanghai is a very un-Asian city in my opinion as it's far too pleasant! It took me almost a week until I realised that the scooters are largely battery powered which explains why the place isn't as rough around the edges as most other Asian cities, there's less noise and pollution so far less chaos than I've been accustomed to for the past 5 months. As I was considering this point the other day a guy on a scooter passed me, on the back of his scooter he was carrying another scooter so I guess i'm not out of Asia just yet!
I walked around the famous area of Shanghai known as "the Bund" and was asked by a couple of young Chinese guys if I could take their photo which I was more than happy to do. We got chatting and they explained they were students visiting a friend in Shanghai. After a while they invited me for a cup of tea with one of their friends who was a resident of Shanghai and carrying out a masters degree in English. Having just arrived in Shanghai I was delighted that these locals took enough of an interest in my life (as was I in their's) and was more than happy to join them for a tea and a chance to immerse myself into the Chinese culture which at first glance Shanghai sadly lacks. We found a small tea house and a room where we sat for around an hour enjoying a lavish tea ceremony served by a nervous Chinese lady who spoke no Engish. About half way through the cynic in me had suspicions as to how genuine these people were. I quizzed them on their education, their families and their background in general. They had an answer for everything and when the young English student used the word "benovelent" I had no doubt these people were well educated and wouldn't need to resort to a life of crime. As I was to find out, they were a little too educated. The bill arrived.... ouch! It was 350 yuan or as I though at the time, around 22 pounds. It seemed a lot for such a small tea ceremony but then it was Shanghai and being new to the city I wasn't sure how expensive it would be. A part of me thought they were scam artists and another part of me believed they were good honest people, they even allowed me to take their photo, what criminal would allow photographic evidence to be taken?! I returned to the hostel, googled "Shanghai tea ceremony" and bang! there it was! A whole page of results from other unsuspecting travellers who had been scammed. To add to my annoyance, in my dazed state I had mixed up the exchange rate of 15yuan to the pound (as published in my Lonely Planet) with the actual exchange rate which was 10 Yuan to the pound so I had actually been diddled 35 pounds for a few cups of poxy albeit very nice tea!! As soon as I discovered this I grabbed my camera and ran back to the tea house with the hope of confronting the nervous and not so innocent Chinese lady who served up the brew. I had it all mapped out, I was going to burst in there snap a photo of the lady as evidence (she hadn't wanted to be in my photo with the scammers) and if she refused to return my money, I would open a can of woop ass on her or get the police involved (more likely the latter). I even went as far as photographing a police car on the way to the tea house so that I could show her the photo in case she didn't understand that I meant business. Of course, when I got there it was closed and just as well as further searches on google showed that a lot of these people operate in gangs so rubbing them up the wrong way probably wouldn't have been a good idea! Luckily I had ended the ceremony at the first opportunity and therefore got off lightly compared with others. Another guy in the hostel had a friend who was taken for 1000 yuan (100 pounds) and internet searches show people being stuffed for anything from 400 to 2000 yuan. The hostel notice board displayed a note from one poor chap who was invited by a girl for a drink and ended up footing a bill of 1,200pounds after she miraculously dissappeared. Unfortunately for him he had no option as these guys get violent if you don't cough up. Welcome to scam country and welcome to China! It's a shame it happened as so many countries I've visted have afforded me some unforgettable interactions with the locals through such situations but this one experience has left me feeling dis-trusting of the Chinese people. To compound my misery I then lost my bank card so have now rung up a large mobile phone bill no thanks to Declan from the Co-Operative Bank who stayed on the line to recount his story of how he left his wallet on the plane in Tenerife and had to (as he put it) "sponge off the missus for a week" Still, with spirits and dignity just about intact I soldiered on!
So, not the best introduction to the people of China and as of yet I can't say I have warmed to them. In Guilin I was told off for taking a photo in a supermarket of a tube of crisps with a funny name (Toss). Quite what cultural boundary line I had crossed or what area of their national security I dipped my toe into i'm not sure! Going to a local convenience store the shopkeepers latch on to you and follow you around pointing out various random items in the shop which they think you may need. When it looks like you are about to leave they get frantic and start pointing out even more items which is a bizarre sales tactic especially if you're a stubborn git like me who refuses to deal with people perceived as annoying when in reality that's just the way business is done here. Walking the streets of a crowded city the Chinese can be aggressive, they see no problems with pushing passed you in a queue or barging you out of the way. This of course works two fold as I usually have a huge bag on my back with my daypack on front, the ultimate barging tool and a great stress reliever especially as they don't react when you push, it's not a politeness thing it's just how it is, a real dog eat dog attitude. They seem to roam in clusters, like a pack of zebras they feel less threatened when there's a crowd of them. It's also funny when you hear Chinese people talking to each other as it sounds like they are having an arguement when in actual fact they are having a perfectly pleasant conversation. I passed a police officer who was shouting down the phone at someone but I couldn't tell whether he was angry with the person. I chuckled at the thought that he might be on the phone telling his wife he loved her.
Yesterday I set off for a 2 hour walk to a small village outside the town of Xingping which is in the southern province of Guanxi. When I arrived at the village a lady shouted at me and pointed to the bamboo raft at the riverside which could take me back to Xingping. I wanted to walk however had problems conveying this to the woman who could speak no English. She decided to follow me and despite every effort in using sign language she would not leave me alone. Every time I took a different turning she would shout to me "noah!!!" then pointed to the direction where the raft was which by now I clearly understood was her raft, otherwise why would she tail me for an hour and 5 minutes!!?? 10 out of 10 for persistence. Whatever I said was lost on her as all she could say was "hello" and "noah" which I presume meant "no" unless Noah had his ark moored downstream. I tried frustrating her by walking in rougher terrain then trying zig zags all to no avail. So after half an hour I decided to make a run for it. Tourists on the boats chugging along the Li river would have witnessed the bizarre spectacle of a foreigner running along the river banks, camera in hand with a a local Chinese lady in hot pursuit yelling "noah, noah, bamboo". Well my marathon legs were wasted as she ended up behind me again so I now had me a stalker. I kind of knew I had attracted the village nutjob as a local guy passed me pulling a trailer, he looked at me shook his head horizontally and raised his eyebrows as if to say "good luck pal".
If there's one thing I will take from this part of China it's the relentless hassling from ladies asking if you want to go on a bamboo. As it happens I did go on a bamboo raft, it was getting dark and I needed to cross the river. Luck was in store as an old man was able to take me across in what can only be described as 5 large bamboo tied together with rope to form one long plank of bamboo! It was around 4 or 5 metres in length, no wider than me and when I perched my big western caboose on it the bamboo poles were flush with the water. I have been on kayaks with more stability than this thing but what made it worse is I was fully clothed and had a backpack full of expensive camera gear. I sat on a small stall and spread my legs as wide as I could just to add a bit more stability to the rocking plank as the old man started paddling us cross the river, the water lapping onto the raft from the passing boats and the swelling current. I can't remember the last time I got myself into such a situation, I honestly thought I was going to go in and the travel insurance would finally be required!
Another encounter with a local was with an over zealous sausage seller in the old town of Shanghai. I was hungry and in need for a lunch and am not the kind of guy to turn down a sausage or two. The street vendor told me it was 1 sausage for 10 yuan which to say is taking the piss is an understatement. I offered him 5 yuan for two sausages which he was not prepared to do. So I got 5 yuan out of my wallet and showed it to him then pointed to the sausages showing him 2 fingers signifying I wanted 2 sausages for my 5 yuan. He snatched the 5 yuan out of my hand put it in his apron and gave me 1 sausage. I lost it with him and raised my voice until I was almost shouting, red with anger with my eyes about to fly out of my head. He conceded, gave me 2 sausages then gave me a huge smile. Guy 1, Shanghai sausage man nil - a message to the food vendors of China: no one gets in the way of me and food. In all seriousness all I wanted was some lunch, not a fight and I don't expect my blood pressure to shoot up before i've even eaten!
Of course I have met some absolutely wonderful Chinese people but I figured you would rather read about the nutty ones!
Having visited most Asian countries one thing that is prevalent is spitting but nowhere more so than China. They spit everywhere and they can't help but make the process known to everyone with the sound of a huge "hoooooiiccccck" from their throat then emptying the contents of their mouth on the pavement. For me, a woman smoking a cigarette was always a big turn off but that pales into comparison when you see Chinese woman phleming on the pavements! What amazes me is that it's such common practice that it is acceptable to do this in restaurants, one man waltzing in whilst my friend and I enjoyed a feast then spat on the floor by our table! Wonderful, only in China.
I wasn't prepared for the language difficulties as very few people speak English and everywhere looks like a Chinese takeaway. I had around 4 pounds of Philippines pesos which I wanted to change into the local currency so I nipped into a travel agent to see if they could assist. After some initial confusion with the girl at the desk, she passed the keyboard over the counter so I could type her my question which she would then translate into Chinese through an online translator. She didn't know the answer to my question so responded with "feel shy, typing to my manager" so she ended up copying the Chinese translation of my questions to her boss who was sending a response in Chinese via instant messenger which was then being translated back to English. After 10 minutes I got my answer which was a no we do not convert Philippine peso! All a hell of a lot of effort for 4 pounds.
Most of my time outside of Shanghai was spent in Guanxi province in the south of the country staying in small towns and villages surrounded by limestone peaks and rice terraces. The town of Yangshuo is surrounded by towering peaks with the river Li carving an intricate network of canals through the town. Unfortunately the whole place, while containing all the comforts of bars, restaurants, travel agents etc, is stupidly unsymapthetic to its gorgeous environment, - if there's one thing the Chinese can do well it's collosal tourist traps. The place even has a McDonalds which I have to confess visiting after a night on the beers. It was full of Chinese with a handful of westerners who stroll in acknowledging other westerners with a nod of the head and a comment along the lines of "I know it's wrong....." My last night in Yangshuo was the final night of the Chinese new year celebrations and they put on a firework display like i've never seen before. 30 minutes of fireworks echoing around the mountains and culminating into a final minute where they seemed to put up as many fireworks as they could possibly squeeze into the air!
The grub here is delicious, although strange not experiencing headaches and heart palpitations from all the MSG that we have in our Chinese food at home. I haven't tried anything too funky but I choose my eateries on the strength of their Chinglish as displayed in their menu. I will sign off now with a few of the best all from one restaurant!
Just a short blog, if i'm being honest I haven't been up too much other than enjoying the sun, sea, food and cheap plonk! Think I've even put on some blubber.
Mingalaba from Myanmar or as they say in Burmese မြန်မာစကား မြန်မာစာ (Imagine writing a thesis like that!)
I left Kathmandu after spending 6 days of re-cooperation eating on a daily basis £1 pound fried breakfasts and about half a dozen cakes from the many bakeries on offer in the Thamel district of the city. I also spent time with some awesome peeps so big up to Kutu, Sara, Stefano, George, Tomas, Julian, Natalie and everyone else from Alobar1000! The flight to Kuala Lumpur started with a riot at check-in, as with most Asian countries it seems the Nepalese haven't discovered the fine English invention that one calls a queue. I was the only person queing and everyone was pushing in front of me, I lost my patience and ordered each queue jumper to the back to get in line. After checking in, right behind me was a perfect orderly queue of 6 people! The flight was late, unfortunately the Nepalese (bless em) don't realise that a plane is unlike a bus in that you have to be on time. They were still casually strolling on an hour after we should have left. In fairness to many of them there were a few first time flyers as when we descended their ears popped and they had no idea what was happening. The guy in front of me even going as far as hitting his ears with the palm of his hand and sticking his finger in to try and unblock it.
in Kuala Lumpur I experienced my first smooth road in 10 weeks and stepped off the bus still being able to feel my arse. You know you're back in the developed world when you don't have to carry loo roll with you and you're allowed to flush toilet paper down the pan. My dorm mate for the first night couldn't get any more cliche. His name was Igor from Russia and he was a computer programmer - straight out of a James Bond movie. He had blonde hair and a sinister set of eyes behind his glasses that said "i'm quite happy to put anthrax in your coffee". In the morning I would be eating breakfast on the balcony while he throws darts at the dart board like he's pitching at the World Series. When I asked him what he does in Russia he responded "I live"... you can't write this sort of stuff!
Christmas was spent at Ringos Foyer in Melaka, a quaint little town two hours from Kuala Lumpur. Big thanks to the host, Howard, for being such a legend and big up to the gang, you know who you are! We had a cracking time cycling to Tescos (yes, you read that right) every day buying a shit load of food and booze and making a humongous bbq which we enjoyed on the rooftop. I was introduced to a German drinking game called Flunkeball. Two teams of three at opposite ends take turns to throw a ball (or lime!) at a bottle placed in the middle. If it gets knocked over the opposing team have to run and pick it up while the throwing team drink their beer as quickly as possible and can't stop until the bottle is upright. The winner is the first team to finish their beer. THE best drinking game ever, in fact if its ok with you mum I would like to start a sunday league in your garden?
Howard let off a few fireworks on christmas eve and I saw the tail end of an Angolan woman in hysterics joking about how she thought she was back at home when she heard the exploding fireworks. I thought, for someone who has grown up with violence all around them what a great sense of humour! We were later informed that she did actually think she was under attack and ran to take cover under the table!
Next stop was Myanmar (ex Burma) which I looked forward to partly as I didn't know what to expect and surely this would be the one country in the world where that annoying Gagnam twat won't be plauging the airwaves? Myanmar is changing rapidly, in fact my Lonely Planet was printed earlier this year and most of the information is now obselete. For example, earlier this year they introduced the first readily available mobile phone network. Prior to this, having a phone was a serious status symbol as they cost in excess of £1600. Coca cola has only just been introduced this year, occassionally you get blank looks when you ask for it at restaurants.
A big issue facing travellers to Myanmar is currency. Firstly, few people know that the first ATM to accept foreign cards opened in November but as its the only one in the country you cannot rely on it. We found this ATM and we and some other forigners were surrounding it as if we had never used one before! Secondly, you cannot purchase the local currency (the Myanmar Kyat) outside of the country so you need to take in US dollars and not just any USD, perfectly crisp notes and preferably in 100 dollar bills. I had never even seen a 100 dollar bill let alone obtained enough mint copies to last a whole month of travelling.
Touchdown in Yangon (ex Rangoon) mother nature calls and I have my first taste of Myanmar hospitality. A nice young chap welcomes me in to the toilet and directs me to a urinal - nice touch Myanmar, think i'm going to like you. I changed half of my USD at the airport and was presented with 346 1000kyat notes which I had to count! Arrival at the hotel the three staff behind the counter leap to attention and before I know it I have a welcome glass of......orange squash in my hand???? Cottonbuds in the room! Ohhhh Myanmar.... The next morning when I come down for breakfast the 2 girls behind the counter spring up once again and greet me with their hands placed together as in prayer and raised upwards towards their face. It was all a little embarassing and they did it again when purchasing a bottle of water so I just had to say "at ease ladies"
Walking around Yangon you notice the pavements or lack of pavements - its far safer to walk on the roads as the sidewalks look like an earthquake has struck with the odd hole for drunks to fall into. In fact the sidewalks seem to be used for everything but walking so they are full of bikes, street stalls selling food or anything else so long as it stops you from getting to your destination safely. The shops are arranged in clusters so rather than have a certain type of shop spread all over the city they seem to be grouped in the same street, for example there was a whole street dedicated to opticians, then another for water pumps and another just for video and film production. I have yet to find the street dedicated to cakes.... My friend and I found a small bar or as they call them, beer drinking stations (cool or what!) We had a couple of beers for around 35p and whats that I can hear?.....behind me on the table was a small kid dancing away in front of the TV screen which was blaring out Gagnam, no one is safe from this evil Korean man.
People here are unbeleivably friendly. They come up to you because they want to talk to you, not because they want anything from you. In fact its the other way round, people want to give you something, be it a thank you for visiting my country or a small gesture of offering you a biscuit (is there any wonder I love these people?). One lady gave me discount at a shop as I didn't have the right change and just yesterday at the Hot Springs a Myanmar family came over and gave a couple of us a hard boiled egg, a mandarin and a can of coke to enjoy while we scolded ourselves in the pool.
Taking a local train was a chance to see Yangon from the rails. The carriage must have been from the second world war, it had wooden floorboards with cracks so you could see the rails and the train moved painfully along the rails at running pace. Half way through the journey we pull into a station and chaos ensues as a dozen farmers drag all their produce onto the train, within 2 minutes we are surrounded by vegetables! Oh and someone was playing Gangam on their phone.
From Yangon I took the night bus to Kalaw. The Burmese are very proud of the new Burmese highway between Yangon and Mandalay but unfortunately its a steam roller short of being a great stretch of tarmac. For the entire night journey I was tortured to some dreadful acting from Myanmar movies. Every now and then a bump would pause the DVD, relief would set in as I think they're turning it off, then the torture resumes as the road smooths. If this wasn't enough to contend with, the air conditioning was full blast so everyone was in winter gear making it look like a bus to Verbier. Not once did the driver turn the aircon down or did anyone think of telling the driver that their nipples had turned to stone. The guy next to me changed his seat so that a medical student could sit next to me and practice his English, lucky me... thankfully I was saved from 12 hours of small talk as his English wasn't so good so I could rest in peace until a lady brought her cat on board screeching away inside a black plastic bag! Poor buggar....
From Kalaw I made a 3 day 2 night trek across the hills to Inle Lake sampling local fruits, passing through tea and chili plantations and small tribal villages. The children would run out and greet us by giving out flowers they had picked. Again, nothing is asked for in return, they are just happy to see you. The two girls I was trekking with brought some bubble mixtures and it was adorable seeing the kids reaction to the bubbles. Our first night was spent in a small village and I managed to get lost at night trying to find the village shop so I asked an elderly lady where I might find it. Unfortunately she couldn't speak any English. Whenever I said "shop" she just repeated what I had said and laughed as if I was there to give an impromptu English lesson. I then rattled off a list of beverages to see if she would click, she didn't and just repeated "coca-cola" "sprite" "water" followed by howling laughter. You really had to be there....
There has been a language barrier. I agreed a price with a motorcycle taxi to take me to a small village near Mandalay called Mingun. There was also a boat to Mingun which had stopped running for the day so I made it painfully clear to the driver that I wanted him to drive me to Mingun. "We go to Mingun" I said, miming us driving along complete with a brum-brum noise to represent the bike. I continued "Mingun boat? NO! NO BOAT!" again using body language to say the boat was not an option. He replies "Ok, we go Mingun" we set off and we appear to be heading toards the boat so once again I say "no boat" which he repeats back to me. So we end up at the boat. I sincerely hope the 1000 kyats I paid will be put towards an English lesson.
Anyway back to the trekking, the nearest village to ours was around 2km away and they were in the middle of a 3 day celebration of a family members wedding. The music is continually broadcast over a loudspeaker for the 3 days with a few hours break in the early hours of the morning. Come 10pm they rigged up the TV to the PA and we went to bed listening to what sounded like Bugs Bunny translated into Burmese which sounds very very funny, again you really had to be there....
The second night, also New years eve, was spent in a Buddhist monastery inhabited by half a dozen boy monks, their chief monk who was on his last legs and some thug catapulting rocks at pigeons. Despite it being a monastery somehow beer became readily available... beer and opium! By 9pm a few people had got quite drunk and messed up on opium. Two Australians (sorry Ozzies, you don't come out too well in this!) were inside the monastery being abusive towards each other and the light..... the light which no-one knew how to turn off! Seriously, there is nothing more pathetic than aiming all your hatred towards a bulb! Outside, one of them threatened to smash a bottle in the other persons face then in the early hours of the morning came the sound of retching from outside. All of this took place in a deeply religous monastery, in a foreign country, 30 other people were trying to sleep along with 6 small monks and an old man who was just about to can it. It was disgusting and i'm pretty hard to offend. We were woken at 5AM by the monks who were kneeling in front of a Buddha shrine chanting away. All very surreal and amusing when mixed with the chanting was the sound of snoring and the occassional fart!
Because of the recent soar in demand for hotel rooms getting a booking or even a room has been a nightmare. The only hotels you are aware of at a destination are the hotels listed in Lonely Planet and because everyone is in the same predicament all these hotels are being booked up well in advance. There are no online facilities for booking hotels as most of them don't have websites and some aren't even mentioned in a Google search. On two occasions I have turned up in towns at 4am with no hotel room booked and had to wake up staff in 5 or 6 places to see if they had room. Luckily in Kalaw the hotel was full save for one bed which was booked in a twin room by some German guy who was happy to have someone share the cost of the room. In Mandalay the bus arrived at 3:30am and I had to walk the dark empty streets by myself. It wasn't long before touts turned up determined to take me to a hotel where they would earn commission. The tout who picked me up actually ran out of hotels to take me too as they were all booked then thanks to another traveller I found somewhere to stay otherwise it would have been a night on the streets! This wouldn't have been a problem, Myanmar has received bad press because certain regions in the north are dangerous due to border conflicts but I can honestly say this is the safest country I have ever been to. Everywhere you see the sign "warmly welcome and take care of tourists" and its true. I think a lot of this is down to intimidation from the government who severely punish their people if they mistreat a tourist, tourism being a huge industry which they want to encourage. Maybe things will change when democracy comes in.... A Burmese lady we were speaking to was talking about the recently freed political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Before she said anything she paused and took a quick uneasy look around the room as the government used to plant spies in public places to listen in on people's conversations. Anyone spreading ill will towards the government would be arrested. Things have now changed, I hope so anyway as I checked the spelling of Aung San Suu Kyi in Google so if this blog doesn't get updated you know why!
Anyway enough of my ramblings. For those of you who haven't heard I will make my epic to the rock once again on 16th March so look forward to seeing you all in a few months.