29 December 2009

Sometimes I miss...

...a washing machine that washes at 60 degrees (celsius).
...a shower that doesn't transform the entire bathroom into a puddle (which stays there until I go to the toilet half an hour later so I have to roll up my trousers).
...real coffee for breakfast.
...an oven and good ingredients to make a really nice chocolate cake.
...an oven and good ingredients to make a really nice bread.
...a friend that I can phone and say "let's meet for a drink in half an hour".

Sometimes...

This is the account of buying a train ticket at Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station.

We arrive at the ticket counter. The man who gives out the numbers asks where we want to go.
We: "Singapore, tomorrow 24th december."
He: "No more tickets to Singapore until the 29th."
We: "You sure?"
He: "Yes."

We don't quite believe him (one thing we learnt during our trip: never believe anything anybody tells you until you have a 100% proof).
We go to an Internet Cafe. We check the Malaysian train website, which takes about half an hour as it's so slow. We see that there are around 30 first-class tickets for the train we want (they are actually cheaper than most bus tickets). We go back to the ticket counter.

We: "There ARE tickets to Singapore. First class."
He: "I told you! No more tickets EXCEPT first class."
Hmmmm..... do WE have a hearing problem?
He gives us a number. We go to the assigned ticket counter.

We: "Two tickets to Singapore for tomorrow 2 pm please."
Ticket lady: "No more tickets for tomorrow."
We (trying to keep calm): "Yes there are. First class. Please."
She sells us the tickets (halleluja!).
Miguel: "Is there a dining car?"
Ticket lady: "Aahhh.... sometimes."

WAAA! Is this a joke?

27 December 2009

Christmas in Singapore

As initially planned (or tought) we spent our Christmas in Singapore with Ray, a Singaporean traveller who had spent his 2008 Christmas at my place in Geneva. Last year Ray had given us a Trans-Siberian book which we carried back to him by land.

Singapore is a mix of people, there are four official languages - English, Malay, Tamul and Chinese -, corresponded to as many groups of people you find in the street. The organization and cleanness of the streets allow us to breath again after the pedestrian unfriendly Kuala-Lumpur. Unfortunately in Singapore this comes at the expense of lack of freedom of speech and tighly controlled citizens, with cctv cameras everywhere and heavy fines (from 250euros for eating in the metro and up) when you get out of the line (crossing the road less than 50m from pedestrian cross, spitting or litering, cycle the bike where it says you should push, connect the laptop to a plug you find in the metro station, etc). And this fines are enforced as it reports in the newspaper today.

Christmas in Singapore, even if a good part of the population is Christian, is very laic. There is decoration everywhere but much less than in europe; the people do shop but at same time is the sales period and end of the long "summer" holidays, preparing to be back to school. The dozens of shopping centres (even more dense than in Porto, Portugal) are not full of people (or there are not enough people to fill them all).

21 December 2009

Strange signals

This is another one of the strange signals we cross on this trip. This one was in Georgetown, Malaysia and was just meaning that you can't cross the road but you should take the cross-over.

20 December 2009

Changing money - different countries, different experiences...

We usually don't change money a lot. We prefer to use ATM's which is safer, especially in countries where there's false money around (like China).
Sometimes though, we have some leftover currency that we have to change. In Seoul, we wanted to change some leftover yen. We went to a shopping centre where there was an exchange counter, and our yen were changed into won. About 30 seconds. Freshly off the boat in China, we had some won left but no yuan. Changing the (ridiculous) amount of won on the black market in the street took less than a minute. Waiting at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, a woman carrying a big wad of money changed our leftover dong into riel, a matter of a few seconds. And yes, I did change some dollars into baht at the Cambodia-Thailand border at a very bad rate...
So, usually, not very time-consuming. Except the one time we went to a Chinese bank....
Nanning was the last Chinese town we visited before heading to Vietnam. We had quite a few yuan left and wanted some cash in dollars (which is the unofficial second currency in Cambodia and also widely accepted in Vietnam). So we went to the Bank of China. The big main branch was closed for lunch, nobody there except a sleeping bank employee. We found a smaller branch that was open. Changing money should be quite straightforward in the biggest bank of China, shouldn't it?
At the first counter the accountant told us to go to the next counter (probably she didn't speak english or was just too shy to speak english). Her colleague was nice but got a bit nervous when we said we wanted to change yuan into USD.
First, I had to show my passport. He copied some data down, then asked what country I was from, apologizing and saying that he wasn't used to exchanging foreign currencies. The amount of yuan was worth about 130 USD. I had to show a proof of where the money had come from. I went tense just a fraction of a second... then I remembered that I always keep my ATM receipts, and I did have the last one. I gave it to him and he gave it to his colleague who went to make a phone call (to verify whatever the Chinese always want to verify... probably just showing that they're doing something). After this, I had to go to a table in the hallway to get a photocopy of my passport and to fill in a document in 3 copies (which I had to fill in twice because I got it wrong the first time...), saying where the money came from (I just wrote "ATM"). With all this I went back to the counter where he did some typing on a computer and some printing. This had been going on for about 40 minutes... fortunately there was airconditioning!
And finally (I couldn't believe it) he opened his big money drawer and took out the dollars.

The Chinese definitely love paper...

19 December 2009

Arrived to Malaysia

We found the following poster on the Thai part of the Thailand-Malaysia border. Fortunately we were all leaving Thailand, as I think half of the queue would get into the "Hippy" category and not be allowed to get in if they would apply the rules.

11 December 2009

Closed for holidays?

Or stuck in the paradise?



Or stuck in the paradise?

Update from the beach

Seems we're getting lazy about our blog... as always when we're in a nice place. Here's just a quick update...
We're in Ko Lanta, one of the many islands in Thailand. Quite a lot of resorts here, but still quiet and nice, beautiful beaches with still a lot of free space, families and relaxed backpackers who are not looking for a non-stop party. The weather's perfect, the sea is blue-green transparent... part of the paradise chapter. We're staying in a small bamboo bungalow, simple but nice, with a semi-open bathroom (open to the sky,with lots of plants growing inside), getting a breakfast of home-made bread and fruity muesli. We rented a motorbike one day and went around the island. Little traffic, nice views, an old town inhabited by locals getting their income mainly from fishing and living in stilt houses. Swimming on a deserted beach with maybe 3 other people. The next day we went on a snorkelling trip. A speedboat took us to Ko Rok, even more paradisiac, with fluffy white fine sand and blue waters (and warans waiting to receive the leftovers from lunch). We snorkelled in 3 places off shore, saw all kinds of tropical coloured fishes and beautiful corals. In the evening, we "splurged" on cocktails (for less than 5 chf/3eur) while watching the stars appear. Today, after going into "town" (basically just a few shops and a market) for those necessary things (contactlenses-liquid, nivea cream...) we played at lazy beach-potatoes, sitting in the shade, walking 10 steps to a small beachside eatery for lunch and 20 steps to go swimming from time to time.
Tomorrow we're off to Ko Libong, an even more quiet island (it only has 3 resorts on it's beautiful beach), to do more exploring, snorkelling, swimming...
I'm happy to see that there are still nice spots in Thailand, the tourists haven't taken everything over yet!

10 December 2009

Lettre depuis le paradis

T'es là mais tu sais qu'un jour il va terminer. Le voyage de ta vie. T'es au paradis, au paradis de ta vie et au paradis de la plage avec des palmiers. Tu bois une bière devant la mer pendant le coucher de soleil et tu réfléchis quand sera la fin. Mieux réfléchir au prochain arrêt: où?

03 December 2009

Something about tourists in Thailand

This post is the result of my observing other tourists in hotels, cafes, buses... in Thailand and Cambodia.
Warning: this post is full of stereotypes and prejudices. Take it as seriously or un-seriously as you like!

Tourist No 1
We are sitting in a cafe, belonging to one of those cheap-ish hotels that one finds all over South-East Asia. Actually quite nice, sitting in the shade, writing postcards, sipping watermelon-shake. The place is called "Tony's Place".
Arrives a minivan. Exit a Brit, blond, white, age close to retirement. Exit another Brit, blond, white, fat belly, age close to retirement, wearing a cowboy-hat. Followed by two big suitcases. Followed by two golf bags. Followed by two Thai women, age about 20 years younger than the Brits.

(Note: you can exchange the word "Brit" by "Swiss", it would be the same.)

Tourist No 2
Sitting in a bus leaving Phnom Penh. Half of the passengers are tourists, the other half well-off Cambodians. Behind us, two young women. Blond. Age around 20 years. One American, the other Australian. Both wearing spaghetti-tops and very short shorts. Telling their story about how they got sooooo drunk last night in that nice pub with so many nice Cambodian guys. Drinking a lot of whisky. Dancing on the tables. Getting robbed and having 150 USD stolen. Not remembering how they got back into their dorm beds. Had to get up early to get on the bus. Have a hangover.

Tourist No 3
Location: same as in the first story. Enter a couple, European, blond, in their twenties. The girl is heavily made-up, wearing a shirt and very, very short shorts. Don't know where they come from because didn't hear them talk.

To finish, and as a comment to tourist No 2 and 3, here's a citation from our guidebook to Thailand (yes, the one everybody has...):
"The Thais hold modesty in personal dress in high regard. Shorts above the knee, sleeveless shirts, tank tops and other beach-style attire are not appropriate (...) when outside Bangkok."

No other comment. I let you have your own thoughts about this.

01 December 2009

Comments about Phrae, Thailand

On our way down from Northern Thailand we decided to make a stop to visit Phrae, a village with an interesting description on our guidebook. The closest train station was in Den Chai, about 25km away and we were the only foreigners to get off the train. As indicated in the guidebook there was a pickup van for taking people to Phrae (a kind of shared-taxi).

In Phrae we were left at the bus station. We found a hotel, good price - 6euros for a double room including breakfast -, but rather basic. The corridors and room seemed like the Siberian hotels we experienced: large, no decoration, old and with lots of bad quality fixes. The same hotel in Russia would have cost between 30 and 60euros and maybe have shared shower!

(In the hotel grounds there was also a small museum about the Thai Resistance against the Japanese, which were invading the region. Thailand wanted to be neutral in the war but at some point they decided to declare war against the US, but fortunately (for them) the ambassador of Thailand in the US refused to deliver the war declaration, as he belonged to the Thai Resistance. Some complicated history and very lucky for the country.)

Visiting Phrae we tried to get some information and coffee from a cafe announced in the guidebook, but it was closed. An old American by bicycle just told that maybe the owner is not there today. Next we try to find a restaurant to eat. Either not existing or closed, the ones indicated in our 3-months old guidebook. It really started to feel like Russia. In the afternoon we went to visit a house-museum. While walking much more than expected (the scale of the map in the guidebook was wrong), we found the house with a possible restaurant outside, some people cleaning but no one interested on us. The house museum was closed, even if at the gate was written "open daily from 9-17". Definitely this was Russia like. For dinner we just went to a street market and said we wanted the same as next table. Too spicy and strange for us, we end up buying things in 7-eleven.

Next morning we went back to Phrae bus station and ask how to get to DenChai train station. They pointed us to a bus about to leave. The price was on the braket indicated in the guide book. We hop on. It was full of Thais. The bus was fully Thai style: lots of paintings in the exterior and inside you enter the bus and there is a second door and only then the seats. From the seat you cannot see the road in front of you. Many Thais get sickness and this does not help at all.

The bus drop us off at DenChai bus station. We said we wanted the train station. They say to take a motorbike. From the motorbike they ask us more than would cost to come by shared-taxi all the way from Phrae. We refuse. We try to convince the bus - still there - to take us to the train station. No one speaks much English, our Thai is nonexistent. We try to hitchhike while walk in the direction we suppose the train station was. One motorbike follow us trying to lower the price. We refuse. After some minutes he comes back with the price even lower. Eva does not believe that the driver can take us plus the two backpacks in his motorbike. We accept. He puts Eva's backpack in front of him, Eva seats in the middle and I in the back, which my backpack on. We insist to wear helmets. The train station was not in the direction we were going.

30 November 2009

Thailand

A small post to remind we are alive and still riding trains. Today here in Chiang Mai we exchanged "The end of poverty", "Life of Pi" (I hadn't read yet) and "Lonely Planet Mekong River, Cambodia, Laos" against the Paul Theroux's "Riding the iron rooster" (his train adventures in China) and 110bath. Chiang Mai is the Northern capital of Thailand and is more than full of western people. Just second hand bookshops there are maybe ten!

We found Thailand and Bangkok and huge relief (=calm) compared to Cambodia, Vietnam and China. It is a very easy country to travel and while guide books warn about scams and annoying taxis, motos drivers, we may say that here is very quiet.

After a short night in Bangkok we took train for 12hours to here, and the last 3 days we went to a lovely small remote village in a National Park where a french couple developed the tourism with the locals (from a mountain tribe called Karen). So the couple financed a house built by the locals and now the locals receive tourists (up to 8 at a time), show them the village and traditions (we got to see a wedding), cook, do hikes and/or go by bicycle somewhere around. Around the house just rice paddies, no noise of cars, nothing. A real gem. Thanks Anne-Laure for offering us this stay. :-)

Today we rest and tomorrow we will start going back down, direction of Bangkok.

More stories will come soon.

26 November 2009

Travelling by elephant

Our new mean of transport!

22 November 2009

Memories from the Cambodian war

Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge who wanted to create the "perfect" communist state. In doing this, they killed probably a million people, intellectuals, land-owners, everybody connected to them, and everybody who didn't want to play their game.

In Phnom Penh, there are two places that one must visit to understand this part of their history.
One is the Tuol Sleng prison, also called S-21, that the Khmer Rouge installed in a former school in Phnom Penh. They transformed some classrooms into tiny cells, others into "interrogation rooms", the schoolyard was used for torturing the prisoners. It was in fact an extermination prison, and almost all prisoners died there, except 14 people who were still alive when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh. The prison is now a museum, but has been left largely the way it was found back in 1979 (I wish they would renovate the ceiling though, it seems like it's going to collapse any time soon...). This really makes a very strong impression. Inside, there are different exhibitions of photographs. One exhibition shows photos and personal comments of a Swedish person who was part of a delegation that visited the country under the Khmer Rouge. He describes how at the time he didn't know and didn't want to believe in the atrocities that were happening in the country, because he (and many other Europeans) believed that the Cambodians were about to form the ideal communist state, where everybody was equal and that was not dependent on other countries to survive. Later on he had to admit that he had been terribly wrong, and that's why he shows his photos now, along with his comments, so that this would not happen again.

A few days later, we took a Tuk-Tuk to Cheung Ek, the "killing fields", about 14 km from Phnom Penh. A quiet spot in the countryside with lots of trees. One can hardly imagine that this was the very spot where tens of thousands of Cambodians were killed in the most horrible way. They were taken here in trucks, most of them from the Tuol Sleng prison, and just beaten to death (bullets were too expensive). Since the 1980's, several mass graves have been unearthed, and a big stupa has been erected that contains the skulls found in the graves. One particular atrocity was committed at the "killing tree": children were held by their legs and swung against the tree to kill them.
There was also a small museum, talking about the people who were responsible for the killings, and how their judgements are getting on (they are being tried by a joint Cambodian-UN tribunal, which has been very very slow to get on, and the accused are slowly dying from old age without having been judged, like Pol Pot for example).

After Vietnam's uncritical propaganda, it was good to see that Cambodia has made the effort to show everything that happened in the past, with a strong will that this will never happen again. Recently they also published a book for all the schools about what happened under the Khmer Rouge.

18 November 2009

Tipping, beggars, over-pricing: questions

Tips, double-pricing, beggars, children-beggars, children-sellers. Yes, no, yes or no? Poverty, South-East Asia (SEA), Vietnam, Cambodia. Questions to which I don't know the answer. Several moments a day which I don't know which is the right action to do.

Children-beggars if given money it will just increase the number of beggars and remove them from school or school-related-work. Beggars in general, if you provide them money, it will mostly not go to them but the the leader of organized-beggars groups who sends them to the street to ask for money. These leaders are known to exist.

But what to do when you are in the terrace of the restaurant, eating and someone comes to ask for money. Or points to one of your toasts and asks for it? Giving the toast will help the children/person future? Will it change something? Is it not better to support an organization who will help them in more long-run and try to remove from them the feeling that they can make a living of asking food or money from the tourists? Where I'm talking about (Phnom Pehn, Cambodia) there are such organizations where beggars can ask for a meal. Nonetheless it is a very disturbing moment when you have a children in front of you (even if usually in distance you see a "parent" bit more well dressed who have sent the children alone to beg).

Over-pricing just annoys me. In SEA is a constant problem in buses sometimes also in others means of transport. Your guidebook usually says which is the normal price. Just in case you ask a local which is the price. You see the locals paying X. You are then asked 3 times X. You contest, you might manage to pay 1.5 times X. And then you go in a cramped and hot bus for which the really fair price is X. What to do when you know being over-priced? Accept? Contest? I know I'm the rich in a very poor country, but I try to think: would I do the same in my country to a person which I know earns 10-times more money than me? No! Indeed I accept to pay for the quality and when there is the possibility to pay a reasonable/fair price for a quality bus, I'll pay and choose it instead (for instance, when there are 2, 3 and 5 usd buses, I rather take the 5usd knowing it will have AC and will not gather passengers around for the next 30minutes while leaving the city). But I do not accept to pay more than the locals when the quality is bad, which is often the case.

Tipping, either in the "taxi"-like or at the restaurant... I tend not to tip, except when the service (and/or food) is better than my expectations for the current local prices. Most of times in SEA people do not expect tip and are very thankful you have used their services (so far was like this in Phnom Penh). But sometimes, I don't know if because of the American culture of tipping, they get annoyed when you don't leave anything. This happen sometimes in Vietnam. Two times during this trip I was even directly asked for tip, which is the thing I find the worst. Tip is a gratuity which you give if you feel it, not something to be asked for.

I know that their salary is very small and a tip could help them, but I've the opinion that it should not be expected and the clients should be respected either if they tip or not. My own way to tip is to go back to the restaurant or use the same service again, giving it this way more profit in general.

At this article the matter of tipping or not in 3rd world countries is discussed already for 2 years. There is no big conclusion.

More ideas or comments?

16 November 2009

Current stop: Cambodia

Temperature: 31degrees. Sunny. On our arrival to the port (we came by boat from ChauDoc in Vietnam) several people showing posters announcing themselves as the nicest tuk-tuk drivers or having the best places to sleep. We had the plan ready, based on our guidebook. One dollar or we walk to take us to the hotel we have chosen, about 800m from there. "Bad tourists" called the first one when sawing we were not open to negotiation. The second one took us, his name Pho. We took his phone number for having him as a driver the next day.

Tuk-tuk are motorbikes with a remork attached, that can take a few people in the back. They cost the tourist about the double as for a simple motorbike. There are very few taxis in Cambodia and some cyclos (bicycles with seat in front for 1/2 passengers).

Cambodia is pricier than Vietnam. There are more big wealthy jeeps but also more desperate women and children begging for money. For same price as in Vietnam, our hotel room was fairy simple, in a 5th floor without elevator, towels smelling of being always hand-washed in a bathtub. There was no upper bed-sheet, just a light silk sheet that could be more for decoration. "Please close your door and windows during the night" said behind the door, besides the already prison like barred window.

Next step: look for money. Few ATM accept foreign cards, but the ones that accept are indicated almost like a big gas station, with 10m tall sign with the symbol of each brand of card. Money that comes out: US dollars. Official Cambodia currency: riel (for which there are no coins). In fact, all the cities run in USD, down to the unit, and then use riel as subdivision of dollar. Exchange rate is 4135 riel = 1 usd. For the friends (mean, current use) 4000 riel=1usd, which makes 1000riel=0.25usd, just perfect.

We were in desperate need of laundry. Everywhere it was by piece, but we need by kilo. Google as a friend together with other tourists, we find a bike shop which runs a launderette walking distance from the hotel. Laundry done during dinner.

The next morning was for touring the city. Pho as agreed met us at 8am. When we said our plan, he start excuses as Thai embassy being too far away, then that he could not drive on the two main Phnom Penh avenues. We agreed that he could take us nearby and we would then walk there. After 300m he turns to opposite direction, after while we ask where he is going. He stops near other tuk-tuk drivers and asks another one to take us. This one just did what we wanted. Drove us around the city and waited for us while we were doing our business (Thai embassy, market and museum). At the end we re-ask why Pho could not take us to the Thai embassy area. "He had to do some job mid-morning" was the new excuse. Impossible to know the real reason.

Thai visa will be ready only Thursday. Meanwhile we can take it easy visiting the city, which was deserted 34 years ago, when Cambodia Khmer Rouge suppressed money, religion and private property in a communist rural utopia. It is quite impressive city still with strong signs of the war and repression that happened 30years ago.

13 November 2009

Motorbikes, last photos

We left Vietnam already 15 days ago, we spent a bit more than a week in Cambodia to visit Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (and Ankhor Temples). Bit Vietnam pictures were the last ones I've "developed".

The record of people we saw in a 2-wheel motorbike was 5, two adults and three children. On a 2-wheel bicycle it was 4, an adult and three children! No pictures though of those. :-(

Moving office.

Family going out to the river.

Going to the pediatrician with the babies.


Gas station.

Taking kids from school.

Arrival at Phnom Penh port.

12 November 2009

Motorbikes and bicycles

Few bags in the traffic in front of his friend with the metal bars.

The family outing.

Banana seller.

Couple using the same pair of pedals.

Tow a moto with a tricycle (the motorbike driver is also on the bicycle!).

Sleeping in the motorbike.

A regular transport or merchandise.

11 November 2009

Motorbikes and bicycles

We saw first with a single passenger, the next had two. Look, there are two plus a child. Another one was carrying a vase. Now there are also single saddle bicycles with two people riding. Second day in Vietnam: record, two adults and two children in a single motorbike. But then there was a guy alone with 5 pigs in cages on his back. Yesterday there was one with a whole double-door fridge balancing on the motorbike. Photo, photo. Hey, 3 children cycling the same single saddle bycicle... They find the place for it. During a glass of beer I thought being drunk - four adults in a scooter! But more, these days we see them carrying a broken motorbike in a trycicle; or just their office - table plus chairs plus two persons in a 100cc machine. They are crazy - doors, the driver and two wheels of the motorbike. Ofter they carry also long tubes, just 2 meters, plus a meter of motorbike plus 2 meters. Doesn't mater if the tubes are plastic or metal, it is 5 meters long device carried in the middle of the city. Impressive image last evening - rush hours, hundreds of motorbikes - we are in Ho Chi Minh City - and a student cycling her bike without using the hands in the middle of the traffic. Talking on the phone or texting while riding the motorbike and skipping a red light is peanuts of local people. Frontal chocks, lateral touches motorbike-motorbike or motorbike-car happen, only once we saw a person lying on the floor...
Hey, that one is 3 meters wide and 4 long, but just two wheels. Eva, Eva, a leopard riding. No, this one probably will be only tomorrow.

Soon I'll post some pictures of this text. It is not easy to catch the images, but if you like photography, indeed Vietnam is a country you should not miss.

Cu Chi Tunnels

From Saigon we took a half day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels that played an important role during the Vietnam war. The Vietcong from North Vietnam built an extensive tunnel system in the south so they could fight against the Americans, hide during the day and get protection from the bombs. Parts of the tunnels have been made accessible for tourists, the Vietnamese way.
At the beginning of the tour, there was a video about the Vietcong and how they fought against the Americans. It was just plain communist propaganda. They talked about some Vietcong "heroes" who received the distinction of "American-killer" because they had killed a certain number of Americans. They glorified the simple village people and peasants, how they fought the Americans who destroyed their innocent villages.
(Now of course, I won't deny that America shouldn't have gone there in the first place, and that they committed many atrocities, but a tiny bit of self-criticism would be welcome, as the Vietcong were not angels either.)
Then we followed a path through the jungle, and our guide showed us how the entrances to the tunnels were concealed. They were really small holes, and the smallest tunnels measured just 70x80 cm, so try to imagine crawling inside it.... Then we were shown the "booby traps", traps in the ground, concealed under leaves. American soldiers would step on them and fall into a hole, that was filled with sharp bamboo spikes pointing upwards.... I don't want to imagine. Our guide was also very proud to show us all the different kinds of traps the Vietcong built with very simple materials, to kill or injure American soldiers. How can one be so proud of such horrible things?
Further on we saw kitchens, common rooms and storage rooms used within the tunnel system. All decorated with life-size puppets to illustrate it better. There was also an old American tank (those who wanted could climb up and have their picture taken). Further on there was a shooting range where one could shoot with American rifles... I found this very bad taste. Right next to the shooting range was a souvenir kiosk, selling cheap copies of weapons and landmines... now this was really bad taste.
All in all it was quite an interesting outing, not so much for seeing the tunnels (I could also have watched a movie about it or read a book) but more for the whole thing, with all the pro-communist and anti-american propaganda that just seems so much out of place. Travelling around Vietnam, I didn't come across many things that I would describe as "communist". The gap between poor and rich is clearly visible, schooling and medical care are not free, and only children whose parents own a piece of land can attend secondary school. But here they are, glorifying this horrible past, never admitting the atrocities the Vietcong committed against their own people.

06 November 2009

The 8-hour trainride that took 26 hours

We continue on the Reunification Express, this time from Danang to Nha Trang, a trip of 524 km. Of course we knew about hurricane Mirinae, we had seen the flooded streets in Hoi An and people continuing with their everyday life.
We arrived at Danang train station at 10 am, having in mind to take the train at just before 11 am, but it was cancelled. There had been a landslide further down the line, but we got a ticket for the next train at 13:13 that should take 8 and a half hours to Nha Trang. We were told that we would have to change for a bus in Dieu Tri because the line was damaged, but that we would arrive in Nha Trang all right, with a delay. Ok, we thought, and bought the ticket.
The train left half an hour late but then went about the usual (slow) speed until it stopped at 5 pm in a small train station, 137 km from our departure. Soon many passengers got off to smoke, and very quickly some local women set up a couple of tables and small stools and started serving food and drinks. At 5.30 it was dark, so they lit small lamps. It looked very cosy but it didn't give me the impression that the train would start again soon.... I continued reading my book and opened a pack of Oreos. Miguel came back with the news that we were waiting for a train from the other direction (the Vietnamese train line is a single line with few crossing possibilities), but nobody knew when that train was going to be here and when we were going to start again.
Hmmmm... lack of communication. We've seen this before, no? In communist or post-communist countries...
At around 6 pm that train arrived, stopped for a few minutes and left again. Supposedly it should have arrived at this station at 3 am - which meant it was 15 hours late. Very encouraging.
After this, our train didn't leave. We were apparently waiting for another train to cross, but again nobody knew where that train was right now and when it would be here. Around 8 pm everybody was told to get on the train, but nothing more happened.
During all this time, I continued to read my book, trying to close my ears to the neverending noise coming from the loudspeakers of TrainTV. The programme was stopped several times and then re-started from the beginning, so we saw the same Hollywood movie twice (something about rattlesnakes) and a selection of Vietnamese pop that made me want to jump out of the window. In between, some sexistic advertisements for soft drinks.
Just when I was about to go and bribe the conductor to turn off this noise pollution, it went off. Heavenly peace.
As all the passengers had got back on the train, the ladies outside packed together their tables, chairs and food, and the platform went completely dark.
Around 9 pm the passengers in our carriage switched off the lights and everybody went to sleep. I was amazed by the ease with which the Vietnamese can sleep in all possible positions, lying down on 2 seats with their feet up against the window, or on the floor on a sheet of newspaper.
The funny thing is that during all that time, the train now being over 4 hours stopped, there was never an announcement or anybody trying to find out what was happening. It was as if it was the most normal thing, everybody settling for the night.
One of the conductors had offered us a bed in the sleeper carriage for a little "contribution" of 100000 Dong, which we declined, knowing that at some point we would have to get off and change to a bus anyway.
At 11.30 pm I woke up because suddenly there was complete silence. Bugger, they had turned off the air conditioning. Breaking into a sweat at once, I went to the front end of the wagon to find a window I could open, and settled there across 2 seats, under the open window, getting wet in the heavy rain that had just started, and tried out the different "Vietnamese" sleeping position, none of which worked for more than 15 minutes. Maybe we should have accepted the conductors offer for the sleeping car?
At about 1 am, the long-waited-for train arrived, stopped for a couple of minutes, and went on. My hopes didn't come true though, we stayed where we were.
I wouldn't have been surprised if the train crew had just decided to go to sleep, or had had too much rice wine.
Shortly after 4 am, as if there had been a signal, people started getting up, went to brush their teeth and wash, and switched the lights on. It was still dark outside, but the Vietnamese are used to getting up very early. At 4.30 am, the train moved. Halleluja.
At 6 am, we stopped again in a small train station, where another train was stopped as well. As our dining car was still closed, Miguel went into that other train to buy breakfast. He came back with two dry cakes and ice tea. At 7 am, there was an announcement that we had to change trains as ours wasn't going any further. The process of everybody getting off with their bags and cardboard boxes was long and complicated, especially as we almost had to jump off the train as the ground was so far below the stairs. In the other train, we got seats with a little help from one of the conductors, and soon after this breakfast was served, some kind of semi-liquid rice slush. I stuck to the dry cake and Oreos.
This train then went on to Dieu Tri, where we arrived just before 9 am. We were supposed to change to a bus here, but a conductor checked our tickets and told us the train was going on and we could stay on, which we did along with most other passengers. As soon as the train had stopped, several women got on trying to sell drinks, coffee and food. One of them wanted to sell her coffee so badly that she started shouting at the people (I think she was slightly crazy). After about 10 minutes the train started, but stopped again after 10 meters. We were told that finally we did have to get off, but none of the train personnel was able to tell us whether there would be onward transport or not.
Coming out of the train station, there did seem to be some sort of organisation. A lot of men in uniform were walking around with lists and paper and pens, and buses were arriving and leaving, taking the passengers to the next station where there would be another train. We waited around for a while, because every arriving bus was instantly full of people and luggage. Finally we decided to have a go, and we did it just like the locals: push all you can. When the bus stopped, I was right in front of the front door. It started to open, and a tiny lady next to me started pushing her big suitcase in front of me. No mercy, I forgot all my European manners, I was first. With my backpack I have both my elbows free and made use of them, jumped on the bus and threw myself on two double seats for us and a Dutch-Swedish couple we met on the train.
The one hour-and-a-half bus journey was actually quite scenic, with nice views of the sea, beaches and green hills. I just had to struggle to keep my eyes open. In the back somebody was constantly retching and vomiting, a normal event on a bus in Asia. They're either genetically more susceptible to motion-sickness, or maybe they travel less, in any case there's always at least one person vomiting.
We arrived at the train station and got on our new train, it was midday. We were lucky to get seats in the Soft Seat car, and soon after we were served a free (although not very filling) lunch of rice, 5 cm2 of meat and 2 shrimps. I was happy to get something different than Oreos.
The train finally left at 1 pm and went at a close to normal speed until Nha Trang, our destination, where we arrived at 3.30 pm, after a 26-hour trip.
The conclusion? Well, I still do not quite understand why nobody seems to communicate, the train crew knowing nothing about what's going on. But then, the locals don't seem to mind, I guess they're used to just "wait and not ask any questions" (again, this seems to be a characteristic of communist/post-communist countries...). They just sleep, just as they do in their shops or on their "cyclos" (sort of bicycle-taxis) when there are no customers. They are just so relaxed.

05 November 2009

The longest ever 7-hour train ride

Soon Eva will write details about this... 26-hour journey.

03 November 2009

Travel software and websites

One post I tough for long is about the few software I've put in my usb key and websites which help a lot during the trip. Maybe it can help you if you like to travel light without your own computer.

- Firefox Portable - Firefox is still miles faster than IE, and is the one that works fine when you need to edit Google Maps (the one at the top of the blog). Many of internet cafes do not have it installed and is just a mess to download and install everytime (we did it often). I found this "portable" edition which you install on the usb key and it runs from there. You can keep you own bookmarks, it remembers your history and this way you also do not leave your history in the public computer.

- IrfanView - It's a simple picture editing software which I use mainly its "batch" feature, which allows me with few clicks to rename hundreds of photos and at same time move them to a different folder and if I want also to resize them to later put them on the web.

- FileZilla, Putty - this is a more geeky thing, not really necessary, I use to backup pictures on my website and so on.

Websites:
- Google Maps - to make the map at the top of the blog
- Google Reader - to keep up to date with our friend blogs and world/local news
- Blogger - where we edit the blog
- Flickr - another tool for backing up the pictures
- Thorn Tree - Lonely Planet forum to get travelers updates on the next place to go
- HostelWorld - check what hostels are being preferred on the next stop.
- Weather Underground - to follow up the tropical weather warnings.
- News websites: DN and LeTemps (Miguel); NZZ and TdG (Eva).

Are there other suggestions?

"One Dollah for Pahking"

We arrived by train to Danang and wanted to take a bus to Hoi An, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, a small town by the sea, but it doesn't have train access. As the bus station in Danang was about 3 km from the train station, we had to take a taxi (I'm not a fan of taxis, be it here or in Europe, I only take them if there's no other choice. When travelling, I feel so distant from everything looking out of the windows of a taxi...). Very spontaneously we decided to share one with a Swedish mother and girl, and managed to make ourselves understood to the taxi driver as to where we wanted to go. He put on the meter (Miguel told him so) and off we went.
Arriving at the bus station, he wanted to drive us inside the station. "One dollah pahking". That would be 18000 Dong. Right in front of us was a sign saying that parking cost 5000 Dong. Me tourist but me not stupid. We told him to leave us outside the bus station, which he fortunately did without discussion, and we paid the price showing on the meter, which seemed correct.
Getting on the bus, the ticket lady (actually, there are no tickets...) wanted us to pay 40000 Dong per person, which was almost as much as we had paid for our two-and-a-half hour train ride. This was a one-hour ride on a lousy bus, and our guidebook said it was 10000 Dong. "Very important holiday in Vietnam" was the excuse, although she wasn't able to tell me which holiday it was supposed to be. She made us sit right in the back of the bus so we couldn't see how much the other passengers paid. Finally we got the price down to 20000 Dong per person. About halfway through the trip we saw her giving some money to the guy who stands in the door of the bus helping the passengers get on and off... They were probably sharing the "benefits".

Of course all this is somehow infuriating. Travellers in Vietnam often say they end up trusting nobody at all and feeling they're constantly being ripped off. At the same time, of course it's true that we have so much money compared to them and it doesn't hurt us so much paying double, triple or more. A lot of people have to rely on this "extra income" in order to make ends meet. It's just that the constant haggling about the price is tiring. It also creates more of a gap between the locals and the tourists, nobody trusting anybody else. The aim is to get as much money out of the tourists as possible. And even if one dollar is not much, it still adds up for the budget-conscious traveller.

I don't really have a solution for this. We try to take trains, where prices are fixed and the same for everybody, avoid taxis, and ignore the constant "Hello where you goin? Please come in and have a look!" I only buy things that I really need, and try to make up my mind before about the price that would seem right for me. Yesterday I spent some money in a shop that benefits disabled people who are working in the back of the shop. At least I can see where the money is going.

The Reunification Express

We're back on the trains again, and happy with it. Bus travel in Vietnam is either in public buses, which are old and bumpy and where tourists get ripped off as a rule, or in tourist buses, shared, well, with tourists.
Not many travellers in Vietnam seem to use the train, but there's actually a convenient train line between Hanoi and Saigon, the so-called Reunification Express. Ok, they are quite slow, but taken that the line was almost completely destroyed during the Vietnam War, it's quite an achievement to be able to ride the train here.
As in China, there's no first-second-third class system (we're in a communist country, no classes, no difference between rich and poor, right?), but there are "hard seats" and "soft seats". The difference is pretty self-explanatory.
"Soft seat" is comfortable enough for a long trip, with reclining chairs and small tables, and you can buy a meal for 1 Euro and have it delivered to your seat. It consists of a big dollop of white rice in a plastic tray, along with a piece of chicken and a ladleful of what you might call soup.
In order not to get bored during the trip, there are 2 TV screens showing "Rail TV". They basically take programs from other chains and show a mix of travel shows, Vietnamese singers trying to sing like Patricia Kaas, Casper the friendly ghost dubbed in Vietnamese, and "hidden camera" shows. All this, of course, with the sound turned up to the maximum. People here must be either genetically different to be less sensitive to noise, or else they all become somewhat deaf by being constantly exposed to it. Only the stupid foreigners seem to mind the blaring loudspeakers.
The trains are usually quite full. People travel with everything, but especially cardboard boxes and plastic bags. At major stations, the getting off - getting on process is loud and a big confusion. People get off at one end of the carriage, while others get on at the other end, pushing and shoving and shouting, with their motorbike helmets still on. Although the seats are reserved, it seems to be important to get on first. Then everybody climbs onto the seats to find a place for their cardboard boxes and sports bags. At some point half of the people would get off again - they were only saying goodbye to those travelling. After the train pulls out of the station, there will usually be some shifting of seats with the help of the conductor, and some ticket checking which also seems to have its complications although I haven't yet quite understood everything.
The train goes at a mean speed of around 50 km/h, which leaves plenty of opportunities to watch the countryside. It was beautiful between Ninh Binh and Dong Hoi, with lots of rice fields and green hills. People with conical hats were working in the fields with their bare hands, ploughing them with buffaloes. As a tourist one would like to stop the train and take a lot of romantic pictures, but these people are just leading their everyday life that is not so romantic at all, it's just about having enough food and a roof over their heads.
The trip from Hue to Danang is supposed to be the most beautiful stretch of train travel in Vietnam, maybe that's why there were so many tourists on this train. Anyway, it was beautiful, with a lot of nice views of the sea.
We will now continue until Saigon, with a few stops in between. There we will have to take buses again to cross Cambodia...

02 November 2009

Flood, Mirinae and photos

While in HoiAn we got hit by the Mirinae tropical storm, which caused more than 100deaths in Central Vietnam. Fortunately we were a bit North of the central point, but in any case the city got flooded (and we had electricity cuts).



Good and bad weather

Last week after going away from NinhBinh and willing to make a not so long train ride, we decided to stop at DongHoi, just 8-hours South. Unfortunately hour multiple-coutry guidebook did not mention this place and on our internet researches we did not find any nice accommodation to stay. On our arrival we just knew that the train station was about 4km away from the hotels area, so we took a taxi. But we did not know what to say to the taxi driver, we tried to mention hotels, but he wanted a specific one. The only Eva remembered the name was a 4-star resort and here we go. Arrived there we see it was already a bit out of the way from everything, but we ask the price anyway. They were quite empty and making 40%+ reductions from the price. Then they showed us an offer for two nights including dinners, breakfast and access to the gym, sauna, swimming pools and transfer to the train station. It was just 10usd/chf more than the discounted rate. Needing a bit of holidays from our trip, we accepted. Below a picture of Eva swimming in the main pool.

There were patches of rain and patches of gorgeous weather. We tried to swim in the harsh sea, but was too dangerous. They were nice days...

Now we are in the "Mirinae" cyclone affected area and its raining a lot, downtown HoiAn is flooded. This morning was still possible to walk in the market and we took this picture. Now we are confined to the hotel. Hopefully tomorrow the weather will be better.

31 October 2009

Vietnam, first toughts

So far we are happy with Vietnam.

First comparisons with China: there are much less people, they are poorer and there is a much smaller amount of rich people (mainly counting the cars and their sizes).

Then things that made us "happy" - people understand a "no, thanks" and leave us; people do not scream to each other while chatting.

Also, I find Vietnam cities much more bearable than Chinese. Probably due to the french influence, roads are much narrower; There is a huge bunch of motorcycles and is almost impossible to walk on the sidewalk full of parked motorbikes, food sellers and people eating in improvised canteens (with kindergarten sized plastic tables and chairs). But walking on the road is ok, once you trust the motorbikes and bicycles will not hit you.

We are now in Hue, which was once an imperial city. It is very green with many parks surrounding the river with small terraces with local people drinking coffee or juices. There is a 'citadel', where the emperors used to live which was done by the same architect as the Beijing's forbidden city. Here fortunately there were very few tourists and no screaming Chinese tour guides, so we could stroll and enjoy the peaceful place for couple hours.

The trains so far have been nice, no more people than places and with delays not bigger than 10minutes. They are old and slow (average of 50km/h) but the soft seats are comfortable and they serve nice food on board. The only annoying part are the televisions a bit laud, but still acceptable.

26 October 2009

Small world outside

On our way to the Hanoi train station we listen someone from the other side of the street: "Miguel". We stop and looked. "It's Ray, from couchsurfing."

After scratching the eyes to make sure, go around the motorbikes to cross the street and yes... it was Ray, from Singapore, who we hosted in Geneva last Christmas! Just there, on the other side of the street of old town Hanoi.

It was our plan since the beginning to give him back the Transiberian book he gave us last year, while making him a visit in Singapore. Few days ago I had even written him on the couchsurfing website. And now we made more sure we will meet again in a couple months at his place.

Already during this trip we "surfed" in Omsk, Russia with the same person which Ray had "surfed" with. Small world...

Last pictures of China

Some ducks going alive to the market in Yongshuo.

Dentist offices facing the street...
The karsts that are represented in the 20yuen banknote (near Yangshuo).

Petrol station for the river boats.

Hanging the laundry in the tree (view from the bus window).

Chinese prisons... sorry, apartments. (we saw couple times warnings from the police saying to put bars on windows for security. Many people did and now really leaves behind the bars.)

Chinese uniform people standard pose #1.

China - Episode 2

From the centre of Hong Kong, we took the metro to the last station one rainy morning, and crossed the border to Shenzhen. At the train station we had to queue a bit - we could have bought our ticket in Hong Kong, but for a ridiculously high commission. Getting our sleeper tickets in Shenzhen was as easy as it gets in China - a bit of queueing but that was it. Shenzhen is one of the "Special Economic Zones" in China, so probably a bit better off economically than other cities, although our guidebook mentioned that there was quite a lot of poverty. There's not much to see there, so we sat around in a Chinese fast food outlet before spending much of the rest of the afternoon at McDonalds, which was the only place where we could get decent coffee. The train station was less of a mess than other Chinese train stations, so everything went easily and fast.
We arrived in Guilin in the early morning. We had chosen to go there because it was supposed to be one of the top tourist sights in the country, surrounded by beautiful karst scenery.
Well, we were not as impressed as our guidebook. The city was ok, with some nice places to walk around, a good amount of cafes and restaurants and outdoor seating, but that was about it. Many places were full of Chinese tourist groups, with tour guides yelling into megaphones. We rented bikes and cycled out into the countryside - fortunately there were enough helpful people around to help us find our way. The air was dusty and polluted, but we did find some nice spots with rice fields. Miguel's bike chain was coming out all the time so he went around with his hands all black...
After 2 days we had enough and took a bus to Yangshuo. Already at our hostel in Guilin we were reminded of the many tourist scams in Yangshuo, like taxi drivers taking tourists to the wrong hotel.
Nothing like this happened to us. We got off the bus, a few people wanted to take us to their hotel but we said no and walked away, and they left us alone. We checked into a quiet hotel with an adorable manager, it was cheaper than most places we had stayed, but it was clean, it had a window that opened and a comfortable bed. Perfect. The town was, yes, touristic, but it seemed more like individual tourists and less groups. It was also much more quiet than Guilin, and after arriving we walked along the river on a quiet path and got some really nice views (photos coming later...). We spent the next day walking along the river from one village to another, again a lot of nice views. Fortunately we met a guy from Hong Kong who helped us negotiate with the boatmen who had to take us across the river (and wanted to get as much money as possible...). Along the way we were regularly greeted by "Hello! You! Bamboo!" (meaning "I want you to take my bamboo raft") but we managed to just ignore them and walk on.
We could have spent much more time in this place, but we felt like moving on. I felt we were going to fall into the trap of running after tourist spots, and not following a certain line or path any more. So we decided to get back on the trains and stick to them as long as possible, and try to ignore other travellers' advices ("oh you MUST go to X, and DON'T miss Y") because I don't see a sense in "collecting" tourist spots all over the world for months and months.
So we took a bus to Nanning, from where we knew there would be a train to Hanoi. Nanning is quite a modern city with lots of modern architecture everywhere and lots of shops, but not a lot to do otherwise. We were lucky having found a nice place to stay at an Australian couchsurfer's place, which became a "home away from home" for 4 days.
We boarded the night train to Hanoi on Friday night, the train station was full and noisy and a mess as usual, but our train (at least the overnight part of it) was almost empty, we were 12 passengers travelling to Vietnam, and 9 conductors! The border crossings were easy and people were friendly.
We arrived in Hanoi at 5.30 am local time, waited at the train station for 15 minutes for the sun to rise, and walked into the centre. Already at 6 am the city was awake, people doing exercise, alone or, more commonly, in a group, and it was a young jogger who showed us the way into the centre.
So here we are, on the trains again. The plan is to go all the way down to Singapore, using trains as much as possible.

24 October 2009

Border crossing - China-Vietnam

Eva already wrote: we were 12 passengers and 9 conductors on the train which crossed the border that night.

When we boarded the train in Nanning there were some other wagons which were full, but they were heading just to the station before the Chinese border.

On night trains often they request the passports at beginning. It was no exception. But after few minutes the conductor comes with the passports in hand: "whats your countries?". Not first time in China we get this question. "Putayia", I say. "Germany", says Eva (her passport says "Deutschland").

Arrived to ther border station two police officers come inside to give the "departure cards" which we already had and a few minutes later come to check the passports and take them away. They new the countries. After, we are requested to leave the train with all the luggage. On the building of the station, first the thermometer test, then the luggage x-ray. After the conductors came, do only the x-ray check and inform us that our wagon have a problem with the air conditioned and we will move to another one. Back to the train and soon the police returns with the passports. Now we "just" have to way 1-hour so the train leaves on the schedule.

Hour and half after we arrive to the Vietnamese border station. Requested to go out, we see a nice old yellow building besides the train going to Beijing that night. It is 23:30 (0:30 chinese time). Inside the building first counter on the left two persons distributing two pieces of paper. One for immigration and customs, other for health check. After filling them, we are pointed to the second counter, where 4 officers receive one form and the passport. They ask Eva which country she is from. I find bizarre they did not ask me. I found way the day after. Then they point to the other side of the station, where in a third counter we should give the other paper. This guy, almost sleeping, receives the health check and shows that we should pay 2000dong or 1yuen (20euro cents). Fortunately we saved some chinese money. After some minutes the officers call our names and return the passports.

There was still a fourth counter, to buy train tickets, where someone was sleeping. Back to the train and it was our turn to sleep (while the train stayed still for 30 minutes before leaving).

Why the Vietnamese officers knew Portugal? In Hanoi at the hotel the clerk told me there was a football player in some portuguese team.

22 October 2009

Train tracks


budapest001, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

Tomorrow night we return to the train tracks on the way to Hanoi, Vietnam. The new aim of the trip, as now going East is not so easy, it to go to Singapore using whenever possible the train.

(picture taken from the Budapest-Krakaw train in April 2009)

20 October 2009

Bus broke down stop


Bus broke down stop, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

On the trip between Litang and Shangri-la the bus refuse to work for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the driver with help of some passengers moved petrol from one tank to another and did some other things in the inside of the bus to pump manually the petrol. There was no phone coverage in this part of the mountain, somewhere around 3500m, it was raining a bit and the tires sometimes were not adhering to the mud of the road. But we arrived at the end.

Why Hong Kong is not China

First and most important reason why Hong Kong is not China: You have to pass immigration. You officialy leave China (that's why we needed a double-entry visa) and get a Hong Kong stamp. The traffic is left-sided. The buses don't look like they're going to fall apart any minute, and their exhaust fumes don't smell like they could kill you instantly. There's no grey and thick smog covering the sun. The bus drivers are not criminals trying to kill a whole busload of passengers at the same time by crashing head-on into a truck. The streets are reasonably clean (well, then everybody is reminded at every street corner to "keep the city clean"). There's no smell of rotting water and humidity everywhere. Kids don't shit on the street. People are allowed to gather in big numbers in parks for picknicks, for example for the Lantern Festival. Everybody can express his or her opinion. Journalists are allowed to write critical articles in the newspapers (for example, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC). You can buy international newspapers and magazines. You can watch interesting news on TV and access every webpage you want without feeling like a criminal. There's a reasonably transparent political system and a judiciary system that respects human rights. Hong Kong hospitals are among the best in the world and healthcare is accessible to everybody.

Hong Kong is not China, and will, in my view, probably never be. How could you replace a democratic system that respects human rights with what there is in China at the moment? Hong Kong would loose too much, economically and politically.

Night Train Philosophies - Shenzhen to Guilin

After hanging around at Mc Donalds for half of the afternoon, we boarded our night train in the early evening in Shenzhen, a Chinese city close to Hong Kong. We shared our compartment with a Chinese man who fell asleep very early, so we didn't make much noise, did a bit of reading and then also decided to have an early night. I had just about managed to fall asleep and was in the kind of bizarre dream that one has on trains, when I was woken by a ringing mobile phone. It was our neighbour's. It was just before midnight. When he finally replied he talked very loudly on the phone, making no effort whatsoever not to wake us up. This went on for some time, he did regular phone calls without bothering to leave the compartment. Around half past one in the night, the train stopped and our neighbour got off, leaving his reading lamp on. Miguel finally turned it off, and the rest of the night was quiet. As I'm usually unable to sleep in any moving object, like planes, buses and trains, I spent the rest of the night lying on my back and thinking about what had just happened. The guy looked nice enough, probably a businessman. He surely didn't have any bad intentions when waking us up with his phone calls and when leaving on the light. He probably just didn't think about it. And that's just the point. This is something so typical in China. Call it cultural difference or whatever you want. The result: People smoking in front of a non smoking sign and blowing the smoke in other people's face, talking loudly on the phone in every possible situation, leaving their cigarette butts in the washbasin for somebody else to clean, pushing and shoving to get into a train where they have reserved seats anyway, letting an empty water bottle drop on the floor the instant they've finished drinking it. Nobody ever complains about anything, although you can sometimes see in people's expressions that they are annoyed by, say, the cigarette smoke. We westerners get an impression of a serious lack of consideration of others, a "not-giving-a-sh**-about-others", and no sense of community. If I dirty the public toilet or throw my garbage on the floor, somebody will clean it (but this somebody probably hasn't chosen his or her job and we could do just a little effort to make his or her job less disgusting). I've been trying to find an explanation to this, and I've got a theory that might explain at least part of it. Our western world is heavily influenced by Christan thought, whether we believe in God or not. The basis of Christianity is taking care of others, not do to others what you wouldn't have done to yourself, not take revenge. Of course, I'm not talking about the less than glorious doings of the Christian church all around the world, but rather the basis of Christian thinking, that is again reflected in western philosophies like Humanism. In practice, this means that we have all more or less been brought up to be considerate to others, don''t hit your little friend and be generally nice to others, even if you don't know them, so we try to keep our trains clean, stop to let people cross the road and offer our bus seat to the granny or the mother-to-be. Christian sects and other communities have a huge success in many parts of the world (including Asia) because they often promote the community aspect - singing together, dancing together, praying together. China's religion and philosophy have been heavily influenced by Confucius. In Confucianism, there are precise rules concerning the relationship between people: the son pays respect to his father, the wife to her husband, the employee to his employer. Relationships between people who don't know each other (the "community") don't play any role. Even Buddhism is more like an "individualist" religion: to attain "enlightenment" you have to do the work all by yourself, by mediating and leading a "pure life". For me, there's not much room for a community spirit in there. And that's how I explain (at least part of) this behaviour of what I call egocentrism and individualism. I do what is just right for me, without thinking any further. (As I am writing this, the guy next to me at the internet place has just lighted a cigarette, about half a metre from my face, with ash blowing on my computer mouse. I'm delighted.) You might tell me now that this is just the way they are and that I can't change the world and just have to accept different cultures. Well, I'm having a lot of trouble accepting behaviour like not stopping your car to let cross a mother carrying a small child on her arms, or other examples that are everyday scenes in China. Maybe it sort of scares me, a nation so individualistic and egocentric. It's so far away from my own convictions. It also means that we can do all we want to protect the environment, but if China continues polluting without any consideration, we will be close to a natural catastrophe in a couple of decades.

By the way, we discussed this topic with our Australian host last night. She has been living in China for 10 years but still hasn't found a good explanation for all this.

We got off our train in Guilin at 7 in the morning. After shaking off the taxi drivers and map-sellers, we walked towards the city center, loudly spitting men everywhere, smelling again the constant stink that is part of Chinese cities, and then along the modern and slick pedestrian street that was just waking up. There, we saw a couple with a child maybe 2 or 3 years old, who was just doing his business (big one) right on the pavement in the pedestrian street, his father hurrying around with a roll of toilet paper. I don't know for sure but I can imagine they didn't pick up the "business". Welcome back to China.

I need to leave this country, I can't take it any longer.

16 October 2009

Back to China

We had excellent time in HongKong, receiving the visit of Anne-Laure from Geneva for four days, during which we went to Macau to eat bacalhau in the "Castico", we swim in nice beaches in Lamma island (where we were staying), went to the Peak. Also in HK we visited the very nice HK History museum (highly recommended) and Science museum, saw twice the light show in the harbour, picnic with a lot of Chinese in the Victoria park during the mid-autumn festival. The first few days in HK we couchsurf with Sebastien, living in a 22nd floor over Central, just 10minutes from the mid-levels escalators. In Kawloon we checked out the birds and flower market, I showed Chunking and Mirador mansions to Eva and Anne-Laure. For those who don't know HK, it is a great place to visit. Loads of things to do. Before hand I recommend to see the Chunking Express movie from Wong Kar-Wai. Ah, yes, we also saw "Abre los ojos" movie from Amenabar and I got my third hair-cut during this trip in a "10-minutes cut-only" express barber shop (we have seen them already in Japan).

Now we are back to China (I could repeat the same things about the country from all the last posts, but I spare you) and soon we will go to Nanning to get our Vietnam visas.

12 October 2009

Fire safety in China


Fire safety, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

In Pingyao the fire safety equipment is still quite old...

Check the buckets (with water) and the shovels on the wall. They are the only fire combat items they had available in the city everywhere.

10 October 2009

Pieces of magic


anjo-26nov 004, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

In HK we did one more science museum. They are a bit the same all over the world but this one included a very nice mirrors compound where we could do some magic. Here I am (at least my head)!

08 October 2009

"Der Weg ist das Ziel" - photos

Put the mouse over the photo to see its title.
Lunch on way to Kanding
Public toilets
Travel with ducks
Solar oven
Water refilling stop
Bus broke down stop
Bus - Lunch restaurant
Bus environment
Monks and monastery in Shangri-la

07 October 2009

"Der Weg ist das Ziel"

When we travelled to Litang in western Sichuan, high up in the mountains, the trips were some of the least comfortable of our whole trip. Imagine spending 8 or 9 hours bumping around in an old bus on a bad road. The back of the bus is occupied by Chinese or Tibetan men who are chain smoking during the whole trip, spitting on the floor of the bus and making a general mess by throwing everything from cigarette butts to plastic wrappings on the floor. In the middle of that, 3 ducks. The bus stops from time to time for toilet (I said it was an old bus, so no toilets inside). When I say toilet, I mean Chinese toilets. Squatting toilets where your business goes into a not very deep hole, and there are no doors, just low walls to separate the several cubicles. Now, everyone who has ever read a guidebook for China knows that the Chinese stare at westerners. It's just that they're curious. Ok, I can cope with it most of the time. But coping with being stared at by every single Chinese woman in those toilets while doing your business needs very strong nerves, and a good sense of humour.

Now, you may ask, why take these horrible buses? Why do such long uncomfortable trips, when we could just take a plane?

Well, that's the point of this post. Without these uncomfortable trips, we would never have seen what we have seen. Beautiful mountains. Traditional houses. People wearing traditional dresses, working in the fields. And it's not set up for the tourists, it's for real. That's how they live, work, travel, shit.

Travelling is about all this. It's about smelly trains (how many of you still know what "human smell" is? Go take a russian train). It's about bumpy buses that break down in the middle of nowhere. About people just doing their everyday life, transporting chickens and all kinds of other goods. Travelling is not about taking airplanes and then say you've been everywhere (that may be "going on holiday". Plane travel is about the most uninspiring way to travel, in my view). And that's why travelling is not always easy, or pleasurable, or "fun". It's an experience, about feeling on your own body how most people in this world still live. It's about getting to know yourself better. Travelling is not just going on a long holiday. Travelling is not running away from yourself, but getting closer to yourself.

What I am taking from this? That I'm able to be happy with very few things that all fit in my small backpack. That every day has something special, be it positive or negative, be it while travelling or when back home in a routine. And also, the day we decide we have arrived somewhere, our trip will be over. Because travelling is not about arriving, it's about moving, be it in a train, boat or bus.

(Inspired by P. Theroux)

30 days in China

During our first month in China, we managed to see and experience a lot of different things. Quite amazing actually, given that distances are huge and not all means of public transport are fast.

First, of course, was Beijing. Thinking back to it now, my feeling is that Beijing is Beijing, but Beijing is not China. At least post-olympics Beiijing. I found it more quiet than other places, more organised maybe. Anyway, we managed to visit some of the tourist spots, like the Forbidden City, which was full of tourists but really beautiful and we did manage to find one or two quiet spots, like this one:
We also saw the Great Wall in Simatai, a less touristic spot than other places, but involving quite an adventurous drive by taxi (see Miguel's post about it). We took an antiquated gondola to shorten the hike uphill and had great views from the top:
Another Beijing highlight was meeting our good friend Anne, with whom we cycled around Beijing for a day and had a Peking duck dinner. It's just so good to see a known face on a long trip like that!

From Beijing we took a night train to Pingyao, a small town with a preserved and still inhabited old town. Having seen other similar places afterwards, I must say that Pingyao is really worth seeing. Wandering about in the morning or evening when the bulk of tourists have left, exploring the side streets, is a great experience. All the old houses are still inhabited, people live and eat on the street, children run around. It might be "dirty" and "smelly" for our western tastes in some places, but that's how people live here.
From Pingyao we went on to Xian, where I suffered a bit from migraines and the horrible air pollution, but we did manage to see the Terracotta Warriors (sorry no picture).
On we went to Chengdu, by night train again, this time in a "soft sleeper" carriage (4 beds per compartment with a door), because we couldn't stand the constant cigarette smell any more in the "hard sleepers". Chengdu seemed even more polluted, it was constantly in a thick gray fog which almost completely hid the taller buildings!
One morning we got up early to go and see the pandas at the Panda Conservation Reserve. Very cute. I could have watched them eating for hours.
Who would think of eating pandas??

Fortunately we had chosen a great hostel, very comfortable to just sit and read and eat and talk to other travellers. Everybody was organizing trips to Tibet... we didn't want the hassle of organising a guide, getting a special authorization and following a fixed guided tour, but instead we decided to go to western Sichuan, escape the cities and also see some tibetan culture. The bus trips were long and tiring and uncomfortable, but we got great views and some insight into the life of a tibetan village. Traditionally dressed people, yaks and pigs in the streets, traditional houses and food... wonderful.
View of Litang, a village at 4014m altitude:
Tibetan women coming back from walking around the monastery:
Washing clothes in the street in Litang:
These friendly people showed us our hiking trail in Kangding:
After this high-altidude adventure we went south into Yunnan province, where we did a 2-day hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge. The weather was great and the views beautiful.
Crossing a stream:
A lot of locals offered rides on beautiful horses, but we preferred to walk...
On our way we met other animal friends (at least he didn't want any money):
And we slept in "Naxi Family Guesthouse", a very welcoming place with nice views, pigs, a little dog, a monkey and a beautiful grandmother. This was their entrance gate:
We then went on to Lijiang, which has a nice old town but unfortunately completely overrun with tourists. We stayed in a nice hostel in a village that was a bit quieter, and spent a couple of relaxing days there before heading to Hongkong.