Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween at Choeung Ek

Halloween. A fitting day to visit Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the Killing Fields, to remember the thousands who were massacred there during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975 - 1979. It is hard to remember people you never knew, and hard to come to terms with the low depths that homo sapien is, regrettably, capable of.

The Killing Fields are not a manicured memorial. Only half of the 129 mass graves have been excavated. The graves are overgrown puddles with just a few notice boards detailing where the tool shed and chemical supply (to cover the stench of the dead) used to be located. Nine thousand skulls rest inside the stupa, many showing the marks indicative of their method of slaughter. To save bullets the Khmer Rouge used hoes and pick axes to bludgeon their innocent victims to death.

How did the world stand by and let this happen? We met a British couple who had back-packed around Thailand in the 1970s. They couldn’t get in to Cambodia but didn’t know what was going on. Why didn’t people know? Were governments around the world making noise to drown out the atrocities in the same way that the Khmer Rouge played loud music to drown out the sound of those being executed? Governments must have known because their embassies in Phnom Penh remained empty for 45 months. Three and a half years.

The human fascination with the morbid is evident in the way that we enjoy dressing up as skeletons and splashing on fake blood at Halloween, and in the way that people flock to Tuol Sleng torture and detention centre. Many of the Killing Fields victims - civil servants, lawyers, academics - were first tortured at Tuol Sleng, a former secondary school. I cannot understand why the torturers catalogued each of their victims, ripping out their stomachs, painting a number on their chest and taking a photograph. Nor can I understand the people who want to go and look at the photographs taken by the torturers of their registered victims. I wonder if they’ll have their photo taken next to the photo of the dead victims? At the Killing Fields people pondered aloud “What shall I do in this photo?” It’s a dilemma isn’t it. Having stepped over and on fragments of bone and discarded clothes of the victims, the last thing I wanted was a photograph of my grinning mug next to a mass grave, with or without a stomach.

The legacy of the atrocities prevails. Landmines. There is approximately one amputee for every 290 people in Cambodia Amputees peddle books on crutches and play music for tourists. They are the lucky ones. I don’t know how others survive, such as the man crawling down the street with his four year old daughter carrying the shopping bags behind. It is heart breaking to see.

As the ghosts of the world come out to play tonight let us hope that we will never let the likes of the Khmer Rouge happen again. Let us also hope that the thirteen countries that are still producing antipersonnel mines promptly cease production. Victims of landmines and the Khmer Rouge R.I.P.


Tuesday, 28 October 2008

50 not out

WISM News flash!

World in Slow Motion has now been browsed in 55 countries around the world.

These are: the UK; Germany; Norway; the USA; Bolivia; Russia; New Zealand; Australia; Vietnam; Singapore; Pakistan; Qatar; India; Sweden; Denmark, Switzerland; Spain; Finland; Netherlands; Canada; Brazil; Portugal; South Africa; Japan; Ireland; Italy; Saudi Arabia, Austria, South Korea; Taiwan; France; Australia; the Czech Republic; China, Tunisia, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Thailand, Laos, Croatia, the UAE, Belgium; Peru; Turkey, Israel, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Poland, Venezuela; the Ukraine; Iran; Nepal, Syria; Cambodia; Hungary; Latvia; Malta; Argentina; Brunei;Romania; Bulgaria; Cyprus and Slovakia.

We are quite amazed that our little website has enjoyed such a wide-ranging audience. It's great to know that there is such interest out there amongst the people of the world to try travelling without flying.

Thank you for taking the time to browse our site. We hope that it has helped you to explore transport options other than the plane when planning your own trips.

Don't forget to let us know how you get on with your own travel in slow motion at
Happy travelling!

Tom and Lara


Monday, 27 October 2008

The temples of Angkor

When visiting Cambodia the famed temples of Angkor usually perch at the top of any visitors’ must-see list.

And rightly so. Angkor must have a strong claim to truly be the 'eight wonder of the world'.
These massive, crumbling complexes, hidden away in the jungle just outside the town of Siem Reap have wowed generations of visitors and inspired many writers to put descriptive pen to paper.

So I’m not going to have a go myself. Instead we thought you might find the following tips of use when planning a visit to Angkor.


Hire a tuk tuk driver. It’s a fair drive out to the entry gates to the temple complexes and the sites themselves cover huge area.

Plus it’s likely to be hot- very hot - making walking considerable distances between the spread-out sites unviable for all but the masochistic. We hired our tuk tuk driver, the lovely Mr Pea, for a cost of about $10 a day.

Alternatively you could hire a bicycle, but be prepared for a soaking - from sweating and/or , if it’s the monsoon season, tropical downpours.

Beware of the heat. Angkor can get very hot. Only the most ambitious tourists choose to plod around in 30-plus degrees during the middle of the day, so try and visit sites in the morning and later afternoon, sticking to the shade during the hottest hours.

Even better, do like a tuk tuk driver and take along a hammock to sling up between two trees when it all gets too much!

If you happen to time your visit during the monsoon, like us, be sure to get back to Siem Reap before the clouds open for their daily downpour. Your driver will know when this is.

There is nothing quite as wet as chugging through a thunderstorm in a tuk tuk.

Winnie the Pooh need not fret - there is plenty of food and drink on sale around the sites - this is Cambodia and you can be sure that wherever you go kids and women will be chasing you with bottles of chilled water and fresh fruit. "Hallobananamisterpineappulllll?"

A pass to all the sites is not cheap for foreign visitors, particularly those on a tight budget. You basically have two types available to you: a one-day pass ($20) or a three-day pass($40). There is no two-day pass.
One day is simply not enough to visit more than a few sites and you’ll regret not spending more time there so we suggest you plump for the three-day pass.

However, not that if, like us, you are all templed out by the end of day two then you simply have to wave goodbye to the third day you’ve paid for (they take your photo and print it on your pass so you cannot sell it on).
There is so much to learn about the history of these sites. You can only start to appreciate this with a dedicated guidebook. These are hawked by street vendors and bookshops all around Siem Reap and the temples themselves.
Try and buy one from one of the many amputees (victims of landmines) who are trying to make a living. $5 is a reasonable price.
Brush up on your knowledge of Buddhism and particularly Hinduism before you visit. Both were imported from India so anyone who has visited India will notice the striking similarities.
Many of the temples of Angkor were built when the Khmers followed the Hindu faith, so even a basic knowledge of this religion and its various gods helps.
If you choose to view a sunrise over one of the temples be prepared to get up at an obscenely early hour.
Be sure to neck a couple of Khmer coffees before you leave your guesthouse - I don’t know what they put in them but it certainly wakes you up.

Which sites to visit?
There are so many temples to visit that it’s quite bewildering working out where to start. Everyone will have their own particular interests but we found the following sites particularly worth visiting.
Ta Prohm
Built somewhere between the late 12th-late 13th century and ‘discovered’ by the French in the 19th century, this site is unique in that it was the only one the colonialists left in pretty much the state they found it in.

This was a deliberate decision by the French so that visitors could see for themselves the impact that the natural world has on mankind’s creations if left to get on with it.
The result is absolutely stunning - you walk through a fantastical world of crumbling ruins and massive tree roots, where seedlings have grown atop the masonry and literally taken over the building like something out of Day of the Triffids. Spellbinding.

The Bayon
Situated in the very centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the dilapidated ruins of this temple are striking for the number of massive faces built into the masonry.
No-one seems to be able to agree on quite how many faces there are looking up on each of the four-sided towers but its well over 200.
Weather-beaten and decorated with lichen these faces remain strangely powerful; all-seeing big brothers for the Khmer empire.
Also notable for its bas-reliefs, featuring thousands of individuals figures, generally having a good ruck in one of the various Hindu tales.

Angkor Wat
To many the Daddy of them all, although I’m inclined to disagree. But then I was dragged out of bed at 4.30am to come and see the sunrise here only to find another five hundred other grumpy tourists already there all fighting each other for a view and a people-free space at which to aim their little digital screen.

But don’t let that put you off. Angkor Wat is spectacular and, once you’ve left the crowds behind you are free to wander the cloisters and extensive crowds, with little interruption.
Designed as an entire microcosm of the Hindu universe, featuring a quincunx of towers and the most ambitious carvings you’ll ever see, Angkor Wat is an architectural marvel you won’t forget.
Even if Angelina has long since packed her hotpants are headed off to Africa.

Phnom Bakheng
A crumbling old edifice atop a hill which affords wonderful views across the flat landscape.

With the huge, grand old flights of stairs leading up to the top in a state of severe disrepair we walked up a deserted track skirting around the hill in order to reach the temple.
Be warned: whilst most temples have some sets of steep and exceedingly narrow steps, Phnom Bakheng’s are particularly challenging.

Preah Khan
Another temple seemingly succumbing to the vegetation where, like Ta Prohm, Strangler Figs and Silk Cotton Trees threaten to outshine the buildings themselves as the star attraction.
Crumbling masonry, intricate designs carved into the Sandstone, fragile stone lintels propped up by groaning timbers, massive heaps of rubble: Preah Khan’s got it all.
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Saturday, 25 October 2008

Thailand in Transit

Today I nearly melted. I've often wondered at what temperature body fat starts to liquefy, to sizzle and spread like butter in a frying pan, or at least become a bit more squidgy. I felt myself starting to unsaturate at about 2pm this afternoon.

We were on the appropriately and inappropriately named ''air con'' bus from Saraburi to Sakaeo in the bit of Thailand that no one ever visits. There is a reason for that - there's nothing there apart from ribbon towns dressing themselves up as cowboys with milk bars, steakhouses and Playbill style font. The bus was a sauna on wheels with low carpeted ceilings, tasseled window valances and checked, padded seats. Above two tiny vents wheezed and puffed out a thin stream of air that certainly hadn't been conditioned. With the added solar heating of a tropical clime and the bodies of 54 other passengers (apparently a human body generates the same amount of heat as a heater) it made for the second most unpleasant journey of the trip yet (still nothing beats the night bus in China).

After the brain sloshing journeys of Laos's pitted, potholed, painful roads, our transit through Thailand has been a breeze (apart from the aforementioned breezeless journey - a blip amongst six). For that is what Thailand has been for us - transit only. Unfortunately. We calculated that it would be quicker to travel to Cambodia through the east of Thailand rather than through the south of Laos. I don't know if it is and willingly would challenge someone to a race. That is the shame of slow travel. So much to see and not enough time to get there.

However, by taking in a corner of Thailand as well, we have managed to gorge ourselves on green curry, ponder the country's fascination with large garden ornaments (which are sold in vast quantities by the roadside) and get thoroughly confused by yet another currency. We also got to take in the flora and fauna of the Khao Yai jungle - hornbills, vipers, scorpions and simians abound. A macaque is a monkey, a gibbon is an ape. Three months of primatology should have taught be something.

Tomorrow we'll take a tuk tuk and bus to Siem Reap, the temple capital of Cambodia. There we plan to mix it up a bit. Perhaps we'll take a slow boat down the Mekong to add to the Luang Prabang elephant ride, Japanese Shinkanzen and Trans-Siberian Railway medley. Anything but the bus.


Friday, 24 October 2008

Hornbills are forever

As we passed through the imposing gates of Khao Yai National Park, I half expected Dickie Attenborough to come mincing out “Oh welcome, my dears, welcome to Jurassic Park!’.

The scenery certainly looked suitably primeval - densely forested slopes smoothered in dense vegetation, partially covered by the early morning mist - and sounded so as well, with a whole range of strange whoops and calls echoing around us as our vehicle climbed up the steep, winding road.

But of course no dinosaurs. Indeed, given the current inhabitants, it would perhaps have been more apt to have been greeted by David, rather than Dickie, Attenborough.

The legendary naturalist would certainly be at home here, for Khao Yai is a nature lover’s paradise. As Thailand’s flagship park it boasts over 3,000 species of plants, 320 species of birds and 70 species of animals (including bears, elephants and - yes - tigers!).

Surely then, even a couple of pasty Londoners could be in with a chance of spotting something you wouldn’t encounter on your average stroll across Hampstead Heath.

We certainly looked the part for our jungle adventure, though our faces dropped when we were given the equipment our guide considered essential for protection from the beasties lurking in the bushes: leech socks.

No pith helmets, no machetes, just a large, bright white pair of rather natty-looking knee-length socks.
Squeezing their comical-looking farang back inside the pick-up our guide, ‘Mr Birdman‘, and his three young helpers, hung themselves off various parts of the vehicle as it crawled along the road, chattering excitedly and scanning the treetops for signs of life.

It didn’t take them long. A shout from an eagle-eyed acolyte and Mr Birdman dropped the anchors. Immediately they eagerly piled out, setting up telescopes, uncapping enormous camera lenses and pointing frantically into the canopy above. A white handed gibbon - or at least one of its hands - the startled primate swiftly making a bolt for it.

We pressed on, into the heart of darkness, cruising past a Barking Deer chewing nonchalantly at a bush by the side of the road, an empty Elephant salt lick, a ’warning: cobra crossing’ sign and small groups of western tourists in matching sensible trousers and floppy hats.

The road stretched on, empty except for the odd obnoxious pig-tailed macaque, snarling for a handout. There was nothing for it but to hit the jungle trail on foot. We parked up and dived into a gap in the thick green undergrowth.

Straight away the vegetation closes in on you. Great thick trees crowd out the light above, huge draping lianas, hanging down like electric cables in an unfinished house, block your path, giant trees roots trip you up and large quantities of rotting leaves and persistent precipitation combine to leave the paths muddy, the going treacherous.

We slipped and slid, tripped and tumbled, in the process generating enough noise to scare the entire population of the Cotswold Wildlife Park.

But perhaps this simply added to the noise of the jungle; the hum of the insects, the call of the birds and the myriad other exotic and mysterious sounds emanating from all around us.
With some trepidation, we followed the bouncing figure of Mr Birdman, leading us deeper and deeper into the maze.

Following intently behind him, I missed the bright green, and highly venomous Pit Viper dozing on a twig just inches from his elbow. And so did our experienced guide. But then he could be forgiven for his mind was on other things, namely baiting large, hairy, black scorpions.

Spying a small hole in the path up ahead Mr Birdman was on to it in an instant, brushing aside the leaf litter and poking a short little stick into this rather foreboding-looking hole.
A few minutes of twiddling with his stick and his persistence paid off: a large pair of angry-looking claws emerged, surely belonging to an equally irate owner annoyed at being so rudely awoken from his daytime slumbers. Our small group drew a collective intake of breath - this loon is actually poking a live scorpion, and a very large one at that.

But there’s no stopping the intrepid Birdman. With careful persuasion he’s soon got the beastie out, all five furious inches of him, holding him by the tail and triumphantly dangling him in front of our cameras.

I still don’t know why I agreed to hold this fearsome creature. Perhaps it’s because others did before me, and they didn’t seem to drop down dead. Well it made a nice photo.

Creatures of a more gentler persuasion followed with our chancing upon a family of White-handed Gibbons. These agile apes entertained all with their daredevil antics, leaping from one branch to the next against seemingly impossible odds. Humans may rule the earth but the treetops are theirs.

Beyond the Gibbons, the birdcalls intensified: Laughing thrushes, Bubus, Mynahs, Bluebirds and a whole host of other unidentified species. A couple of Wreathed Hornbills flew overhead, their wings generating the most extraordinary sound, as if a steam engine were passing above the treetops.

With our eyes to the sky we neglected the ground at our peril and soon we were encountering another unpleasant resident - the place was crawling with leeches. These weren’t the great slug-sized bloodsuckers of film fame and medieval medicine but rather small, insidious, cunning little blighters which moved with surprising speed.

There’s something very disconcerting about watching one of these wee beasties hook onto one’s boot, crawl up one’s sock and inch up one’s trousers, seeking out a nice patch of exposed flesh upon which to feed.

They move not like slugs but rather like slinkies, the coils-shaped toy you used to run down the stairs as a child. As the leeches feasted, the two burly young Canadian lads in our small group begin to regret turning out that morning in hangovers and bemuda shorts…

At last the forest opened up and we entered a large rolling plain covered in elephant grass, as high as your shoulder and sharp as a kitchen knife.

Heading gingerly for the safety of a viewing tower, their hands held high over their heads, none of my companions were interested in my sighting of an impressive-sounding Crested Serpent Eagle. Not even Birdman - his mind was on lunch.

Post-prandial we took in a range of Khao Yai’s charms: a one metre long Giant Squirrel, the waterfall from the film The Beach (no, we didn’t jump) and numerous Macaques at their roadside grooming parlours, holding up traffic.

The finally, as the sun started to sink, we found them. The highlight of our day: Giant Hornbills.
A pair of these splendid birds gazed down on us, from their home in their generous boughs of an old fig tree.

I’d read up beforehand about these magnificent creatures, our guesthouse kindly providing me the night before with an ancient dusty tome devoted to them as bedtime reading. They seem to be somewhat revered locally and, at first hand they didn’t disappoint.

They were simply enormous: from their long, slim black and white tail to their huge bright yellow bills they must have measured almost a metre from beak to tail. I had to concur with the slogan inside the book: Hornbills are forever.

Finally dragging ourselves away from this most glamorous of couples we carried on, hopeful that the descending darkness might bring out a few more shy creatures. A tiger perhaps, some wild elephants, or at least a python warming itself on the tarmac.

We got wild boar instead, the noise of our engine sending a whole family of them into a frenzy and Lara into peals of joyful laughter.
We called it a day and pointed our pick-up in the direction of the exit. We'd seen a most impressive menagerie, but even not a sniff of a tiger. As we sped through the dark I resolved once more to try again, in another jungle, another day.
And next time I won't forget my pith helmet.


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Laos - Thailand

Crossing from Laos into Thailand, on the ‘friendship bridge’ spanning the Mekong River is a relatively simple affair.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the painfully slow queue at immigration, standing in line in the baking heat for some dead-eyed, moustachioed chap to staple yet another piece of paper into your passport it’d feel more like a little jolly across the Severn Bridge rather than crossing an international border.

But low-key as it is, the differences between these two countries start to become apparent the moment you reach the other side.

Goodbye sleepy little Laos, hello thrusting ‘tiger economy’ of Thailand.

Within minutes the tiny, winding bumpy roads of Laos became a fading memory, as we sped along a smooth, fast dual carriageway, heading south for the second city of Nakhon Ratchasima. We travel a good inch across my battered map of the world in a few hours - something that would have taken a several days north of the border.

The scenery has changed as well. Gone are the wild mountains of the north, smothered in dense jungle, the jagged limestone peaks peaking through low cloud and teak forests teaming with wildlife.

Instead we speed through the pancake-flat plains of north east Thailand, a land of coconut trees and paddy fields where water buffalo submerge themselves in an effort to escape the searing heat.

And gone are the villages of little rattan, thatched huts, perched precariously on their stilts. Now we pass shopping complexes, car showrooms and steakhouses.

It seems south of the Mekong they have plumped for one form of imperialism for another: forsaking old Europe for the New World; French for American; colonialism for cultural and economic imperialism.

In the land of the Thais Uncle Sam has found himself some followers as the economy as expanded. Thais drive their pick-ups to the parking lot, they shop at the mart, they go downtown at the convenience store.
But the US isn’t the only country to get a piece of the action. Even dozy old Britain is represented, albeit by Tesco superstores (sweetly branded ‘Tesco Lotus’ in order to give it a nice, suitably exotic-sounding appearance) and the overpaid primadonna footballers from the Premier League, gurning across many TV screens and newspaper back pages.

Still the Thais are not ready to disown their own identity just yet. Indeed in this land you need only look at the nearest fencepost to be reminded of where you are, for the national bunting is permanently on display. The Thai flag festoons every frontage, usually accompanied by the yellow Buddhist flag.

This practice in itself would seem odd if it weren’t overshadowed - often literally - by the enormous portraits of the reigning monarch and his family, given pride of (public) place on every road, in every street.
They gaze down serenely upon you from every available space: on roundabouts and above pavements; along central reservations and across bridges, on calendars hanging in shops and outside municipal offices.

I’ve even seen soldiers sporting the kind of plastic wristbands worn in the West to pledge allegiance to a particular cause, yet their ones proclaim ‘Long live the King’.

As the longest reigning Thai monarch ever (60 years and counting), and indeed the longest-reigning current monarch in the world (he even puts our Brenda into the shade) His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)’s is particularly popular.

Blinging up his his bespeculed, rather straight-laced appearance as elaborately as possible has ascended to almost an art form, albeit one that is perhaps more in keeping with Posh ‘n’ Becks rather than a refined royal.

Entering this country from Laos, where the monarchy was overthrown by the Communists and the Hammer and Sickle still flies from government buildings, it feels rather surreal - like travelling through a Tintin comic set in some obscure East European country where all the names contains lots of z‘s.

Unlike Laos, where tourism has only recently taken off, Thailand is now well-established as a firm favourite for Western tourists. The Thais have got it sussed: they dazzle you with their smile, enchant you with their accessible exoticism and leave you happy to be relieved of your Baht.

They have had time to develop this winning formula, benefiting from their climate, cultural and natural attractions and the kind of fully-developed infrastructure needed to draw overseas visitors.

The Lao have all but the latter: it’ll be interesting to see whether they will be as successful as their southern neighbours.

All this is immaterial however, compared with the surely the most reliable indicator of a nation’s greatness - its food. Thailand is rightly famed the world over for its fantastic fare and, despite all the differences we had noticed since crossing the Mekong, it wasn’t until we had tasted a Thai Green Curry that we could be sure we were in a different country.

Now all they need to do is take a lesson from their northern neighbours on how to brew a good beer to accompany it.


Thursday, 16 October 2008

Laos. Enchante.

We have crossed the border from China, south into Laos. En route we passed through some of the wildest, most remote terrain I have ever encountered.

It was also some of the most beautiful.
Our road wound along river valleys, their thick, muddy waters chocked with debris from the recently-passed moonsons. We skirted steep mountain sides and passed through tiny villages, with small thatched huts sat on stilts, children, chickens and little pigs scattering in our path.

And all along the thick, green jungle shadowed us, lining the route and stretching out across the hills as far as the eye could see.

The road was long, the journey arduous and slow. Our tiny little road bumped up and down, veered left and right and never ever seem to run straight for more than a few metres. No wonder Laos wasn’t accessible by road until about ten years ago.

Finally, after nine hours of bumping up and down we arrived at our Eldorado: Luang Prabang.

An ancient imperial capital of this wondrous country…an enchanting town of golden temples and the exotic mysteries of the east…an outpost of mankind standing at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers...and all a bit….French.

Upon arrival I was amazed , and rather charmed, to be addressed in French by the elderly Madame of our guesthouse. Enchante.

It didn’t stop there. The town is chokker with battered old French-style buildings, crumbling colonial houses with long thin shutters, rickety balconies, and outside walls whitewashed against the tropical sun.

On the main street, Sisavangvong Road, all kinds of treats await the homeless Parisian, from baguettes and quiche lorraine to tarte aux pommes and milles feuilles. And of course the excellent, thirst-quenching Beer Lao - a French lager if ever there were one.

I half expected Arthur Bostrom’s hapless gendarme/British agent character from ‘Allo ‘Allo to saunter by, waving his nightstick and greeting us, ‘good moaning’.

Across the road from our guesthouse we can hear young children learning French at the French language school; around the corner we had a nice chat with a friendly chap from Clermont-Ferrand who runs one of the town’s numerous bookshops.

My Francophile father would love it, though it did leave me wondering quite why the French went to the trouble of colonising a place which, despite it’s numerous charms, is rather inhospitable.

There must have been good reason to do so, after all the French were only one country in a long line of others to which the Lao people found themselves rather reluctant hosts. The Burmese, the Thais, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, even the Americans have also left their mark on this little nation.

Add into the mix a whole host of different ethnic groups, stir in the rise and fall of an imperial family and add a good measure of communism and Laos comes out with a rather interesting and unique flavour.

The people have certainly changed from those amongst whom we walked yesterday, on the other side of the Chinese border. Not only do they look decidedly different but their character is a refreshing change to the ebullient, noisy Chinese.
Quiet and shy, Lao people seem reticent to accost the numerous wealthy foreigners strolling about their town.

No shopkeepers hassle you here, rather you have to hassle them, waking them from their slumbers as they doze in the afternoon heat.

No rickshaw drivers harangue you mercilessly, instead they crouch in the shadows, perhaps offering a rather halfhearted sales pitch: ‘cheap cheap’.

No crowds, no pushing, no shoving, no spitting.
You can put your elbows away when you leave China and enter Laos, for it’s suddenly very well mannered once more. Smiles, apologies, bowing. Is it all going Japanese again?


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How to…travel from China to Laos overland

Mohan is the only border crossing from China to Laos. There are a number of ways to get there and once you do the procedure is simple as long as you have dollars and long arms.

We took the 15 hour night bus from Dali to Jinghong [180 yuan]. Buses also depart for Jinghong from Lijiang and Kunming. From Jinghong it is an easy three hour bus journey to Mengla [35 yuan] where we had to spend the night to take the morning bus to Luang Prabang, Laos. There is one bus daily that leaves at 7.50am and takes a good 12 hours including immigration and customs time [98 yuan]. It is a sleeper bus so has beds for lounging, not seats; rather a luxurious way to travel when you don’t need to sleep. Buses also depart from Kunming to Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

The bus stops at Mohan, the last town in China before Laos, where everyone disembarks and you walk 100 metres down the road to the immigration queue. Hand is your China departure card and get an exit stamp. You then have to wait to get back on the bus while Chinese customs search under the beds, open people’s boxes and shake coconuts. Then you drive on to Laos.
Three minutes later you get off at Boten, the first town in Laos after China. You can buy your Laos visa upon arrival. Go to the window with the blue sign reading ‘Visa arrival unit’ to fill in a form, and hand over a passport photo, your passport and $35 dollars. You are then given your Laos visa (30 days for Brits).

Next you need to get your arrival stamp. Go to the next window on the left and fill in an arrival form. Take it to the window with the red ’Check in’ sign and join the scrum. Most people going into Laos are Chinese so the Chinese queuing system applies. Sharpen your elbows and wade in. Thrust your passport and form through the window and keep pushing until an official takes it and stamps it. Then you can get back on the bus. For another ten minutes.

Laotian customs follow and depending on what your fellow passengers are carrying this can take some time, an hour or more. Our coach contained boxes of chillies, bags of rice and flour and a sack of cabbages. Why would you take rice and cabbages to Laos?

Finally on the road for the nine hour bus potholing experience and the scenery starts to change. It gets warmer, there are more banana plants and concrete box buildings are replaced by thatch huts on stilts. It starts to feel very tropical and remote. There are noticeably more children in Laos than China and an abundance of potbellied pigs that decrease in number as you head south. Women wear sarongs, not trousers and there is a lot more mud and dust. It is the most extraordinary way to enter a country and was quite a surprise when we terminated in the French style backpacker oasis of Luang Prabang during their Ork Phansa and Lai Hena Fai (end of Buddhist lent and end of rains) Festival. Talk about arriving with a bang!


Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Turning to the bottle?

“We should get some plastic bottles to wee into”.

It wasn’t a typical suggestion from Lara. But then, we weren't in a typical situation.

We found ourselves crammed in with 30 other Chinese people on a sleeper bus down to the south of Yunnan province.

Catching the bus at Dali, we found the bus almost full. The choice of beds was thus limited…to the very beds any traveller wishes to avoid on China rudimentary rural roads - those right at the back.

Squeezed into our five-foot berths, clutching our bags tightly to our persons, we weren’t exactly eagerly anticipating this journey. 15 hours, through the night, on a bus reeking of BO and full of scary-looking types. Oh and with no toilet on board.

We had been warned about these buses: ripe for thieves; poor safety records; drivers popping funny-looking pills to keep themselves awake.

Perhaps we should have headed back to Kunming rather than attempt this shortcut, skirting along the edge of the Burmese border all the way down to Xishuangbanna in the tropical south of Yunnan.

A tubby chap in front of us didn’t seem to share our concerns. He yawned, scratched his crotch and smoothed his whispy moustache, a soup-strainer teasing the corners of his mouth.

Tubby wore the usual attire of polyester jogging bottoms, a worn-out t-shirt and pungent nylon socks. No wonder the bus stank.

After an hour and a half on the road, the driver turned off and steered his vehicle into a dusty yard. On opposite sides dirty fuel tankers were lined up. A couple of mangy dogs drifted about in front of them, sniffing each others’ behinds.

At one end I could make out what looked like a public lavatory, at the other a chap in a old cream suit and spotty tie implored this new batch of potential customers to savour the delights of his dingy restaurant.

I plumped for the WC. I soon wished I hadn’t. A stygian nightmare of a place.

Stepping inside I was almost overpowered by the reek of a thousand digested stir fries.

Beneath bare bulbs a line of grunting men squatted, their behinds clearly visible to all for each ‘cubicle’ consisted of a low wall, minus door. Above an overspilling trench, which had clearly long since had a good flush through, they crouched, shouting to their mates and even smoking cigarettes.

I desperately searched for a free, and perhaps slightly sanitary spot and made my leave as soon as possible. Back on earth’s surface I staggered out into the yard, gulping in air like an asphyxiated asthmatic.

Walking over into the half-light of the restaurant entrance, I came across Tubby and his wife. He stood proud, his legs far apart and hands on his hips, making half-hearted stretches and fully-committed guttural sounds.

Tubby’s copious burps rattled the windows, his hocking-up rocked the ground. The earth nicely coated in his spittle he raised his t-shirt and patted his rotund midriff contentedly.

At last, when he had run out of cigarettes our driver reappeared and squeezed into his seat behind the wheel. We were back on the road.

Many passengers chose to eschew the charms of Jackie Chan on the temperamental on-board televisions and got down to the serious business of sleeping. We did similar. Or tried to. A good night’s kip on this night bus soon proved to be rather elusive.

The road conditions were atrocious, with more bumps than flat. And our driver seemed to have a taste for offroading. Indeed, speeding through the mountains, I wonder whether our bus touched asphalt at all during that long, long night.

Lying in my prime anti-gravitational positions at the back of the bus I seemed to spend more of the time in mid-air than on my bunk.

Whilst Lara had wisely found a belt of some sort with which she managed to strap herself firmly to her berth I contented myself with shooting up into the air at every bump. Crashing back down onto my bunk I winced with the impact

Sleep, or at least more than the odd doze, was impossible. Instead, in between the snatched periods of semi-conciousness, I grasped the handrails and admired the landscape, bathed in the light of the full moon.

The road intermittently followed the course of the Lancang River, destined to become the mighty Mekong at the Laotian border.

Having already come across this river, on the fringes of the Tibetan plateau, this river will soon become an old acquaintance, as we follow it, on and off in the next few weeks, through Laos, along the border with Thailand, across Cambodia and down into Vietnam, where it finally empties into the sea, chanelled through the Mekong Delta.

Leaving the river behind for now, through my sleep-deprived haze I watched the mountains of the north gave way to smooth green hills, decked with rice terraces and rubber plantations, interspersed by banana plantations and the odd remote village.

We had crossed the tropic of Cancer.

By first light the scenery was decidedly tropical and I was decidedly disoriented as we pulled into our destination, Jinhong, a staging post for our journey down into Laos.

Still, mustn't complain: at least I didn't need to turn to the bottle.


Monday, 13 October 2008

How to…travel around China

With an area of nearly 10 million square kilometres and a population of over a billion, a good public transport system is essential to China. We have been surprised and relieved at how easy it has been to get around.

Travelling by train in China is the best way to see the bits in between; the real life away from the sights and cities. However, catching a train is manic and buying a ticket a trial. It’s a very Chinese experience.

You can only buy tickets from the city you are departing from. In Shanghai main station this is at window 43 and in Beijing main station it’s at the window labelled ’foreigners’. You can also buy tickets at ticket booking offices in town or from your hostel, for a small commission. Staff at train stations rarely speak English so get a local (such as hostel staff) to write down your destination and desired class of travel in Chinese before you go. You can find train routes and timetables at or

There are five classes of train travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, standing. The quality of each depends on the age of the train. The Z trains are the best, with T and D being the next best. We went for soft sleeper on a Z train, or should I say hotel on tracks, from Shanghai to Beijing. We were sharing with Mr Chair and a woman who’s husband lived in Shanghai (she lived in Beijing), in an air conditioned berth with clean, crisp sheets, duvets, towels and two pillows each. You are given complimentary slippers (useful in the rather sloppy toilet) and a flask of boiling water to make tea and pot noodles [475yuan, 12 hours]. From Beijing to Xi’an we took another Z but this time an older model and only managed to get beds in a hard sleeper carriage. It’s not called hard because the beds are hard (they’re not) but because it is hard to sleep. You are squeezed in with five others in a cabin that doesn’t have a door. Not great for security or slumber. Only one pillow this time and no slippers, but the flask of boiling water remains. Our third and final train was a K from Xi‘an to Kunming. Steam engines may have gone out in 2000, but the rest of this train was pure 80’s. We were in soft sleeper with one pillow, no towel or slippers and a lot of Trans-Siberian Railway style chintz. The problem wasn’t so much the cabin as the brakes. This wasn’t a hotel but more of a chicken shed on wheels. To slow down or stop the brakes would be suddenly clamped on lurching everyone forward. In my disturbed sleep I imagined us dropping off a cliff. That said, this was the best journey of them all. Forty two hours watching China change as we headed north to south. We passed people ploughing paddy fields with water buffalo, men smoking skinny pipes on the stoop, tiny coal mines, smoky factories and deep limestone ravines eaten away by jade rivers. Further south women were carrying pails of water on yoke sticks, farmers harvested corn in the fields and set the chaff ablaze into the night sky. There are so many people here to watch and as Paul Theroux noted ‘a hill is not a hill in China, it is a vertical way of growing rice.’

Soft seats are normally recliners, hard seats are wooden benches and if you can’t get anything else you can buy a ticket to stand in the hard seat carriage. Upgrading looked to be an easy process. On our journey from Xi’an to Kunming most of the train disembarked at Chongching giving us the cabin to ourselves. A stroll down the train to an empty bed you fancy and a chat with the carriage attendant should enable you to upgrade.

There is reams of information on how to prepare for the Trans Siberian Railway but very little on the Chinese Railways. So, bring toilet paper, soap, food and drink. Hot water is available for tea and noodles and a food cart is wheeled up the corridors regularly selling meals and snacks. The meals are good. In hard sleeper cabins there is only one light so take a torch to read and ear plugs and an eye mask to block out the light and piped music, which starts early.

When catching your train leave plenty of time get to the station (city transport and roads are unpredictable) and to go through the departure procedure. Allow 30 minutes to an hour before boarding time to put your bags through security scanners and to work out where to go in the gargantuan train stations. The neon board will give the departure lounge number for your train. From here you will be told thirty minutes before departure which platform you need and then the scrum beings. This is a remarkable and unforgettably Chinese experience. A trainfull of passengers all pushing, shoving and elbowing their way to their carriage so that they can be the first on the train. The scrum is all over in ten minutes and then you can leisurely stroll on and find your berth. I don’t understand the rush, all tickets are numbered. Once the train has departed the carriage attendant will swap your ticket for a plastic card. She will then wake you up an hour before arrival to swap it back again. Another unfathomable feature of train travel in China.

Where there are no trains there are buses. Big ones, small ones, express ones and sleeper ones. During our limited travels in Yunnan province, the roads were pretty good and the buses frequent and adequate. Turn up at the station on the day of travel to buy your ticket. The sleeper bus is a new phenomenon to me - beds instead of seats on a bus. It’s not as bad as I thought although I offer the following tips:
*Board at the point of origin and arrive early to get seats at the front of the bus (minimises the impact of bumps) by a window (for views and to control air flow);
*Take a pillowcase or T-shirt to put over the pillow. The mattress and bedding are filthy;
*Use the seatbelt. It’s the only way to stop yourself being propelled into the air over every bump (we were at the back). I fastened it tight around my waist and arms and slept on my back;
*Use the duvet as a pillow/padding to prevent your head being bashed against the sides when cornering; and
*Don’t drink very much. The bus has no toilet but does make occasional stops.
As a bonus on the bigger buses and journeys over 3 hours you will normally be treated to a film that features at least three kung-fu sequences.

Around town
Beijing and Shanghai have excellent, if not heaving, underground networks. City buses are slow but to the point and can be packed to a rib crushing density. Taxis are affordable, but of course, bike is best.


Sunday, 12 October 2008

Crazy Mama

“You chicken”, the boisterous lady says to me, “You chicken”.

This was some welcome to Lijiang. I didn’t know what to say. Here I was, only minutes off the bus and the owner of our guesthouse was insulting me.

But before I had time to muster up my meagre reserves of British pluck and strongly object, in the nicest way possible, Lara interjected: the lady means ‘check in’.

Such misunderstandings during our time in China have not been uncommon but this one was notable for one particular reason: this was Mama Naxi’s house.

The redoubtable matriach of a large guesthouse, set around two courtyards off one of Lijiang’s many alluring little cobblestone alleys, Mama Naxi’s fame must surely reach well beyond this ancient city, situated in the far north of Yunnan.

Located in a beautiful little street, bordered by a small, willow-lined stream and festooned with red lanterns Mama’s could cater for the affluent tourist. But, as a popular backpackers’ haunt it is no Hilton.

The rooms are filthy, the toilets unmentionable and the …. Our room was no better: cold and damp, with exposed wires, peeling and stained wallpaper, dirty bed sheets, a broken toilet and many slugs in residence.

But it has, as they say, its own charm.

We made the mistake of entering the common area at dinner time and found ourselves swept up and deposited at a time, squeezed in amongst hungry hikers before we had chance to even protest that we weren’t hungry.

Chaos reigned: rice flew everywhere as staff ladelled it out from big plastic tubs; dogs begged scraps off guests and endless plates of steaming, greasy stir fries were plonked down on the tables, their contents scattering onto all surfaces. ‘Please’ a young Israeli sitting at my table groaned, ‘ no more’.

The place is raining cats and dogs. Kittens play-fight in the yards, their parents dozing in broken old chairs, puppies yap excitedly and older dogs scratch themselves and leave little presents for unwitting backpackers to step in.

The witless young staff wonder about, the girls scowling and ignoring the guests, the boys on internet chatrooms and singing the occasional line, in broken English, from a soppy love song. ‘Oh babeeeee…’

Like all Chinese, they are always eating. If you’re lucky enough to get the information you need it’ll most likely be through a mouthful of noodles.

Papa Naxi, in an old jacket, mills about mixing up food orders, a cigarette drooping from his lip. It’s been a long time since he wore the trousers, if ever.

And presiding over all this, Mama Naxi rules the roost, barking orders and acting like some kind of oriental Christine Hamilton.

Nothing happens without the great lady. You want a bus? Ask Mama. Visit Tiger Leaping Gorge? Mama come.

You don’t have to wait long. Soon a loud, hoarse voice reverberates off the courtyard walls as the Mama returns. She sweeps and immediately you find your plans torn up and rebuilt the Mama-way.

She talks me through the logistics of visiting nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, whilst applying a fearsome-looking salve to one of her pooches nether-regions.

‘YouTigerbweakfarstsewenturtybusseightturty.Youbreakfastyoubus. Nopwoblem.’

Nothing seems to be a problem to Mama Naxi.

Except perhaps her grasp on the English language. Her choice of words is perplexing - ‘YousleepwithMama’ - her tone of voice overbearing - ‘‘Yousithavedinner.’

And, like Craig David, she has the amusing habit of referring to herself in the third person: ‘MamaTigerdriveyou.’; ‘Mamadinnergiveyou’.

Enthusiastic, hard-working, indominatable, Mama is a wonder. She shows genuine interest in your plans, welcomes back previous guests with open arms and showers leaving guests with hugs and presents. Whilst you are in Lijiang, Mama is your mother.
She is perhaps typical of the Naxi (pronounced Nashi), the predominant local ethnic group, where a woman is the head of the family and inheritance is determined by matrilineal descent.
Naxi women shoulder a great deal of the heavy work. In the streets of Lijiang tourists watch with wonder as stolid, stooped, elderly women, with weatherbeaten faces and rough hands carry huge bundles of vegetables and firewood on their backs.

They wear a rather splendid and prim uniform of blue apron, criss-crossed with white sashes and topped off by sturdy shoes and a battered old peaked cap.

As I type this two hesitant-looking young French backpackers poke their heads into the courtyard. Mama’s onto them in a trice, calling them over to her, picking fleas out of a dog’s fur and bombarding them with information. ‘Mamayouwannabustiger. Mamagiveyouroom.’, she rasps.

Thoroughly bewildered, they nervously whisper to each other at the gate, make their excuses and rapidly leave.

They’ll never know what they missed. Chickens.


How to…trek Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province is a stunning and refreshing change from the cities of China. The air is clean, the views breathtaking and there are only a few people working the fields and living in the scattered mountain villages. Getting to this remote part of China and trekking the gorge is straightforward and rewarding once you have gathered the information, but it can be hard to come by.

The trek starts from the village of Qiaotou, where you pay the 50 yuan entrance fee to the Gorge. You can get here by bus or minibus from Lijiang bus station (25 yuan) or from a hostel. We found the easiest way was to book the minibus from Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in Lijiang. It departs at 8.30am, takes nearly three hours and costs 20 yuan.

No official maps of the trail exist, so times and distances vary according to which hand-drawn photocopied map you pick up. The map below served us well. From Qiaotou it is a good hour to the Naxi Guesthouse, the perfect place for lunch. Then begins an arduous slog up the infamous 28 bends to a height of 2,670m (too low for altitude sickness, great height for views), taking a couple of hours. Men with horses may follow you up the hill teasing you with the option for an easy ride up costing 100 yuan. A further hour downhill takes you to Tea Horse Guesthouse with comfy beds and the cheapest beer we found in the hills.

A leisurely hour’s amble on the second day and we arrived at Half Way Guesthouse. The views from the swing chairs on the cafĂ© terrace are amazing and it looks an excellent place to stay as well. The guesthouses are well spaced to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner when you want them and all sell bottled water. You just need to take waterproofs, suntan lotion, a hat, warm clothes for the evening, your toothbrush and a spare pair of pants.

Another three hours walking through waterfalls takes you to Tina’s Guesthouse (passing a couple of others on route) where you can get a minibus back to Lijiang at 4pm (50 yuan). Alternatively there is a minibus to Qiaotou (where you can take the bus back to Lijiang or on to Shangri-La) that costs 80 yuan - wait around and split the cost with other travellers。

There are more guesthouses along the road from Tina’s, but if you’re planning to spend a few nights in the mountains I’d recommend staying in the guesthouses earlier along the trail (before Tina’s) away from the road. You can carry on to the very end of the Gorge in Daju, but the walk is on a road and is apparently less spectacular and the ferry across the Yangtze difficult to get in time for the last bus back to Daju at midday.

The trail is interesting and varied in features from waterfalls and overhangs to Naxi villages and a temple in the rock. Red arrows painted on rocks point the way. The ground is clay so very quickly gets slippery when it rains. Check the forecast before you go and ask the locals because the mountains are prone to landslides. The drive back along the low road is a clear demonstration of the power of nature over byways。
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a rare treat to get into rural China and escape the noise and hassle of the towns and cities. For more detailed information ask Sean at

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Special price

“Hello lady! Good price! Special price!” These calls echo around me as I stroll down the street, any street, anywhere in China. “Hello watch!” “Hello T-shirt”, are also common; it’s enough to give you an identity crisis.

The informal free market is alive and kicking in China. And Caucasian inflation is rampant. Goods are rarely priced and haggling is expected. The Chinese have a saying, ‘foreigners are easy to fool’, and they try their best to do so. The cheeky vendors initially quote exorbitantly high prices. The most ridiculous quote I received was 180 yuan (£14) for a postcard. Needless to say I laughed in her face and walked away. As Mr T might say, I pity the fool. You can expect prices in shops and the market to be inflated by at least 100 percent. But the sellers know they are pushing their luck and usually come down to a more agreeable price; £1 rather than £15 for a mug, for instance.

Bartering can be an amusing process. I am rubbish at it, but Tom has skills. Given that neither seller nor buyer speak the same language it becomes a battle over who can spout more rubbish. Tom gives them the low-down on Grangehill or discusses the Credit Crunch in exchange for whispers from the sellers of, ‘Okay, normally I give people this price but for you I give you this [shows calculator] but sshhhh [finger on lips] it is our secret.’

When you enter a shop you are routinely followed. This especially happens in book shops, pharmacies and clothes shops. The sales assistant silently glides behind you peering over your shoulder. I have no idea why. They don‘t offer any help and seem affronted when you ask a question as if their cover has been blown. It must therefore be the Chinese version of in-store CCTV. It can be quite fun giving the assistants the run around: taking the most convoluted route between the shop shelves, doubling back, going down dead ends and stopping to ponder the more embarrassing products such as laxative tea and pants. But whatever you do you can’t shake them off.


Monday, 6 October 2008

The numbers game

China is an enormous country, sprawling across a fair chunk of the globe, yet it often feels overwhelmingly, stiflingly crowded.

Unlike their Japanese neighbours, crammed in on a relatively small slither of land and yet still fanatically well-behaved and respectful of each others’ privacy, the Chinese have no concept of personal space.

And if you’re unlucky enough to be a ’foreigner’ in this land you will find yourself under constant surveillance from thousands of inquisitive pairs of eyes. Smile, you’re on 24-hour TV.

But whilst you’re an object of attention don’t expect any special privileges, particularly when it comes to travelling around. You’re just another animal fighting in the frenzy for a place at the water trough.

When the bus or train hoves into view, you must resolutely suppress your English sense of justice and fair play, forget any pretence at politeness and never ever attempt to queue. Rather, roll up your sleeves, dive into the maelstrom and bash them out the way with 50 pounds of backpack.

This may seem the very height of rudeness but in China it seems vital for survival as demand outstrips supply.

As we push our way through the throngs crowding outside train stations, bus stations and just about every point in between we frequently find ourselves asking: just how many people live here?

Travelling around China has become for us a bit of a numbers game. In a country of 1.3 billion the population of the average city in this country seems to put their European equivalent in the shade.

20 million in Shanghai…17 million in Beijing…higher!, Brucie, higher!…8 million in Xi’an…10 million in Chengdu…5 million in Chongqing.

Chongqing? A few months ago I’d not even heard of it yet this is a city which, if you extend it to the municipality, numbers some 30 million souls - equivalent to half that of the entire UK.

Like many others cities we passed through Chongqing seems to be further expanding. Above the murky brown waters of the Yangtze the skyline is crowded by cranes constructing high rises for the burgeoning population.

Further up the river, we passed two huge power stations in quick succession, each surrounded by massive heaps of coal. Such is the scale of China’s population growth and economic expansion it is building on average two of these CO2-spewing monsters every week.

Jung Chang, in her extraordinary account of living in Mao’s China, Wild Swans, apportions considerable blame for the population explosion to the Cultural Revolution.

One of the effects of the many barmy policies introduced by the revered Chairman was to loosen birth control, hence increasing the population by 200 million.

Not that subsequent leaders haven’t recognised the need to act. The Chinese government maintains its one child policy has been at least a partial success, claiming it has prevented 400 million births since its introduction in 1979. However, despite this the population is set to creep up yet further.

It all left me wondering: how is china going to cope with population growth on this scale? Where will it find the resources need to sustain this growth? How will the country meet the growing consumer demands of its citizens as economic growth allows more of them to aspire to Western standards of living?

And, for those of us in the West, how will we cope?


Saturday, 4 October 2008

Bicycling in Beijing

Never go to China during a national holiday. If you do, you will be fully aware that this is the most populous country on earth. Yesterday, 1st October, when the Chinese celebrate the day that the communist party came in to power in 1949, I foolishly decided to go and visit the preserved body of Chairman Mao in his sparkly crystal coffin in Tiananmen Square. What I didn’t know was that 750,000 other tourists were also moving around Beijing, over a quarter of which were on their way to Tiananmen Square to see their great leaders lay wreaths and release thousands of pigeons into the sky.

The metro, although clean and efficient, was heaving. It felt like I was on my way to the Chinese new year parade in London. Large groups of hip teenagers adorned in fluorescents and perms, elderly couples holding hands and extended families with a gaggle of babies with slits in their trousers (instead of nappies, I understand) squeezed themselves and others into the packed carriages. I was enjoying the company so much that I missed the stop for Tiananmen, twice. Realising that the station must be closed I disembarked at the next stop. Outside I was greeted by a moving mass of flag waving crowds all yelling at and jostling one another, not aggressively, just in the way that Chinese communicate. I went with the flow for a kilometre and then turned back. There was no way I was going to get to Mao’s Mausoleum before it closed and I had no idea how to get back given that all the nearby metro stations were closed or exit only and the surrounding traffic was at a standstill.

Back at the hostel and jilted at having my sightseeing plans scuppered, I was cheered up by Tom’s proposal to hire bikes and tour the hutongs. It was his best suggestion of the week. Bikes totally change Beijing. It suddenly shrinks in size and becomes manageable and friendly. Gone are the elbow and blocking moves on public transport and the lingering stares. Welcome are the cheery ‘hellos’ from chaps playing majong in the street and the freedom to go where and when you want.

Cycling in Beijing is not as scary as it looks. The bike lanes are generous. Not just a piddley green line painted by the side of the road or on a pavement as in the UK, but an actual bike lane the size of that given to cars. You therefore rarely come into contact with the other traffic apart from when you need to overtake buses at the stops. That said, bike lanes have no rules so you need to have your wits about it. But it means you can stop to check the map, do a u-turn or take a video whilst going along (see below) without anyone batting an eyelid let alone dinging their bell. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.

Cycling through the wonderful maze of narrow, grey hutongs is the best part. You have to ride by the bell, letting the pedestrians know you are there as you weave in and out. You glide through delicious wafts of steamed dumplings and fried dough, pass by hairdressers and (genuine) massage parlours, dodge children skipping and come across wonderful overgrown courtyards and little known temples. Hutongs are street life and on a bike you are part of the action.

Bike is also quicker than bus, underground or walking. To get to Tiananmen Square from our hostel by bus usually takes over an hour, by tube 45 minutes and during a national holiday it takes forever. By bike it is a guaranteed 30 minutes every time.
So take our advice and avoid China during national holidays and, when you can, cycle. It is without a doubt the most pleasurable way to see and be part of Beijing, especially on a national holiday.


Friday, 3 October 2008

The joy of slow travel?

October 1st: China’s National Day, when people across the country celebrate the founding of the People‘s Republic of China.

It seems the entire country is on holiday. Here in Xi'an our simple bus trip to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda turned into a world record attempt to stuff as many people into a modest-sized bus as possible.

And out of town, at the Terracotta Warriors museum, we witnessed this world-famous army squaring up to an invasion of epic proportions as a massive and fearsome force of tourists descended on the place, armed to the hilt with Nikons and leisure wear.

Many take advantage of the ensuing week’s holiday to go and visit friends and relatives in other parts of the country. Given that this is a country of some 1.3 billion that’s an awful lot of people needing train tickets.

Not, then, the best time to be travelling across in the world’s most populous nation.

Indeed it‘s beginning to seem particularly ambitious to set ourselves the mission of visiting a fair bit of this vast country during this period, then hopping over the border to Laos and taking in a few more parts of South East Asia, before making it in time to Hong Kong in time to catch our boat to North America.

Judith Chalmers didn’t have this kind of trouble.

But then she flew - something we, foolishly or not, have chosen to eschew. Not for us a short hop over China for us, from Xi’an in the north, to Kunming in the south, no we have the delights of a 36 hour train journey ahead of us.

All sleepers, in any direction, let alone where we want to get to, are booked out. Solid. For a week.

So it’s two nights in seats for us. It seems our visit to China is rapidly turning into the 21st Century equivalent of Mao’s Long March.

But of course this is nothing to dread - merely another fine chapter in our epic peregrinations, each one stuffed with interest and oozing with excitement. Across Russia, we were caged in trains for days and it was rather good fun at times. And surely this time they’ll be no scary drunken soldiers seeking our company.

Rather, as we pootle along, through the heart of China, we’ll certainly get to see some of the country and notice the changes around us. Hoorah for slow travel!

So, with the aid of our stiff upper lips, a large bottle of Scotch and a few ipod-ised episodes of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’, we head off for the south.