Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Hugo

The next time you pop down the shops, it’s a good bet that some of the items that end up your bag have once been on a boat.
Whilst humans can whizz through the air, care of Boeing and Airbus, most of the things we buy from aboard stay firmly on the ground. Or at least, the water.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, loaded up on massive container ships and floated across oceans and seas.

The CMA-CGM Hugo is one of these such ships.

Yet calling him a ‘ship’ is to belittle him. He‘s (for surely with a name like that one must break with the convention of making all ships female and address him as such) much more than a ship.

A behemoth, a big beast, a key part of the machine.

Built in a Korean shipyard the Hugo entered service five years ago, one of the largest of his kind.
Standing 62m tall and measuring over 1,000 foot long, he weighs in at a hefty 90,000 tonnes.

With a draft of 48 feet when fully loaded, and 140 feet wide (just enough to squeeze through the Panama Canal) he is a true titan of the oceans.

This appearance is not deceptive, for he packs a mighty punch as well.

Down in the engine room the impressive Hyundai engine is a huge metal monster, all pistons and pipes, exhausts and flashing lights. It‘s capable of producing 93,000 horsepower - enough to turn the propeller at up to 94 rpm and push the boat along at speeds of up to 26 knots/hour.

Pretty impressive for such a heavy craft.

This is thirsty work of course, at Hong Kong we took in a mere 5,500 metric tons of heavy diesel, enough to power the big fella across the Pacific to LA and back. That’s a fair few barrels of the black stuff, yet still far more fuel efficient than an aeroplane.

All this power of course is with one purpose in mind - to carry our precious cargo across an ocean.

And the cargo itself is no less impressive. From the bridge it lies stretched out, nine rows to the bow, another five rows astern. Big heavy 40 foot containers, rust and rocking in the swell, nine across and five deep.

Below, in the holds, lie another nine layers of containers, of equal proportions.

This all adds up to a maximum capacity of some 8,200 containers (though, thanks to recent global economic jitters we’re only stacked up to about three quarters capacity).

It’s hardly surprising then that a huge heavy lifting operation swings into action each time one of those vessels hoves into view over the horizon.

The containers resemble massive, rusting lego bricks, green, red, yellow, blue. They’re stamped with their companies names: Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, Hanjin, MSC. Unfamiliar names carrying familiar brands.

We don’t know exactly what’s inside, but we can hazard a guess. Consumer items from the factories of China to the living rooms of America. TVs and ipods, cheap clothes and food.

I’m told this tub is so big it can carry enough cargo to completely fill a shopping centre of one million-square-feet, stacking the shelves some eight feet high. That’s a lot of Christmas presents.
The Hugo is a modern marvel, a testament to the engineering brilliance of mankind and his capacity for logic and organisation.

And, statistics aside, he’s a living, breathing symbol of the interconnected, interdependent, inexorable nature of global trade today.

You don’t need a credit crunch to realise how reliant countries are on each other for the goods that make them tick. Just take a look around Hugo: his various parts and machinery, his crew and destinations.

Consider his multinational character: Korean-built, French-owned, German-run, serving the peoples of China, America and probably way beyond. This makes him the maritime equivalent of a Hollywood movie, key components coming from different countries.

And scan his cargo inventory, with products made, originating from, or heading to, a whole host of other nations.
He may fly a German flag but surely he belongs to the world.
Running the Hugo requires a compliment of 8 officers (German and Polish) and 16 crew (all Filopino), surprisingly few for so large a vessel.

These men are extremely busy for, alongside manning the bridge and guiding it across the ocean, the vessel demands constant attention and endless maintenance.

Oiling and welding, washing and cleaning, Safety checks, firedrills, equipment checks, it goes on and on.

There’s a crew to be fed, and cargo to be checked, records to be kept and mountains of paperwork to attend to.

It’s a 24-hour job, with the crew rotating in shifts, long nights on the bridge, watching the screens, or in the heat of the engine room, monitoring banks of bewildering dials.

All’s ship-shape and tightly-run, working to local time, following the 24 hour clock and keeping rigorously to schedule.

Safety is paramount, fire the greatest fear. Safety checks are made day and night,; warning signs de riguer; checklists are exhaustive, neatly painted yellow and black stripes mark out every possible trip hazard.

The Hugo runs the ‘Pearl River Express’ route, between the southern coast of China and the West coast of the USA. Trade between these two countries is increasing faster and faster and boats such as this are its workhorses, powering this growth.

Before boarding we realised the significance of the shipping business, however it wasn’t until we were on board that we came to realise just how big a piggy bank it was upon which we had hitched a ride.

This is a multi-billion pound industry - the sums of money involved are mind boggling. In California, our destination, the value of international trade to California tops $350 billion every year. If the Hugo went down he would take tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars with him.

Hugo is one of many container ships; CMA CGM (his French owners) alone own or have on order 17 of this class of vessel.

This may sound rather extravagant but then they do boast quite a considerable turnover - last year, for example, their revenue stood at some $11.8 billion.

Money aside, perhaps these shipping lines are of even greater significance. The Hugo and others are witnesses to the shifts in the global economy, carriers of change as China expands and others follow in its wake.

He’s websites and restaurants and supermarket shelves. He’s factories, clothes shops and online retailers.

See, much more than a ship.


Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Tintin on the Pacific

As I type this the laptop screen rocks slowly back and forth with metronomic regularity, swaying in time with the desk, the floor and the entire room.

I gaze out of the window in front of me to take in the view: mighty waves slipping by; crests breaking; clouds drifting across an azure sky. And endless, endless water, stretching to the horizon and far beyond.

It’s not the most typical of sights. But then isn’t the most typical of surroundings. We are on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Having travelled most of the 21,000 miles we have covered so far by land (with the odd ferry thrown in ) we now take to the water, hitching a ride for 15 days aboard a container ship bound for LA, from the far east of the Pacific to the far west.

The Pacific Ocean - the very words conjure up images of ambition and adventure, it’s a byword for the exotic, the far-flung, the unknown. The neon-lit waters of Hong Kong harbour to the to the surf-bound coast of California - sounds far more interesting then Chek Lap Kok to LAX.

No identikit airports and long, dismal queues, no leg-crunching seats and foul, plastic food. No predictable movies or no 9/11 paranoia, no screaming babies or snoring adults.

Just the two of us and a few crew on a big boat. On an enormous blue ocean. With no land for days.
Just water. Lots and lots of it. We‘re crossing the biggest body of water in the world, one that covers a third of the entire globe.

My primal fears still to stir inside. Drowning, shipwreck, seasickness, scary monsters in the depths below and ferocious storms in the skies above.

Stirring up memories: seasickness and Stugeron on the ferry to Cherbourg; childhood stories of shipwrecked mariners; songs about drowning,; films about storms; news of sinking vessels; TV celebrity ‘survival’ shows featuring Carol Thatcher….

Too late.

We’ve hauled the anchors now, cast off the ropes. We’re heading out into the unknown, the unquantified, the unpredictable. There’s no way out at sea. No one can hear you scream…

Deep breath.

Take a look at our surroundings. It’s palatial!

As the only passengers we’ve been given the owner’s cabin - a bedroom, large living room and en-suite.

There’s a TV, DVD and Hi-fi, plus a fridge, a desk and large sofa. 15 days in which we can live out of cupboards and drawers rather than the cramped confines of a smelly old rucksack.

No dodgy Chinese wiring here, no leaking toilet or dripping taps, no filthy sheets or cacophonous street sounds.

Just a gentle hum from the engine, and the steady rock of the ocean.

There’s a laundry and mess room, where we dine with the officers. Three hot meals a day, served to us at our own table.

There’s a a small gym, with exercise bike, weights machine, table tennis and darts board.

There’s a sauna for Lara and even a mini swimming pool.

We’re are treated as honoured guests: the officers go out of their way to guide us around; the crew invite us to sing karaoke (I wisely turned down), play basketball (I was resolutely thrashed) and ping pong (ditto).

In between eating and fraternising we doze on the deck, stretched out on sunloungers or dip into the boat’s impressive DVD collection.

All the time we little moving world sways gently around, sometimes placid, sometimes vigorous.

This can present certain challenges: how to eat soup in a swell for one, and how to sleep when the boat’s rolling and pitching.

Other challenges lie ahead no doubt, but in the meantime I admire another sunset and gaze at the horizon.

I feel like Tintin, my hero, the daring young reporter.

He regularly set off on his adventures by boat, where exciting events would take place: Snowy would get attacked by a shark; Thompsons would wear old-fashioned bathing costumes and Captain Haddock would invariably get drunk on whisky.

And always there was some shady type on board, a stowaway, or a crooked crew member, usually a shifty Balkan-looking type with crossed eyebrows and a dodgy ‘tasche.

Best keep an eye out. After all, anything can happen at sea.


A dragon, awake?

From high up on our ship, the Hugo, I gaze out across Hong Kong’s International Container Terminal.
This pulsating new world is full of strange new sights and sounds, like some massive new planet straight from the mind of George Lucas.

Against a backdrop of tower blocks, between the sea and sweeping expressways this massive port never rests. Huge metal containers are neatly stacked up, one on top of the other, row after row after row, like some monstrous supermarket.

Giant machines preside over these containers, mechanical monsters staking out their territory. War of the Worlds meets Bladerunner.

The huge cranes run on rails, their massive legs either side of the rows of containers. One in front of us slides regally up to a heavy container, plucks it up into the air and plonks it onto a waiting, long, gaunt trailer.

The lorry’s chassis shudders under the impact; in this land of giants large trucks seem tiny, one of hundreds of automobile ants scuttling around the crowded loading bays, in a constant rush to keep their Queen fed.

She waits at the dockside - an enormous gantry crane.

This leviathan, one of many lined up along the waterfront, dwarfs even the picker cranes, her operator, high up in his cabin, a mere speck in the sky.
With a pull of a lever his charge reaches down and relives the lorry of its burden, whisking a 40 foot container high into the air, his cabin shooting out over a waiting container ship, and swiftly lowering the cargo into the bowels of the boat.
Another container loaded - a few thousand to go.
A few hours sailing up the coast, from the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong to ‘the mainland’ proper and the port of Yantian, the scene is repeated. Great containers taken on board, others unloaded.
Yantian is the port for Shenzhen - one of China‘s maritime gateways to the world. As we waited at the dockside I mused on our recent visit to this city.

Back in the 1980s, in the days of Deng, the enlightened Premier opened up this little settlement, on the borders of the British-held New Territories to outside economic forces.

As one of his Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen was allowed to wander down the path of the ‘capitalist running dogs’, to experience the pleasures and pains of capitalism relatively unhindered - something unthinkable only a few years before.
Shenzhen rocketed in size, from a town of 30,000 in 1970 to the present bulging megalopolis of some 14 million. It’s ballooning was such that, by 1990 the city had even outgrown the local energy supply, requiring the construction of a brand new nuclear power station.

Today other Chinese cities have caught up and share the same appearance as Shenzen. Booming metropolises in this overstuffed duvet of a country.
There’s less to distinguish them from each other (and perhaps from many elsewhere in the world?) as they tend towards the universal blueprint from which many local authorities seem to take their cue.
They’re becoming identikit cities, as if they are constructed from some massive ready-to-assemble pack. Cram your steel and glass skyscrapers into the centre; thread your huge, radiating freeways out to the edges.
We hurried headlong through Shenzhen into Hong Kong, crossing the border into Lo Wu.

A filthy little river, strewn with rubbish and framed by barbed wire and huge hoardings for the latest electronic gadgets denotes the border. You cross it via an enclosed pedestrian walkway, through shopping arcades and following signs reading ‘please leave the country by [the] lift’.

By doing so we followed in the footsteps of millions of immigrant Chinese who once left their homeland in search of a better life in the West.

Back to the present, on board the Hugo, I considered how these migratory patterns are changing, as the balance of economic power in the world shifts East.
China’s ’economic miracle’ is by no means unheard of back home. It’s origins are dissected in the Sundays and Newsnight specials, its knock-on effects muttered about down the pub and the gym.
It’s expanding its economic muscles, growing in confidence and might.
From the 50 million containers it moves annually at present this is projected to grow to a gobsmacking 100 million in 2020.
This region is right at the forefront of this.
I need look no further than the scene in front of me, unfolding before us. Mountains of manufactured goods, all bagged up and ready to be shipped, direct to our doorsteps.

Indeed here in Shenzhen are produced all the world’s ipods and apple computers (surely then without this city our global civilisation would take a terrible tumble).

Yet it seems strange that this is occurring in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line, where people still pull handcarts.

Economic progress in China it seems comes at different speeds for different people.

Still the giant - or perhaps more appropriately, the dragon - is awake, he’s fully alert and throwing all his muscle into it.
The forces of global power are shifting, revolving around pivots such as Yantian.

In the West we seem to delight in prophesizing our doom here, scaring ourselves silly. Of course that doesn’t stop us relocating our factories and services here, or buying their products, in our desperate lust for a bargain.
Nor does it allow for there the argument that perhaps there is room for more than one economic superpower in this new world order.
Must the international order follow the laws of Newtonian physics, where the rise of one will see the consequent decline of the other?

In this other power, the United States of course, there’s considerable concern: talk about power already seeping away; the inevitable end of the American hegemony, the inexorable decline of US might.
Is this the true picture of what’s happening? We’ll soon find out for ourselves as we travel between these two great countries.

Uncle Sam’s up next but in the meantime there’s the small matter of a great Ocean to cross.


Symphonies of Lights

Hong Kong Island was ablaze with the 8pm music and light show. The grey concrete and glass skyscrapers of day suddenly took on individual personalities as they jovially flashed and jiggled their multitude of rainbow lights and sent lasers into the night sky in synchrony with the retro electronic beat of the music. All very Orbital and quite spectacular. (see video below)

Watching the show for a second time from the deck of our cargo ship the distant skyscraper disco paled in comparison to the dockyard rave around us. CMA CGM Hugo was being loaded up. Six thousand forty foot containers were being stacked like duplo blocks in the holds. Cranes the size of skyscrapers wheeled along the port side flashing and beeping as they went, picking up crates from the back of lorries, tugging them into the air and bringing them crashing down with a metal on metal thud on top of the layer below. The ship shook with each deposit.

There were six cranes dancing on our ship, hundreds more in the port moving and stacking boxes, and ships all around us being laden in a similar way. All glistening with flashing warning lights. Set to the accompaniment of a repetitive beats (engines thumping) and bleeps (reversing lorries, moving cranes) soundtrack with overlying noises (crash and click of containers) that would make Aphex Twin jealous.

It is a gargantuan operation and must have a powerful, logistical mind behind it all. Someone must know what is in the surrounding sea of containers (the officers on the ship do not), where they have come from and where they are going. Containers from the stacks stored on shore are lifted onto lorries that bring them around to the ship edge where a small man in a control box dangling from the top of a crane picks up, drags and drops the containers on board. The men operating these pods must be regular winners on the fairground snatch and grab games. Between them, they load thirty containers onto the ship every hour. It’s a long track.

This is the international world of shipping. This is how Made In China products arrive in our shops. And tonight I feel like a VIP guest at an exclusive underground party. Hong Kong International Port is where the Symphony of Lights is really at.



Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Time to redraw the map?

Goodbye Asia. After four months travelling across this massive continent we’re finally leaving, catching a ride across the Pacific, to another great landmass - North America.

I have to admit I feel rather deflated. We’ve grown used to our exotic, exciting, enchanting surroundings. It’s going to be a wrench to leave.

Entering through the low mountains of the Urals, exciting via the warm waters of the South China Sea, we’ve experienced a continent of great variety, a rich panoply of all that life has to offer.

We’ve passed through the towns and villages, the cities and regions that make up this vast continent, dawdling where we can, trying to take it all in and make sense of the world changing gradually around us.

Some of these changes have been subtle, others dramatic, but at the end of them we‘ve experienced the extremes.

We’ve walked amongst millions, in some of the most crowded places on earth, Hong Kong and Tokyo, Beijing and Saigon.
And wandered alone in the wilds of Siberia, and the mountains of Yunnan.
We’ve travelled through amazing scenery, from the immense taiga of Siberia to the the dense jungles of Laos, from the great peaks of Yunnan to the karst islands of Vietnam.
And seen fantastic creatures, from Gibbons to Whales, Giant Hornbills to Nerpa seals.

We’ve crossed some of the planet’s mightiest rivers, the Yangtze and the Mekong, the Volga and the Ob.
And swum in tropical seas and icy Siberian lakes; bathed in jungle-clad waterfalls and volcanic springs.
We’ve feasted on delicious curries and dumplings, drunk Vodka and Bia Hoi.
And sampled strange food, from pomelos, dragon fruit and rambutan to grasshoppers, sea urchins and raw horse meat
We’ve choked in the smog of Shanghai, bartered in the markets of Saigon.
And sweated in Cambodian jungles and shivered in the guesthouses of Guangxi.
We’ve travelled between these places in memorable ways: on the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Japanese Shinkansen; on the back of motorbikes through Saigon and in bouncing sleeper buses through China.
And stayed in a wide range of places: from slick business hotels to leaking tents; from sandy beach huts to grim youth hostels; from couch surfing to disused buses.
But most of all we’ve witnessed humanity in all its forms, fellow humans at their best and their worst, their most familiar and their most bizarre.

We’ve met a million new people, made a thousand new friends. Hokkaido farmers, Siberian environmentalists, Hue hoteliers, Finnish climatologists, Laotian monks, Japanese salaryman, Cambodian moto drivers, Hanoi bread sellers, Russian fighter pilots, Saigon swindlers, Naxi matriarchs,Beijing dumpling vendors, Chinese soldiers...
Buryat, Naxi, Cantonese or Khymer. Mongolian, Beijinger, Korean or Viet.
They’ve mocked and exploited us, they’ve frustrated, irritated. Malicious, swindling, ignorant or desperate.
They’ve welcomed, invited, they’ve shared and delighted. Curious, genuine, sensitive, shy.

We’ve marvelled at their enterprise, from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, selling tuna at dawn in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market to late night lamb kebabs in Xi’an’s muslim quarter.

And we’ve wondered at their religions, from gilded Kyoto temples to alms-seeking Laotian monks, from mysterious Buryat shamans to the Khymer's hindu temples.

We’ve been awed by mankind’s boundless capacity for creation, from the Great Wall(s) of China to the harbourfront of Hong Kong, from the temples of Angkor to Xi’an’s Terracotta Army.

And horrified by his capacity for destruction - from gulags in Siberia to an atom bomb on Hiroshima, from ‘Cultural Revolution‘ in China to genocide in Cambodia.
We’ve seen where Asia’s collided with the west, and witnessed its consequences, violent and benevolent, questionable and malevolent. From the Bund of Shanghai and the French colonial towns of Indo-China, to the baseball stadiums of Japan and the omnipresent English Premier League.
And we’ve seen the effect that Asia has had on our fellow Westerners, enticing and enchanting, beguiling and bewitching. Tour parties and travellers, businessmen and bankers.
They seek the food and the climate, the ancient ideas and the modern gizmos, priceless antiquity and cheap mass-produced.
They leave with reluctance, or don’t leave at all. Suntans, bags bulging, a thousand memories.
I can’t wash these away, unlike the dirt and the sweat. The smells of the markets, the sight of the landscapes; the taste of the street food, the sound of the jungles.

We’ve taken thousands of photos and visited enough temples and street markets to last a lifetime.
We’re developed a hundred new interests and acquired enough hats to supply a hundred pantomimes.
Now we’ll no longer be big-noses, uncouth and clumsy; ignorant people with no god or spirituality.

We won’t face the hassle, we’ll drink the tap water; we’ll sleep in clean rooms and won’t get the staring.
I’ll return to the West a witness to the changes taking place, enthralled by the huge possibilities offered by the lands to the East. These countries are rising, perhaps one day overtaking us.
We hear of the shifts taking place in the tectonic plates of the world‘s economy. We're told that whilst the 20th century was Europe and America’s the 21st belongs to Asia.
Here, around the Pacific Rim, the world’s future will be determined.
On disembarking in the US, the Captain and crew of the Hugo will present us with a map, charting our voyage across the Pacific.
It differs from the orthodox, Atlantic-centric maps we have back home, the globe in my childhood bedroom, the old Michelin in my bag. On these Europe and the North America predominate, the centre of the world.
Instead, this map centres on the Pacific and the nations around it.
In the East it shows countries we have visited - China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand, thrusting economies.
In the West it shows our destination - the US - so long the leader of the pack, but now nervously looking over its shoulder in the direction from which we have travelled.

Are we moving from the future to the past? Is it time to redraw the map?


Hong Kong - in between China and Los Angeles

Hong Kong is, as Tom would call it, a WISM* hotspot. It is a place where the cultures of the country we are leaving and the country we are headed towards collide. Like two records being mixed, rustic, exotic, communist China is faded out and the modern, familiar, capitalist West (in this case Los Angeles) is added in. Hong Kong is those moments in the mix when you wonder if the DJ will miss a beat or make a seamless transition.

As soon as we crossed the border from Shenzhen in China to Lu Wo in Hong Kong (an easy border crossing; simply follow the signs to Hong Kong once you get off the train; British passport holders don‘t need a visa) it felt different. It felt like the concourse at a large British train station and the train into the town centre (Tsim Sha Tsui) was like an overground London underground train. Hong Kong felt unusually familiar with British road names (Dundas Street, Lambeth Walk), double decker buses and fish and chips readily available.
Hong Kong is unashamedly consumerist and much more established in comparison to mainland China. The whole point of Hong Kong seems to be earning money and spending it. The stacks of skyscrapers are emblazoned with the flashing names of banks and financial institutions whilst at street level Prada, DKNY and all the other labels that have been so carefully faked elsewhere in China are authentically on sale.

It is so easy to spend money in Hong Kong. Along with the labels are all the Western coffee shop and restaurant chains, exclusive patisseries and fashionable boutiques, that make parts of it feel like Hampstead in London. Everything in Hong Kong is a lot more expensive than mainland China, but it’s probably cheaper than Los Angeles. After the cheap living of S.E. Asia we needed to prepare for the transition. No more eating in restaurants three times a day, now it‘s convenience stores and cheap holes in the wall.

Like the other island between China and the United States, Hong Kong feels a bit like Japan. Both have a similar blend of East meets West, but whereas Japan cherishes its history, all that obviously remains of Hong Kong’s heritage is the steadfast Star Ferry. Hong Kong has swept the past away and is all about the future, whereas Japan has taken the past and given it a modern edge. Like Soothe, a fantastic Japanese band we saw in Hong Kong harbour, whose tagline is ‘tradition and modernity’ - an edgy modern band performing on traditional Japanese instruments (they were so good I couldn‘t resist a plug).

Another key concept in Hong Kong is up. Everything happens above you. In China life happens on the street, in Hong Kong it happens in the sky. Here, land is at a premium and rents are high, so shops, restaurants and internet cafes are all hidden away up narrow staircases with only a sign and sometimes a tout to let you know they exist. Watching the cranes in the port load cargo onto our ship reminds me of Hong Kong. Upon entering a building, the lift, like the crane, picks you up and drops you off in your box. For rooms there are no more than boxes. It’s a very claustrophobic city.

Hong Kong is a real feat of human engineering and looks quite fantastical. How this tiny island and block of mainland can be such a powerful economic dynamo is amazing. And it’s still growing. Land is being reclaimed from the harbour to build more skyscrapers for the financial sector to fill.

As well as being an awesome creation, to me it looks how I imagine the end point of human civilisation to look. The point when the land is so full that the only place to move is into the sea and where the environment is so polluted the air is brown and it is never gets dark. It does make for an amazing light show though.

Sad as I am to say good bye to Asia’s noodles, dumplings and squiggly writing, Hong Kong has whetted my appetite for cheese, red wine and the ability to communicate in a common language. Hong Kong was the perfect go-between between China and the United States, and the next two weeks on a ship across the Pacific will provide the ideal time to reflect and look forward. Out of the mix and onto the next record.

*World in Slow Motion


Monday, 24 November 2008

We are sailing...

So, farewell Asia.

After four months on the road and rails across this mighty continent, from the low mountains of the Urals to the warm waters of the South China Sea, we will finally bidding a farewell to this huge, diverse chunk of the planet.

Tomorrow we set off into new waters...literally. For the next two weeks our new home will be the CMA CGM Hugo, a container ship sailing across the Pacific Ocean, from Hong Kong to Long Beach, USA.

If you would like to find out quite where we are in our new watery world you can check on our progress here.

Beyond the ocean lie the delights of another continent:North America.

But first we have the small matter of a large pond to cross.

Laying my trusty Michelin out last night I realised that the Pacific covers a good third of the planet. It's going to be a long and (hopefully) fascinating voyage.

See you on the other side...

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Star Ferry

Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!
- Crossing the Bar, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Whilst much of Hong Kong’s attractions are fast, slick and ultra-modern my favourite place is decidedly different. It’s not a skyscraper or a shopping mall, a restaurant or a museum.

Indeed it’s not a place at all. It’s a boat, and a rather modest one at that: the Star Ferry.
This vessel is actually not one but several and together these ferries ship foot passengers short distances over Hong Kong’s waters. And though they several routes, it is only one, that between Central and Kowloon, that people are referring to when they talk of ’The Star Ferry‘.

It is this boat I like, bobbing its way through the harbour.

They bear their names proudly - ‘Shining Star’, ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Northern Star’ - all a variation on the company name, itself inspired by Tennyson.
The boats are old (most of them pushing, if not over, 50 years old) and grubby, slow and noisy.
They have no neon lights, no gizmos and gadgets. Their passengers are probably better kitted out than this transport, since the only satnav on board is probably on the mobile phone in their pocket.
Yet they’re lovingly maintained, a popular ride.
This is not out of sentiment or duty; she still provides a key service, a vital transport link across the water.
Still the ferry seems a bit of an anomaly in this slick, neon, ultra-modern world, and perhaps that is what appeals to many people.
All around is big and loud, quick and glitzy, hastily rushing headlong into the future. The buildings shoot up around her, and new ones rise ever higher.

Yet the Star Ferry remains, a link with the past, a reassuring rock standing solid in the fast river of change.
The Star Ferry has been running, in one form or another, for well over a hundred years, founded by a Parsee merchant, then sold to a British entrepreneur.
She’s an icon of Hong Kong, internationally renowned, up there with the London Route master (RIP) and San Francisco's trams.
She is for anyone and everyone - you’ll rub shoulders with all sorts on board, Rolex-toting bankers, western package tourists.
They’ve all ridden on her, and she’s lived her life through them. She‘s part of their history and part of Hong Kong’s too
At HK$2.20 (about 20p) a ride it was even within our budget - the cheapest ride in town. The locals are rightly proud of this and the authorities meddle with this at their peril.
Back in 1966, a 25% fare increase, pushing tickets up by a whole 5 cents prompted a student to protest and go on hunger strike, and his subsequent arrest to spark riots.
We regularly caught the Star Ferry, leaving Kowloon and our rabbit hutch in the sky to see what life was like on the other side of the harbour.
We went out of our way to make sure our day included a return trip on the ferry, even if it took more time and a lengthy detour through the huge building site they grandly term a ‘land reclamation scheme’ (they must have very long memories).

We head for the terminal, taking our token and squeezing through the turnstiles to await the boat at the end of the pier.

The little boat hoves into view, rounded at bow and stern, with a smart green and cream livery.

A siren sounds and everyone scrambles down the ramp, balancing gingerly on the heavy gangplank as it slid back and forth in the swell.

We ascend onto the wooden deck, the varnish peeling, the timbers worn smooth by a million feet.

It creaks under our feet as we head for the port side and pick a seat, our view uninterrupted by any window.

The benches are wooden and slim, worn soft by decades of passengers before us and with an old-fashioned backrest you could swing over to face the other way.

The air smells of engine oil and fresh paint, salt water and stir fries.

The boisterous crew wear navy blue uniforms, they laugh and chatter, hauling in mooring ropes with long handled hooks.

On the walls stencilled signs read warnings in English and Chinese, whilst in the wheelhose a scrawny chap heaves a heavy wooden wheel, set amongst brass-edged dials and instruments.

By the cabin door a huge curved exhaust vent protrudes out of the deck, like a monstrous ear trumpet, whilst over amidships an open door gushes hot air and the whiff of diesel from the bowels below.

From inside we hear the protests of the old engine, grumbling from below decks.

A siren sounds and an excitable hum rises up amongst the passengers as the vessel noses out into the waters of the harbour.

This soon turns into ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s as they take in the view. A hundred camera shutters click.

The bow churns up a steady white froth as the bobs up and down towards the opposite pier. To an onlooker onshore it might look like a child’s toy, rocking slowly on a central pivot, its rounded ends rising in turn.

The wind breezes through, picking up salty spray and occasionally coating us in fine cloud.
Hong Kong surely doesn’t look finer from the deck of the Star Ferry.
During the day we share the harbour with a whole host of other craft. We weave through them - dredgers and small freighters, tourist junks and huge cruise ships, fishermen and police launches.

They glide and they chug and they scuttle on past, a moving foreground to the fantastical skyscrapers of Central. Like plants in a jungle these giant of concrete and steel seem to compete with each other, fighting for light in a crowded terrain.
At night they continue their tussle with light shows of their own, spectacular displays which blaze in a great riot of colour, yellow cubes, flashing neon, stretching out to us in the waters of the harbour.
It transfixes its appreciative audience, flickering, transforming, as we head over to Kowloon.
We pull into the opposite terminal in the good ol’ fashion way, casually ramming the side, gently bumping into the dock.
The crew hitch her up to barnacle-encrusted moorings, old wooden stakes coated with seaweed, slowly rotting away.
The ramp is soon lowered and the passengers pile off, to business appointments in Tsim Sha Tsui, shop in Mong Kok, homes in the New Territories.
Soon a siren sounds, the gate lifts once more and another swathe of passengers storms down the ramp to her waiting embrace, like a herd of cattle heading home, impatient for dinner.
The ferry’s off again, back into the waters.


Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Yangshou: dead dogs, bicycles and randy water buffaloes

Yangshou, Guangxi. I’d read that, in the past, this was a sleepy little backwater, a haven discovered by those mystical wandering itinerants: ‘early backpackers’ (sounds like some new age of man).

Back then they adopted it as some hippy hangout, a quiet and relaxed place where everything was genuine and they could see some of the ‘real China’.

Today, if you consider yourself a spiritual descendent of these hippies don’t bother to visit: it’s an empty shell of its former shelf. Yangshuo is a town ruined by tourism, a monument to its excesses, where the corporations have taken over, bussing the groups in, buying up the streets and filling them with flimsy, tacky replicas of their former selves.

This is the living nightmare of mass tourism, Chinese-style. Any new hunk of meat cruising into town is sized up, chewed over and squeezed for every yuan they’ve got. Hotels are the worst - cold and damp prisons where staff are rude and obnoxious, pressing you to take tours or visit their friend’s shop.

The streets heave with tourist toot, useless merchandise and hideous variants of local traditions, scrubbed down, dressed up and flogged to death.

In Yangshuo it was one of my pet-hates: stupid reedy flute-type thingies. Usually fashioned out of a gourd or a piece of driftwood or something else suitably rustic their musicians whack out an incessant tuneless warbling, their faces a picture of timeless bliss, as they try to flog you a scratched CD from their shelves.

It turned the whole town into some kind of outdoor beginners recorder class, though I’m sure even my chums and I produced a better noise back when we were seven.

I might sound jaded, perhaps even cynical but I’m sorry there’s nothing authentic about this - they are not bucolic tunesmiths, they are aural menaces.

I must have been in this part of the world too long. Or perhaps it was the sight of great lumps of dead dog hanging up in the market, either way something had gone bang in my mind, causing me to suddenly loathe this country, blind me to natural beauty around us.

After all, this was Yangshuo and the Li River, home of the world-famous and unique landscape of Karst peaks.

I needed something different to put me right, something that would get me away from all the filth and the storm.

I needed a bicycle.

Across Asia, pedal power has been a fine friend of ours. From the suburbs of Kyoto to the Hutongs of Beijing, we have found no finer way to see the life and get up close to daily life. It had never let me down and now I needed it more than ever.

We hired a couple of basic rides, wheeling them out of the shed at the back and through the hairdresser’s salon from whom we’d hired them. Pointing north we took to the road, pedalling furiously to put some distance between us and the flute and dead dogs.

The road was busy and noisy, we were coated with dust thrown up by large trucks. We stayed to the verges which, surprisingly sensibly the Chinese had a habit of incorporating into such roads.

The peaks pushed up all around us, crowded out corn fields, casting large shadows.

We turned off the road and headed for the sticks, choosing a rutted little track leading towards a little group of mud brick houses.

The roar died down behind us, we slackened our pace.



It’s beautiful.

The track shadows a small river, weaving in and out of the odd house. In between lie hayricks and harvested paddy fields where water, water buffalo wallowing in muddy holes, and modest little orchards.

The rice may have been gathered but the scene is still fecund, the trees in the orchards groaning with fruit, apples and persimmons, oranges and pomellos.

And all around the Karst peaks dominated, towering over the scene like giant sentinels. Poking up suddenly through flat fields like mushrooms after the rain.

The scene is bewitching, so much so we had to stop every few minutes to take yet another photograph.

Soon we come across a wreck of a building, hard to tell whether it’s going up or coming down. A signs reads “The restaurant at the end of the Universe” - perhaps they need to work on their sales pitch.

Lara’s been excitedly eyeing up the pomellos - huge, light-green fruit, like monstrous pears - ever since we arrived in Guangxi. Now she spies an orchard full of the monsters on the other side of the yard.

A woman shuffles up to us, a baby cocooned up in a bundle on her back. She watches the new Caucasians admiring her trees and picks a couple of oranges, handing them to us. They're green on the outside, delicious on the inside.

Lara hands over three yuan and gets the pick of the orchard: choose your pomelo. She zones in on a particularly impressive-looking specimen and soon it's filling up the basket on the back of my bag, like a mutant prize from an easter egg hunt.

We cycle on, only stopping soon after for yet another photograph.

A woman trots past, leading a large water buffalo.

The creature becomes excited as it spied a female in the field up ahead. The bull starts communicating with the object of its affection, uttering strange squeeking noises, more bird-like than beast.

The female turns and he charges forward, dragging its helpless owner behind it.

An old man sitting nearby, puffing on his bamboo pipe, watches this and laughs, then comes to the woman’s aid, thwacking the randy old bull with a branch as it gets intimate with its new female friend.

We cycle on, past a woman washing clothes in a pond, and a group of boisterous blokes playing cards, their loud dance music booming out across the still air, incongruous in such a timeless, bucolic setting.

They shout out excitedly to us; we continue, bouncing on the worn stones peeking up through the dirt.

People working in the fields look up as we approach and wave, a stooped old man in a dirty Mao hat grins through a gappy mouth.

Others run up to us and motion taking a photo, gappy smiles, wind-chaffed faces, posing for nice rustic pictures, hands out for yuan.

Two woman loom up ahead, each carrying a young child in a basket slung on shoulder poles. Too good to resist: I take the shot and soon my notes are being rifled through - grubby yuan gone for that perfect framed photo for the lounge.

On again, through more fields and small yards, where chickens scatter in front of us, past another grove of persimmons, more banana plants, more bamboo thickets.

A kingfisher darts across the track in front of us, an electric blue bolt in the dimming light.

Finally a t-junction appears and we tip into the narrow streets of a village. We draw stares, people sizing us up but we’re past before they can catch our attention.

Back onto the tarmac and across a bridge and we’re back on the road to Yangshuo.

Back at one with China once more my mind turns to dinner. Hmmm perhaps I'll have dog tonight, serenaded with a nice reedy flute in the background...


Monday, 17 November 2008

Tourist soap

There it was. Laid on especially for us along with the buses, tours and guides. Tourist soap. We have become tourist soap. Pieces of white matter packaged into boxes and taken around the country to be distributed in hotels and restaurants to order. Tourist soap is in particular demand at World Heritage Sites, UNESCO designated towns and areas seeking recognition as one of the Wonders of the World.

Being tourist soap is a claustrophobic feeling that creeps up on you and makes you mad at yourself for feeling grumpy in incredible places. I first realised I was tourist soap when I was delivered to a guesthouse in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, my feet having hardly touched the ground since Siem Reap. We were collected from our hotel in a minibus (where we did actually have to touch the ground to wade through knee-high flood water to get on the bus) that then collected other specimens from their respective hotels to be shuttled to a waiting tourist coach. We jumped from one bus to another and were driven to the centre of Phnom Penh where a tuk tuk from our guesthouse picked us up and whisked us away. The next day we went on a tour to the Killing Fields with delivery to and from the guesthouse front door. After twenty-four hours I realised that I hadn’t even wandered independently into town and had not been on public transport with a local, other than behind the driving wheel.

Nice and convenient really. There is a well developed tourist infrastructure between the sights in S.E. Asia that makes travel cheap, quick and convenient. So we repeated the whole shuttle-bus-hotel-tour cycle in Saigon and the pattern continued up the Vietnam coast. All our transport and activities were booked through the guesthouse and every time they were full of cakes of tourist soap.

If I’m so quick to whinge, why didn’t I do something different, you may ask. Well, it’s just so easy to let your guesthouse organise it all, and very difficult to find out about options otherwise. Plus it’s cheaper. The tourist sleeper bus costs $5 for a 10-hour journey. The same journey on the train costs $15 and took 12 hours, in addition to the extra time and cost of transport to and from train stations to the town centre. I didn’t mind being tourist soap most of the time, and it is nice to talk to others and exchange tips in English, but it was the first time it had happened on this trip and it just felt odd.

At times it did become suffocating. The most stifling was the Halong Bay tour (we were assured that a tour is the best way to see the natural wonders) where the tour guides couldn’t recognise you from Adam and really didn’t care. Everyday they shuffled thousands of tourists onto boats, off boats, back onto boats, up a hill and down again. They ran through the same tour guide prattle with a detached expression and eyes elsewhere. There was also, of course, the compulsory stop at a government tourist shop, which is never mentioned in the brochure. At every stage you are accompanied by other coach loads of tourist soap all being spun the same deal. At times the groups became so large that you couldn’t see the water for the suds, or the view for the tourists.

I liked the convenience of the tourist trail in Cambodia and Vietnam and it definitely enabled us to see more of the country within the limited time and budget we had available. However, it does feel liberating to be back in China. Yes there are touts and tours, but it is also possible to make your way around without them. You actually have to work a bit to get what you want and it’s all the more rewarding for it. Back to China, back to reality. I’m washing my hands of tourist soap.


Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Dos and Don'ts of South East Asia

Sun, sweat and scooters; trains, temples and tours; bananas, buses and lager. The tourist infrastructure in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos turns travelling into a wonderful holiday. However, alongside the tourist trade come touts and tricksters to be wary of. So to supplement your Lonely Planet/Rough Guide (delete as appropriate) here are World in Slow Motion's top tips for S.E. Asia:

- Take a sheet sleeping bag. There is a curious lack of bedding in these parts.
- Carry plenty of U.S. dollars cash. They are a useful back-up and the currency of choice in Cambodia.
- Drink bia hoi on plastic chairs in the street in Vietnam. 20p for a glass of draught lager.
- Drink fruity drink and coconuts with a straw. You can spot a fruity drink stall by the glasses of chopped fruit to which condensed milk, coconut milk and balls of sticky rice are added and served with crushed ice.
- Eat amok. This creamy Cambodian curry is the among the best food in SE Asia.
- Take the sleeper bus. A bus with beds is a sight to behold and an experience not to be missed, but don't expect to have a good kip.
- Have a massage at Seeing Hands in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. These blind masseurs know what to do.
- Help out at Big Brother Mouse. Either chat with the children in English or buy one of their books to help promote literacy in Laos.
- Get up early to see monks collect alms at sunrise, a special sight in Luang Prabang, Laos.
- Go to the flag lowering ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam. A triumphal affair every night at 9pm at the Ho Chi Minh memorial.
- Learn to say "no thank you" in the local language to keep the hawkers and touts at bay.
- Stay at Golden Temple Villa in Siem Reap. Excellent value and unlimited free bananas make it a winner.
- Stay at Hong Thien Hotel II, 46 Chi Van An Street, in Hue, Vietnam. Tien at reception is very helpful, but don't book a Halong Bay tour through them (see below).

- Stay at Greenfields in Hoi An, Vietnam. Poor value and dreadful service.
- Rely on your guidebook for accommodation and eating recommendations. Use the Web, get tips from others and explore by yourself to find some real gems.
- Go on a Halong Bay, Vietnam, tour with Tuan Linh travel agency. These tours are sold through Kim Adventures and various hostels in Hanoi. The boat is broken and the guides lousy. If your boat is called the Duy Tan Junk 02, don't get on it. Electricity is intermittent and the motor may give out.
- Use the travel services at Victory Queen Hotel (formerly Old Darling Hotel), Hanoi, Vietnam. They take a whopping commission without telling you.
- Buy shoes at Cham H'Mong, 495 C'ua Dai Street, Hoi An, Vietnam. They fall apart within hours. - Buy your Cambodian visa at the 'Cambodian Consulate' in Aranya Prathet, Cambodia, it's a scam. Buy it at the desk once you'e through Thai immigration.
- Take any price as given - accommodation, food, things - all are up for negotiation. Pay what you think is fair.
- Sleep at the back of a sleeper bus. The bounce prevents sleep.
- Lose your temper with a local. If you cause someone to lose their temper they will lose face and make your life very uncomfortable as they try to regain it.
- Expect a peaceful sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap. You will be joined by hundreds of tourists all jostling for the same perfect sun-rises-over-ancient-temple photo.
- Wear shorts and sandals in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand. The leeches will eat you for breakfast.


Friday, 14 November 2008

Hanoi (Making a Buerk of myself)

Situated in the far north of Vietnam, like some crazy uncle shoved up in the loft conversion, Hanoi is one of the most enjoyable cities I have ever visited.

Life here is so rich, so thick it is almost mesmerising. Wandering the narrow streets of the city’s Old Quarter, taking in the scenes all around you is like drinking the coffee the locals lace with condensed milk: it is so thick, so strong and delicious you can only digest a little at time.

Drink in too much and you quickly suffer from sensory overload, your brain reeling from trying to process a million beguiling sights, bewitching smells, bewildering sounds.

In Hanoi I could walk the streets for days, seeking out my fellow human beings, peeking into their lives. A Western voyeur in an another dimension, where the streets hum with humanity and life seems so much more vivid than that back home.

Tiny shop fronts heave with goods, piled up to the rafters, bearing down on their owners. Often you can discern the shopkeeper, subsumed within a mountain of their goods, dozing against a rice sack or half-buried under an avalanche of boxes.

Many streets specialise in one particular type of product. This street sells only metal articles, that one purely toys. One shop I came across seemed only to vend sellotape.

We visited street markets in backstreets, where stall keepers sat outside Chinese-style temples and faded French colonial buildings. We saw tubs of crabs, string bags full of crawling toads and ducks hanging from hooks, glazed and ready to eat.

And all around us there were the buzz of commerce and the excited chatter of the street. People crouching on tiny plastic chairs around noodle stalls, or gathering under banyan trees and ragged awnings, where the sunlight plays through in thin shafts as they deal out a deck of cards.

Cockerels strut along the pavement, kids play keepy-uppy with colourful shuttlecocks and scrawny boys roam the streets selling faux GI zippo lighters, emblazoned with US army slang.

An old woman gnaws on a stick of sugarcane whilst other similar sinewy women plough the streets carrying bamboo shoulder poles, their baskets stuffed with tropical fruits: pineapples, persimmons and oranges, jackfruit, lycees and star fruit.

My favourite are the banana ladies, offering two varieties of banana, starchy ones in one basket, the sweeter ones in the other. All wear pointy straw hats, all bounce merrily along, swaying with their load as they tout for business.

You get the impression that this is life as it has been in Hanoi for hundreds of years. It’s survived war with the Chinese, the French and the Americans, the latter of whom managed to park a huge B52 bomber in one of the city’s ponds.

But unlike in Britain there is nothing nostalgic about this life: this is raw, hard-edged commerce and for many life is tough. Ever on the lookout for a new way to make money the Vietnamese eagerly embrace the modern.
Alongside traditional lacquerware and lanterns you can buy the latest knocked-off DVD - the new Bond Film, Quantum of Solace, appearing on the streets here well before it graced cinema screens.
The roads pulse with traffic: mopeds zip along, their horns quacking like indignant Donald Ducks; cyclos crawl past, their driver eyeing you up for trade; carts groan under staggering loads, their owners blithely steering them through the maelstrom.

Even motorbikes are pressed into freight duties, piled up with mountains of boxes, weighted down with heavy appliances, balancing ladders, bamboo poles or metal rods .

Pressed into every use imaginable the omnipresent moped has taken over the streets, spilling out onto pavements, blocking access to all. We had to climb over a squadron of them, backpacks and all, simply to get to our hotel.

Faced with an ambulatory meltdown, the authorities have been forced to act, passing a new bylaw banning the two-wheelers from blocking the walkways. Clearly unworkable, this leads to comical scenes whenever a police car hoves into view up the street as moped owners dash frantically to their trusty steeds, avoiding the long arm of the law.

Even here, in this bustling urban environment, above the noise, we often heard birdsong. It reaches out across the tiny lanes, penetrates across the lines of traffic, lighting your load and bringing a smile to your face.

Gazing up at some of these tiny choristers in their ornate cages, dangling outside a shopfront I was enthusiastically greeted by their owner, a lively chap who beckoned me inside and proceeded to show me his collection of finches.

They turned out to be a prize-winning collection, successfully entered into singing contests with other birds. The man proudly showed me his finest songster and the many pennants and rosettes it had won.

His next contest came in two days: I left him to continue his preparations.
Further down the street I spotted a creature of a more familiar hue - none other than former newsreader, Michael Buerk.

Keen to secure a photo with the legendary anchor man I interrupted his holiday and introduced myself. Lara (with camera) was utterly embarrassed and sensibly retreated to the Ladies, leaving Fewins to make a fool of himself.

“We’re travelling round the world!” I blurted to the man with the famous wink, “Without flying!”.
“Good luck with your trip” he said smoothly, before diving for the safety of his tour bus. Well it was hardly as newsworthy as an African famine was it. It wouldn’t even make The Moral Maze.
Yet I remained undeterred - who needs a photo when you’ve got an endorsement like that? I’ll have to insert it at the top of our homepage: “World in Slow Motion - as endorsed by TV’s Michael Buerk!”.

Hectic street life, Michael Buerk, golly I needed a drink after that. And what else than a Bia Hoi - ’fresh beer‘ brewed locally and served up on the street, all yours for 20p.

Relax, recline on a tiny plastic playgroup chair askew the broken pavement, and try and avoid falling into the path of the traffic just inches from your elbow.

Draining the dregs from the bottom of the glass a flash of inspiration hit me. Perhaps Hanoi’s more like the local brew than a coffee: cheap, refreshing and just a little bit rough.
And unlike the coffee you’ll be wanting a refill.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Hue to Hanoi: letting the train take the strain?

Tired of the tourist soap, in Hue we elected to tackle the next leg of our route by train. We wanted to see a bit of Vietnam other than the tourist fleshpots, and encounter local people rather than Westerners.

Perhaps travelling by train would give us more of a chance of doing this.

We were looking forward to getting back onto the rails again, rather than onto yet another bone-rattling, leg-twisting, ironically-named ‘sleeper bus’.

Trains have always seemed to have more soul about them; fun, friendly, more of an adventure.

The photojournalist Tim Page, who’s rattled along a few Vietnamese railways in his time, puts
this better than me:

"Train travel allows the mind to wander, the eyes not really focusing on the passing countryside, the heady clackety rhythm becoming white noise, a mere sound tapestry to meditate upon."

"On a train you actually have a sense of getting somewhere, denied the traveller sealed in an aluminium tube zooming across the sky.

"There is an intimacy with your fellow voyager, a shared sense of the adventure rather than the common fear of being five miles high in the inexplicable."

So the Saigon - Hanoi train it was. Often termed the ‘reunification express’, the entire journey takes about thirty hours between the two great cities. Former opponents, now united.

Hue’s French-style train station (the ‘Ga Hue’) is a modest-sized building. Its pink paint is peeling off, leaving the impression the last person to paint it came from Le Havre rather than Hue.

Inside the small dusty waiting room, we occupied an entire row of flimsy plastic seats, our enormous bags dwarfing the slender locals hemmed in around them.

I poked my head around the door to glance at the platform: it was uncomfortably quiet, hardly a soul moved, let alone a train.

The scene looked more like one from my childhood bedroom - two platforms with low awnings faced each other across diminutive train tracks, barely lower than the platforms themselves. It was almost like revisiting my boyhood.

Did this Hornby Railways outfit really run all the way up to Hanoi?

Vietnam Railways is hardly enormous. Unlike say their Chinese neighbours, the Vietnamese, the 13th most populous nation on earth, do not enjoy a great spider web of a rail network. Indeed it’s a minor miracle that there’s a railway at all.

It runs the full length of this long land, winding its way along the coast, hemmed in by the high land to the west, battered by typhoons from the east.

During thirty years of war the line experienced more than its fair share of destruction, attracting the unwanted attentions of from Viet Cong guerillas on one side and American B52s on the other.

And even now it still can find itself under attack, running the gauntlet - in some provinces - of unfriendly locals, usually children, who like to let off steam by lobbing the odd rock or two at carriages.

Yet still it runs on, repaired and patched up, a symbol of the dogged determination of the Vietnamese people.

Back in the waiting room this determination was much in demand, as the minutes ticked by and the time dragged well past our designated departure time. Still no train.
The locals seemed unconcerned, dozing in the seats, nonchalantly sipping green tea and gazing at the traffic outside.
Finally, 50 minutes later it was action stations: a guard stirred, a tinny loudspeaker croaked out some kind of announcement and we were allowed onto the platform.

People plus baggage began shuffling onto the platform. Hardly a great swarm of people like you’d have to contend with in China, more a trickle of the unhurried.

A group of men crouched down on the platform, lay a battered old briefcase on its side and immediately started playing cards. They fingered their dirty old dong notes whilst others crowded around, watching the gamblers.

A young couple strolled up and settled down on the bench next to us, resuming the cooing they had been so rudely interrupted from back in the waiting room.

And still no train.

I began to wonder what it could be that was causing such a severe delay. Mexican bandits? The wrong type of snow? Richard Branson?

Finally, an hour later than scheduled, the noise level seemed to pick up, passengers stirred and, to much whistling both from its driver and the sundry guards on the platform, a train appeared, its headlights piercing through the descending gloom.

The dusty green carriages hauled up in front of us, the grimy windows obscuring the interior. We quickly boarded, hauling our bulky loads through the narrow corridors as the rabble pressed up eagerly behind us.

Peering into our cabin we found it already occupied: a large family, big enough to fill a small village stared back at us, their grubby kids sprawled all over the beds. Cue frantic hand signals and pointing at beds and tickets before finally the guard came along and turfed these stubborn train gypsies out.

Although ‘soft sleeper’, our cabin didn’t quite live up to our expectations: it held six beds rather than four, crammed in so that each bed had about two and half foot of space between it and the one above. Grimacing as I adopted a contortionist pose I squeezed my slim frame into a bunk at the top, hauling my pack up behind me.

We’d heard many scare stories about theft on such trains and I’d come prepared, squashing my bags into the tiny cubby hole over the door and securing them up with the bike chain I procured back in a Beijing market.

The chain‘s oily odour - one of Lara’s constant sources of complaint - added to the heavy fug of our narrow confines.

The bare strip lighting, the only light which worked, bore into my retinas and bounced off the soviet-style décor - a kind of faded bluey-green paint, reminiscent of the old trains I once travelled in Eastern Europe.

There was a jolt, and we started moving: ten hours through the night to the capital.

Our companions turned out to be the cooing young couple from the platform.

We held the usual confused conversation with them that we’d had with all fellow passengers since leaving Europe.
Courtesy of Lara’s point-it book and my natural flair for charades we covered marital status, family and occupation before moving on to the details of our time in Vietnam and our trip as a whole, with the aid of my much-used Michelin map of the world.

We moved on in the dark, crossing the former DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) around the Ben Hai river, lying on the 17th parallel - the dividing line when the North and South fought each other.

I felt the call of nature and sought out a suitable facility. A brown swamp sloshed around the bowl, splashing over the edge onto the floor with every jolt of the train. I tried another: locked. And another: also locked.

I sought out the guard, in his tiny broom cupboard of a cabin and persuaded him to open the one remaining, semi-useable fortress of solitude. No water - I silently thanked the ex-work colleague, a cleanliness obsessive, who had furnished me with handcleaning gel before leaving .

Back in the cabin more passengers joined us at Dong Hai; our lovebirds left us at Vinh, and through it all we fitfully slumbered, rocked gently to sleep by the motion, suddenly woken by a clang or a bang.

A short night, abrupt ended at 5.30am. Raised voices, doors slamming, a knock at our door: we’d arrived. Hanoi.

Alighting on a deserted platform I rubbed my eyes and pulled on my fleece in the cold morning air. The light was just seeping into the sky, revealing the faded yellow hue of the station, another French-style edifice.

I may have been half-asleep but there was no let-up from the touts. A particularly merciless posse awaited us in the station forecourt.Taxi drivers and cyclos, baguette vendors and orange sellers, the descended on us like crows on a sheep's carcass, tugging at our sleeves and searching for our wallets .
Their patter was well-worn: the same old tricks, the same old questions. Again and again.
‘Hey where are going?’, ‘Ello moto?’ (Are these people moonlighting for Motorola?).
In my dazed condition I felt like giving up, chucking a grubby wad of Dong in the air and making a run for it as the mob fought behind us, scrabbling in the dirt for the notes falling like autumn leaves onto the tarmac.
I needed a bed and a wash. I needed some tourist soap.


Fancy popping into My Dung?

As a highly commercially-minded nation, Vietnam offers some of the finest shopping we have experienced so far on our trip.

At times we found the sheer range of goods on offer, and the whole haggling process involved in procuring, somewhat overwhelming.

We needed some light relief and we found this in the shops themselves.

For this country is not only offering every imaginable item for sale at low, low prices but comes replete with a whole host of amusing shop names. The kind of names that would make even your haughtiest schoolteacher guffaw with gusto.

Many shop names induced a snigger out of my Western-oriented, childish mind, but the following were particular favourites:

‘Phuc Long‘
‘Dong Phuc’
‘Phuc Lot’
‘Dong Phat’
‘Hung Dong’
‘Duc Phat’
‘Duc Phuc’
‘Phuc Vu’
‘My Dung’

And last and certainly not least:
'Tommy Dung'

These names may well provoke a titter out of silly travellers but their commercial value is proven. And with names like this who needs advertising?
So Topshop, Next, Marks & Sparks: take note and save yourself millions.
Surely you could do better than such bland brands? Ditch the dull names and take a leaf out of the Viets ledgers.

Here's to popping into My Dung for a spot of luncheon next time I'm in Oxford Street.


Thursday, 6 November 2008

Leathery skin, long looks

South East Asia, as we somewhat lazily refer to it, has long been a favourite holiday destination for Western tourists.
So much so that, contrary to our experiences in China, Japan and Russia, the region has, at times, almost felt like a home-from-home, such are both the numbers of Westerners we have come across and the facilities the tourism-savvy locals have put on for their visitors.
From the dirt roads of Laos to the temples of Cambodia, from the streets of Saigon to the jungles of Thailand it is not unusual to meet a fellow Western tourist, be it backpacker or package holiday.

They travel a well-trodden path or, increasingly fly in a crowded sky, on new budget airlines (unaware of the connection between their plane flight and the damage increasingly wreaked by climate change on the places they visit).

Short on time and long on regrets, we join the herd whizzing between the main sights (albeit sticking to surface transport).

Many become seduced by the places they visit and linger just a little longer, shortening their stay at their next destination, perhaps cancelling it altogether.

Some, a few, don’t seem to leave at all.

We’ve come across them, Retired from the West, attached to the East.

Way back, in the 70’s or 80’s they visited these places as tourists, two weeks out of Europe for a holiday in the sun. They returned home but the places they visited stuck to them like the resin of a Jackfruit.

Their lives lacking something in the West, they returned once again, to the beaches, the temples, the people, for another heady rush of the scent of the East, and became hooked.

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and before they knew it they were applying for temporary residence here, renting an apartment, meeting or even marrying a local, starting up a small business.

I’ve lost count of the number of guesthouses here, or tour operators owned by a German, a Frenchman or some other European.

Some of these people really go to seed in the tropical heat, driven half-mad in the by the extreme change in their surroundings, sometimes overindulging in cheap beer, cheap drugs or cheap love.

Something pops in their head as a result of the alterations to their existence and they remain suspended, neither Western nor Eastern. All leathery skin, a long look in their eyes.
There are many of them out here but recently we’ve met two particularly fine examples…

Boarding the sleeper bus from Saigon to Nha Trang, I selected a bunk above a grizzled-looking, wiry chap in his early 60s.
As I squeezed my belongings onto the narrow mattress, he offered some advice, “Stick your bag on the tray there mate, these buses are bloody great aren’t they?”
To Jonny, as he soon introduced himself, everything was ‘bloody great’. Unmistakably Kiwi in his demeanour, this outgoing fellow had plenty to say as our bus speed north along Highway One.

A keen sports fan, Jonny soon regaled me with a lengthy report of Formula One-driver Lewis Hamilton’s latest and championship-sealing win. Not the greatest of motorsports fans I nodded politely and noticed how out of place this funny chap looked on a bus full of twenty-something backpackers and the odd Vietnamese.

As everyone else bedded down for the night, seeking solitude… in their ipods or earplugs, Jonny excitedly continued, launching now into a resume of his favourite films, nodding his head and waving his arms in front of the TV screen just inches from his nose, as Rambo dispatched various villains on the crackling screen.

Later, as the plug was pulled on Stallone and the lights went down, Jimmy lowered his voice and vaguely referred to the life he had left behind back in New Zealand.

Taking semi-retirement (though what from remained mysteriously elusive) and seeing his marriage break down, Jimmy decided to up sticks and seek a better life overseas. He returns to his old land, for about one month a year, keeping the authorities happy and perhaps trying to patch things up with his estranged wife.

The rest of the time he seems to spend in Thailand, drinking beer, his skin slowly turning to leather seeking solace in the arms of a local lady he met somewhere down the line.

Theirs must be a somewhat relaxed relationship, judging by the way he seems to have one eye permanently on the opportunities for a local liaison on his travels.

One young student receives the full Jimmy charm - a smile, a few winks and an attempt to coax her into conversation. His mobile phone clearly impresses her, his words eliciting her embarrassed giggles but soon the raven-haired beauty has dozed off leaving the leather-skinned lothario’s eyes to wander once more.

He’s soon found another skimpy, doe-eyed lovely, her little white dress, yellow crop top and gold high heels drawling a low whistle of admiration.

Clearly well-experienced with the local ladies, Jimmy explains to Lara how to spot someone ‘on the game’. He isn’t under any illusion about the love that is on offer to him from all local ladies. ‘They’re only interested in one thing, mate - your money, They don’t give a f**k about anything else.’

It was only the next morning, once I’d stepped off the bus in Nha Trang at first light and guzzled a coffee and condensed milk at a pavement café that I realised that neither does he.

Many of the ex-Westerners we met had built themselves a little empire; Sonny was no exception. Retreating from the world to the peaceful coastline up above Nha Trang Sonny has claimed his little piece of paradise.

He hasn’t kept it all for himself though, but rather gives the opportunity to tourists to share a piece of it, for a day or two, as they pass by on the coast road.

Sonny’s self-proclaimed ‘paradise’ resort is situated on a strip well away from Highway One, alongside a sandy beach populated only by fishermen weatherproofing their coracles, their children playing in the waves.

Small bungalows open onto the beach from where tiny, inquisitive crabs pay visits and scuttle across their verandahs. A blissful retreat from the hassle and heat of Saigon.

Sonny himself is a large, ebullient man, still domineering both in both his physical size and personality at the age of 81. A French passport holder he came to Vietnam 12 years ago and has spent the time building his own little empire, with a beach resort and a bolthole in the Highlands.
The resort revolves around the owner, and when he is not there (which is quite often) it is hard to arrange anything, his minions being all small, shy locals, without a word of English between them.
The young girls cook and sing sweetly to themselves, the men shuffle about in dirty short-sleeved tops, unbuttoned to the waist in the tropical breeze.

For a man his age, Sonny is in rude health, swimming a kilometre a day (As I type this I can see him in the sea, teaching his 4-month old Rottweiler how to swim. He carefully lifts the poor pooch as the rollers threaten to drown him, imploring him to paddle, human barking at dog).

In fact some might find him rather rude altogether, his abrupt, assertive manner , betraying his Croatian, or as he corrected me, Yugoslavian, roots.

Although genial and clearly happy to be the centre of the party, Sonny tells you what he, not you, wants to hear.

Clearly keen to keep our custom a bit longer he attempted to convince us that the ongoing monsoon make heading on to Hoi An, our next destination, an impossible quest.

“No good, no good“, he rasped in his hoarse Balkan voice “is all under water!”

“ Hanoi one metre!” he exclaimed, holding out a fat finger to emphasise the point. “Hoi An?, ohmygaaawd, you go, is all water.”

He waved his arms about, working himself into a frenzy

“Is water, water, WATER!. You stay, you relaaaax. Four days, five days”

It seemed incredible then, that given Sonny’s fearsome descriptions of the waterworld into which Vietnam had apparently turned, his little resort remained untouched. But the explanation was obvious: “No water here - we have microclimate.”

Ah, of course, that was it. Here we were in the one corner of South East Asia which is apparently untouched by the monsoon, where large black clouds gather but, somehow, decide not to drench the local population.

I reflected on this a couple of hours later as a massive storm hit our resort, lashing up the beach and hammering on our tiled roof.

Sonny’s talents are just limited to tourism and storytelling though; he’s still gone something left in the tank when it comes to romance as well. Since arriving in Vietnam 12 years ago this cunning old fox has got himself a wife (aged 37) and children, aged 10 and 6. She doesn’t know about his other kid, he cackles conspiratorially to me, born by another woman and hidden up in the hills.
We catch a wide with Sonny to the local gas station for our pick-up on the way up north. The rain buckets down, turning the dirt road into a quagmire. Holt bolts of lighting streak down all around, lighting up the surrounding scrub and drawing gasps from us.

Sonny assures us we’re perfectly safe in his tiny Korean car, quickly upbraiding us for our apparent lack of knowledge about lightning. ‘Didn’t you go to school? My kid of six he know that’.
A day later, strolling through the hot and remarkably dry streets of Hoi An, I thought back to Sonny and his ludicrous claims. Perhaps I should send him a postcard, or a holiday snap of our time in Hoi An, complete with scuba gear.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent