A Travellerspoint blog

South East China

Hello once again from the Orient where the weather is probably even colder than England which everyone moans about in the emails I received from home this Winter. Weather aside, to offer one bit of advice about traveling in China- avoid travellng around Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) at ALL costs. Chinese trains normally have 4 classes (hard/soft seat and hard/soft sleeper) but in the last couple of weeks when I’ve got a ticket at all it’s been 5th class ie no seat. The worst journey I’ve done probably left mental scars as I spent 24hrs sharing the space between compartments with 22 other people. According to the news the other days 250m people travel in the run up to the holidays with up to 80m per day on the most popular days as the hordes of migrant workers return to their villages from the cities- it’s really not been fun trying to get around.

Before getting to Qingdao I was in the coastal province of Fujian where perhaps the highlight was seeing a red (the colour of marriage in China) wedding in one of the famous round houses. The round houses are these giant, several storied donut shaped dwellings made of compressed earth. The inhabitants will all be from the same clan and up to a thousand people can live in them so getting to sleep in one was a bit of a treat. As I passed by one in a neighboring village the family of the red dressed bride insisted I join them at the reception meal though I felt like I would have to be rude as I sat down to eat. In China vegetarianism is associated with poverty and on occasions like a wedding for ‘saving face’ sake amongst their peers a family wouldn’t serve many vegetables. On the table I was sat there were 21 dishes to be shared amongst 8 people, 1 rice, 2 dessert style sweet dumplings and no less than 18 meat dishes. So I ate lots of rice and drank plenty of the rice wine, rather than eating the dog offered to me.

Fujian is also one of the provinces with the highest emigration rates, aside from being the most populous race in the world the Chinese are also the most widely spread- and perhaps the most discriminated against. Aside from the big populations in places like Canada or Peru it's a testament to how widely and seemingly randomly spread they are that in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, a border town in Suriname and even rural villages in Tanzania I've seen them receiving some pretty heavy racist abuse from the locals. And whilst this is in part due to their slightly secretive, non-integrationist culture the main reason for that is that they're almost invariably much more successful than the locals- but their success shouldn't be begrudged.

Whilst China has one of the richest political and military historys of any country in the world it’s social and cultural history is equally fascinating. Whilst the so called Triad ‘Snakehead’ people smuggling rings have generated a lot of press in the last 10 years or so, people moving abroad and the growth of the diaspora has been around for a long time in China. When the North won the Civil War in the States and slavery had all but ceased to exist in Europe and its colonies, a great demand arose for menial laborers to whom the West could pay little more than survival wages, and so in stepped the Chinese. Drawn mainly from the Southern coastal states the Chinese were sent all around the world as ’coolies’ in promise of a better life and ended up doing much of the hard labor for the building up of overseas infrastructure in the form of North American railroads or South American mines for example. Of course the Chinese make exemplary employees, as in SE Asia the work ethic in China is quite astounding and by putting in so much extra time as laborers or more recently in factories eventually they could own their own capital and then by keeping their shops or restaurants open 15hrs+ a day, even in the most trying circumstances they seem to rise quicker financially than most of the natives in the countries they've moved to. Their focus on education is also really admirable, in England they came with few skills beyond cooking so opened restaurants but a couple of generations later they're closing down as their children do better at school than any other ethnic group and now become lawyers and engineers. Similarly in the States some of the most prestigious colleges in California are apparently trying to find ways to put a cap (negative discrimination?) on the number of Chinese origin students doing medicine as their academic records are so good that they're simply taking up too many of the spots relative to other races.

In many ways they’re pretty inspirational in their determination to succeed whatever their circumstances at birth and I found it’s an almost agreeably voyeuristic experience traveling in China once again and seeing the country booming as it has been for the last 20 years or so.

I find it deeply ironic that both China and Vietnam are both officially Communist countries, as without a doubt and by some distance material wealth has the greatest importance of any cultures I’ve been around. Whilst the Chinese don't seem to lie as much as their shamefully dishonest Southern neighbors, they certainly have the reputation of being incredibly canny with money or famously tight depending on how you see it. Credit cards have yet to take off in the country to any meaningful extent as people are so averse to getting in debt and a Chinamen in Borneo told me one of the rules they live by is that a man should never 'spend' more than 10% of their income beyond the staples like housing, food etc.
To illustrate this on the news the other day was a report saying that despite their increased wealth even when it’s snowing people in China don't turn the heating on- they just put on extra layers. That’s certainly been my experience this Winter, when you come inside after a day in the snow aside from a small foot heater they make no other effort to warm up other than getting under a duvet so the houses are freezing unsurprisingly! It was notable that on television people seemed to always pick prosperity rather than the usual banal options like good health and world peace for their New Year wishes and they just give money out to their relatives as presents, coming from a family where money is banned for Xmas presents I found that a bit sad. Furthermore showing off the bewildering attitude the Chinese have to religion Chairman Mao of all people has assumed a ‘Prosperity Saint’ status with his hometown of Shaoshan becoming a shrine for people to go to pray for prosperity for their family or business. It’s very weird and the importance placed on material wealth and it isn’t something I agree with or understand entirely about the culture.

Before reaching Fujian I spent barely any time in cities this month spending my time largely in the countryside; after leaving the booming southern coast of Guangdong I headed up into the states of Guanxi and then Hunan where the views come firmly out of the Chinese imaginations scrapbook. The landscapes are mainly formed by the beautiful and fairly incredible limestone karsts which shoot up majestically from the forests and rivers of Southern China. Whilst common in South East Asian seas eg Thailand or Halong Bay in Vietnam you don’t see them too often on land. Despite the cold, I’ve had some wonderful days cycling along the bucolically charming areas around Yangshuo or hiking around Guilin and to me the karsts represent a rural China from old Kung Fu films or ancient poetry and it made a really pleasant change from the modern, monocultural uniformity of the cities. I also got to climb China’s ‘favorite mountain’ Mount Huangshan which looked gorgeous covered in the snow although for me the best spot to view them was the incredible Wulingyuan national park. Quite a way from anywhere it apparently has a greater concentration of peaks and karsts than anywhere else in the world, with characteristically whimsical Chinese names (eg ‘Lovers Returning After Long Absence peak’) and covered in snow they would have to rank as some of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’ve climbed a couple of other mountains too and perhaps foolishly ignoring the danger factor I’ve found doing so much exercise in the snow really invigorating and the perfect way to keep myself motivated to do stuff every day in the cold weather.

Traveling in more rural provinces gives you a very different view of the country as they’re much less developed than other areas of China, and so whilst China definitely is booming it’s a slightly more uneven and complicated picture than is often presented in the Western media.

I think the most important quote in the post Mao era was Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious” statement in 1978 and the rampant success of China’s economy since then has been one of the world’s biggest stories of the last 30 years or so. As when I was here before in 2003 there’s a strong feeling that you’re traveling during an exciting time in China’s history; the entire country feels like it’s being transformed, almost like a building site with cranes and constructions sites of roads, bridges and even entire new cities everywhere you look. China has become the worlds 3rd biggest economy by turning itself into the workshop of the world exporting some $1.5 trillion worth of products annually, its near endless supply of cheap, hardworking labour has made the country extremely attractive to foreign investors and is much of the reason why the price of consumer products have relatively come down in the West in the last few years. Whilst there are plenty of criticisms (lack of employment rights, currency manipulation etc.) you can make of the system which has enabled such rapid growth I can’t help but feel that ‘on the ground’ the population have put the work in over many years and richly deserve the higher quality of life which they’re now starting to enjoy.

The problem is that probably the second most important thing Deng said “It doesn’t matter if some areas get richer first” – in other words development hasn’t come evenly. There are various ways to geographically measure China’s inequality gap, East vs West or coastal vs interior areas for example but probably the most striking gap is between cities and the countryside. As recently as the mid ‘80’s China was one of the most equal countries in the world but now it’s one of the most unequal; for instance a resident of Shanghai has a GDP of nearly $5000 but a poorer Western province like Gansu will average less than a tenth of that. Major Chinese cities will have CBDs akin to those in the West where you can easily spend $100 on a shirt or a night out if you so choose but traveling in rural areas is a vastly different experience with far fewer amenities and an aging population. As hundreds of millions of young people migrate to the coastal cities to seek their fortune those left back in the countryside have almost become an economic underclass expected to do little more than feed their richer fellow countrymen in the cities at a very poor wage; whilst China now has plenty of entries on the world richest people lists at the same time 1 in 7 of its population still live on less than a dollar a day.

Overall though I think I agree with Mr Deng’s second statement and that inequality in China is a relative problem rather than an absolute one – which I didn’t feel was the case in other Asian countries. Aware of the threat of possible future political disturbances the government have made huge efforts in the last 7 or 8 years to try and address the issue by pumping huge amounts of money into the interior and certainly that I’ve seen poorer Western provinces like Yunnan have surprisingly good infrastructure thanks to government help. At the very least with the ongoing electrification of the country as well as nationwide clean water supplies the poor in China have access to far more than in almost all the countries it borders.

Having a system in China where the people can’t interfere in politics, only try to make money and most of the government’s aim is to simply foster an environment for an ever growing economy is seemingly a perfect setup, once they returned to a capitalist economy it was always going to work. I think the lack of democracy in China is something that is over written about in the West; under the firmly held belief in Confucianism it isn’t the place of the individual to question what decisions their seniors make. You simply respect your elders and their decisions unquestioningly, which is part of the reason why China has for a long time had something of a gerontocracy. The role of politicians is very different compared to the West; when something goes wrong they have a convention Michael Howard would agree with where it’s the lowest ranked person involved who’ll take the blame and the people see the top leaders as ‘good Emperor’ like figures who can come in and fix things very quickly even if it’s their fault something has gone wrong in the first place. Around 60% of British MPs have come from legal backgrounds and so are able to talk their way out of almost anything (and incidentally is much of the reason for the expenses scandal a couple of years ago), in contrast Chinese politicians tend to come from engineering or economic backgrounds so they’re good at making strong planning decisions but never have to justify their decisions to anyone except their bosses and so have very different skills to Western politicians. The ability to influence influential people behind the scenes is far more important than how you come across to the public and even at the top level politicians can be remarkably bad at public speaking and thinking on their feet. A couple of famous examples of this include a press conference on the controversial Three Gorges dam project when the minister in charge couldn’t answer questions on the negative aspects of the project from foreign journalists so simply repeated over a dozen times that it would create hydroelectric power. Lord Coe and Ken Livingstone also managed to humiliate the organizers of the Beijing Olympics when on an official visit in 2007 they started posing uncomfortable questions about the games legacy which their hosts simply had no answers for and had to abandon the meeting in diplomatic shame.

The worlds biggest Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia play no part in politics almost at all in exchange for the ability to trade freely and even in countries like the US or UK where they’re unlikely to receive too much discrimination they’ve collectively made few efforts to gain office of any sort. Even the other ‘Chinese countries’ of Singapore and Taiwan have been effectively one party states since they gained their independence and politics plays a very limited role in society in comparison to European countries.

Since starting to open the country up to the outside world in recent years aside from the occasional use of force (most famously Tianamen Square in ’89) the government seem to have had fewer problems maintaining power and that’s down to what has been termed by some writers as ‘The Deal’.

This is the name given to the unwritten agreement between the people and the government that provided the economy grows and their living standards continue to rise the people won’t argue too much with the political status quo. Backed up by terrific economic growth, rising living standards and heavy surveillance of any subversive activities (e.g. the country’s 30,000 censors who run ‘The Great Firewall’ on the internet) this agreement has worked extremely well for the last 20 years. The crunch will come when the meteoric rise of the economy starts to slow and logically the people might start to feel they should have more say over who governs them. The Communist leaders are well aware of this and took evasive action at the beginning of the current international economic crisis pumping billions of their cash reserves into the economy to support construction projects, create jobs and maintaining the double digit growth rates the country has officially enjoyed for some years now. As you’ve probably read this has created quite bad inflation however and the growth of asset bubbles particularly in the big cities, when the bubble eventually pops and the party finds it can no longer guarantee such visible improvements in peoples lives it will be very interesting to see what happens to the country.

Having made the point about the Chinese not being too political a race there have however been a few indications to the contrary in the last few years. The introduction of elected village councils have been greeted enthusiastically by the people though there are no plans to extend it beyond such local levels. More amusingly a couple of years ago the Chinese version of X Factor was opened to the public and within minutes all the internet servers had crashed as so many people tried to log on to vote. The government got so worried that the people would enjoy the voting experience too much and by the next week’s programme had instructed the producers to remove the public vote and just have judges!

Much to my surprise this month a couple of local guys have come up to me and told me how they want to see China have a democratic revolution, they cited the terrible corruption in the country as well as a general lack of freedom as the main reason for their desire for change.

It’s quite easy to see their point; Chinas justice system for example is non-existent – whilst crime is very low by world standards if you’re arrested you’re almost certainly going down guilty or not with no chance of appeal so unsurprisingly the people are fairly petrified of the police and have as little to do with them as possible. Any decision made by an official, however corrupt can’t be questioned and like Singapore and other places the media is so controlled that you literally can’t believe anything you read or view on the news, after Sky showed the events in Tianamen Square overseas channels are banned and even things like Facebook are off limits. However, a strong government does have benefits; as with Italy under Mussolini the trains do run ontime here and if the government orders it positive projects like new Metro systems will be built with no holdups or notably in the 1990s deforestation was stopped almost overnight once Beijing clamped down. The guys I spoke to seemed a bit naive thinking every democracy is like Europe and once I explained the problems with it in developing countries like India i.e. politicians just argue and don’t get things done they conceded there isn’t a one-size fits all policy. Certainly the ongoing progress of China makes it an endlessly exciting place to observe and study.

Despite transport issues it was quite cool seeing the New Year celebrations which is the equivalent of Christmas for the Chinese. Qingdao was a former German concession (akin to Macau or Hong Kong) but was lost along with WWI, nonetheless they left an interesting architectural legacy which along with the pleasing seaside setting makes it one of the more interesting cities to walk around in China. Whilst I enjoyed looking at the buildings undoubtedly my favorite street was ‘Beer Street’ as the Germans most famous legacy was teaching the Chinese how to brew Tsingtao. There are statues made of beer bottles, it’s sold everywhere in beer bags on the streets and even the hostel I was staying in gave you free beer every night J .

New Year was fairly quiet outside by day as although the buses were still running I had to live on pot noodles and the sweets everyone gives you as no restaurants were open. But in the evening things started getting livelier; fireworks are really cheap in China and an evening walk on the 2nd was like a fast track to getting post traumatic stress syndrome as I found myself constantly jumping out the way of the thousands and thousands of bangers and mini Catherine wheels the kids love to throw around. Great fun though.

From Qingdao I had to catch a flight out and after much Seoul searching chose South Korea. With The Orient still in the cup at the 5th round for the first time I genuinely did have thoughts about coming home- which hadn’t happened before on this trip. I guess I have quite distorted priorities in my life… Til next time

From Seoul,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:12 Archived in China Comments (0)

South West China, Macau and Hong Kong

Happy New Year from the Far East!

Apologies for not writing before Xmas but I hope you all had a good one and wish everyone a ‘prosperous’ New Year…

I’m writing this from Hong Kong, probably the most iconic city in Asia and aside from being terrible for a vegetarian (they even use powdered chicken rather than salt) definitely gets placed as one of the greatest cities in the world for me, it feels like a wondrous amalgamation of New York, Rio and Singapore. Its acquisition is one of Britains most shameful moments in history; basically the Chinese wouldn’t buy British goods so the Brits tried turning the Chinese into addicts by illegally flooding the country with opium instead as they owned huge poppy fields in Bengal and elsewhere. When the Chinese authorities tried to stop this the British responded by sending a huge fleet and if they weren’t otherwise occupied elsewhere in Asia could have taken up the whole of China as a colony. However, when Britain handed it back in ’97 they handed back arguably the single most successful colony of anywhere in the world. The Chinese had long been looking jealously across at the territory’s success and anxious not to lose its momentum and agreed on a ‘one country, two systems’ approach where they won’t change any political or economic aspects of the territory for 50 years.

It’s reminiscent of Singapore in that everything works perfectly, from the street cleaning to what’s widely considered the best public transport system of any major city in the world and even the novelty of the mid-level escalators which take you up the slopes of Victoria Peak behind the city. When you get to the top, looking out on one of Manhattans only rivals for the best skyline in the world and its entrepreneurial, hardworking citizens you can’t help but feel it’s a city Ayn Rand would look on approvingly at.

But it’s also an incredibly beautiful place, most of the territory is made up of forested mountains and like in Rio you have 7 million people living both very densely but with superb access to nature. I spent the days wandering around the various districts of the city and at 30 cents a journey taking the best value cruises in the world- the local ferry system across the harbor. New Year was made up mainly of an OK rather than amazing firework display but I made the slightly strange decision to get up at 7am and walk off my hangover doing the 100km MacLehose trail that runs through the New Territories (so called since the British acquisition in 1898). The trails in HK are something of a walkers dream with abundant signposting and starting at the beach before crossing the mountainous spine behind Kowloon the trail was a great way of seeing some more of the territory. I did have one very scary moment when crossing through a nature reserve at night however when for the 2nd time this month I got surrounded by some stray dogs. Like that scene with the Rottweilers in The Omen when they noiselessly get into an attack formation it’s really quite terrifying. When it happened before in Tibet we ran down a hill into the nearest village but this time I was 3km away from the road so could do nothing more than arm myself with a rock (the method of animal discipline across Asia) run, and hope for the best. Thankfully only one of them came after me and he gave up after 50m or so. Whilst I’d been traveling with other people for most of the last 3 months and was quite enjoying being by myself again sometimes solo traveling isn’t always for the best and sleeping out rough is definitely one of those times.

Before I came to Asia if I was to pinpoint any moment when my yearning to go traveling again was at its strongest, it was in the slightly surprising form of when I first heard the BBC theme tune to the Beijing Olympics; in truth though probably since the age of 17 or so whenever I hear Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence the desire to come East is definitely awakened and I feel just very happy to be fulfilling it.

After recklessly never taking any anti-malarials yet always drinking the water I left South Asia with no doubt a fair few parasites for company, I first went to Tibet (which I'll write about when I leave China) and then headed to Sichaun and Yunnan in China's South West.

Unfortunately the agency we had to take the Tibet tour with lied to us about being able to extend our Chinese visas (we couldn't) and so we had to travel rather quicker than we would have liked through one of the most interesting parts of China. Yunnan is a beautiful mountainous province on the edges of the Himalayas which contains most of Chinas ever marginalized ethnic minorities, as you get near to the borders with Vietnam and Laos it felt like I was stepping back in time by a year as the ubiquitous Han Chinese identity faded amongst the different hill tribes. As in the border areas of Laos and Vietnam the people don't speak much of the national language, dress totally different wearing their luminously colored traditional clothes and just generally don't fit into the national identity. The most enjoyable way to get round and seeing some life was by renting a bicycle and meandering through some of the local villages, perhaps the most memorable part was seeing a Bai (tribal group) funeral which looked uncannily like a KKK procession as a standard bearer is followed by the coffin then the family all wearing white (the color of death in China) bed sheets around their head with the triangle shaped hoods! On this side of the border they're are also famous for their incredible terraced farming techniques. I saw some incredible rice terraces near the beginning of my trip in The Philippines and whilst the ones in Yunnan weren't as steep they were far more expansive in scope and at this time of year made for a fantastic photo spectacle as the combo of perfect blue skies and the crops being underwater made it look like thousands of individual infinity pools going down the hillsides.

Another equally impressive landscape was the breathtaking (and Eh? named) Tiger Leaping Gorge in the North of the province.

Depending on how it's measured it's one of if not the deepest gorge in the world and hiking through it is probably the most famous trail in China. After how tough the ones in Nepal were it felt very easy physically but looking down at the roaring Yangtze then up the near vertical cliff sides to 5500m peaks is a view which you really won't see many places in the world, although the trek will become lodged in my mind for one of the strangest incidents I can remember on my travels anywhere.

... We'd been walking for about a day and a half along the gorge and the previous night our guesthouse owner had warned us that ahead some villagers had commandeered parts of the path (after the government had already charged a fiver for entry to the gorge) and effectively demanded a toll for you to continue, if you didn't pay they'd been known to get violent (but only with foreigners). After a few hours an oldish woman tried getting us to pay 80p but we stepped beside her and carried on. We only got a few mouthfuls of abuse off her but a bit later I'd got ahead of my companion and came to a very narrow part of the path just above the water where I was met by a woman a couple of years older than me. She stepped in front of me and asked for 10 Yuan (= $1.35 or 2 loaves of bread) I tried stepping round her at which point she pushed me hard enough to knock one of the lenses off my sun glasses, unsurprisingly I wasn't too happy so gave her a mouthful then stepped forward to pick up the lens. At which point she started really laying into me, as in hauled me back by my t-shirt then started throwing as many kicks and punches as she could. At this point the path was no more than 4ft wide with nothing but a sheer cliff 50m or so down to the river below, but even thinking back to it makes me gasp was that she was doing this with a 4month old baby in her arms!!!

I've always been quite good at staying out of trouble and have never got into a fight but baby or not (it soon went flying) she genuinely seemed to be trying to kick me off the edge and as I had visions of Holmes and Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls I was in a bit of a moral quandary as to whether I should fight back. Thankfully I just about had enough presence of mind to stop her (she was only a small Chinese woman) rather than hit her and pinned her back at arms length and screamed my life time's quota of 'What the f**k are you doing(s)?!! at her to try and get her to stop. It didn't work. I tried walking away but then she threw a baseball sized rock which hit me on my back then spat at me, when she did this again and picked up another rock I thought that's enough and gripped her by the back of the neck to stop her so she bit me in response (I still have the scabs). At this point I made a more successful getaway and with my whole body shaking in a state of shock just thought I hope I never see such an act of extreme greed as to risk your own baby's life for the sake of a quid. Truly one of the strangest incidents of my life.

Because of the visa issues I had to make a long journey to Macau where I made the Wildean error of being in a Communist country for the 2nd Christmas in a row, but in Macau 'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning" which makes a neat summary of my very enjoyable Christmas. Macau was a Portuguese colony until as late as 1999 and is a fascinating place to see where East meets West in its religion, food, architecture blah blah blah- the real attraction are of course the casinos. I don't really get gambling in the sense that I know the odds are stacked against me and therefore feel no urge to play but the Chinese don't see it the same way. Wherever you are in the world if you want to find some Chinese- head to the local casino. Perhaps no other nationality seem to enjoy gambling as much as they do, one of the most frequent sights you see all over China are people playing and gambling at cards, checkers or lotteries at all times and in all places. They’re bewilderingly superstitious and all over China you see shops selling nothing but lucky charms as well as shops, restaurants named things like 888 hotel (it’s a very lucky number here). Apparently it stems from Confucianism where the best thing a man can be isn't honest or hardworking etc but lucky. Probably right, but unlike drugs or alcohol it is a hidden but genuine social problem and stories abound of family fortunes being lost in one night as well as supporting much of the business for the Triads. Either way in a culture where so much emphasis is placed on long term goals and the accumulation of success over time the obsession with gambling does feel more than a bit out of place.

Macau has been a casino resort town for over 150 years (and coincidentally has had a thriving pawn shop business for just as long), whilst most of the punters are from Hong Kong it is truly 'Asias playground' and there's a fortune being pushed around. Whilst it's been termed the Vegas of the East the term really should be applied the other way round as Macau has long since overtaken LV as the worlds premier gambling spot. The minimum bet on any of the tables is $25 but most of them are $65 and seeing one guy lose around $250 in 4 bets in the space of 2 minutes I was tempted to nudge him and say "You do know the odds are against you?".
And they were soooo much fun to wander round and people watch, like all the best drugs the constant visual stimulation felt very moreish and I had a bit of a mental struggle to convince myself to leave as staying up til the small hours in a casino every night probably isn't good for you. A few years ago they let the big American ones come in, from the slick Sands, Wynn and MGM Grand to the very touristy but wonderfully over the top Venetian. They contained everything you'd want in a casino- lots of very rich men chaperoned by lots of very beautiful women, ATMs everywhere and empty, overpriced designer stores where the staff look like the most bored people in the world, and all in overly ornate surroundings. Fantastic, although I also loved the grimier, old fashioned Lisboa where the rougher looking punters get ever more raucous as the night wears on under a thick fog of cigarette smoke. One area where Macau really does lack in comparison to Vegas is entertainment; in Vegas the hotels, restaurants and shows etc have now become so developed that the actual gambling only constitutes around a quarter of the hotels revenue- in contrast in Macau, it's all about the gambling. Whilst they've tried unsuccessfully introducing the Cirque de Soleil and a couple of other acts I just don't think the Chinese would be interested in Siegfried and Roy style acts or even bars/nightclubs when there's gambling to be done- I spent a particularly pathetic 20 minutes in the Wynn searching for a bar, when eventually found it consisted of nothing more than 3 small tables...

..But I have enjoyed a few beers this month as culturally, in a lot of ways I've definitely enjoyed the switch to the Far East...
Whilst I haven't quite become a dipsomaniac yet, being in a country where a beer doesn't cost more than your bed for the night and where 'nightlife' involves something more than listening to stray dogs barking has just been wicked and joyously taken advantage of. After so long with no real opportunities for going out it turns out I really quite like getting drunk and certainly being in a club with a beer in one hand, a tab in the other and a huge smile on my face whilst I Like It by Enrique Iglesias blares out has been a great part of my first few weeks here. Some races react really badly to alcohol (Mongolians, Aborigines, Maoris etc.) but the Chinese seem to go up about 5 gears; one of the main differences of the last month compared to my previous visit to China in 2003 is how much less interested the people are in me. Back then people would crowd around you and try and speak to you all the time but this time round they've been almost totally indifferent; until they start drinking and then they become immensely friendly and generous. I love how sociable the experience of eating and drinking is in China, you don't order a dish for yourself but one that can be shared amongst all your companions and they do the same, similarly you don't buy a drink for yourself but beers are gradually shared into smaller glasses and you do rounds of communal toasts. And they just will not let you pay no matter how much you drink, complete strangers who speak no English will drag you over and just refuse to accept money- on one long and drunken night out in Kunming we didn't pay for a single drink between us. The ability to indulge my embarrassing musical tastes aside it has been nice being somewhere a bit more relaxed too where people don't stare at you for minutes on end and after 9 months where I had I think one conversation with a local woman (the daughter of the family I stayed with in India) it does feel noticeably different walking around and interacting with people under a more relaxed unwritten behavioral code.

Some things haven't changed all that much though; when abroad it's long been a policy of mine that ‘when in Rome act like a Chinamen’. This has been very useful as it gives me carte blanche to spit, piss or perform virtually any other bodily function in public without a trace of shame. Having been in Asia so long I'm not exactly unused to seeing manners that would disgust my Mum but in China it feels more than a bit out of place. It's starting to become debatable as to whether China can still be considered a developing country, there are great road, rail, electricity and water systems and people have much better clothes and far more disposable cash than virtually all of the bigger countries I've been to on this trip but as my traveling companion described it "It's like cavemen with mobiles". When you're on a fairly comfortable train and the guys on the seats opposite you pick at a dinner consisting of nothing but pig hearts or chicken feet (both fried of course) washed down with moonshine like whiskey, throw the remains on the floor then spit and burp repeatedly for the next hour you can't help but think 'come on guys'! And 'offences' can be committed by anyone, more than a couple of times I've heard a hawk and spit that a Clydeside docker would be proud of only to notice it's been performed by a dainty looking girl clad in D&G. They are trying to change things, the local government in Beijing gave the locals lessons in how to behave in a more civilized way in front of foreigners before the Olympics and HK has a smoking ban whilst Macau now has a $75 fine if you're caught spitting on the street but, with their disgusting bathrooms and eating habits I think it'll take a few years for their manners to catch up to their wallets.

Whilst things are somewhat more expensive here, after 9 months in South Asia I'm really appreciating being in a more developed country. Having 24hr electricity, running water, pavements and a road system that works very much ups your quality of life, the 'intensity' of everyday life is much lower and I find myself much calmer and relaxed than in S Asia.

Tomorrow I’m heading back into China where this increasingly epic trip continues.

From Hong Kong,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:07 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

Eastern Nepal

Hello for the final time from South Asia, after having followed up the Annapurna Circuit by doing the Everest Base Camp trek my advice is that if you're having any 'weight problems' forget about wasting money on expensive health foods and arguments with your trainer over whether you've lost 3 or 3.5lbs after 8 months on WeightWatchers- just go trekking in the Himalayas. My non fat (he's French) companion on the Annapurna circuit lost 5kgs in 2 weeks and despite binge eating for the last week I now have a body which looks like Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn or The Machinist. Not attractive.
Which isn't a good description of uniquely flagged Nepal, despite being here for 2 months it really doesn't feel like it as I've spent over a month of it lost in some of the most memorable scenery you'll find anywhere on Earth. And even in a country which doesn't play any sport (what they talk about I don't know) it feels like a very fitting place to end my time in South Asia.

Its somewhere I can't say I ever really got pinned down in my head, in just about every respect- ethnically, culturally, religiously, linguistically, even down to the food they eat it felt exactly like it looks on the map ie squeezed between India and Tibet. A strong Nepalese 'flavor' never really presented itself to me, it always felt like something borrowed from its neighbors and it's definitely the incredible natural scenery which I found most memorable about the country.
Geographically Nepal probably isn't what most people would imagine; unlike Bolivia or Tibet which have huge plains at very high altitude that the population can eke a living out of, this side of the Himalayas are just too steep (in places rising 7000m over just 20km and skiing's not even possible) and have virtually no flat areas whatsoever once the hills start. Therefore the vast majority of the population live in the lower valleys ie at <2500m altitude with Nepalese highways (walking trails) leading up to ever smaller communities the higher you go.
The steepness of the mountains and the poverty of the people means Nepal is one of the most environmentally fragile countries in the world. Apart from the need to clear land for agriculture it obviously gets very cold during the Winter and trying to maintain the countrys forest cover is a constant struggle. When you chop down trees in mountain systems it causes lots of environmental problems. The soil loses the tree roots which act as the 'glue' to keep it together, in turn this causes landslides which both silts up streams and rivers ruining agricultural land and also means trees can't regrow on the slopes so villagers have to look elsewhere for fuel causing problems elsewhere- a vicious circle which Haiti for example is at the absolute nadir of.

However, despite having a rapidly growing population and being dirt poor Nepal is doing a great job in preserving and managing what they have and planning for a precarious future; aside from the help they've received from international NGOs and the like the lions share of the credit must go to the wonderfully humble and incredibly hardworking people. Definitely a feature of the country I've grown to love about the country they almost strike me as 'highland Thais' in their positivity and warmhearted natures and aside from the outstanding scenery it's much of the reason why the country has such a high repeat visit rate from tourists.
But as in Bangladesh and India one of the most frequent sights you see here are posters advertising visa services with "Come and live and work in Canada/Australia/UAE etc." as Nepals population has ballooned to nearly 30million and economic opportunities are very limited. It's one of the poorest countries in Asia coming in the bottom few on almost all development indicators (infant mortality, GDP, literacy rates etc.) and as several Nepalis have told me their ability to develop is largely out of their own hands being landlocked between the 2 great competing powers of India and China. As one local put it "If we do a deal with India, China gets angry and vice versa".
For decades under the staunchly Hindu monarchy they'd been reliant on Indian help to develop their infrastructure in exchange for resources but India has never really responded and most Nepalis are now strongly in favor of increasing ties with the Chinese under the influence of the Maoists in Parliament as the Chinese will tend to get things like bridge and road building done much faster. This is of course very controversial as Chinese plans to extend the Tibetan trainline all the way to Kathmandu and to dam up various rivers and therefore harness their awesome hydroelectric power will take little consideration of the environment, or anybody further downstream. However, in a country where even the capital regularly suffers 16hr blackouts and the vast majority of the population live on <$3 a day
serious efforts have to be made to find a way to develop whilst sustaining the countrys vital natural resources.

The hills and valleys have left a series of strong largely untainted tribal cultures of which the best known in the West are of course the Sherpas and the Gurkhas; the Sherpas aren't just porters but an ubertough Tibetan like group from the Everest region who quickly gained fame not only for their indefatigable climbing and carrying exploits but also for their pride in their culture which even amidst todays mass tourism on the trekking routes is still very visible- I particularly liked the distinctive septum rings which the women wear.
A bit more controversial are the Gurkhas and more specifically their positions in the British army which have long been open to any Nepalis not just the Gurkha tribe. In terms of status, becoming a member of one of the Gurkha regiments is virtually the highest thing ordinary Nepalese men can aspire to and the selection process is monumentally competitive as boys will spend several years in training specifically to pass the rigorous assessments budding recruits are subjected to. The reason it carries such a high status is partly the honour of being a soldier in the regiment etc but mainly financial. As with nearly all Asian countries working children will send a huge percentage of their pay cheque home and due to the salary earned being nearly up to British levels Gurkhas will often send home +75% of their wages so its no surprise families will throw week long parties when their sons are accepted as effectively the family is financially 'made' and there are plenty of stories of parents forcing their daughters into marrying Gurkhas for nothing more than the financial security it entails. And this is where social problems have arisen; the consequences of an individuals success/failure were explained to me during a couple of chats I had with local guys and their experiences of trying to get into the Gurkhas. One was a porter on the Everest Base Camp trek and was a couple of years younger than me, he told the story of after 3years training as a teenager he was rejected by the Gurkhas at the first round of testing because he was 2cm too short. He was carrying a load of no less than 110kg (they get paid by the kilogram so will carry up to 150kg or roughly 2.5x my weight) and could only walk short distances before having to rest as it was such a heavy load. He explained that the only other work option was as a subsistence farmer or perhaps another form of labourer and I couldn't help but feel very, very sorry for him as he trudged away. At the other end of the scale whilst on a bus journey the middle aged guy next to me told me he was an ex-Gurkha and taking advantage of the change in the law a couple of years ago was about to move to Hampstead of all places; he readily admitted that in a country as poor as Nepal the prize of success in getting in is now far too high and whilst it would be an exaggeration to say its life ruining if you're rejected, your options in so many areas (job,marriage prospects etc) look pretty bleak. Whilst Joanna Lumley et al obviously meant well in demanding equal rights as British soldiers the social situation that's been created here is just not fair.

Once again the main focus of the month was a trek, this time the 19day route around the Everest region. Most people make the trek much easier (cheating) by flying in to a point about halfway on the trek then renting porters to carry their stuff but I did it the hard way, walking 4 days in and out and carrying my bag the whole time. And it was tough. Whilst the profile of the Annapurna circuit was gradually up, over the high pass then gradually down, EBC was much more undulating. For example on the first day I had to ascend 1000m then descend it all straightaway followed by a tortuous 2nd day where I climbed 2000m before descending 800m. I appreciate those numbers might not mean much to many people but take my word for it when I say that's very tough. And then I got to altitude. In the Andes you'd be beginning to climb the higher peaks and anywhere else in the world you'd be in the clouds but 4 times on the trek I hit 5500m or so. If you've never been at serious altitude it does strange things to your body: you have only 50% oxygen as at sea level to play with, you're constantly thirsty as you're panting so much which means you lose a lot more fluid than at sea level, 'once every six seconds' becomes 'around once every six days' and sleeping is really hard not just with the cold but the unwanted requests from your bladder to empty it into outdoor toilets which at 1am at 5100m is not fun let me tell you. But whilst the nights suck it's the days where you get rewarded; about 10 years ago I seem to remember the newspapers announcing that Everest would be henceforward known as Chomolungma (the Tibetan name) but thankfully the needlessl PC change didn't stick as Everest simply couldn't sound any better. In sheer size as well as height its a gigantic mountain and up (fairly) closey it's daunting to see. The top is so high that it's actually out of the atmosphere and the 250kph winds which can hit strip the mountain of snow so the high parts are more of a chocolate brown color than the white you'd expect, indeed the most famous description of the mountain is "Like a grossly fat man in a room full of beautiful women". I really didn't agree with that as whilst the Everest Base Camp isn't all that great (you can't even see Everest's peak from it) the surrounding ice flows leading up to the mighty mountain are just breathtaking. However, probably my favorite part of the the trek was from another peak where we had perfect views of the beautiful Gokyo lake, the gigantic Ngozumba glacier as well as Cho Oyu (6th highest mountain in the world) Makalu (5th highest) Lhotse (4th highest) and Everest itself. I did the trek with a Dutch companion and looking out at the top of the peak I couldn't help but exclaim "In terms of mountain scenery this is surely the most spectacular region n the world".

On the way out I got really quite ill on another horrible ascent and after practically passing out on the path begged a local family to let me stay with them. Thankfully they did and after giving me the most welcome cup of tea I'll likely ever have I made a great 15hr recovery after feeling like 'Sancho Panza after the rose water' for a while. I then utterly thrashed myself to get back to a road and took the single most scary bus journey I've ever taken. Worse than the death road in Bolivia it was more of a sheep track than a jeep track and the driver lost control on the mud bath of a road so many times with nothing but 1500m+ drops down the cliff face to steady any falls. At times truly terrifying it was eventually 5hrs late which in Nepal is about par for the course. They have quite different ideas of time here, its currently the year 2067, its the only country in the world that I'm aware of that uses a '15' min measurement (ie Nepal is at GMT+ 5.45) when trekking if you ask how long to the next village '2hrs' would tend to mean 3-4 and literally the 'best' bus journey I've taken in Nepal was only an hour late. It's gotta rank as the most frustrating place I've been in for getting around as 4hrs become 9, 6hrs become 10 or 7hrs become 13 and entire days get lost. Conversely the one night bus I took turned up 3.5hrs early to arrive at 3.30am so had to sit around in the dark for 3hrs before the day began. But in truth I'm just thankful I've somehow spent just under 9mths in South Asia without being in a road accident of any sort. If it feels like I've written too much about how bad the roads are in this part of the world it's an indication of just how much your quality of life is lowered by them. Your are 30x more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in Europe and whilst lessons and the testing system in most countries have created a situation where 95% of drivers are well aware they have a potentially fatal weapon in their hands and take care accordingly, in this part of the world they just do not have this concept at all. A motorized vehicle is simply to get from A to B as quickly as possible and the bigger your vehicle the more clout you have and its everyone else's problem to get out the way. It's also a miracle I've not got into any fights as I've never given out so much abuse to people (drivers) as I have in the last few months- even when we're playing Brighton. Like mosquito bites you simply never get used to the feeling of cars or motorbikes missing your ankles by a few inches as the drivers constantly take wild, extreme risks with your life to save no more than a few seconds. Kathmandu could be a very nice place to be but it's image of a shangri-la has long since vanished due to the traffic. It apparently holds the terrible record of having the truly disgusting (and laughably 'sacred') Bagmati as the most polluted river in the world running through it and has one of the lowest air quality ratings of any capital city in the world. The streets are rarely more than 8-10m wide and with vehicles going both ways not following any sort of rules aside from a vague 'drive on the left' like virtually all cities in S.Asia it's simply very stressful walking around. I realized I'm subconsciously having to give myself pep talks to get up and face the streets and it's definitely the thing I'm most looking forward to leaving behind in South Asia.

That's because I'm now in a very excited mood as I'm off to the Far East tomorrow beginning in Tibet; so far things have been generally very easy traveling in Asia. In terms of languages whilst they're very difficult in just about everywhere there have been enough people who speak English so getting around just hasn't been a problem, in fact the only place I had to pick up some local lingo was Indonesia and that's widely regarded as one of the easiest major languages in the world! Perhaps best of all though has been the prices, with the exception of Taiwan at the very beginning and Singapore everywhere has been cheap and whilst in some places (Bangladesh, Indonesia) you get a quality that reflects that, in the likes of Vietnam or Malaysia you pay a bit more and the quality of things is fantastic. Certainly in terms of value for money Asia is miles ahead of any other continent particularly in accommodation and of course the amazing food. They do make a lot of money back on visas though as when Bangladesh charge $65 for a month or Nepal $100 for 2months a quick sum shows me I've somehow spent 8% of my total budget on visas! I have at least been able to get them however and I'm a little bit worried moving onwards at the increase in costs and starting to get rejected for visas in the route home I have planned.
Hopefully the good stuff will continue though as I head into China but as with Myanmar please, please, please don't write anything remotely sensitive. As I understand it they filter emails looking for certain phrases ie Dalai Lama, Tianamen Square massacre etc so if you're gonna email me don't put in anything too controversial as stories of the Chinese authorities 'bombing' email accounts and the like abound and obviously I'd like to avoid all that. Keep well.

From Kathmandu,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:05 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Western Nepal

Iris Murdoch once wrote "There are two types of people, those of the sea and those of the mountains". Obviously that's nonsense (what if you're Mongolian?) but I think I definitely prefer life in the mountains. Nepal is almost unique in never having been conquered by anyone else. The British of course tried and failed (so asked the Gurkhas to join them) but despite being able to see the worlds highest mountains from the Indian border Nepal was strictly closed to foreigners and as late as the 1950's very little was known about the country. Under an all powerful King Nepalis weren't allowed to leave the country and any sort of development was strictly prohibited even to the extent that road construction was banned. As a result the various tribal cultures stayed virtually intact, protected by the country's mountainous geography, so perhaps only Tibet features more prominently in the Western idea of the hidden or mystic East.

The problem with cutting themselves off for so long is that modernity has arrived very fast and in many ways the country just isn't geared up for it. As late as the 1970's there was no electricity, motorized vehicles or roads and so whilst most countries have built their infrastructure and organizational systems up over a long period in Nepal it's had to happen very quickly. As a result things don't run as well as they might so getting things done isn't always easy and in the cities it can be a surprisingly stressful place to be which I wasn't expecting after India.
As you're probably aware one of the unfortunate side-effects of this surge to modernity was a 10yr civil war between a peasant based Maoist group and government forces which finished in 2006, it devastated the economy and as much as 1/3rd of the population fled to India to escape the fighting. The Maoists eventually won the war and gave up their arms in favor of the ballot box although the country is currently in a political deadlock with no government formed for over 100 days after very close elections. Knowing all this Nepal seems quite a strange place for a Communist uprising to occur in the first place.
I realized a long time ago that seeing 'poverty' doesn't really upset me but seeing unjustifiable rich poor gaps really does. This can take different forms, from the barbed wire and armed guards to keep the poor out of rich neighborhoods in South Africa to the disgraceful conspicuous consumption in The Philippines where if people have the money they will buy those flashy pair of Nikes or build that gaudy concrete mansion, totally oblivious to the grinding poverty around them. None of that applies at all in Nepal; something likes 2/3rds of the population live on less than $3 a day and you simply do not see any ostentatious displays of wealth or even many people who look/act wealthier. About half the bus journeys I've done in Nepal have been on the roof because each and every bus is crammed to the rafters- because barely anybody can afford a car. There isn't a 'landowning class' to rally against as the King nationalized all forests and parklands in the 1950's so it definitely feels likes an odd place for Communism to be successful.
The Maoist justification for starting the war was that for years Nepal was run by an overly powerful occasionally corrupt succession of Kings but the Royal Family aside it's hard to see who their ire was aimed at. The Royalists didn't really do themselves any favors however when famously in the midst of the fighting in 2001, the Crown Prince got drunk, got hold of a machine gun and downed almost his entire family after his parents rejected his choice of bride. Afterwards he turned the gun on himself but Royalist Nepal drew international ridicule when they crowned him King whilst he was in a coma, which he didn't come out of. Not really a surprise they didn't last much longer.

If anything the real economic gap in Nepal is between tourists and locals. Since the end of the war visitor numbers have shot back up and a few large 'tourist ghettos' have formed in a couple of the more popular places. In these areas whether you use the internet or buy a haircut or an apple the locals will quote you prices which are simply ridiculous relative to what the locals can afford. As in the poorer countries in SE Asia (Laos,Cambodia) you come to realise there's a dual economy in operation and once again I felt very uncomfortable in shops and restaurants where the only locals are staff. Food is where you notice the divide most as Nepalese restaurants normally only serve the very limited chowmein, momos (Tibetan word for dumplings) and rice and dal; but if you go to a tourist restaurant you can get things like pizzas and nice cakes- but at minimum 3x the price. The profit margins on food are so high that they've perhaps come to expect too much and even got greedy- particularly on the trekking routes. Certainly signs in your hotel saying 'If you don't eat in our restaurant you room bill will be charged x10' or hotel owners coming into your room at 10.30pm demanding to know why you haven't eaten dinner yet (we'd sneaked out) isn't something I expected in Nepal.

I have done some really cool little things this month- seeing 3 scarily massive rhinos in the wild in a national park and 'completing the set' of the 4 holy Lord Buddha sites (birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death) being particularly memorable. But of course the main attraction to tourists in Nepal is trekking and that's what I've spent half my time doing. This is one area where Nepal have got themselves very organized and are pretty much the world leaders in setting up trekking routes and facilities. The two most famous are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna circuit which join the likes of the Inca, Appalachian and the Santiago as the most popular treks in the world. I didn't actually know it before I came to Nepal but Oct/Nov is peak season and after deciding to do the 2wk/250km Annapurna circuit there were a few points where you lost the 'wilderness feel' amidst the crowds. But that's only the most mild of grumbles in what was a truly outstanding couple of weeks. Unlike virtually everywhere in South America there are nowhere near as many opportunities to see amazing natural sights in Asia but those couple of weeks really bucked the trend. On the first day I got very lucky and met a very amiable Frenchman who walked at the same pace as me. As you trek up through fields of cannabis (which made the nights so much more bearable) and begin to see wonderfully fluffy yaks which do great cheese and you find yourself having to fight the urge to steal the insanely cute Tibetan children you feel wonderfully free in the indescribably beautiful landscape.

Following a request from my Gran I switched the format of the email from the Sunday Times to the Daily Star so I hope you enjoyed the shortest email I've sent on this trip. I can't see the next one being miles longer as I now head off to do the Everest Base Camp trek so will have no email contact for a while.

From Kathmandu,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:02 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Northern India

Hello after my final month in this crazy country, where the women dress so vibrantly and wear an aurific amount of jewelery and the men are styled so bewilderingly badly- the look of choice is sandals, skin tight jeans, a grandad shirt with a 'tache and side parting to top it off. I don't know how much coverage the Commonwealth Games are getting but I'm in Delhi now and the city is abuzz with the preparations. It's good to see they've kept their word in delivering a 'truly Indian games' with the phrases 'corruption, delays, inefficiencies and unfit for human habitation' appearing most frequently!
It's been a fittingly eclectic mix this month where I found myself in a riot, saw the Dalai Lama and definitely realized 'I love my India'.

After the tranquility of the Golden Temple I fancied a change and headed up to Kashmir; which aside from being one of the greatest guitar rifts of all time is apparently rated by all the security agencies as the world conflict most likely to cause a nuclear war. It's been a terrible Summer there as I'll go on to show but the story begins all the way back at Partition in 1947.

Whilst the British did many good things in India (railways, an effective administration etc) their role in India's independence and it's partition was not a positive one. They complacently thought India would remain part of the Empire forever and as late as the 1930's were still building New Delhi as the new capital of the Raj. After WWII however independence became inevitable and the British found they'd prepared no functional plan to allow the most diverse country in the world and its many possible problems to leave the Empire peacefully. After setting an independence date of 1948, religious and racial tensions between communities grew over who would hold power in the new country, in particular the Muslims were worried that the Hindu majority would freeze them out of all power and they would effectively become second class citizens. They demanded their own state and the Brits hurriedly and somewhat disastrously brought forward independence by a year to 1947 with the country splitting into 3, with the new Muslim state of Pakistan forming Western and Eastern parts.

In the build up to independence literally tens of millions of people moved across the country to where they thought they would be safe, Hindus and Sikhs to what would be the new India and Muslims to what would be the new Pakistan. The loss of their homes, property and businesses understandably created huge resentment amongst the refugees and as the 2 groups left their homes and crossed each other half a million people were killed in riots and skirmishes in a terribly bloody period in India's long history. Many other problems were caused by this huge movement of people and for example the famous famine in West Bengal in the 1940's was caused essentially by the state being unable to feed the extra 4million Hindu refugees who'd crossed from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Attempts in the 20th century at drawing arbitrary lines to separate groups based on religion were spectacularly unsuccessful in Palestine and Ireland amongst others but by far the attempt to carve out a Muslim state in India was the biggest, and certainly in terms of numbers of people affected the least successful.
Peoples identities are formed by many things including ethnicity, language, the work they do and many other factors; nowhere is this more true than in India and the idea that religion could somehow trump all these factors and unite disparate groups was always very unlikely to work- for example nobody could describe Bangladesh as being 'Islamic' ahead of being 'Bengali'.
India's different religious groups were settled in pockets literally all over the country and whilst India under Nehru and Gandhi promised a secular society where state was separated from and took no interest in peoples religion, the leaders of the new Pakistan were quite clear that it would be a 'Muslim only' state. To compare the 2 countries since partition shows India in one of its most positive aspects whereas it's easy to see why Pakistan has become one of the worlds least loved countries.

India has a constitution similar to the US and many of the positives of American civil society have been replicated here. India is the most religiously and culturally diverse country in the world and the methods they've used to keep the country together and for the most part happy is really quite admirable. Many countries in Asia are also diverse and have competing claims for power from smaller groups but whilst many of its Asian neighbors like Indonesia, Myanmar and most famously China simply send in the army to start hitting people when they start requesting self determination, India has gone the other way. It has devolved power on most things ala the USA to a state level so that minority groups have access to decision making that Tibetans or the various tribes in Myanmar can only dream of.
Whilst there's definitely not enough states (only 28 for over a billion people) and they're terribly uneven in size- Sikkim has 500,000 people whilst Uttar Pradesh would be the 6th biggest country in the world with 170million people, the system is still a model that much of Asia could and should follow.
Whilst the 2nd biggest political party the BJP is adamantly pro Hindu it's still remarkable how united the country is regardless of religion and whilst in India no-one seems to care that much that the Prime Minister is a Sikh or that the 2 biggest Bollywood stars are Muslim. In Pakistan however, the countrys best cricketer is coerced into converting from Christianity to Islam in the face of public criticism from politicians and death threats from members of the public and the country is on the fast track to becoming a failed state.

For most of its history Pakistan has been run by little more than a series of corrupt gangsters (sometimes in army fatigues, sometimes not) and the non-Muslim world and India in particular can take a great deal of schadenfreude at seeing what a country which with no sense of irony decided to call itself 'The Land of the Pure' has become.
The Muslims in the Pakistan side of Punjab had been the driving force in the push for independence but quickly decided that they didn't actually want to share any money or power with any of the new arrivals from elsewhere in India and sent them to the furthest, poorest parts of the country. Amongst other things they've continued to be very poor, have founded the Taliban and due to infiltration from competing clerics from Iran (Shias) and Arabia (Sunnis) with their different messages, Pakistan has effectively been the frontline in the civil war within Islam for the last 30 years.
Similarly just mention the word Pak-i-stan to the normally incredibly placid Bangladeshis and watch them explode in anger. The political elites in Punjab dominated Pakistan couldn't suffer Bengalis to speak their own language rather than Urdu and after East Pakistan declared independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistans leaders made the decision to instruct the army to slaughter 2.5million Bengalis aiming firstly for those with education in an attempt to give the new country no chance of growth, more famously they also authorised the mass raping of 500,000 Bengali women in a disgustingly vindictive farewell to whom they called their 'brothers'.

As with the French in Indochina and the Dutch in Indonesia the British were also guilty of leaving the new country based on administrative boundaries rather than reflecting who actually lived there. One of the things I've been most surprised about Indians is that it's very difficult to tell where people are from based only on their looks, I couldn't really pick any physical characteristics which say someone is from the North or South. They pretty much look the same, except in the part of the country which sits incongruously above Bangladesh and in the Himalayas in the Northwest, and broadly speaking if they don't look Indian- they don't want to be. The Indian army has been fighting a variety of rebel armies in the North East which don't attract too much world attention but its the Kashmir issue which has really led India and Pakistan to be deadly enemies rather than neighbourly rivals over the years.

At partition all princely states had the choice of which country to join but Kashmir voted for neither wanting to go independent, however, because Kashmiris are majority Muslims Pakistan believes the territory should belong to them and indeed Kashmir is the 'K' in Pakistan.
Therefore after partition they invaded the valley at which point the Kashmiris asked India for help...but they never left, claimed the valley is 'India' and so began 60+ years of on off skirmishes over the area with the 2 sides split across a line of control. A few years later China also stole a part of the territory and the locals have been caught very much in the middle of one of the most politically volatile areas on earth.
They call it 'Paradise on Earth' and it is a beautiful area in the foothills of the Himalayas with fertile soils, gorgeous lakes and distinctive architecture making it marvelously photogenic and attractive to tourists. However, the continued army presence has led to it becoming a hell for the locals and have become increasingly vocal and violent about fulfilling their dream of independence. Apparently the rioting works something similar to gang violence in northern American cities like Chicago or Detroit where it's simply too cold in Winter to be out doing anything and then in the Summer things kick off. And as you probably know if you've been following the news it's been a terrible Summer in the valley, the trigger incidents were the army shooting dead a 8yr old boy and the alleged rape of a local by 2 soldiers but the chronic unemployment amongst the population and virtual police state now in place means there didn't really need to be a trigger. Over 100 people have been killed in rioting and the inadequately trained Indian army operating under a ludicrously ill-thought out policy of martial law just cannot get a grip on the situation, almost daily managing to kill teenagers and arresting hundreds of others who are doing nothing more than throwing stones in defiance of orders to stay inside.

When I got to the capital Srinigar they were on a 1 day week (Friday naturally) with the army maintaining a curfew the rest of the time. I was staying on a wicked houseboat on the lake near the old town and I somewhat foolishly ignored the family's advice and ventured into town on the Friday. It was fine up until about 3pm when I saw some people running towards me and obviously something was happening. I was near the gigantic Jama Masjid (main mosque with a capacity of 33333!) and thought unless the army fancied a bloodbath I'd be safe in there. Then I heard what I thought was a gunshot (I saw on the news later it was a tear gas round) and waited for 15mins but there was still plenty happening and people running around all over the place. The main street by the mosque was covered in rock and stone debris ala Palestinian riots with troops in riot gear facing off the stone throwing protesters. When I looked round and saw a teenager with what looked like a broken nose I thought that'll do and desperately tried to find a rickshaw to try and get out. Thankfully I did very quickly and we sped the other way... only to find ourselves stopped by another protest. This one was led by women which is a pretty common tactic in India to try and stop the army getting violent in protests but again something happened and I don't mind admitting my heartrate went through the roof as the crowd started stampeding towards us. The driver very calmly said 'Just stay inside don't worry' and about 30 seconds later he had enough space to sprint through the gap between the rioters and a besieged army post. It's fair to say I wasn't unhappy when we made it out to the safety of the lake where I was staying. Whilst it was scary enough what added another element of danger to it was the fact I was the only Westerner anywhere near things and I was afraid that whilst they hate Indians more, the protesters may have gone after me a bit. This is because for many years Pakistan has sent infiltrators across the border to act as agent provocateurs in the starting of riots in a religious tone. Every local I spoke to just wants independence from India and definitely don't want to be part of Pakistan but in "the continued export of terrorism" from Pakistan as David Cameron put it recently they've tried to turn the issue into a religious one. Whilst some anti-Pakistan politicians will claim that Kashmir is an 'inalienable part of India' it's quite clearly nothing like that on the ground, culturally it's completely different and the people look much more like central Asians than Indians with much lighter complexions, grey green eyes and noses that a Rabbi would be proud of- they even drink their tea differently! As with China and the troubled North Eastern states, India claims that if they let the area go independent Pakistan would simply annex it and there is a degree of truth in this. However, India also knows that aside from the strategic importance of the area located between India, China, Pakistan and Central Asia if they let it go independent the whole structure of India could begin to collapse as a domino effect of independence movements across the huge country could take place.

I've never been somewhere with such a big military presence, certainly not over such a large area and it does ruin the landscapes. Often you'll emerge on top of a beautiful pass only to see the next valley ruined by the barbed wire and khaki colors of an army camp with the endless streams of army trucks needlessly engaging in the national pastime of honking their horns every 4 seconds. But apart from the visual pollution as is often the way with conflict zones I couldn't help but think what a terrible waste of resources it all is. Kashmir is one of the most expensive borders in the world to maintain and to give a spot example- the Siachen glacier is an area near the line of control which costs India alone $4million to maintain a military presence. As you can probably imagine nobody can live there as it's too cold and for 2 countries as poor as India and Pakistan to spend so much money 'protecting' an area where they're not even wanted is an unforgivable waste of money- it's not surprising the rest of the world really didn't want to give any aid to Pakistan during the recent terrible floods. It was reminiscent of the Falklands Islands issue for Argentina (though not as extreme) in that neither country has that strong a claim on the territory but it's been the perfect vessel to act as an issue around which the populations of the two very diverse countries can rally around. Despite the pleasant surroundings and late Summer climate it was a sad place to be and at the very least India have got to reduce the hated army presence and remove the martial law in order to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants.

One definite positive side effect of the army presence is they've created a miraculous road network in some of the most difficult landscapes to build in on the planet. Despite its size I wouldn't describe India as a particularly beautiful country, off the top of my head only 4 landscapes really stand out in the country as most of the land is used for agriculture on floodplains. However as you head East from Srinigar the landscape becomes mindblowing as you go through different smaller ranges of the Himalayas with the road closely following the magnificent glacier fed Indus as it heads down the mountains. They've built most of the highest passes in the world in order to give supplies routes for the army up to the highest, the awesome Khardung La. At 5600m it's so high you need an acclimatization stop as you ascend and even in early September parts of the road were frozen over, it's a remarkable piece of engineering to have first built it and then to keep it open all year. At the top looking down on the amazing road I found myself reflecting it was a shame Phil the Greek wasn't with me as "It doesn't look like it was made by an Indian". As you can probably imagine you could never go much faster than 20km per hour but after a hard 2 day journey you reach the Buddhist area of Ladakh. Aside from being very high (pretty much everywhere is 3500m+) it gets a level of rainfall similar to parts of the Sahara desert. Nothing can grow on the slopes of the mountains so the landscape is something like a mountainous desert with only a few spots where life is sustainable on the riverbanks.
Once you've obtained a pesky permit from the army you're allowed to visit a few isolated valleys and I spent a few cracking days hiking from village to village, once again I was just overawed by how steep the Himalayas are. Even the Andes didn't feel the same with mountains here shooting up to 3000m to the white tops seemingly directly above you- it's a landscape that almost feels scary as your eyes can't stop looking up and around you. Despite the normally miniscule rainfall about a month before I arrived for the first time ever apparently there had been a terrible flash flood which utterly destroyed many of the houses in the main town of Leh. They were made of mud brick and so simply couldn't stand any pressure from the floodwaters which was very sad to see as whole neighborhoods were having to live in tents as the debris of their homes still lay around them.

The road South towards Delhi was washed away by the floods and so any transport had to do an extra day detour to get down, officially the road closes on the 15th September and I turned up to the bus stand at 4am on the 14th hoping to get a passage out but was informed that all the buses were full for the next couple of days so I had no obvious means of getting out other than by plane. Then one of the drivers jokingly said 'Well you could sit on the floor!!' so I instantly said 'Yes' and realising he could make quite a bit of money out of me drove for 22hrs over the next 2 days with me sat on the floor of the minibus- my back hurt at the end of it. It was quite an adventure as we broke down about 9pm about 3500m up on one of the passes, it was absolutely freezing and being an hour away from the nearest settlement we eventually had no choice but for the driver to freewheel it all the way back down to the nearest village, which in the dark on single lane unpaved mountain roads was a lot of fun.

When we got down it was into the lower foothills of the Himalayas which have become very famous and turned into a hippy paradise since the Dalai Lama arrived to claim asylum in 1959. Several hundred thousand Tibetan refugees have followed him and whilst they've settled in India wherever there's altitude, it's in the area around the Dalai Lama's residence in the oddly named McLeod Ganj where they're most visible. On my last day in Leh I was actually lucky enough to hear the great man speak and you can get really close to him though he has to have several bodyguards around him 24/7 as the Chinese keep sending spies into the Tibetan community! Whilst I couldn't understand his speech (it was in Tibetan) it was a lot of fun watching the crowd. They went crazy when he appeared bowing in homage for 10-15 minutes and the lady to my right spontaneously started crying in an indication of just how much his presence/guidance means to them in their dispossessed state. Whilst it's probably not the right place to write about the Tibet issue, seeing the various exhibitions and museums of what they've been put through is really quite shocking and it's a thing of wonder how positive they remain on both a day to day level and also that eventually they will get their freedom- which doesn't look likely in the medium term. The arrival of the tourists has given them a way of making money selling handicrafts etc but Indians from the plains have noticed this and moved up to try and claim some of the business creating a remarkable comparison between the two peoples. Tibetans have a real air of dignity about them as they quietly sit counting their beads, serenely contemplating getting off the wheel; in contrast the Indians are the same as on the plains below constantly hassling any foreigners with the usual "My friend, my friend come and see my Free Tibet souvenir shop". Whilst this obviously doesn't show Indians in the best light the fact they've put the Tibetans up and given them a safe refuge (unlike much of the rest of the world in the face of China's economic might) for 50 years now shows a great deal of magnanimity and once again shows India in one of its more positive, inclusive lights.

Before I made my final stop in Delhi I visited the fantastic city of Chandigarh- India's only major attempt at being a civilized country. At partition the Punjab was split down the middle and the main city Lahore went to Pakistan so a new capital was needed to accommodate all the refugees. India commissioned the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to construct it and if you haven't had the misfortune to be dragged round an exhibition on him by me,between 1930-1960 or so he was the world's foremost modernist architect. And I loved it! Everything works, there are no traffic jams or stray dogs and there are parks and huge sculptures dotted around the city. A fantastic antidote to pretty much every other Indian city sat by the lake on my final evening there with classical music piping out of the greenery behind me I had to pinch myself to remember I was actually in India rather than a garden city in Hertfordshire on a late Summer evening.

Then I got a return to normality as I somewhat illogically finished off my time in India at the nations giant capital of Delhi which for some reason is virtually the only major city which has retained its Anglicized spelling. The overwhelming impression I have of Delhi is that it's a city where your experience of 'space' hits the extremes; it's been 'rebuilt' 5 times and the older parts of the city are almost unbearably cramped and dirty. In contrast New Delhi was designed by the British less than 100 years ago and there's just too much space with all the major parts of the city too spread out to get around by foot. Whilst it has great sightseeing and beautiful bright green pigeons instead of grey ones it was ultimately a fairly unsatisfying place to end my time in India. It's got a really unpleasant climate (it can get to 50 degrees in Summer) and is another city where the gap between the haves and have nots is truly woeful. Whilst the poor live in the tented shanty towns found all over the city the rich live in shiny towerblocks (their maids and drivers live in dorms in the basements) and shop in the grotesque A/C malls which I've increasingly realized is the symbol of the rich poor gap all over Asia. India probably faces a more diverse set of problems than any other country in the world whilst I've tried to describe but I think trying to improve the quality of life of the poorer sections of society over the next 20-30yrs must be the most pressing one for me. I don't always feel that optimistic about problem riddled countries I've been to (Haiti being the most extreme case I've seen on my travels) but despite it's problems India is definitely somewhere I feel pretty positive about. Bouyed by its terrific economic growth and a political system which certainly tries to give everyone a chance I can definitely see it achieving its desired superpower status in the coming years.

I've now been in India for over 5 months which is probably as long as I'm likely to travel anywhere, unsurprisingly I think I feel about 20% relieved to be leaving a country which has "...no electricity, drinking water, sewage treatment, traffic controls or concepts of honesty, discipline, courtesy, personal space or personal hygiene". Trying to get anything done is inescapably difficult, for example I had to see 4 people over 1.5hrs just to send a small package home from the Post Office as "We don't have envelopes or marker pens here- you need to go to the market".
Whilst most of the above I can deal with OK some things I just never got used to in India, there are a lot of frustrating things about the country that can't really concern a visitor like the dowry and caste systems or even the immense hypocrisies of the society as a whole (treatment of animals, portrayal of sex in the media etc).
However, the way people interact with you here is something I've never really adjusted to on a day to day level. Delhi has a very new and fairly good metro system - but if ever a people don't deserve a decent metro it's here. In India they incredibly don't have the concept of letting people off before getting on-board public transport- everyone tries to get on/off at the same time and in such an overcrowded city the rush hour is utter carnage. You've literally no choice but to forcibly wrestle people out the way to get on or off the trains and whilst I'm bigger than most Indians and more importantly get much angrier at the whole situation, every time I stumbled out of the maelstrom I found myself incredulously muttering to the nearest bystander "How can you live like this?".
Whilst the vast majority of Indians I found to be very good natured their social skills really differ to Western expectations; it's probably the only place I've been to where I think its better not learning any of the language. Everybody always want to know as much about you as possible through the endless rounds of conversations which just don't go anywhere and most of all being stared at all the time. A few nights ago as I waited for my train to Delhi a middle aged bloke came and stood 3ft away from me and stared at me for a solid 10 minutes, not saying anything just staring. Whatever you're doing and wherever you are in India as a white person you will ALWAYS have people watching you and I've never learned to deal with this. Whilst in Bangladesh I found myself fairly forgiving because they're so isolated both geographically and culturally, in India they're not and even in downtown Delhi or Mumbai where there are lots of foreigners there for all kinds of reasons people are fixated by you in an ultimately unsettling way. For various reasons India is not a great place to travel by yourself and I REALLY wouldn't recommend the same to girls!

But 80% of me is very satisfied too. There's a saying that "You hate India for the first 2 weeks and love it for ever after" and in mine and my Mums case we detested the place for the few weeks before we arrived as through a combination of red tape and outright dishonesty from various Indian embassies both my Mum's 2 wk holiday and several months of my trip looked ruined. In fact but for a handful of days my entire stay in India has been done so illegally and its only thanks to the incompetence of a couple of immigration officers that I've got away with it. Once I did manage to get in though I've loved the place from the word 'go'. India has a cultural breadth and depth to it which no other country in the world possesses and being here for so long and seeing so much of the place has been both instantly stimulating but also cathartic too as the traveling has progressed and I've seen the different sides to the country. I found the sensual experience of traveling in India stronger than anywhere else I've been, and whilst that includes the smells of wandering cows, the endless cacophony of car-horns and the sights of extreme poverty it also includes many, many positives. From the cliched swirls of the saris and scents of the spices to the incredible food and the amazing sightseeing, both in the historical buildings etc sense but also just constantly seeing how life goes on in this indescribable country. Indians would often ask "What's your opinion on India?" and I could never give them an answer; as you can probably gather from the tangential nature of these emails (sorry!) I found India to be one of the most intellectually stimulating places I've been to. I found opinions I have on lots of things constantly challenged as people live a life with completely different priorities than we have in the West, which I guess is much of the reason why I enjoy traveling so much. Aside from the 'bigger' picture I also found there were loads of little things I loved about India, from reading the Times of India with my umpteenth chai of the day, the fact it has 3 cricket channels and reading through some of the fantastic literature the country has produced since WWII- I even got through the 1,349 page A Suitable Boy!
It will take a bit of getting used to not hearing the Hindi love songs constantly blazing out from radios and the overwhelming colors that make up the mesmeric streetlife in India- I will miss it greatly.

But tonight I take the bus to Nepal where I'm guessing the assault on the senses won't be quite so great.
From Delhi,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

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