A Travellerspoint blog

Republic of Korea

Hello once again, I write this after a few hugely entertaining weeks in the awesome ‘hermit kingdom’ where only 40% of the population aren’t called Kim, Park or Lee and where yesterday I ‘found myself lost’ in the biggest store in the world. It’s been one of the coldest Winters in memory here, virtually the whole country has been covered in snow and even the mighty Han that runs through Seoul was totally frozen over which was quite a spectacle. However, thanks to glorious sunshine reflecting off the snow I’m very tanned, covered in freckles and since Jonathan Tehoues late intervention last Sunday have a huge smile permanently imprinted on my face. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve enjoyed Korea so much.

In Seoul one of the tourist attractions is the recreation of a village that’s only 100 years old, which is fitting as even in the tumultuous 20th century few countries experienced a rollercoaster as much as Korea did. Whilst travelling in Asia and viewing different societies I’ve found my opinions and emotions on them to be much stronger than in other areas I’ve been to. So I found myself immeasurably frustrated by the unfairness and inequalities of life in The Philippines or Indonesia but just in awe at the sustained successes of the likes of Singapore or Taiwan; and Korea falls firmly in the second group. The first 45 years were spent under the brutal Japanese occupation before the country was cruelly split by the US and USSR who were just beginning to play the Cold War game. The Korean war is sometimes called The Forgotten War as the Vietnam edition stole its thunder later on, a nasty fratricidal conflict it is however in the Guinness Book of Records as the most international war in history (over 70 countries were involved in some way) as it became the first proxy conflict of the Cold War. The country remained divided and was left in ruins but within 50 years the country had completed an awe inspiring comeback. The transformation from a poor agrarian society to the G20 presidency with an Olympics and World Cup thrown in has been called ‘ The Miracle on the Han River’ and as with the other Asian success stories it’s been achieved primarily due to the almost stakhonovite work ethic of the people to improve their lives. Koreans work harder than almost anyone else on earth – (normally 6 days a week and taking more than 3 of your 5 days of your annual holiday at once is frowned on!) and this is most of the reason for the growth of its world brands like Samsung and Hyundai. The last 3 or 4 generations have gone through the wall in both economic and political hardships including a couple of strict military dictatorships and limited freedoms but Korea now boasts one of the best standards of living in Asia and in fact comes pretty high up on global lists.

My first stop was the seemingly boundless capital Seoul, whilst very few non Koreans could place it on a map it struck me as one of the best cities the world doesn’t know it has. There’s simply loads to do by day or night with a fantastic metro and a great set of urban parks meaning that despite its huge size (23m or so) it was actually quite a relaxing place to be- I’m not in India anymore. I managed to hook up with a couple of expats and had some epic soju nights followed by some painful football the next day but undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of Seoul will be the tour to the DMZ just 50KM away.

Bill Clinton described it as “The scariest place in the world”, which considering he has to share a bed with Hilary are obviously some pretty strong words. I don’t think I found it overtly scary but it is a creepy, eerie place with the sheer quiet being perhaps the most memorable impression I took of it. The armistice agreement from 1953 was that the 4km zone would be created separating the 2 sides and as a mined (to stop invasions from the North) no mans land it has become something of a haven for wildlife. On both sides of it are propaganda villages to show the other side how they’re living though of course neither are fair representations. In the South the government gives the farmers huge financial and logistical incentives to live there including no income tax and fully paid health and tuition costs but the Northern one is a set of empty but maintained buildings like something out of a horror film. The competition for biggest flag is currently being won by the North as the paltry 100m high flag pole in the South is dwarfed by their huge 160m effort which, topped by a 600lb flag is one of the biggest in the world. After entering the UN camp you’re allowed to see the negotiating tables which are still in constant use as the war never officially ended - only a ceasefire was signed. You technically cross into North Korea on their side of the table but as the American corporal barks at you to keep moving you were reminded you’re in one of the most potentially hostile places on Earth- as recently as last year a South Korean tourist was shot dead by Northern guards after wandering too far. The Southern soldiers were really creepy looking in static poses, strange outfits and huge sunglasses which reminded me of a cross between Mum-Ra from Thundercats and the sinister wardens in Cool Hand Luke. You’re also allowed to go to the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where POWs are returned to either side and which you may (or maybe just me) remember from Die Another Day when James Bond is released. The Northern soldiers don’t come close but have their binoculars firmly trained on you at the other end of the bridge which is quite an unsettling feeling. It really was a memorable few hours.

During the World Cup in the Summer I felt pretty sorry for the commentators who were under strict instructions to refer to the 2 Koreas as the ‘Republic of’ and the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of’ rather than just South and North. I never saw any signs or official announcements which referred to the country as ‘South’ Korea’, maps often don’t show a border and there’s no doubt that reunification is the ultimate goal of both sides of the peninsula. Like Taiwan and China they are ‘one people’ and the labeling of South and North implies that they’re somehow separate which no-one in Korea believes. However, in the last 20 years amongst the younger generation the belief has grown that reunification would be too difficult to manage as the two countries have developed into two of the most distinct societies in the world. Under the Dear Leader the Northern society has devolved into a system more akin to Confucianism on MDMA than anything Engels et al envisaged , meanwhile via some of the lowest tax rates in the world and extensive market deregulations the South has become one of the worlds most capitalistic societies. Aside from the GDP gap, as those fantastic night photos from space show, the never ending display of neon lights in highly urbanised South Korea make it one of the most switched on areas in the world but in contrast North Korea is black with no internet or mobile phones and the power goes out by 7pm even in Pyongyang. The lifestyle gulf between the two sides means any reunification would need to be excruciatingly tightly controlled over perhaps 30-50 years and would make the problems in Germany since 1990 look miniscule.

During the war the North was only able to remain Communist thanks to the introduction of Chinese troops forcing the southern troops back to the DMZ line and once again, as with so many of the big geopolitical issues in Asia, China appears to hold the key to a solution. The last thing China wants is a new war on the Korean peninsula as it would result in vast numbers of refugees crossing its borders as well as the possible threat of a nuclear fallout so it’s believed that behind the scenes they’re lobbying the Kim family hard to adopt Chinese style economic reforms. This would also be good for the Chinese as it would be another big trading partner but in the short term those in charge in the North seem unwilling to change things too much. The history of Korea is a sad one of being continually bullied and having their culture (tangible or not) destroyed by their bigger neighbors in Japan and China. Yet the recent national story is one of survival but they’re still not totally free yet; as one of the last unresolved issues from the Cold War and obviously an issue the people feel so strongly about I found myself really hoping those in the North are free to rejoin their brothers down South again as soon as possible.

After Seoul I took a brilliant overnight ferry to the island of Jeju which was about as far removed an experience as can be from the PELNI ships in Indonesia earlier on in the trip and summed up why Korea was such an enjoyable place to travel in. About 10pm an announcement came over the loudspeakers that there would be a disco on deck so I checked it out and was greeted by the bizarre and wonderful sight of a mini rave of sorts. They had a singer and rigged up some strobe lighting but I couldn’t stop laughing for the first few minutes; it was about -3 excluding any wind chill and snowing with the East China sea giving the boat a nice list to dance to. There were about 60 people gaily tanked up on soju and going for it wearing brightly colored Goretex jackets. The average age was about 42, I was the only foreigner onboard and for some reason all the blokes kept pushing me into dancing with their wives as the boat threw us around. Gloriously entertaining it only lasted about 10 songs as it was just too cold but they finished with a great little firework display and then all the passengers started plying me with soju and yummy makkoli (milky rice wine) so I went to bed very drunk. Happy days.

Jeju itself is one big volcano sitting a few hours off the Southern coast and is the prime holiday destination for Koreans. The volcanic sand beaches lead up to the huge crater peak in the centre of the island and has some impressive volcanic phenomena including the globes longest lava tubes which were great to walk in. The volcano is South Korea’s highest peak and being extremely easy to climb is one of the best places to see Koreans participating in their national pastime of hiking. Korea was a nice change from virtually everywhere else in Asia in that sport is very popular on all levels. Aside from their consistent top 10 finishes in the Olympic medal tables and World Cup appearances, at grass roots level people of all ages and both genders are much more active with hiking being the most popular activity in a country which is 70% mountainous. Just outside Seoul is the worlds most visited national park and the vast crowds of hikers are an amusing sight as they outdo even Germans in how professionally equipped they were. They all seemed to spend several hundred dollars on brand name hiking clothes with all the accessories like crampons and as I was wearing construction boots and a hoodie I did feel a bit out of place. After taking the late ferry back to the mainland outfit wise I fitted in much better when I spent the night in a jimjiblang. They’re basically saunas that you can sleep in and would have to rank as one of my favorite things. Maybe ever.

You put your stuff in a locker then proceed to the (segregated) baths where there are pools of different temperature, whilst you have to go nude it’s very family friendly and definitely not somewhere Justin Fashanu would hang around. After bathing you’re given a blue t-shirt and shorts outfit to wear (girls wear pink and kids yellow) and you can then spend the evening in a variety of ways: getting something to eat, watching films or even karaoke. You then pick a sauna room at the temperature you desire, go to sleep on the floor and then wake up and go to work or catch your onward bus or whatever. Simply brilliant, even during the week they’re really popular and seeing as they cost about a quarter of the price of a hotel bed I just wish they’d break out of South Korea!

One of the other things I’ve loved about being in Korea is its cultural prowess, indeed in terms of producing entertainment I’d pick it out as my favorite country in Asia. In part because I’ve been away quite a while now, even with the internet and satellite TV I really have been well out of the loop of Western culture in Asia, certainly commentators who refer to ‘a global homogenization of culture’ are for me way off the mark in Asia. Aside from missing Big Brother Champions League (who won?), I’ve got no idea how Peter Andre has fared since splitting from Jordan, sorry Katie Price (or is it Reid or something else now?) and I’ve seen literally maybe 8 or 10 Hollywood films in 20 months. Unfortunately only the biggest, most expensive Western films make it to Asian cinemas so the likes of Saw 6&7 and Resident Evil: Extinction will have to wait til I return. I’ve seen only the worst Hollywood can offer in the form of Salt, Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and God help me GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra; terrible one and all but it’s definitely music I’ve missed the most.

Again I’m not exaggerating when I write I heard maybe 10-15 American songs in the first 18 months of this trip, I can pick out individual songs by a few artists and whilst you can probably imagine it’s hard for any man to go so long with no Girls Aloud, the one English song I did hear was We’ve Gotta Fight for this Love by Cheryl Cole (sic. how did that go then Chezza?).

As anyone who’s been to Thailand will confirm Bob Marleys Greatest Hits on a loop is the compulsory bar CD in SE Asia but generally speaking on the radio for instance the locals just are not interested. In South America I really got into quite a few acts and some of their songs became a soundtrack to the trip but that hasn’t happened in Asia. With a couple of exceptions (Indonesian grunge and Burmese pop stand out) I haven’t overly enjoyed the music, I don’t believe the tonal languages lend themselves to singing and even the famed Bollywood songs in India didn’t do it for me as they always had the same whining love song style rhythm which grates on your ears very quickly.

Somewhat surprisingly China has much more Western music and some fantastic films although that’s mainly from Hong Kong but I think Korea’s been my favorite. Whilst not too well known outside of Asia their dramas and soap operas are akin to the Egyptian or Mexican industries in terms of their continent wide popularity and as film buffs will tell you modern Korean cinema ranks as one of the worlds best. Musically too the production values are much slicker than elsewhere in Asia and you even get to hear things like hiphop which I highly approved of. Korea’s also well known for ‘K-Pop’, producing very catchy songs by very pretty girl/boy bands and I seem to enjoy them a bit too much with my favorite being The Wonder Girls, who are indeed wonderful…

Korea has the nickname of The Hermit Kingdom as for centuries they cut themselves off from the world ala Tibet, Korea nowadays rarely makes the headlines and beyond the split peninsula issue few people know too much about it. Also despite being a pretty big country (50m popN) it’s now effectively an island little visited by foreign tourists and outside of California there’s no real communities of note abroad. Therefore its something of an unknown quantity to most Westerners but nonetheless I found it an immensely enjoyable and easy place to travel in. Despite the tricky language (too many syllables) there’s information in English up everywhere, it’s incredibly safe and in a nice change from China its relatively compact size meant getting around was quick and easy. Koreans were wonderful to be around too, super generous and friendly I’d pick them out as the politest people I’ve come across, where even the bus drivers say hello and thank you it’s the sort of place where seemingly nothing goes wrong and it’s difficult to see what could stress you out.

Koreans are also a very good looking people (maybe the most attractive in Asia), although they had an unfortunate overemphasis on appearance- female Seoulites in particular would have to rival Italians or Muscovites as the vainest people I can remember seeing. Much of the life of Korean girls seem to revolve around shopping in designer clothes stores then spending 20minutes on the metro using the vanity mirror built in to her mobile phone cover to do her makeup. When she’s a bit older and arrived at her destination she can use one of the many plastic surgeries dotted around and even later in life she’ll likely go to a hair salon and get the ubiquitous ‘bubble perm’ which seemingly every woman above 50 must have.

One of the most prominent aspects of the vanity craze is all the ads for skin lightening cream which has been a constant all over Asia; Asians traditionally associate darker skin with working outdoors and therefore poverty so lighter skin is a long held beauty trait. It was probably India where it was most blatant- the bestselling lightening cream for men called ‘Fair & Handsome’ would have ads where a dark skinned boy tries to talk to a girl and gets ignored then puts on some cream and voila he’s in! In Korea, a lot of middle aged women look disconcertingly like MJ in his later days but Japanese women maybe take it the furthest with their ugly, ‘super size’ sun visors and full arm length gloves giving them a ghoulishly unattractive level of whiteness. Although that’s not to say that ‘white people’ are seen as more attractive full stop. Rather than Brad Pitt and Claudia Schiffer, the ‘Asian beauty perfection’ often shows mixed race Eurasian models with perfect Asian hair and features but very (i.e. photoshopped) light skin which frankly nobody barring maybe air hostesses (Ryanair don’t operate in Asia) seems to look like. I don’t get it.

I ended my time in Busan which despite being one of the worlds biggest ports is a surprisingly pleasant place to be with pine trees and brightly coloured houses covering the hills rising up in the city centre. Walking around the harbor area in the sun yesterday I can’t help but feel a tad sad to be leaving, I had to veto going to North Korea on visa/cost grounds (eg little change from $2000 for a week) which represents one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had so far on this trip. However, the alternative aint exactly a bad one as tonight I take the ferry to the Land of the Rising Sun…

From Busan,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:19 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

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)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 63) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 8 9 10 .. »