Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Momos, Bobis and Monasteries

Tents on the Tibetan Plateau

Lake Nam-Tso. The highest altitude salt lake in the world, about 4700m up

Buddhists prostrating themselves on the ground outside the Jokhang Temple

Part of the Jokhang Temple

Not sure why I decided to follow this goat and take its picture but I did

Is anyone reminded of Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian? No?

The Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama before he was exiled

A large Yak. Also tastes good in burger form

A big pile of dried yak poo, which the Tibetans use as fuel

Buddhist prayer flags flying over Lake Nam-Tso.

Ni Hao from Lhasa, Tibet - the highest capital city in the world! The good old Chinese government doesn't make it the easiest place to visit if you're not Chinese but a short flight and a Tibetan travel permit later and we're here. I would have to say it's very much worth it too.

Before getting to Tibet, our last stop in China was Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La. The hostel that we stayed in there was possibly one of the best I have stayed in, in Asia or Australia. Called the Dqing Area Tibetan Youth Hostel, it had everything that a good hostel should have. A bar/restaurant with an open fire, good cheap food, it even had a basketball court. The showers were like little wooden saunas, the whole place just had a much more personal feel to it than some of the places you end up in.

My only complaint would be that they played Dido too much. But this was made up for by the fact that we met a very tall German guy there who sounded exactly like the policeman in 'Allo Allo' who spoke with a terrible french accent...

While Lhasa is a beautiful place, I can't help but feel I would have liked to have seen it 40 years or so ago, before the Chinese moved in. Okay, it is a valid argument that the Dalai Lama was a religious dictatorship that left the country way, way behind the times and incredibly poor, but with economic progress you lose some of what makes a place unique. Especially with Chinese economic progress, they are moving along so fast you're not sure if they really pay any attention to the past when they're looking so much to the future.

For example, before we came to Tibet, one place we stayed for a couple of days was Lijang. Which was a nice enough place but quite false at the same time. It had a kind of Chinese Disneyland feel to it in that a lot of the buildings were meant to look old and quaint but quite clearly weren't. Whatever was there before was not Chinese enough or not attractive enough to bring in tourists and so was replaced with ornately carved wooden shop fronts. However, in a place like Lijang or Zhongdian it is still possible to find the old buildings and relatively untouched places if you just take a walk elsewhere so maybe I have no cause for such whining and should just keep quiet.

While in Asia, there have been a fair few visits to various temples, monasteries and pagodas. None more impressive than Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But the Jokhang Temple comes pretty close. Whereas Angkor was an area full of ancient ruins, the Jokhang is still an active place of worship for Buddhists.

You walk in and everything feels old, like it has been around for centuries, as it has. Inside it is dark and a bit musty, lit by huge candles made from yak butter. The place is full of brightly coloured statues of the many different deities that are a part of Buddhism. To be honest, if I was a monk, I think I would get fed up with a thousand tourists a day (95% Chinese, half of them wearing brightly coloured cowboy hats) roaming about in my temple but they seem to just get on with things. When you see a couple of monks laughing together about something, you wonder if they are making fun of all these people who barely know their Buddha from their Bodhisattva...

I should give a special mention to the Chinese family that gave us ice lollies the other day when we were sat on a riverbank. About three generations of Chinese or Tibetan, (my Chinese isn't really of the standard where I can ask where they come from) all sat around with a picnic and doing their clothes washing in the river. We even had semi-conversations, despite the fact that they could not speak English and we couldn't speak Chinese.

As I'm hungry now I'm going to wrap up, before possibly having a momo or a bobi for lunch. A momo is a kind of deep fried-thingy which can be filled with meat, vegetables or the ones that we are all getting fat on the fried apple momo's. Bobis are kind of like fajitas, you get given a few flour-based wraps and put all the stuff you want inside them before rolling them up and shoving them into your face. And they taste goooooood.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Ball Cupping Police of Hanoi

Three guesses why I took this picture.

Dali, China

Kunming. The old and the new

Next summer you'll be seeing a lot of these little things

Kunming at night (I love my new camera!)

The walls of Old Dali at night

This kid was a bit of a demon card player. I'm not sure what the game was, it seemed to be who could slap their card down in the most dramatic fashion.

Lijang (Did I mention I love my new camera?)

Guess who's in China now? ME! Land of 1.3 billion people and counting and at least half of them really hock one up when they need to spit. Spitting was fairly common in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (as is the man-bra style of t-shirt wearing: the men rolling their t-shirts up to just above the belly) but here they let you know about it. So far though I'm still to find a place that does sweet and sour. Maybe it's called something else. I must investigate. Or learn Mandarin Chinese. Hmmm...

Now we are in a town called Lijang, very picturesque, loads of cool looking old Chinese architecture. Cobbled streets, little streams running through them, you know the type of thing, you've probably seen it in a badly dubbed kung-fu film. Very much the old traditional style China.

Which is completely different to Kunming, the first major city we got to after crossing the border from Hanoi. Kunming is a perfect example of the speed at which China is growing, and why America knows it's days as the world's economic superpower are numbered. Kunming isn't even one of China's big cities as such, (only 3.5 million population) although it is the capital of the province we are in - Yunnan. The only problem is that you are in constant danger of being run over by a stealthy scooter. As with a lot of Asia, scooters (or moto's) are all over the place, they are a good, cheap way of getting around the city. But in Kunming they were ALL electric. Which means you will never hear them coming until you sense you are about to be run over at the last minute. And the Chinese are usually too polite to beep at you to get out of the way!

Ah politeness, a human trait which I nearly forgot about in Hanoi, Vietnam. I think I have found a place that I dislike even more than Eastleigh! (C.F.I.P.) If I can some it up in a nutshell, it's just a crap city filled with people that want to scam you and rip you off in one way or another. One example (although I filled about 3 pages of my journal with an anti-Hanoi rant) is that no-one ever just smiles and says hello to you in the streets of Hanoi because they just want to say hello or talk to you. You're lucky if 1 in 10 of the Hanoi people give a shit about anything other than the contents of your wallet. Anyway, enough negativity, Vietnam was an amazing, often beautiful and consistently unique place. It's just that Hanoi was utter arse.

But you haven't read all this way because you enjoy it. You've seen the title of this entry, become intrigued, and want to know about me having my testicles grabbed by a police officer don't you? I can tell. So, gather round and I'll tell you a tale... It all started when my camera got stolen in Hanoi by the lake. I have a new one now, obviously. Anyway, thinking it was the obvious next step, I went to the police. Just to try and get a police stamp for my insurance claim mind, I didn't expect them to actually do anything about my camera being stolen. But it seemed the stamp which I required was some elusive magical object which the other police station across town could help me with. Or they just flat refused to help and told me to go back to my hotel. So, that night after zero success with the local "police" I was in a bar, chatting to a German guy who, as it happened, was part of a team that trains the police in Vietnam. He suggested I bribe the police, just a few hundred thousand dong (about a tenner) to get the stamp I needed. Good idea I thought, maybe they are so stupid, corrupt and lazy that money is the only way a tourist in their country can get some help.

So, the next day, with renewed enthusiasm, I went off to the police station which the previous day had been the least shite, to offer an "administration fee". (This is what the German guy told me to call it). Upon me waving a bit of my dirty western money about, I at least go a reaction of semi-interest. So they ask me to go on a bike and point out the exact spot where I reckoned my camera was half-inched. Wow, I seemed to be getting somewhere. Off I go on the back of a bike driven by a police officer. On the way he starts to talk to me about England, his English isn't much so it consists mostly of Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, etc. Then he mentions how English men are much taller than Vietnamese, also with arm movements up and down to illustrate. Then he says how English men are much 'bigger' than Vietnamese if you know what I mean. How does he illustrate this point? He just reaches back and gives me a cheeky grab of the meat and two veg! Twice, in case I didn't understand his point the first time! What can I do, tell a police officer that it's not normal behaviour to cup the balls of those on the back of his bike?!?

Dodgy policemen aside, now we're heading North through southern China and should be taking a short flight to Tibet on the 23rd. It's already getting colder, I had to wear proper shoes yesterday rather than my dirty backpacker sandals which are now rapidly dying and held together with superglue. Love every minute of this travelling stuff...

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Charlie Don't Surf

"Charlie don't surf" Well we do. Not very well but that's neither here nor there
Halong Bay, Vietnam

Also Halong Bay, some kind of hawk-type bird.

Top of a mountain at Cat Ba Island. The camera probably does not do justice to just how sweaty we all were.
"So, you reckon this boat will hold three people and two bikes? Ok then"
Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi. Oooo the theatre, la-de-da

Check out my massive dong

Fancy some dog curry?

Surrounded by Israelis. They get everywhere. You've seen Haya before, the other two are Hadas and Miki

As you can see, before he buggered off back to England, me and Tom went surfing in China Beach. It used to be popular among the American GI's when they were given leave as a place to surf too. These days it's not exactly Apocalypse now with all the helicopters flying overhead as we rode the waves (or tried to) but it still allows us to say "back in Nam when I was surfing" and that's all that matters. Obviously.

You may have noticed my reference to Tom leaving, yes he's gone as well now, leaving me forced to talk to Haya for the forseeable future. Although for the next three days I am killing some time in Hanoi as I wait for my Chinese visa. Why do I need a Chinese visa? Because next on the list is Tibet, possibly at the same time as the Shoton Festival aka Festival of Yoghurt. There's a good chance that I'll be going to the Mount Everest base camp where I can walk in the footsteps of the great one, Brian Blessed. He just climbs it for fun every now and then apparently. So this Monday I leave Vietnam for China. I can't leave any later than this because my visa runs out, something I didn't realise until the other day and then thought, 'hmmm maybe I should actually plan where I'm going next as I have to leave the country'.

On top of the surfing, China Beach, near Danang, was one of my favourite places so far in Vietnam. Somehow it was still pretty undeveloped in terms of hotels, restaurants etc. although you could tell it will be unrecognisable in a couple of years time by all the building work in it's early stages. Only downside of the place was a very big angry looking dog wanting to eat me when I tried to have a look round Marble Mountain but hey, he'll probably be sweet and sour on a menu next week anyway.

Having not really had any problems so far travelling through Asia, and doing the odd group tour here and there, it was inevitable that we would see how things can go slightly wrong sooner or later. Basically we went on a 3 day, 2 night tour to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, which were beautiful places themselves, it's just that everyone invloved in the tour from the booking agency, right through to our tour guide were completely corrupt! I won't go into massive detail but - long story short - we ended up having to go to the police to try and get them to do something about an agency that has obviously been scamming backpackers for a while. The "police" weren't remotely interested as they must have been suitably bribed a long time ago. But the tour did unite our group in a pretty sturdy hatred of our "tour guide". I think he flipped a coin each time before he spoke to us: heads he lies, tails the truth. Oh we had a lot of names for him, most of them four lettered. You hear plenty of stories about other people getting shafted, so once in a trip isn't something I'm going to worry about. Although I would like to see the receptionist of the Cat Ba Plaza tied up and bent over in an enclosure with an especially randy bull...

One of the best things about backpacking is the random experiences that are competely unplanned but utterly welcome. One such event was a few nights ago when we were celebrating the birthday of an Irish friend, Leanne. After we had hit a couple of bars we needed a new one and were walking along a road in the old quarter of Hanoi. When a large group of Austrian exchange students come along and tell us their Vietnamese/german guide is taking them for a lock-in at a bar called Half Man Half Noodle. As our friend Dave put it, a bar with a name like that sounds too good to be true. But it did exist and a lock in with a load of Austrian economics students we had.

Finally this week, I'm slightly worried. I need a haircut, but I'm in Vietnam. I need to find a barber shop that can speak the level of English I need to be able to tell them how I want it cut. This seems unlikely so I may just print out a picture of myself from two months ago and point to that. Next time you see a picture of me, I may have the haircut of an eighties footballer. Eeeek.

P.S. The picture format of the blog is a bit screwy again because Vietnamese computers think they know best. Wouldn't know best if I took a hammer to them...

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Knees up mother brown

Yeah, I got bored of company and had to tie them to a railway track. I probably would get away with it too if I hadn't put it on the blog

Fishing boat off the coast of Nha Trang

Alcohol and water? Perfect combination, hand out free shots of a something that tastes like crap to everyone!

So me and Tom rented a swan canoe and took a trip on a lake together, what's not manly about that? Ok, quite a lot but it had to be done

Elephant Falls, Dalat. So named because all the mossy rocks at the bottom resemble elephants

This guy was one of the most absorbing people I've met and I could only understand about half of what he said.

The old Kho man from a Lat Village plays the Kambuot

Ok, so the blog has a different look to it this time because that is what this computer has decided. After a bit of fiddling around and swearing I have decided that the computer can have it's evil way. Until next time...

Anyway, since the last blog we've been blazing a trail up the east coast of Vietnam. By blazing a trail I mean taking our time to stop and visit all the best places of course. Since I can't check my last blog for some reason (aren't computers great and never at all frustrating?) I can't remember if I told you about our trip up the Mekong Delta. Some vague light of recognition in my cobweb addled mind says I did so I'll skip to Mui Ne. Actually, I've just remembered I mentioned that already too, so on to Dalat. (Something says I should never have a career in a position of life or death importance. Like Homer Simpson running a nuclear power station).

So, Dalat, yes. Dalat was the first time I've had to wear a second layer of clothing in a long time. It was up at fairly high altitude so it's possibly the coolest place, temperature wise, in Vietnam. Which isn't to say it's cold because this is Vietnam, not the UK, but all the locals were wrapping up warm in scarves and thick coats when it was still around the 20 oC mark. While there we went on a tour with an Easy Rider, one of a group of guys who owns a motorbike and drives about the town looking for people such as ourselves to offer a less touristy kind of tour to. Normally I don't accept offers from suspicious looking bikers, this is Tom's pass-time but the tour turned out to be amazing, especially the Lat village that we went to. I could have listened the old guy there (pictured above) all day, he had endless stories about being a doctor during the Vietnam war and all the local customs and traditions. The village that he was a part of are a catholic minority within Vietnam, a predominantly Buddhist country, I think influenced by the French. And, this is the best part, when he got married he cost his wife's family 5 buffalo! Seeing as we don't have many buffalo in England I may put my price at about 7 horses or 16 badgers.

More bizarre was a place we stopped called Crazy House, an ongoing project to build a hotel that looks like a warped nursery rhyme. The owner and creator is the daughter of the man who was Vice President when Uncle Ho Chi was in charge back in the 1960's. We were told she went to study architecture in Moscow and then began this hotel in 1990. She may well have studied architecture in Moscow but I imagine she also indulged in a side helping of Hans Christien- Anderson and more than a few hallucinogenic substances. We saw her wandering around at one point and if Little Red Riding Hood was 50 and wearing a lot of make-up then this is where she lives.

Now we're in Hoi An, after a slog of an overnight coach journey. We came from Nha Trang, nice enough place but nowt to do other than the beach and a boat trip which was as much a booze cruise as anything. Ask the Australian guy that was carried off the boat with his shorts round his ankles at the end of the day.