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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Xian has proved to be a fun place to stay. There's a lot to see in and around the city, plus the hostel/hotel where I am staying is very sociable in the evening.

The main reason people come to Xian is to see the Terracotta Army; 6000 lifesize terracotta soldiers made and buried 2000 years ago to guard an imperial tomb. A web journal I had read when planning this trip said that it was a stunning sight and imagining rank upon rank of these soldiers I was looking forward to it. However people I was talking to at the hotel indicated they felt let down, it wasn't as stunning as expected. Unfortunately they were right, although quite something you never see more than 100 figures in one place, not the endless ranks I had expected. From what is there it is hard to imagine what it must have been like when completed and sealed all those years ago. Also to protect them, and because the wooden components had rotted away the weapons were separate from their "owners". Not one figure had a restored weapon put back in its hands; why not??? Even worse the exhibit had virtually no information surrounding the reasons for the construction, how it was built or who was buried there. Despite lacking the basic information on how this place came to be, it had a room dedicated to the building of the museum over it!

The city of Xian has a stunning set of walls round most of the centre. They are huge being 14 km in circumference, 12m high, 12m wide at the top and 15m wide at the bottom. Access is provided to the top, but though mostly complete the missing pieces stop you taking a hike right round the city on top of them. Each corner has a tower, with smaller towers regularly along the walls length, a large moat outside and enormous gatehouses in the centre of each side. To be honest they impressed me more than the display of the Terracotta Army.

Also in town is the acclaimed Shaanxi History Museum. Unfortunately it has the same problems I have found in almost every Chinese museum; no background information on the time or the people of the exhibits. The museum has relics from each of the major Chinese eras, largely pottery and bronze artifacts. At the start of each era the entire background information on the period was contained in two sentences. Two sentences to cover all the social, economic and political features of eras covering hundreds, if not thousands of years! Despite most of the exhibits being pottery or brass not one bit of information is given to the process of manufacturing the pieces displayed. This is not a history museum, it's an art museum. What is frustrating is that this lack of information is apparent at almost every Chinese historical display, the notable exception being the Museum of History, Kowloon, Hong Kong which is excellent. I have learned more from the 10 pages of historical information in the Lonely Planet than I have from my time in the country itself.

It is worth a stroll round the Dayan Ta (Big Goose Pagoda), a 64m tall pagoda surrounded by other temples and a lovely set of gardens. Only negative feature is once you have paid to get into the grounds you have to pay more to climb the pagoda. Its better to stroll round the far edges of the gardens where you can find peace and quiet amongst the greenery. Out front is a huge controlled fountain that apparently puts on a display to music. Not running whilst I was there maybe I will return this evening.

Tonight is my last night in Xian before getting the sleeper to Beijing tomorrow. Just chance to have another conversation with Nathan (from Manchester) over a couple of beers on music, the city, the venues, the trendiness of Chorlton and the quality of Abdul's kebabs.


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Friday, July 30, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

I managed to see this film in Yangshou by buying a pirate DVD and getting it played in one of the local cafes. I thought I might have been the only person interested but every English speaking person there was hooked, hanging on every word.

This is an immensely important film. It shows another side to the buildup to the Iraq war that was never properly shown by our "independent" media; they were too busy presenting government statements as facts, never bothering to ask the obvious and important questions.

I would encourage all of you to view this film. It can't hurt and you can disagree with it if you are so inclined, but to not see it is to put your head in the sand, to cover your ears and shout "not listening".

Michael, if you read this blog, I promise to buy the genuine DVD when its released in the UK. Keep up the good work.


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Thursday, July 29, 2004

For several days it rained cats & dogs in Yangshou. Once it stopped it was unfortunately hot and really humid. Despite the wonderful countryside it was too uncomfortable to explore many of the surrounding peaks. From those I did I got a superb view of the town wedged in between the almost vertical peaks. Though the countryside is beautiful, the town is as ugly as any Chinese town built in the last few decades. Simple straight sided concrete structures, many tiled with tall narrow white tiles like an inside out public toilet.

I caught the bus back to Guilin and then the overnight sleeper to Wuhan. This is another city of around 6 million people with a very spread out centre. With no public transport apart from buses and no way of finding out where the buses went I had to resort to using taxis. Generally this is something I have avoided as it's too easy and shuts you off from the place, but here I found no option. Next day it was a 5 hour bus journey to Yichang (several million people again) from where I could get to the Three Gorges Dam. The Lonely Planet listed a couple of buses but they no longer seemed to run from the places mentioned. With no Tourist Information booth and virtually no-one speaking any english I had to resort to a taxi for the 40km each way trip.

The journey there took some time as for some reason we could not use the main highway. It seemed almost deserted except for trucks so maybe it's limited to construction traffic. On getting there a regular tour bus took you round a few vantage points. Its a stunning engineering effort being 2.3km long and 185m high. Along side there are two sets of 5 locks to handle ships up to 10,000 tons up and down and a ship hoist capable of raising and lowering a 3,000 ton vessel. Politically this dam is controversial as it has a lot of side effects, displacing 2 million people and affecting the environment.  It will however generate an immense amount of energy and limit some regular and very damaging floods. Standing there the sheer scale of it is hard to take in.

After a couple of nights in Yichang it was another 5 hour ride back to Wuhan to pick up the overnight train to Xian. As the train arrived at the platform it was clear something was wrong. On the train it was incredibly hot and some of the staff were remarkably sweaty. The air-conditioning system wasn't functioning. I decided I couldn't stay all night on the train if it stayed broken and kept my luggage on the platform. As the carriage was designed for AC there very very few windows that open at all and even then only a very small amount. Fortunately they decided the problem had to be fixed so we waited for over 2 hours on the platform whilst they found a new engine and attached it to the train.

I arrived in Xian yesterday morning having had little sleep for various reasons so spent the day sleeping, reading and pottering around a little. On the way back to the hotel I found more evidence that the quality of Chinese taxi drivers varies hugely. Many if shown a name in Chinese take you there quickly and efficiently (as traffic conditions in any Chinese city allow). Unfortunately over a third aren't of this standard. Some don't want a journey that short, some presented with a name and address in Chinese haven't a clue where it is and just shrug. The worst will drive off in completely the wrong direction as happened again last night. Fortunately I have developed a reasonable sense of direction backed up by a compass in my watch. In China, as in Phnom Pehn, it has proved invaluable in stopping me being taken to goodness knows where. Travel tip for China and Cambodia: make sure you do have a sense of direction before getting in the cab and take an active interest in the direction your taxi is heading!!

Tomorrow the plan is to head off and see the Terracotta Warriors and maybe some mountains east of here the day after. After that and maybe another day in Xian its the train to Beijing, seeing the sights there and preparing for the trans-siberian run. Travelling in China is very interesting. The culture is very different to the west and with almost every city I head to having 6 million people or more the scale is tremendous. Its clear the place is changing fast and becoming remarkably more commercial. It's hard to imagine what it will be like in a decade or two, nor of its influence on the world as a whole.


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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Guangzhou doesn't have a lot to for the tourist to see and do but a temple and a pagoda that were near to each other seemed worth a trip on the subway. The temple was nice enough and very busy with locals all burning incense sticks as the prayed. Unfortunately the main building was being restored and you couldn't get near it. The pagoda promised to be more spectacular but when I arrived at the ticket window they were looking to charge me 11 yuan when every one else was paying 1 or 2. I don't like blatant rip-offs so I just left.
 
Whilst most of Guangzhou is fairly chaotic, especially round the main train station, the subway is new and efficient, however I was amazed at the trouble the locals had using it. Many of them seemed to have real trouble with the ticket machines despite being wonderfully simple (you touch the station on the map you want to go to and it tells you how much the fare is). Even stepping onto the escalators seemed to give several significant pause. 

Between my hotel and the nearest subway station stands Peaceful Market. One of the first to spring up when China first implemented some market reform it sells fresh dried produce like nuts, fungi, fruits, etc. Apparently for a few years it was the place to buy endangered and exotic animals before the authorities stamped out the trade. Always busy and an effort to get from one end to the other it reminded me that many of the locals, even when in a bustling crowd, seem to dawdle when walking. Still slowing down you got to see more of what was on sale and looking back I can't believe I didn't take a photograph.
 
After a couple of nights in Guangzhou I caught the overnight sleeper train to Guilin. Unfortunately two of the Chinese gentlemen kept talking with their lights on until well past midnight. By that time I was angry and frustrated and struggled to get to sleep. On getting to Guilin I jumped straight on a bus to Yangshou. The journey should have taken an hour, but took nearer two by the time it circled the town looking for passengers.
 
Yangshou is a tourist town stuck in the middle of some dramatic peaks. It promised to be a bit of a backpacker haunt where I might meet a few fellow travellers in the evening. I spent much of the day I arrived catching up on lost sleep before heading out in the evening. Although this started out as a backpacker ghetto it is now very much a destination of choice for busloads of Chinese tourists. Foreign tourists would have been lucky to have made up 10% of numbers that Sunday night and many of those appeared to package tourists. That has brought several unattractive features to the town like insistent traders and numerous brothels; many of the hairdressing places during the day put out the pink fluorescent lights at night.
 
I was looking to get more done on Monday but it rained very heavily all day. Luckily I still had my brolly from New York so could get out and about for some food. An email from Hong Kong today told me they had a level 8 typhoon warning and had the day off work. I take it our rain was the edge of this typhoon. 
 
It's midday tuesday now and I'm still trying to make up plans for the next few days and weeks but have been in a lazy frame of mind.
 
For those of you who knew my ex-girlfriend Catherine she is getting married this Saturday. Congratulations in advance to them both.



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Friday, July 16, 2004

China 

Arrived in Guangzhou, southern China last night. The train ride from Hong Kong was less than 2 hours long and was probably the most comfortable train I've been on. This morning was spent booking a ticket on tomorrow nights sleeper from here to Guilin, a journey of 12-14 hours. Hope the book I've got is good.... The crowds outside the central station are huge, as well as at the main ticket booking office. I chickened out and headed for a travel agent. It may have cost me more but it would have been easy for me to have waited ages in the wrong line elsewhere. I'll have to face up to the crowds tomorrow night when I catch my train.
 
Its hot (30 deg C) and humid here, the same as Hong Kong. It makes doing anything outdoors a sweaty and uncomfortable business. The main part worth a stroll round is the small island south of the city centre where the Europeans were originally given their trading privilages. Most of its colonial architecture has survived and the area is less frantic and busy than most. Not a very obvious traveller scene here... I'm hoping for more of one at Yangshou, near Guilin. It will be good to chat to other travellers again, especially those who have come south from Beijing.
 
Apparently China has a habit of censoring its web access. It took me a couple of attempts to access my own site, BBC News is definitely off limits and I've yet to be able to access my email. Sorry if I do not respond to email for a while... it may not be my fault!



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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

It's my last night in Hong Kong and as I've said before it has surprised me by how much I like it. Part of that must be down to Chow Yin Tang who was an excellent guide to the city, even if she took me places she had never been herself before. Thanks again to her for the places she took me and the others she recommended I head to.

The place itself is unreal, wherever it is possible build anything they build high rise buildings because land is at a premium. Even then you see a huge area of land recovered from the sea (the old airport, the new airport, the container port, the whole north end of Hong Kong Island) as well as towerblocks rising from unbelievably steep hillsides. Despite this, the ruggedness of the land means that much of the territory's area is still unspoiled. Underpinning all this is an efficient public transport network so you can get to it all. This network includes an escalator chain that rises from the central business district to the residential area on the hill behind it. To go the entire length takes 20 - 30 min (I know as I did it). Nowhere else has anything like it.

Hong Kong's favourite sport, pursuit and pastime has to be shopping. The density of shopping centres, department stores and malls has no equal anywhere else I've ever been. Only in markets, where Bangkok is king, does it not live up to expectation. If you are a shopaholic then Hong Kong is a fantasy destination, Disneyworld for those with empty goldcards.

Food and drink for all nations can be found here though its not cheap. Fairly cheap are little alleyway stalls but these present a problem. Through south-east asia most menus provided phonetic translations from their characters to the western alphabet. From this you could learn to recognise and pronounce (badly) dishes you like. Chinese restaurants don't do this. It's a problem as it seriously retards your learning of the language and no phrase book translates from characters to english (what order would you put them in??). A menu written entirely in characters (as most are) is entirely meaningless to foreigners (or more to the point, me). As it happens, any chinese I've learnt here isn't much use later as they speak Cantonese here and use the complex character set, whilst most of China speaks mandarin and uses the simplified character set. Any attempts I have made to speak the lingo are met with questions as to whether I realise there are 5 tones in Chinese. I realise, I'm just bad at making them, plus two of them sound exactly the same to my ear. No problem Edith says, they'll get the meaning when you make them part of a sentence. A sentence!!!! I'm struggling to say a few unrelated words here.

Hong Kong is a place seriously worth seeing. If you pass through the airport, extend your stopover for a couple of days. The place is busy, dramatic and different. The food is good and varied and an alright pub can be found with a little effort. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet for the area. Many travellers like the idea of being a travel book author but this is one of those that is so full of detail and so accurate that it intimidates you away from that career option.

What did I have as my last dinner here... a curry as they're good here, I'll have plenty of chances to eat Chinese over the next few weeks and I doubt I'll come across another good Indian restaurant before Blighty.

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Friday, July 09, 2004

Tony realises there were no WMDs shocker!!!

Tony Blair has said Iraq's weapons of mass destruction "may never be found".
Mr Blair said he had "to accept we haven't found them and we may never find them". Mr Blair seems awfully slow coming to this conclusion; many of us believed this to be the case when Hans Blix reported on 7th March 03 that "Iraq has carried out a substantial measure of disarmament" and showed little evidence of any ongoing weapons programmes.

Investigations in both the UK and US would appear to place the blame for this debacle on the intelligence services. You have to ask why the White House and Downing Street took this bad intelligence, which looked flaky even to the layman, over the reports coming from the UN's Chief Weapons Inspector. It seems clear that Bush and Blair wanted to portray Iraq as dangerous even when the best evidence shows it wasn't. If you were looking for a country posing a danger to others North Korea is a far better candidate; it has an active nuclear programme and tested a missile by launching it over the top of Japan. North Korea has a decent Army though, and isn't sitting on top of the world's second largest oil reserves.

Our two leaders pointed our that Saddam was a bad man who had killed and tortured his own people and that Iraqis would be better off without him. True enough, though there are several situations that appear more urgent in Africa where hundreds of thousands die in military action, from starvation or preventable disease. If we were really serious about protecting people from their genocidal or incompetent governments we would have reformed the UN Security council to take on the task. Instead we broke with the worldwide institution leaving behind any hope of a international form of justice and acted like vigilantes. We could do it because the US was powerful enough to do it and no-one else is powerful enough to stop them. Of course breaking with international law on invading Iraq wasn't the end of it, we now know the Americans didn't like the Geneva Conventions either and broke those as well.

Finally they tried to claim that Iraq was a hotbed of terrorism and in bed with al-Qaeda. Nothing was further from the truth as Saddam and Osama bin Laden had very different ideas on Islam. With 15 of the 19 Sept 11th hijackers, as well as Osama bin Laden himself, being Saudi why has it not been invaded as a hotbed of terrorism??

So Iraq wasn't a danger to us, Saddam was bad for his people but probably wasn't the worst in the world and other places were a better breeding ground for terrorism. All the reasons given for the war fail to stand up to examination yet we went ahead regardless. It means that the US & UK governments were either grossly incompetent or they lied to us, having other undisclosed reasons for the invasion. Despite the only options being poor judgement or deceit neither Bush or Blair feel this is a sufficient reason to resign or even apologise.

Both the US and UK government bodies that should hold the head of government in check failed badly to even question the evidence placed in from of them. The UK House of Commons should be ashamed for the lack of rigour the evidence against Iraq was examined. The Tories failed completely to act as an opposition should in getting a government to justify itself, Labour's MPs were still too star-struck by Tony to live up to their principles (Robin Cook the obvious exception), leaving just the Lib Dems to put up a wishy washy opposition (I saw Charles Kennedy's speech in Hyde Park and it was fairly lame).

Americans: eject Bush from the White House this November. As I recall from the last election he probably shouldn't have been there for the last few years either.

Britons: make it clear to the Labour Party that Tony Blair post Iraq is a liability to the party and could cost them the election. Get Tony replaced by someone else and get Robin Cook back in the cabinet.

The World: patch up the UN and fix its failings. We need a source of international justice that is recognised worldwide and that will be able to stand up to the US if needed. Buy Russian Vodka, French wine and German cars; reward the countries that stood up against the world's biggest bully.

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I now have all 3 visas I need for my trans-siberian trip: Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. I've managed to get them faster than I expected so although I have no more direct business in Hong Kong I'll stay until next week so I don't run out of teh 30 days on my Chinese visa.

Not that that is a bad thing, Hong Kong has surprised me by being a great place to visit and there are many things I've yet to see and do: the world's longest escalator, the other side of Hong Kong island and the outer islands, the Star ferry and the trip up the peak at night....

I've been lucky that on my second full day here I met Chow Yin Ting (Edith) who spent her weekend and one evening showing me here home town and Cantonese cuisine. We had a ride on the Star ferry, saw a festival special music, fountain & firework display, drinks in the central business district, Tai Po Market, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree, the Temple Street night markets, the Ladies Market, the Hong Kong Heritage Museam, Thai food in Kowloon City and the Chi Lin Nunnery.

By myself I've been up the peak, toured the central district, been to the bar strip of Wan Chai, the live Jazz at Ned Kelly's Last Stand and had curry at the Chungking Mansions. Chungking is like nowhere else I know of. A large scruffy towerblock with a few floors of small shops at the bottom and residential accommodation above. Except many of the flats have been turned into guesthouses, business offices and Indian restaurants. Its and amazing place though I'm not sure I'd want to stay here. If you want to see something unique do a quick tour of this place before having a curry at the Delhi Club.

I'll pad out this entry later and add some photos. Finally thanks again to Chow Yin Ting; as I predicted the guesthouses here are not good for meeting people and she has made a big difference to my time here.

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Friday, July 02, 2004

Hong Kong 

Arrived here yesterday just after midday. Had a quick snack and fell asleep at 3pm before waking up at midnight for another light meal and a pint then sleeping through to 9am. Guess I needed a rest....

Today has been spent checking out the consulates and visa requirements plus seeing where the best place to stay is. On the visa front everything looks OK as long as the UK company booking the train tickets comes through. As a starter for 10 I've applied for the Chinese visa and it should be ready for Tue.

Accomodation is very different here. Guesthouses are converted flats in towerblocks of varying grottiness. By luck I pre-booked a nice place for the first couple of days however it offers virtually no possibility of meeting other travellers. The couple of places I saw today might (and only might) offer better social scenes but are definitely grottier. Its a kind of company vs cockroaches equation........

Hong Kong had a couple of other surprises for me: its especially hot here at the moment so when 500,000+ people marched yesterday for democracy the local paper was amazed they did so in such heat. If the locals retreat in the face of it imagine what's it's like for someone of scottish blood. Role on Siberia... I had also expected that as an ex-British colony English would be more pervasive here. Not a bit of it, I saw far more English on signs and menus in Bangkok than I do here. I guess its good practice for China where nothing will be in an alphabet I recognise.

On the plus side it looks like a good, cheap curry isn't beyond the bounds of probability and I may even have found a bar that doesn't play continuous bubblegum pop... things are looking up.

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