Archive | May, 2010

Kunming: Sister City of Wagga Wagga

24 May

Contraband and the Road to Kunming:

The easiest way to get into China from Sapa in the North of Vietnam is to cross the Vietnam / China Border at Lao Cai / Hekou. This popular border crossing proved relatively hassle-free. The only problem we encountered here was the near confiscation of our copy of of LP China by Chinese Border Guards.

The travel guide itself warned us of the risk of confiscation and advised covering the book with contact to avoid attracting the the attention of customs officials. Unfortunately this ploy didn’t work.

When I was informed by a Border Guard that I was not permitted to carry the travel guide into China because of its comments about Taiwan (effectively recognising its independence), I asked if I could remove the offending pages and hold on to the rest of the book. The Guard didn’t agree to my suggestion, but did give me permission to remove the chapters that I required.

I decided to interpret this as liberally as possible to my advantage. As you may know we had planned to be in China for six weeks, and intended to visit a number of Provinces in this time. So I proceeded to tear out each of the chapters that corresponded to the Provinces I wanted to visit (of course all the time thinking how sad it was to destroy a perfectly good book).

After I had removed roughly a third of the travel guide’s pages, another official watching the process sighed and asked me ‘How many Provinces are you actually planning to visit in China?’ After I rattled off the rehearsed list the Guard sighed again and said ‘I can tell this book is very important to you so you can take it with you. Just promise me that you will get rid of it before you leave the Country. Welcome to China’.

With this positive news I packed away what was left my LP China and quickly headed off to find an ATM and the bus station.

We later met other travellers who had also lost their copies of LP China at the Lao Cai / Hekou Border. Interestingly other travel guides which are also critical of the One China Policy are allowed into the Country.

Travellers using LP China will have to think of smarter ways to smuggle the book into Country. We met a German guy who replaced the recognised cover of LP China with the cover of the LP South East Asia on a Shoe-String – a clever tactic that tricked customs officers. I do think that LP should seriously consider removing the sections deemed offensive by the Chinese Government in future editions of its China guide, as there is no use having a travel guide that you can’t use in country. Also those travelers who choose to choose to carry the book into the China are putting themselves into potentially dangerous situations by bringing illegal material into China.

The Express Bus to Kunming left minutes after we arrived at the Hekou long-distance bus station. Tickets cost about $20 AUD each. The journey took roughly eight hours, including toilet stops and a lunch break. For most of the journey the scenery was impressive – driving along a smooth new road (we’d seen little of these in the preceding 6 weeks) we passed green hills dotted with farmland and the occasional coal power plant pumping ugly smoke into the atmosphere.

In Kunming

We spent three full days in the city of Kunming; the capital of China’s Yunnan Province located in the South West of this vast Country.

Kunming is a small city by Chinese standards with a population of just over 1 million people. Without the crazy crowds and the heavy air pollution that plague other Chinese cities, Kunming is a pleasant and easy place for tourists to navigate. The public bus system makes it easy to explore the city without getting tired, though strolling through new boulevards and old back streets is a lovely way to spend a day or two.

Green Lake Park was a highlight of Kunming; a handsome and serene space in the middle of a growing city. It boasted a number of lakes, and walking paths shadded with tall trees, and a number of pagodas. It was nice to see how well utilised the Park is by the community. Wandering around at 9am we witnessed groups of men and women partaking in tai chi, aerobics, dancing lessons, and singing in choirs. We were also lucky to see musicians also practised their instruments.

It was also here that we discovered a plaque that informed us Kunming is the sister city of Wagga Wagga in Australia. We are not sure why anyone would want to have a sister-city relationship with Wagga Wagga, and wondered if visiting Chinese officials were shown around Sydney by their Australian counterparts and mislead about the actual nature of their new sibling city.

Since most of the clothes we buy in Australia are made in China, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chinese fashion is more or less consistent with the latest western trends. Kunming is home to numerous legitlmate clothing boutiques – including Adidas, Espirit and Calvin Klein. These definitely didn’t exist in Laos or Cambodia. If I wasn’t limited by my I-want-to-spend-a-year-travelling budget, and had more spare room in my backpack (and a greater ability to carry it), I would certainly be shopping here.

The bar / clubbig scene in Kunming is apparently sizable. We went out for a drink near our hostel one night and were very suprised to be offered free drinks for being white. That’s right – a man approached us outside the blockbuster-themed bar displaying a text message on his phone that read ‘our foreign friends are welcome to a free beer for gracing us with your presence’. Of course we obliged.

Food Glorious Southern Chinese Food

A delicious duck noodle soup eaten at a bus station on route to Kunming was the first meal we enjoyed in China. It was a good sign of the great food to come. Twice now we have stumbled across small local dumpling houses and feasted on plates of freshly steamed dumplings costing between 4 and 8 yuan each (less than AUD $1.50).

Yunnan’s large muslim population has influenced the region’s cuisine. Keen to try some local specialties we headed to Kunming’s Muslim Quarter. Sadly much of yhe old buildings that stood here have been torn down and replaced with homogenous glass sky-scrapers; hotels, shopping malls, apartments and commercial spaces. Nonetheless we found what we wanted in a small muslim family restaurant. Without any common language and a limited dictionary, we ordered by pointing at the meals being consumed by other patrons. Here we shared a rich mutton and tomato stew, and a plate of preserved meat that tasted similar to deli-bought slices of roast beef, served with a dark bean and sweet sesame dipping sauce. The later was a little different, and not a dish that I would have independently chosen. However a man at the table I was ordering from (I know, sounds odd but it works) told me (in body language of course) that this was a must-have dish.

At another restaurant we visited with Maddie, our new friend from Melbourne, we tasted another Yunnan specialty ‘rubji’ (CHECK) fried goats cheese that was similar to Haloumi; mushrooms served cold with fresh small red chilies, and a rich chicken and dried-chili dish that was amazing but I have no idea what it is called and so may never have the chance to eat again. All this food plus two long-necks cost 70 yuan, or about $12 AUD.

I am a big fan of Vietnamese food, with its generally simple tastes and fresh ingredients. But I love the rich and complex flavours of Southern Chinese cuisine. Hopefully I will walk off the excess of calories I will surely enjoy over the next few weeks.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

20 May

This amazing Gorge on the Yangtze River is located 60 km north of the ancient city of Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province. It is easy to view Tiger Leaping Gorge by walking or driving along the 15km-long dusty low road that runs parallell to the river running through the basin. Though you must hike the 1km vertical climb to the high road in order to see the most impressive views of the Gorge and the snow-capped mountains that tower over it.

The initial climb from 1600m to 2670m above sea level was tough. Like other unfit tourists who start the trek every day, I opted to rent and ride a mule for the tough ’28 bends’ section of the trail. Of course the mule was the lazy option, and unlike Alex I can’t gloat about my strength and endurance after completing the trek. Though I can boast that riding a donkey allowed me to concentrate my attention upon the beautiful scenery that surrounded me and not the sandy track at my feet, which stole the attention of struggling backpackers huffing and puffing their way up the walls of the Gorge.

I found it hard not to laugh when the mule driver suggested that myself and a very large Canadian girl share one mule, instead of us renting two separate animals. I think the poor mules suffered enough carrying even one passenger, especially hers.

On Day 1 of the trek we started walking Qiaotao at 11am in the morning. We arrived at the peak of the high road about four hours later, after stopping for lunch at the Naxi Family Guesthouse. The walk along the high road was relatively easy after reaching this point. We arrived at the Tea Horse Guesthouse at 5.30pm with plenty of time to eat, drink and chat to the friends we made along the trail.

After eating with a Spanish couple and two Polish girls (who have lived in Ireland for the past five years and spoke with Irish accents), we were offered some rice wine by a group of Chinese policemen who were also staying at the Guesthouse for the night. We accepted the first round with a smile and proceeded to drink with the police for several hours. The highlight of the night was the sharing of drinking songs. One policeman sang us a Tibetan tune, we shared an Australian song, and the Polish girls and Spaniards also gave a little performance. Alex also sang the part of ‘Katusha’ that he knows in Russian. We ended the night after singing together what each knew of the Internationale in his or her own language.

Photographic evidence of the frivolities described above can be found here.

It was only on the morning of Day 2 that I considered the ramifications of indulging in vast quantities of rough home-made spirits the before a mountain trek. After a bottle of coke and some panadol I felt well enough to continue along the high-road, though I couldn’t stomach breakfast. We left the Guesthouse at about 7.30am and arrived at the end of the Trail at 11am. The decent was tricky in places only because of the uneven path.

The scariest part of the trek came in our attempt to return to Qiaotao and then Lijiang by minivan. You see the low road that runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge is currently closed as it is being widended. We weren’t surprised by this news as we had heard loud explosions echoing off the Gorge’s rock walls as they were blown up to make way for the new road as we were treking. We were told that such activity is halted every day between noon and 2pm to allow for people to travel along the low road by private vehicles. In a country where OH&S is unheard of, the temporary opening of the road didn’t mean it was safe. To make this journey we had to take one minivan to a part of the road that was blocked by a rock-slide, cross this 30m section of road on foot, and jump into another minivan that would take us the rest of the way. Problematically large rocks were falling at the time of our crossing. As a wave of rocks fell we had to stand poised like olympic runners waiting for the starting gun, as we waited for a pause in the cascading stones. When this break came we had to bolt across the path before the next wave of rocks came crashing down upon us.

I observed that the rocks were large and falling fast enough to cause serious damage if they hit someone, and also threatened to knock a person over the side of the road and into the Gorge upon collision. A number of kids that were traveling through the Gorge as a school group were hysterical after running this gauntlet before us. I guess it could have been quite a traumatic experience for some. Apart from the short burst of adrenaline that consumed me as I run like an injured rabbit from a hunter across the dangerous path, I just felt tired and inconvenienced.

My wise conclusion is – don’t let roadworks get in the way of a good time. It would be wise to check for updates on the status of the road before starting out on the trek. The road should be finished soon and tourists will be able to complete this journey out of harm’s way.

Dwarf Empire

14 May

Can you imagine a theme park where the main (in fact the only) attraction is an eighty-strong troupe of singing and dancing dwarves?

Such a theme park actually exists just outside of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, and we were excited to check it out.

Dwarf Empire opened about 12 months ago to showcase the little people employed perform here on a daily basis. So ridiculous is the spectacle of so many midgets dressed as Roman soldiers, fairies and punks that the park has been successful in attracting the confused attention of the international media.

Western media have debated the ethics of such an attraction, questioning whether the Dwarf Empire really empowers dwarves as the non-dwarf owner of the Park has publicaly contended, or if the whole affair merely exploits the vertically challenged?

Prior to visiting the Dwarf Empire this week I had decided that it was probably more an exploitative than empowering institution, and the most un-PC theme park in the modern world, but one I still wanted to see it with my own eyes.

It took us about an hour to get to the park taking local buses from Kunming, and we were lucky to arrive in time for the 11am song and dance spectacular.

Judging from their applause, the hundreds of Chinese tourists in the audience, including several school groups, loved the show and the performers themselves also seemed happy.

We chatted to one dwarf who told us that he used to work in a car-component factory and was making more money at Dwarf Empire than he did in his previous job. He also shared that many dwarfs have partnered up with other dwarfs after relocating to Kunming, which also added to their satisfaction with life.

In one news article I read, a teacher who brought her young students to the Dwarf Empire reported that the excursion helped her class to understand that little people are people too. But I think the small mushroom houses in the park that are presented to visitors as dwarf homes wouldn’t achieve this end and would more likely confuse the kids.

Watching the UK election in Vietnam

9 May

We made sure to book a room that had a subscription to the BBC. Unfortunately the time difference between the UK and Vietnam, and the wildly unpredictable nature of the results, meant that we had to check out and tune out way before we had a good idea of the election results. After just having the chance to catch up (I prefer the Guardian’s analysis) I am barracking for a Labor-Lib Deb Government. Surely a Lib-Dem / Conservative coalition would destroy the future of Nick Clegg’s Party.

A few thoughts on the election;

Overseas voters:

We met a lot of British people on holiday or working in Vietnam who did not vote in the election. Many were simply not interested in the election or matters of Government in general. They perceived politicians as generally corrupt and little to distinguish the Government from the opposition.

However some Britons we encountered wanted to vote but couldn’t. Registering as an overseas voter is almost impossible for travelers without a permanent overseas address. This means that a lot of young people including gap year students, a huge cohort of would-be first time voters, missed out on casting a ballot. I haven’t looked at demographic analysis of the election though I assume that this cohort would be more likely to support Labor or the Lib Dems (are you reading my blog Zac or Ben?). I would suggest that Britain adopt the Australian system of permitting citizens to vote in Australian embassies if required, ensuring a more accessible ballot.

Preferential Voting

The first-past-the-post system is undemocratic. It was very sad watching seats go Conservative when the majority of voters supported Labor and the Lib-Dems (combined of course). Electoral reform is long overdue.

Mahouts for a day

3 May

Big Hug!

The opportunity to be mahouts for a day in Luang Prabang was irresistable.

Alex and I were both a little disappointed that we couldn’t ride elephants in Tad Lo because the elephant keepers were celebrating Lao New Year. Our experience in Luang Prabang more than compensated for this and was surely one of the best days we’ve had on our trip.

Our day at the elephant park began with Alex and I taking an hour long elephant ride. We were carried on a chair strapped to the elephant Mae Pua’s back as the mahout, named Lan (which means singing), sat on the huge creature’s neck to guide it along the trail. Twenty minutes into the ride Lan asked Alex if he wanted to swap places and take a turn driving the elephant. Alex nervously agreed and did a great job but reported that it was difficult to balance on the elephant, especially as it made an awkward decent to the river.

I then had a chance to sit on Mae Pua’s neck. It was hard to balance in this position; her huge shoulders shifted under me as the huge animal swayed as she walked, lumbering slowly along. Placing my hands on to her giant head for balance I learned that elephants have hair (really!) which is sparse and spikey. And their grey skin is dry and saggy as I expected. Back at base camp we fed Mae Pua a snack of bananas to say thankyou for the short trip.

Alex feeding Mae Pua

We then had a lesson on elephant instruction and had the opportunity to ride the elephants unassisted. Like a dog, elephants can be trained to obey simple commands like ‘walk’, ‘stop’ and ‘sit’.

After a yummy lunch we again climbed on top of the elephants and with a mahout and rode them down to the river for a bath. Both the elephants seemed to love the water. Alex’s elephant took to submerging itself completely in the river leaving only its trunk in the air to breathe. Mine splashed about and blew water into the air. Lucky we weren’t wearing our best clothes as we were completely soaked at the end of this exercise.

After a quick boat trip on the river we went back to town, still glowing from all the contact with elephants.

There are several operators managing elephant parks in Luang Prabang, but it seems that most tourists and the mahouts we met agree that Tiger Trails, which we used, is the best in town. In addition to creating many local jobs, Tiger Trails is a fair trade operator and gives a significant portion of its profits to the village in which the elephant camp is located. This fair trade status is verified by the Laos Government.

Importantly the elephants at this park have all been rescued from logging. We were very happy to learn that many of the elephants have come to the park with their original mahouts – their owner, carer and friend. Tiger Trails also reports to employ a full-time vet to care for the elephants.

A full day with the elephants cost just under $70 USD per person. This might break the budget of backpackers in Laos, but when you consider an elephant costs at least $15,000 USD, and that they eat between 180kg to 200kg a day, you can see that the cost is reasonable. Surely it is worth paying the few extra dollars that Tiger Trails charges and know that it treats its animals and employees well.

A side note:

A Playschool counting song leaps to mind whenever someone mentions elephants.

I can’t remember the second (a key) word of the song but I do recollect the rest;

One (keen?) elephant balancing
step by step on a piece of string
He thought it was such a wonderful stunt
that he called for another (-pause-) elephant

Two (missing word) elephants balancing…

And so on, until the string breaks.

This track was playing in my mind on repeat for most of the day at the elephant park.